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Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, gigantic space artefacts, and some news-in-brief March 28, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Science Fiction, Space, The Future.
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I’m derailing from science FACT to science FICTION for today’s post.

Before I begin, here’s some quick Mars news. A Rhode Island PhD student is finding evidence of a mineral that could explain the presence of both methane and minerals thought to be produced by reaction with water. There was a lot of hype when plumes of methane were discovered on Mars, as methane is produced on Earth primarily as a by-product of life. Read more here.

Contestants are set to enter the mock-up of a Mars mission spaceship, in order to test their psychological reactions to being cooped up with each other with nothing to do for months on end. It looks like hell but I would have liked to try it out. I imagine it would be fun for about three hours. We’ll see how they do!

I just got a bunch of books in the mail as part of my birthday Amazon.com shopping spree…among them are hardcover editions of one of my favourite SF works of all time, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars are about the gradual human colonisation of the Red Planet. They do a very good, thorough job of speculation on all aspects of the epic undertaking. It’s very convincing. Also, with a launch date of 2026, it may even coincide closely with our first actual manned journey to Mars (a guy can hope, can’t he? Bush suggested it in 2004, but then again, he said a lot of things). However, like most science fiction that takes place in the achievable future, the book will probably become more inaccurate as it approaches and passes its speculated date of occurrence. 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the best example of this. Dr. David Scott, the seventh man to walk on the moon, said in 2002 that he didn’t think we’d get to Mars for hundreds of years.

I wonder how Robinson would have changed the science in his books, had he known what we do now about Mars.

Another book I received in the mail today was Eon by Greg Bear. It’s about an asteroid that flies into our solar system and contains a chamber that is infinitely long. That’s all I know. It looks intriguing, and my test of opening to a random page and reading the first paragraph was fruitful. There are a LOT of SF books about some huge artefact that arrives or is found, and how people discover what ancient civilisation built it and what its story is etc., etc. Some of them are highly acclaimed works by some of the best authors in the genre…some aren’t. Just to name a few:

Ringworld, Larry Niven, 1970
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke, 1973
Eon, Greg Bear, 1985
Helix, Eric Brown, 2007

Finally, let me leave you with this creepy photo of a cannibal frog.

Inteview with Professor Mike Thompson on Kepler and astroseismology March 23, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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There has been a lot of talk about the Kepler space telescope and its mission to find Earth-like planets outside the solar system. Its lesser-known but perhaps more important mission, however, is to collect information about the internal sonic vibrations of stars (expressed as small, periodic variations in emitted light) in order to learn about their evolution and structure.
I interviewed Professor Mike Thompson of the University of Sheffield, who will be analysing the information sent back by Kepler for this purpose.
Mike Thompson is a professor of applied mathematics and solar physics, and head of the school of mathematics and statistics at Sheffield University. He studies astroseismology and helioseismology, in other words the vibrations of a star. He also studies solar physics, stellar structure and evolution, and astrophysical fluid dynamics.

Can you tell me about what you are doing for this mission?

My own scientific interest actually is in terms of the stars themselves rather than the planets that are going around them. I use a technique called astroseismology. Many stars oscillate because of the presence of sound waves that are travelling inside them. These sound waves, if they have the right frequency and wavelength, will actually set up certain resonant oscillations of the star. We measure these frequencies at which stars vibrate by making careful observations of the variations of their light. We can use those frequencies, combining many of them, to measure how temperature varies inside the star, what its composition is, even how fast it’s rotating inside.

A good analogy would be of an organ pipe. And organ pipe of a given length will only sound certain notes. If you measured the frequency of those notes or listened to them you would be able to tell something about the structure of that organ pipe. How long it is or what it’s made of, combined with something about the composition of the gas inside it or the composition of the gas. We’re doing similar things with stars.

What sort of practical applications could we see coming from the information that you’re going to analyze?

I think the main practical benefit of learning about stars is what it tells us about our own sun. One of the things we want to understand better is how the magnetic activity cycles work. So in the case of the sun the magnetic activity cycle manifests itself as a sunspot cycle and that’s connected with highly energetic and potentially damaging explosive events (such as flares and coronal mass ejections). These things come out in ways we don’t fully understand and can’t yet predict at the earth and can have serious impacts on our technological society, on communications satellites, on our power grids and so on.

Are there health implications for these coronal mass ejections?

