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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS

Fuck yes! That’s all I can think right now about the awesome news that came from NASA a few hours ago. The Curiosity rover has found evidence in samples of rock gathered a few weeks ago that Mars once had an environment suitable for microbial life. The rover drilled out samples from inside a rock in an area dubbed “Yellowknife Bay” by mission scientists. Those powder samples where then analyzed by specialized instruments on board, and the results showed that sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, and carbon are all present in the rock. The range of minerals actually surprised the mission scientists, who weren’t expecting to find quite such a wide range of minerals.

“Were conditions on Mars ever suitable for life?” is one of the core questions the Curiosity mission, and now that question has been answered with a big YES. This is very exciting news, and hopefully there will be even more clues into Mars’ past discovered on this mission. For the full report, check out the press release on NASA’s website.

In other, less-exciting science news, beware of media reports claiming that fossils of diatoms (microscopic plant life) were recently found inside a meteorite. The claims come from Chandra Wickramasinghe, who is a scientist known for outlandish claims that don’t stand up to real scientific scrutiny, and are largely intended to stir controversy. This latest report claims that the fossilized diatoms were found inside a fragment of a meteorite that fell over Sri Lanka in 2012. Except they don’t prove that a) the sample was from said meteorite, or b) that the sample was from a meteorite at all! Also diatoms are EVERYWHERE on earth, and can very quickly contaminate any meteorites that make it to the surface. Thankfully there are skeptics like Dr. Phil Plait out there who regularly and thoroughly debunk such things when they pop up. Head over to his blog Bad Astronomy to read more on how Wickramasinghe’s experiments were flawed, and why his claims just don’t hold water.

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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!

Part of my intense nerdyness comes from my childhood when I was obsessed with fire. Yes, like many young boys, I was a pyromaniac. And I still am. I’m just a much safer, more cautious pyromaniac. Every year for the 4th of July I like to indulge my inner 14-year-old boy by buying and even making my own pyrotechnic devices. I thought I would share one recipe/method for making a homemade smoke bomb. It’s pretty simple and safe- provided you follow these directions very carefully.

Ingredients: Equal parts sucrose (aka table sugar) and potassium nitrate (aka saltpeter or KNO3), a container, and a fuse. (Just pull a fuse out of a bottle rocket.)

Saltpeter is relatively easy to come by if you know where to look- it can usually be found in small mom & pop drug stores (never chains like Walgreens for whatever reason…) or in hardware stores where it’s sold as stump remover. There are several different kinds of stump remover but the one you need is usually called “stumpout.” Just check the label and shake it to make sure it’s really potassium nitrate in powder form. I used stump remover in the one I made last year and it worked great.

Mix the KNO3 and sugar (equal parts) together well and put them into a saucepan or pot. Heat the mixture in the pot VERY SLOWLY on an ELECTRIC stove eye. Let me say that again- heat it VERY VERY SLOWLY on an ELECTRIC stove eye. DO NOT heat it on a natural gas stove as it will greatly increase the risk of accidental ignition. The electric stove eye provides a slower, more gradual source of heat. Obviously, the best place to do this is OUTSIDE on a portable heat plate, and be sure you wear some kind of eye protection. Carefully monitor and stir the mixture and as soon as you notice it starting to melt, turn the heat back down just a bit- you want the bare minimum amount of heat necessary to melt the mixture. It will begin to turn a brownish orange color- keep stirring and monitoring the temp. Once it’s all a gooey liquid, pour it into whatever container you’ve chosen and insert the fuse. Simply allow it to cool and harden and you’re good to. Don’t try to make a really huge one, either- if the chunk is too big it will burn too fast and potentially explode. Here’s a great video of the final product in action:

The powder form of this mixture (pre-melting) will burn quite well and produce a lot of smoke, but the melting allows the fuel and oxidizer to blend in a way that the powder form can’t. This is why the melting method yields a steadier, smokier burn.

The most important thing here is safety:

HEAT SLOWLY- VERY VERY SLOWLY

USE AN ELECTRIC STOVE

WEAR EYE PROTECTION

MELT IT OUTSIDE IF AT ALL POSSIBLE

NMDinosaurs01The theory that the dinosaurs were wiped out from an asteroid impact near the modern-day Yucatan Peninsula is beginning to face major challenges. There’s no doubt that a huge impact caused the Chicxculub Crater, but some recent findings suggest that the impact may have occurred some 300,000 years earlier than originally thought. This comes as a second blow to the impact theory, with the first being the discovery/dating of the Deccan Traps in India. This gigantic volcanic feature is the result of a huge eruption that is believed to have lasted around 30,000 years. Can you imagine a massive volcano erupting for 30,000 years and covering an area equivalent to 1/2 of modern India with lava? Trust me, something on that scale is hard for the human mind to comprehend, but that much volcanic ash and gas in the atmosphere would’ve had a devastating effect on the ecosystem, and almost certainly played a major role in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Get ready for science textbooks to be re-written, because the asteroid impact theory is about to see the same fate as the dinosaurs themselves. (Via Daily Galaxy)

NASA recently teamed up with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to test a new, Earth-friendly type of solid rocket fuel. I’m not exactly sure of the details, but somehow they’ve managed to make rocket fuel out of aluminum powder and ice. Yes ice… as in frozen water. The secret apparently is that the aluminum powder is so finely ground that it’s considered “nanoscale.” The nanoscale aluminum has so much surface area in contact with the water ice that the exothermic reaction when it burns is more efficient than normal solid rocket fuel, which is usually powdered aluminum (not nanoscale) mixed with an oxidizer such as ammonium perchlorate and a binding agent. Seriously though, who would’ve ever thought you could make rocket fuel out of ice and aluminum? It just sounds crazy, but it’s true. (Via EurekAlert)

When you think of the type of person who becomes an astronaut, you don’t typically think of race car drivers or musicians, but two of the astronauts about to launch on Space Shuttle Discovery tomorrow morning are just that- a former off-road truck racer and a drummer. Check out this Space.com article to find out more about Commander Rick Struckrow, formerly a Baja off-road race driver, Pilot Kevin Ford who is also a drummer, and several other astronauts who come from surprising backgrounds.

Via Ironic Sans. Click the image to go directly to the post.

The official SXSW music schedule has been released. It’s pretty user-friendly, as you can sort by day or by alphabetical listing. As with any festival, it’s gonna be a game of saying, “ok, who do I really care the most about seeing?”

Two great links from Kottke.org, as always:

I’m officially going to attempt having people over to watch LOST and play the official LOST drinking game. Please, if you watch the show, go read this. And then do it on wednesday. Preferably at my apt. My favorite: take a drink whenever “The island jungle scenes look as if they were shot in someone’s backyard, or the oversize potted plant section of an Office Max.”

Some really cool chemistry experiment videos. HORRIBLE WEB DESIGN ALERT! Warning- this website looks like something straight out of 1997. But the videos are pretty cool nonetheless.

I saw a story on CNN.com yesterday about a fireball and corresponding sonic boom heard/seen over Texas sunday morning. While the story doesn’t say specifically that the fireball was falling debris from the satellite collision last week, it does seem to hint at it. But the Bad Astronomer doesn’t think so, mainly becuase the debris appeared to be moving too quickly. It’s more likely that it was indeed a large meteor that just happened to hit the atmosphere a few days after the satellite collision. But as you can see in the BA post, nothing is for certain just yet. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this…

Finally, an interesting clip on the Daily Galaxy from an interview with astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson on why the world will not end in 2012. I would embed the video here, but as far as I can tell, you can only embed YouTube and Google videos on WordPress blogs. Grr.

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