Tag Archives: science

Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to three LIGO scientists

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to three scientists involved in the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which detected the first gravitational waves in 2015.

While some of the recent Nobel Prizes have been absurd (such as the Peace award to Obama), this award is absolutely deserved and appropriate. Until LIGO detected that gravitational wave they were merely a theory. The detection proved the theory to be real.

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Database of presumed human-caused earthquakes created

The uncertainty of science: Geologists have assembled a database of more than 700 earthquakes they think might have been caused by human activity.

The Human-Induced Earthquake Database, or HiQuake, contains 728 examples of earthquakes (or sequences of earthquakes) that may have been set off by humans over the past 149 years. Most of them were small, between magnitudes 3 and 4. But the list also includes several large, destructive earthquakes, such as the magnitude-7.8 quake in Nepal in April 2015, which one paper linked to groundwater pumping.

Miles Wilson, a hydrogeologist at Durham University, UK, and his colleagues describe the database in a paper set to be published on October 4 in Seismological Research Letters2. The scientists say that HiQuake is the biggest, most up-to-date public listing of human-caused quakes ever made. By bringing the data together in this way, they hope to highlight how diverse induced quakes can be — and help society to understand and manage the future risk.

Many of these quakes were likely caused by human activity. Many however might not have been. The jury is still out, as the article reluctantly admits near the end.

All possible instances of induced quakes were included “without regard to plausibility”, writes the team, because of the difficulty involved in deciding what constitutes absolute proof that an earthquake was caused by human activity. But that could mislead people about the real hazard from induced quakes, says Raphaël Grandin, a geophysicist at the Institute of Earth Physics in Paris. “When you put a dot in the database, and a scientific reference behind it, then you may lead the non-expert to think that the earthquake was caused by humans,” he says. Such a listing might hide scientific uncertainty, as with the Chinese quake: despite the paper linking it to reservoir filling, many seismologists do not believe it was triggered by human activity.

In other words, they included every quake that had the slightest suggestion it was connected to human activity, without noting the uncertainties. This makes this database to me somewhat suspect. Rather than identify the known reliable links between human activity and quakes in order to learn what causes them, this database seems more designed as a political propaganda tool aimed at limiting future human activity. It certainly doesn’t clarify our knowledge on this subject, but instead muddies the water significantly.

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Testing underwater interplanetary robots on the cheap

This article describing a test of an underwater robot by JPL scientists in the interior of a glacier warmed the cockles of my heart when I read this paragraph:

Klesh and Leicty’s recent expedition relied on a commercial grade submersible and a “homemade” glacial probe. The latter was built using off-the-shelf and 3-D printed parts. They did all their own wiring and programming.

NASA test projects like this are often gold-plated. I like how these scientists took a more practical approach, getting their data without spending a fortune in time and money. Moreover, they gained some engineering knowledge that can be applied practically in future probes, both here on Earth and on other planets.

Hat tip Jim Mallamace.

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Solar storm activates global aurora on Mars

The strong solar flare that occurred earlier this month was strong enough to activate a global aurora on Mars.

The solar event on Sept. 11, 2017 sparked a global aurora at Mars more than 25 times brighter than any previously seen by the MAVEN orbiter, which has been studying the Martian atmosphere’s interaction with the solar wind since 2014. It produced radiation levels on the surface more than double any previously measured by the Curiosity rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD, since that mission’s landing in 2012. The high readings lasted more than two days.

Strangely, it occurred in conjunction with a spate of solar activity during what is usually a quiet period in the Sun’s 11-year sunspot and storm-activity cycle. This event was big enough to be detected at Earth too, even though Earth was on the opposite side of the Sun from Mars.

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Webb Space Telescope delayed again

NASA announced today that they are further delaying the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from October 2018 to late spring 2019.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope now is planning to launch between March and June 2019 from French Guiana, following a schedule assessment of the remaining integration and test activities. Previously Webb was targeted to launch in October 2018. “The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “Rather, the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected.”

As part of an international agreement with the ESA (European Space Agency) to provide a desired launch window one year prior to launch, NASA recently performed a routine schedule assessment to ensure launch preparedness and determined a launch schedule change was necessary. The careful analysis took into account the remaining tasks that needed to be completed, the lessons learned from unique environmental testing of the telescope and science instruments at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the current performance rates of integrating the spacecraft element.