Yes, there certainly are. If an astronaut is in space when one of these things goes off then they could get seriously fried. People have looked at the occurrence of these against the times when the manned Apollo missions were up in space. The Apollo astronauts were quite fortunate. There were some big explosive events that went on and very fortunately there were no Apollo missions up there at the time. But if we want to send manned missions to Mars which of course is now being talked about, then those astronauts are going to be in space for a considerable period of time.

At the moment one of the very big concerns for those of us who study solar variability is the high likelihood that there would be events that would happen during that time which would actually be fatal to the astronauts involved. So how do you develop technologies, perhaps using magnetic fields around the spacecraft, to protect humans in space?

An artificial magnetosphere would actually deflect these particles away. The alternative would be to have large amounts of lead around you, but of course the expense of getting that mass into space is absolutely prohibitive.

How often do these coronal mass ejections occur?

They happen quite frequently. At the height of the solar cycle there could be one a day of these going off, but most of them aren’t coming towards us. But occasionally you get one of these guys and it comes in full face on at the earth, and then it shakes the Earth’s magnetosphere and causes interesting and very exciting aurora displays. They can knock out power lines.

These coronal mass ejections will take a few days to get from the sun to the Earth, whereas light takes eight minutes. Nonetheless, you don’t get much warning. So, better understanding of the sun, better understanding of what the precursors are for predicting these things would be very valuable.

That’s all for today. He gave me some interesting info about Kepler which I will save for a later post.
Purely by coincidence, New Scientist had an alarming article about the disastrous potential consequences of coronal mass ejections in this week’s issue. Read about it here, with an interesting comment here.

Also, take a look at these amazing robot fish!

Video conference with International Space Station crew March 20, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Nasa, Space, The Future.
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Four members of the International Space Station crew answered questions from the press in a live video conference this evening.

Answering questions were flight engineers Koichi Wakata and Yury Lonchakov from Japan and Russia, Commander Mike Fincke and STS 119 mission specialist Sandy Magnus, both from the USA.

Several of the questions were about the threat of space debris and the recent evacuation of the crew into the Soyuz space capsule/escape pod. If you hadn’t heard, there were two (relative) near-misses with pieces of space debris last week.

Fincke said “Yuri is the commander of the Soyuz spacecraft. Had we had to close the hatch and go, we would have.”

“Just goes to show that things are getting more and more busy up here.”

The Russian escape capsule is ready to go at a moment’s notice, and there are plans for another Soyuz capsule to attach to the station as a second escape pod.

When asked about preparations for longer space journeys such as to the moon or Mars, Fincke said that one of the most important things to keep morale up is contact with the ground. He said, “It’s tough to be away from friends, family, and all those excellent things.”

He also mentioned that shuttle Discovery will be bringing back samples of the crew’s bodily fluids (yes, including pee-pee) to be examined by scientists, to see how the human body changes over long periods of time in space.

Commander Fincke said he hopes humans do try to explore further into space in the near future. He said, “I’d like to see us in the near future go back to the moon and on to Mars.” He said he would like to eventually see humans explore further into the solar system.

Wakata spoke about his plans to don traditional Japanese clothing to see how it moves in space. PR stunt? Real science? Maybe it doesn’t matter (it’s not like anyone has a problem with national pride in space). He said that all he’s learning right now is like “drinking water from a fire hose.” He said “I’m still learning a lot here but I am enjoying every moment.”

Sandy Magnus commented that if we plan on going back to the moon there will need to be some basic nuts-and-bolts changes to the organisation of the mission. She said “To go to the moon we would need to split up some of the planning differently because of the distance.” Specifically, the crew will need to take over more of the technical specialisation and the ground would need to do more of the strategising jobs.

Sandy has a very interesting blog about life onboard the ISS, which includes tidbits about her experiments in cooking.

Commander Fincke finished by saying that the ISS is a symbol of what humans can do when we work together constructively instead of destructively.

Fusion power, new battery technology, and shadow-life March 16, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Biology, Technology, The Future, The Internet.
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There’s a great story in New Scientist this week discussing other forms of life on Earth. There have been a few stories recently speculating on the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing among us unbeknownst to us. I’m not talking about ufo conspiracy theories, I’m talking about microscopic life whose ancestors were carried in on meteorites after life had already begun on Earth.

New Scientist writer Bob Holmes introduces two other possibilities. The first he dubs shadow-life, which is life that began independently from that which came to dominate the planet. If life got going spontaneously once here, why wouldn’t it have happened again? This would be life of terrestrial origin, yet unrelated to most other life on the planet. Also, Holmes predicts that life will soon be created in a laboratory entirely artificially. For a gallery of what shadow life may look like, click here. You can read more about looking for shadow life here.

