NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage
| This Hubble image focuses in on
the globular cluster M13. Click on
the picture for a zoomable view.
Astronomers are offering a double dose of cosmic ornaments for the holidays, in the form of stunning images of globular clusters.
From the Hubble Space Telescope, there's a zoomable image of the northern "snow globe" known more scientifically as M13.
From the European Southern Observatory, there's Omega Centauri, the "glittering giant of southern skies."
But wait ... there's more! These clusters aren't just for looking at on your computer screen. On a good night, both of them can be seen with the naked eye.
When you're looking at a fuzzy globular cluster, you're looking at something truly ancient: Such star groupings are thought to contain some of the oldest stars in the universe, forming even before the Milky Way's disk coalesced.
M13 holds at least 100,000 stars, packed closely together in a 150-light-year-wide ball. In today's image advisory, the Hubble team reports that the density of stars at the core is about 100 times greater than the density of stars in our own celestial neighborhood - and some astronomers suspect the "snow globe" is even denser than that.
The Hubble image draws upon data from four separate observing sessions between 1999 and 2006, using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The first of those cameras is to be replaced and the second camera will be repaired during the shuttle fleet's final flight to Hubble, now scheduled for launch no earlier than May 12.
While waiting for the Hubble upgrade, skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere can spot M13 by looking into the right "armpit" of the constellation Hercules on a clear night. The fuzzy feature was discovered in 1714 by astronomer Edmund Halley (of Halley's Comet fame), who said "it shows itself to the naked eye when the sky is serene and the Moon absent."
ESO / EIS
|The cluster Omega Centauri shines
in all its splendor. Click on the
image for a larger version.
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, M13 might not be in your field of view. But you've got something even bigger to look at. Omega Centauri is thought to contain about 10 million stars, making it the most massive of the Milky Way's globular clusters. It's also closer than M13 (17,000 light-years vs. 25,100 light-years away). The result? The southern cluster spreads almost as wide as the full moon, and looks stunning through a small telescope. (This sky guide helps you find it.)
The cluster was well-known in antiquity: The astronomer Ptolemy cataloged it almost 2,000 years ago ... as a single, fuzzy star. It took until the 1830s for astronomers to figure out that Omega Centauri was actually a cluster of many stars.
This week's image release from the European Southern Observatory features a jaw-dropping vision of the "glittering giant," captured by the Wide Field Imager at the La Silla Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. ESO's view goes beyond the wildest dreams that Ptolemy might have had. But even today, not everything about Omega Centauri has been revealed.
The biggest mystery has to do with the medium-sized black hole that astronomers suspect is hidden within Omega Centauri's bright core. That suspicion is based on observations by Hubble and the Gemini Observatory, showing that the stars at the cluster's center were moving around at an unusual rate. The movements are best explained by the existence of a central black hole 40,000 times more massive than our sun.
"The presence of this black hole is just one of the reasons why some astronomers suspect Omega Centauri to be an imposter," the ESO team said. "Some believe that it is in fact the heart of a dwarf galaxy that was largely destroyed in an encounter with the Milky Way. Other evidence points to the several generations of stars present in the cluster - something unexpected in a typical globular cluster, which is thought to contain only stars formed at one time."
For still more star-cluster mysteries, check out our archived reports about stolen star clusters and an open cluster where the time's out of joint. And for more eye-popping views of the universe, click through our latest Month in Space slide show.
Acknowledgments for the Hubble image include C. Bailyn and W. van Altena of Yale University, W. Lewin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and A. Sarajedini of the University of Florida.
|One of the geek-gift
finalists is Dream
Cheeky's USB Webcam
But it takes more than an acronym to earn the title of 2008's top geek gift. In fact, that honor is decided solely by your unscientific vote. So check out the
15 16 finalists in our geek-gift contest and register your top pick.
The roster of finalists doesn't include every suggested gift. For example, I've excluded the mini-Large Hadron Collider and the Mitsubishi MMR25 concept car (items which, um, don't actually exist), the CNC milling machine (which is priced a bit above the typical gift budget) and the R2-D2 DVD projector (cool idea, but it's currently unavailable).
I'm also not listing books, in part just because there were so many other great suggestions. I'll do up those book suggestions later as an item for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.
To see the full list, check out all the comments that were added to this year's call for suggestions. As I mentioned in that item, the person whose suggestion gets the most votes (as of 3 p.m. ET Monday) also gets to choose from a list of science-themed goodies. In my view, the grand prize would be the DVD set for "When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions." But that's just me. Any leftovers will be offered to finalists farther down the list, and additional goodies may be thrown into the pot.
