The universe tells Voyager to get bent

VoyagerNASA’s Voyager 2 probe, having recently celebrated its 30th anniversary in deep space, sends back observations and instrument readings that lead scientists to a surprising conclusion: the “bubble” of the sun’s solar wind and magnetic influence isn’t spherical or even egg-shaped. Voyager 2′s readings, including the fact that it crossed what should’ve been the boundary of the sun’s outermost influence several times, have revealed that the solar system’s outermost boundary is in flux. Scientists theorize that the “dent” in that bubble is caused by the interstellar magnetic field of the Milky Way galaxy itself. Voyager 2 is now over 10 billion kilometers from the sun – or, to put that in perspective, 80 times further away from the sun than Earth is.

Mars in asteroid’s crosshairs

MarsAstronomers put the red planet on red alert after predicting 1-in-75 odds for an asteroid to collide with Mars on or near January 30th. The asteroid, discovered in November 2007, is on a trajectory that poses no threat to Earth but has better-than-usual odds of packing quite a wallop for Mars. The impact, if it does happen, could take place on the equator, near the Opportunity rover’s stomping (or, perhaps, roving) grounds, though NASA says it would pose no risk to Opportunity. A crater as large as Arizona’s Meteor Crater could be carved out of the Martian surface by any direct hit that does happen. Scientists prepare to watch the event with keen interest, as this event would be potentially cataclysmic if Earth was in danger, but provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for observation on Mars.

Messenger’s first visit to Mercury

Messenger at MercuryFor the first time in over 30 years, a spacecraft from Earth flies past the innermost planet, Mercury. The Messenger space probe, launched in 2004, is due to take up an orbit around Mercury in 2011, but this first close pass – just over 120 miles above Mercury’s surface – is designed to alter its trajectory. Messenger carries little fuel, and has swooped past Earth three times and twice past Venus to use both planets’ gravity to change its heading. Two more close passes of Mercury will be needed before it finally becomes caught in the tiny planet’s orbit, where it will spend roughly a year mapping the planet’s surface and taking dozens of other measurements. The last space probe from Earth to visit Mercury was Mariner 10, which made three close passes in 1974/75. Despite the brief gravity-assist visit, Messenger captures its first 1,200 images of Mercury, including a side of the planet never before seen from Earth.

Barry Morse, Space: 1999 actor, dies

Barry MorseBest known to mainstream audiences as the Lt. Gerard, the relentless cop pursuing The Fugitive in the 1960s, actor Barry Morse dies at the age of 89. London-born, he relocated to Canada in the 1950s, but landed many a part in U.S.-based productions. In SF circles, he remains best remembered for his one-season stint as the unflappable Professor Bergman on Space: 1999, and as a member of the international all-star cast of the 1980 BBC/NBC miniseries rendition of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. He was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of Ontario’s Shaw Theatre Festival in the 1960s and ’70s, a task he took on out of his personal love of the works of playwright George Bernard Shaw.

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STS-122

Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Atlantis lifts off on the 121st shuttle flight, a 13-day mission to deliver another laboratory module to the International Space Station. The European Space Agency’s Columbus lab module is ESA’s contribution to the station, and is attached to the recently-installed Harmony node over the course of three spacewalks. Aboard Atlantis for her 29th flight are Commander Steve Frick, Pilot Alan Poindexter, and mission specialists Stanley Love, Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim and Hans Schlegel. ISS Expedition 17 crewmember Leopold Eyharts travels to the station aboard Atlantis, while ISS Expedition 16 crewmember Daniel Tani returns to Earth on the shuttle in his place.

Roy Scheider, seaQuest DSV actor, dies

seaQuest DSVActor Roy Scheider, best known for his portrayal of Chief Brody in the 1975 megahit Jaws and its 1978 sequel, dies at the age of 75. Well-known for his mainstream roles, he also starred in some fondly-remembered genre projects, including the movies Blue Thunder and 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and a two-year stint as Captain Nathan Bridger on seaQuest DSV. He was twice nominated for an Oscar, for The French Connection and All That Jazz.

Torchwood: A Day In The Death

TorchwoodBBC2 premieres the 21st episode of Russell T. Davies’ science fiction series Torchwood, a more adult-themed spinoff of Doctor Who. Freema Agyeman reprises her Doctor Who role as Martha Jones. Richard Briers guest stars. The episode marks the TV writing debut of Joseph Lidster, whose first professionally published Doctor Who-related work had been a script for a Big Finish audio play submitted during a Big Finish “new talent” contest in 2002.

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Leonard Rosenman, film composer, dies

Leonard RosenmanOscar-winning Film and TV composer Leonard Rosenman dies at the age of 83. Known for such movie scores as East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause (both starring James Dean), he also created the music for pivotal SF movies such as Fantastic Voyage, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Ralph Bakshi’s animated rendition of Lord Of The Rings, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. He also scored episodes of TV’s original Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, among a great many others, including National Geographic and Jacques Cousteau specials.

