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It’s been way too long since I last posted anything science-related. Photographing weddings, playing in two bands, and working a day job has eaten up all of my spare time lately! But I’ve found enough time to bring you some exciting updates and cool videos today.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Above is a comparison of the 5 newly confirmed exoplanets in the Kepler-62 system. The Kepler mission also confirmed an exoplanet around another star, Kepler-69, but that one isn’t nearly as interesting as the Kepler-62 system. Specifically, Kepler-62e and 62f are very exciting because they are officially the smallest potentially habitable exoplanets discovered to date! 62e and 62f are about 1.6 and 1.4 times the size of Earth, respectively. Based on our best computer models for planetary formation and evolution, scientists estimate that 62e is probably cloudy and quite warm, while 62f is probably covered in water and quite cooler, possibly even covered in ice. But different atmospheric conditions could change that significantly… there’s no way (yet) to know for sure. For more on this exciting discovery check out Universe Today and Bad Astronomy.

In related news: Building on the awesome success of the Kepler mission, NASA has announced its next exoplanet-hunting mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. Scheduled for launch in 2017, this new space-based telescope will look for exoplanets in the same way the Kepler mission has been, but it will use four wide-angle telescopes to look at a much broader part of the sky.

Now for the video goods. These are both very cool short segments from Canadian astronaut and current ISS commander Chris Hadfield.

This one is a mesmerizing demonstration of how water behaves in a zero-gravity environment by wringing out a wet washcloth:

And this one is Chris talking about possibly the coolest aspect of being in the ISS- taking breathtaking photographs of Earth from the ISS’s cupola:

 

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Curiosity’s amazing self-portrait from a few weeks ago. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA scientists have created lots of buzz over the past two days because of an NPR story in which Curiosity’s chief investigator John Grotzinger is quoted as saying the latest round of data from Curiosity’s soil analysis instrument is “gonna be one for the history books.” That’s all the information we’ll get, though, at least for a few weeks. While the scientists are very excited about what they’re seeing, they have to run multiple tests and replicate the results in order to be sure the initial interesting result is not a fluke or a glitch. The instrument in question (SAM) looks for organic molecules in the Martian soil, which are the basic building blocks of life as we know it. While none of the instruments on Curiosity can directly detect the presence of life on Mars, they CAN detect basic organics. Even a confirmation of organic molecules would be a huge, MONUMENTAL discovery.

In the past, scientists that have “blown their load” by prematurely announcing exciting results have been burned by it, so this team really wants to be sure of the accuracy and interpretation of their data before going public. One needn’t look further than NASA’s Martian meteorite fossil fiasco in 1996, or their arsenic-based life announcement in 2010 to know that letting your excitement/amazement at your discovery get in the way of un-biased, fact-based analysis can be disastrous.

I certainly hope that the results they’re guarding/confirming point to organic molecules in the soil they’ve analyzed. Curiosity’s findings thus far prove that large amounts of water once flowed on the surface, right where the rover is exploring. It would make sense to me that some form of basic life once existed there. It also wouldn’t surprise me if one day we discover that the DNA from life there mixed with DNA from life here, and that we’re all part Martian, as the idea of panspermia suggests. Those discoveries are likely years or even decades away from happening, but this is still a very exciting time for science!

This will be my last post before Thanksgiving, so have a happy one!

No aliens on Titan

June 9, 2010

Actual image of surface of Titan taken by the Huygens probe which landed on Titan in 2005.