Webb’s original launch date was supposed to be 2011, making its launch now verging on a decade late. The original budget for the telescope was supposed to be $1 billion. It is now expected to cost more than $9 billion. Like SLS/Orion, this project more resembles feather-bedding, providing NASA employees and the contractors involved a steady paycheck, regardless of whether they ever get anything done. In fact, both Webb and SLS/Orion seemed designed to encourage failure. The project never gets cancelled no matter what goes wrong. Instead, more money gets poured in.

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Hubble spots most distance active comet yet

Comet C/2017 K2

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have imaged a comet that is sublimating material at a distance from the Sun farther than any previously known comet, out beyond Saturn.

“K2 is so far from the Sun and so cold, we know for sure that the activity — all the fuzzy stuff making it look like a comet — is not produced, as in other comets, by the evaporation of water ice,” said lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we think the activity is due to the sublimation [a solid changing directly into a gas] of super-volatiles as K2 makes its maiden entry into the solar system’s planetary zone. That’s why it’s special. This comet is so far away and so incredibly cold that water ice there is frozen like a rock.”

Based on the Hubble observations of K2’s coma, Jewitt suggests that sunlight is heating frozen volatile gases – such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide – that coat the comet’s frigid surface. These icy volatiles lift off from the comet and release dust, forming the coma. Past studies of the composition of comets near the Sun have revealed the same mixture of volatile ices.

The significance here is that by studying the comet’s activity scientists will be able to identify some of these volatile gases, which in turn will tell them something about the make-up of the outermost fringes of the solar system.

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Status of Arecibo radio observatory

It appears that, while Puerto Rico itself suffered devastating damage from Hurricane Maria, the Arecibo Observatory came through relatively unscathed.

The surface of the dish was largely unscathed, and the observatory’s most vulnerable component, the instrument platform suspended high above the dish by cables strung from three towers, each more than 80 meters tall, was still in place and seemed undamaged, says Schmelz. She is based at the Columbia, Maryland, headquarters of one of Arecibo’s operators, the Universities Space Research Association, and spoke with staff in Puerto Rico who first used a ham radio and then a single working satellite phone. But the roofs on some observatory buildings were blown off, the sinkhole under the dish was flooded, and other equipment was damaged by rain and fallen trees. Most significantly, a large portion of a 29-meter-long antenna—the 430-megahertz line feed used for studying the upper atmosphere—appears to have broken off and fallen from the platform into the dish. Mathews estimates a bill of several million dollars to replace the line feed alone.

Because of the significant infrastructure damage across the island, there will be significant delays in getting any of this fixed. Since the telescope is already being considered for shut down due to budget issues, these delays could lead to that shut down.

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One last image from Rosetta

Rosetta's last image

Engineers reviewing the last bits of telemetry that was transmitted back to Earth by Rosetta just before it crashed on Comet 67P/C-G have discovered one last image of the comet’s surface.

That image is on the right. It is slightly blurred because of the limitations of Rosetta’s camera at this short range, and the incompleteness of the data received.

The image covers an area about a meter across, with a resolution of about two millimeters per pixel.

I imagine this surface is relatively soft, since the gravity holding the comet together is so slight. If you wanted to dig down, you would find it easy digging.

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Gravitational waves from black hole collision detected

Three Earth gravitational wave observatories have detected the waves coming from the same collision of two black holes.

The collision was observed Aug. 14 at 10:30:43 a.m. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) using the two National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, and the Virgo detector, funded by CNRS and INFN and located near Pisa, Italy.

The detection by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the Virgo collaboration is the first confirmed gravitational wave signal recorded by the Virgo detector.

Based on the data obtained, they estimate that the two black holes 25 and 31 times the mass of the Sun and are about 1.8 billion light years away.

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Dark energy might not exist

The uncertainty of science: A new model for the universe that omits dark energy produces a better fit to what is know than previous theories that included it.

The new theory, dubbed timescape cosmology, includes the known lumpiness of the universe, while the older traditional models that require dark energy do not.

Timescape cosmology has no dark energy. Instead, it includes variations in the effects of gravity caused by the lumpiness in the structure in the universe. Clocks carried by observers in galaxies differ from the clock that best describes average expansion once variations within the universe (known as “inhomogeneity” in the trade) becomes significant. Whether or not one infers accelerating expansion then depends crucially on the clock used. “Timescape cosmology gives a slightly better fit to the largest supernova data catalogue than Lambda Cold Dark Matter cosmology,” says Wiltshire.

He admits the statistical evidence is not yet strong enough to definitively rule in favour of one model over the other, and adds that future missions such as the European Space Agency’s Euclid spacecraft will have the power to distinguish between differing cosmology models.

