Monthly Archives: April 2010

Asteroid imaged, now less of a risk

NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory‘s Asteroid Watch has downgraded the danger from Asteroid 2005 YU55. Uncertainty in our knowledge of the 400 metre object meant there was a possibility that it could hit us. Now data gathered by the Arecibo Radar Telescope in Puerto Rico when the asteroid was 2.3 million kilometres away has provided both an image of the near spherical thing and information on its orbit that has reduced the uncertainty by a factor of 50% in such a way that rules out an impact within the next century.

Two interesting resources

The Herschel Space Telescope has a UK-based outreach website for the general public to look at and enjoy.

Meanwhile, the exoplanetary encyclopedia now has competition from a visual version that displays visual information on the star the planets are orbiting (where is it, what does it look like?) and compares the sizes of orbits and planets to those seen in our own solar system.

Large Musical Hadrons collide

Following the Cosmic Concert, a Global Month of Astronomy event where various musical scores were played including some music taken from starmaps turned into musical notation, and following a website showing the orbits of the planets put to music, here’s one with protons from the Large Hadron Collider doing a jig

Spaceflight roundup

One bit of NASA has not had a good day today. The not often reported launch of a balloon from the Alice Springs Balloon Launching Facility made headlines when the $2 million Nuclear Compton Telescope, which intended to study the polarisation of Gamma rays and act as a test bed for the Advanced Compton Telescope, ended up slamming into a parked car rather than riding up into space. The gondola seems to have detached before any great altitude was reached and the launch was doomed from the start. The NCT was the second of three telescopes to be launched in the program. The first was the Tracking and Imaging Gamma Ray Experiment, launched on April 15th. The next was to be the HERO X-ray telescope, slated for a May launch, which is now a ‘may’ launch depending on the outcome of the accident investigation. News and videos of the incident are available at Yahoo, Discovery and the Times.

I noticed a report on the attempt by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, to send a humanoid robot to the Moon. Just one slight problem, it isn’t entirely accurate. Whilst JAXA does intend to have a robotic explorer on the Moon by 2015, and contemplated a humanoid version of a rover, it won’t have legs. They’ve decided they can’t get them to work well enough even on Earth to contemplate relying on them in a Moon mission.

Meanwhile ESA has put out its calendar page for May.

The Solar Dynamic Explorer has continued to put out interesting videos of activity on the solar surface, such as this one.

Having mentioned offhand in the last roundup that XMM-Newton found the first intermediate sized black hole candidate, now the telescope has been at it again, paired with Chandra to confirm the existence of two objects in the same galaxy identified as likely candidates for intermediate black holes, the first time a pair has been found in one galaxy. One is 290 light years from the centre of the galaxy M82, weighing in at between 12,000-43,000 solar masses. The second is 600 light years from the centre and of 200-800 solar masses. If the first one had been created at the same time as the galaxy and weighed in above 30,000 solar masses, at the distance it is now, it would’ve been sucked into the nucleus of the galaxy.

…and finally Cassini has been keeping tabs on storms on the surface of Saturn with the help of amateurs. The huge amount of data the probe takes on means that it is possible for rough measurements of a storm to be lost, so the team behind the search for storms decided to crowdsource. When one set of instruments sent out signals indicating a storm might be present, a group of amateurs went to their own telescopes and snapped the planet over and again until images of storms were captured. Their latitudes were worked out and whether or not the probe would be passing in the right area for a close observation. On one occasion, a giant storm was able to be measured and showed higher than usual levels of phosphine, a gas present in Saturn’s deep atmosphere, suggesting the convective cell of the storm was dredging it up. It is believed such storms are powered by huge storms deeper down in a region where water and ammonia clouds float and lightning flashes. Meanwhile, this isn’t the only set of professional observations driven by ordinary people drafted in. The ‘Green Peas’ of Galaxy Zoo have also been studied and revealed to be an interim stage of galaxy formation, low in metals. The team behind the observations believe the peas (so called because they are compact green things that appeared on the screen when users were asked to classify galaxies) are created by interactions between galaxies that disturb their ordinary shape, setting off star formation, cleared out by winds from supernovae.

Some astronomy magazines online

The next edition of the free astronomy magazine Practical Astronomy is online and awaiting download.

Meanwhile, New Scientist has announced that it can now be read on your Android.

Why, if you can afford an Android, you don’t just send it to the shops to pick up a copy is beyond me…

Mars and Microbes roundup

There’s been a few Martian microbial bits and pieces flying around today, so here’s a quick summary of those that I saw (articles, not very little green blobs).

