Two cool things come your way via Universe Today today:

Apparently a Romanian group is competing for the Google Lunar X-prize with a bizarre balloon-rocket combination. They have a nice animation video in the post that explains the design far better than I could with word, so just check it out for yourself. I never thought I’d see helium balloons involved in a project where getting to the moon is the final goal… It’s one of those things that’s mind-numbingly simple and you say “why did no one think of this before?”

Also from UT is this cool HD video of Space Shuttle Atlantis blasting off on Monday. The shuttle docked today with the ISS.

Regarding the Feds’ raid of Gibson HQ yesterday: (FYI- it wasn’t the FBI, it was the Fish & Wildlife Agency that raided them…)

Via Hartley

phot-39a-09-fullresThe floodgates of exoplanet discovery just opened. The High-Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (known as HARPS) discovered a batch of 32 new exoplanets, pushing the list of known exoplanets to over 400. Most of these are low-mass planets about the size of Neptune. Since HARPS (which is a spectrograph) works with a land-based telescope which has to put up with the distortions and aberrations of the Earth’s atmosphere, that’s a very impressive feat. It shows just how good astronomers are getting at planet-hunting, and with the recently-deployed Kepler space observatory working like a charm, it won’t be long before we find the jackpot of astronomy to date: an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant star. (Via Universe Today)

I’ve mentioned that new theories challenging the textbook theory of a massive asteroid impact in Mexico killing off the dinosaurs are gaining serious momentum in the field of paleontology. The main challenge to the impact theory is the one involving a massive, long-erupting supervolcano in India known as the Deccan Traps. India has coughed up yet another, 3rd challenge to the impact theory: an impact event of its own. Some researchers from Texas Tech University think that a huge depression that exists beneath part of the Indian Ocean is actually an impact crater, and that it’s the result of an asteroid that smacked into the earth near the time the dinosaurs went extinct. (In geologic terms “near” actually means within a few million years…) If this turns out to be a true crater, and not just the result of normal tectonic plate movements or volcanic activity, then I’d say it definitely had at least some effect on the dinosaurs, and probably some effect on the ongoing eruption of the Deccan Traps. (Also via Universe Today)

NASA rolled out the first full sized test vehicle for its new Constellation program earlier this week. The Ares I-X was rolled out to launch pad 39B for its scheduled test flight next week on Oct. 27th. This is a full-scale mock-up of the Ares I, which (if the current plan is adhered to) will replace the Space Shuttle as NASA’s method of delivering astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. The test flight, of course, will be unmanned. Here’s a pic via NASA’s website. Keep up with the test launch at the launch blog. The new rocket is 327 feet tall, over 100 feet taller than the Space Shuttle.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

NMDinosaurs01The theory that the dinosaurs were wiped out from an asteroid impact near the modern-day Yucatan Peninsula is beginning to face major challenges. There’s no doubt that a huge impact caused the Chicxculub Crater, but some recent findings suggest that the impact may have occurred some 300,000 years earlier than originally thought. This comes as a second blow to the impact theory, with the first being the discovery/dating of the Deccan Traps in India. This gigantic volcanic feature is the result of a huge eruption that is believed to have lasted around 30,000 years. Can you imagine a massive volcano erupting for 30,000 years and covering an area equivalent to 1/2 of modern India with lava? Trust me, something on that scale is hard for the human mind to comprehend, but that much volcanic ash and gas in the atmosphere would’ve had a devastating effect on the ecosystem, and almost certainly played a major role in the extinction of the dinosaurs. Get ready for science textbooks to be re-written, because the asteroid impact theory is about to see the same fate as the dinosaurs themselves. (Via Daily Galaxy)