Both models rely on a very weak data set, based on assumptions about Type 1a supernovae that are likely wrong. It is thus likely that neither explains anything, as neither really has a good picture of the actual universe.

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The kittens of Saturn’s rings

The scientists who used Cassini to identify about 60 transient clumps in Saturn’s rings have dubbed them “kittens” and have been naming them appropriately.

Saturn’s kittens are a group of small clumps and baby moons, or moonlets, that occupy the planet’s F ring. Like the rest of Saturn’s rings, this thin outer ring is made up of countless particles that range in size. When enough of those particles bump into one another and stick together, they aggregate into larger clumps — and become eligible for a kitten name.

So far, the list of Saturn’s kitten names includes several classics, like Fluffy, Garfield, Socks and Whiskers. These are unofficial nicknames for more-complicated (and less adorable) official titles like “Alpha Leonis Rev 9” (aka, Mittens). The technical names for these features come from events called stellar occultations, during which Cassini was able to detect the little clumps. In a stellar occultation, a star passes behind Saturn’s rings from Cassini’s point of view.

Most of these clumps will likely never be found again, so their unofficial kitten names are essentially just for fun.

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Scientists finally image SMART-1 lunar impact site

SMART-1 impact site

Eleven years after the European SMART-1 probe was sent crashing onto the Moon’s surface, scientists have finally identified in a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image that crash site.

The image is shown on the right, reduced and cropped to post here.

The images show a linear gouge in the surface, about four metres wide and 20 metres long, cutting across a small pre-existing crater. At the far end, a faint fan of ejecta sprays out to the south. Foing said: “The high resolution LRO images show white ejecta, about seven metres across, from the first contact. A north-south channel has then been carved out by the SMART-1 spacecraft body, before its bouncing ricochet. We can make out three faint but distinct ejecta streams from the impact, about 40 metres long and separated by 20-degree angles.”

Stooke said: “Orbit tracking and the impact flash gave a good estimate of the impact location, and very close to that point was a very unusual small feature. It now seems that impacts of orbiting spacecraft, seen here from SMART-1, and also in the cases from GRAIL and LADEE, will form elongated craters, most of whose rather faint ejecta extends downrange”.

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Scientists oppose changes to fishing ban around Pacific islands

Link here. The article, from the journal Science, is devoted entirely to pushing the perspective of the scientists, who do not want the size of the fishing ban around eight Pacific islands reduced in any way. They claim that it will be a disaster for science if any commercial fishing from Hawaiian fisherman is allowed within 200 miles of these islands.

Marine scientists are warning that if the Trump administration rescinds fishing protections around eight Pacific islands, the United States will lose one of its best laboratories for measuring how a warming climate affects marine life. “We need baselines,” says Alan Friedlander of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in Honolulu. “We need pristine reefs to see what we’ve lost elsewhere, to better manage damaged reefs and to isolate the effects of climate change.”

To understand that this is really only a power play by these scientists is revealed by the following quote from the article:

In 2009, President George W. Bush designated the islands, lying south of the Hawaiian chain, as national monuments. All but Wake, which hosts a military base, were already National Wildlife Refuges before attaining that status. As refuges, commercial fishing is banned within 12 nautical miles, which preserved the health of the reefs even in the face of rising temperatures. In the rest of the islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone—waters out to 200 miles from shore—they were fished by long-line tuna boats from Hawaii.

Bush’s designation banned fishing within 50 nautical miles of shore; in 2014, President Barack Obama extended the ban to 200 miles for Wake, Johnston, and Jarvis. President Donald Trump is expected to try to change the rules by executive order or by a new Antiquities Act proclamation. Any such move will be challenged in court, says Michael Gravitz, director of policy and legislation at the nonprofit Marine Conservation Institute in Washington, D.C.

The real issue here is the expansion of the ban by Bush and Obama. It probably impacted the livelihood’s of Hawaiian fishermen, and this change being considered by the Trump administration is part of its overall effort to reconsider certain past presidential designations of national monuments that appear to have exceeded the intention of the law. The original intention was that any presidential declaration of a monument would be kept to “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management.” In recent decades presidents from both parties have made designations that far exceed this limitation.

Many scientists today however have become nothing more than petty dictators. They demand that everyone kowtow to them, even if that results in the loss of their jobs or property. This article illustrates this.

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UAE announces its second student space competition

The United Arab Emirates space center in charge of its Mars mission has announced its second student competition for designing future missions to Mars.