People have been talking about fusion power (in theory a source of limitless, clean energy) for a long, long time. Scientists have also been saying that fusion power is only fifty years away for a long, long time. However, it might be closer to becoming reality than a lot of people think. Read this very exciting article from The Times Online for more. The comments are good too. I wonder how much of this is journalistic hype and how much is real science.

New battery technology is promising for practical electric cars, among other things. One of the problems with batteries is their charging time. This new technology would charge cell phones in seconds and cars in minutes. Read about it more at New Scientist and The Economist.

Here‘s an interesting piece of information. The idea for linking computers to share information (ie the internet) originally came from Tim Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN in the eighties, planning the Large Hadron Collider. I had no idea that the two were connected.

The Telegraph has a bizarre story of an old Korean man who claims the fish in his backyard pond have human faces. You can decide for yourself.

Finally, a friend of mine sent me this BBC article just before my 28th birthday. Thanks Jane…guess it’s all downhill from here…

North Korea to launch “satellite” March 12, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Technology, What?.
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North Korea says they’re getting ready to launch a communications satellite, but sceptics think it’s just another long-range missile test.
If it’s a missile, it would be able to reach Alaska. If it’s a satellite, North Korea would be beating the South into space (although there has already been one Korean astronaut).
A North Korean space program eh? Sounds familiar

Anyone care to place a bet?

Climate change quickens, geoengineering and animal stories March 10, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Cybernetics.
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To all the journalists-to-be out there, is this what we’re going to have to do to get jobs now?

There’s been a lot in the news these last two weeks about scientists saying that all our feeble efforts to reduce emissions and slow down global warming may now be to little, too late.

New Scientist had a disturbing article last week. I was surprised to see something so alarming coming from the New Scientist, as they usually seem more moderate. It’s a very bold piece of doom for you to digest before bed. I only wish I could show you the map that illustrated the article in the magazine. Grim. I recommend you read it and then move to Canada.

Basically, scientists are starting to say that things are getting worse, faster. Here’s an example from Scientific American. I’m surprised it even gives climate change deniers the time of day, when you consider just how serious things are starting to look.

This is a good place to find the basics of climate change.

Disturbingly, scientists are beginning to lean more towards geoengineering to stop the atmosphere from heating up. This has been all over the news for the last two weeks or so. Geoengineering is using artificial means to cool the planet instead of letting it cool itself naturally. Ideas for this are varied and extreme, with the most famous one being orbiting reflective shades. Other ideas include filling the atmosphere with a haze to planting especially reflective crops. You can read more about it in any of the links above.

In lighter news, animals! Here’s a story about a clever chimp who hid piles of rocks around his habitat, waiting for an opportunity to throw them at passersby.
For those of you who think they’ve seen everything, here’s an article about (and photograph of) an elephant with a prosthetic leg.
Finally, a baby blue whale was captured on film for maybe the first time ever. See the footage on the National Geographic website. Among other staggering facts, the article says baby blues gain two hundred pounds a day while nursing.

Surprise meteor, Hubble service mission update and China’s lunar probe March 2, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Astronomy, Nasa, Space.
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Woah! What the hell was that? A totally unexpected asteroid sped by on Monday between the Earth and the Moon. It’s travelling at twenty kilometres per second and is between 60 and 100 metres wide. Apparently that’s nothing new, and a lot of asteroids zip by unnoticed. I find that a little unnerving.
The difference between an asteroid and a comet (like the comet Lulin that passed by last week) is in their appearance. Comets have a visible tail (or coma) and asteroids do not. A comet’s tail is water vapour and dust particles that have blown off the body of the comet as it gets close to the sun.
A meteoroid is smaller than an asteroid (and according to the official definition, bigger than an atom). It becomes a meteor when it enters a planet’s atmosphere and becomes visible as a bright streak. Any material from a meteor that makes it to the ground becomes a meteorite.

In other news it looks like the upcoming service mission to the Hubble space telescope will get the go-ahead after all. After the recent satellite collision there had to be some weighing of the risks. If the mission succeeds it would make the Hubble much more powerful and extend its life considerably.

Finally, China’s Chang 1 lunar satellite concluded its mission of mapping the surface of the moon by slamming into the moon in a “controlled collision.” Although it only became the third country to send a person into space recently, it looks like China is pursuing its space program ambitiously, with plans for a space station and manned lunar mission in the works as well.