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Sun-skimming comets, the future of the Space Race, scientists on record and more

By Tushna Commissariat

This week, professional astronomers and enthusiasts all over the world pointed their telescopes (and satellites) at the comet ISON as it raced towards the Sun and had its closest encounter with our star yesterday. Of course, the big question was whether the “Sungrazing comet” would survive its close call. Now, it seems that no-one is quite sure – early on, it looked as if the comet faded rather dramatically, suggesting that its nucleus disintegrated, and then it disappeared completely as it made its way through the solar atmosphere, making scientists mourn its fiery death. But lo, today a very faint smudge of dust was seen again, and seems to be brightening up once more. For now, researchers are referring to ISON as “Schrödinger’s Comet” and we may have to wait a while to know for sure. Right now, it seems that some of the comet has survived, but just how much of it made it through and if it will be visible in the sky in December is unknown. In case you missed all the action yesterday, take a look at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, where he was posting live updates on the comet and Karl Battams’s blog on NASA’s Comet ISON Observing Campaign site, where he explains what happens next.

In keeping with the space theme, we also came across an interesting multimedia feature on the Washington Post’s website about the future of the space travel. In the article, entitled “Which way to space?”, reporter Joel Achenbach takes a deep look into the evolving space industry and wonders whether established players such as NASA and Boeing will bring about commercial space tourism and other future space missions or if privately owned, funded and sourced companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will be the future leaders. Take a look at the feature before you decide. You  might also be interested to know SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon 9 rocket was cancelled this week, but then don’t forget NASA’s budgetary woes either.

Another interesting bit of news comes from British Library: it has a new “major oral history project to gather the life stories of British scientists” that launched today. Voices of Science is drawn from a National Life Stories programme “An Oral History of British Science” and features “interviews with 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual”. Some particularly interesting stories that caught our eye were those with Geoff Tootill – the last survivor of the 1948 Manchester team that built the world’s first modern computer – and Janet Thomson – the first female scientist allowed to visit Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey in 1983.

In other news, find out which Scottish scientist actor Eddie Izzard will be playing in an upcoming BBC drama. Also, those of you wondering what NASA is doing with the quantum computer it purchased earlier this year, take a look at the “quantum apps” it is busy building. If you are busy doing your Christmas shopping, then the Guardian has reviewed some fun and clever science toys for children. And lastly, head over to the arXiv blog to find out if some clever statistical science could help you cheat your way to success in a multiple-choice test.

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