Stories tagged Earth and Space Science


The Netherlands has a long history of flooding – over half the country is below sea level – and during the North Sea flood of 1953, nearly 2,000 Dutch lost their lives in a flood after sea water breached several dikes and water poured into unsuspecting villages during the night of February 1, 1953. Even before this particular natural disaster, the Dutch had been dealing with the problems of living in a low-lying area, and in the 1950’s embarked on a massive civil-engineering project called Delta Works.

Delta Works is a network of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers that are set up to protect the Netherlands from future flooding. The work is incredibly vast, and was completed in 1997 when the Maeslantkering (the largest moving structure on Earth) was completed.

But now, the Netherlands faces another problem – global warming – and the associated risk of increased winter rain in Europe, according to the climate-change models. That will bring high water to the Meuse and Rhine rivers that flow into Holland. The strategy is now different. Instead of the historic approach of raising the heights of the dikes to contain the rivers, the Netherlands is going to lower some dikes to allow flooding in certain areas of the country to relieve pressure in others. So instead of keeping the water out, they are allowing the water, to a certain extent, go where it wants. The plan, called “Room for the River”, was featured in a recent NPR story. The story includes a cool feature that shows the impact of climate change on low-lying regions around the world.


Moon or Mercury?: This image from the recent Mercury passby of the Messenger spacecraft shows the planet's surface to be much like our Moon's.
Moon or Mercury?: This image from the recent Mercury passby of the Messenger spacecraft shows the planet's surface to be much like our Moon's.Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Just like that person heading back from the photo shop with a new packet of developed film, NASA is sharing its latest views of the planet closest to our solar system’s center. And what we’re seeing is surprising astronomers.

The images were among 1,2000 collected by the Messenger spacecraft as it passed Mercury two-and-a-half weeks ago. A full series of photos and movies is available through this NASA link.

These new photos have uncovered some new discoveries about Mercury’s geology. Particularly interesting is a formation called “The Spider,” a crater-like depression with more than 100 narrow troughs radiating from it.

Also discovered were a bunch of ancient volcanoes and a very cratered, rocky surface that makes Mercury look a lot like our Moon.

Messenger will pass by the planet a couple more times in the coming years before settling into an orbit around the planet in 2011 to do further study. Among the tasks it will tackle on that part of the journey is to examine the magnetic fields that spur out from the planet. As far as astronomers can tell, Mercury is the only other planet along with Earth that has such strong magnetic fields.


Deadly space potato: Expect all basketball games to be canceled tonight.
Deadly space potato: Expect all basketball games to be canceled tonight.Courtesy NASA
Late on the evening of January 29, astronomers expect an asteroid the width of several football fields to pass within spitting distance of the Earth. So close will the proximity be, in fact, that NASA has issued a global statement urging all people over six feet in height to spend the night of the twenty ninth lying down, or at least ducking.

The consequences of a direct collision between a human head and an asteroid somewhere between 150 and 600 meters in diameter, doctors say, could potentially be devastating. Due to the peculiar physics of the situation, it is very likely that the head would suffer the greater damage, turning first into something like strawberry pudding, and then immediately into something like cherry-scented mist. The asteroid may or may not receive a small stain.

Ecologists have expressed concern over the impending event as well. Most humans will easily dodge the astral body by simply reducing their height temporarily. Many animals, however, will not have this option. Giraffes, for instance, are expected to suffer heavily.

As distressing as the prospect of bonking your forehead into such a large piece of space rock may be, astronomers suggest that we look on the bright side, and consider ourselves lucky that the asteroid will not actually impact upon the planet. It is thought that the Earth undergoes a collision of similar scale every 37,000 years or so. Were such an asteroid to hit on land, it would explode like a 1500-megaton bomb, and create a crater three miles wide. Were it to fall in the ocean, which is more likely, it would result in a massive tsunami.

As it will actually be passing about 334,000 miles away from the Earth (about 100,000 miles further out than the moon), any buzzketeers interested in seeing the asteroid should be able to do so with a “modest-sized” telescope, It’s going to look small, though.


Alan Shephard takes a mulligan: The Apollo 14 astronaut duffs one using a makeshift 6 iron. NASA wouldn't let him bring his own clubs.
Alan Shephard takes a mulligan: The Apollo 14 astronaut duffs one using a makeshift 6 iron. NASA wouldn't let him bring his own clubs.Courtesy NASA
There are a couple new films out about the Apollo moon program. Well, at least they’re new to me since I haven’t seen them. I really enjoyed IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON when I saw it last fall, but I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. I thought the Apollo program was the cat’s pajamas, and a high point of the good ol’ USA’s spirit of adventure and exploration. Not to mention our chutzpah for pulling off such an astounding feat in less than a decade from when we declared we were going to do so.

One giant sandtrap for mankind: Alan Shephard's duffed golf ball sets just in front of the near end of the javelin (or is it  the shaft of his broken club?). According to NASA officials, he couldn't hit the broadside of a crater with a handful of moon dust.
One giant sandtrap for mankind: Alan Shephard's duffed golf ball sets just in front of the near end of the javelin (or is it the shaft of his broken club?). According to NASA officials, he couldn't hit the broadside of a crater with a handful of moon dust.Courtesy NASA
The first of the new films is the most recent. Its title is THE WONDER OF IT ALL and I guess deals with the human aspect of the adventures of the 12 men who walked on the Moon back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The film played last weekend at Kennedy Space Center as a benefit for the US Space Walk of Fame in Titusville, Florida in hopes to drum up funds for a planned memorial there for the Apollo program and the astronauts involved.

According to the producers, the award-winning documentary tells “a humanistic story” through interviews with 7 of the Apollo astronauts, that details their lives and how each was affected by walking on the Moon.

The other film is called MAGNIFICENT DESOLATION and is an IMAX production in 3D. It was released in 2005 under the tutelage of none other than Forrest Gump, …er I mean Tom Hanks, who’s listed as producer, co-writer, and narrator. From what I understand, this film is more of a reenactment that simulates what the astronauts saw and did while on the Moon’s surface. It was shot in 3D on a soundstage, and according to Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke “It felt like you were on the Moon driving a rover with those guys. It brought me right back onto the lunar surface.” Hey, maybe they used the same stage where conspiracy theorists claim the real moon missions were faked (there has been criticism that the film provides fodder to those sorts). No matter. I still want to see it. Perhaps the Science Museum will bring it in for a run, if not for our visitors’ sake, at least for mine.


You know, this isn't the picture I'm talking about: Sorry.
You know, this isn't the picture I'm talking about: Sorry.Courtesy billypalooza
Ahoy, Buzzketeers! Put on your astronomy hats and your alien diapers, because Spirit, the Mars rover, has got something crazy to show you: a picture of a person (a Martian person) sitting on a rock on the surface of Mars! (Check out the link for the actual photos.)

“A person on Mars?” you say. “What would a person be doing on Mars?” I knew you would say that, because you’re such a doubter, and the answer is obvious from the picture: they’re waiting for a bus, clearly. At least that’s how the article describes it, and it makes sense, because there’s nothing else to do on the surface of Mars. Unless you’re into rocks.

“You know,” you add, “We’ve seen faces and stuff on Mars before. And they’re made of rock. And they don’t even look very facey when you really check them out.” I knew you would say that, too. Sure, they’re probably just made of rock, but if you’re waiting for a bus (and I didn’t see any buses on the way, so it looks like a long wait) on the frosty surface of mars, it probably helps to be made of rock. I mean, really, take off your astronomy hat for just a second, and put on your thinking cap, because you’ve got to try stepping outside the box on this one.

Pretty rad, huh? Although, I always thought Martians would be, I don’t know, greener.


Artist's concept of Messenger at Mercury.
Artist's concept of Messenger at Mercury.Courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Yesterday at 1:04 p.m. Central Time the Messenger spacecraft passed within 124 miles of Mercury – the first of three gravity assist flybys used to get the spacecraft into orbit around the planet in 2011.

Messenger, launched in 2004, took more than 1,200 images of the planet (including images of the never before seen opposite side of the planet) during this flyby. It is the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since the Mariner 10 in 1975. The data should be arriving back to Earth as I write this on Tuesday.

Follow the links to learn more about the planet, spacecraft and mission.


Satelite Imagery of Sidoarjo before and after Sidoarjo mud flow.
Satelite Imagery of Sidoarjo before and after Sidoarjo mud flow.Courtesy NASA
I saw this story as I was flipping through the January 2008 issue of National Geographic. Since May 2006 a mud volcano has been “erupting” 18.5 million gallons of hot mud a day along with hydrogen sulphide gas in Sidoarjo, East Java, 22 miles south of Indonesia's second largest city, Surabaya. The volcano, called Lusi, has displaced 10,000 families and has cost Indonesia over $3.7 billion to date.

What caused the mud volcano to start erupting is interesting – and up for debate. Initially, PT Lapindo Brantas, an oil and gas company drilling just over 200 yards away when the volcano started to erupt from its drilling rig on May 28, 2006, was blamed, and it was ordered to pay nearly $500 million. However, on May 27, 2006, a major earthquake struck and devastated Yogyakarta on Java (5,782 dead, 36,299 injured, 1.5 million homeless) and this too could have contributed to the mud volcano’s eruption. Skeptics point out that the epicenter of this earthquake was nearly 200 miles away and the earthquake was only 2 on the Richter scale in Sidoarjo. Recent rulings regarding the eruption have called it a “natural disaster”.

Given the amount of the damage, and the impact on the people and the economy and businesses, the issue of who, or what, is responsible is being hotly debated. The disaster is being investigated by local, national and international experts.

There are tons of interesting articles about this on the web – I’ll list a few below. What I highly encourage you to check out are the satellite photos of the region that are available – to visually see the amount of mud that has overtaken this area – up to 60 feet deep in some areas, is remarkable.

These satellite images show the difference in the area around the eruption between October 2005 and August 2006 (scroll down on the page to see the images).

This is the most recent photo of the area. Click on the earlier images to see the spread of the mud over time. It’s scary.

Google site seeing.

A slideshow of images from Greenpeace. The first image is striking.

Inside Indonesia article.


Artist rendition of newly formed planet orbiting its young star
Artist rendition of newly formed planet orbiting its young starCourtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)
Astronomers in Germany have announced the discovery of a newborn planet in a distant solar system.

Johny Setiawan, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, discovered the extrasolar planet using the 2.2m Max-Planck-Gesellschaft telescope in Chile. He said it’s the first and so far earliest example of a planet observed during its formation process.

Planets are thought to form out of the disks of dust and gas swirling around newly created stars. The new planet, catalogued as TW Hydrae b, is situated in the constellation Hydrae some 180 light years from Earth, and is only about 8 or so million years old – a mere baby in terms of planetary formation. In fact, the star it circles isn’t much further along in its own development.

"This demonstrates that planets can form within 10 million years, before the disk has been dissipated by stellar winds and radiation," the researchers explained in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

The gaseous newborn’s mass is about 10 times that of Jupiter in our own solar system, and orbits at a distance of about 4 million miles, just inside the inner edge of its star’s disk of gas and dust.

"The discovery shows that what we always call as 'protoplanetary' disks are indeed protoplanetary; they form planets," Setiawan said. "There are many 'protoplanetary' disks detected around young stars, but no planets so far have been detected within such young systems."

Story at
The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy


Mars: Is the Red Planet on a collision course with an asteroid?
Mars: Is the Red Planet on a collision course with an asteroid?Courtesy NASA
The planet Mars may be in for a collision from an asteroid headed its way. Scientists from NASA have been tracking the 160-foot-wide asteroid for some time now, and say the odds of it hitting the Red Planet are about 1 in 75. Back in 1908, Earth was hit by a similar asteroid, near Tunguska, Siberia. That impact flattened millions of trees and is thought to have left a crater that is now a lake.

I remember the excitement I felt peering through my brother's telescope and seeing the effects of the Shoemaker-Levy comet when it collided with Jupiter back in July of 1994. You could just make out some of the dark holes punched into Jupiter's surface from the comet fragments. Very exciting considering we were witnessing it from over half a billion miles away.

