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You’d have to have been under a rock to no know that NASA’s latest and greatest Mars rover is about to land on the Red Planet. It’s been all over the news lately… but here are a few more deets that you may not know, including when and how to watch the coverage.

As usual, Universe Today is on top of the coverage, and this infographic was particularly interesting. They will also be teaming up with Google, CosmoQuest, and the SETI Institute to do a live webcast via Google+ to cover the event. Among the cast of hosts is one of my favorite fellow science enthusiasts/skeptics Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. That begins at 10pm central time. The actual landing is scheduled for 12:31am central time. For more on the webcast check out the post on Universe Today.

Some random cool facts:

  • This is the most complex landing procedure ever carried out by a NASA interplanetary mission.
  • The supersonic parachute that slows the lander during the descent phase is a whopping 51 feet in diameter.
  • The rover itself is about the size of a Mini Cooper.
  • The rover weighs 1,982 pounds (on earth… on Mars it weighs about 747 pounds)
  • The rover is powered by a small nuclear reactor.
  • Curiosity will land inside Gale Crater, near the base of Mount Sharp, which has layers of exposed minerals that the rover will sample and study.
  • The total cost of the mission is $2.5 billion.
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This is so cool I had to share- OMG Space. I just love things that really put the vastness of space and the unfathomable sizes of objects like the sun (which is literally a tiny spec compared to some stars) into a perspective/scale that our feeble human brains can comprehend. OMG Space does just that. Start at the top and just scroll. And scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll until you get to Mercury. Then you realize “holy shit, I’m only at the first planet!” Then keep doing that. Resist the urge to just click on the planet at the bottom. The point isn’t getting to each planet, it’s the vast space between. If you’re not utterly amazed by that sense of scale and size, then you must not have a pulse. Seriously.

(Via Yewknee)

Some cool science-related stuff I’ve come across the past few days:

  • Let’s be frank, the climatologists were absolutely dead wrong in their prediction of a warmer-than-average winter in the eastern US for 2010/2011. Their forecast was based on the fact that historically, La Nina winters are warmer in the eastern US. We are definitely in a La Nina winter, so what the hell has been going on? The fact is, the global climate is VERY complex, and our computer models for both short-term and long-term forecasting are still struggling to get a grasp on what’s really going to happen. The main culprit for our cold winter this year is the Arctic Oscillation. This is another large-scale weather pattern that is fairly unpredictable over the long-term, and has so far overpowered any effects the La Nina pattern has had on the southeast US. The Nashville office of the National Weather Service has been posting fairly frequent updates about this situation, so I recommend reading the latest one to get the detailed explanation you may or may not be desiring. It would appear that winter will be re-establishing its grip on TN for a few more weeks at least.
  • In the past year all the major mobile phone service providers have been touting their new 4G networks. But honestly none them have speeds even close to what was traditionally defined as “4G.” The International Telecommunication Union has a set of standards for what speeds can be considered 2G, 3G, 4G, and so on. 4G used to be defined as download speeds of 100 Mbps to 1Gbps. Those kinds of speeds won’t be attained for 4 to 5 years, by most estimates. In December of 2009, the ITU changed the rules on what can be called 4G, which allowed all mobile phone service providers to instantly start labeling their slightly improved wireless broadband speeds as such. Most of these speeds are probably better described as “3.5G” or “3G+” but I honestly don’t care. I just don’t want people to think that the speeds they’ll experience on their mobile browsers is somehow leaps & bounds faster. This information came from an article on Wired that I recommend if you want more detailed info.
  • I came across this amazing video clip on Universe Today on Monday, but am just now getting around to posting. The sense of scale when talking in astronomical terms is very difficult for a human mind to comprehend, so when things like this come along that really help illustrate that sense of scale, I’m fascinated. This video clip shows what several different planets, including another earth, would look like in the night sky if they were as close to us as the moon. Just wait until Jupiter shows up. (According to the comment from the creator below the video, this is actually what it would look like through a weak pair of binoculars… so what you’re seeing isn’t meant to depict the entire night sky, only about 62 degrees of it.) Be sure to click on the HD button and make it full screen.

