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Black holes and Light Echoes

207541main_blackhole_art A black hole wreaks all sorts of havoc in its cosmic neighborhood, pulling in and stretching out matter, spewing jets and slowing time to a near stand-still. Now astrophysicists have added a new phenomenon to the black hole's list of tricks: Light echoes.

Black holes are often surrounded by spinning discs of burning gas that can emit X-ray bursts. Because the black hole warps the surrounding space-time so intensely, though, the photons from a single one of these bursts don't always arrive at the same time. Read more on the new phenomenon, announced at this week's American Astronomical Society Meeting, here.—Gregory Mone

Hot on eBay: Flying Car!

43c2_3_3 ">  As best we can tell, this pup's legit. It's a prototype from the Sky Commuter program that Boeing evidently sunk $6 million into back in the 1980s. The program was dismantled—presumably because the concept didn't, er, fly—and this is the only surviving piece of hardware. Of all the flying car concepts that we see here at PopSci—and believe me, we see a lot—this one appears to be one of the most viable designs. It's lightweight, compact, and looks nicely balanced, with a single horizontal fan out front and two aft. The seller offers no explanation as to why the program failed, but most likely it had to do with technological limitations in both power and control, the two essentials of vertical-takeoff and landing vehicles. The craft evidently conducted hover tests, but not much more. The seller implies that it might be flyable, but the buyer would be a fool to attempt it. The same limitations that existed then exist in that hardware now, so all you'd achieve is a low hover and the strong likelihood of a crash. All that aside, this thing's a beauty—elegant, seemingly very well-built, and rich in history. That canopy alone is a work of art. Check the pics to see the cartoonishly white-suited Air Force Thunderbird pilots checking it out. Let's hope it lands in a museum someplace... —Eric Adams

Saving The World And Searching the Cosmos, Too

Lsst While we're certainly not going to criticize the world's richest man for using so many of his billions to try to solve humanity's most pressing health problems, it's nice to see that he's got a little left over for the cosmos, too. Bill Gates donated $10 million —and former Microsoft colleague Charles Simonyi dished out $20 million—to the finance three large mirrors for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a massive observatory being built in Chile.

The $400 million project will help astronomers spot asteroids and supernovae, map galaxies, and find out more about dark energy and dark matter, the invisible stuff that scientists say dominates most of our universe.—Gregory Mone

Via PhysOrg

(Image credit: Kevin Hand / NASA)

Will This Copter Car Fly?

Ytucoptercar01 The PAL-V, or personal air and land vehicle, would drive like a car, take off like a plane, and fly like a gyrocopter. Drawn up by a Dutch firm called Spark Design Engineering, the PAL-V would feature a foldaway rotor and propeller, and a 213-horsepower engine that runs on regular.

But don't get ready to make a down payment just yet. The designers are still waiting for the funding to build a prototype, but they say it would be easy for the average driver to handle, and would fall under the FAA's sport pilot certification category, which means potential owners wouldn't need endless hours of training to operate it legally.

IEEE Spectrum, which reviews the design in a recent issue, suggests that this flying trike, which first turned up a few years, may not get off the ground.—Gregory Mone

The Year Ahead on Mars

Phoenix 2007 was a notable year for exploration of the Red Planet, but this year should prove to be just as exciting. Discovery News has a nice round-up of what to expect. Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers, are still hard at work, and three orbiters are still studying the planet from up high.

A new probe, Phoenix, is also slated to land on Mars' north pole on May 25. Researchers are hoping the lander will study samples of water ice and help them find new clues about the planet's history. Phoenix will look for evidence of organic molecules, too. And if you just can't wait until May, you can track the spacecraft's journey to Mars here.—Gregory Mone

(Image credit: Corby Waste/JPL)

Getting Crowded in Space

Uars_cover NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), an observatory that was launched in 1991 and decommissioned in 2005, may have collided with another large object in space, according to a report on LiveScience.

U.S. Air Force Space Command first cataloged four pieces from the satellite in November. Around that time, debris from Russia's Cosmos 1275 was headed towards it. A collision wasn't a given, but the objects were close enough to raise suspicion. We've written about the dangers and oddities of space junk before, but it might become a more important issue in the future.—Gregory Mone

Black Hole Fight!

3c321_illustration Sure, astronomers have witnessed plenty of galactic collisions, which can be pretty intense events, but the latest cosmic conflict is of a different breed.

Using a variety of space- and ground-based observatories, scientists discovered a supermassive black hole shooting a jet of particles at a neighboring galaxy. It's located 1.4 billion light years from Earth, and they're calling it the Death Star galaxy because of the powerful beam.

The eventual outcome of this long-distance shot could be positive, however. The jet might fry any planets in its path in the short run, the scientists say, but in the long run, the energy it deposits could lead to the formation of stars and planets.—Gregory Mone

(Credit: Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

Lunar Real Estate Boom

Fs_4805tisk Real estate prices may be dropping domestically, but on the Moon they're still climbing. The investment bank UBS released a report concluding that lunar land prices have risen 40 percent since the start of 2007. The costs vary, with some sources claiming the high was $37 per acre in December 2005 and others saying a chunk of land will cost you as little as $56.

Whether anyone will really be able to lay claim to these plots one day is a big question, but apparently that hasn't stopped people from buying them. The king of space real estate, Dennis Hope, of the Lunar Embassy USA, claims to have sold 3.5 million parcels on the Moon and other planets.—Gregory Mone

Via Reuters UK

Getting Closer to Europa

Europa Jupiter's moon Europa was a hot topic at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Europa has received renewed attention in recent years, as scientists have used new data to clarify their assumptions about the intriguing moon.

There's a clear consensus now that Europa hides an ocean beneath an icy shell, and now scientists are planning new experiments designed to discover more about the alien world. For example, a radar survey conducted by an orbiter could tell them whether the ice above that ocean is thick or thin. This, in turn, might help them plan future missions down into the watery depths.

This sort of robotic adventure still appears to be a long way off, but that hasn't stopped some researchers from planning ahead. For the ultimate Europa payoff, though, take a look at the end of James Cameron's documentary Aliens of the Deep.—Gregory Mone

(Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Spirit Might Not Make it Through The Winter

Spirit Two weeks. The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has until Christmas to make it to a nice, sunny slope of a nearby plateau, where it will point its solar panels towards the Sun and park for the winter. Unfortunately, Spirit can't just drive. A recent dust storm on the Red Planet drained much of the rover's energy, so at this point it needs a day of rest for every day of travel.

Engineers knew this energy problem would come eventually. Solar panels need to be clean and free of debris to soak up sunlight. But the Red Planet hasn't been cooperating. Those massive dust storms deposit a fine layer of dirt on the panels, vastly reducing their energy-generating capacity.

Some stiff winds blew much of the dust off Opportunity's panels, but Spirit hasn't been so lucky. Spirit is down to 42 percent capacity. Still, though, it's amazing that they're even roving at all at this point. They were supposed to run out of juice several years ago.—Gregory Mone

Via FoxNews

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