Stories tagged Earth and Space Science

Dec
27
2006

Enceladus: This is an enhanced color view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.  The image is a mosaic was created from 21 false-color frames taken by the Cassini spacecraft.  Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Enceladus: This is an enhanced color view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The image is a mosaic was created from 21 false-color frames taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

The Cassini spacecraft currently in orbit around Saturn is sending back incredible images of the ringed planet and its moons. Its next flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan is tomorrow, at around 3:30 am Central Time. The flyby tomorrow will be used to determine if Titan has a subsurface ocean.

Like most other NASA missions, there is a lot of material to whet your appetite for space information. There are video updates from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), image galleries, and even an opportunity to vote on your favoriate image from the Cassini mission.

The Cassini spacecraft is a joint project between NASA/JPL, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). Cassini was launched on October 15, 1997 and has been in orbit around Saturn since July 2004.

Dec
24
2006


Star of Bethlehem: Giotto - Scrovegni

A nova or planets in conjunction?

How might a scientists explain the "Star of Bethlehem" story? A search of the internet yielded some interesting information. Both Chinese and Babylonians note a 5 BC object that lasted about ten weeks and a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces around 7 BC.

In 3-2 BC, there was a series of seven conjunctions (stars appearing close together), including three between Jupiter and Regulus and on June 17, 2 BC Jupiter and Venus came together so close that to most people they would seem to be a single very bright star. Wikipedia

2 B.C. deserves attention.

On August 27, 2 BC, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn would have all been together in the same part of the sky just before sunrise. For the magi or wisemen, who used the planets' movements amongst the constellations to foretell of the coming of a new king or Messiah, there were enough striking events transpiring in 2 B.C. that they would have felt that the year was being singled out for their special attention.

If you wish to learn more, here are three sources I found usefull:

This presentation is also helpful.

If you read through these references, I would be interested in hearing what you think in the comments.

Dec
21
2006

Image of Discovery: This image of Space Shuttle Discovery was taken by a miniature satellite that was released from Discovery's payload bay on Wednesday.  Image courtesy NASA TV.
Image of Discovery: This image of Space Shuttle Discovery was taken by a miniature satellite that was released from Discovery's payload bay on Wednesday. Image courtesy NASA TV.

The space shuttle Discovery is preparing to land tomorrow at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Preparations for landing include checking out flight systems and jets as well as stowing and securing equipment.

Along with this activity, the shuttle crew will be launching a small satellite designed to measure the density and composition of the low-Earth orbit atmosphere while being tracked from the ground. The information that this Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment satellite with gather will be used to help predict the movement of objects in orbit. Earlier in the mission a satellite the size of a coffee cup was deployed to demonstrate the use of small low-power inspection satellites that can be sent out to observe larger spacecraft.

Concerns about weather at Kennedy Space Center and a unique schedule that was the result of an unplanned spacewalk to fix a solar panel on the International Space Station could result in the shuttle landing at the White Sands Space Harbor landing strip for the first time in 24 years.

The last time, and only time, a shuttle landed at White Sands, the sand that gives the area its name resulted in days of additional work to clean the shuttle. In addition, the site lacks the equipment at Kennedy Space Center, and the primary back up, California’s Edwards Air Force Base where 50 of the shuttle’s 114 landings have taken place. Low clouds and rain are forecasted for Kennedy Space Center, and crosswinds are the problem at Edwards Air Force Base. The shuttle has to land before Sunday when it will run out of the fuel it needs to generate power. As a result of this schedule crunch, all three locations will be prepped for the first landing opportunity on Friday. There are seven landing windows starting with the first opportunity on Friday. The shuttle crew trains in a jet that mimics the shuttle over White Sands, so they are at least familiar with the area if a landing there is necessary.

If you are a space geek like me, or even if you are just a little interested, NASA does a lot of things that I think are cool surrounding shuttle flights.

They have tons of video material including the launch, views from the solid rocket boosters, space walks, messages from the crew and more. You can even subscribe to these as podcasts! I would suspect that the NASA web pages for this mission will be kept up to date as the status of the landings are determined. Stay tuned!

Dec
15
2006

Hot comet: Results of research from the Stardust comet particle retrieval mission are showing that the surface of comet Wild2 is composed of materials from the inner portions of our solar system. It used to be believed that comets were composed of matter from the outer regions of our solar system.
Hot comet: Results of research from the Stardust comet particle retrieval mission are showing that the surface of comet Wild2 is composed of materials from the inner portions of our solar system. It used to be believed that comets were composed of matter from the outer regions of our solar system.
What makes up a comet?

Scientists are starting to find out as they dig into the samples of a comet collected through the recent Stardust space mission. And they’re finding out that a comet is made up a of lot more than space’s intergalactic dust bunnies, which used to be the original concept of comet formation..

Testing on the samples from the Comet Wild2 are showing that it is made up of hot particles from the inner solar system that drifted out to the colder ranges of the our solar system around Pluto’s orbit. Prior to these finding, astronomers thought that comets were made up from tiny, cold space particles from regions of space further out of our solar system that were drifting into our system.

After doing the recent tests on Wild2’s comet dust, researchers are now estimated that around ten percent of a comet’s make up could have come from our inner solar system near the sun. How those particles have ended up as part of a comet are still a mystery to researchers, however. It may be the result of the chaotic activity at the forming of the solar system when “hot” inner solar systems were blasted out into the outer reaches of space.

And scientists are finding out that not all comets are created equal. Dust from Wild2 is very different from that of Tempel1, which was studied by NASA’s Deep Impact mission. On that mission, NASA last July crashed a probe into a comet and analyzed the dust and ice that spewed out from the crash. No surface materials were analyzed.

With Wild2, the Stardust mission sent a capsule around the sun and then swooping past Wild2 to scrape up thousands of tiny samples of comet surface materials. That capsule returned to Earth in January for scientists to begin analyzing the make up of the comet’s surface.

Some of the minerals found in the Wild2 dust are “high-temperature” minerals that were likely formed in the hottest portions of our solar system.

Dec
08
2006

Mars erosion: Recent photos of Mars' surface show evidence of recent runoff of water on the Red Planet's surface (Photo from NASA)
Mars erosion: Recent photos of Mars' surface show evidence of recent runoff of water on the Red Planet's surface (Photo from NASA)

There’s growing photo evidence that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars.

Photos from a NASA Mars orbiter taken over the span of several years show that erosion patterns have changed on portions of the Red Planet. Scientists have known that ice exists on Mars for quite a while, but these latest photographs help point to signs that liquid water occasionally can be found on the planet as well.

That’s especially important in the search for any forms of life on the planet. While past research has concluded that life was possible on the planet’s long past when it was warmer, these new photos help boost the odds that liquid water may exist somewhere on the planet today to help feed life forms.

Satellite photos have long shown gullies on the surface of Mars where water was believed to have flowed millions of years ago. Comparing photos of portions of Mars first photographed in 1999 and 2000 and then reshot in 2004 and 2005, researchers have found gullies in two spots that are part of the second series of photos, but not the first.

“Water seems to have flowed on the surface of today’s Mars,” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “The big question is how does this happen, and does it point to a habitat for life.”

More Mars water: Here's a second image of another water runoff gully on Mars. (Photo from NASA)
More Mars water: Here's a second image of another water runoff gully on Mars. (Photo from NASA)

There are no visible channels or pools of water on Mars. That leads researchers to think that there may be liquid water in underground aquifiers, which occasionally release water to Mars’ surface. Underground temperatures of Mars might be warm enough to keep water in its liquid state.

The new gullies display evidence of water flow similar to what we see on Earth. They are about one-quarter of a mile long and have delta-shaped patterns at their ends, much like what we find at the end of our rivers and streams. Also, flow patterns in the areas around obstacles in the paths of the gullies show similar patterns like those we see here on earth of mud and sediment washing around the obstacle.

By the way, if you want to see more about the surface of Mars, the Science Museum of Minnesota’s 3-D cinema currently is showing the film “Mars,” which has footage taken from the Mars rovers currently scurrying around the planet. Maybe you’ll be able to see some signs of water in the background.

Dec
07
2006

11 yearsun spot cycle: source; global warming art via wikipedia
11 yearsun spot cycle: source; global warming art via wikipedia

Look out for sunspot 930.

If you study the graph of sunpot activity you will note they spike every 11 years.(learn more in this previous post) The last real bad one was July 14, 2000. It was rated about X6. The next peak will be around 2011. Even though 2006 is supposed to be the low point between peaks, we just got clobbered by an X9 burst of x-rays. I think it knocked out one of the sun monitoring satellites.

NOTE: The Solar X-ray Imager onboard NOAA's GOES-13 satellite is experiencing an anomaly possibly related to the X9-flare of Dec. 5th. NOAA and NASA staff are investigating. Meanwhile, coronal hole updates are suspended.

You can see a live update on proton radiation intensity here. The Dec 5 blast was not pointed toward Earth but the sunspot is swinging our way and the forcast for another X-class blast of x-rays is 50% for the next 48 hours.

Look for more news at Spaceweather.com.

Update: Here is a photo of the Dec 5 X9 class solar flare.

Fairwell sunspot 930: Credit: SOHO/MDI
Fairwell sunspot 930: Credit: SOHO/MDI

Farewell Sunspot 930 (Dec 17)

GOODBYE... and thanks for the X-flares. Sunspot 930 announced itself on Dec. 5th with one of the strongest flares in years--an X9, followed by an X6 on Dec. 6th, an X3 on Dec. 13th and an X1 on Dec. 14th. Not bad for solar minimum! SpaceWeather.com

Want to see these flares in motion?

Dec. 5, 2006 X9 flare
Dec. 7, 2006 X6.5 flare
Dec 13, 2006 X3.4 flare
Dec. 14, 2006 X1 flare
Sept. 5, 2005 X17 flare Lucky this one wasn't pointed our way.

Sunspot 930 visible for about 12 days.

This leads me to believe the sun rotates on its axis about every 25 days. Since we are also going around the sun, exact figuring gets complicated, Read more about solar rotation here.

Nov
20
2006

The Hubble Space Telescope.: Image courtesy NASA.
The Hubble Space Telescope.: Image courtesy NASA.
As someone who is fascinated by space, the Hubble Space Telescope is something that I think is not only cool, but also essential to our learning about the universe we live in. That’s why this summer I was bummed to learn that NASA had decided to let the telescope fail in the coming years and then crash it into the ocean. I was happy to learn a few weeks ago that NASA has now announced that it will send a space shuttle crew to service and upgrade the telescope to make it functional through 2013. The service mission will add two new instruments to the telescope, allowing for even better observations than before.


Hubble was designed to be upgraded while in orbit – and it has had four service missions since its launch in 1990. Each service mission has improved the performance of the telescope and the images and data it sends to scientists and researchers.

This fifth servicing mission will include regular maintenance such as installing new gyroscopes and new batteries, and also the installation of two new instruments, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3).

According to NASA,

COS will measure the structure and composition of the ordinary matter concentrated in the "cosmic web," long, narrow filaments of galaxies and intergalactic gas separated by huge voids. COS will use faint distant quasars as "cosmic flashlights," whose beams of light pass through the cosmic web. Absorption of this light by "stuff" in the web reveals characteristics of that material. This allows scientists to determine its composition and its specific location in space. These observations, covering vast distances across space and time, will illuminate both the large-scale structure of the universe and the progressive changes in chemical composition of matter as the universe has grown older.

The WFC3 will extend Hubble's capability to see deep into the universe, with the power to observe in multiple wavelengths (colors) of light including infrared, visible and ultraviolet light. WFC3 can, for example, observe young, hot stars that glow predominantly in ultraviolet and older, cooler stars that glow predominantly in infrared in the same galaxy. The first stars and galaxies to form in the universe are so old and distant that their light is now relegated to infrared wavelengths.

Other scheduled work includes installing a refurbished Fine Guidance Sensor, as well as attempting to repair the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. Installed in 1997, it stopped working in 2004.

The [Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph] is used for high resolution studies in visible and ultraviolet light of both nearby star systems and distant galaxies, providing information about the motions and chemical makeup of stars, planetary atmospheres, and other galaxies.

Here is a lineup of the current equipment onboard Hubble.

The service mission is tentatively scheduled for 2008.

Nov
15
2006

Storm chasers know that puffy cumulus clouds often cause sudden rainstorms, while storms associated with stratus clouds form more slowly. Now physicists at England’s Open University have finally found an explanation.

They propose that neighboring water droplets in a stable stratus cloud don’t crash into each other because they’re all moving at about the same speed. But fast-forming, turbulent cumulous clouds contain water droplets moving at many different speeds. They crash into each other and form larger drops. As the turbulence grows, the drops grow quickly and fall as rain within a few minutes.

Cumulous cloud: These puffy clouds are associated with sudden rainstorms. Scientists are beginning to understand why.
Cumulous cloud: These puffy clouds are associated with sudden rainstorms. Scientists are beginning to understand why.

Sun and rain
Ever noticed the bright, moving lines on the bottom of a stream, bathtub, or swimming pool? They’re called caustics, and they’re caused when ripples on the water’s surface focus sunlight. (Caustics form whenever light rays are bent by a curved surface or object and then projected onto another surface.

Caustics have a characteristic shape. Physicists can graph the phenomenon mathematically, and the graph also describes other phenomena, such as particle motion or the movement of raindrops within a cumulus cloud.

Caustics: What do the rippling patterns on the bottom of a swimming pool and cumulous clouds have in common? (Photo by R. Motti)
Caustics: What do the rippling patterns on the bottom of a swimming pool and cumulous clouds have in common? (Photo by R. Motti)

Atmosphere to outer space
The researchers say their finding won’t have any impact on weather forecasting. But particle collisions in turbulent gases must have been involved in planet formation. Perhaps the same theory can be applied?

If you're at the museum on Saturday afternoon (11/18), the MakeIt team can help you play with caustics. Does bending mylar in a different direction produce a new pattern? Does using a different color flashlight or a brighter or dimmer light affect the design?

You can also play with caustics at home.

Oct
28
2006

A rocket blasts off.  Photo from National Reconnaissance Office.
A rocket blasts off. Photo from National Reconnaissance Office.

On October 25, NASA fired two spacecraft on a single rocket. No, they weren’t trying to save money. The spacecraft contains two observatories, called STEREO, for Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory. Over the next two years, these instruments will keep an eye on the Sun – or, rather, two eyes. The observatories will circle the Sun in slightly different orbits, taking pictures from different angles. On Earth, scientists will combine those pictures into 3-D images. They hope this will give us a better understanding of solar flares – giant eruptions on the sun which shoot tons of hot gas at the Earth. This gas causes the beautiful Northern Lights – but can also disrupt electronic communications, and bathe astronauts in radiation.

But mostly I like this story because it contains the single coolest quote I’ve ever heard from a NASA scientist:

“Of the bazillion stars that we have in our night sky, the Sun is the only one that counts.”

OK, technically the Sun isn’t in the night sky, but you get the point. ;-)

Oct
21
2006

X Prize winner: Source: rockits gallery
X Prize winner: Source: rockits gallery

Revolution through competition

One way to get something done is to offer a multi-million dollar prize to anyone that will do it. This afternoon I watched live, via the internet, the Lunar Lander Challenge:

A rocket-propelled vehicle with an assigned payload must takeoff vertically, climb to a defined altitude, fly for a pre-determined amount of time…then land vertically on a target that is a fixed distance from the liftoff point. After remaining at this location for a period of time, the vehicle must takeoff, fly for the same amount of time, and land again on its original launch pad.

Live coverage is really exciting because you do not know what might happen. The single contestant, Armadillo Aerospace, with their vehicle named Pixel, broke several records in their attempt to win the $350,000 prize. They executed four flights within the alotted time but were not able to return to the point of origen.

A ten million dollar prize has already been claimed

The event was founded by the creators the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million prize package offered to anyone who could launch a re-usable sub-orbital spacecraft, capable of carrying passengers, twice in a two week period. This prize was won on October 4, 2004 by the Tier One project using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne (the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch).

X Prize spinoffs

The success of the X Prize competition has spurred spinoffs that are set up in the same way.

  • M Prize (short for Methuselah Mouse Prize), which is a prize set up by University of Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey which will go to the scientific team that successfully extends the life or reverses the aging of mice.
  • Tether Challenge in which teams compete to develop superstrong tethers as a component to space elevators
  • Beam Power Challenge which encourages ideas for transmitting power wirelessly (see also Elevator 2010)
  • Automotive X Prize: design, build and sell super-efficient cars that people want to buy.
  • Rocket Racing League rocket plane race track in the sky

Read more about the X Cup Prize and its history and future here.space,