Over at Discovery News, Ian O’Neill talks about the hazards posed by terrestrial microbes hitching a lift to Mars on one of our robots. The trouble is, research shows there are bugs capable of surviving the sterilisation techniques employed on space vehicles. Those that can live through that are also quite capable of setting up home on the Red Planet after a long, cold journey from the Earth.

A paleobiologist, Bill Schopf, has discovered that fossils of microbes may be found preserved in gypsum, a type of mineral previously assumed to contain no such evidence of past life. Why the Martian angle? He looked after being contacted by astrobiologists who noted how much gypsum there was on Mars and wondered whether or not it could be used in this way.

Meanwhile, a series of astrobiologists are planning a recipe of terrestrial bacteria that they’ve decided they do want over there. Bacteria including cyanobacteria, discovered in Biopan VI, an ESA mission to expose a series of bugs to space and see what lives and what didn’t. Cyanobacteria not only lived, they were actually discovered for the first time once the other bacteria had been stripped away from them by the environment in space. Cyanobacteria photosynthesis, meaning they are solar powered like much of the space effort, so ideal as rugged pioneers in the space age. ESA has incorporated them into a recycling system called MELiSSA that produces oxygen, clean water and recycles waste. Finally, a series of bugs from Iceland and lichen are being lined up as possible catalysts for volcanic rock from Mars being turned into soil. It is known that plants can grow in pulverised Martian rock, but something a bit more suitable would be needed to promote the sort of levels of production a colony requires. Further details on these two stories are both here.

With microbes we don’t want apparently going to Mars, microbes we do want to send to Mars and possible common searching grounds for signs of old microbes between here and Mars above, it is no wonder on a NASA flickr account, there is evidence that Mars is keeping careful watch…

…and finally, for those wanting a little more astrobiology news, NASA has this site to keep you going for a while.

#SciVote roundup T-6

Another daily edition of things I’ve seen that might be relevant to the #SciVote campaign of CaSE, which aims for a better deal for science in government policy.

The big thing today was the final one of the three Leader’s Debates, broadcast on the BBC, which concentrated on the economy. David Cameron made the first mention of science and the importance of investment in science. According to the worms (instant reaction opinion polls) of MORI and Newsnight, the response to the mention was warm among the gathered members of the general public involved. This speaks to the heart of the #SciVote case – people do have an underlying interest in and respect for science, but it hasn’t been explored fully in the election campaign – a point made by Susan Watts in this BBC article on comments by Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

Now although the party leaders could run from science in this debate, in the Digital Debate, things were a little harder for them. As I mentioned in a previous roundup, members of the public submitted questions to a debate hosted jointly by facebook and youtube. The questions were then voted for and the top two in each category went through to the leaders, each of whom provided a vox-pop answer. A question submitted by Colin Forsyth of MSSL on behalf of the Magnetospheric Ionospheric Solar Terrestrial (MIST) community trounced all others in its category to become top question. All ten questions can be seen here. The answers on science funding (and the ability to vote for your favourate) are here, and the answers with no facility to vote are below:

The question itself was:

There has been a collapse in funding for young scientists in astronomy, space sciences and nuclear physics. How will you protect the UK’s investment in these sciences, prevent a “brain drain” of talent and boost the UK’s position as a science leader?

Meanwhile Jon Butterworth has been reiterating his own question on physics funding and the STFC debacle, this time framed in the context of Brown’s response to the CaSE letter to the leaders.

The Royal Society has since 2001 been promoting a thing called the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, that puts together research scientists and either MPs or Civil Servants in order for one to understand the mysterious ways of the other. Specifically, the aims are:

  • To help scientists recognise the potential methods and structures through which they can feed their scientific knowledge to parliamentarians.
  • To help practising research scientists understand the pressures under which MPs operate.
  • To give MPs and Civil Servants the opportunity to forge direct links with a network of practising research scientists.
  • To give MPs and Civil Servants the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the process of scientific understanding and topical research and ultimately to be able to bring this knowledge into better informed discussions and decision making.

Applications for this year’s pairings close on May 7th, by which time some idea of the composition of the greater part of the next parliament will be known. Just goes to show, if we can’t get scientists in there one way, there’s always another…

…and finally, it has been noted in this debate that one area of science on which all of the three main parties have been developing a relatively strong debate on is climate change and developing a mix of energy sources to cope with it and provide the country with appropriate ‘energy security’ (limited reliance on anyone else’s electricity to run the country on). To that end, there is a free lecture being given by professor Steven Cowley on “Fusion Power – the Era of burning plasmas” at 7pm on the fourth of May at Pevensey 1, Sussex University, where you can learn how developments in science can potentially render a complex argument dead in the water. Something a comment in a previous daily roundup alluded to here some time ago.