Courtesy NASAMan, I had this dream last night that my brother and I had each taken a long trip, and at the end of the trips we met up and floated around the sky while singing to each other about our feelings. What a strange dream. I think it means that I’m afraid of death. That’s what my dream analysis book says anyway, just like it says for every dream.
On an unrelated note, one of NASA’s latest experiments, the “GRAIL mission,” is ticking away smoothly.
If, like me, you assumed that the GRAIL mission was a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I’m afraid you’re about to be sorely disappointed. “GRAIL,” in fact, stands for “Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory,” so you shouldn’t expect any bullwhips or crusty old knights. No, the GRAIL mission will be carried out by the two identical satellites that just reunited in orbit around the moon, after a slow trip from Earth (Apollo program vessels made it to the moon in just three days, but the GRAIL satellites sort of took a scenic route that required less energy to get to the moon, but a lot more time—between three and four months.)
The satellites arrived at the moon on different days (the 31st and the 1st), but now that they’re back in the same neighborhood they’re going to be traveling around the moon together at about 35 miles above the surface. As they move, they’ll be transmitting radio signals to each other, which will allow them to precisely calculate the distances between them. As one or the other of the satellites flies over an area of the moon with greater or lesser gravity, the distance between the satellites will change slightly.
Because tiny differences in gravity are determined by the interior composition of an object in space*, these satellites will tell us more about the inside of the moon, and how it formed. And because the moon originally came from Earth, we’ll learn more about the formation of our planet from this mission as well.
*More mass means more gravity, so the satellites will be able to detect not only visible features on the moon, like hills and craters, but underground structures as well. Moons and planets after all, aren’t totally uniform inside—they’re less like giant marshmallows than giant scoops of rocky road ice cream.
The things that happen in space … amiright? Crazy!
Courtesy AAxanderrOf course, by “the skies,” I mean “space.” And by “eyes,” I mean “money.” “China” means “China,” though.
So, by “China sets its money on space,” I mean that China has announced its intentions to court that sweet maiden (or charming lad) we call space. (Also, it turns out that I like space travel/dating analogies quit a bit.)
China, already one of only three countries to send a human to space (after Mother Russia and the United States of Awesmerica), has big plans to expand its space program in coming years. While the US is cutting back its program, China intends to launch manned vessels, freighters, and space stations in just the next five years. (Space stations, plural, seems kind of strange to me, but that’s what the article said.)
China’s space program is run by the country’s military, which freaks some folks out, but China claims that the venture is purely scientific, and, being one of the big boy countries, it’s eager to make its own contributions to space exploration. Also, and this is a rough translation from the original Chinese, it has all this money, and the cool kids all have (or had) sweet space programs, so ….
Despite the impressive goals and Chinas recent rapid progress in space exploration, spokespeople acknowledge that China has a lot of work yet to do to get to the level of Russia’s and the USA’s space programs, seeing as how those institutions have a 50-year head start. So if you’re feeling defensive or jealous, you can keep that in mind.
But are you feeling defensive or jealous? Or are you just excited that more people will be going to space, and more science will be happening up there?
Courtesy NASANot a real dragon, of course. I mean, that would be awesome—just picture it, trying to fly around up there, starting things on fire and eating up all the astronaut food—but actual non-alien monsters in space never work out the way you would hope.
Don’t believe me? I present to you exhibits A and B: Jason X and Leprechaun 4: Leprechaun in Space. Jason and Leprechaun were really out of place up there. Sure, they did a lot of damage, but so did I on Labor Day weekend. It’s just a lot of confusion and flailing—nothing to get very excited about.
No, the dragon I’m referring to perhaps is something to get excited about. It depends on what sort of things get you worked up, but seeing as how this dragon, or Dragon, is a spaceship, I think I can put some good money on somebody out there getting excited. A spaceship!
We clever humans have made plenty of spaceships, but what’s special about Dragon is that it’s the first commercially-built and –operated spacecraft to be recovered from orbit. About a year ago, the private company SpaceX launched the Dragon craft into orbit around the planet, and safely brought it back down a few hours later. Dragon was unmanned on that launch, but the vessel is constructed so that it could carry up to seven human passengers into orbit (its pressurized cabin space—where humans would have to be—is about 350 cubic feet, and it has an additional 490 cubic feet of unpressurized cargo space.)
