Here’s an interesting tidbit that came across my radar today: A very illusive and rare meteor shower may flare up tonight for the first time since 1930! On June 11th of that year, a small group of astronomers reported a short-lived meteor shower that was sought out in subsequent years, but never seen again. Now an astronomer named Peter Jenniskens with NASA and SETI has suggested that Earth is passing through the same comet trail it did back in 1930, and thus we could see this rare outburst, called the Gamma Delphinids, again- TONIGHT. Fortunately the moon will have set several hours before the expected peak between 2:30 and 4:30am CDT, leaving only the weather to stand in the way of getting to witness this rare event. I must point out, however, that scientists aren’t nearly as certain about this meteor shower as they are about the more reliable yearly showers such as the Leonids, Geminids, Perseids, etc… So if you’re a fan of meteor showers and have the will power to get up in the wee hours and sit outside to watch, tonight could reward your efforts with a show not seen in 83 years. (Via Universe Today and the American Meteor Society)

In other science news, more evidence of normal, habitable water on the ancient Mars surface was discovered recently. You’re probably thinking this discovery came from the Curiosity rover, but it actually came from Opportunity, one of the twin rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. Opportunity’s team sent her to investigate an interesting rock outcropping, and they found evidence of certain clay minerals that could only have formed in water that would be habitable to life as we know it. This discovery is right in line with Curiosity’s findings from February, and strongly supports the theory that Mars once had running water on the surface, and might have even supported microbial life! As Curiosity keeps trekking toward Mount Sharp, the rover will keep looking for these same minerals to help paint a clearer picture of Mars’ watery past. (Via New Scientist)

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.

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!

Credit: NASA (Click for full size)

NASA just released some pretty interesting news this afternoon. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been taking photos of the surface of Mars for many years, and scientists have seen what looked like gullies on the surface. But, they had no way to confirm whether those gullies were caused by water or just sand sliding down a slope, or by frozen CO2. There is still no way to confirm for certain that what we’re seeing was caused by flowing water on the surface, but evidence is starting to lean in that direction. These dark finger-like features have been seen changing shape before- but on the colder side of the slope that faces away from the sun most of the day. That would point toward the gullies being caused by frozen CO2. These new images are of features on the warmer sun-facing side of the slopes, meaning the likelihood of them being caused by flowing liquid water is far greater. The most important thing here is to remember that this is NOT confirmation of liquid water on the surface of Mars. It is, however, highly suggestive of liquid water on the surface of Mars. This is exciting news because if it is indeed liquid water, there’s a much better chance that microbial life might still exist. Another important thing to remember is that we already know water exists on Mars- we’ve seen it as ice, both directly (Phoenix lander) and indirectly (radar soundings from MRO indicating water ice below the surface). The key to life though, is liquid water.

As usual, Dr. Phil Plait has a very good explanation of all this on Bad Astronomy, so I recommend checking that out. The NASA article can be found here.

Endeavour launched through a low deck of clouds Monday morning. Credit: NASA

As I’m sure you know, Space Shuttle Endeavour launched Monday morning, and is now docked with the International Space Station. I want to point out one very special part of this mission that could change mankind’s understanding of the universe forever- the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This device is the brainchild of Nobel Prize winner Professor Samuel Ting. It cost about $2 billion to build, but the knowledge gained from it will be well worth the money. The device will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS and will run its experiments for the rest of the duration of the ISS (currently the ISS is to be funded and run through 2025). Basically, this amazing piece of equipment has a ring of immensely powerful magnets that will bend the path of any nearby cosmic rays so that they pass through a very sensitive detector. The velocity of these cosmic rays out in space is many orders of magnitude greater than anything we can create in a collider here on Earth (the Large Hadron Collider, for example). These rays do hit the Earth’s atmosphere, but most of them are scattered, deflected, or broken up by the ozone layer. That’s why this space-based experiment is so important. The main things Ting will be looking for are evidence of antimatter, dark matter/dark energy, strangelets, and other aspects of cosmic radiation that could affect future missions involving manned spaceflight. For a good breakdown of each of these scientific objectives, visit the AMS’s official website. The wikipedia page and this article are also pretty good.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked much about exoplanets- one of my favorite areas of science and astronomy. I’m happy to report that our old friend Gliese 581 has yet another surprise: one of its well-confirmed planets may actually have liquid water on its surface, which means the temperature range would generally be suitable for human life. For a few years now we’ve known about several planets orbiting this red dwarf star that sits about 20 light-years away from us. The latest exoplanet discovery associated with this system (Gliese 581g) is being hotly contested, so it may not even exist at all, but the one we’re now talking about is certain to exist. It could be a while before we can definitively say whether or not this exoplanet (Gliese 581d) actually has liquid water on its surface, but a new set of computer models/simulations has shown that if the atmosphere of this rocky super-earth is dense enough, it would be stable and keep the temperature range suitable for liquid water, and possibly even life. This all hinges on an assumption that this world has a thick atmosphere full of CO2, so scientists aren’t really certain about the climate. But, based on what is known about planet formation and the makeup of Gliese 581d, a thick CO2 atmosphere is very likely to exist. This is certainly not the “holy grail of planet-hunting” a.k.a. an earth-twin because the planet is about twice the size of Earth/has about 7 times the mass, is tidally locked (meaning the same side always faces its star), and has an atmosphere of mostly CO2. Indeed, if life exists at all on this world, it would be vastly different from what’s found on Earth, but this news is very exciting nonetheless.

