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Classified Atlantis mission nearly ends in disaster, hopes shattered for Alcubierre “warp drive” April 5, 2009

Posted by Mike Trudeau in Cybernetics, Nasa, Space, The Future.
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www.spaceflightnow.com tells a dramatic story of when NASA almost lost space shuttle Atlantis on a “blacked out” mission to bring a top-secret spy satellite to orbit. So, a piece of insulating foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and took huge chunks out of the ceramic tiles that make up the shuttle’s black underbelly. These tiles protect the shuttle from the heat of re-entry. Remember Columbia? This was before that.

So the astronauts on board took a look at the underside (with the Canadarm maybe?) once they’d reached orbit and saw the catastrophic damage. However, because of the secret nature of the mission, they could only send back low-resolution video. People on the ground couldn’t make out the broken tiles, and ordered them to continue and land as normal…read the story. It’s really good. I found it via Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for Discover magazine.

In other news, an article on www.technologyreview.com shattered the hopes of hard-core space-travel fans everywhere by claiming that the Alcubierre warp drive might not work after all.
Although there has been no evidence whatsoever that matter can travel faster than light, the physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a means of travel where the space in front of a ship is compressed while the space behind it is stretched. The ship wouldn’t be travelling faster than the speed of light compared to “local” space (ie “flat” space within the “warped” bubble), it could go from one point to another faster than the time it would take light to travel in a line through “flat” space.

One of the interesting side effects would be that people on the ship wouldn’t feel the acceleration because the ship wouldn’t actually be moving in the conventional sense. Also, the clocks on the ship would run at the same speed as the clocks on an observer’s wall. Normally something travelling at (or near) the speed of light would experience time dilation, in which a traveller might experience one year of time while the observer would experience five, etc. etc.

One question that I haven’t seen answered though (maybe because the explanation would be way over my liberal-arts head) is this: Even if space could be compressed and stretched like this, wouldn’t the ship eventually have to travel the distance through “flat” space one way or another? Wouldn’t the ship just end up back at its starting point when the space around it snapped back to its “flat” state? To actually land on (or even communicate with) a planet the ship (or its broadcasts) would have to cross the space between it and the planet, no matter how compressed or twisted that space would be. Follow me?

Regardless, the article says it would actually be impossible for a number of reasons. Too bad…although supposedly creating a bubble of warped space around a spaceship would take as much power as would be produced if all of Jupiter was converted to energy. That’s a little beyond our meagre fossil-fuel methods these days.

There’s a story on the National Geographic website about a robot controlled only by the power of human thought. Pretty neat, but I ask you this: Aren’t all machines controlled by human thought? I guess this demonstration just cuts out the middle man.

According to the North Korean media, they have successfully put a satellite in orbit, which is now transmitting revolutionary songs. Other countries are sceptical, and the claim has not been independently confirmed. Some think it was a cover for a long-range missile test. Read about it here.

Whoops! Scratch that. Satellite failure. Two stages of the rocket and its payload crashed into the Pacific Ocean (BBC used the term “landed,” which I think might be a little generous). Thanks for breaking the news, Twitter!

Finally, take a look at some of these great space photos! There’s a beautiful one of the ISS as seen from shuttle Discovery‘s window.

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.