Tag Archives: science

The technology of Star Trek

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of the first Star Trek episode, here is a fascinating look at the fictional technology of the series.

I remember that Thursday evening fifty years ago very well. As a teenager I had been suffering for years watching very bad and stupid television science fiction, like Lost in Space, written as if its audiences were five year old children and thus insulting them. Still, as an avid reader of science fiction that knew the genre was sophisticated and intelligent, I held onto the hope that some new science fiction show might finally do something akin to this.

Star Trek did this and more. That first episode had all the best elements of good drama and great science fiction: a mystery, an alien, a tragic figure, and an ancient lost civilization. From that moment until the series was cancelled, I would be glued to my television set when it aired.

You can watch that first episode if you wish, though with commercials. Click on the first link above to do so. In watching it recently when Diane and I decided to rent the original series from Netflix and watch them again, I was surprised how well this episode, as well as the entire first series, has stood up over time. It is not dated. Its drama remains as good. And you know, the writing is sometimes quite stellar, to coin a phrase.

Big money for California air pollution researchers

The next time anyone tries to point out how “Big Oil” or “Big corporations” are using their financial clout to squelch research into air pollution, the environment, and global warming, refer them to this story:

Nineteen California professors earning more than $300 million in grants from the government to study air pollution have issued a letter demanding more air quality regulations, which they can then use as a foundation for earning more government grants studying air pollution.

The environmental movement likes to talk about how big corporate money pays for all the environmental skepticism we see in the press, and if that money disappeared the debate would vanish and everyone would agree with them. The trouble is that most skeptics I know, including myself, get nothing from big corporate money. Instead, it is the environmental movement that gets gigantic amounts of cash from the federal government, run by politicians like President Obama, who has a very pro-environmentalist bias and wants his scientists to confirm his religious belief in human-caused global warming and the evils that humans do to the environment.

Sunspots: A recovery in August

NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle was posted today. As I do every month, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

August 2016 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

The recovery in sunspot activity that began in July continued in August. The number of sunspots increased enough to once again raise the overall curve up to match the green curve of the 2007 weak prediction. Even so, this solar maximum remains far weaker than the weakest prediction. Also, this solar maximum, which started later than all the predictions, looks like it will be far shorter than all the predictions. As I have noted previously, this is counter to all previous solar cycles, where it is the more active cycles that are shorter and the weaker cycles are longer. Here, we are getting a weak cycle that is also short, which once again suggests that we are seeing solar behavior previously unobserved. The solar cycle is doing things it hasn’t done since scientists began studying it closely after Galileo.

Philae found!


Less than a month before Rosetta’s mission ends the spacecraft’s high resolution camera has finally located Philae in its final resting spot on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G.

The images were taken on 2 September by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera as the orbiter came within 2.7 km of the surface and clearly show the main body of the lander, along with two of its three legs. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation, making it clear why establishing communications was so difficult following its landing on 12 November 2014.

The image on the right clearly shows the lander on its side with one leg sticking up, as theorized by the Rosetta engineers based on the small amount of data they had received before Philae went dead. Furthermore, the wide image at the link above shows that the lander landed exactly as predicted by data, up against a wall — in this case a large boulder — which placed it in shadow most of the time.

Opportunity’s future travels on Mars

Opportunity's future path

Approaching the gap

Having spent a lot of time recently analyzing the travels of Curiosity in Gale Crater and in the foothills to Mount Sharp, I decided this week that I also needed to do the same with Opportunity at Endeavour Crater.

The image above is a panorama that I have assembled from images taken by Opportunity’s navigation camera on Sol 4477 (sometime last week). To the right is a panorama assembled from images taken by the navigation camera several days later, on Sol 4481, after Opportunity had moved closer to the gap shown in the first picture above. The inset in the image above shows the location of the image on the right. The X shows Opportunity’s approximate position.

Below the fold is the most recent orbital mosiac showing Opportunity’s recent travels near Endearvour Crater and in Marathon Valley, cropped and annotated by me to indicate the areas seen by the two panoramas above. The red dot shows Opportunity’s present position.
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First science results from Juno

Storms at Jupiter's pole

The Juno science team today released the mission’s first science results gathered during its first close fly-by of Jupiter.

I have cropped on the right one of their full images to focus in on two of the strangely shaped storms Juno imaged during its pass. This image is of the northern pole. They also have some fascinating images of the south pole storms as well. Unlike the equatorial regions, which on gas giants have what appear to be parallel coherent bands of weather, the poles appear very chaotic, with the storms forming shapes that have not been seen in any other atmosphere in the solar system. They also found a hexagon-shaped weather feature in the pole.

The first link above also included data from the spacecraft’s other instruments, showing the gas giant’s complex atmosphere in a variety of other wavelengths.

NASA sets InSight’s new launch date to Mars

NASA has now set 2018 as the new launch date for its Mars InSight mission.

The mission was originally supposed to launch in 2016, but missed that launch window when significant problems cropped up during construction of the spacecraft’s French-built prime instrument. NASA has now taken much of the responsibility for building that instrument away from the French and given it to JPL.

The SEIS instrument — designed to measure ground movements as small as half the radius of a hydrogen atom — requires a perfect vacuum seal around its three main sensors in order to withstand harsh conditions on the Red Planet. Under what’s known as the mission “replan,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will be responsible for redesigning, developing and qualifying the instrument’s evacuated container and the electrical feedthroughs that failed previously. France’s space agency, the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), will focus on developing and delivering the key sensors for SEIS, integration of the sensors into the container, and the final integration of the instrument onto the spacecraft.

The cost for the changes and reschedule is estimated to be more than $150 million, adding to the budget strain in NASA’s science programs already caused by the overruns from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The surface of Ceres lacks water

The uncertainty of science: Despite significant evidence that water ice has helped form specific features on Ceres, other data collected by Dawn suggest that there is not much ice on the surface.

Angular polygonal craters on the surface suggest that Ceres’ crust is fractured, furthering the conclusion that the near-surface crust “must be both brittle enough to fracture and strong enough to retain fractures for long periods of time.”

“Based on our analysis, the crust of Ceres is too strong to be dominated by ice,” said Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the study’s lead author. “While surface features such as the lobate flows show that water ice is present in the dwarf planet’s upper crust and on the surface in some locations, it appears not to be a major factor in creating surface features.”

In addition to studying the surface, researchers drew conclusions about the dwarf planet’s interior makeup. Beneath a strong crust composed of rock, ice and salt hydrates lays a water-rich mantle and a silicate core. Evidence of cryomagmatism is found in the floor-fractured craters, while Ahuna Mons and other domical features have been shown to be cryovolcanic in nature. These surface features suggest that Ceres has been geologically active at some point in its past, perhaps even its recent past.

Note that in just two days, Dawn researchers released two press releases, the first noting that water ice played a significant role in molding major features on Ceres, and the second noting that the surface doesn’t have much water ice. How’s that for a nice demonstration of the uncertainty of science?

Ahuna Mons, Ceres’s biggest mountain, is an ice volcano

Ahuna Mons

Using data from Dawn scientists have concluded that Ceres’s biggest mountain, Ahuna Mons (shown on the right), was created by water volcanism.

“Ahuna is the one true ‘mountain’ on Ceres,” said David A. Williams, associate research professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “After studying it closely, we interpret it as a dome raised by cryovolcanism.” This is a form of low-temperature volcanic activity, where molten ice — water, usually mixed with salts or ammonia — replaces the molten silicate rock erupted by terrestrial volcanoes. Giant mountain Ahuna is a volcanic dome built from repeated eruptions of freezing salty water.

The implications of this fact are important, as it suggests that Ceres’s interior was warm enough for long periods, enough to melt ice. Where that heat came from however is a mystery, considering the dwarf planet’s small size.

The Earth’s oldest fossil?

The uncertainty of science: Geologists this week announced the discovery of what they think is the Earth’s oldest fossil, approximately 3.7 billion years old.

While the press as usual is going gaga over this announcement, it should be noted that many others in the field have expressed significant doubts.

But the discovery involves some of the most physically tortured rocks on Earth, which have been squeezed and heated over billions of years as crustal plates shifted. The pressure and heat recrystallizes the rocks, erasing much of the fine-scale detail that researchers normally use to identify fossilized stromatolites — so the work is already triggering heated debate. “I’ve got 14 queries and problems that need addressing before I’ll believe it,” says Roger Buick, a geobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Dawn moves to higher orbit around Ceres

In order to save fuel as well as obtain a different view of Ceres, engineers are moving Dawn to a higher orbit.