Gary Gygax, D&D creator, dies

DiceThe co-creator of the seminal “paper-and-dice” role playing game Dungeons & Dragons dies at the age of 69. Gary Gygax helped to devise the D&D system with Dave Arneson in 1974, and the game instantly took off, with players adoring its simultaneous escapism and complexity, and parents – usually having heard horror stories of a few bad apples – protesting the game vigorously. D&D created its own little empire for publisher TSR Inc., and numerous add-ons and imitations followed (including virtually the entire metal miniature gaming industry), influenced video and computer games, and inspired an animated series (whose production he was involved in) and movies. He still received – and enjoyed – fan mail from avid D&D players past and present.

STS-123

Space ShuttleSpace Shuttle Endeavour lifts off on the 122nd shuttle flight, a 16 day mission to deliver two new key components of the International Space Station. The unpressurized portion of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo laboratory is delivered and attached, while the two-armed Dextre robotic arm system built in Canada is also installed. Aboard Endeavour for her 21st flight are Commander Dominic Gorie, Pilot Greg Johnson, and mission specialists Garrett Reisman, Robert Behnken, Mike Foreman, Takao Doi and Rick Linnehan. Reisman remains on the ISS, while station astronaut Leopold Eyharts hitches a ride back to Earth aboard the shuttle.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, futurist, dies

Sir Arthur C. ClarkeScience fiction writer, science essayist and all-around futuristic thinker Sir Arthur C. Clarke dies at the age of 90. In addition to writing such seminal SF novels as “2001: a space odyssey” (and simultaneously writing its screenplay) and “Rendezvous With Rama” (and their various sequels and spinoffs), he also posited – in a 1945 paper – a network of communications in fixed orbits above the Earth, exchanging signals between the ground and one another, some 20 years before the first steps were taken in that direction. (As a result, geosynchronous orbit is also referred to as “Clarke orbit.”) Even before that, he played a part in early work on radar as a member of the RAF during World War II. In the 1950s, he moved to Sri Lanka, but kept up a prodigious schedule of writing both fiction and non-fiction, as well as appearances ranging from brief movie roles (both as himself and otherwise) to being a television commentator on the Apollo moon missions.

Johnny Byrne, Space: 1999 writer, dies

Space: 1999Space: 1999 and Doctor Who scriptwriter Johnny Byrne dies at the age of 73. One of the most prolific Space: 1999 scribes, he helped to guide that show’s creative direction as the show’s script editor and later collaborated with fan filmmakers on a short, Message From Moonbase Alpha, wrapping the show up and leaving things open to further explore the story with new characters. He also had a literary SF career stretching back into the 1960s, as well as writing the screenplays for several British-produced films.

Battlestar Galactica: He That Believeth In Me

Battlestar GalacticaSci-Fi Channel airs the 54th episode of Ronald D. Moore’s re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. This is the premiere of the show’s fourth and final season, though numerous factors – including a lengthy recent strike among members of the Writers’ Guild of America and Sci-Fi Channel’s scheduling decisions – will controversially spread the last season out over two years.

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Doctor Who: Partners In Crime

Doctor WhoThe 741st episode of Doctor Who (the 43rd since the series’ revival) airs on BBC1. Kicking off the fourth season of the revived series, this episode brings back Catherine Tate’s character from The Runaway Bride (2006’s Christmas special episode) as the Doctor’s new companion. The season’s running theme – the return of Rose – is also introduced in this episode with a cameo appearance by Billie Piper, though fan sites have already reported her presence at location filming.

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Charlton Heston, actor, dies

Charlton Heston in Planet Of The ApesOscar-winning actor Charlton Heston dies at the age of 84. Renowned for a string of tough-guy roles in major big-screen epics that earned him an Academy Award for best actor in 1959’s Ben-Hur, Heston appeared in other blockbusters such as El Cid and The Ten Commandments; genre fans may know him best for two SF films, Soylent Green and the 1968 smash hit Planet Of The Apes. His outspoken political views were on display as much as his acting skills, ranging from marching to Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to serving as president of the National Rifle Association. He had also served as a past president of the Screen Actors’ Guild.

Cassini’s mission extended by two years

CassiniAfter four years orbiting the enormous ringed planet Saturn and flying past its dozens of moons, NASA’s unmanned Cassini probe still hasn’t seen it all. The four successful years thus far included releasing the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe to make the first ever landing on the large moon Titan, discovering (and flying through) water geysers over another moon, and exploring other moons that have puzzled scientists since they were first viewed up close in the early 1980s by the Voyager probes. The mission extension – called the Cassini Equinox Mission – gives Cassini an added two-year lease of life, with a $160 million price tag (the mission so far has cost both NASA and ESA a combined total of $3.3 billion).