Credit: NASA/Kepler

Some sad news from NASA: the immensely successful Kepler Mission in danger. The space-based planet hunting telescope has suffered another malfunction with one of its reaction wheels. The craft had four of these wheels to begin with, and they are responsible for keeping the spacecraft correctly oriented. It lost one of the wheels last year, but can still survive with three. Now that another wheel has stopped functioning, it will be nearly impossible for engineers to keep Kepler correctly pointed at the small patch of sky it’s been staring at since the mission began. NASA engineers think they can devise a way to use the spacecraft’s thrusters to coarsely aim it in the right direction, but since the process of analyzing Kepler’s observations is so painstaking and tedious, coarse alignments may not be accurate enough to keep the mission running normally. NASA engineers also haven’t given up on getting the wheel working again, so we’ll have to wait and see how this pans out. Even if Kepler dies, the mission has already been a huge success and there are several other new planet hunting missions in the works. For more on this story check out the always-reliable Bad Astronomy.


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)

You’ve no doubt already seen or heard mention of this breaking news elsewhere, but I simply must weigh-in: This morning physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider announced that they are making significant progress toward discovering the Higgs boson, or what many tend to call “the God Particle.” They really are on the verge of making a discovery that will change the face of physics forever, and vastly improve our understanding of the building blocks of EVERYTHING in the universe, and how the universe came into existence. The announcement does not mean that they have found the Higgs, just that they’ve seen a series of spikes in activity (the few nanoseconds right after a particle collision) within the predicted mass range for the Higgs. They’ve narrowed its mass down to a pretty small range with a fairly high degree of certainty because they’ve amassed quite a bit of data, and the chances that this is just a statistical fluke are getting lower and lower. Still though, the certainty is not high enough for physicists to claim an actual discovery. This elusive Higgs boson is the last missing “link” in the most widely accepted theory of particle physics- The Standard Model. If the Higgs is finally confirmed to exist within the range of mass predicted by the Standard Model, then this theory will essentially become rock-solid.

*Steps onto soapbox.*

But the beauty of science and the scientific method is that it will be just as exciting, if not MORE exciting, if the Higgs is proven to either exist outside the predicted range of mass or not exist at all! Science relies strictly on data, and if the data shows something not predicted then you go back to the drawing board and keep trying until you have a theory that fits the reality of the data. That method is infallible, and that is why I love science.

*Steps down from soapbox.*

For more-

the Guardian has been posting live updates to their story.

But BBC News has the best coverage I’ve seen.

Eating lunch with the Darlins in the Bronx.

So I’m back! It was a blast and I’d do it all again in heartbeat. I don’t have time to give a full rundown, but quite possibly the most memorable moment was realizing that a tornado was hitting Brooklyn while Those Darlins were soundchecking in Bowery Ballroom. Here’s the official weather report from the NWS. Needless to say, tornadoes are pretty rare in NYC. Thankfully we were in Manhattan while all this was happening. Those Darlins have some great new songs on their new record, and their setlist for this tour is mostly those new songs, peppered with the favs from their debut, and the free single “Nightjogger” which you can download at the Nashville Cream. Basically they’ve taken on a bit more of a pure rock & roll character, and drummer “Sheriff” Linwood Regansburg has taken on a much more prominent role in the songwriting, and even sings on one of the new songs, though they’re not yet playing that song live. Stay tuned for more on them and more on the results of my photo documentary project.

Meanwhile, here are some awesome things I came across while catching up on all my RSS feeds:

Vaccines absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, do NOT cause autism. A new study explored every possible way that thimerosal containing vaccines (TCVs) could be linked to autism and there was none. Absolutely no connection whatsoever; the same findings as the many other studies that have been done to investigate the claims of the anti-vax crowd. In fact, the result hinted that the administration of TCVs between birth and 7 months may actually reduce the risk of autism. It’s very simple, get your kids vaccinated! If you don’t, you are a threat to public health. Vaccines are one of mankind’s greatest scientific breakthroughs and have saved countless lives. There will always be a miniscule (and utterly negligible) risk of a bizarre allergic reaction or other complication, as there is with any medication or vaccine, but that risk is far, far, FAR outweighed by the benefits. And those risks have now been proven once and for all NOT to include autism.

A pair of astronomers have made an official prediction that the discovery of the first truly earth-like exoplanet will happen in less than a year– May of 2011. They used a well-known methodology called Scientometrics to make this prediction. I’d venture to say that to me, nothing in the field of astronomy, or even science in general, is more exciting than the very likely possibility of life on other planets. The discovery of the first true earth twin is a major step in that path. I really hope this prediction comes true.

Five awesome facts about NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. Curiosity) which will launch in late 2011.

23 amazing photographs from the 1940s and 50s of nuclear bomb tests conducted by the US Military. This New York Times photos series is utterly fascinating, mainly because of images 5 through 7. Most of us have seen plenty of images of the mushroom clouds created by nuclear blasts, but those 3 images are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. They were taken with a super high-speed camera and literally captured the blast at the very instant the explosion began. If I saw this image out of context I would probably think it was a microscope image of some sort of virus. The amazing irony here is that both a virus and an atomic bomb are incredibly destructive, yet in such completely different ways.

The actual scale of the observable universe, from the smallest possible thing the largest possible thing, is utterly impossible for the human mind to comprehend. Mathematicians came up with the concept of “orders of magnitude” to help with this, but I say it’s still impossible for any human to really grasp. But this fun little interactive Flash animation is pretty cool way of displaying the concept. (Via Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter)

A massive grin sprawled across my face as I read this Nashvillest post about the upcoming “Way Late Play Date” nights at the Adventure Science Center. “Best idea ever” is an understatement. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve been to that place- then it was called Cumberland Science Museum I believe- and I’ve wanted to go back ever since moving to middle TN in 2000. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who’s wanted to go but felt like I’d get in the way of all the kids if I went without having my own kids. Some genius in their event planning dept. must’ve realized this and come up with the idea for this event. It’s a 21+ event, which will include 2 alcoholic drinks in the $15 ticket price. Booze+science is a winning combination in my mind. I just really hope some dumbass doesn’t get wasted and then hurl while in the moonwalk simulator. Oh, and you can also get a discount by buying 2 tickets together for only $25. The dates are June 24th and July 27th. Embrace your inner nerd and get tickets here before they sell out! (Megan & I will be there June 24th.)

I’ve written many blog posts about NASA’s Kepler Mission here early last year around the time it launched, but it’s been a while since I mentioned it. The spacecraft has been silently staring into the heavens looking for minuscule dips in stars’ brightness which may indicate a transiting planet orbiting said star. Now that it’s been over a year since its first observations, NASA is obligated by law to release the data to the public for further scrutinization. Astoundingly, Kepler has produced a list of 750 candidates for exoplanets. This is a massive list, considering the current list of known exoplanets is at about 450. I say “candidates” because these are not confirmed exoplanets yet, they are data sets that could indicate exoplanets, but those stars need further review and observation by other telescopes to confirm that the dips in their brightness was definitely caused by a transiting planet. This could take years, because in some of the cases, another transit will have to be observed to confirm that it’s indeed a planet. Nevertheless, this is very exciting news, and I have absolutely no doubt that at least one of these candidates will turn out to be the holy grail of planet-hunting: an earth twin. Read more about this at Universe Today, and even more at the NY Times.

Now behold the most badass kid ever. He had his tooth pulled by a rocket. (You may think this is a bit cruel, but I’m positive that the tooth was a baby tooth that was on the verge of falling out anyway.) (Also via Universe Today)

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!

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

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.