Thundersnow is possibly the coolest-sounding meteorological term I can think of. It happens very rarely, but when it does it’s awesome. Convection strong enough to cause lighting during a snowstorm is simply amazing, as are most things that rare. Through a ridiculous stroke of luck, scientists in Huntsville, AL got a rare opportunity to study this bizarre phenomenon in-depth. As you may know, Huntsville is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. There are meteorologists and other scientists there with a barrage of better-than-average instruments that monitored the inner-workings of the snowstorm that hit the area Jan. 9th. They got the most thorough data ever recorded for thundersnow, and observed one bolt of lightning that traveled a whopping 50 miles horizontally before hitting the ground. The fact that such a rare and interesting phenomenon happened right on top of a facility so well-equipped to study it is quite remarkable, and those scientists were very excited to be able to study the thundersnow in such great detail. I look forward to seeing what is learned from this experience. (Via Discovery News)

NASA has been presented with yet another viable commercial option for replacing the Space Shuttle’s role of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station, as well as carrying cargo. A U.S. company called Alliant Techsystems teamed up with Europe’s Astrium to draft the proposal for a new rocket called Liberty. This new rocket would combine research of the now-dead Constellation program with the proven components of the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 launch system. Since this collaborative effort combines mostly well-proven technology, it would be both cheap and relatively quick to build, shortening the problematic gap between the last Space Shuttle flight and the first availability of commercial access to space. If it truly will shorten said gap, I’m all for it. I hope it’s really as good as it sounds, but things like this always run into unforseen problems/delays. Right now, SpaceX still has the edge simply because it’s already had 2 very successful tests of its launch system, the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. But Liberty could give SpaceX a run for their money. Check out the promo video below. (Via Universe Today)

Amazing Space Shuttle footage

December 13, 2010

NASA has released a stunning and awe-inspiring collection of footage of Space Shuttle launches called Ascent. It’s narrated by two shuttle engineers, so you know exactly what you’re looking at the whole time. Most of these scenes are in ultra slow-motion and fairly high definition, revealing tiny details that go by far too fast for the naked eye. PLEASE, take the time to sit down and watch all 45 minutes. TRUST ME, it is well worth your time. You will not be disappointed. These scenes have previously only been for NASA eyes only, but with the imminent retirement of the shuttle fleet, NASA is starting the long process of “commemorative this, remembering that” PR. I’m sure there will be more footage and imagery released, along with documentaries and short films, etc…

Put this video on its 480p resolution, throw it on fullscreen, and sit back. (Via Universe Today)

Screenshot from NASA Tech virtual tour

So yesterday’s post was a bit of a downer… in some ways. Let me now point you in the direction of something totally awesome: a virtual tour of Space Shuttle Discovery on launch pad 39A. With the final liftoff of Discovery scheduled for tomorrow, I thought it perfect today to share this website I discovered via Universe Today. NASA’s Jim O’Connor runs the NASA Tech website and does 360 degree hi-resolution photographic virtual tours, and they’re nothing short of amazing. While virtual tours are nothing new, getting this kind of view (and from as many viewpoints) of a space shuttle is as close as most of us will ever get to actually seeing the full assembly up-close and in-person. It really helps you grasp how big the whole thing is… as much as one can without actually being there. Right now there are several different views of the space shuttle, all of which can be rotated a full 360 degrees. While the website itself is rather hideously designed, the awesome views offered by the virtual tours make up for it. I’d say my favorite is the one from under the orange external fuel tank.

In other news: GET OFF YOUR ASS AND VOTE TODAY!

The Senate and the House of Representatives have both passed their own versions of Obama’s proposed budget for NASA. As I’ve mentioned here before, Obama’s plan to abandon the Constellation program and leave American access to low earth orbit in the hands of the private sector was met with a good bit of criticism, both from Republicans and Democrats alike. Though I supported (and still support) his initial plan, I figured we would end up with some sort of compromise in the end. Not surprisingly, that’s where we’re headed now that the Senate and House versions have come out. I don’t have the time nor the willpower to type out the gritty details of the differences, but in a nutshell, the Senate wants to extend the space shuttle by another mission or two, slash funding for commercial space companies in half, accelerate the development of a heavy-lift rocket based on current shuttle booster technology, and slash funding of research into advanced technologies. For a more detailed comparison between Obama’s plan and the Senate plan, check out this article on Universe Today.

The House plan, which was issue by the House Science and Technology Committee (chaired by TN’s own Bart Gordon) is even worse. They want to slash funding for development of commercial access to low earth orbit by MUCH more than the Senate version, and like the Senate they want to speed up development of a heavy-lift rocket. The biggest problem is that the House version essentially brings back Constellation. For more detailed info on the House version, check out this article on Space.com.

I’m by no means a politician or an economics expert, but I’m firm in my belief that if NASA keeps focusing money and effort on access to LEO/the ISS, then we are spinning our wheels and making no progress. NASA cannot keep funding and worrying about getting our astronauts to and from the ISS AND worry about/fund our exploration into the rest of the solar system at the same time.

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.