The view of this possible impact could even be better. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently mapping the Martian surface, could capture a the best view of such an event - unless by chance this thing impacts in range of the cameras of one of the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, currently exploring the planet's environs.

If a collision does take place, it's expected to happen on January 30, 2008, which by the way is my birthday. What a great present that would be!

Associated Press story


Extreme volcanism may have put the kibosh on the Mesozoic: Unaware of their impending doom, dinosaur contemporaries frolic in the Late Cretaceous sea.
Extreme volcanism may have put the kibosh on the Mesozoic: Unaware of their impending doom, dinosaur contemporaries frolic in the Late Cretaceous sea.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The mass-extinction that signaled the end of the Cretaceous period, as well as the Age of Dinosaurs has long been blamed on an Earth-shaking collision with an asteroid that struck 65 million years ago near Chicxulub on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Some scientists however have long argued that extreme episodes of volcanism around the same time played a significant if not major role in the event.

Now, a Princeton University paleontologist claims that evidence in the fossil record adds weight to the latter argument saying the volcanic activity that poured out massive amounts of toxic gases and the expansive flood basalts in India’s Deccan Traps may have been the real villain in the Mesozoic era’s demise.

In a recent presentation at the Geological Society of America, Gerta Keller explained that microfossils known as foraminifera show steep decline nearly half a million years before the Chicxulub asteroid event happened, and just when the Deccan event was beginning.

The volcanoes poured huge amounts of toxic gasses into the atmosphere, and flooded something like 600,000 square miles of south-central India with lava flows. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the outpouring, when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, the volcano unleashed a cubic kilometer of volcanic material. And the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city of Pompeii nineteen hundred years earlier had poured out something like 8 cubic kilometers. But the Deccan event is estimated to have produced 512,000 cubic kilometers!! Yikes!

Just prior to the end of the Cretaceous period, the Deccan eruptions would have released massive plumes of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere – possibly ten times more toxic gases than generated by a meteor impact, according to one volcanologist. At any rate, it set off extreme global warming and acid rain, and significantly weakened the biosphere. When the asteroid arrived a half-million years later, the environment would have been ripe for collapse. Nearly thirty years ago, physicist Luis Alvarez and his geologist son, Walter, discovered the crater at Chicxulub, and claimed that asteroid that created it could be the one responsible for the dinosaurs’ demise. But Keller thinks it may have been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The Chicxulub impact could not have caused the mass extinction," she said, "because this impact predates the mass extinction and apparently didn't cause any extinctions."

Keller studied the sediments directly above and below the Chicxulub impact layer, in Mexico, Texas, and India, expecting to find evidence of a new bloom of plankton to fill the void left by a mass extinction. Instead, she found no significant change in the micro-marine environment.

"We cannot attribute any specific extinctions to this impact,” she said. But where she did find evidence of a new bloom was in strata that had been laid down 300,000 years after Chicxulub and just about the time when the output of the Deccan volcanoes would have been at its greatest.

In India, near the Bay of Bengal, about 1000 kilometers from the Deccan lava fields, Keller discovered two lava “traps” each with four lava layers. The telltale bloom of microfossils was found in nine meters of marine sediment located just above the lower trap, which marks the Deccan event’s climax.
"We've shown convincingly the mass extinction came about 300,000 years after the asteroid impact,” she said.

But what about the famous iridium layer found in the K-T boundary? If the Chicxulub impact didn’t produce it, then where did it come from?

Keller thinks a second asteroid impact – not the Chicxulub one- may have been responsible for laying down the worldwide iridium layer that divides the Cretaceous and Tertiary rock layers. Direct evidence of this later impact (such as a crater) has not yet been found.

But to add fuel to the fire –pun definitely intended- it may be that the iridium source isn’t even extraterrestrial at all. Volcanism could be another possible source of increased iridium in the rock layer. The Deccan eruptions were peaking right at the time of the dinosaurs’ demise and maybe that’s all that was needed to send them on their way into extinction.

At any rate, the case against the dinosaurs’ killer or killers is certainly not closed.

Story at ScienceDaily
The Chicxulub debate on Gerta Keller's site
More on the Deccan Traps
More on the Deccan Traps Extinction Theory
The Cretaceous Extinction Event