Monthly Archives: July 2010

Meteorwatch fever spreading

Universe Today has an article up about the upcoming twitter Meteorwatch, on the 11th-14th of August. Meanwhile, at the new meteorwatch website, an article about last year’s inaugural Perseid Meteorwatch has also been posted.

Some pretty pictures

Not by or of me.

Astronomy Now has put its best news pictures of the month in this facebook album.

Fox news has done much the same for the week’s best images here.

Some spaceflight stuff

NASA is to hold a news briefing on an upcoming spacewalk by astronauts Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, aboard the International Space Station. The briefing will take place at 1pm CDT on the 3rd of August and will be broadcast on NASA TV. The spacewalk, at 5:55am on the 5th of August, will be in support of the European built Columbus module, which will be slotting onto the station soon, as well as outfitting the Russian Zarya module for robotics work.

A few NASA astronauts have been here and there meeting members of the public. At this event, T J Creamer discussed his time on the ISS as part of the Expedition 22/23 crew with followers of his twitter feed, which sent back the first live tweet from space. Meanwhile members of the STS-132 final full crew of the space shuttle Atlantis were asked an interesting question at the National Air and Space Museum – what does it take to be an astronaut? I’m sure they all resisted the temptation to say “a big rocket”. You can learn more about NASA astronauts at this website.

Of course, big rocket implies big explosion, which is why safety features have to be included in space missions. Ejector seats can’t happen as these require windows that weaken the hull. For the space shuttle, the only way out was through a hatch with a parachute and hope the thing is in the process of landing and within six kilometres of the ground (but not too much within). The traditional design for helping astronauts off an exploding, launching rocket is a Launch Abort System that sits on top of their capsule and carries a number of smaller rockets. Should something bad happen (as shown below), the capsule blasts away from the firework beneath it. The trouble is, having such a thing on top of the capsule affects how the rocket moves, adds weight and means dumping a load of equipment after a certain point in the launch. Boeing think they have an alternative for their new CTS-100 capsule. Called a pusher system, rather than having rockets on top, this one uses thrusters beneath the capsule. This enables a successfully launched capsule to use the abort fuel for movements in space, though it does entail keeping the volatile mixture in the spacecraft.

Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has spotted a dust devil on Mars. Signs of the phenomena, kind of like a tornado traced by Martian dust, happening near Opportunity have been seen from orbit, but this is the first time an image has been captured by that rover itself in six and a half years of its ninety day mission. Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, lying in a dustier, rougher terrain, has seem them by the dozen, however NASA is bracing rover-huggers for the possibility that Spirit may well be seeing no more. As the Martian winter starts to fall in an area, sunlight becomes too dim for a rover to run normal operations off. Power is therefore routed to keeping everything ticking over and hopefully a little warm. During this time, the rover is hibernating, sending no signals to Earth unless there is spare power, but for a successful hibernation, the rover should be positioned on a Sun facing slope in order to catch the best of what little solar power is available. Spirit suffered wheel failures before winter set in and finally ended up partially sunk in a crater hidden submerged in the dust the rover was swimming through to get to the slope. Efforts to free the thing failed to dislodge it in time, and the rover ended up hibernating in suboptimal conditions. The earliest time that a signal from the rover could’ve been heard was July 23rd, when the Sun became strong enough to power the device again, however, it is believed that hazy skies would mean the surface strength of the Sun would be reduced, making it more likely that a September reunion between ground control and rover would happen. Either way, the rover should call home sometime before March, if it wakes up. Nancy Atkinson of Universe Today is more confident that the gloomy implications of the press release. She predicts that not only will Spirit rise once more, the little rover will enact the plans ground control have been working on to pull out of the sand-trap. Time will tell.

Not showing the least bit of respect for its elders, the ATHLETE rover, potentially to be used on the Moon or Mars, has been showing off its dexterity by dancing in a NASA video

NASA’s increasing concentration on surface missions to the red planet has had one notable casualty. The Mars Scout program was to provide the infrastructure for relatively low cost missions to Mars. Unfortunately, as more and more missions head for the surface, the price tag for the average mission has risen far higher than the cap for Mars Scout. The Scout program replaced the Discovery program, which sends stuff all across the solar system, but was barred from the Sun or Mars on cost grounds a while ago. Discovery missions can now go back to Mars, but the budget for them is lower even than for Scout missions. The final Scout project is set for launch in 2013. More details here.