On Sept. 2, Dawn will begin spiraling upward to about 910 miles (1,460 kilometers) from Ceres. The altitude will be close to where Dawn was a year ago, but the orientation of the spacecraft’s orbit — specifically, the angle between the orbit plane and the sun — will be different this time, so the spacecraft will have a different view of the surface.

DNA sequencing successfully done on ISS

Researchers have now confirmed that a new lightweight DNA sequencer has been successfully tested on ISS.

Using a hand-held, USB-powered sequencing device called the MinION, astronaut Kate Rubins, PhD, sequenced samples of mouse, bacteria and virus DNA. This portable sequencing technology could eventually help diagnose sick astronauts, monitor space station food, water, and environment for microbes, and identify extraterrestrial life forms.

As part of a collaboration with NASA on the Biomolecular Sequencer project, Earth-bound researchers – a bicoastal team at UCSF and Weill Cornell Medical College – analyzed the sequencing data from space and compared it to identical samples sequenced on the ground. The analysis would tell whether the journey to space and conditions aboard the space station affected the sequencing results.

…[An] analysis of the space and Earth data found comparable results. “We essentially got equivalent data, and it’s of very high quality, probably within the top 20 percent of nanopore runs that we do routinely here on Earth,” Chiu said.

The press release makes a big deal about how this new equipment will be beneficial for research in space, but I am betting that its creators are as much if not more interested in the profits they will make selling it to customers on Earth, where its portability will make a very useful and beneficial to Earth-bound patients and researchers.

Three professors ban skepticism of human-caused climate change

Academic fascists: Three professors teaching an online course at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs have told their students that they are forbidden to raise any skeptical data or sources or even questions when the issue of man-made global warming is discussed.

Signed by the course’s professors Rebecca Laroche, Wendy Haggren and Eileen Skahill, it was sent after several students expressed concern for their success in the course after watching the first online lecture about the impacts of climate change. “Opening up a debate that 98% of climate scientists unequivocally agree to be a non-debate would detract from the central concerns of environment and health addressed in this course,” the professors’ email continued. “… If you believe this premise to be an issue for you, we respectfully ask that you do not take this course, as there are options within the Humanities program for face to face this semester and online next.”

The professors also note this ban on debate extends to discussion among students in the online forums. Moreover, students who choose to use outside sources for research during their time in the course may select only those that have been peer-reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the email states.

Putting aside the fact that the study claiming that 97% of scientists agree with man-made global warming has been debunked, this refusal to allow open debate by these fake teachers makes them the poster child for fascism in academia.

Hat tip to commenter cotour for finding this story.

An update on Stereo-B’s status

The engineers working to recover Stereo-B, the solar observatory that was lost for 22 months, have released an update on the spacecraft’s condition.

In the subsequent days, analysis revealed the spacecraft was in a complex spin, with its fuel tanks frozen and the battery state of charge at 30%. The prime goal is now to fully recover battery power and gradually thaw STEREO-B’s instruments and fuel tanks from its deep freeze. It may be clear that the spacecraft is still in a critical condition and that it will take quite some time before imagery, such as those from its twin STEREO-A, will be available again.

If you are interested in more details, go to the Stereo-B update website, where they are posting almost daily reports.

Richard Feynman explains the Scientific Method

An evening pause: During last week’s failed attempts to explain the concept of doubt and skepticism in science to a global warming adherent (which begins here and also in the comments of this post), Edward Thelen provided a link to the video below of one of Richard Feynman’s lectures. I thought it entertaining enough to be an evening pause, and educational enough that more people should see it. Listen especially near the middle when he begins to talk about the uselessness of theories that are vague and poorly defined. It will strike a nerve if you have been paying attention to the climate debates during the past two decades.

New and very distance outer solar system objects beyond Neptune

Astronomers have discovered several new objects orbiting the Sun at extremely great distances beyond the orbit of Neptune.

The most interesting new discovery is 2014 FE72:

Another discovery, 2014 FE72, is the first distant Oort Cloud object found with an orbit entirely beyond Neptune. It has an orbit that takes the object so far away from the Sun (some 3000 times farther than Earth) that it is likely being influenced by forces of gravity from beyond our Solar System such as other stars and the galactic tide. It is the first object observed at such a large distance.