Explore Mars Competition targets university undergraduate students in science or engineering disciplines. The students will need to propose an innovative mission design to Mars and highlight a novel approach in either engineering design or in the science mission. The competition is geared towards identifying and solving a scientific or engineering challenge in planetary exploration.

The competition is divided into two categories, the first is focused on introducing a scientific project, and the second focuses on developing an idea to design a mission to Mars. Students who are interested in the first category about Mars Science can suggest a topic related to the Martian atmosphere or Mars geology. Furthermore, in Mars mission category, topics can address unique concepts and designs for space missions to Mars, new designs for scientific instruments for Mars science, or innovative spacecraft.

This is the second year in the row they have run such a contest. The winners for the first contest are supposed to be revealed at a science conference in late September.

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Post-hurricane update from Arecibo radio telescope

USRA, the university consortium that operates the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, has released an update on the observatory’s condition following Hurricane Maria.

Currently, we have no contact with the Observatory. One observatory staff member located in Arecibo Town contacted via short-wave radio reports that trees are down, power is out, houses damaged and roads impassable. We have no reason to believe that staff sheltered at Arecibo Observatory are in immediate danger since they have generators, well water and plenty of food. This is a rapidly changing situation, and we are trying to do the best we can to contact USRA employees and find out their status.

Essentially, they don’t know much at this point.

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More hearings stalling TMT

Stall, stall: After spending 44 days of hearings before a retired judge, Hawaii is now forcing the consortium that wants to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea to undergo further hearings before the local land board.

Wednesday’s hearing in a Hilo hotel comes after the retired judge overseeing contested-case hearings for the Thirty Meter Telescope recommended granting the project a construction permit. Riki May Amano issued her recommendation in July after hearing testimony that spanned 44 days. Opponents and supporters are echoing much of the arguments made during those oftentimes emotional days of testimony.

This short article, which really says little, ends by noting that “it’s not clear when the board will make a decision.”

Well, it is clear to me that the authorities in Hawaii, run exclusively by today’s racially-focused Democratic Party, is stalling as much as they can in order to force TMT to go elsewhere. They know it will not be a popular decision to block the telescope, but they also don’t want it because the hustlers of race on the island are against it. And to the Democratic Party today, the only thing that matters is to appease these race hustlers. So, they stall, figuring they can get rid of the telescope that way without ever having to block it outright.

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Global warming scientists admit their models predict too much warming

The uncertainty of science: This week the global warming community was shaken by a new paper, written by global warming scientists, that admitted that their models for global warming have been predicting too much warming.

Computer modelling used a decade ago to predict how quickly global average temperatures would rise may have forecast too much warming, a study has found.

This look at that story catches some interesting quotes by these same scientists, who only a few years ago were so certain that the climate was overheating that they wanted to dump freedom and democracy.

According to The Times, another of the paper’s authors, Michael Grubb, a professor of international energy and climate change at University College London, admitted his earlier forecasting models had overplayed how temperatures would rise.

At the Paris climate summit in 2015, Professor Grubb said: “All the evidence from the past 15 years leads me to conclude that actually delivering 1.5C is simply incompatible with democracy.” [Emphasis mine]

These same global warming scientists were also so certain of the rightness of their earlier models that they had the nerve to call anyone who questioned them “science deniers” in an effort to smear them as no different then Holocaust deniers. Instead, the skeptics have once again proven to be the correct ones.

But then, skepticism is what built science in the first place, not certainty. Certainty is what leads to bad science, and things far more evil.

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Hubble finds binary asteroid that also acts like a comet

Worlds without end: Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have identified a strange new object in the asteroid belt, two asteroids closely orbiting each other while also acting like a comet.

The images of 288P, which is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, revealed that it was actually not a single object, but two asteroids of almost the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of about 100 kilometres. That discovery was in itself an important find; because they orbit each other, the masses of the objects in such systems can be measured.

But the observations also revealed ongoing activity in the binary system. “We detected strong indications of the sublimation of water ice due to the increased solar heating — similar to how the tail of a comet is created,” explains Jessica Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany), the team leader and main author of the research paper. This makes 288P the first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.

The data also suggests that this binary has only existed as such for a few thousand years, and probably broke into two pieces because of its rotation. When this happened, it exposed water ice buried below the surface, which having been exposed to sunlight is sublimating away and producing the binary’s cometlike of a tail and coma.

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Oh no! Climate panel might include skeptics!

According to this Washington Post article, the Trump administration is considering naming some skeptical climate scientists to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, something that the newspaper, the global warming crowd, and some EPA employees apparently consider a horrible taboo.