Given the success of the test launch, Dragon is on its way to another first: docking with the International Space Station. Never before has a commercial spacecraft rendezvoused with the ISS. This is like … like a billionaire’s son going on a date with the president’s daughter. (Not the current president’s daughters, though. They’re too young to be dating.)
Before this billionaire gets to take out the First Daughter, however, it has to complete safety checks and a flyby of the ISS (like making sure the kid is dressed appropriately, doesn’t smell of cognac, and doesn’t crash into the Whitehouse’s garage door). Assuming everything checks out ok, the ISS will use its huge robotic arm to grapple the Dragon, and connect it to one of its modules, where the dragon can unload its cargo. Sort of like the president’s daughter using her giant, cybernetic arm to … actually, let’s abandon this analogy. The point is that for the first time a ship that doesn’t belong to the US or Russian government (or any government) will hook up with the ISS, ushering in a new era of Earth to orbit transportation, etc.
As I understand it, the plan was originally to do three launches—the initial one, where Dragon was shot into orbit, and then recovered; a second one that would include a flyby of the ISS and a test of Dragon’s onboard systems, and then finally the launch that would have it connect with the ISS. However, it looks like NASA and SpaceX have decided to combine the second and third missions. Dragon will be launched on February 7, 2012, and if the flyby and system tests go well, it will dock with the ISS on the same trip. It will not be carrying any passengers on that launch, but—assuming everything goes well—that’s in the plans for future flights. And there will be future flights. In fact, NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX, requiring SpaceX to provide them with at least 12 resupply flights to the ISS.
Any thoughts, Buzzketeers? What about commercial spaceflight? What about commercial spaceflight replacing government-run spaceflight? And how do you feel about dragons?
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. PyleNASA announced this week the discovery of two Earth-sized planets orbiting a star 1000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. The star system, called Kepler 20, is orbited by five planets. The two planets of interest, named Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are the first exoplanets their size to be discovered around another star resembling our own.
Francois Fressin, the lead author of the study which appears in the journal Nature, said the Kepler mission's main goal is to discover Earth-sized planets located in the habitable zone of other star systems. "This discovery demonstrates for the first time that Earth-size planets exist around other stars, and that we are able to detect them,” Fressin said.
Kepler 20e is slightly smaller than Venus, while Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth. The exoplanets' host star is smaller than the Sun and a bit cooler in temperature, however, the orbits of Kepler-20e and 20f are closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun, which makes them far too hot to support liquid water and too inhospitable to support life.
But the discovery is a big step in the three-and-a-half year Kepler mission, which uses ground-based telescopes and space telescopes to search out possible planet candidates.
Courtesy Stratolaunch SystemsBillionaire and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, was always told that the sky was the limit.
Oh, and how those words chafed at him. They chafed and they chafed, until one day Allen finally pushed his nay-saying assistant into the koi pond and shouted, “’The sky’s the limit’? I’ll show you limits!” And on that day he founded Stratolaunch Systems, a company that would create a plane that would help propel a craft beyond the sky, to space!
And those people who still argued that space is part of the sky, depending on your definition? Allen had them frozen in carbonite and turned into coffee tables for his vast mansion. (The assistant eventually crawled out of the koi pond, but he kept his mouth shut after that, because he had already spent a summer encased in carbonite, and didn’t intend to repeat it.)
All of that may be true. But the parts that are certainly true are those directly concerning billionaire Paul Allen’s plan to build a gigantic plane that will carry a space rocket high into the atmosphere (about 6 miles up), where the rocket can more easily launch itself into orbit. And, by “gigantic,” I mean that the plane will have a wingspan of 385 feet, and a total weight of 1.2 million pounds.
This is an interesting thing because, a) a rocket-carrying plane has seemed like a good idea for a while, but has never been tried on this scale; and b) with the end of NASA’s shuttle program, we’re going to be looking for new (and hopefully cheaper) ways to get people and equipment into space. Private companies like Stratolaunch Systems and its partner on this project, SpaceX, will likely be a big part of the solution.
(SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the folks behind paypal. There’s also Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. So Paul Allen’s motivation could also have been that he didn’t want to be the only eccentric billionaire without his own spaceflight company. Which is understandable.)
While this plane/rocket system won’t be able carry quite as much cargo into space as other rockets, the Stratolaunch plane has other advantages. (Together, the plane and the rocket weigh more than one and a half million points, and they’re using repurposed engines from 747 jets, so they think the payload limit should be around 13,500 pounds.) For one, it doesn’t require a complicated and stationary launch pad, meaning that launch costs should be lower, and the process of getting the rocket launched will be more flexible—if weather isn’t cooperating at the launch site, the plane can be flown somewhere else (with a 12,000-foot runway) and sent up there. Also, once a rocket is released, the plane can just turn around, land, and be fitted for another launch by the next day. So, you know, if you have a lot of stuff to get up into space, and not so much time, maybe this is yer bird.
But what’s the point? For that, let’s go back to “interesting thing b).” Aside from every billionaire’s dream of having a spaceship, Allen and co. expect the very costly project to be profitable (eventually). NASA may be done with the shuttle program, but they aren’t done with their work in space—currently astronauts rely on Russian launches to get into space, but contracts with companies like Allen’s could give them some more options.
And, of course, who isn’t interested in space?
The Stratolaunch system could be tossing rockets into space as soon as 2016. It'll start with unmanned rockets, but assuming that those launches prove to be safe and reliable, they hope to move to launching manned spacecraft. (And check out Stratolaunch's site for more on the launch system.)
Courtesy Mark RyanYou’d think since the decision handed down in the Kitzmiller et al v. Dover court case in 2005 creationists would have given up trying to force their decidedly non-scientific views into public school science curricula. But apparently that’s hasn’t been the case. Those touting pseudo-scientific explanations such as intelligent design (creationism all dressed up in a monkey suit – as someone cleverly put it) are still at it, trying to get their religious-based ideas included in science classroom discussions.
A talk given by Steven Newton at this year’s Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis dealt with ways to counter the methods creationists use to push back against the information presented in earth science classes within the K-12 public school settings. The talk was one of several in a session titled, Geoscience Education X: Overcoming Threats to Earth and Space Science at K-12 Levels.
According to Newton, who’s with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the creationists’ methods amount to nothing less than sabotage.
Some of the feedback he said he heard from the nation’s public schools helps illustrate the kind of resistance earth science teachers continue to get from students, parents, and even school administrators. When a controversial subject such as evolution or climate change is being presented, teachers report being told to “tone it down” or “skip that chapter”* or to “teach both sides” (why just two sides? why not 200?). Newton said teachers also heard pleas of “don’t offend parents” from school administrators.
Of course, the earth sciences aren’t the only disciplines under attack. Just this past week, a story came out of Kentucky about how the school superintendent in Hart County complained in a letter to the state’s education commissioner and board of education members that he was concerned to learn that the state testing guidelines for biology considered evolution as a fact while at the same time “totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us.” It’s a harrowing example of the anti-science attitudes that are still prevalent in our country, and how creationists continue to threaten science education.
These don’t-rock-the-boat mitigations of scientific knowledge are harmful to science in general and aren’t doing the students any favors. Spoon-feeding watered down information or adding non-scientific knowledge into the mix confuses students and deprives them of a proper science education. Strong suggestions such as “teach the controversy” (when there is none) serves no purpose other than as a way to force religious or irrationally-based information into the public schools.
The anti-science crowd uses various means of attack to undermine geoscience knowledge in the schools and elsewhere. It questions the fossil record, pointing to something like the 19th century Piltdown Hoax as an example of how fossils and their interpretation can be faked. They make a huge leap of logic and argue that since one fossil was faked then all fossils must be questioned. The validity of radiometric dating is thrown into doubt with misinformation such and out-of-context or re-edited quotes from legitimate scientists, and even salted quotes.
Some worn-out creationist ploys have been lurking about for years, stories of dinosaurs spotted living in the Congo, fossil human footprints discovered alongside dinosaur tracks, a stegosaur figure found in the carvings of an ancient temple in Cambodia, a plesiosaur carcass hauled up from the depths by a Japanese trawler. These and other stories have either been thoroughly debunked or have failed to ever present any concrete evidence, yet continue to creep into otherwise serious evolution discussion,
The Internet is clogged with creationist viewpoints, some sites disguised with scientific-sounding domain names. This requires students to be alert and very careful about their research sources.
In hopes of legitimizing their point of view, creationist organizations of late have sponsored lectures and propaganda films in venues rented from legitimate scientific institutions such as they did at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and the California Science Center. When objections are raised and such events cancelled, the creationists proclaim it amounts to nothing less than censorship of ideas. But creationist ideas have always been poor in scholarship, lacking peer review or any kind of objective testing. Many are totally untestable.
Newton also warned against what he considers mistaken solutions to the problem of creationist pushback. Debating pseudo-scientists or giving their ideas equal time in the classroom only gives them unwarranted credibility. And why “teach the controversy” when there is none in the first place?
But, Newton insists that this doesn’t mean earth science teachers should avoid dealing with the pushback. Creationist tactics evolve over time, coming up with new ways to attack legitimate science. And just as new vaccines are developed to fight evolving flu viruses, science teachers need to stay a step ahead of the creationists and counter their anti-science attacks with a vaccine of cold, hard, scientific facts. Perhaps this affliction can be wiped out in our lifetimes.
*Attacks against science aren’t reserved only for the schools. Just this past week biologist and science-blogger PZ Myers alerted his readers to the fact that the Discovery Channel had purchased rights to broadcast the BBC documentary series by David Attenborough titled “Frozen Earth” but that it wouldn’t be including the last episode regarding climate change because the subject was too controversial. (Evidently, after a flood of well-deserved complaints the Discovery Channel has now reversed its decision and will air all seven episodes).
Courtesy NOAA (with adaptation by author)Here’s something you don’t see everyday: some very amazing images of a chain of mountains heading toward a subduction zone in the South Pacific. (Make sure you watch the video at the top of this story link - it seems to take a few seconds to load). The pictures were unveiled this week at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting held in San Francisco, California.
Researchers from Oxford and Durham universities took sonar readings along the bottom of the South Pacific northeast of New Zealand that show a chain of underwater mountains being dragged westward on the Pacific plate and subducted into theTonga Trench . This chasm is second only to the Marianas Trench in seabed depth – nearly 11 kilometers (6.6 miles) deep. The computer model created from the data shows one giant volcano at the very edge of the trench breaking into huge blocks and beginning to collapse into the abyss. It’s actually pretty cool to see. Earthquakes occur less frequently near where the volcanoes are being gobbled up, and scientists differ on whether the giant broken chunks of the volcano help or hinder the subduction process, but the images clearly show the mechanism at work.
Courtesy USGSAccording to the theory of plate tectonics both oceanic crust and continental crust ride atop rigid plates that migrate slowly across the globe, colliding with and pulling away from each other. There are three main types of boundary zones created by this movement: convergent (moving toward each other), divergent (moving away from each other) and transform (moving side by side). In the first example, which is the type this article deals with, the lighter oceanic plate (Pacific Plate) is subducting under the heavier continental plate (Indo-Australian Plate). The process is part of the creation and recycling of the Earth’s lithosphere – that is it’s rocky crust along with the uppermost part of the mantle. Some mantle material is forced upward in the process, and the land near these subduction zones – like that in Japan and along the coast of Chile in South America - is often populated with volcanoes. This collision of plates causes tremendous tensions to build up along the contact zone. The extreme pressure can continue building over hundreds or even thousands of years until it's too much, and the plates start to shift. All the pent-up energy is suddenly released in fits and starts in the form of earthquakes and aftershocks, as happened this year (and is still happening) in Sendai, Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand.
The underwater volcanic chain spreads across the ocean bottom in a southeasterly direction for several thousands kilometers as each mountain makes it way westward toward the trench at the rate of about 6cm per year. That's about as fast as your fingernails grow in two months. The sonar images were taken at a depth of six kilometers below the ocean surface as part of a project funded by Australia’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to help determine if the massive debris from the crumbling volcanoes have any effect on the frequency of earthquakes and tsunamis in the area.
Phil Plait, astronomer, lecturer, and blogger at Bad Astonomy gives a humorous and informative talk about asteroid impacts both in the past and in the future. He touches on the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and the 50 meter-wide asteroid that created Meteor Crater in the Arizona desert 50,000 years ago, and the rocky bolide that exploded with the force of 1000 atomic bombs above the Tunguska river region in Siberia in 1908. Each impacted with Earth, and lucky for us, they all took place safely in the past. But you know it’s bound to happen again. It’s not a question of if, but one of when. And when could be sooner than you think. Plait ratchets up his talk’s anxiety level with the information that an asteroid discovered in 2004 and known as Apophis is headed toward Earth. This thing isn’t anywhere as huge as the 6-mile wide space rock that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, but at over 250 meters across it could still do some serious damage.