This research is being done as part of an effort to discover a very large planet, possibly as much as 15 times the mass of Earth, that the scientists have proposed that exists out there.

Beautiful and mysterious Saturn

A bright spot in Saturn's rings

Cool image time! The image to the right (reduced in resolution to show here) was posted today on the Cassini gallery page. The release focused on the bright spot in the widest ring just above the center of the image.

An ethereal, glowing spot appears on Saturn’s B ring in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. There is nothing particular about that place in the rings that produces the glowing effect — instead, it is an example of an “opposition surge” making that area on the rings appear extra bright. An opposition surge occurs when the Sun is directly behind the observer looking toward the rings. The particular geometry of this observation makes the point in the rings appear much, much brighter than would otherwise be expected.

I however am more interested in the black outline at Saturn’s limb that visually separates the planet from the rings. Is that natural or introduced intentionally in data processing to make the image more pleasing? If it is natural than I wonder how Saturn’s top cloud layer could produce such an opaque and sharply defined region able to so successfully block the light coming from the rings. If introduced intentionally I question the wisdom, as I can’t see any reason to do it and therefore am worried that they might have done some other unnecessary manipulation that makes it difficult to draw any honest conclusions from the image.

Either way, from an aesthetic perspective the image still remains breath-taking. It also underlines once again the amazing engineering that made it possible. All things remain possible, if we maintain our ability to build this kind of engineering.

Antarctica defies global warming predictions

The uncertainty of science: Despite numerous climate model predictions during the past two decades predicting that the ice cap in Antarctica will shrink because a global warming, recent data shows its ice cap to have grown to record size.

Climate models predicted Antarctic sea ice would shrink as a result of global warming, but the opposite happened. Antarctic sea ice actually increased in the last two decades. Chinese scientists compared climate model sea ice predictions to actual observations from 1979 to 2005 and found “the main problem of the [climate] models is their inability to reproduce the observed slight increase of sea ice extent.” As it turns out, natural variability plays a big role here as well. “Sea ice extent is strongly influenced by the winds and these have increased from the south over the Ross Sea, contributing to a small increase in total Antarctic sea ice since the late 1970s,” Turner said. “The increase in ice seems to be within the bounds of natural variability.”

Had Chinese researchers gone beyond 2005, they would have found more than just a slight increase. 2014 was the first year on record that Antarctic sea ice coverage rose above 7.72 million square miles. By Sept. 22, 2014, sea ice extent reached its highest level on record — 7.76 million square miles.

The data overall suggests that all the fluctuations seen so far Antarctica appear to be entirely attributable to natural variation, not climate change.

The alien buttes of Mars

Weird Mars

The image above is cropped from a panorama created by reader Phil Veerkamp from images taken by Curiosity’s mast camera on August 25, 2016 of the terrain that partly surrounds the rover since it passed the Balanced Rock and traveled beyond Murray Buttes

The full image is too large to post here. However, if you click on the first link above you can either download it and peruse it at your leisure, or view it with your browser. You will definitely want to do so, as it is high resolution and shows a lot of strange and alien geology, including multiple slabs seemingly hanging in space because of the low gravity. (Hint: Be sure to pan all the way to the right!) On the image’s left Mount Sharp can be seen raising in the background. Below the fold I have annotated the most recent Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image of Curiosity’s location to indicate what I think is the area included in this panorama. This MRO image also shows that once Curiosity gets through the narrow gap to the south, the path heading south up the mountain’s slopes will, for awhile at least, be relatively open with few large obstacles. The view will also change, as the rover will be out of the region of buttes.
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Dragon splashes down

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s most recently launched Dragon capsule today returned to Earth and was successfully recovered.

The Dragon is the only spacecraft flying today that can return large amounts of cargo to Earth.

Among the cargo brought back from space Friday were a dozen mice from a Japanese science experiment — the first brought home alive in a Dragon. Samples from mice euthanized as part of an experiment by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly also were on board. Results were returned from an experiment that studied the behavior of heart cells in microgravity, and from research into the composition of microbes in the human digestive system, NASA said. Findings from both could help keep astronauts healthy during deep space exploration missions.

Juno’s closest Jupiter fly-by

Jupiter by Juno

Juno today successfully completed its first and closest fly-by of Jupiter during its primary mission, zipping only 2,600 miles above the gas giant’s cloud tops.

We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us.”

While results from the spacecraft’s suite of instruments will be released down the road, a handful of images from Juno’s visible light imager — JunoCam — are expected to be released the next couple of weeks. Those images will include the highest-resolution views of the Jovian atmosphere and the first glimpse of Jupiter’s north and south poles. “We are in an orbit nobody has ever been in before, and these images give us a whole new perspective on this gas-giant world,” said Bolton.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced in resolution to show here, was taken today when the spacecraft was still 437,000 miles away.

Changes on Comet 67P/C-G

Cool image time! Below the fold are two images taken by Rosetta of the smooth boulder-strewn area on Comet 67P/C-G called Imhotep, which has been featured many times by the Rosetta science team. The image on the left was taken October 26, 2014 soon after the spacecraft’s arrival at the comet. The image on the right was taken August 17, 2016, almost two years later after it had completed its close approach to the Sun. With both images I have cropped them and reduced their resolution to fit here. With the more recent image I have also stretched it horizontally to better match it to the older image.

The point? The giant boulders on this smooth region act as markers so that we can more easily compare the region and see how it has changed with time. The newer image clearly shows a loss of material from the surface, with the depressions in the smooth areas having grown much larger and in some areas much deeper. At the same time, there has been a softening in some of the edges between the lower and higher areas, especially in the middle of the smooth region.

What will happen here in the future? It appears that the smooth area is actually pond of dust that is slowly evaporating away with each close approach to the Sun, leaving behind the solid bedrock pinnacles within it that only appear as boulders because they are mostly buried. Eventually, when the dust is gone, some of those pinnacles will break away as well.
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ULA wins contract to launch 2020 NASA Mars rover

NASA today awarded ULA the contract to launch in 2020 its next Martian rover.

The contract is for $243 million, which isn’t cheap, but I think NASA decided to pay the extra money because they used an Atlas 5 to launch Curiosity, and they have been attempting to simplify the 2020 mission by duplicating Curiosity as much as possible.

More details about Proxima Centauri’s Earthlike exoplanet

Link here. Lots of background into the discovery itself, but I think these paragraphs really sum things up:

“The search for life starts now,” says Guillem Anglada-Escudé, an astronomer at Queen Mary University of London and leader of the team that made the discovery.

Humanity’s first chance to explore this nearby world may come from the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot initiative, which plans to build fleets of tiny laser-propelled interstellar probes in the coming decades. Travelling at 20% of the speed of light, they would take about 20 years to cover the 1.3 parsecs from Earth to Proxima Centauri.

Proxima’s planet is at least 1.3 times the mass of Earth. The planet orbits its red-dwarf star — much smaller and dimmer than the Sun — every 11.2 days. “If you tried to pick the type of planet you’d most want around the type of star you’d most want, it would be this,” says David Kipping, an astronomer at Columbia University in New York City. “It’s thrilling.”

The human race now has a real interstellar target to aim for. Don’t be surprised if we get there sooner than anyone predicts.

Rosetta photographs outburst on Comet 67P/C-G

The Rosetta science team today released data and images of a February 19, 2016 outburst on Comet 67P/C-G that the spacecraft was able to photograph, as it happened.

A strong brightening of the comet’s dusty coma was seen by the OSIRIS wide-angle camera at 09:40 GMT, developing in a region of the comet that was initially in shadow. Over the next two hours, Rosetta recorded outburst signatures that exceeded background levels in some instruments by factors of up to a hundred. For example, between about 10:00–11:00 GMT, ALICE saw the ultraviolet brightness of the sunlight reflected by the nucleus and the emitted dust increase by a factor of six, while ROSINA and RPC detected a significant increase in gas and plasma, respectively, around the spacecraft, by a factor of 1.5–2.5.

In addition, MIRO recorded a 30ºC rise in temperature of the surrounding gas. Shortly after, Rosetta was blasted by dust: GIADA recorded a maximum hit count at around 11:15 GMT. Almost 200 particles were detected in the following three hours, compared with a typical rate of 3–10 collected on other days in the same month.

Be sure an look at the animated gif at the link.

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