Stories tagged Earth and Space Science


A nice and tidy future: And, see, there are still trees!
A nice and tidy future: And, see, there are still trees!Courtesy NASA
Aren’t you tired of the rainforest already? Who’s with me on this? Who else is sick of tapirs and spider monkeys? Show me a tapir that can fetch a Frisbee, or a spider monkey that can be prepared in under five minutes and we’ll talk, but I don’t see those things happening any time soon. A don’t get me started on rainforest themed television! Please, people, as far as good TV goes, the rainforest was tapped out about ten years ago. National Geographic needs to move on, maybe get it self a new image (I’m thinking something along the lines of The O.C. That was a show I could get behind).

Wouldn’t it be good for everyone if there were a little (or a lot) less rainforest? I mean, think about this: in Minnesota, we have zero (0) rainforests, and an annual death-by-poison dart frog rate of zero (0). In Brazil, they have one (1) rainforest, and an annual death-by-poison dart frog rate of, um, greater than zero (>0). Do the math – that’s bad.

Well, good news is here at last: we’re winning! A new report by the World Wildlife Fund claims that not only can that great bastion of ho-hum, the Amazon rainforest, be defeated, but that it’s happening right now, faster than we had ever dared hope! 60 percent of the Amazon could be gone within 25 years!

The agents of deforestation have been hard at work for decades, but their progress has never been quite fast enough for me. See, they don’t hate the rainforest (not like I do, anyway), and their chopping and burning has been dictated by economic pressures for more agricultural land (primarily livestock pasture). Fortunately, it seems that the magic of climate change will be picking up the slack here.

The Amazon rainforest plays a significant role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. When it is slashed and burned (the preferred method for clearing more agricultural space) it not only releases lots of carbon, but it is then, of course, unable to absorb any more. The rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere then contributes to climate change, which, it is believed, will lower rainfall rates in Amazonia over the course of the next several decades. The lower rainfall will then result in more forest fires. It’s what they call a “delicious circle.”

These are exciting times we live in! What do you all think? Does anybody have any other ideas on how we could hurry the destruction of the rainforest along? Be creative! Have fun! Like, maybe we could all buy a piece of teak furniture, and then throw it away to make room for… our new teak furniture! Or we could try re-branding the rainforest – I’m thinking something along the lines of “the tropical painforest,” or “the land of root canals and dead puppies.” The second one doesn’t have quite the same ring as “painforest,” but I like how it gets right to the point.

So? Any ideas?


Where's the lightning?: I can't see any lightning in this picture, but recent magnetic antenna data shows that Venus has regular lightning flashes in its dense atmosphere.
Where's the lightning?: I can't see any lightning in this picture, but recent magnetic antenna data shows that Venus has regular lightning flashes in its dense atmosphere.Courtesy NASA
With a name like Thor, any mention of lightning and thunder jumps off the page (or computer screen) demanding my immediate attention.

So I was locked into yesterday’s account that the European Space Agency’s Venus Express has confirmed the theories astronomers have had for years, that lightning strikes on Venus.

Lightning is one of the factors considered in the evoluntionary process that could have “sparked” life into inorganic materials. But weather and climate conditions on Venus today suggest that the window of supporting life forms has been long shut on the planet.

But the finding of lightning has electrified the weather forecasts for Earth’s solar system neighbor. Previously, astronomical meteorologists had figured that Venus had a long, boring forecast of strong, steady winds for the next 400 years.

Venus Express, which has been orbiting Venus for nearly two years now, used a magnetic antenna to pick up the planet’s lightning activities.

So if you had a strong enough telescope to see a lightning flash on Venus, how long would you have to count until you hear the ensuing thunder clap? Talk amongst yourselves to come up with the answer.


Mars Rovers
Mars RoversCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
About this time last year it was springtime on Mars. The two rovers had survived winter but a large, planet wide dust storm threatened to deplete their source of energy. To survive, both rovers were put into survival mode for several months. The both came through OK but because their solar panels are coated with dust, they do not have the energy they used to. Another winter is now approaching so both Rovers need to find a spot to maximize their solar gain.

