Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

A ground-based telescope matches the Hubble Space Telescope-NOT

Correction.Regular reader James Fincannon emailed me to say that he thinks the image below is an artist’s impression. He is correct. I should have looked more closely at the press release. In reading the actual research paper [pdf] on the results it seems that the VLT did some very sophisticated spectroscopy, thereby measuring the uneven distribution of the velocity and density of the gas around the star. The image below was then created, based largely on Hubble images combined with the new data. In other words, this ground-based telescope did not match the abilities of a space-based telescope in any way. Had the Hubble images not existed the astronomers would have struggled to interpret their spectroscopic data.

Some important astronomy news: The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has released this spectacular image of supernova 1987a, the first and so far only supernova visible to the naked eye since the invention of the telescope.


This image is important for two reasons. First, The data shows that the supernova explosion was not symmetrical, with more material being thrown outward in some directions than in others. This fact confirms what astronomers in recent years have increasingly come to believe: Supernovae explosions are not simple spherical bursts, but chaotic events ripping stars apart in a lopsided manner.

Second, this image demonstrates that ground-based telescopes are becoming amazingly good at doing what the Hubble Space Telescope has done routinely for the past two decades. Five years ago, no telescope on the ground could have resolved the inner ring of supernova 1987a. Only Hubble in space had that capability. Now, VLT can do it, almost as well as Hubble. Though a space-based telescope can still beat any ground-based telescope, it is great news that the technology for ground-based telescopes has improved so much, especially since there presently are no plans to replace Hubble.


Tunnel and tombs in Mexico

Archeologists have uncovered a previously unknown tunnel and several chambers under the Temple of Quetzacoatl north of Mexico City. Key quote:

Experts say a tomb discovery would be significant because the social structure of Teotihuacan remains a mystery after nearly 100 years of archaeological exploration at the site, which is best known for the towering Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun. No depiction of a ruler, or the tomb of a monarch, has ever been found, setting the metropolis apart from other pre-Hispanic cultures that deified their rulers.


The August monthly sunspot graph

Waking up is hard to do. Today NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center once again published its monthly graph, showing the progress of the sun’s sunspot cycle in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009.

August 3, 2010 Solar Cycle progression

As I noted when I posted the July graph, the data continues to show that the Sun’s ramp up to solar maximum is far slower and weaker than predicted, despite the stories this week about how Sunday’s coronal mass ejection demonstrates that the sun is “waking up.”


Lost British ship found in Arctic after almost 150 years

Using sonar equipment Canadian archeologists have detected the underwater remains of the British ship Investigator, abandoned in the Canadian archipelago of islands by Captain Robert McClure and his crew in 1853. McClure had been sent out to both find the Northwest Passage as well as locate the missing Franklin expedition. As winter had set in in September 1851, however, McClure had anchored the ship for refuge in a bay he named Mercy Bay on the coast of Banks Island. As Pierre Berton noted in his wonderful history of the exploration of the Arctic in the 1800s, The Arctic Grail, Mercy Bay was not a refuge but “a cul-de-sac in which the crew would be confined for the next two years and from which the ship itself would never be freed.” Now, that ship has been rediscovered after almost 150 years.


Picture of the day from Mars

Sand dunes on Mars, from the HiRise camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

Dunes on Mars

Fun quote:

These dunes are “barchan” dunes, which are also commonly found on Earth. Barchan dunes are generally crescent-shaped, with their “horns” oriented in the downwind direction. They have a steep slip face (the downwind side of the dune). Barchan dunes form by winds that blow mostly in one direction and thus are good indicators of the dominant wind direction. In this case, the strongest winds blow approximately north to south.


The failure of the past and a hint of the future

The coolant system failure on the International Space Station this weekend and the upcoming spacewalks being planned to fix it is a dramatic and fascinating story, capturing the interest of the general public while causing some news pundits to express fear and dread about science fiction scenerios of disasters in space.

The situation is hardly that death-defying. The station’s cooling systems have a lot of redundancy, all of which are being used to good effect. Moreover, the spacewalk repair to install a replacement pump module, though challenging, is exactly the kind of thing the astronauts have been trained to do. I expect them to do it with few problems. I would be far more surprised if they have serious difficulties and fail to get it done.

What this failure foreshadows, however, is the future on ISS. As the years pass and systems age, » Read more


Closing out debate on climate

It appears that McCarthyism and the blacklist are both alive and well, thriving happily in the field of climate research. Key quote:

It is disturbing, to say the least, that organisations and persons who would be quick to claim professional status consider that it is their current duty to disparage, or to refuse to debate with, or to muzzle scientists whose views on climate change they apparently disagree with.

Read the whole article.


Burt Rutan on future of space

At an airshow on Thursday, July 29, in Oskosh, Wisconsin, Burt Rutan, designer of SpaceShipOne, made some interesting remarks about the past and future of private space flight. Key quote:

Rutan said NASA should give 10 to 15 percent of its budget to new space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX without regulating how to spend the money. “That would allow them to not (have to) beg for commercial investment, while still working in an entrepreneurial mode.”

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