Even further out and the Cassini probe has been studying Titan’s dunes. The dunes of Titan are 100 metre mounds of hydrocarbons. They are lined up by winds blowing the hydrocarbons, much as on Earth they blow sand, but careful studies of them appeared to show something a little odd. They appeared to have been created by winds blowing the opposite way to those atmospheric circulation models suggested they should be blowing. The models said winds should blow Eas-West at the latitudes the dunefields occurred at (within thirty degrees of the equator), but the dunes said West-East. Researchers went back to their models and looked at them over the course of a year and the answer popped out. During the solstices, which happen twice a Titan year, or twice every twenty-nine Earth years, there is a transitional period of one or two years where the winds blow the wrong way. Furthermore, these winds are stronger, blowing 1-1.8m per second. The normal winds blow at less than 1m a second, which is below the threshold for dune creation out of the cold hydrocarbon mush. Meanwhile on the moon Rhea, it is what Cassini hasn’t seen rather than what it has that is interesting. Previous studies of charged particles around Rhea have shown a drop in the number of electrons around the equator. One explanation for this, put about in 2008, was that there may be rings around Rhea, the first ever ringed moon. Cassini then conducted a number of observations designed to look through the haze of any rings composed of small particles to see their effect on Sunlight passing through (as it did with the jets of Enceladus) as well as taking images at less severe angles to try and spot larger objects reflecting a little light. Nothing has been detected at all, never mind a set of rings.

And finally, the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope has been giving us views of the universe through infrared eyes. One of its present missions is to create a survey of the Milky Way. It has done the bit looking towards the centre of the galaxy and now is doing the bit that looks away from it, learning how star formation happens in areas of the galaxy that aren’t as dense as the rest. It has spotted some pretty big stars, twenty times the mass of the Sun, and astronomers would like to know how they came about.

More science talk and politics stuff

The astronomy and particle physics funding council the STFC, has had a recent meeting, including various issues to do with funding. In a summary of the minutes of the council meeting, they obliquely mention the furor over the two CEOs, that of the RAEng, who is a part of the managing structure of the STFC and whose organisation criticised part of the STFC’s funding area, and the CEO of the quango itself, who hasn’t made himself popular during his term in office. Of the first CEO, STFC reiterates that all members of the science board must remain objective. Apparently, they can do that by command. On the second CEO, his term is due to expire in March 2012 and he never intended to seek to extend it.

The Science Minister, David Willetts has responded to the reports of the Science and Technology Select Committees in the House of Commons and the one in the Lords of the last parliament. The Commons one had created a report on the impact of spending cuts on science. The Lords one spoke about priorities in science. Of the first, Willetts stated the government hopes to have a robust system in place after completion of the spending review. Of the latter, he alluded to the difficulties of assessing financial and cultural impact and noted that the government has delayed bringing in any assessment of such things for a year to see if it is possible to find a method of doing such an assessment.

STFC may have cancelled all postdoctoral fellowships outside of those included in grants, but ESA has a few on offer that newly graduating doctors might want a look at.

For those who wonder why I would want to mix up science, politics and blogging in these types of post, it might be interesting to go over to Nature, the premier international scientific journal (a bit of UK bias there as Science, the US journal also claims the title) has a review of planetary science in which it states the field was energised by a mixture of… politics and computers with the science. A brief synopsis (review of the review) is here.

Finally, if there’s anyone out there who’d like to make the leap into the world of science journalism and is in the right part of the world, Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism is offering a masters degree allowing those with either a strong journalism background, but little science or those with a strong science background, but little journalism, to bring themselves up to scratch on both accounts.

Talking science and science policy again

Starting off with the politics.

Tangentially related to space, a solar panel factory in Wrexham, currently supporting 750 jobs, is to expand, creating some new jobs and a training academy. Meanwhile planned changes to the Maths A-level have been criticised as making them harder may put people off. Employers and universities have been complaining about grade inflation making it impossible to differentiate between high scoring students, but some have found ways of using the modular approach to A-levels to give an insight into development through looking at the interim exams. Critics say this would be lost and people would be put off if the A-level returned to an end course exam structure.