[T]he inclusion of a handful of climate contrarians has caused early concern among environmental groups and some employees at the agency. “We should be able to trust that those who serve the EPA are the all-stars in their fields and committed to public service,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said the upcoming round of appointments will test whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is “remotely interested” in independent scientific advice. “He already has a parade of lobbyists and advisers providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. The Science Advisory Board is a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight.”

What I find really hilarious in reading the article is its description of the various skeptics, almost all of which are qualified climate scientists. The article quotes their skeptical positions as if these positions are the insane ravings of an idiot, but everything these skeptics say is accurate and well documented by research over the past century. For example, there is this quote:

Another scientist, Craig Idso, is chairman of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, where he has written that “the modern rise in the air’s CO2 content is providing a tremendous economic benefit to global crop production.”

Yet another scientist, Richard Keen, is a meteorologist and author who traveled with the Heartland Institute to Rome in 2015 for a “prebuttal” to Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change. There, he argued that “in the past 18 years and how many months, four months, there has been no global warming.” Another candidate, Anthony Lupo, is an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Missouri. In 2014, he told a local Missouri media outlet, KOMU 8, that “I think it is rash to put the climate change completely on the blame of humans.”

Idso is correct. Crops benefit from more carbon dioxide. This is common knowledge in the agricultural community, and has been amply proven by numerous studies.

Keen is also correct. In 2015 there had been no warming for almost two decades, and that pause only ceased last year because of El Nino, and appears now to have resumed.

Lupo is also correct. The theory that human behavior is the sole cause of global warming has not been proven, and if anything, the failure of every computer model based on this theory to predict the pause in rising temperatures suggests it is wrong.

If anything, the article illustrates the ignorance of its author and the newspaper, both of whom appear completely unaware of the actual uncertainties that exist in the climate field.

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Cassini’s last image of Iapetus

Iapetus

The image on the right is a cropped and scaled up version of one of Cassini’s last images of Saturn’s moon, Iapetus.

The moon is unique in that its east and west hemispheres have completely opposite albedos, with one being very dark and the other very bright. It also has a very distinctive large crater, seen in this image. Scientists do not quite understand what causes the dichotomy, though they have models that partly explain it, partly from material being deposited on the moon’s leading hemisphere combined with the temperature differences at different latitudes.

The cause of the extreme brightness dichotomy on Iapetus is likely to be thermal segregation of water ice on a global scale. Thermal effects are usually expected to act latitudinally. That is, polar areas are colder than equatorial terrain in most cases due to the more oblique angle of the solar irradiation. Therefore, an additional process is required to explain the longitudinal difference as well. In one model, dark, reddish dust coming in from space and preferentially deposited on the leading side forms a small, but crucial difference between the leading and trailing hemispheres, which is sufficient to allow the thermal effect to evaporate the water ice on the leading side completely, but only marginally on the trailing side.

It was this moon’s strange dichotomy that had Arthur Clarke use it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While Cassini’s images clearly prove that the brightness difference was not created by an alien civilization, as imagined by Clarke, those images have not really provided us a full explanation for its cause. The uncertainty of science marches on!

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The Worst Part of Losing Cassini Is That It Has No Replacement

Link here. This article is an honest review of the current lack of concrete plans by anyone to send a new probe to Saturn. While there are some tentative missions in the works, nothing is certain.

[I]f looking back on Cassini’s major discoveries at Saturn, Titan, and Enceladus have left you thirsty for more, we have some bad news: That thirst is going to go unquenched for a while. Talks of Uranus and Neptune missions are tentative at best. The best hope for Saturn now comes from NASA’s New Frontiers program, which looks for excellent medium-cost missions has spawned spacecraft including Jupiter’s Juno and Pluto’s New Horizons. This round of New Frontiers missions must launch by 2024, and there are two Enceladus proposals, a Titan proposal, and a Saturn atmospheric probe under consideration. We may hear word about those proposals by the end of the year “Hang tight, we’re going through the evaluations now and we’ll be announcing at the end of the year what some of the finalists will be,” Jim Green, NASA Planetary Science Director, said at the Cassini press conference Friday morning.

This list of possible Saturn missions sounds great, but they are all competing against each other and a number of other equally (and possibly more) interesting missions to other places. And with the federal budget out of control and mired in debt, there isn’t really a lot of money to go around.

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3D image of Jupiter

Another citizen scientist who goes by the moniker of mesno has uploaded a spectacular 3D anaglyph of one of Juno’s images of Jupiter.

