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Kepler reaches its destination, time travel and the Overview Effect May 15, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Astronomy, Nasa, Space, Uncategorized.
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The Kepler space telescope is trailing Earth in its orbit, and has begun scanning its small patch of sky for twinkling stars. It will be a long time before the telescope finds any extra-solar planets, because it relies on planets crossing between Kepler and their stars, causing the stars to dim. To ensure it really is a planet and not some other phenomenon or glitch, it has to watch for several regular transitions. Of course, each planet will cross its star once a year, so these periodic dimmings are few and far between. This means it will be years before the existence of extra-solar planets is confirmed. In other words, the sooner we get started the better. See my previous blog post with professor Mike Thompson for more information.

The new Star Trek movie apparently has some time travel in it. I haven’t seen it yet, and am generally wary of movies that use time travel as a plot device. However, there is a very interesting article about some of the false presumptions of time travel at the Discover website. The article answers a lot of questions that I’d had, and things that I’d puzzled over. Check it out!

Here‘s a good article about one man’s plans to examine the Overview Effect, the feeling of oneness that astronauts get when seeing the Earth from space. Apparently, this happens pretty regularly. I heard one Apollo astronaut (I forget which one) mention the feeling in the terrific documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, but I didn’t know it was such a common phenomenon.

Finally, you’ve got to see this slideshow on the National Geographic website featuring glow-in-the-dark animals.

Very smart birds, and Freeman Dyson thinks we should look for flowers on Europa May 8, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Animals, Climate Change, Extraterrestrial life.
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Here‘s a great article by the BBC about how birds are much smarter than we give them credit for. The first video is amazing. The crow sees food at the bottom of a short “chimney,” so takes a piece of wire and bends it into a hook to pull the food out!
For a long time I thought great apes and humans were the only animals that used tools. Now we see that not only do birds (specifically corvids, ie crows, ravens etc) use tools, but they can actually make them too. I had no idea.

Also, check out Freeman Dyson’s argument about methods for searching for extraterrestrial life (especially on Europa) in this New Scientist article. He uses flowers that grow in Antarctica as an example to suggest that we should look where it would be easier to detect, instead of trying to figure out how and where it would have evolved.

As the article mentions later though, the surface of Europa is bombarded with a huge amount of radiation from Jupiter, which could make life very difficult for flowers.

Space.com has an interesting article about how the radiation bombardment might actually give life a boost by producing a wider variety of chemicals that small life-forms could live off.

Freeman Dyson is a climate sceptic, and The New York Times has a very, very long article about him and his views here. Discover magazine blog Intersection has a scathing review of the article here.

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.

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.