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The Oldest Words, Bulletproof Goo and Lunar Robots February 26, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, Technology, The Future.
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Researchers at the University of Reading have used a computer model to chart the rate of change in the meaning of words, with some interesting results.
It seems like the model basically maps the evolutionary tree of its sample words as they change in meaning and cross into other languages.
According to the model, the words “squeeze,” “guts,” and “dirty” are all headed to extinction comparatively soon. Also, verbs tend to change more quickly than other word types.
They found that the more commonly a word has been used, the more slowly it has changed over time. Some of the oldest words could be dozens of millennia old.
A good quote: Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University, said “Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”
The BBC has a very interesting article on this. It’s well worth a read.

Also from the BBC comes a report of an exhibition of (probably not all) the Ministry of Defence’s new toys for the field. Included in the exhibit is a bright-orange goo that is stretchy and malleable like Silly Putty, but becomes hard in response to an impact and disperses the force safely. There’s a video of a man in a suit hitting a happy soldier’s goo-wrapped finger with a hammer.

Finally, here’s a press release from Astrobiotic Technology explaining how autonomous robots could prepare the lunar surface for a permanent outpost.
Resupply ships would have to land close to the outpost for efficiency’s sake, but without an atmosphere the grit sprayed off the ground from the rocket could be damaging to the building. The article weighs two options: building a berm around the landing site and constructing a permanent hard-surfaced landing pad.

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Space Fish Update February 25, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Space, Technology, What?.
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A small post to let you know that the National Geographic website has the first ever video footage of the incredible and improbable barreleye fish.

Also, check out this amazing photo from Bad Astronomy of a heat shield material test at Space X. The material here will help protect Space X’s Dragon Capsule during reentry. That’s the Space-X Dragon capsule, not these Dragon Capsules. Don’t mistake the two.

More later.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails to Reach Orbit February 24, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Nasa.
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AAARRRgh! Seven years of gruelling engineering, testing and planning and 270 million US dollars went crashing into the ocean near Antarctica earlier today.

If you haven’t already heard (and embarassingly it was my mother that tipped me off), Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) suffered a rocket malfunction three minutes after its launch.

It looks like the two-part (“clamshell”) fairing surrounding the satellite failed to open. The fairing protects the satellite as the rocket leaves the atmosphere, and is very heavy. The rocket didn’t have enough power to carry the satellite and its fairing into orbit so fell back to Earth, crashing into frigid antarctic waters.

The OCO was meant to measure carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and hopefully pinpoint previously unknown carbon sinks and sources. This would have helped us understand how our climate is changing. Which it is.

You can read about the mission and its failure right here on the Nasa website. There is a good video here of the moment the failure was announced. Listen for the order not to leak to the press! Also, here‘s a (rather dry) video of the press briefing following the failure, introduced by a bright red man in a bright yellow suit. Extraterrestrial? Must investigate further…The video is full of Nasa vaguenesses like “about eighty milliseconds later…”

If you get tired of the briefing you should watch the Jupiter and Saturn mission videos. Exciting!

The BBC also has a good thorough article about the mission background.

Apparently there aren’t enough spare parts to rebuild another OCO immediately, and we’ll have to wait to see what they decide to do. I feel terrible for those involved. What a crushing disappointment.

All is not lost, however. Japan launched it’s own Ibuki or Gosat satellite last month, which has a similar purpose and is so far doing just fine.

But enough bad news! This is the absolute craziest fish I have ever seen. It’s got a see-through head! And those are its eyes! It’s called a barreleye apparently. I wonder why…

If that’s not freaky enough for you, think about scientists growing human teeth in a laboratory. Your teeth.

Slow day for science… February 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Not much in the news today, except a couple of obviously fake photos of a giant snake. Why is this news?

A shuttle mission to the International Space Station has been postponed not due to the risks posed by whirling shards of space debris, but instead because of worries over some of Discovery’s gas valves.

Thankfully, the Kepler mission is still on track!

I spoke with a gentleman from the Sheffield Astronomical Association who said I might be able to tag along for a viewing of Comet Lulin this weekend. Woohoo!

Oh, and Scientific American has more from Alan Boss of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the likelihood of Earth-like planets existing outside the solar system. He’s got some encouraging (and a mind-boggling) numbers.

That is all.

Now you see it… February 22, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There are still some things that humans can do better than computers. According to Vernor Vinge of San Diego State University, we should enjoy it while it lasts. I dug up this very interesting if somewhat bleak paper about technological singularity, and I recommend you give it a read.

Anyway, about what we do better. If you’ve got some time on your hands and feel like helping out, go on over to the Galaxy Zoo and classify some galaxies. Humans are still way better than computers at processing images according to their content, which is why search engines can only sort images based on tags (ie strings of characters) attached to them. Wait, maybe not.

So, after The Sloan Digital Sky Survey photographed a quarter million galaxies, it needs your help to classify them all. Galaxy Zoo will show you a picture of a galaxy and ask you some basic questions about it. Most of the pics are blurry smudges but some of them are startlingly beautiful.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more social, head down to gwap.com. Gwap stands for Games With A Purpose, and the idea is that by playing these (addictive) games you’re helping search engines clarify their results by classifying music and identifying the contents of images. I don’t know if I subscribe to their emphatic statement that “By playing our games, you’re training computers to solve problems for humans all over the world,” but the games are fun and you get to feel like you’re working when you’re actually playing.

While we’re on the topic of helpful websites, if you haven’t checked out FreeRice, you should.

