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LHCBlackHole

Credit: CERN/NASA/Ian O’Niel

Here’s a quick roundup of some interesting stories and headlines that have popped up in the science world recently:

  • Based on new calculations using information from the Higgs Boson discovery last year, some physicists are worried that the universe might be doomed for boredom. The new math shows that the very existence of everything could be inherently unstable, and in a few tens of billions of years a tiny bubble of an apparently much more boring, alternate universe might pop-up and subsequently expand at the speed of light, destroying everything. Granted, there’s still a lot to learn about the Higgs, the equations used to make this prediction will improve drastically over the coming years, and the human race probably won’t be around to see this happen, but I can’t help but laugh thinking about the universe vaporizing into a more “boring” state of existence. (Via Discovery News and New Scientist)
  • I wish I had time to cover/post about the Russian meteor explosion this past weekend, but I was out sick Friday and had a very busy weekend/early week of moving in with my lady Old Red Boots. You probably know the basics- a medium-sized meteor entered the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia last Friday at about 9:20am local time. I just want to point out the important facts: (1) The Russian meteor explosion had nothing to do with the close fly-by of asteroid 2012 DA14 which happened later that same day. The trajectories/orbits of the two were completely different. It was simply a bizarre coincidence. (2) The damage to buildings and glass was caused by the massive sonic boom, as well as the actual explosion of the rock itself high in the atmosphere. The sounds and damage were NOT from the impact of the meteor hitting the ground. There’s tons of footage of this thing, but this video has the best audio I’ve found– if you have a subwoofer, turn it up and you’ll get some sense of the earth-shattering rumble. This video is long but shows both the bright streak of the meteor (about 4:30 in) and has the ensuing sonic boom (about 7:00 in). (3) NASA estimates the meteor was about 55 feet across and weighed between 7,000 and 10,000 tons. (4) A large chunk of the space rock is believed to have landed in Chebarkul Lake near Chelyabinsk, gouging a large hole in the ice. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy had great coverage and follow-up of this event, so be sure to check those posts out as well!
  • Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, wants to put humans on Mars in 2018, and he’s created a non-profit called the Inspiration Mars Foundation to do it. I have to be honest, the timeframe of this sounds absolutely crazy to me. Not many details have been announced, but apparently there will be a press conference next Wed. Feb. 27th in which more details will be revealed, so I’ll try to withhold my skepticism until then, but it’s hard. (Via Universe Today)
  • Astronomers with NASA’s Kepler Mission have found the tiniest exoplanet yet, orbiting the star Kepler-37 about 200 light years away. This planet is significant because it’s even smaller than our own Mercury, and just barely bigger than Earth’s moon! Finding a planet that small is a major milestone and huge accomplishment for the Kepler team. I’ve no doubt they will be finding the Holy Grail of planet-hunting, a true Earth twin, within a year or two. (Via Bad Astronomy)
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Mars rover Curiosity updates

February 14, 2013

It’s been a hot minute since I mentioned the Mars rover Curiosity. She’s been slowly but surely working her way across Gale Crater, stopping to take photos along the way and investigate anything interesting she comes across. Recently she came across this bizarre-looking rock protrusion that looks a bit like a shiny door handle or knob:

mars-shiny-closeup-430x580

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It was a pretty interesting and puzzling find, but NASA scientists think they have an explanation. Indeed, it’s not a knob or hood ornament, nor is it made by aliens. A much more logical explanation is uneven weathering and erosion. For the full details head over to Universe Today. But in short, Ronald Sletten from the Mars Science Laboratory team at NASA/JPL explained in a press release that the object is a small part of the rock that is different in composition from the rest. The shiny part is made up of a harder type of rock than its surroundings. Since the surface of Mars is home to lots of dust/wind storms, there is quite a bit of wind erosion, and the softer surrounding rock erodes aways much faster than the harder rock. The shininess is also a by-product of erosion- certain types of rocks have a tendency to become smooth and shiny from erosion rather that just being blown away. NASA also posted a PDF with some good photos comparing the Mars image to similar phenomena on Earth. What I’m wondering is- what is that harder part of the rock made of? Why is there? Are there any other formations like it nearby? I know that on earth some volcanic rocks have a smooth & shiny appearance, so could this be a chunk of volcanic rock that was flung from an eruption and landed in water, then moved to its current location by fast-moving water and deposited in a muddy area that subsequently hardened into sedimentary rock? Maybe more theories will come out soon.