January is often a time for lots of updates from the world of astronomy, because it’s when the American Astronomical Society has their yearly conference/meeting. This year’s is a big one, with lots of news regarding exoplanets. Unofortunately, no Earth-twins have been found yet but there are some other interesting stories from Kepler and many other sources. Some highlights so far:

The Kepler mission has found its first batch of exoplanets, all of which are gas giants similar to Jupiter (though one is reportedly more like Neptune) orbiting very close to/quickly around their parent stars. It’ll be a few years before it finds anything else, because anything else takes a lot longer to orbit. Since Kepler is specifically looking for transiting planets (the planet passing directly between its parent star and us) it has to have 3-4 transits to be absolutely sure of its findings. Since planets like ours take a year or more to orbit… well, you do the math. It even found one gas giant that has the same approximate density as sytrofoam. (Via NASA and NewScientist)

Another interesting tidbit to come out this year is a much clearer picture of just how common solar systems like our own are in the universe/galaxy. According to astronomers from Ohio State University, who were heading up a larger collaborative effort called MicroFUN (micro-lensing follow-up network), about 1015 percent of all stars have planet systems like ours (meaning a few gas giants orbiting far out, with probably a few small, rocky planets in closer). 10-15 percent may seem like a small number, but when you consider the overall vast number of stars just in our own galaxy alone, you’ll realize that even 10 percent equals hundreds of millions of solar systems. It should be quite obvious now that there are other worlds out there very similar to our own, we just haven’t found solid evidence of them yet, so we can’t be 100% sure. But I am confident the Kepler, the CoRoT mission, or maybe even a ground-based telescope, will find one within the next decade. (Via EurekAlert! and Space.com)

Here’s a little bit of everyday science for you:

We’ve all been annoyed when we get out of our cars or walk across a carpeted room in the winter time and shock the #&*$@! out of ourselves on the door/other metallic object. So why the hell does it always happen so much more in the winter? It has to do with the humidity. Especially in the eastern US, the winter months are much MUCH drier than the summer ones. (Remember that Relative Humidity is NOT a direct measurement of how much moisture is actually in the atmosphere, go by the dewpoint- the lower the dewpoint, the less moisture is in the air.) Colder air has less moisture capacity than does warmer air, thus the winter months are very dry. Well all know that static electricity is the buildup of an electric charge in our bodies and/or clothes due to simple friction. During the summer months when the air is more humid, the moisture in the air allows those charges to constantly dissipate because we all know water is a good conductor of electricity. The static electric charge never has a chance to build up because it’s constantly “seeping” away into the moist air. In the winter, the dry air does not conduct and “seep” away the static electric charge, allowing it to build up until we reach for something metallic such as a doorknob and POW! the electricity instantly discharges in one big spark and we get shocked.

I agree with Yewknee- Day. Made.

I agree with Yewknee- Day. Made.

Ok, now that you’ve been properly entertained by that photograph thanks to Yewknee’d, let’s get on with the good stuff.

Rumors have been spreading like wildfire for months that Apple will be releasing a new tablet device that could revolutionize mobile entertainment. According to this article on Financial Times, (via Kottke) it’s looking like the device will be released this fall, just in time for the Holiday shopping season. If this thing is as good as it sounds, Apple’s REALLY gonna cash in, and if it flops, their public image will be severely tarnished. But I have no doubt they will succeed with this in the same way they succeeded with the iPhone, save for that minor pricing debacle when it first came out. It seems to me that this thing will be an iPod Touch on steroids. Having just bought a new Macbook Pro, I sure as hell won’t be able to cough up the cash for one of these, but I can’t wait to go play with them at the Apple Store!

Space Shuttle Endeavour undocked from the ISS today after successfully installing the newest Japanese component. The shuttle is scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center this Friday at 10:47am EDT, weather permitting. (Via Space.com)

There’s been a lot of speculation about the possibility of life on Mars and more recently, life on Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter’s moon Europa. But not since the 50’s have we ever thought that life could exist on Venus. People used to think Venus might have a climate somewhat like a tropical paradise, but that notion came to a screeching halt when scientists discovered that its surface is basically a good approximation of hell. Its surface temperature is over 860 degrees Fahrenheit, the atmospheric pressure is 92 times greater than Earth’s and made of mostly CO2 and laden with sulfuric acid clouds. But recent research has shown that it’s possible that microbial life could thrive in conditions found in the upper atmosphere of Venus. We continually discover life in places on Earth once thought to be utterly inhospitable, so it’s no longer such a stretch to imagine life surviving in such extreme environments as are found in Venus’ upper atmosphere. Scientists think that Venus was once much more Earth-like, and even had oceans. But what’s commonly referred to as a “runaway greenhouse effect” took over and caused the planet to heat up enough to boil away all water on the surface and create the hellish environment we see today. It’s possible that primitive life may have emerged during the planet’s more hospitable past and had time to evolve, adapt, and escape to the planet’s outer atmosphere where it could survive. (Via Daily Galaxy)