NASA recently teamed up with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to test a new, Earth-friendly type of solid rocket fuel. I’m not exactly sure of the details, but somehow they’ve managed to make rocket fuel out of aluminum powder and ice. Yes ice… as in frozen water. The secret apparently is that the aluminum powder is so finely ground that it’s considered “nanoscale.” The nanoscale aluminum has so much surface area in contact with the water ice that the exothermic reaction when it burns is more efficient than normal solid rocket fuel, which is usually powdered aluminum (not nanoscale) mixed with an oxidizer such as ammonium perchlorate and a binding agent. Seriously though, who would’ve ever thought you could make rocket fuel out of ice and aluminum? It just sounds crazy, but it’s true. (Via EurekAlert)

When you think of the type of person who becomes an astronaut, you don’t typically think of race car drivers or musicians, but two of the astronauts about to launch on Space Shuttle Discovery tomorrow morning are just that- a former off-road truck racer and a drummer. Check out this Space.com article to find out more about Commander Rick Struckrow, formerly a Baja off-road race driver, Pilot Kevin Ford who is also a drummer, and several other astronauts who come from surprising backgrounds.

Remember Star Trek IV? That was the movie where they ended up time traveling back to the 20th Century and got stuck there, needing some transparent Aluminum to create a holding tank for a humpback whale. Some scientists have now created just that, if only for about 40 femtoseconds. They say it’s an entirely new state of matter, because they used a high-powered laser to remove one of the core electrons from each atom in a tiny area of Aluminum. This allowed X-ray and ultraviolet radiation to pass through uninhibited, effectively making the Aluminum transparent. (Via LiveScience)

Astronaut Koichi Wakata

Astronaut Koichi Wakata

There are many common luxuries that we take for granted on Earth, such as being able to wash our clothes. Unfortunately, in space you don’t have that luxury. Just going to the bathroom requires a highly sophisticated and technologically advanced toilet system. When astronauts wash their bodies they use special soap and shampoo that doesn’t require water. But in a microgravity environment where droplets of water can float around and destroy sensitive equipment, washing their clothes just isn’t an option. Unfortunately dirty clothes must be simply discarded. But apparently some Japanese scientists are working to fix that by inventing clothes that clean themselves… or don’t get dirty in the first place, depending on how you look at it. Astronaut Koichi Wakata, who just left the ISS on Endeavour, tested these new clothes during his 4 1/2 moth stay. It sounds utterly disgusting, but he never changed his underwear while he was there. The high-tech material actually kills odor-causing bacteria and absorbs moisture. He says that even after 4 1/2 moths of wear, they didn’t smell at all. This is yet another great example of how manned space exploration drives innovation and ultimately leads to technologies that are very applicable here on the ground. This could one day lead to clothes that literally clean themselves, eliminating the need for washing machines and dryers, which are energy and water hogs. (Via Universe Today)

In a related note, Universe Today also posted a set of great photos from Endeavour’s mission. Check it out.

That’s all I have time for today!

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)

As I mentioned in the music post above, I’m splitting up the categories somewhat, so comment and let me know what you think!

Image via nasa.gov

Image via nasa.gov

Today is the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, on its way to what is arguably mankind’s greatest achievement thus far- putting a man on the moon. As part of the celebration, NASA has posted mp3’s of recorded conversations inside the module. They’re certainly not the highlights of the mission, but it is interesting to hear the casual conversations between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. They have also posted newly restored footage from the mission here. Also of interest- notice the main logo in the upper-left corner of the website. They replaced the blue sphere with an image of the moon. (Via Universe Today)

Unsurprisingly, the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog put together a collection of 40 hi-res images from the Apollo 11 mission. Check out the eyegasm here.

Endeavour FINALLY lifted off yesterday after 6 delays. Watch the video here. This is a minor milestone in space exploration, as there are now a total of 13 humans in space at the same time, the most in history. There are 6 on the ISS and 7 on Endeavour. Some debris was clearly seen falling off the external fuel tank during yesterday’s launch, and the shuttle will perform a flip maneuver to allow the ISS astronauts to take hi-res photos of the heat tiles to look for damage. We’ll know in a couple of days if the damage was significant.

The New York Times did a nice article on the future of NASA, focusing on missions to the moon, Mars and the budget constraints that may force changes in those plans.