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Carnival of Space #170

Welcome, ladies and gents, to this week’s Carnival of Space, the 170th performance of a spectacular show filled with thrills, chills, and amazements!

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—Image by Victoria Jaggard

This is my debut as host of the Carnival here at Breaking Orbit, but I’m no First of May when it comes to showcasing the wonders the cosmos has to offer. So step on up and bear witness, folks, as a pantheon of talented artists from around the globe brings you the latest and greatest of the week’s astronomical highlights:

Our own solar system strongman, the sun, seems to be in a strange decline, writes Discovery News space guru Ian O’Neill. The evidence comes from a pair of scientists who’ve collected two decades’ worth of data on the magnetic power of sunspots. They’re seeing a rapid downward slope—which, if it continues, could herald a period of solar calm akin to one in the 17th and 18th centuries that’s been linked to a “little Ice Age.” Brrrrrrr!

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The sunflower shape of a sunspot, close up.

—Image courtesy NASA

Confused about how the sun can be weakening when we just saw some dazzling solar storms and subsequent auroras? Scott Wolk has the lowdown on ChandraBlog: The team managing the Chandra X-ray Observatory was watching the solar-particle count during huge coronal mass ejections on August 1 and August 3 to make sure the orbiting craft was in no danger, and they collected some data on the sun’s activity levels along the way.

Check out some glorious pictures of our stormy star posted on Cumbrian Sky, including shots of the sun as seen from Earth (safely, via a telescope and digital camera) and from an orbiting NASA probe called the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Of course, observing the sun is an ancient science:

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about the latest research in indigenous Australian archeoastronomy, specifically the ancient stone arrangement of Wurdi Youang. This egg-shaped circle of stones in Victoria (map) aligns nicely with the position of the setting sun during the solstices and equinoxes, and there are more stone arrangements across the country that bear investigation, according to the experts.

Moving from the past to the future, Nancy Atkinson of Universe Today has the news that two scientists have predicted when we’ll find a habitable planet outside the solar system. The answer is sooner than you might think: May 2011. How do they get that figure? Read on at UT.

Want to know why our solar system’s innermost planet is named after a figure who was “clever, with a darkly mischievous personality and a relaxed moral code”? Get the skinny on Mercury with the Urban Astronomer. And don’t forget to head back into “the city” soon, as this is just the first in a series of posts on the mythology and science behind our classical planets.

In a similar vein of exploring spacey history, Ian Musgrave of Astroblog wants to remind you that yes, the planets—Earth included—orbit the sun. To help counteract a recent conference supporting Geocentrism, go grab “a pair of binoculars, a camera tripod, some cardboard and alfoil, and lots of gaffer tape,” he writes. Then read up on how to accurately and safely prove to all those disbelievers that Earth is *not* the center of the solar system.

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—Image courtesy Astroblog

Something that does make Earth pretty special, or at least a great place to call home, is our abundance of liquid water. Weirdwarp’s Chris Dunn explores the latest thinking on where that water came from: Hydrated minerals, comets, asteroids, and a chemical process called photolysis all make appearances in the suspect pool.

Speaking of hydrated minerals, Martian Chronicles blogger Ryan Anderson has a detailed summary of his newest paper all about Gale Crater, a layered Martian delight that’s one of the four candidate landing sites for the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity. Anderson will soon be presenting this work at an MSL conference, where scientists will continue to debate where exactly to send the next big Mars rover once it launches in 2011.

Anderson also explores the difference between a supernova and a nova in his blog the Science of Starcraft. Starcraft 2 players may already know there’s a mission that involves accessing a relic on a planet about to be consumed by dying star. What the game makers didn’t seem to know is that their script uses “nova” and “supernova” interchangeably—and that’s just spacey mistake #1…

But how do we know what we “know” about space? Astronomer and we are all in the gutter co-author Niall Deacon explains how we know where Earth sits in our galaxy: by measuring the distances and orbits of other stars. That data allowed us to calculate the mass of the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, and thus our distance from it.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Space and its partner NanoRacks are hard at work helping us establish new facts about life in space. Catch newly released video of U.S. astronaut Shannon Walker powering up the first NanoRacks Platform to be installed aboard the International Space Station. The fully commercial “plug and play” research tool should make microgravity experiments “repeatable and affordable.”

Commercial involvement in space is all the rage right now. On Cosmic Log, Alan Boyle outlines Boeing Co.’s plans to offer space tours by 2015. The airplane giant has penned a deal with Space Adventures to help them fly paying passengers alongside NASA astronauts to the ISS and beyond. The price hasn’t been announced, but it should be “competitive with the cost of a ride on a station-bound Russian Soyuz craft, which is currently pegged at $40 million a seat,” Boyle writes.

Ticket price aside, would you volunteer to go to the moon if you knew it’d be a one-way trip? At Beyond Apollo USGS astrogeologist David S. F. Portree describes a 1962 proposal for a “One-Way Manned Space Mission”—evidence of the frenzy the U.S. space program was undergoing at the time to beat the Soviets to the lunar surface. The scrapped plan has bearing on modern debates over sending humans on the loooong trip to Mars…

But what if we could get to Mars in days rather than years? Brian Wang of Next Big Future reviews the possible power sources for a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, or VASIMR, which some proponents say could get humans to Mars in 39 days.

Going deeper into space, however, will take significant time even with improved propulsion. So should we be prepared to bioengineer our astronauts? Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams gives an overview of research papers and articles focused on the science and ethics of “cyborg-style bioengineering.”

For a more immediate view of human trips into space, check out two photo galleries of the space shuttle Discovery preparing for its upcoming November launch. CollectSPACE has shots of the shuttle rolling out from its hangar at Kennedy Space Center and of Discovery making contact with its external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters.

Even if it’s been a while since humans have landed on the moon, we seem to be doing a fine job of exploring the lunar surface robotically. Paul D. Spudis of the Air and Space Magazine blog The Once and Future Moon has a great backgrounder on natural bridges to coincide with pictures from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing just such a feature on the moon.

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—Image courtesy NASA

Kenneth Murphy reviews a fictional take on future human moon missions with his review of Chris Berman’s book Red Moon on Out of the Cradle. The year is 2017, and China already has a base on the far side of the moon. When a joint U.S.-Russian mission to the moon is mysteriously destroyed, a disgraced astronaut is called in to lead the charge for NASA. Find out why Murphy gives the title “a three-quarter Moon at perigee.”

Today’s science fiction could be tomorrow’s science fact: Bruce Leeeowe of Weird Science speculates about whether advanced ETs are even now using self-replicating probes to explore the galaxy. “If we do in fact find such machines and are able to interrogate them successfully, we may become privy to the doings of incredibly old alien societies long since perished,” he writes.

And now we must cage the animals and tear down the tents, as that brings Carnival #170 to a close. I hope you enjoyed the show! Big thanks to carnival boss Fraser Cain of Universe Today for organizing the event, and to all the bloggers for sending some gems to feature. If anyone else out there runs a space blog and wants to host a Carnival, check out these guidelines and then drop an email to info@universetoday.com.