Stories tagged Earth and Space Science


The crew of STS-120: Image courtesy NASA.
The crew of STS-120: Image courtesy NASA.
NASA space shuttle mission STS-120 this October will be brining more to the International Space Station (ISS) than the Harmony module, which will provide attachment points for European and Japanese laboratory modules. In addition, it will bring the original prop lightsaber from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The prop is being flown to the ISS to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise, which began with 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

As both a Star Wars nut and a fan of most things space related, I read this story with mixed feelings. Is this more a PR opportunity for Star Wars or NASA? Star Wars can almost do no wrong in my mind (except possibly with Jar-Jar Binks) and I wonder if this story, while giving props to Star Wars, isn’t really more of a boost to NASA for being associated with something cool like Star Wars. Personally, I think a lot of stuff NASA does is cool but I know a lot of people who could care less about NASA and space in general (I call them “space haters”).

And, hey, its something fun. I’ve read a few blogs that are accusing NASA of wasting funds on this, but I doubt this cost NASA much in terms of money, and probably has exposed them in a fun and positive light. I’m all for it.


Endeavour’s belly: A view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour as the crew puts the shuttle though a rendezvous pitch maneuver, allowing the crewmembers on the nearby International Space Station to document the vehicle's thermal protection system condition.  Image courtesy NASA.
Endeavour’s belly: A view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour as the crew puts the shuttle though a rendezvous pitch maneuver, allowing the crewmembers on the nearby International Space Station to document the vehicle's thermal protection system condition. Image courtesy NASA.
NASA is still mulling over whether to repair the 3 1/2-inch-long, 2-inch-wide gouge in two tiles on Endeavour’s belly. There are thousands of these tiles that cover Endeavour’s belly that protect it from the heat of reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Current status is that the earliest NASA will have a decision is Thursday. NASA has earlier indicated that they did not feel it is necessary to fix the gouge, but were withholding a final decision until heat-blasting tests were completed. The concern is not that the gouge could result in another Columbia-like disaster during reentry, but that heat will get through to the aluminum structure underneath the tiles resulting in lengthy post-mission repairs.

As I have been hearing about this situation my mind drifts back to a Popular Science article I read a few weeks ago about space diving. Both the space-age equivalent of super-extreme sky diving and also a potential alternate method for astronauts to return to Earth should their spaceship be unsafe to do so, space diving is being developed by a new company called Orbital Outfitters. Their ambitious plan is to demonstrate a 120,000-foot jump in one of their space dive suits by 2009 and a 60-mile space dive within two years.


Barbara Morgan
Barbara Morgan
Astronaut Barbara Morgan is also a teacher. Several educational sessions are scheduled for the STS-118 mission.

Students from Challenger Learning Centers interact with Astronauts on Wednesday August 15th at 11am and 3pm; Shuttle Downlink with astronauts Barbara Morgan and Rick Mastracchio on Thursday August 16.(more info)

I am watching Barbara Morgan live on the NASA TV as she uses the shuttle's arm to install the external stowage platform. Yesterday a new gyroscope was installed. To follow activities I recommend these links:

I use the windows media link because it allows full screen viewing. If you want to use other video formats they are here.


A Permian anteosaurus: He feels vaguely nervous, and oddly sweaty.  (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
A Permian anteosaurus: He feels vaguely nervous, and oddly sweaty. (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
65 million years ago something very sad happened. Well, it was sad for the dinosaurs, because they all died, but great for us mammals. Here – I’ve written a little play about it:

Scene 1
Dinosaur 1: Hey, have you noticed that there seem to be a lot less of us these days?
Dinosaur 2: What? I don’t know. Why?
Dinosaur 1: Probably just my imagination. Forget about it.
Dinosaur 2: …
Dinosaur 1: Hey, what’s that thing up there?
Dinosaur 2: We call it the sun.
Dinosaur 1: No, that thing – it’s getting bigger, I think.
Dinosaur 2: Oh, not to change the subject, but did you watch Entourage last nigh*

Scene 2
(fiery, dusty chaos)

Scene 3
Rodent-like mammal: Yes!

The End

Anyway, the extinction at the end of the Mesozoic (dinosaur times) was a big deal. But, dramatic as it likely was, it was nothing compared to the extinction at the beginning of the Mesozoic.

Before the dinosaurs existed, the world was ruled by a different kind of animal, the therapsids, or “mammal-like reptiles.” These ranged from little rat like guys to huge fanged and clawed lion-like creatures. About 250 million years ago, though, at the end of the Permian period, there was an extinction event way bigger than the one that would eventually kill all the dinosaurs.

The Permian extinction killed off 90% of all the life on the planet, both on land and in the oceans. Life as we know it just squeaked by complete annihilation. The thing is, scientists still aren’t sure exactly what initiated the extinction. Whatever it was, it caused massive amounts of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. The earth would have gotten warmer and warmer, the oceans would have become acidic, and by the time things got back to normal, almost every species on the planet had died out.

Jonathan Payne, a paleobiologist at Stanford, is investigating one of the possible causes of the extinction – a massive volcanic eruption occurring at the end of the Permian. This eruption was the larger than any other that has happened in the last 600 million years, and it spread a four-mile thick sheet of basalt the size of the continental US over Asia. Along with the poisonous gases spewed by the volcano itself, it is believed that the spreading magma may have heated the coal-rich strata near the eruption and released vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Then, you know, the whole horrible global warming and acidic oceans thing.

Fortunately, for all our CO2 production, we aren’t yet in the Permian extinction league of global warming gases. Still, Payne is comparing contemporary signs of global warming to those leading up to the Permian event. For example, under increasing environmental stresses, coral colonies tend to bleach (as algae leaves the reefs). Researchers will be examining fossilized coral colonies from the end of the Permian to see how they reacted to the changing environment. "We hope to reconcile the short-term processes we observe operating in the modern world with the very long time scales seen in the geologic record," says a researcher in Payne’s lab. If the analogy works, we could better understand the processes of past environmental change, as well as the potential future effects of the environmental changes that are occurring today.

My own theory regarding the Permian extinction largely focuses on the refusal of therapsis to carpool, and their insistence on driving larger vehicles than they really needed (cyconodonts were notorious SUV lovers). Unfortunately, this is extremely difficult to verify in the fossil record. I chalk this up to the poor preservation of pre-Triassic GM products, or, possibly, to the fact that therapsids had adapted to finding (and then losing) well concealed parking spots (they were, after all, much more primitive than us).


A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought.  (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought. (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

We here at Science Buzz have discussed global warming a time or two. And long-time readers know that I am The Science Museum’s resident global warming skeptic. Not a denier – I recognize that the Earth’s temperatures have been generally increasing over the last 25 to 30 years, and I’ll admit that human-produced carbon dioxide could well be a contributing factor. However, I am skeptical about claims that human activity is the sole or even primary cause of this warming; that there is a simple, direct correlation between our actions and global climate; or that the planet is headed toward some sort of ecological disaster in the next 10 years if we don’t do something drastic now.

Toward that end, I keep an eye on the various global warming threads, and try to temper the more intemperate comments made by those who hold different views. (And they do the same for me, of course.) So, in the course of a debate, if someone says “the Earth is warming,” I correct them by pointing out that the Earth has warmed: global temperatures rose in the 1980s and ‘90s, peaked in the US in 1998, and have held steady or dropped slightly since.

I have recently learned that this was wrong. As painful as it is for me to admit, I must set the record straight: temperatures in the US did not peak in 1998. They actually peaked in…


In 1934, the world’s population was a fraction of what it is today. (One-sixth, more or less.) Manufacturing and industry were smaller. The number of cars and the miles traveled in them were far fewer. Commercial air travel – a huge producer of greenhouse gases – was in its infancy.

(1934 was also the year my mother was born and, in a coincidence science has thus far been unable to explain, the year Yoko Ono was born.)

And yet despite the lower levels of greenhouse gas, 1934 was warmer than any other year, before or since. And while global temperatures had been generally increasing since about 1890, they leveled off around 1940 and even took a slight dip in the 1970s. All of which indicates that record-high temperatures may not be the harbinger of doom so many assume them to be.

So, how could I have made such a drastic mistake? Well, I’m not the only one. Y’see, I was relying on a temperature chart produced by NASA scientists Reto Reudy and James Hansen. Their graph showed temperatures spiking in the late ‘90s, and staying near that peak.

Of course, other people were studying that chart, too. One of them, Steve McIntyre, thought it looked a little fishy. So he asked Hansen for the formula he used to produce his chart. Hansen, operating in the spirit of openness and transparency that is the hallmark of science and a requirement of the federal government…refused. (Other scientists have also accused some federal agencies of not sharing their data so it can be reviewed.) So McIntyre reverse-engineered the formula from the published data. And he found something interesting.

Temperature data from many reporting stations around the country suddenly jumped around the year 2000. After some digging, McIntyre found an error in the formula used to process the data. As a result, Reudy and Hansen reported many years as being warmer than they really were.

(Is this the same James Hansen who has accused the Bush administration of playing politics with science, trying to suppress views that contradict their positions and cherry-picking data that advances its agenda? Why, yes it is!)

NASA has recomputed the figures and issued a new set of corrected data. It now shows that five of the ten warmest years on record occurred before World War II, when global temps leveled off and later fell. Four of the years in our current decade which were supposed to have been near record highs were actually colder than 1900.

Minnesotans can be proud that their state played a role in uncovering this mistake. It was data at the Detroit Lakes station that first led McIntyre to believe something was amiss.

So, what lesson do we learn from all this? That I need to be more skeptical. I have to stop believing everything I read in the New York Times. I need to recognize that even rocket scientists can sometimes make mistakes.

So my promise to you, dear readers, is I will check my sources and do my best never to fall for this sort of mistake again.


Sky spy: This new device -- the SkyScout -- uses GPS to take all the guess work out of astronomy. Point the videocamera-sized unit at light in the heavens and it wiil identify what it is. (Photo from Celestron)
Sky spy: This new device -- the SkyScout -- uses GPS to take all the guess work out of astronomy. Point the videocamera-sized unit at light in the heavens and it wiil identify what it is. (Photo from Celestron)
Looking for that special gift for the astronomer who has everything?

Have you heard about SkyScout? It’s a nifty new tool that costs about $400 but makes identifying things you spot in the heavens a lot easier.

About the size of video camera, the unit made by Celestron can help you identify a particular light you’re seeing in the sky. Or, you can punch in key data and have scan the skies so you can find a particular star or planet.

How does it work?

When you turn on the unit, SkyScout’s global positioning systems first work to identify where you’re at and what day and time it is. By placing the object you want to identify at the center of its concentric circle viewing scope, it then reads landmark stars and objects in the sky to zero in on the item you’re interested in. An audio option can be turned on so that SkyScout will verbally tell you what you’re looking at.

On the flip side, if you want to find Venus, let’s say, you’d simply click on that celestial body on the SkyScout’s menu. Arrows in the viewfinder will guide to move SkyScout in the right directions to that you ultimately get it in your sights. SkyScout has a database of 6,000 heavenly bodies to search out that way.

A Star-Tribune story that ran over the weekend about the unit said that one local astronomy store – Radio City in Moundsview – can’t keep the units on the shelf. And a competitor product, MySky, has just entered the market.

What do you think of this new application of GPS? Have you tried a SkyScout or MySky? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.


At the Science Museum of Minnesota you can ask our featured Scientist on the Spot a question either using a computer interface or the old fashioned way – with a paper and pencil. Some of the handwritten questions veer a little off topic. But they are still good questions, and deserve answers. So here’s a question that was a little off topic for Noelle Beckman: “Can you tell me about Jupiter?”. Noelle is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota who studies how animals influence the make-up of tropical forests. So, I’ll take this one.

Jupiter: Image courtesy NASA.
Jupiter is the largest of the eight planets in our solar system (remember, poor Pluto is no longer considered a planet). Jupiter is a gas giant, meaning it is primarily made up of hydrogen (90%) and helium (10%) gases. Jupiter probably has a rocky or metallic core, though we don’t know that for certain.

Jupiter is huge – really, tremendously big. Not as big as the Sun, but bigger than all the planets (even including Pluto) combined.

The Great Red Spot: Image courtesy NASA.
The Great Red Spot: Image courtesy NASA.
When you look at the picture of Jupiter above, you can see that Jupiter’s atmosphere is banded – this banding is typical of gas giants (see pictures of the other gas giants in our solar system, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, to see similar banding). The bands are the result of extremely fast winds (more than 400 miles per hour) that are blowing in opposite directions for each adjacent band. The interaction of these bands result in storms – and one of Jupiter’s storms, called the Great Red Spot, has been known to exist since the seventeenth century.

Several NASA spacecraft have visited Jupiter, including Pioneers 10 & 11, Voyagers 1& 2, Galileo, New Horizons, Cassini-Huygens (on its way to Saturn), Ulysses (which used Jupiter in gravity-assist maneuver) – and probably others I was not able to dig up.

Jupiter has many moons – from what I can tell the current count is 63 – 47 of them are smaller than 10 kilometers in diameter. The four best known moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

What else can I tell you? The comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in 1994. You can see Jupiter in the night sky right now (in the southern sky during twilight and lower in the southwest after dark). Jupiter was named after the Roman god, Jupiter, who was very similar to Zeus in the Greek pantheon. In Pompeii there was a temple to Jupiter at the north end of the forum. Jupiter has faint planetary rings, like Saturn.

I hope this answers this person’s question. See, I can tell you about Jupiter!


Mars rovers caught in severe dust storm.

"A raging dust storm on Mars has cut power to NASA's twin rovers to dangerously low levels, threatening an end to the mission. One or both rovers could be damaged permanently or even disabled, officials said."

On Tuesday, July 17, the output from Opportunity's solar Mars rover
Mars rover
panels dropped to 148 watt hours, the lowest point for either rover. On Wednesday, Opportunity's solar-panel output dropped even lower, to 128 watt hours. Mission control has ordered the Mars rover to stop communications for two days. Engineers calculate that skipping communications sessions should lower daily energy use to less than 130 watt hours.

If the sunlight is further cut back for an extended period, the rovers will not be able to generate enough power to keep themselves warm or operate at all, even in a near-dormant state. Science @NASA.


The imaginauts take some imaginary air: Forced from the module by a bad smell, their patience is truly being tested.    (Image by frogmusuem2 on Flickr)
The imaginauts take some imaginary air: Forced from the module by a bad smell, their patience is truly being tested. (Image by frogmusuem2 on Flickr)
Russian scientists are well underway with 4th dimension mobility research, and expect to have a working time machine within the year. The time travelers, or “chrononauts,” will enter a sealed chamber, and then, supposedly, emerge 520 days in the future. Scientists do not believe, however, that the travelers will be able to return to their “home time” and so will be making a great sacrifice in the name of scientific progress.

The process for moving these people 520 days through time will take approximately 520 days. I have a bathtub that functions on very much the same principals, although it is only capable of moving me about half an hour into the future (or slightly further, if I don’t mind getting a little pruney). Like the Russian device, the bathtub does not allow for one to move backwards again through time, although that lost half hour is not always one I’d want back.

Some in the scientific community retain doubts on the validity of the time travel process. They claim that it is not so much “time travel” as it is “Big Brother, but without cameras.”

The purpose of the research, according to the Russian scientists and the European Space Agency (ESA), is not to see the future, but, oddly enough, to study the effects of a simulated journey to Mars on astronauts.

The ESA and NASA hope to send a manned spacecraft to Mars sometime in the next several decades. The thing is, a trip to Mars would be kind of like a family road trip that lasted a year and a half – 250 days to get there, 240 days to get back, and a month in between at Yellowstone (or Mars). With no stops to stretch your legs. Scientists want to know what happens once the sing-alongs stop and the chex mix runs out. I’m guessing something like “Lord of the Flies,” or “Leprechaun 4: Leprechaun in Space.” But I’m no scientist.

Volunteers from all over Russia and Europe have been fighting for the chance to be placed in a 550 cubic meter pod with five strangers for 520 days straight. With the exceptions of weightlessness and exposure to radiation, all aspects of the interplanetary trip will be simulated. The module will not be opened for anything outside of a major emergency, and there will be a twenty-minute communication delay between Earth and the “space ship.” Also, the three volunteers who will be landing on Mars (as it were) will have to spend a month in a separate chamber, “lying on their backs with their heads lower than their feet,” to simulate the effects of zero gravity. Prospective volunteers expect this portion of the experiment to be “super crappy.”

Applicants should be “Healthy and professional… and intellectually tough.” So I’m out, but anyone else who’s interested in a trip to Mars, with no Mars, should get a hold of the ESA.

The Guardian’s article on the project.


Atlantis piggyback ride: back to Florida.
Atlantis piggyback ride: back to Florida.
After its 5.8 million mile journey, the space shuttle Atlantis is being returned home to the Kennedy Space Center atop a modified 747 jetliner. They will arrive today, or if weather conditions are not favorable, Tuesday, July 3.

Mission STS-118 will be in August

STS-117 is the 118th shuttle mission and 21st mission to visit the space station. The next mission, STS-118, is slated to launch in August.