Feel free to cast a write-in vote, in the form of a comment at the end of this item. If four other commenters voice support for your write-in suggestion, I'll make an effort to add it to the list of finalists. In fact, that's how we arrived at 16 instead of 15 finalists.
I'll be the final judge when it comes to the mechanics of voting, and interpretation of the results. I'll have to have a way to get in touch with the winners, and if I'm not able to contact you, the goodies will have to go to some other geek.
And now, the finalists for top geek gift of 2008, listed in the order they were submitted:
1. Recycled computer disk clock: Brook Larney says she bought her husband a clock from the Designing Time online shop, which recycles floppy disks, CDs and other high-tech throwaways into beautiful timepieces.
2: USB Webcam missile launcher: I know some folks around the office who would love a foam missile launcher you can aim and fire by remote control. Thanks to Dan in Herndon, Va., for the suggestion.
3. Scale-model space station: Paul Nichols of Indianapolis lusts after a scale model of the international space station, but the $495 price tag is a bit steep for my tastes. You can get an assemble-it-yourself kit for $160 to $230. Check out Clark Lindsey's Space Modeling page for much, much more - including NASA's patterns for true do-it-yourselfers.
4. XKCD sweatshirt: Andrew Meeusen of Mesa, Ariz., says he's always wanted clothing that pays tribute to the super-hip science strip (for example, the classically geeky "Stand Back, I'm Going to Try Science" tee).
5. Super magnet: United Nuclear is a powerful purveyor of geeky supplies, including radioactive polonium (but not sold in amounts considered dangerous). Brian B. of Cincinnati touts United Nuclear's collection of "insanely strong" magnets. Why would you want magnets so strong they carry warning labels? If you were a geek, you wouldn't have to ask.
6. Zydeco musical tie: This may be the last tie you'll ever have to buy. Kelly Gleason Mannford calls the stainless-steel, musical washboard-style necktie "the ultimate in geeky business wear."
8. Klein bottle / Klein stein: Nick in Gaithersburg, Md., is partial to Klein bottles, real-life topological constructs with no inside or outside ... just one side all over. Nick's favorite is the Klein Stein, but I'd prefer a Klein bottle hat.
9. Mindstorm NXT robots: No geek-gift list is complete without robots, and LEGO's ever-popular collection was nominated by David R. from Huber Heights, Ohio. (Brian from Fairfax, Va., voted for the Rovio spy robot, but I opted to go with a different suggestion of his, just below.)
10: GPS homing device: Brian made 10 suggestions for geek gifts, and the keychain-sized GPS homing device is something I could actually imagine using. "Click once to mark the location (parking spot, place on beach, etc.), then click again, and it'll point you in the right direction (and give you the distance)," Brian wrote.
11: Meade MySky guide: Phil C. of Moline, Ill., gushed over Meade's hand-held, point-and-learn sky guide. "It was a very cool gift and I use it often," he said.
12: Sound-activated T-shirt: At your next party, why not wear a T-shirt with patterns that dance in time with the music? If you're a typical geek, the T-shirt just might dance better than you can. Thanks to Mark Wakely for the suggestion.
13. Lichtenberg figure: I never heard of these things until Jon wrote in with his suggestion. Lichtenberg figures are blocks or balls of plastic that contain the frozen pattern of a lightning-style electrical discharge. Watch the video to see how they're made.
14. Glow-in-the-dark T-shirt: Pam Summers suggested a sweatshirt with a glow-in-the-dark picture of the Milky Way, helpfully marked with a "You Are Here" locator. "Simple, but gratifying to the cosmos geeks out there," Pam wrote.
15: Darth Vader bobblehead computer mascot: This is the triple play of geekitude. Just to reiterate: Darth Vader. Bobblehead. Computer mascot. Nothing more need be said. Thanks to Buddha Dude for the suggestion.
16: R2-D2 fish tank: Kristina M. cast a write-in vote for the R2-D2 fish tank, which not only looks geeky-cool, but also turns its head, flashes lights and makes noises when you walk by. Holographic projection of Princess Leia (or Princess Ariel) not included.
Now it's time for you to decide the winner.
This item was last updated at 6:15 p.m. ET Dec. 5.
Click for video: The Lynx Mark I rocket plane, shown in this artist's
conception, would fly to an altitude of 38 miles (61 kilometers) and
serve as a test bed for a higher-flying Lynx Mark II. Click on the image
to watch a video from XCOR's March announcement about the Lynx.