One more thing… February 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Space.
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I forgot to remind you that the comet Lulin will be closest to the Earth on the 24th. That’s Tuesday pre-dawn, I think.
I found this far superior blog by an actual scientist that carries a good picture of what we might see with binoculars or a telescope. Apparently we’ll be able to see it with our naked eyes as well.

Let It Snow February 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Space, What?.
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Before I talk about China’s power to control the weather, I have an update on the space junk situation.
Nasa is currently considering if it will be safe enough to send the shuttle up for Service Mission 4 to the Hubble Telescope after the satellite collision earlier this week. Scientific American has some good speculation about ways of clearing the skies, and says that the mission will go ahead as long as there is seen to be less than a one-in-sixty chance of debris hitting the shuttle. Cosmic Variance bets that if the mission is cancelled, Nasa might try sending robots instead. I’m not so sure…why wouldn’t they have just sent robots in the first place?
They also link to a webcomic letter to the notorious Higgs Boson, which Large Hadron Collider hopes to find when it’s powered up later this year. Apparently the gloves are off and the Tevatron at Fermilab in the States is saying they’ve got a 50% chance of finding the Higgs first if the LHC can’t power up soon enough. Any bets?

In other news, China claims to have triggered a snowfall over Beijing by firing iodide sticks into the clouds. According to the Chinese Weather Modification Command Centre (I kid you not), the iodide sticks give below-freezing water droplets something to freeze around, resulting in snowfall. I get the impression that the effectiveness of this method hasn’t been proven yet…also, the press seems to be misrepresenting it a little bit because in order to create the snowfall, the moisture needs to already exist in the clouds. So, it looks like the drought might have been coming to an end anyway. There’s some funny video footage at the Times (Oh, communists!) and Reuters has an article about how the government had to close twelve highways due to the snow.
Here’s an interview with an expert at Scientific American, as well as this REALLY hokey youtube video where some babbling weatherman tries to explain it.

Going to Europa February 19, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Extraterrestrial life, Space.
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Great news! After much deliberation, scientists at NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) have decided to send their next major mission to Jupiter’s moons, with Europa as a top priority. The debate had been between checking out Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s moons, but in the latest news they seem to have decided to hell with it, let’s do both.
This is good news because Europa is generally seen as one of the most likely places for extraterrestrial life to exist in the solar system. Read a short article discussing the possibility of life on Europa here. A shell of ice covers its surface which scientists have estimated could be anywhere between three and one hundred kilometres thick, with the concensus suggesting it’s about twenty-five. Europa has next to no atmosphere, but the ice covering could protect the inner ocean from otherwise lethal radiation.
Although the moon is so far from the sun that liquid water cannot survive on the surface (we’re talking -165C), readings sent back by the Galileo spacecraft, which explored the Jovian system between 1995 and 2003, suggest that there is a warm, liquid ocean of salt water beneath the ice.
Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull puts huge tidal pressure on Europa. This makes the moon’s rocky core compress and shift, which might produce enough heat to keep the ocean warm. Take some warm salty water, toss in some of the organic compounds often found on meteors, and stir.
Scientists are so convinced of the possibility of life that they sent the Galileo probe plunging to its death in Jupiter’s atmosphere rather than crashing into Europa and potentially contaminating any life there.
NASA and ESA will each launch an orbiter in 2020, and it will take six years for the probe to reach the Jovian system. We’ve still got a long time to wait…in the meantime you can read more about the mission here.
Also, here’s a Jet Propulsion Laboratory paper discussing the different possibilities of a Europa lander. It was published in 2003 so may have dated a bit but it’s still worth a look.

Facebook withdraws changes February 18, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, The Internet.
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The BBC and the Times have now both reported that Facebook admin have withdrawn the changes they made to the Facebook terms of service. Still, I’m leaving my privacy settings where they are.

Facebook warning and Hubble/Kepler update February 18, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Space, Technology, The Internet.
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Before anything else, I recommend you go into your Facebook account and change your privacy settings. here is an article about Facebook’s recent changes to its terms of service (that thing you say you’ve read and understand before you get your account) that supposedly means Facebook permanently owns all the rights to your photos and notes etc. Here is Facebook’s reply, that claims no such thing. I still changed my privacy settings and you should too.

I came across this diagram to give you the idea of how much space junk is orbiting at what altitude, along with other functioning space objects like the Hubble. The accompanying article raises the point that even if there is no direct threat of debris hitting the Hubble or the ISS, there is still the risk that clouds of debris produced by the recent collision could prevent the upcoming Service Mission 4, scheduled for May 12 2009. The aim of the mission is to repair several of the telescope’s systems and install some new hardware that would hugely increase its abilities. Without this mission there would not be a lot of hope left for Hubble’s continuing operation.

Speaking of space telescopes, the BBC ran an article describing how the Kepler Space Telescope will work. I had no idea that the area of sky visible to the Hubble is only as much as would be covered by a grain of sand held at arm’s length! That’s tiny! In comparison, Kepler will be able to look at an area about the size of your hand at arm’s length. Also, its cameras are much more powerful.

The article says we can hope to see our first results within three months or so of launch, but that finding an Earth-sized planet will probably take several years. Now I know everything space-mission-oriented takes a long time, but I’m also very impatient…

The telescope is named after the father of celestial mechanics, Johannes Kepler. Basically he discovered a lot about planetary motion, which is captured in these beautiful and intricate mechanisms called orreries. Check’em out!