Lately the media has been buzzing about the possibility of methane-based life on Saturn’s moon Titan. As usual, when scientists include the words “interesting,” “odd,” “life,” “extraterrestrial,” and “discovery” in the same press release, the media starts creating misleading headlines that make people think we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life. Chill out, folks, that’s not the case here. Basically what they found is that, in the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan’s surface, there is much less acetylene than expected, based on other measurements taken by the Cassini probe, currently orbiting Saturn. They also found via a computer simulation modeling the atmospheric conditions on Titan (not direct measurement) that there is also much less hydrogen at the surface than there should be. These are intriguing results, and deserve much further study, but methane-based life on Titan is just one of many possible explanations, the rest of which are non-biological. Good articles explaining this further can be found at Universe Today and Bad Astronomy, but the best explanation comes from Chris McKay at the NASA Ames Research Center. He’s one of the astrobiologists working with the Cassini mission, and states the facts very clearly (at least if you’re vaguely familiar with biology and/or organic chemistry. For a little bit more “laymen’s terms” explanation, I recommend reading either the Universe Today or Bad Astronomy articles.

Back with some science

December 30, 2009

The holidays obviously consumed my life to the point that I haven’t posted in over a week. Sorry ’bout that. I also haven’t shared any good sciencey tidbits in a while, so here you go:

I recently saw James Cameron’s latest epic Avatar. I won’t get too involved with reviewing the film as I’m no film critic by any means, but I will say this- it’s beautiful. The animation is astounding and most notably, the landscape is gorgeous. The dialogue and storyline is utterly pathetic. It’s basically the same story as Last of the Mohicans, Fern Gully, or Dances With Wolves, only this time it’s injected into a sci-fi mold. That being said, I always can enjoy that story to some degree no matter how many times it gets retold and rehashed. What is pretty cool about the movie is the science behind it. There will always be a big gap between “movie physics” and reality, but the over-arching idea of a habitable moon similar to Earth orbiting a gas giant similar to our own Jupiter in different star system is entirely plausible. The fact that the moon’s atmosphere is toxic to humans makes it slightly more realistic, along with the reduced gravity resulting in the native animal life being mostly large compared to that of Earth. Space.com has more on the science of Avatar’s Pandora.

Image via Universe Today

I’ve mentioned on here before that NASA and the European Space Agency have teamed up for the next decade or so of Mars exploration. The exact timeline and details of that effort are now beginning to come into focus, thanks to the recent discovery of a constantly replenished quantity of methane in Mars’ atmosphere The first step will be a new orbiting observatory launched in 2016 that is specifically equipped to further explore the possible sources of this methane, and map out exactly where it’s the strongest. Also on this first mission will be small lander designed to test the parachute/thruster landing system that will be used on the future missions involving the “real” landers/rovers. Those rover/lander missions will be launched in 2018, and will be specifically designed to search for signs of life. Recent developments in the theories about the possible source of the methane have started to lean more towards microbial life, probably living under the surface. That’s very exciting. More on this at Universe Today.

What kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t have some sort of “year-in-review” post? Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to come up with anything myself, but here are a couple of 2009 recap posts from other science blogs that you might find interesting:

Live Science: 9 stories we love, and hated, in 2009.

Space.com: The 9 top spaceflight stories of 2009.

Some of probably already know this, but I’m currently in the process of moving. Megan and I are renting a small house near Germantown, and though the house will be awesome once we get settled in, the timing really sucked. I can’t think of a worse possible time to be moving than during the holidays. So posting here will probably be limited until next week.

Plans for a “space resort” have been in the books of many commercial aerospace corporations for years and years, but now it’s actually about to happen. Space.com reports that a European company based Barcelona, Spain plans to open the first space hotel in 2012. I must admit my doubts that it will actually be ready and operational by then, but it’s a pretty cool notion nonetheless. The company even reports that 43 paying guests have booked a stay. Don’t get your hopes up though, as a 3-night trip is currently carrying a price tag of $4.4 million. Even if they don’t hit the expected opening date in 2012, it will eventually happen, almost assuredly by 2020. It’s quite possible that space vacations could eventually come down in price enough that your average Joe might be able to afford one.