In other Curiosity news, the final instrument yet to be used/tested was the percussive rock drill. The drill was successfully tested and then used on Feb. 8th to drill the hole seen on the left in this image:

PIA16726

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The rover has now successfully tested all of her science instruments and everything is working perfectly. A sample of the pulverized rock was taken, and will be analyzed in the days to come. This rock is suspected of having been altered or eroded by flowing water on the surface many millions of years ago. I’m looking forward to seeing what they find to confirm (or deny) this theory and what else is learned about Mars’ watery past.

*I was going to create diagrams to go along with this post but I just don’t have time today. You’ll have to envision it in your mind’s eye. 

*For more on winter weather in general, check out my reeeeeally old post about winter weather in the south

I will go out on a limb and say that weather-wise, the past 5 days or so have been just about the ugliest, most depressing string of days Nashville and middle TN have seen in quite a while. This is all due to a rather interesting weather scenario across the whole nation. I will attempt to concisely explain the factors involved, and hopefully you’ll also see why these types of storms are so incredibly hard to forecast.

First of all, last weekend (Jan. 11th & 12th) were unseasonably warm and also very rainy, especially Saturday. This was due to a large upper level “cutoff” low pressure system that parked itself right over the southwestern U.S. Because this system was in the upper levels of the atmosphere (about 18,000-30,000 ft) where the main branches of the jet stream exist, it controlled on a broad scale which airmasses were influencing which parts of the nation. The big trough of low pressure stubbornly sat spinning over the western 1/2 of the U.S. for several days, causing the jet stream to dig southward over the west, then shoot northeastward over the midwest and on into the northeast. The southern branch of the jet stream was allowed to surge northward and pump lots of warm moist air from the Gulf and northern Mexico up across the southeast and even into the northeast U.S., bringing the soaking rain and warm temps we had over the weekend. Meanwhile, the northern branch of the jet stream was doing just the opposite, pumping dry frigid air from Canada down over the western and southwestern U.S.

Finally on Sunday Jan. 13th, the huge upper-level low pressure pushed eastward across the nation, and thus the cold arctic air across the west pushed eastward along with it, creating a very sharp cold front at the surface that moved across Nashville that afternoon. You may remember that the temp was a balmy 65F or so Sun. morning, and around 3:30pm it plummeted 15-20 degrees over the course of about 2 hours.

That was part 1 of this crazy chain of events. Now for part 2:

After that initial surge eastward, the upper-level low pressure trough stalled out yet again, leaving that sharp cold front draped roughly along the spine of the southern Appalachians. The cold airmass wedged down at the surface (we all remember from basic science that cold air sinks and warm air rises, right?) but after it stalled out, the southern jet stream was still active. Monday & Tuesday of this week we had a battle between the southern flow of warm Gulf moisture and the stubborn cold airmass that surged eastward Sunday. The warm moist air has been sliding up and over the heavy cold air at the surface and thus we’ve had sleet and freezing rain across the whole middle TN area as the two forces have been at a stalemate. Temps in the mid-levels of the atmosphere have been steadily 6-10 degrees warmer than at the surface. This is an old diagram I made showing a simplified version of how that looks as a cross-section:

icestorm

Judging exactly where that freezing line will be on the surface is nearly impossible. Thus, forecasts for this type of weather are rarely accurate on a local scale. Last night, the Nashville metro area got lucky in that the freezing line at the surface ended up being just to the west of us- the temp held at about 33 or 34 degrees. This large trough is finally going to push further eastward tomorrow, as yet another piece of Gulf moisture and energy combines with a surface-level low pressure system moving east out of Texas. That will bring the possibility of significant snow and ice to east TN, southern VA, and western NC. Nashville will be spared any precipitation from that system, though, and most of the southeast is forecast to remain firmly in the grips of that arctic airmass for at least another week or so, so keep your heavy coats handy.

Image via Universe Today

Image via Universe Today

You may have heard about the killer asteroid aptly named Apophis, which had a chance of hitting earth in 2036 and potentially devastating a good chunk of the human population. Thankfully, scientists have now made more accurate observations of Apophis and ruled out the possibility of it hitting earth.

The asteroid has been on a watch list for many years because in 2029 it will pass very VERY close to earth. So close that it will actually be inside the orbit of some of our satellites! The fear was that if the asteroid passed through a very specific spot as it passed us, the earth’s gravity would tug on it just right so that its orbit would be altered and it would hit earth on its next pass in 2036. Due to limited observations of Apophis, astronomers didn’t know its exact orbit accurately enough to determine if it would pass through this very specific gravitational “keyhole.” Even before this latest observation, which occurred during its latest flyby of earth, the odds of Apophis passing through that keyhole were very slim (about 1 in 100,000 if I remember correctly, but don’t quote me on that) but significant enough to worry. Further observations a few years ago lessened the odds considerably to about 1 in 1,000,000. Now, astronomers are absolutely positive the rock will not pass through that gravitational keyhole, and the rock will never hit earth. They also learned from these latest observations that Apophis is actually larger than originally thought- about 325 meters in diameter, vs. 270. So it’s a really good thing that this rock won’t hit us!

This does not mean we can sit back and relax, however. There are probably thousands of asteroids flying around out there that we haven’t even seen yet, and any of them could be on a collision course with us. It’s a very real threat, and based on our knowledge of past extinctions and impacts, statistically it’s only a matter of time before we get smacked by another one. We just have be able to detect it before it hits us, and have the technology in place to deflect it.

More detailed info can be found at Bad Astronomy and Universe Today.

This is an interesting short documentary episode from Vice’s Motherboard series on Copenhagen Suborbitals, a self-proclaimed “open-source, do-it-yourself space endeavor” started by two really smart guys in Denmark. Basically they want the world to realize that getting to space is actually a very achievable thing for average people if they really truly want to do it. It’s an awesome idea and one that I applaud whole-heartedly. Just watch and be amazed at what these guys have accomplished so far with their DIY approach.

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

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

It’s been a very crazy week, and I know this may be old news already for some of you, but I had to post about NASA’s announcement on the Curiosity mission findings that caused such an uproar on the internet a few weeks back. For a detailed explanation of what was found and what it means, check out this article on Universe Today. In short, this was the first time all of Curiosity’s instruments had been used in concert together, and the consistency of the results was exciting. It pointed to organic compounds in the Martian soil, but they can’t say for sure that the Carbon in those compounds is of Martian origin. First they have to determine if the Carbon is actually from Mars, and not a contaminant from earth air trapped in the instruments, then they have to determine whether the Carbon is from a biological or non-biological source. There are lots of possibilities that must be ruled out before we will know for sure what’s in the soil, and where it came from. At the announcement, Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger is quoted as saying, “We’re doing science at the speed of science. But we live in a world that’s sort of at the pace of Instagrams. The enthusiasm that we had, that I had, that our whole team has about what’s going on here, I think it was just misunderstood.” That was after he was questioned about the wild speculation that resulted from his comments in an NPR story about a possible “Earth-shaking” discovery by Curiosity. I just love that a NASA scientist compared the speed of science to the “pace of Instagrams.” Instagram and Science! In the same sentence! That must mean science is hip, right? RIGHT?

In other NASA-related news, it was announced on Tuesday that NASA will build and launch in 2020 another Mars rover very similar to Curiosity. While that may not be the most exciting thing to hear, it shows that NASA is building confidence in its abilities to do mind-blowing things like land a nuclear-powered, car-sized roving science lab on another planet with a rocket-powered sky crane. The more we learn about Mars, the closer we get to putting a man there. Who knows, maybe a prime objective of this new mission will be to actually look for signs of past or current life. No mission to Mars yet has actually had that as an objective. For more on this new mission read this article on New Scientist.

While these next two items aren’t necessarily science-y, they are quite awesome:

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!

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