A brand-new travel agency is selling front-row seats on an XCOR Aerospace rocket plane that will soar more than halfway to outer space, for $95,000 apiece. Arizona-based RocketShip Tours and XCOR threw open the ticket window today, even though the Lynx Mark I rocketship hasn't had its first test flight yet.
The Lynx Mark I won't fly as high as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo tourist rocketship, which is under construction just down the street from XCOR's headquarters in Mojave, Calif. This first-generation Lynx is designed to take off and land like a regular airplane, and fly as high as 38 miles (61 kilometers). That's short of the internationally accepted boundary of outer space (100 kilometers, or 62 miles), as well as the U.S. Air Force's lower standard for spaceflight (50 miles).
But the view will be much the same, with a wide, curving stretch of Earth spreading out beneath a dark sky. What's more, passengers would be able to see that view out the front-seat windows, because the Lynx is being built as a two-seater. In contrast, Virgin Galactic's design, developed in cooperation with Mojave-based Scaled Composites, calls for the two pilots to sit up front with up to six passengers looking out the sides through portholes.
When it comes to spaceflight, smaller just might be better, said Charles Lurio, writer/publisher of The Lurio Report. Lurio recently had a sitdown in XCOR's Lynx mockup, which helped him imagine how the actual half-hour trip would feel. "It's almost like you're doing a spacewalk without doing a spacewalk," he told me.
The thrills on the Lynx are meant to be out of this world: The rocket-powered rise should result in about 90 seconds of in-your-seat weightlessness at the top, and passengers could experience up to 4 G's of acceleration on the way down. The difference here is that Virgin Galactic's passengers would get a longer dose of zero-G, with the ability to unstrap themselves from their seats and float around.
|RocketShip Tours founder Jules Klar invites Per
Wimmer to sign an informed-consent form for a
future rocket flight on the Lynx Mark I. "I have no
choice," Wimmer joked with a shrug.
But the biggest difference is arguably the cost: Virgin Galactic's space tour package is going for $200,000, while RocketShip Tours is aiming for a $95,000 price point.
Deposits have already been put down for 22 flights, with the first commercial ride going to Danish-born, London-based investment banker Per Wimmer.
Jeff Greason, XCOR's co-founder and chief executive officer, said the kerosene-fueled Lynx Mark I is currently under construction at XCOR's Mojave facility.
"I can't tell you how great is is after nine years of slaving over a computer to see this thing actually taking shape on the shop floor," Greason told reporters today at a Beverly Hills news briefing.
Testing in 2010, passengers in 2011?
XCOR's plans call for the Lynx Mark I to start test flights in 2010 at the Mojave Air and Space Port, with former astronaut Rick Searfoss at the controls. Searfoss was also the pilot for XCOR's EZ-Rocket prototype as well as the XCOR Rocket Racer, which completed a 40-flight test program this summer.
"I can't wait to take the lessons learned from that into the Lynx flight test program," Searfoss said.
Greason said the test program will "last as long as it needs to last." The company is in discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration to get an experimental permit for those test flights. It would have to obtain a different kind of launch license for paying passengers.
If the test schedule goes as hoped, Wimmer should get his ride in 2011, said Andrew Nelson, XCOR's chief operating officer. And he's not the only one: Nelson said 22 customers have signed up for tickets, based on pre-announcement word of mouth. XCOR has designed the reusable Lynx to handle up to four flights a day.
From $5 a day to $95,000
The $95,000 tour package will be sold by RocketShip Tours, working through a network of trained travel agents, said Jules Klar, the travel venture's founder. Klar is known in the travel industry for creating $5-A-Day Tours in 1961, in partnership with budget-travel pioneer Arthur Frommer. Later on, Klar established a high-end boutique travel operation called Great American Travel.
During today's news briefing, Klar said space represented the next frontier for the travel industry. "It's incumbent upon the civilian community to finally make space exploration what it should be, the most important and exciting thing of the 21st century," he said.
Tickets would be sold through travel agents who have been trained as space tourist specialists, Klar said. "This isn't selling a ticket from Los Angeles to Las Vegas," he explained. "This is far more involved. It's new, it's exciting, and people who are involved in our sales effort have to be very knowledgeable."
Klar said Lynx's passengers would begin their adventure with five days of flight training (and most likely some leisure time, too) at Arizona's Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa. During their stay, the tourists would attend briefings, undergo a medical evaluation - and then ride on an aerobatic airplane flight to get accustomed to the G-forces and closed quarters they'd feel on the Lynx.
A $20,000 deposit will get the would-be passenger assigned to the qualification program, Klar said, while those who pay the full $95,000 up front would get top priority for flight. For now, Mojave is XCOR's home base, but the company says there's no reason why the Lynx couldn't fly out of any licensed U.S. spaceport (such as Oklahoma or New Mexico, for instance).
'The ultimate adventure'
In order to ride the Lynx, passengers have to sign an informed-consent form acknowledging the flight's risk. This is a condition set down by the FAA, aimed at reducing the liability of rocketship operators. During today's news briefing, Klar brought out a form for Wimmer to sign.
"I've got no choice," Wimmer said, with a shrug and a smile. He then bent down over the podium to add his signature.
"Now that you've got the document signed, I'm in a position to give you a ticket," Klar said. Then he handed over ticket No. 1.
Wimmer described himself as a financier as well as a pioneer and adventurer, "a bit of a mix between 007 and Indiana Jones." In October, he made one of the first tandem skydives over Mount Everest.
Wimmer said flying into space would be "the ultimate adventure of my lifetime."
Competition heats up
Wimmer's flight on Lynx would represent one big step toward that goal - but the financier has a diversified spaceflight portfolio. He also has reservations with Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures. Both those companies could start making space rides available in the 2010-or-beyond time frame.
Although the Lynx Mark I won't rise to the 100-kilometer space boundary, it sets the stage for developing a more powerful Mark II model that could.
XCOR and Virgin Galactic aren't the only ones developing rocketships for space tourism: In October, Armadillo Aerospace and the Rocket Racing League announced their own venture aimed at taking passengers to the edge of space. PlanetSpace and Rocketplane Global are among other companies entered in the suborbital space race.
Spaceflight isn't just for tourists, of course: Like the other rocketships under development, the Lynx could send research experiments to the edge of space as well. NASA has been looking into the idea of flying experiments and researchers on commercial spaceships, and just today, California-based SpaceX announced that it was adding two DragonLab research missions to its flight lineup.
For all these ventures, the bottom line is usually ... the bottom line. Does XCOR have the financial backing to follow through with development and testing?
XCOR is famously cautious about what it announces when. "In an industry where promises have sometimes outpaced performance, XCOR has tried to build a reputation where we really do what we say we're going to do," Greason said. Thus, today's announcement signals that XCOR is putting its reputation on the line for the Lynx.
For more information about the venture announced today, check out the XCOR/RocketShip Tours news release. And for much, much more about space tourism and other such topics, click through our "New Space Race" section.
Correction for 11:40 a.m. ET Dec. 3: As XCOR Aerospace's Randall Clague points out in a comment below, FAA regulations call for a paying spaceflight participant to give informed consent as a first step toward the actual flight. So I've removed a couple of words giving the impression that Wimmer and other passengers would just have to sign a consent form "eventually," after they've started going through the process.
STScI / Hubblesite
The gravitationally interacting pair of galaxies known as Arp 147 gets
the greeting-card treatment from the Hubble Space Telescope's team.
Are you looking for out-of-this-world greeting cards for the holidays? The folks behind NASA's Great Observatories have just the thing for budget-conscious do-it-yourselfers.
The Hubble Space Telescope is about as well-loved as Santa Claus, so the latest crop of Hubble holiday cards from the Space Telescope Science Institute should be a crowd-pleaser. Among this year's additions are last summer's popular "Stars and Stripes" picture as well as the "Perfect 10" image that was sent down just a few weeks ago after some remote-control repairs.
The Hubble team provides instructions for printing out the specially formatted imagery on standard-size photo cards or folded card stock. You can also take the files to a commercial printer and leave the job to the pros.
If you want to go green and save a tree, you can send one of the winter holiday e-cards offered by the Chandra X-ray Observatory Center. Lots of X-ray images from the orbiting Chandra telescope, another of NASA's Great Observatories, have been adapted for a variety of occasions - including Valentine's Day, for those who like to think ahead.
For the true do-it-yourselfer, how about adapting a picture of the Christmas Tree Nebula for your own purposes? You can snag the infrared image of your choice from the Spitzer Science Center's Web site (here's my favorite high-resolution version). Another picture from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is tailor-made for a holiday ornament theme.
Those who know their way around an image-processing program such as Photoshop can work some magic with the postcards provided by the European Space Agency's Hubble Web portal - and even get a head start on a do-it-yourself Hubble calendar (let's hope 2009 is available soon).
In fact, there's no reason why you couldn't adapt any of the imagery from our Month in Space slide show for framing or sending. Here are links to higher-resolution versions of November's finest: