The moons of Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn continues to send back a wealth of data, and some gob-smacking wonderful images. Below are two of the more recent examples. The first is not a computer-generated graphic: it shows the small moon Helene (21 miles across) during a fly-by on March 3, 2010, with Saturn’s atmosphere providing the background. The second captures Saturn’s two largest moons, with the smaller Rhea crossing in front of the larger Titan.

Saturn's moon Helene

Rhea eclipses Titan

First tests of beer in zero gravity

Who says space exploration is dead? Sometime in November researchers will conduct the first zero gravity tests of the world’s first beer to be certified for drinking in space. The tests will take place during suborbital flights of what is commonly known as the Vomit Comet. Key quote:

Sampling the beer during weightless parabolas, the flight researcher will record both qualitative data on beverage taste and drinkability and biometric data on body temperature, heart rate, and blood alcohol content.

Federal spending is out of control and NASA’s gonna get what it wants?

You think NASA’s going get money this year or next? Or ever? In one graph (see below), this article shows how completely out of control federal spending has become, beginning in 2007, with no end in sight. Key quote:

Until this skyrocketing spending growth is arrested and reversed, we suspect that government spending has become disconnected from the ability of any American household to support it.

out of control

Opossums overrun Brooklyn

We’re here to help you! The New York city government, in an effort to control its rat population (the small rodent kind), decided to release opossums in Brooklyn to eat rats. Instead, the opossums have ignored the rats, and now Brooklyn is overrun with both rats and opossums. More here. Key quote:

“Didn’t any of those brain surgeons realize that the opossums were going to multiply?”

More caves on the Moon

Check out these newly posted images of lunar cave pits, taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The depth estimates range from 100 to 300 plus feet.

[Ed. I should note that some of these images have already been posted on behindtheblack. For example, the center image found here) was first discovered by reader James Fincannon and posted by me on July 15 and July 26, when I discussed the challenges of accessing the bottom of these pits. I also posted an image of the Mare Ingenii pit on July 13.]

Something’s coming, something good

Three polls issued today make it very clear that the upcoming November elections are going to be a very different animal than any election anyone has seen in decades.

First, Public Policy Polling (PPP) finds that in the West Virginia race for the Senate seat formerly held by Robert Byrd, long shot Republican John Raese is leading shoe-in Democrat Joe Manchin by 3 points.

Second, Rasmussen finds that not only is Republican Joe Miller leading his opponents in the Alaska Senate race by 15%, the Democrat candidate, Scott McAdams, can only garner 25%. Meanwhile, Lisa Murkowski, who lost to Miller in a primary upset, is doing almost as bad as an independent write-in candidate, with 27%.

Third, a Quinnipiac poll shows Republican Tom Corbett destroying Democrat Dan Onorato by a 54-39 margin in the race for Pennsylvania governor.

Not only do these numbers show a willingness of the public to consider new and unknown candidates and reject incumbents, they also show a surprising hostility to Democrat candidates in regions that have always been considered Democrat strongholds. In West Virginia, the accepted wisdom was that the Democrat Manchin would be nominated and then annointed. Not so. In Alaska, not only did Miller upset the incumbent Murkowski in the Republican primary, voters apparently have little interest in seeing her return to office, or give her Democrat rival the job either. And in Pennsylvania, a swing state that has in recent years been swinging increasingly Democratic, the numbers show instead a complete reversal of that trend and a total rejection of the Democrat candidate.

Yes, November 2nd is going to be an interesting day indeed.

Update: Another poll released today from PPP and commissioned by the leftwing website, Daily Kos, continues these astonishing trends. In the Wisconsin Senate race, Democrat incumbent Russ Feingold now trails Republican Ron Johnson by 11% points. And in Wisconsin governor’s race, the same poll found the Republican leading by 9%.

The United States, as seen from the Moon

On August 9, 2010 the camera on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took some routine calibration images and captured the Earth from lunar orbit, showing the western hemisphere with relatively little cloud cover. The picture below is a tiny piece from that global image, cropped to show the United States. The details are pretty remarkable, considering the distance. You can explore the full global image in detail here.

The U.S. from the Moon

Something is recycling the methane on Mars

Research results posted today [pdf] at the European Planetary Science Congress show that the methane in Mars’s atmosphere is seasonally variable and far more short-lived than predicted, disappearing in less than a year. Some process, therefore, must be both using it and replenishing it. On Earth, that’s almost always done by some form of life process. Key quote by one of the scientists, from the press release:

“Only small amounts of methane are present in the martian atmosphere, coming from very localised sources. We’ve looked at changes in concentrations of the gas and found that there are seasonal and also annual variations. The source of the methane could be geological activity or it could be biological ­ we can’t tell at this point.”

The image below shows the three regions (in yellow) where the methane is concentrated.

Mars methane locations

Bolden cleared by IG of ethical violations

Though NASA’s Inspector General has cleared [pdf] NASA administrator Charles Bolden of ethical violations in connection with his communications with the Marathon Oil corporation during discussions about awarding research money to a Marathon competitor, the IG also noted that Bolden’s actions were inappropriate. Key quote:

We concluded that Bolden’s contact with Marathon regarding OMEGA did not violate federal laws or regulations pertaining to conflicts of interest. However, we found that the contact was not consistent with the Ethics Pledge he, as an Administration appointee, had signed, and that it raised concerns about an appearance of a conflict of interest involving the NASA Administrator and a large oil company to which he had financial ties.

NASA outreach to the Arab world

Keith Cowing and Frank Sietzen at SpaceRef report that NASA administrator Charles Bolden will soon be heading to Saudia Arabia, ostentively to continue NASA outreach to the Muslim world, with other less obvious motives pertaining to Israeli/Palestine peace negotiations. Key quote:

According to one of several sources knowledgeable on the subject “expect to see a wave of mid-level Administration appointees embarking on a round of carrot-and-stick sweetener overtures” to Saudi officials to entice them to join the Obama effort. For their part, the Saudi government wants the U.S. to exert greater pressure on Israel to stop construction of settlements in occupied territories that might someday be a key in a peace accord. In the meantime the Obama administration is trying to give the Saudis every incentive to craft a stronger relationship with the U.S.

My Friday night travels

On Friday I drove up to Westfield, New Jersey, to give a public lecture to Amateur Astronomers, Inc. at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. On this, my second visit to this amateur astronomy club, my lecture topic was the story behind the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon, the subject of my first book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8.

I visit a lot of astronomy clubs, giving talks on space and its history, so it is not a light complement when I say that this particular club is one of the most active, organized, and enthusiastic astronomy clubs I have ever seen. This is not to say that other clubs are not active, organized, or enthusiastic, only that it seems to me that the members of Amateur Astronomers are particularly so.

This fact only makes the decision by Union County College to throw the club and its observatory off campus seem incredibly stupid. Fortunately, the club has managed to negotiate a two year postponement of their eviction. What will happen after that, however, remains unknown.

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