I could post it here, but I’d have to reduce its resolution, and I don’t think this will work well. If you have red-blue anaglyph 3D glasses the image does a great job of showing the differing vertical heights of Jupiter’s many horizontal bands, especially since it exaggerates the vertical scale significantly to bring out these differences.

Mesno has done three other anaglyphs. Check them out. The image of the Great Red Spot really shows how this is a vast whirlpool boring deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

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Cats are liquid — if they choose to be

Science marches on! A new study shows that cats can be liquid, if they choose to be.

Fardin noticed that these furry pets can adapt to the shape of the container they sit in—think of a cat in a vase—similarly to what fluids such as water do. So he used the principles of rheology, the branch of physics that deals with the deformation of matter, to calculate cats’ relaxation time, or the time it takes for them to take up the space of a vase or bathroom sink.

The conclusion? Cats can be either liquid or solid, depending on the circumstances, Fardin reported in the Rheology Bulletin in 2014…. A cat in a small box will behave like a fluid, filling up all the space, but a cat in a bathtub full of water will try to minimize its contact with it and behave very much like a solid.

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will be understand this research. It isn’t that cats can be liquid that is expected, it is that cats will do what they want. If they want to be liquid, no one is going to stop them.

Because of this ground-breaking research, the scientist has won this year’s Ig Nobel Physics Prize.

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Cassini’s mission ends

Enceladus as seen by Cassini two days before mission end

After a seven year journey and thirteen years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini’s mission ended early this morning with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

The image above, cropped to show here, is actually one from a short movie, showing Enceladus setting behind the horizon of Saturn. The images were taking two days ago, but provide a fitting image for the mission’s end.

Some of the best images from the dive, including Cassini’s last image, can be found here.

While most of the press will rightly wax eloquent about the magnificence of this mission, my focus remains on what will come next. We no longer have any way to observe what is happening on Saturn. We are blind. We should not be.

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New theory for formation of main asteroid belt

The uncertainty of science: Using computer models, astronomers have developed a new completely different theory to explain the existence of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The asteroid belt (sometimes referred to as the main asteroid belt) orbits between Mars and Jupiter. It consists of asteroids and minor planets forming a disk around the sun. It also serves as a sort of dividing line between the inner rocky planets and outer gas giants. Current theory suggests that the asteroid belt was once much more heavily populated, but the gravitational pull of Jupiter flung approximately 99 percent of its former material to other parts of the solar system or beyond. Astronomers also assumed that Jupiter’s gravity prevented the material in the belt from coalescing into larger planets. In this new effort, the researchers propose a completely different explanation of the asteroid belt’s origin—suggesting that the belt started out as an empty space and was subsequently filled by material flung from the inner and outer planets.

The new theory is interesting in that it really illustrates how little we really know about the formation of our solar system. The simple fact is that either one of these theories might be the answer, even though they propose completely opposite initial conditions. We simply do not have enough information about solar system formation in general to constrain our models and determine which of these theories is right.

Until scientists have been able to study hundreds, if not thousands, of solar systems up close, these models will be nothing more than interesting exercises in computer modeling.

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Hubble spots a pitch-black exoplanet

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have determined that an exoplanet is practically pitch black, reflecting almost no light.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has observed a planet outside our solar system that looks as black as fresh asphalt because it eats light rather than reflecting it back into space. This light-eating prowess is due to the planet’s unique capability to trap at least 94 percent of the visible starlight falling into its atmosphere.

The oddball exoplanet, called WASP-12b, is one of a class of so-called “hot Jupiters,” gigantic, gaseous planets that orbit very close to their host star and are heated to extreme temperatures. The planet’s atmosphere is so hot that most molecules are unable to survive on the blistering day side of the planet, where the temperature is 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, clouds probably cannot form to reflect light back into space. Instead, incoming light penetrates deep into the planet’s atmosphere where it is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted to heat energy.

Because the exoplanet is tidally locked, with one side always facing its sun and the other always in nightime, the nighttime face is estimated to be about 2,000 degrees cooler, and actually shows evidence of the existence of water vapor and clouds.

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First global map of the trace water on the Moon

Trace water on moon

Using data collected by an American instrument on India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter scientists have produced the first global map showing the locations and quantities of trace water on the Moon.

The map above, reduced to post here, is the result. The green areas at high latitudes show the most evidence of water, but the amounts remain very tiny, and the evidence remains somewhat uncertain.

Regardless, this map indicates that the high latitudes of the Moon will likely be the most valuable real estate for future colonists.

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