Artist interpretation of Kepler 47c. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

It’s been a while since we had any juicy exoplanet news. That changed yesterday as a new breakthrough was announced in exoplanet science. For the first time astronomers have confirmed multiple planets orbiting a binary star. The star is about 5,000 light years away and what really makes this discovery interesting is that one of the two planets orbits in the habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on its surface. The catch is- the planet is a gas giant, similar to Jupiter and Saturn, but more the size of Uranus. However, planets like that almost always have many moons, some of which could have an atmosphere and even support life, just like the Forest Moon of Endor, home of the Ewoks in Star Wars. Pretty exciting stuff! Read more about it at NewScientist.

In other news, if you’re anywhere in the southeast and looking for some nerdy fun this Labor Day, look no further than Rocket Fest at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. This event just popped onto my radar today via Bad Astronomy, and low & behold Dr. Plait himself will be one of the guest speakers! It should be no secret that I’m a big fan of him and and his blog. This is a fundraiser open to anyone, any age, and the proceeds go to the scholarship fund for Space Camp, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation. Honestly what excites me the most about it (besides seeing Phil Plait speak) is the fact that you can get a signed print of that AWESOME poster for a mere $20 donation. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be there, but I had to mention it because it’s all sorts of awesome!

Artist's concept of NASA's new SLS

Today NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and members of Congress announced an agreement to build the most powerful rocket in US history. The launch system (or SLS for space launch system) is intended to take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, including asteroids and Mars. The SLS is a derivative of the space shuttle in that it uses 5 space shuttle engines and a fuel tank based on the design of the shuttle’s external fuel tank. There will also be two solid rocket boosters on either side of the main stack. The key difference is that the multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV), which is already under construction, will sit atop the entire stack, and will have an escape rocket system that will enable the crew to safely escape almost any type of failure or explosion at any stage during ascent. In many ways this new system is a hybrid of the Apollo-era Saturn V system and the space shuttle. For more info check out the official story on NASA’s website.

This is an exciting announcement, and it’s good to know that many aspects of this new SLS are based on or directly utilize existing technology. This means that the overall cost should be significantly lower than if we’d tried to build something entirely new. I’m glad there was bipartisan agreement that led to this decision being made relatively quickly. The target date for the initial launch of this new SLS is 2017. That seems realistic and I certainly hope it is. Humanity is long overdue to reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore deep space.

 

Credit: Fred Espenak/NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

You must’ve heard about this by now, but I’ll mention it to make sure you know: there’s a full lunar eclipse happening tonight, and it just so happens that it’s also the winter solstice, a.k.a. the shortest day/longest night of the year. Just a coincidence, but a relatively rare one. Lunar eclipses aren’t super-rare- we get one about once every 2-3 years, but they can be pretty spectacular if the earth’s atmospheric conditions cast an eerie orange-red hue on the moon. There’s no way to know if that will happen for sure, but from my experience it happens more often than not. Unfortunately there’s a very good chance it will cloudy and/or raining tonight in middle TN, but if you’re elsewhere, good luck! It starts at about 1:30am EST, that’s 12:30am central, 11:30pm mountain, and 10:30pm pacific. For more details and a good rundown of what to expect, visit Bad Astronomy, and for a good explanation of the red/orange hue, visit this NASA article.

And I can’t help but post this comic from xkcd: I agree 100%

Let’s all face it, the big news show-wise this weekend is The Pixies playing two consecutive shows at the Ryman. This undeniably awesome, but I haven’t the money nor the means to go. I halfway missed the Pixies train in high school/middle school, so they will never have the significance to me that they do to some. The bands that cemented themselves firmly into my formative years were Nirvana, Weezer, and Green Day… amongst many others. But those were the main ones. So, yay Pixies?

Some other good stuff going down this weekend (besides the AMA’s):

FRIDAY:

There are a shitload of bands at the 5 Spot- Fly Golden Eagle, The Early Evening, Slow Claw, Chrome Pony and By Lightning are all playing as part of “Family Tree Vol. 2.” 9pm $5

Dozen Dimes, Frank The Fuck Out, and Diarrhea Planet @ The End. 9pm $5 (This is the Dozen Dimes’ album release show… I’m not up to speed on these things but I thought DD’s album came out a couple months ago… but whatevs, this is an awesome lineup regardless!)

SATURDAY:

Well, the 2nd Pixies show (tix still available!) is about it.

SUNDAY:

Whoa, sunday rocks…

Gentleman Jesse & His Men, Strange Boys, Cy Barkley, Natural Child @ Glen Danzig’s House. $5 7pm. I’ll be there.

Best Coast, Cults @ Mercy Lounge. $12, 8pm

The Love Language, Bows and Arrows @ Exit/In. $10, 8pm

MONDAY:

(Because I’ll be gone and not blogging for a week probably)

Keep On Movin’ celebrates their 2-year birthday. The weekly 5 Spot dance party/boogie-fest has been going strong for 2 years, so show ’em some love!

