Stories tagged Earth and Space Science

Jul
15
2008

Are we next?: No. Definitely not.
Are we next?: No. Definitely not.Courtesy NASA
Y’all know what “fratricide” is? It’s when a brother kills a brother. Or when a sister kills her brother. Or when a sister and a brother kill their brother. Any combination, really, involving a brother getting iced.

Well, it has happened on Jupiter. A little brother has been torn apart by his giant siblings. And by giant, I mean many times the size of earth.

The Great Red Spot is a huge hurricane-like storm on the surface of Jupiter. The storm has been spinning for several hundred years, and has a diameter about three times that of Earth. Also, it’s red.

The spot happens to have a couple of little brothers, too, named Red Spot Jr. (or Oval Ba, if you can’t get your head around having a little brother that’s your “Jr.”) and the Little Red Spot. Or, I should say, it had a couple of little brothers. Now it has a little brother, and some spare brother chunks. You see, Great Red Spot, and Red Spot Jr. tore Little Red Spot to shreds last week.

Officials are still baffled as to the motive, but what we know is this: LRS was strolling innocently through its neighborhood of Jupiter when it was ambushed from either side by GRS and RSJ. No weapons are thought to have been involved, ironically making the crime that much more brutal—the larger storms ripped their little brother apart with their own stormy hands, and when GRS and RSJ ran off, all that was left of LRS were sad little shreds.

The proximity of the incident has complicated investigation, to say the least, but I have my own theories. Red Spot Junior, as it happens, only recently earned its title—it was not until only two years ago that it actually turned red. I think that RSJ may have been long overdue to prove itself as a true red spot. Both intimidated and protected by its larger brother, RSJ was content to allow GRS to be the planet’s muscle. Over the months, however, I guess that RSJ’s desire to prove itself intensified, or that GRS tired of doing its little brother’s dirty work. Either way, the two larger spots turned their sites towards their small brother, always the “simplest” of the three. I think it’s very likely that GRS provided cover and just watched while RSJ did the butcher’s work, but the blood doesn’t stand out on its recently acquired coloring.

The red color of the spots, although no doubt symbolic of their bloodthirsty hearts, is not entirely understood. It’s thought that the color may come from material sucked from deep in the planet as the storms get stronger. Phosphorus-containing molecules, for instance would turn red when exposed to sunlight on the planet’s surface.

Astronomers the world over are reeling from the violent act.

Jul
07
2008

God save the queen: From abduction, probing, and public ridicule.
God save the queen: From abduction, probing, and public ridicule.Courtesy .kol tregaskes
That’s kind of a bummer, isn’t it? Right?

Aliens (space aliens) and America used to be like pizza and beer, adenine and thymine, Johnny and June; we were inseparable. We dissected them and hid their crash sites, and they mutilated our surplus cattle and probed our rural drunks.

And now they’ve crossed the pond to shack up with a foxier mistress with a more sophisticated accent: Lady Britannia.

Sure, there was that awesome sighting in Texas in January, but since then all aliens seem to care about is England. Apparently, it has been a crazy year for UFO sightings in Britain.

Dozens of reported UFO sightings across the country have got British extraterrestrial enthusiasts stammering, dropping their h’s, and constructing fresh tinfoil hats. Out of Cadbury egg wrappers. In their spare time, they’re working on theories for the increasing number of encounters, a favorite being aliens’ concern over global warming and what man is doing to the planet. I suppose the best way to warn humanity of the dangers of climate change is to zoom past small towns in the middle of the night, but I have a different theory—the aliens want to take over Earth, but it’s still too cold for them to comfortably inhabit the planet, so they’re idling their high-energy spacecrafts in our low atmosphere to release even more greenhouse gases. They’ve probably picked England because of the low number of firearms in the country—who needs to have the locals taking potshots at you all night?

Anyway, we’ve been dumped. Again.

Jul
01
2008

Good lookin', bad soundin': Radiowaves that get caught up in the Northern Lights are creating some annoying noises that zap out into space.
Good lookin', bad soundin': Radiowaves that get caught up in the Northern Lights are creating some annoying noises that zap out into space.Courtesy NASA
No wonder aliens want to attack the Earth with such regularity in the movies. From out in space, we sound pretty annoying, like that renter in the apartment above you who insists on playing Yoko Ono records at 2:30 in the morning.

You laugh, but new recordings from space show that Earth, our home, makes an array of nasty sounds that ring out across the universe.

Scientists have actually known about this phenomenon since the 1970s. But today we have some audio evidence of this annoying noise. So what’s happening?

There’s a bunch of radiation created high above our planet. Solar winds blow it into Earth’s magnetic field and then things start to get loud. Basically, this radiation gets sucked into the same conditions that cause the Northern Lights. While they look great, they sound horrible – sorta like Brittney Spears.

Earth’s ionosphere keeps the radio waves created in this action from coming down toward us, which is a good thing. That’s because they’re about 10,000 times stronger than any radio signals we have on our planet.

Satellites from the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, however, have now detected strong beams of these annoying radio waves out in space.

Click here to hear a sample of what this space noise sounds like. Personally, I think I’ve experienced this sound, much quieter, after eating a bad burrito.

Jun
20
2008

Ho ho, Buzzers, get used to it: Because you'll be seeing a lot of this little star today. And pretty much every day.
Ho ho, Buzzers, get used to it: Because you'll be seeing a lot of this little star today. And pretty much every day.Courtesy Lykaestria
That’s right, folks! If you aren’t already up on your solstice news, it’s today! The north end up the Earth’s axis is at maximum tilt towards our yellow sun, and that means it’s the longest day of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Yes!

Things to consider:

  • It’s vampire safety day! Sock it to the sun-fearing undead, and enjoy a super long day with no fear of attack by blood suckers (except, you know, mosquitos)!
  • You know that goofy, blue, photosensitive paper you can put keys and flowers and stuff on, and then develop it in your tub for a silhouette of keys and flowers and stuff? You can use that stuff for hours and hours today! Do it!
  • In Antarctica today (and for weeks and weeks to come!) they won’t see the sun at all! Enjoy that, scientists!
  • Your summer magic will be particularly potent today! Work on your spells, wizards!
  • If you’ve got a solar car, today is your day! Head for the mountains!
  • Exclamation points are free today!! Until sunset!!!! Use them all you want!!!
Jun
17
2008


Here's one in your eye, Moon!: Now stay gone!Courtesy Modemac
Take back the night, Buzzketeers! Too long has the moon made fools of us—it toys with our precious water, it lights up our most secret of outdoor moments, and it turns good, hard-working men and women into werewolves. So don’t let it trick you on top of all that.

Tomorrow is a full moon, one of the very sneakiest of moons, so be prepared—it’s very likely that you will think that the moon is bigger as it is just starting to rise than it is during the rest of its furtive trip across the sky. Do not be hoodwinked! This is a malicious collusion between the moon and your brain, which believes itself to be a very, very tiny moon, and will betray anyone, even you (especially you!), to gain favor with Moon Supreme.

The moon, of course, is the very same size near the horizon as it will be when it is directly above you. Your brain tries to tell you that it is bigger when it is at the horizon because we’re used to seeing things at the horizon as being very far away. When we see things above us, like clouds, they’re only a few miles away, and we aren’t impressed.

Tomorrow, show your brain just who’s boss. I recommend doing one of two things: a) rent the Cameron Diaz feature The Sweetest Thing, and then throw yourself down the basement steps, or b) hold a small object, say, a sea urchin, up at arm’s length against the moon when it’s rising, and again when it’s high in the sky—the moon will not have changed size. Your brain should be so embarrassed that it won’t trouble you again for days, and you will have stolen away one of the moon’s most valued secrets.

If you want to read this explanation again, but in a more original form and with diagrams, why don’t you go here?

Jun
13
2008

Junk food or junk science?: Six hours worth of advertising for Doritos chips have been beamed out in to space as a signal to other life forms that there's crispy, tasty, good times available on Earth.
Junk food or junk science?: Six hours worth of advertising for Doritos chips have been beamed out in to space as a signal to other life forms that there's crispy, tasty, good times available on Earth.Courtesy ீ ๑ Adam
We can’t escape advertising, can we? It’s there along the roadside, imbedded on the results of our web search and even on the bathroom stall wall. And now it’s off into space.

Six-straight hours of Doritos advertising have been beamed out into space from a European space station located on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle. The message is directed at the Ursa Major constellation, which is just 42 light years from Earth. That location was targeted as astronomers figure it has the best chances of hosting a planet that can support life forms, and potential Doritos eaters.

And while the effects of advertising are always hard to measure, these space scientists aren’t expecting the message to have a huge impact on Doritos sales. The actual advertisement has been broken down into a MPEG file that is just a series of “0s” and “1s”. The hope is that any one receiving the message will understand it as a message coming across with some intelligence and to perk the receiver’s curiosity in wanting to see where it came from.

But I ask you, is it really intelligent to try to entice an alien to come 42 light years to Earth in the hope of getting some Doritos? After all, the package expiration date doesn’t come close to lasting that long.

Actually, Doritos made a donation to the space station in exchange for having its advertisement sent into space. But I ask you, what kind of message would you send out into space to encourage intelligent life to come investigate Earth?

Jun
11
2008

From time to time as I gather up the questions from the on-site Scientist on the Spot features we find some good questions that don’t connect well to the featured researcher. Here are some of those questions.

Why are stars circles?

Iapetus' equatorial ridge
Iapetus' equatorial ridgeCourtesy NASA
I am assuming you mean, why are they round or spheres? It’s because of gravity. The larger something is (or the more mass something has) the more gravity it has. That gravity pulls equally in, so that’s why stars and planets are round, gravity makes them that way. The fancy-pants scientific name for this is isostatic adjustment.

But the Earth, for example, is not a perfect sphere – it bulges out in the middle because of its rotation. Smaller asteroids are oddly shaped because they don’t have enough mass to produce the gravity necessary to pull them into spheres. Some planets are oddly shaped too, and scientists are not sure exactly why. Saturn’s moon Iapetus is a great example. It is for some reason shaped more like a walnut and has an equatorial ridge that scientists cannot come to a conclusion as to how it formed.

What is a pimple?

Well, our skin has pores which are connected to glands that produce sebum – like an oil. Sebum is a good thing - it acts to protect and waterproof our skin, and keeps it from becoming dry. When these pores get blocked by dirt or dead skin (which we shed constantly) the secretions of sebum that would normally come from the pore are blocked and build up. These can become infected with bacteria which causes pimples to form.

The harder question is for me – to pop or not to pop. I can’t resist popping a pimple – it is a character flaw that has resulted in me sporting many a wound worse than the original zit. A great “how to pop a pimple” step-by-step is posted here.

Why do beans make us fart?

When food gets to your large intestine it is eaten by the 200+ different species of bacteria that live there and target parts of the food our stomach and small intestines can't digest, and gasses such as methane, hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide are produced as a by-product. Beans contain several sugars that we can’t digest, so lots of gas is produced by bacteria eating the otherwise indigestible material.

What is the scientific name for a pig?

Sus scrofa domestica.

What is the moon?

The big whack
The big whackCourtesy NASA
You mean besides being the only natural satellite of the Earth and the cause of the tides and so forth?

I think that the Earth collision theory (also known as the Big Whack) for the creation of the moon is the coolest, and is the one that is the most accepted today. The hypothesis goes that a Mars-sized (Mars is less than half the size of the Earth) planet collided with Earth a looooooooooong time ago and the debris that was created orbited around the damaged Earth and formed into the moon through a process called accretion – or the growth of large bodies like the moon by gravitationally attracting more matter. So the little bits of debris were attracted to bigger and bigger bits as the bigger bits had more gravity. As we learned above, the spherical shape arises from gravity as well. It is believed that as a result of the collision the smaller planet (Theia) was destroyed, ejecting its mantle into space while its core sank into Earth’s core.

Did you know that the moon is in synchronous rotation with the Earth? That means it keeps nearly the same face turned towards the Earth at all times.

Jun
10
2008

Soaring to space: The dual-hulled WhiteKnightTwo will soar through the atmosphere to an altitude of 50,000 feet where it will then launch SpaceShipTwo, cradled in the middle, off to space. WhiteKnightTwo should be ready for initial testing next month.
Soaring to space: The dual-hulled WhiteKnightTwo will soar through the atmosphere to an altitude of 50,000 feet where it will then launch SpaceShipTwo, cradled in the middle, off to space. WhiteKnightTwo should be ready for initial testing next month.Courtesy Virgin Galactic
While we’ve been getting cranked up here at SMM about this week’s opening of the Star Wars exhibit, where people will be able to get the virtual feel of what it’s like to be in one of the popular sci-fi movies, the folks at Virgin Galactic are frying up some bigger space fish.

Next month in the anticipated date for the roll-out of WhiteKnightTwo, a mother-ship aircraft that will be fly high into the sky to launch smaller crafts into space. The first big application of this technology, space tourism flights, are targeted to start in 2009. You can plunk down a down payment of $20,000 for a $200,000 ticket on a flight by clicking here to get to the Virgin Galactic website.

A shuttle for tourists: This diagram shows how SpaceShipTwo will work once it gets into space and also how it prepares for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
A shuttle for tourists: This diagram shows how SpaceShipTwo will work once it gets into space and also how it prepares for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.Courtesy Virgin Galactic
Here’s how it works. After taking off from a conventional airstrip, WhiteKnightTwo will climb to about 50,000 feet carrying the craft SpaceShipTwo in the space between its twin bodies.

SpaceShipTwo then fires its rockets and releases from WhiteKnightTwo roaring into a suborbital path 68 miles above the earth. In space, it can reach a speed of more than three times the speed of sound.

After giving its six passengers a unique view of space scenery and the experience of weightlessness, SpaceShipTwo turns back to Earth. Moving into the atmosphere, it extends its wings and aerodynamically flies back to the airstrip as a conventional plane landing.

Reservations have already been made by 254 people to take part in the flights. Virgin Galactic is shooting at booking 500 to 600 passengers before beginning flights. And the company’s business model shows that with that kind of participation, the endeavor will be profitable.

In the meantime, Virgin Galactic will be doing testing on the WhiteKnightTwo, with 130 to 150 test flights on the docket before commercial operations. Preliminary tests on SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne were done in 2004.

Operations are currently being based at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, but an official terminal for the “spaceline” is currently under construction in New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo will be brought out to the public sometime early next year.

Along with carrying passengers in SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic foresees WhiteKnightTwo being able to carry other payloads up toward space, including microsatellites. Also, WhiteKnightTwo could be used to carry huge water tanks for flyovers of forest fires.

Jun
02
2008

Footprint on Mars?: Probably not.
Footprint on Mars?: Probably not.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
When this image first appeared on computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, scientists there were head-over-heels about the possibility that the Phoenix lander that settled on Mars last week had finally discovered tangible evidence of the Abominable Snowman. They even named it Yeti after the legendary Himalayan creature.

Frozen water on Mars?: Close-up of the "Snow Queen" feature discovered under the Phoenix lander has the appearance of frozen water.
Frozen water on Mars?: Close-up of the "Snow Queen" feature discovered under the Phoenix lander has the appearance of frozen water.Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute
But their excitement soon turned to disappointment when they realized the marking was just a test scraping made by the Mars lander's robotic arm. All was not lost however. Their emotional rollercoaster was soon headed upward again as they discovered that the lander's descent engines had blown away the topsoil and uncovered a large patch of ice right beneath the spacecraft. Exactly what it was sent there to find!

Scientist are hopeful the ice extends into the region the lander will be sampling in the coming days. They may even hope to find evidence of Elvis, but personally I think they should lower their expectations and stick to searching for other, less iconic, signs of life on the planet.

Want to read more about all this heartache and serendipity? Then go here and here .

May
27
2008

See Spots spin: In recent years, Jupiter has picked up a couple new red spots. While the Great Red Spot (right) has raged for hundreds of years, newer smaller red  spots -- Red Spot, Jr., (middle) and "Baby Spot" (left) have emerged.
See Spots spin: In recent years, Jupiter has picked up a couple new red spots. While the Great Red Spot (right) has raged for hundreds of years, newer smaller red spots -- Red Spot, Jr., (middle) and "Baby Spot" (left) have emerged.Courtesy M. Wong and I. de Pater (University of California, Berkeley)
New images from the Hubble Telescope show that the Giant Planet has picked up a couple more red spots, smaller but very near to the Great Red Spot.

Images taken earlier this month discovered the third red spot on the planet, which has been nicknamed “Baby spot.” Red Spot, Jr., was discovered in spring 2006. The Great Red Spot, which is a raging storm about the same size as our Earth, has been churning in Jupiter’s atmosphere for 200 to 350 years.

“Baby Spot” had been a white storm prior to taking on its reddish appearance. Scientists believe the red color come from clouds reacting to solar ultraviolet radiation.

Why is Jupiter getting a surge of extra red spots? Researchers think that it has to do with climate changes on the planet. In 2004 a California astronomer predicted that the planet was moving into a phase of warming temperatures that would destabilize its atmosphere.

“Baby Spot” is on a collision course with the Great Red Spot and could be gobbled up by it later this summer or bounced into a different location on the planet.

National Geopgraphic link