Preparing for a long Mars winter

Spirit spent last winter on the sunny side of a hill called "Winter Haven" (click to see panorama) This winter Spirit is heading north toward an extra steep slope on "Home Plate". Right now it is stuck in what appears to be loose soil.

Rovers are showing their age

Spirit is having trouble getting around because one of its wheels doesn't work. It needs to go backwards, dragging its bad front wheel. Opportunity has a wheel that cannot steer. Its instrument arm is arthritic due to a bad motor in its shoulder. Opportunity is also blind in its infrared "eye" because of too much dirt on its lens. Both rovers are having problems with their grinding tools (RAT).

Mars rover's mission extended again

The twin rovers landed on the surface of Mars in January, 2004. Mission planners expected that it would only take a few months before dust coated the rovers' solar panels so thickly that they wouldn't be able to generate power any more. But the Martian weather had a trick; dust devils and wind gusts came by often enough to keep the solar panels relatively clear of dust. Without the loss of power looming, the rovers have been able to keep going, and going, and going. UniverseToday

Catch up on news about the Mars Rovers


Ichnology takes a step forward
Ichnology takes a step forwardCourtesy Mark Ryan
There have been a couple of recent reports about new prehistoric tracks being discovered. The first was the report from Montana of what could be a rare footprint Tyrannosaurus rex. A second discovery involves some 315 million year-old reptile tracks found

recently in New Brunswick in Canada,

The two discoveries are the latest in the science of Ichnology, a specialized branch of paleontology that studies the trace fossils of prehistoric creatures. Trace fossils can be anything that the behavior of an ancient creature has left in the fossil record, such as footprints, borings, burrows, eggs, coprolites etc., anything besides its dead remains. Gene made a recent post about burrowing dinosaurs. The burrow dug by the dinosaur would be classified as a trace fossil. But the bones found at the bottom of the burrow would not.

But since the Object of the Month for November here at the Science Museum of Minnesota is fossil animal tracks, I thought I’d muse a bit about them, specifically dinosaur tracks, a favorite subject of mine.

Dinosaur trackway near Morrison, Colorado
Dinosaur trackway near Morrison, ColoradoCourtesy Mark Ryan
The first recorded dinosaur trackway came to light in 1802 when Pliny Moody, a 14-year-old farm boy, in South Hadley, Massachusetts plowed up a slab of red rock containing several three-toed footprints. Dinosaurs hadn’t even been imagined yet, so the tracks were attributed to giant birds –Noah’s Ravens– as the local doctor called them. Of course, he wasn’t far off since today’s birds are considered descendents of dinosaurs.

Three decades later, Reverend Edward Hitchcock who was president of Amherst College became fascinated with the tracks and started to collect them in earnest. Between 1836 and 1865 he amassed huge numbers of fossil tracks that today make up the world’s largest collection and are held in the newly completed Amherst College Museum of Natural History in Amherst, MA. Hitchcock did extensive study of the trace fossils for the rest of his life, and was the first to classify them into a Linnean system that is still used today. He even made large stony books of the prints by binding together slabs of complementing casts and molds. But in the end, he just couldn’t reconcile his religious beliefs with the evidence the tracks presented and went to his grave still holding on to his belief that they had been made by giant birds.

In 1858, the world’s first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton (Hadrosaurus foulkii) was discovered on John Hopkins’ farm in Haddonfield, NJ and put on public display at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. It was the start of the public’s fascination with dinosaurs that continues to this day. Unfortunately, as more and more dinosaur bones were found, the interest in their tracks diminished.

But in the past two decades new interest in fossil footprints has flared up as scientists begin to realize their value in determining dinosaur behavior. Luckily, dinosaur footprints are extremely abundant, and can be found as single prints or as trackways, sometimes hundreds of yards in length. One trackway in central Colorado called the "Dinosaur Freeway" is suspected to continue for hundreds of miles into New Mexico!

Fossil footprints can give scientists insight into a creature’s behavior revealing such information as locomotion, stride and speed, foot and leg anatomy, chronology, ecology, and geographic distribution.

The tracks are found, generally, in three forms: casts, true prints, and underprints. A cast is formed when the original imprint is filled with sediment that hardens into rock. True prints form when the animal leaves a direct imprint in the ground surface it steps on. Underprints are created when the weight and pressure of the dinosaur’s foot causes it to press into layers beneath the thin ground it steps on. Underprints usually don’t contain the detail of foot structure that a true print will sometimes reveal.

Because skeletal remains are seldom found along with tracks, it’s nearly impossible to say which exact species created them, so thanks to Edward Hitchcock fossil footprints have their own classification. The reverend’s original classifications contained genera such as Grallator, Eubrontes, and Anomoepus, but new names continue to be added as new tracks are uncovered. Take for instance, Dr. Phil Manning’s above mentioned recent discovery of a large therapod footprint. Because of its size and structure and the location it was found, it can be speculated that the trackmaker was a Tyrannosaurus rex. But because it’s not certain that that’s the case, the track would be attributed to a T-rex but would be called a Tyrannosauripus, a genus name meaning “tyrant lizard foot”. Dr. Manning could make it more specific by add a species tag resulting in something like Tyrannosauripus manningnensis.

In general, tracks are described by the size and shape of the footprint, the number and arrangement of digits, claw and heel marks, interdigital webbing and skin impression.

Some well-known tracksites in the United States include St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site in Utah, the Red Gulch tracksite in Wyoming, Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado, Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas, Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico, and of course, Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.


Glen Kuban’s great dinosaur track info site
Dinosaur Trackers Research Group – Dr. Martin Lockley
Tracks of swimming dinosaur
Walk like a dinosaur; the study of emus
Raptor tracks show group behavior


This is how the moon feels: all the time now.
This is how the moon feels: all the time now.Courtesy Wikimedia commons
The product of a brief and fateful union between the earth and “a body as big as Mars” in the back alley of the solar system, our moon has never quite come to grips with its lack of a present father figure With a distant mother and no siblings, the Moon has no true peers to turn to, and has always had to reassure itself that, someday, definitely someday, it would find a moon just like it, a friend and comrade that it could finally relate to.

Unfortunately, the social workers of the galaxy, astronomers, have recently had to bear the bleak news to the Moon that it is, at best, an ”uncommon moon”, and that the chances of it ever finding its soul mate are “pretty sucky.”

Most moons were either formed simultaneously to the formation of their planets, or were trapped by a planet’s gravity at some point. Our moon was probably created thirty to fifty million years after the formation of the solar system by a massive impact between Earth and a Mars-sized body (the impact would have tossed enough material into “circumterrestrial orbit” to form the Moon). These sort of moon-creating knock-ups, if you will, leave a cloud of telltale dust in a star system, allowing scientists a general idea of which moons were created that way. By examining how many star systems have this dust could, astronomers have determined that it is likely that only 5 to 10 percent of moons (at most) share a similar origin to ours.

This was an understandably crushing revelation for the Moon. It remains in a gray mood, despite the consolations of people around the world, many of who have insisted that it is “still pretty.”


Rosetta: It didn't want to cause any trouble. All it wants to do is chase comets.
Rosetta: It didn't want to cause any trouble. All it wants to do is chase comets.Courtesy Wikimedia commons
Just in case you were concerned, the planet earth isn’t about to get creamed by an asteroid.

Oh? You weren’t concerned? Never mind.

Apparently, last week the Minor Planet Center was just about to release an emergency warning that a large, extra-terrestrial body was just about to pass a hair’s breadth from the earth – it should have skimmed by about 3,500 miles away. That’s creepily close, when we’re dealing with space.

Fortunately (for our stress centers, I guess) a clever Russian scientist actually took the time to look at the nearly earth-bound mass, and to track its trajectory, and realized that it was, in fact, the European, comet-chasing probe, Rosetta. Rosetta is about the size of a utility van (with wings), and we are quite safe from it.