I must also mention that today is the LAST DAY to get early bird discounts on Next BIG Nashville tickets! Wristbands are $40 and VIP badges are $215, and after today the prices go up to $45 and $250, respectively. Act now or pay more later.

Before I leave for a week-long hiatus due to my road stint with Those Darlins, I must share one of the most ridiculously design-nerdy things I’ve ever seen. Apparently some super nerdy graphic designers had waaaay too much time on their hands and decided to figure out how many iterations of the word “helvetica” in 100 point un-kerned type would fit between the earth and the moon. Then they had some more time and decided to see how big, in points, the word helvetica would have to be to fit once between the earth and the moon. As ridiculous as this is, it makes me very happy. Click through to find out the results at kottke.org.

Have a great weekend and week, because it’ll probably be that long before you hear from me again on here.

Energy and space science rant

September 2, 2010

Rant time.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the news, there was ANOTHER FUCKING OIL RIG EXPLOSION IN THE GULF. Which is why I’m going to now rant about how terrible fossil fuels are. There is nothing good about them as an energy source. They are filthy/pollute the environment, they’re inefficient, and most importantly they are FINITE. We will run out of them. Thankfully this particular explosion doesn’t seem as though it will cause more oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, but they aren’t sure yet. I firmly believe that every nation and every energy company in the world should be focusing 100% of their efforts on ways to eliminate the use of fossil fuels as an energy source as FAST AS POSSIBLE. As long as the world is still relying on them, we are speeding straight down a highway that ends with world wars the likes of which have never been seen, and possibly the end of the human race. Our use of fossil fuels will either lead to so much pollution that the entire ecosystem will collapse, or they will become so scarce that the entire world will go to war fighting over them. The very survival of our species could rely on finding a way to 100% renewable energy. Whether it be from the sun, the wind, the ocean, whatever… 100% renewable and clean energy as soon as possible MUST be the absolute goal, and we must stop at nothing to get there. There are lots of other uses for oil than energy, and dare I say those are probably a necessary evil, at least for a while- virtually all plastic is made from it, along with a host of other things, but those pale in comparison to how much is used for energy. I have no doubt technology will get to a point where we don’t need oil for manufacturing either, but energy should be our #1 priority.

Now for my space rant:

A group of spaceflight’s elite sent a letter to Congress yesterday urging the House Science & Technology Committee to revamp its NASA authorization bill. The group, composed of former astronauts, space industry veterans, and former NASA officials, are asking Congress to make their version of the bill look more like the Senate version, which is much closer to Obama’s initial budget recommendation which was announced in February. Unfortunately middle TN’s own Bart Gordon is the head of said committee. Yo Bart- I expect more from you than this. Look at the facts- Obama is right! I’ve said this many times on here before and I’ll say it again: NASA needs to focus its efforts on exploration beyond low-earth orbit and the moon. The private spaceflight industry is more than capable of taking over the job of getting our astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and can be capable much sooner than NASA could using its currently-under-development Constellation Program. But they need the help of NASA in the form of $$$. Less $$$, mind you, than we would spend on Constellation. We will never see the kind of innovation and progress again that we saw from NASA in the 1960’s unless their goals are ambitious and lofty. Putting a man on an asteroid and eventually on Mars should be the new main goal of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, and exploring the moons of Jupiter and Saturn should be the main goal of the unmanned (robotic probe) programs. Those are the kind of ambitious goals that will bring back the kind of innovation and tenacity of the 1960’s. Only this time it will be scientifically driven, not driven by a race to get to the moon before the Russians.

Rant: over.

Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to liftoff for its final scheduled flight this Friday at 2:20pm EDT. This will give some parts of the US an opportunity to see both the ISS and Atlantis streaking overhead at night. They will appear as simply a relatively fast-moving bright dot in the night sky. The ISS is so large now that its reflective surface allows it to be one of the brightest visible objects in the sky, even brighter than Venus. You can use Spaceweather.com’s simple satellite tracker web-tool to see when the ISS (and other satellites) will be doing a flyby of your area. Here’s the list for Nashville this week/end.