In 2029, Apophis will pass so close to Earth it will come inside the orbit of some of our weather satellites. It won’t strike our planet at that time but if it manages to pass through a small kidney-shaped region in known as a gravitational keyhole, Earth’s pull would redirect Apophis orbit into one that would set it on a path of collision with us the next time it comes around on April 13, 2036. Sure the odds are slim everything will actually line up right for this to happen, but Plait sees it as an opportunity for us to learn how to deal with such events. We know impacts happened in the past, and we can assume they'll continue to happen in the future. Apophis is a good example of that. So it makes sense to start planning on how we can defend against such an event. Scientists from organization such as the B612 Foundation and NASA are already trying to raise public awareness of the dangers asteroids and other near Earth objects may pose to the future of our planet. And Plait explains some interesting counter offensives already being considered. It won't be an easy task but it's probably one that needs planning just in case. Besides, look at what could happen if we don't. It's a no-brainer.
In this video renowned paleontologists Bob Bakker and Peter Larson visit the CK Preparations lab in Montana to examine the incredible discovery by Clayton (“Dino Cowboy”) Phipps of the remains of a tyrannosaurid and some sort of ceratopsian dinosaur preserved together (and touching) in a single block of rock from the Hell Creek Formation. Both skeletons are articulated, nearly 100 percent intact, and in a wonderful state of preservation. Teeth matching those remaining in the tyrannosaurid jaws are preserved imbedded in the ceratopsian skeleton. The predator’s skull, which is speculated to be that of a Nanotyrannus, shows signs of being kicked in. Early analysis of the geology of the matrix encasing the find suggests that the two battling dinosaurs may have gotten trapped in mire or overcome by a sudden environmental catastrophe, like a cave-in. Was this a unique moment frozen in time of a battle between a predator and its prey? Do the two "combatants" represent entirely new genera of dinosaurs? These questions require further study and preparation of this very unusual fossil.
Courtesy Mark RyanEver wonder how something as big as a sauropod dinosaur was able to grow so large? Sauropods were those huge, long-necked quadrupeds estimated to have weighed anywhere from 50 to 120 tons, and with lengths of up to 200 feet. Just seeing the skeleton of any one of them – the Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Ultrasaurus or any their kind – you just know those Jurassic giants had to be on a constant eating binge to maintain their massive size. But just how much food could a single area supply? Doesn’t it make sense that these critters would have eaten up any food source within the reach of their extensive necks? Then what would they do?
A new study of sauropod teeth has produced some strong evidence that the giant herbivores migrated during times of drought or other environmental stresses, searching for new untapped food and water sources. Geochemist Henry Fricke of Colorado College in Colorado Springs along with student colleagues Justin Hencecroth and Marie E. Hoerner studied the teeth of various Camarasaurus specimens comparing the ratio of oxygen isotopes found in the enamel with the ratio found in the sedimentary rock deposits where the teeth were found. By sauropod standards, Camarasaurus was one of the smaller ones, but it's the most common sauropod found in the Morrison Formation deposits.
Courtesy Public domainDuring its lifetime 145 million years or so in the past, a Camarasaurus's teeth would absorb the isotopes ratio of its environment, that is the ratio of the oxygen isotopes found in the local water supply. So Fricke’s team sampled 32 camarasaur teeth, taking measurements of the younger enamel found near the base of each tooth with the older enamel near the crown. In some cases, the isotopes ratios in the enamel matched those of the sedimentary rocks from where the teeth were found. But some enamel didn’t match. This meant the dinosaur must have migrated at some time to higher ground, more than likely in search of a better food source.
"In a theoretical sense, it's not hugely surprising,” Fricke said. “They are huge — they would probably have eaten themselves out of house and home if they stayed in one place.”
So the camarasaurs did what any hungry animal would do: they headed out in search of more food, even if it meant a migration of 200 miles into the higher regions and back. Seasonal droughts were probably another factor. The highlands would have had more rainfall and therefore more vegetation and water. When the wet season returned to the basin so would the camarasaur herds. Fricke estimates the seasonal herbivore hikes took around five months to complete. He also thinks if one kind of sauropod migrated, other genera probably did the same, and an analysis of their teeth would probably show similar results.