NASA has been told not to cancel any contracts associated with the Constellation project in case the various components, especially the Orion capsule, have a chance of being used in future projects. The orders were inserted in provisions for a bill funding the war in Afghanistan and demanded that funds allocated to contracts related to Constellation, which was felled by an overall lack of funding, be retained for their original purpose. The idea is to stop anything getting cancelled that might determine which of the various plans being debated for the future of human spaceflight with NASA can plausibly go ahead. The $18 billion allocation to NASA in the provision has been unfavourably compared to the $20 billion set aside for air conditioning units in tents for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Incidentally, the paths for human spaceflight have their various lobbies forming. Elon Musk of the private rocket company SpaceX has been complaining far and wide about one version of the plan that would put five times as much money into paying Soyuz to launch NASA astronauts as it would put into developing a home grown private space industry. This plan is the present form of the NASA reauthorisation bill that made it through a Senate committee with bipartisan support. Eventually. The bill must now make it through various stages of government, but support inside Washington doesn’t mean support outside of it as the private rocketeers fight for their funds.

Musk hopes to harness the growing power of the science blogging community, but what motivates the science community to blog? Here’s a discussion of science writing origins by science writers themselves to get a feel of why. Might add in my own later. Might not.

Writing isn’t all they do in this multimedia age. Here’s a video with science blogger (and occasionally professor at UCL, CERN researcher et al) Jon Butterworth and others on the Guardian’s site, discussing the recent ICHEP2010 conference.

Some historical documents to see

NASA’s History Division presently have a webpage up showing an early image taken of the Sun from 1845, sporting some nice sunspots. It was released to coincide with the first image ever taken of a solar eclipse, but for some reason, there’s no eclipse image in there. To make up for this, here’s some descriptions of the July 11th eclipse and some more, both taken from the recent circular of the Lunar Section of the British Astronomical Association, and here’s a few images showing the eclipse happening at local sunset.

Meanwhile the observational records of Thomas Harriot (also including images of sunspots, this time drawings), who beat even Galileo to viewing the skies with a telescope, have been on display at the Science Museum in South London for the past year. This weekend marks the last chance to see them before they return to their home and are replaced by fascimilies.

Getting ready to roll…

Quite a few things are limbering up for a launch of one kind or another.

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t due to set off until 2014, however, the various bits and pieces are to be tested to make sure they’ll survive the ordeal of living in space. The various segments of the 6.5m mirror have been cooled to 25K, or -248C, to see how they react to the cold. Changes in the material as it shrinks need to be accounted for when the mirror is smoothed, since this is the temperature that the mirror will be operating at.

A glimpse into the making of the Herschel Space Telescope’s 3.5m mirror has been revealed by ESA. Herschel’s mirror, despite being larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.5m mirror, is a third of the mass, all thanks to a small company in France.

The various parts of the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch from Arianespace, ESA’s spaceport, are in the process of being assembled. Flight V197 is expected to blast off on the 4th of August.

Back in 1996, the Cassini probe, now sending back great stuff from Saturn, underwent preflight testing. This image gives an idea of the size of the device compared to a man in a boiler suit. I cannot guarantee that this is an average sized man in a boiler suit as he was chosen for his working capacity rather than illustrative purposes. Actually, I can’t even guarantee it is a man.

Something else not a man and provided for illustrative purposes is this mockup of Robonaut 2, enjoying a moment in the limelight with some passing students.

Another picture is this one of Professor Brian Cox demonstrating something about protons in the upcoming Wonders of the Universe series, which will be the sequel to Wonders of the Solar System.

With several new rovers setting their robotic eyes on the red planet, researchers are determined to find a good place to stick them. One possible site has reared its head, looking rather like a site in Australia known for preserving the most ancient evidence of primitive life on Earth. Nili Fossae shares many features with Pilbara in North-West Australia. The rocks are ancient, a considerable fraction of their planet’s age, and mineralogically very similar. In Pilbara, ancient microbes left signatures in the rocks called stromatolites that could be identified today, it is possible that if there were early life on Mars a similar process could also have left its mark. The site has been delisted as a possible landing place for the Curiosity rover as the rocky terrain doesn’t lend itself to landing. But other rovers are heading that way and it is possible that one may venture over to see it.

…and finally, one big thing getting a big launch is the twitter Meteorwatch (have I mentioned this before?). The trailer for the Meteorwatch, which will see people in their thousands viewing the Perseid meteor shower during the peak days of the 11th-14th of August, communicating their awe, questions, videos, observations and pictures over the website twitter, has been released over youtube and is visible below. The hope is that if the entire world watches over the course of a few nights, someone might catch a break in the clouds.