The European Space Agency is in the final phase of a large experiment designed to study the physiological and psychological effects of a small group of people being isolated for extended periods of time as they would be on a mission to Mars. This final phase is called Mars500, and is about to subject 6 crew members from all over the world to 520 days of a simulated Mars mission. They’ve gone to great detail to make the simulation as realistic as possible, with outside communication on a 40-minute delay, and with random interruptions. This all sounds a bit crazy, but it’s absolutely essential to understanding how humans will behave and interact in such isolated conditions. I have no doubt that this research will contribute to the success of mankind’s first manned mission to the red planet. The participants were all, of course, eager and willing to put themselves through this. (Via ESA website)

NASA is asking for help from the general public in identifying “scientifically interesting” features on the surface of the moon. The recent Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken extremely high-resolution images, and there’s so much real estate to cover that NASA scientists can’t possibly go through it all in any reasonable amount of time. So, they created a website through the Zooniverse project called Moon Zoo where people can take a virtual tour of the surface of the moon, seeing details potentially as small as astronaut footprints from the Apollo missions! The surface feature identification tasks they need everyday people to do are still too complex for even a supercomputer to manage. This idea follows a long line of crowd-sourcing computing projects that began with SETI@Home in the late 90’s. A brilliant idea if you ask me. (Via Space.com)

On a personal note: I just bottled a batch of Belgian Blonde Ale and it should be ready to drink in a week or so. This stuff is 7.3% ABV so it’s venturing into the realm of high-gravity beer. Contact me if you want to try some. Next batch: a British ESB/American Pale Ale hybrid that should be interesting.

Credit: NASA

Universe Today is currently running a pretty cool blog series called “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13.” They talked to NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill who came up with 13 key things that led to their survival. Yesterday’s post was part 2 of the series, focusing on the hatch between the Command Module and lander that wouldn’t shut initially. This malfunction actually turned out to be a blessing, because if they’d been able to shut it, it would’ve slowed down the later efforts that were vital to their survival. I look forward to the rest of this series.

One day over the weekend my girlfriend pointed me to an article about an east TN father who asked the Knox County schoolboard to remove a biology textbook that uses the phrase “the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days” (regarding creationism) from its curriculum. That sounded like just the type of thing Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy would pick up, and sure enough he did. Thankfully the board and review committee is standing behind the book and it will remain in the curriculum. Let me re-iterate how important it is that creationism stay out of public school curricula- IT IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL. These are public schools! The separation of church and state is crucial to our democracy and teaching anything from the Bible as a viable scientific theory in public schools is a clear violation of that. This book states that the story of creation in the Bible is a myth, and by strict definition that is completely true. I would even say that the statement doesn’t go far enough. It should go on to say that creationism is simply not true. Decades of research and cold, hard scientific evidence have proven beyond any and doubt that our planet and solar system is roughly 4 billion years old. The stories in the Bible are parables that have absolutely no scientific basis. Let’s keep them out of scientific discourse in the classroom, because they are NOT SCIENCE.

Today I’m simply going to point you in the direction of Nashville Cream to see what’s going on show-wise this weekend. It’s looking like a pretty good one. This is all so I can briefly talk about more science, since this week had only one science-related post.

Buzz Aldrin has stayed somewhat in the spotlight after he became the 2nd man to walk on the moon in 1969. In addition to recording a rap song with Snoop Dogg, Talib Qweli, Quincy Jones, and Soulja Boy, he founded a non-profit organization called ShareSpace and has has published articles criticizing NASA for not focusing on manned exploration beyond our own moon. Just a few days ago he published an article on AOL along those same lines, but this time outlining his idea for what NASA should do next. Mainly he agrees with Obama’s plan to look to private space companies for ferrying cargo and astronauts to the ISS and low Earth orbit. But he proposes that if NASA focuses its effort on Mars, we can get there by the summer of 2019. He wants NASA to continue using the space shuttles to carry leftover space station parts and modules into orbit, where they would then be assembled into an “Exploration Module” prototype, which would be a precursor to a fully fleshed-out version, capable of taking a crew to Mars. There are a lot of details missing here, such as whether or not this EM is supposed to land on Mars or just orbit it, and if it’s supposed to land, where the crew would get the supplies needed to survive, and of course the big question would be: how do they get back? Regardless, I think it’s great that he’s continually putting ideas out there. I don’t necessarily think that he’s even trying to present a technologically feasible, functional plan… more that he’s just trying to get people thinking in a different direction. And even though this is VERY old news, it’s worth posting this video of him punching nutbag, anti-science, anti-reality filmmaker Bart Sibrel in front of a Hollywood hotel in 2002, after being confronted by him. FUCK YEA BUZZ ALDRIN! (Via Discover Blogs)

I must also take this opportunity to point that some scientists really DO have a sense of humor. According to i09, a physics student has asked the International System of Units to call 10 to the 27th power “hella.” That means that a distance of 10 to the 27th meters would be a hellameter. That’s pretty close to the current estimated size of the universe (it would be 1.4 hellameters, to be exact), thus we could officially say that the universe is “hella big.”

Have a great weekend!