So, thanks to one plucky Russian astronomer, the world is safe again. You all still have a pretty good chance of getting hit by cars tomorrow, though, or by dead birds falling from the sky. Or of choking on something you thought would be harmless, like pudding.


Planet Waterslide: A digital reconstruction of "the most fun planet."
Planet Waterslide: A digital reconstruction of "the most fun planet."Courtesy **Mary**
There was a brief period in the history of the solar system about 3.9 billion years ago characterized by wayward space particles pelting the inner planets. The period is referred to as the Late Heavy Bombardment, and the moon still bears the crater scars of the repeated impacts (Earth was similarly battered, but the constant recycling of the crust has erased the craters).

The prevailing theory behind the LHB has long been that early reshuffling of the planets was responsible – specifically that a rebellious young Neptune moved further out from the sun (perhaps seeking a place of its own) and disturbed rocky bodies in the Kuiper Belt, causing them to “veer into the inner solar system.”

Recently, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC has provided compelling evidence that a migrating Neptune may not have been the cause after all. He thinks that the impact craters on the moon more closely match asteroids from the Asteroid Belt just beyond Mars, and that these asteroids were sent there by a disturbed orbit of a fifth rocky planet (the other rocky planets being, of course, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars).

The planet, dubbed Planet V, would probably have been bigger than the moon, but slightly smaller than Mars. The Carnegie scientist even developed a computer model detailing how Mars’ gravity could have upset V’s orbit, causing it to fall into the sun, passing through the Asteroid Belt and scattering asteroids on its way.

The theory obviously requires extensive testing before it can be accepted with any confidence, but, so far, it has passed the test of whether or not I like it. I do like it.

I’m not terribly attached to the name, though. “V” is okay, I supposed, but it’s been done. I was thinking that something along the lines of “Planet Waterslide” would be better, not only because it sounds fun, but because it more accurately describes the character of the planet as suggested by my own theories. See, I predict that further research will reveal that “V” was covered in waterslides, and inhabited solely by kittens and friendly dinosaurs (neither of whom, ironically, ever used the waterslides). Planet Waterslide was the destiny of mankind, the universe’s reward for our inevitable achievement of interplanetary travel. Unfortunately, jealous Mars, not as brave as his big brother Neptune, and who never moved out of the parents’ basement of the solar system, tricked, or possibly tripped, its little brother Waterslide.

From this point, the Carnegie theory pretty much takes over. Except that the asteroid craters on the moon, should they receive further study, will no doubt prove to be interspersed with much smaller, fluffier craters.


Al & the Earth: I wonder if Al Gore runs a distributed computing program on his Mac when he gives his global warming talks.  Probably not.  Image courtesy alexdecarvalho via Creative Commons/Flickr.
Al & the Earth: I wonder if Al Gore runs a distributed computing program on his Mac when he gives his global warming talks. Probably not. Image courtesy alexdecarvalho via Creative Commons/Flickr.
If you like science and you listen to podcasts I recommend Scientific American’s 60 Second Science. I don’t listen to them every day, but I store them up then listen to a bunch in a row while I am doing something menial. Today I listened to a bunch walking from my cube to the loading dock. It is a looooog walk.

Besides mentioning the giant Mars hoax emails, which I guess are circulating again with new dates, there were two stories caught my interest.

The first was about distributed computing. While I am an advocate for turning off computers at night to save energy, if you’re going to leave them on, you should put them to good use. They can either run scans on themselves, or, through distributed computing, they can use their processing power to solve large problems. One new distributed computing application that they mentioned that I found interesting is Cosmology@Home. Cosmology@Home uses your computer’s spare processing power to “search for the model that best describes our Universe and to find the range of models that agree with the available astronomical and particle physics data” (from their website). Since I can barely wrap my mind around the implications of that question I am glad that my computer can help find some answers.

