Stories tagged Earth and Space Science

Jan
31
2008

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.

Jan
29
2008

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.

Jan
24
2008

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.

Jan
15
2008

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.

Jan
14
2008

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.

Jan
04
2008

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."

MORE INFORMATION

BBC.com story
Story at SpaceRef.com
The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

Dec
12
2007

Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.
Rolling discovery: The Mars rover Spirit, similar to this NASA rover called Fido, has made an unusual discovery of clues to life on Mars because of a bad wheel.Courtesy NASA
There’s nothing quite as deflating, figuratively, as a getting a flat tire. And what about if you’re a space rover on Mars, where there’s no shop to go to get your tire fixed?

That’s what NASA’s Spirit Mars rover has been dealing with since its right front tire went bad nearly two years ago. It didn’t go flat, but it’s quit turning forcing NASA to move the rover around in reverse ever since, trailing the stuck wheel behind.

But nearly a year later, that astronomic misfortune has led to an interesting discovery. Ruts carved by the bad wheel last May churned up a bright spot in the rover’s wake.

Rover guiders turned the craft back to the colorful streak for a closer look and discovered that the rock contains high levels of silica. Upon further investigation, however, another nearby rock cracked open that was jam-packed with silica.

You’re wondering what’s the big deal?

Well, on Earth high levels of silica occur only in two places: hot springs or fumaroles, which are environments near volcanoes where acidic steam rises through cracks in the ground. In each of those environments on Earth, water is present and the area is teeming with life forms.

NASA Mars researchers are terming the discovery, made through these very accidental means, as one of the biggest breakthroughs to discovering life forms could have existed on the Red Planet.

By the way, if the bad wheel isn’t enough of a problem for Spirit, it’s also been through a bad dust storm which has coated much of its solar panels with grit. Because of that, it’s only operating at about 30 percent power and rover operators will soon be driving it up a higher altitude for a rest and to have the panels wind-cleaned.

Dec
11
2007

Streaming space light: Satellites on NASA's Themis mission have discovered what may be some of the mysteries behind the northern lights. Charged particles from the sun are blasting through magnetic fields stretching out from Earth's upper atmosphere, bursting with the energy of a medium earthquake.
Streaming space light: Satellites on NASA's Themis mission have discovered what may be some of the mysteries behind the northern lights. Charged particles from the sun are blasting through magnetic fields stretching out from Earth's upper atmosphere, bursting with the energy of a medium earthquake.Courtesy NASA
I know the source of the energy that powers the Christmas lights in my home’s windows: the outlet on my wall. No surprises there.

But today scientists announced that they have found what they believe is the energy source behind the spectacular views that make up the northern lights. NASA’s Themis mission has used five satellites to track down this magical, astronomical phenomenon.

What’s been discovered is that charged particles from the sun are flowing through space and are twisted through magnetic fields that link Earth’s upper atmosphere to the sun.

The satellites were launched last winter and on one two-hour span of time, measured the particle flows while northern lights were shimmering over Alaska and Canada in March.

If you’ve ever seen the northern lights, you know how cool and magical they can look. But you really wouldn’t want to get too close.

The same satellites measured the forces flowing through the March light show and found that the charged particles were moving around 400 miles per hour. The movement and energy release of their passing through the magnetic field was about the same as a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.

Dec
10
2007

A meteor streaking across the night sky: The Geminid meteor shower peaks this week on the night of December 13-14.  Photo by Jeff Smallwood at flickr.com.
A meteor streaking across the night sky: The Geminid meteor shower peaks this week on the night of December 13-14. Photo by Jeff Smallwood at flickr.com.

The last big meteor shower of 2007 will hit this week, and it's expected to be a doozy! The 2007 Geminid meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13, though meteors may be visible any night this week. What's more, it's supposed to be the best shower of the year! (And I can attest from personal experience that most of the previous showers this year have been a disappointment.)

If you want to catch the show, here's what you do:

  • Head out before 10 pm local time.
  • Bring a lawn chair or sleeping bag.
  • Dress warmly. A thermos of hot chocolate is optional, but highly recommended.
  • Get away from city lights.
  • Set up chair or sleeping bag, and sit / lie down.
  • Look up.

That should do it. The shower will increase as the night goes on, reaching rates of about one meteor per minute by dawn. (Folks who don't want to pull an all-nighter are advised to go out after midnight.)

The meteors will appear to be coming out of the constellation Gemini, about half-way up the sky in the east. But they will be streaking all across the heavens, so you don't really need to be facing in any particular direction.

No special equipment is needed. Meteors are visible to the naked eye. In fact, using a telescope or binoculars will actually hurt your chances of seeing a meteor, as they focus your attention on a small area. You want to keep scanning the entire sky.

For more information on the Geminid meteors, go here.

For tips on meteor watching, go here.

And, as a special treat, both Jupiter and Saturn should be visible that night as well.

Dec
10
2007

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?