It’s been a minute since I mentioned the NASA budget/direction controversy, so here’s a bit of an update:

Lots of NASA employees and contractors in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral have launched a campaign against Obama’s budget cuts/change of direction for NASA. They are doing this because when the shuttle program winds down later this year, and the Constellation program gets ousted altogether, there won’t be nearly as many jobs in the area. That’s a legitimate concern, but in the big picture, I say it’s a necessary evil. Besides, these people are engineers, scientists, etc… they are all very smart and quite capable of finding work in other areas, maybe even for the private companies like SpaceX that will take over the duties of getting cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. I am all for Obama’s plan, because it pushes NASA to look ahead into exploring the rest of our solar system. That’s where the REAL science/discoveries happen. In reality the space shuttle is a dinosaur- it’s expensive to maintain, and it’s not safe. It has no bailout system whatsoever, so if something goes wrong (see: Challenger and Columbia), the astronauts inside are screwed. It is most definitely an impressive piece of engineering, but it’s time to move on. NASA can NOT continue spinning its wheels, never getting us past the ISS and/or low Earth orbit. NASA needs to focus its efforts/money on projects like the VASIMR plasma rocket engine, which could cut a spacecraft’s trip to Mars from 6 months to roughly 40 days. The new commercial spaceflight companies will be more than capable of handling NASA’s cargo and low Earth orbit needs much sooner than NASA could on its own via the Constellation program. End of rant.

In some happier science news, Google is developing a new thermal mirror energy system that could cut the cost of electricity to 5 cents per kWh. This would make solar thermal energy much cheaper than coal. These stations are made up of a huge array of mirrors arranged so that they create one gigantic parabolic mirror. The parabolic shape reflects all the sunlight into one point, at which a heat-collecting device is mounted (on top of a tower), which in turn heats water into steam that runs a turbine to generate power. Naturally this system is only good for areas which receive a lot of sunlight such as deserts, but if Google can make them cheap to build, they could play a big part in getting the world weened off of fossil fuels for energy production. As I’ve said before, we shouldn’t be fiddling with ways to cleanup our use of fossil fuels, we should be focusing eliminating our dependence on them altogether. (Via EcoGeek)

Finally, the earthquake that rocked Chile over the weekend may have actually shortened the length of a day. Granted the current estimate is that our day was shortened by only 1.26 milliseconds, but that’s still pretty amazing. Not only did the day shorten, but the figure axis was also offset by about 3 inches. Think of how big this planet is… that earthquake had to release an unfathomable amount of energy to actually alter its axis! (Via Space.com)

Here we go again. I recommend investing in Kroger stock this year, because they’re gonna get a big boost in sales in TN from all these “snowstorms” wherein a meteorologist utters the word “snow” and 75% of the population immediately clears the milk, bread, and egg isles. (Apparently people only eat french toast during snowstorms?) As usual, I’ve been monitoring the progress of the forecast and find it interesting that the NWS hasn’t issued the winter storm warning yet, only a watch. I’m sure the warning will come, but it’s kinda funny that they’re hesitating, no doubt because of the giant snow fail from a few weeks ago. (To be fair, some areas around the midstate did get something close to the forecasted amounts, though no one really got the full 2-3 inches that was initially forecast…) This system is a little different than the last one, however. This one will most definitely have enough moisture to generate the 3-5 inches, unlike the last system which had moisture “issues.” The big limiting factor with this system will instead be temperatures. Nashville will literally be right on the dividing line between having an ice/rain mix and having an all snow event. If this system decides to track just 50 to 100 miles further north than the models think it will, that will cause more warm air to advect farther north, and we’ll end up having mostly rain friday changing to a little snow on the backside fri. night into sat. morning. If it decides to track slightly further south, we’ll have all snow, but much less of it, and areas to the south of us could actually see more snow than Nashville does. This system has a little better chance of “success” in giving us a good ol’ fashioned snowfall than the last one, but I wouldn’t place any bets yet.

Big rumors abound in the blogosphere about Obama’s budget proposal due to land in Congress on Monday. The biggest rumor is that it will completely cutout NASA’s Constellation program, which is the rocket system currently under development to not only replace the Space Shuttle, but also put men back on the Moon. I reported many times on the progress of the Augustine Commission and its recommendations for how NASA should proceed given that its current “trajectory” was financially unsustainable. One of the options they proposed was to eliminate the Constellation program and let commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX takeover the duties of getting astronauts to the International Space Station and other low-earth orbit missions. I have a feeling that if the budget really does cut the Constellation funds, that’s where we’ll be headed next. Honestly I think it may not be a bad idea, because it would allow NASA to focus more on getting man further out into the solar system, and eventually to Mars. I tend to agree with Dr. Phil Plait’s (the Bad Astronomer) sentiments on the issue (as usual) but I’m not in total agreement with him that we should still go back to the moon. But then again, he’s the astronomer with a Ph.D and I’m not. For even more info, check out Universe Today. Check those blogs again on Monday afternoon, as I’d say they’ll be able to update waaaay sooner than I will once the actual budget info is released.