Another interesting podcast was about global warming. Researchers from the University of Washington have been working on equations that will help get the most out of climate models. The result of their work is that while the Earth is going to get warmer, how much warmer is not known. Scientists have theorized that if the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere doubles the temperature would rise by about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit. But, that rise in temperature does not account for the sort of “compound interest” that would take place – if the Earth warmed up because of more CO2, would the warmer atmosphere hold more water vapor? Would that increased amount of water vapor, serving as a “greenhouse gas” create even warmer temperatures? And what effect would these even warmer temperatures have on the climate models? This new equation helps scientists see the most probable scenarios more quickly than before, but also shows possible warmer results than previous models. The problem is that all this “compounding interest” makes it impossible to determine with any accuracy the high end possibilities. More on this can be found here, here and here.


Attention seeking comet: Comet Holmes photographed in 6" reflector telescope, 100x, 2 seconds, 400iso on Oct 25,2007, 7:10 UT (from Minneapolis, Minnesota)  Image courtesy Tom Ruen via Wikipedia.
Attention seeking comet: Comet Holmes photographed in 6" reflector telescope, 100x, 2 seconds, 400iso on Oct 25,2007, 7:10 UT (from Minneapolis, Minnesota) Image courtesy Tom Ruen via Wikipedia.
So, in the category of “we don’t know why this is happening but you should check it out” a comet that used to be so dim you needed a telescope to see it has become suddenly so much brighter it can now be seen with the naked eye.

Comet 17P Holmes, visible to northern hemisphere residents, is practically demanding attention by suddenly becoming just over half a million times brighter than it was just a few hours previously. The comet can be found in the constellation Perseus and is visible for most of the night, and thanks to daylight savings time is easier to see earlier in the day. It resembles a fuzzy, yellowish star.

The comet was originally discovered by British astronomer Edwin Holmes on November 6, 1892. The crazy thing is, he discovered it because of a similar incident to what is happening now, it suddenly became so much brighter it was easily observable. Practically 115 years to the day! Also crazy is that if you think about its size (no more than 2 miles in diameter) and its distance from the Earth, it has to really be glowing to be seen!

In 1892 the comet faded after a few weeks, and we should expect a similar fading to happen in this instance – so get out there now to see this once in a lifetime opportunity! (Binoculars will help.)


Million dollar prize unclaimed

Space elevator: Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth.
Space elevator: Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth.
The concept of building an elevator to carry materials up to space orbit was proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1987 science fiction novel, 2061: Odyssey Three. Spaceward Foundation, which partnered with NASA holds two space-elevator-related competitions - the Tether Challenge and the Beam Power Challenge.

Tether Challenge

The tether competition is a perpetual dare for any group to present a tether that is at least 50% better than last year's best offering. Tethers are ranked according to strength and weight.

The strength of a material is measured in Giga-Pascals (GPa) and its weight, or more precisely, its density, is measured in grams per cubic centimeter {g/cc). In order to build the Space Elevator, we need a material that has a specific strength of 80-100 GPa-cc/g.

The best entry in 2005 tether competition, using spectra 2000 fiber (Honeywell) had specific strength of 2.8. The best entry in 2006 tether competition, using Zylon fiber (Toyobo Inc.) had a specific strength of 3. This year's $500,000 offered to any team that could produce a tether with a specific strength of 4.5 went unclaimed.

Beam Power Challenge

The Beam Challenge tests the climbing ability and weight-bearing capability of robots scaling a cable.

The climbers net weight is limited to between 10 and 25 kg [22 - 55 lbs], and they must ascend the ribbon at a minimum of 2 m/s. [6.6 feet per second] Climbers will be rated according to their speed multiplied by the amount of payload they carried, and divided by their net weight. For example, a 15 kg climber, carrying 5 kgs of payload at 2.5 m/s will have a score of 5 · 2.5 · / 15 = 0.83

Climbers have to scale the ribbon while carrying some amount of payload, using only power that was transferred from the ground using beamed power. Power is unlimited. Some teams used mirrors and sunlight instead of laser beams. They were big trouble on cloudy days, though. The University of Saskatchewan Design for Space (USST) team came in first but missed the big money prize by a few seconds. Click here to see a video of the USST climber attempt.

Recommended Space Elevator links: