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Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Discovery touched down for the final time this morning just before noon at Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle has spent a total of 365 days in space and traveled a total of 148 million miles on 39 missions. It is the oldest shuttle in the fleet and has always been considered NASA’s workhorse. Universe Today has a post with a crop of great photos from this last mission, as does the NASA website of course. Some cool facts from my own knowledge as well as tweets from Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: the shuttle is traveling roughly 17,500 mph while in orbit, but it’s de-orbit thrusters slow it by only 188 mph. That’s enough to allow it to slowly drop into the upper reaches of earth’s atmosphere, at which point the air begins to take over the slowing process. The drag from the earth’s atmosphere is the only thing that slows the shuttle down from then on, including on the runway because the shuttle has no brakes, just a parachute that deploys just after it touches down. Everything in the re-entry process is meticulously calculated because they only have one chance at it. The shuttle has no power- it’s only a glider once back in the atmosphere, so everything has to be absolutely perfectly executed. The pilot is assisted by lots of powerful onboard computers that take care of most of the difficult fine-tuned adjustments, but the pilot must be able to take over if something goes wrong- the skill level required is immense. On April 12th, NASA is expected to announce the final destinations of the three remaining orbiters after their retirement. Discovery is expected to go to the Smithsonian, but that is not certain until the announcement is made. More on that at Space.com.

I feel I must also mention the alien bacteria craziness that happened over the weekend and earlier this week. NASA scientist Richard Hoover had a paper published that claimed that he had found evidence of extraterrestrial bacteria in a meteorite. Well, basically everyone else in the science community is saying he’s wrong, and I’m inclined to agree. There are a host of reasons why his claim is probably bogus, not the least of which is the fact that contamination of a meteorite by earthly bacteria is all but inevitable. Also, the paper had not completed a peer-review process before it was published, not to mention that it was published in a less-than-reputable journal that has a history of publishing error-laden work. NASA even issued a statement saying that they had nothing to do with Hoover’s paper or his claim. Most of this info comes from Phil Plait’s analysis of the situation. Get the whole story from him.

On a lighter note, enjoy this animated GIF gem, also from Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog:

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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.

Back with some science

December 30, 2009

The holidays obviously consumed my life to the point that I haven’t posted in over a week. Sorry ’bout that. I also haven’t shared any good sciencey tidbits in a while, so here you go:

I recently saw James Cameron’s latest epic Avatar. I won’t get too involved with reviewing the film as I’m no film critic by any means, but I will say this- it’s beautiful. The animation is astounding and most notably, the landscape is gorgeous. The dialogue and storyline is utterly pathetic. It’s basically the same story as Last of the Mohicans, Fern Gully, or Dances With Wolves, only this time it’s injected into a sci-fi mold. That being said, I always can enjoy that story to some degree no matter how many times it gets retold and rehashed. What is pretty cool about the movie is the science behind it. There will always be a big gap between “movie physics” and reality, but the over-arching idea of a habitable moon similar to Earth orbiting a gas giant similar to our own Jupiter in different star system is entirely plausible. The fact that the moon’s atmosphere is toxic to humans makes it slightly more realistic, along with the reduced gravity resulting in the native animal life being mostly large compared to that of Earth. Space.com has more on the science of Avatar’s Pandora.

Image via Universe Today

I’ve mentioned on here before that NASA and the European Space Agency have teamed up for the next decade or so of Mars exploration. The exact timeline and details of that effort are now beginning to come into focus, thanks to the recent discovery of a constantly replenished quantity of methane in Mars’ atmosphere The first step will be a new orbiting observatory launched in 2016 that is specifically equipped to further explore the possible sources of this methane, and map out exactly where it’s the strongest. Also on this first mission will be small lander designed to test the parachute/thruster landing system that will be used on the future missions involving the “real” landers/rovers. Those rover/lander missions will be launched in 2018, and will be specifically designed to search for signs of life. Recent developments in the theories about the possible source of the methane have started to lean more towards microbial life, probably living under the surface. That’s very exciting. More on this at Universe Today.

What kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t have some sort of “year-in-review” post? Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to come up with anything myself, but here are a couple of 2009 recap posts from other science blogs that you might find interesting:

Live Science: 9 stories we love, and hated, in 2009.

Space.com: The 9 top spaceflight stories of 2009.

Some of probably already know this, but I’m currently in the process of moving. Megan and I are renting a small house near Germantown, and though the house will be awesome once we get settled in, the timing really sucked. I can’t think of a worse possible time to be moving than during the holidays. So posting here will probably be limited until next week.

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