It’s been a while since I posted much of anything science-related. Honestly I’ve been veeerrrry busy. Fucking slammed is a good way to put it. But here are some important bits of news/etc… to come out of the science world recently.

  • First off, there’s been rampant speculation on some news blogs in the last day or so regarding an upcoming NASA press conference (scheduled for tomorrow afternoon) that will “affect the search for extraterrestrial life.” Of course many are taking that to mean that NASA has found aliens. That almost certainly NOT the case, and I must direct you to the ever-reliable ambassador of reality, Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, for much more reasonable speculation on what NASA will be announcing tomorrow. Also, as always, Universe Today is on top it as well. The announcement will probably involve the discovery of a new way or process by which life could exist on Saturn’s moon Titan. So chill out, and don’t believe the sensationalist news sites that are claiming NASA has discovered aliens.
  • The Large Hadron Collider has been busy slamming lead ions together for the past month or so. They had been in a “recess” of sorts since their last set of collisions involving single protons. Now they’re slamming much heavier lead nuclei together in an effort to recreate the conditions that physicists think existed just milliseconds after the Big Bang. (On an atom-size scale, of course.) They got what they were looking for, though it was a bit surprising. The leading theory was that a superheated blob called a quark-muon plasma existed, and that it acted much like a gas. However, this experiment showed that the quark-muon plasma actually behaved more like a perfect liquid with no viscosity. This collision was the most energetic heavy ion collision ever achieved on earth, 13 times more powerful than the previous record set by the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Brookhaven, NY, but it’s only about half of the LHC’s full capacity. Who knows what we’ll find when the LHC ramps up to full capacity over the next few years. (Via NewScientist)
  • We have now officially discovered over 500 exoplanets in our galaxy. Sort of. The news was announced, but there is really no way to put a “500” label on one particular planet. The problem is that the line between “confirmed” and “unconfirmed candidate” is a bit unclear, and many times in the past previously “confirmed” planets have been retracted as new, more accurate data has been gathered to prove they were in fact something else that’s not a planet. But the number is sufficiently past 500, so we can officially be happy that just 20 years after the discovery of the first exoplanet, we’re now past the 500-mark. With NASA’s Kepler spacecraft on the hunt, and already having produced over 700 exoplanet candidates, that number will soon start to rise very quickly. I’d say the next exoplanet milestone we’ll be celebrating is 1,000, along with the discovery of a true earth-twin. (Via Universe Today)

Remember that meteorite from Mars that caused a huge stir back in 1996 when NASA announced that it thought it had found remnants of fossilized bacteria in it? If you don’t, just know that this meteorite, named the “Alan Hills meteorite,” had what we initially thought was a fossilized remnant of ancient Martian bacteria. But then some other scientists came forth with an equally plausible hypothesis for a non-microbial origin of the microscopic formation. So ever since then, the scientific community has been at odds, with one camp saying “Yes, it’s an ancient Martian microbe! There really was life on Mars!” and another camp saying “Nope. That formation wasn’t biological in origin.” But new technology has shed some light on the subject that wasn’t possible back then. Researchers at the Johnson Space Center have used more sophisticated High Resolution Electron Microscopy than was available in 1996 to study the meteorite, and their findings contradict the nay-sayers. So, if no new nay-saying hypotheses come out, then we can be pretty damn certain that microbial life once existed on Mars. AND it may even still exist there, under the surface! (Via Universe Today) is one of longest-running blogs in existence, and it’s almost always full of random awesomeness. In this case, it’s all about the H1N1 vaccine, and how it and other vaccines are made. I had no idea it took soooo many chicken eggs. Do yourself a favor and read all about it.

Now here’s yet another hilarious comic from xkcd: