By Agence France-Presse PARIS -- Scientists have discovered a huge, gravity-sucking hole at the heart of our galaxy. The stunning observations, to be published later this month, offer the best proof yet that supermassive black holes -- among the most enigmatic and powerful forces in the universe -- really do exist. By tracking the orbit of 28 stars inside our own Milky Way for more than 16 years, scientists in Germany were able to trace the most detailed portrait ever obtained of these invisible monsters. Black holes are believed to be concentrated fields of gravity so powerful that nothing -- not even light -- can escape their grasp. The only way to perceive them is by observing their impact on neighboring celestial bodies. This one is known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A star"). "The stellar orbits in the Galactic Centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt," Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics near Munich, Germany said in a statement. One "solar mass" is equivalent to our Sun. Researchers were also able to calculate with far greater precision Earth's distance from the centre of the Galaxy: 27,000 light years. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, about 10 trillion kilometers (6 million miles). "The centre of the Galaxy is a unique laboratory where we can study the fundamental processes of strong gravity, stellar dynamics and star formation," Genzel said. Sagittarius A* give us the most detailed view we will ever have of a supermassive black hole because of its proximity to Earth, he said. The interstellar dust that fills the Galaxy blocks our direct view of the Milky Way's central region in visible light, so astronomers used infrared wavelengths to penetrate the dust. The position of the stars was measured with a precision six times greater than in previous studies, equivalent to seeing a coin from a distance of roughly 10,000 kilometers (6000 miles). Observations were made using the SHARP camera at the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope in Chile, and instruments aboard ESO's Very Large Telescope. The research is to be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
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Here's an interesting story about plans to probe the edge of our solar system by Agence France-Presse. Excerpt:
WASHINGTON -- NASA on Sunday launched a probe into orbit high above earth to study the distant edge of the solar system where hot solar winds crash into the cold outer space. The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) was launched at 1745 GMT, according to images broadcast live by the US space agency. The small probe was deployed on a Pegasus rocket which dropped from the bay doors of a Lockheed L-1011 jet flying at 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) over the southern Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands. "The count went really smooth... and everything appears to be going well," NASA assistant launch manager Omar Baez said shortly after the launch.
By Allison Lopez Inquirer MANILA, Philippines--They may not see a night sky filled with stars from their homes in the city, but an amazing simulation of one inside the Planetarium in Manila certainly made kids scream and clap their hands in wonder and perhaps, in appreciation. “Ang galing (It’s great)!” said a girl from the Industrial Valley school in Marikina City as she and her classmates stared at the bright dots moving slowly on the ceiling. “It’s an exact copy of the real night sky,” said Bel Pabunan, officer in charge of the Planetarium division. “Here in Metro Manila, the kids don’t see a night sky like that because of pollution and bright lights. But with the Goto Projector, we can simulate the night sky and project the planets and other deep space objects like satellites.” The construction of a planetarium was conceived by former National Museum director Godofredo Alcasid Sr. who proposed it to former First Lady Imelda Marcos in the early 1970s. The dome-shaped building with a 300-seating capacity on Padre Burgos Street in Ermita district, a few meters away from Rizal Park, took nine months to build and was formally inaugurated on Oct. 8, 1975. Still in operation Today, the aging structure may seem like one of the city’s abandoned buildings although the Planetarium is still very much operational. Pabunan said they often draw elementary and high school students to their four daily shows that take spectators on a trip out of this world. Called “Journey to the Solar System, an interplanetary adventure,” the show kicks off with a “sunset” -- which is when the lights dim and the wonderful night sky is shown. It ends with “sunrise,” when the lights brighten, complete with roosters crowing in the background. While the star projector, a large machine in the theater’s center, is the Planetarium’s “heart,” slide projectors complement the lecture by showing stark features of the heavenly bodies, including Mercury’s craters and Saturn’s rings. Aside from the major constellations that showed the hunter Orion’s belt, the young audience was also astonished when little by little, the planets grew larger until they seemed within arm’s reach. The lecture, added Pabunan, is updated with recent scientific advances such as Pluto being classified as a dwarf planet. Sometimes, however, the visual effects drown out the narrator’s hypnotic voice. According to Pabunan, they are currently developing another feature on “The Ring Planets” which are composed of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Pluto. “Our real purpose is to disseminate information and complement textbooks in schools, but we present it in a way that we show their real features and colors,” said the senior museum researcher. Renovation of the 32-year-old structure, she revealed, was also long overdue and will begin before December. The first rehabilitation was done in 1991 after the inner dome that served as the screen collapsed due to old age and the effects of the earthquake the year before. “We’re due for a repair of the ceiling leakages and offices, plus some repainting. More than that, we want to change the exhibits because ever since, these have not been updated,” she said, adding that the Planetarium would remain open during the restoration which would take 150 days. P4-M renovation The rehabilitation would cost around P4 million, she said, excluding the updating of the exhibits. Outside the theater, indeed, were exhibits on comets, meteorites and space explorations that featured yellowing photographs. Aside from being outdated, they hardly generated interest among the visitors. Given the funds, Pabunan said they would create more interactive exhibits and modernize the current ones with interesting tidbits. Photo displays would be part of Phase 1 while hands-on exhibits would form part of Phase 2. But for schools and other institutions whose students are unable to go to the Planetarium, a mobile version will soon be coming their way. Pabunan said that although the 4x4 meter mobile Planetarium could only accommodate 30 people at a time, it may be a cheaper alternative to hiring buses and paying the entrance fee. Lectures on outer space would also be held simultaneously with the mobile Planetarium that has reached only as far as Isabela province. Pabunan, however, hoped that even students from Visayas and Mindanao would soon experience the wonders of the universe, even through the smaller version of the Planetarium. The Planetarium is open from Tuesday to Saturday with shows at 9-10 a.m., 10:30-11:30 a.m., 1:30-2:30 p.m. and 3:30-4:30 p.m. Admission fee is P30 for students and P50 for adults. Call +632 5277889 for more details.
By Agence France-Presse BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan--Malaysia's first astronaut was to blast off on Wednesday on a space voyage seen as breaking new boundaries for the Asian nation and for space travel by Muslims. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was to lift off from the Baikonur cosmodrome at 1322 GMT in a Russian Soyuz rocket headed for the International Space Station (ISS) with Russian cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko and American Peggy Whitson. He was to spend about nine days on the ISS, arriving at the orbiting station near the end of the holy month of Ramadan and staying there for the Eid festival, when he will treat the long-term crew to festive Malaysian food. Malaysian officials have described the voyage as a national milestone as their country marks 50 years of independence. Muszaphar, a 35-year-old doctor who has undergone extensive astronaut training, has said he hopes to inspire Malaysians to further space achievements and that Malaysia should have its own spacecraft by 2020. He is due to conduct scientific experiments on behalf of Malaysia's Genome Institute, including tests on cancer cells to be transported on the Soyuz. He has also said he will try to observe the fasting rules of Ramadan and that he hopes to get closer to God and share his experiences with other Muslims. He is one of very few Muslims who have traveled to space. Malaysian religious authorities have prepared guidelines adapting religious rules to life on the ISS, which circles the Earth 16 times per calendar day, meaning that without adapting the rules he would be obliged to pray 80 times in 24 hours. The guidelines say that the astronaut need only pray five times a day and that the times should follow the location from which the spacecraft blasted off. The visit has been arranged as part of a billion-dollar purchase by Malaysia of Russian fighter jets, Russia being the operator of the Baikonur cosmodrome in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan. Russia has launched about 1,800 Soyuz rockets in various adaptations and technical staff were confident the launch would pass without a hitch. This month is the 50th anniversary of the start of modern space travel, which dates from the Soviet Union's launch on Oct. 4, 1957 of the first ever satellite, Sputnik 1, from Baikonur.
LOOKING for a fun way to learn about science? Why don't you check out this online science show on blip.tv called Spacegeek? These are five- to eight-minute video clips hosted by the astrophysicist Doctor-P, whose real name is Dr. Jean-Marc Perelmuter. Here are some episodes.