Not much time today, but here’s the skinny for the weekend:

Tonight the Armed Forces play the first installment of the Poolapalooza series at the Opryland Hotel. This could be an interesting one… but I’ll be heading to Exit/In to photograph Black Moth Super Rainbow. I love the band name, but I’m honestly not that familiar with them. Also, How I Became the Bomb will be releasing the last installment of their 3-song digital EP series called Through Adversity to the Stars! at Mercy Lounge. They’ll be joined by Chattanooga’s Coral Castles and Pineapple Explode. Wait… what? Yes I agree, P.E. is by far the odd-man-out on the bill. But I’m really glad those guys/girl are getting to play for such a big crowd as opposed their usual basement shows.

Tomorrow I’m photographing Coldplay/Snow Patrol at the Sommet Center. Whatevs on the bands…. it’s always fun to shoot big stadium sized tours though. Snow Patrol is also doing a free in-store show at Grimey’s at 2pm. Sorry Grimey’s but I won’t be anywhere near your store tomorrow. I have a feeling the resulting clusterfuck on 8th Ave will rival that of Record Store Day.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the Scene before next week’s edition hits the stands and read Tracy Moore’s feature article “Almost Famous.” The article follows the story of 4 local-ish bands/artists who essentially got ground up and quickly spit back out of the major label music industry, and it’s damn good. Bands beware indeed. I honestly hadn’t a clue that Eureka Gold had come so close to a major record deal. Makes sense they kept it kinda quiet though.

I’m somewhat excited about a new sci-fi movie coming out called Moon. It’s set in the future where humans have a mining outpost on the Moon to extract Helium-3, which will solve the answer to earth’s energy crisis. The mining base is run by one solitary man, and the film follows him through his last 2 weeks of a 3-year stint working on the base. For a more detailed synopsis, check out the IMDB page. I’m not quite convinced it’ll really all that good, but it certainly shows promise. It comes out July 17th.

Speaking of moons, I came across this article on the Daily Galaxy about Saturn’s moon Titan. Astronomers are very interested in Titan because it’s one of the few places in the solar system that has the potential for life. The others being Mars, Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and Jupiter’s moon Europa. Titan is basically a much colder analog of earth. It has oceans, land, clouds, mountains, and even a nitrogen-rich atmosphere. The difference is the temperature. Obviously it’s much colder than earth because it’s so much farther away from the Sun, which means the oceans and clouds are mostly made of liquid methane, not water. But still, even with the extreme cold and all the methane/nitrogen, it still could harbor microbial life. We even have a few pictures of the surface of Titan, thanks to the Huygens probe which was part of the Cassini mission. I highly suggest reading the Daily Galaxy article. The surface of Titan:

Have a great weekend!

Photo cliches: a collection of the most common cliches in tourist photos. Included- the fake phallus, statue groping, the Lynndie England thumbs-up, snorting Coca Cola.

While we’re on the subject the phallus… might as well post a link to the Head O State Obama sex toy. You really have to read the “testimonials,” especially the one from Sarah Palin.

Ok, enough giggly sexual innuendo.

A new environmentally-minded general store is opening in the Sylvan Park neighborhood of west Nashville. That’s just around the corner from me, so I’ll probably be hitting it up pretty soon. Read all about it in that Nashvillest post. I’ll bet if it’s successful she’ll open another one in east Nashville. Those two communities seem to be the most likely locations for such a store.

Neko Case has released her newest single via free download at Brooklynvegan. For every blog that reposts this song, Neko and ANTIlabel will make a cash donation to the Best Friends Animal Society. So download it, and if you have a blog, REPOST!

Neko Case-People Got A Lotta Nerve.mp3

Here’s a really cool collection of How-To graphics and illustrations. Fun to just peruse through… if that sort of thing interests you.

And for a little science: Wired talks about the top 5 best bets for extraterrestrial life in our own solar system. The top choice might surprise you, depending on how closely you follow the latest astronomy news.

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