The well-known Drake Equation has long been used by scientists to approximate how many intelligent might exist elsewhere in our galaxy. A major problem exists with the numbers, though, because depending on your level of optimism and reasoning to arrive at certain variable within the equation, you can get a result ranging from millions of intelligent civlizations to almost none. That’s a HUGE variability and thus the Drake Equation really isn’t very effective, at least not until we can arrive at more concrete variables to plug into it. Some new research from astronomers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette may actually give us a better idea of just how common life, and intelligent life, is in our galaxy. The research has found that Sun-like stars are the best places to look for planets with intelligent life. Not surprising at all, but what may surprise you is the fact that Sun-like stars are actually pretty rare. Our Sun is bigger and hotter than 93% of the stars in our galaxy (and presumably the universe), which means that the habitable zone around most stars is closer than the earth is to the Sun. Their research has also shown that bigger stars (like our Sun, or even bigger) are more likely to form small, rocky planets around them. Since bigger stars generally have shorter lifespans, you can see how there’s a sweet spot in star size where the star is big enough to be likely to have small, rocky planets, yet small enough that the overall lifespan of the star is longer than the time it takes for intelligent life to develop. (It took about 4.5 billion years for us to develop on earth.) We have a pretty good idea of how many stars are in the Milky Way, as well as the size distribution. That means about 10% of the stars in the Milky Way fall into that “sweet spot” category. Since there are over 100 billion stars in our galaxy overall, that means about 10 billion stars likely to have earth-like planets and live long enough for those planets to develop intelligent life. I’d say those are some pretty damn good odds of alien civilizations out there, and that’s just in our own little galaxy, which is one of BILLIONS. Most astronomers and astrobiologists agree there’s a pretty good chance we’re not alone. To me that is really exciting. (Via Astrobiology Magazine and Space.com)

Now that I’ve rambled way too much, enjoy this Time interview with one of my favorite “celebrity astronomers,” Neil deGrasse Tyson: (Via Snarkmarket)

And then enjoy watching Mythbusters’ Adam Savage give a vial containing one of his farts to Craig Ferguson as a gift. I could go on and on about how wonderful Mythbusters is. But I’ll spare you that rant. (Via Bad Astronomy)

Foxes… dinosaurs… robots.

February 19, 2009

Science first today. Then we’ll get to the funny stuff.

In some really depressing news, the Space Shuttle Mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope one last time may be in serious jeopardy. That satellite collision last week, which you’ve undoubtedly heard about by now, was in the same general orbit level of Hubble, and the debris from the collision significantly increases the likelihood of a debris strike during the servicing mission to unacceptable odds. NASA estimates that the chance for a debris impact will be about 1 in 185, which is over their threshold of 1 in 200. Even a tiny piece of metal the size of a pea or even smaller could do serious damage to an astronaut’s space suit during a spacewalk, and since there were 5 spacewalks planned to service Hubble, well… you can see where this is going. The good news is, they’re pretty sure the International Space Station is not at much risk for impact from the debris, because its orbit is much lower than that of satellites. It’s just beyond the outer edges of earth’s atmosphere, which means there are just enough air molecules floating around to put a slight drag on any space junk at that orbit level, thus said space junk burns up relatively faster than junk at higher orbits. Thus, low earth orbit stays comparatively clear of debris.

Space.com reports on how the discovery of alien life could impact society. According to the article, a panel of scientists sponsored by the SETI Institute and the NASA Astrobiology Institute recently met over 3 days to discuss this and come up with a basic outline of what impacts they thought such discovery could have on human society.

Very good news for Hummer-haters (myself included!): The Tennessean reports that GM has announced that it will discontinue or sell the Hummer brand by March 31st. Let’s hope it’s the former, not the latter. In my opinion, there is no greater symbol of the wasteful and inefficient extravangance that helped get us into this economic shitstorm than the Hummer. Good riddance!

Remember my post about the movie Coraline from a week or two ago? At the time I was unclear as to the extent of They Might Be Giants’ contribution to the soundtrack. Well, turns out that 28-second jingle that plays through one of the TV trailers is it. Stereogum reports that they did some other material for the movie that got canned, because in the end it turned out not to be “dark” enough.

Dinosaurs fucking robots. Via iO9.

Foxes jumping on a trampoline. Via Yewknee.

Need I say anything else?

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