June 17, 2012

The streaking sky seen from the ISS

photo of the earth and stars from the International Space Station

Here's a bit of beauty to finish off your weekend.

The International Space Station zips around the Earth day in and day out, streaking across the sky at about 17,000 miles per hour. Don Pettit is one of six astronauts currently on the ISS, and in his spare moments he's been making some beautiful photos that capture that streaky flight.

Pettit typical takes 30 second exposures of the passing earth, and then stacks multiple exposures into single finished images.

Check them out on the Fast Company design blog.

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April 28, 2011

Search for extraterrestrial life put on hold

photograph of the Allen Large Array telescopes
I was sad to learn that budget problems has brought to a (hopefully temporary) end to the search for extra-terrestrial life. For more than two years the SETI Institute has used an array of radio telescopes in California to signals from distant stars that may be generated by some alien form of intelligent life.

Funding for the day to day operation of the telescopes comes...or came... from the University of California via grants from the National Science Foundation and the state of California. But now those grants have been slashed to a tiny fraction of the US$2.5 million dollars needed to run the array each year. As a result, UC has had no choice but to shut down operations.

While this is obviously a big setback for SETI, they're not giving up. They are actively looking for alternative sources of funding (perhaps funding from the Air Force in exchange for using the telescope array to also track space junk, perhaps funding from NASA to use the array in investigate exo-planets recently discovered by the Kepler space telescope). If you have an extra few million dollars, they'd love to talk with you!

Here's an article on the shutdown from New Scientist.

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April 16, 2011

WANTED: Pilot-Astronauts

rocket as depicted on some old pulp sci-fi book

Regular passenger flights to space are one step closer, with Virgin Galactic's announcement that they're hiring Pilot-Astronauts for their planned commercial trips to the edge of space. As you might expect for a gig like this, they're not just accepting anyone who staggers in off of the street. To be considered, you'll need to have logged at least several thousand hours in high-performance and multi-engine aircraft, have graduated from a test pilot school, have proven experience with high-speed gliding aircraft, and are in general are a flying bad-ass, dripping with The Right Stuff. Extra points if you're a current or former astronaut.

BTW: If you're more the passenger type than the pilot type, Virgin Galactic is taking reservations for their flights. Tickets are US$200,000.

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April 13, 2011

One of the greatest physics problems of the age - solved!

NASA image of the Pioneer spacecraft

You may have missed this from last month, but one of the most disturbing problems in physics has been solved.

Since the early 1970s, the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft have been sailing away from earth. Now they're more than twice as far away as Pluto, and heading out into interstellar space. The problem is, they're heading out just a tiny bit slower than they should be.

Astronomers have been precisely monitoring the speed of the Pioneer spacecraft for years. They expected them to slow down slightly (because they are being tugged back ever so slightly by the sun's gravity), but the problem is, they were slowing down too much.

The discrepancy was tiny... less than a billionth of a meter per second squared... but it was enough to drive scientists nuts. They looked at all sorts of possible explanations... calculation errors, leaking gas, drag caused by interplanetary dust, you name it. But everything they could think of was eliminated as a possible cause.

This led some scientists to even wonder if some of the fundamental laws of the universe might be wrong... maybe the law of gravity, maybe Einstein's equivalence principle. (There's a chapter about the Pioneer anomaly in the book 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time).

But last month, they finally figured it out. A precise analysis of the shape of the Pioneer spacecraft shows that heat from the Pioneer's power source bouncing off of the spacecraft's antenna generates a very tiny force, just enough to explain the extra deceleration.

This whole thing is a great example of how science is supposed to work... first the observation of some new phenomenon, then the proposal of a hypothesis to explain it, then uncovering evidence that disproves the hypothesis, then another hypothesis proposed and disproved, then another, then another, finally getting to the point where you even question laws of physics that have been in place for hundreds of years. There's a good layman's write-up of the whole thing on the io9 website.

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March 07, 2010

The first person to hear from aliens

radio telescopes

OK, so I lied a tiny bit in the cause of having a better blog post headline. But while astronomer Paul Davies almost certainly won't be THE first person to receive a message from beings on another planet, he almost certainly IS the first person whoever detects a message from the stars is going to call.

As chairman of the Post-Detection Task Group of the SETI project, Davies will decide what happens next after we discover we are not alone. In an interview in the Guardian newspaper Davies talks about how Seti researchers fight off disappointment after decades of hearing nothing from the stars but static. He also explains how...if an alien transmission is ever detected...he's not going to tell anyone where the message is coming from:

"My strenuous advice," Paul says, "will be that the coordinates of the transmitting entity should be kept confidential until the world community has had a chance to evaluate what it's dealing with. We don't want anybody just turning a radio telescope on the sky and sending their own messages to the source."

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August 18, 2009

The N-Prize dreams the (nearly) impossible dream

N-Prize photo of Cambridge University teddy bears

It's hard to get into orbit. You need to be moving really fast (typically over 17,000 miles per hour) and be really high up (at least 75 miles or so) to achieve anything approaching a stable earth orbit. Not surprisingly therefore, putting something into orbit tends to be a very expensive proposition (A typical satellite launch costs millions).

But what if it was possible to put something into orbit for a tiny fraction of the typical cost? Say...the cost of a typical laptop?

The N-Prize
organizers think it may just be do-able...if the satellite is really tiny. They're running a contest to see who can put a sub-one-ounce satellite into orbit for less than about $1,500. In their words...

The N-Prize is a challenge to launch an impossibly small satellite into orbit on a ludicrously small budget, for a pitifully small cash prize.

That cash prize is £9,999.99 (about $15,000 US). But that paltry amount hasn't stopped nearly 20 teams from taking up the challenge.

Popular Mechanics
has profiles of three of the teams' designs. Pictured above, Cambridge University's mad plan to get teddy bears into space.

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August 10, 2009

The newest pictures of Neptune

multiple exposure image of Despina eclipsing and transiting Neptune

This is why you never throw out scientific data. Nearly 20 years ago the Voyager II spacecraft zipped past Neptune, snapping images as it went. Planetary scientists pored over the pictures for a goodly number of years, and then went on to other things. But amateur space geek Ted Stryk got his mitts on the original digital data, did his own image analysis, and discovered several hitherto unnoticed images of the tiny (only 146 miles across) moon Despina passing in front of Neptune and casting its shadow on it. From those images Styrk stitched together this beautiful composite image.

See more images and read the details of how Styrk spotted Despina on the website of the Planetary Society.

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Maps in Space

Photo of me speaking at Where 2.0. Photo by Duncan Davidson. Used by permission. All Rights Reserved.

In the last year or two I've become more and more interested in subjects that brush up against celestial mechanics...the movements of the planets, the math behind sundials, the intricacies of orreries, the libration of the Moon, that kind of thing.

One of the things that I find most fascinating is how we humans came up with mapping and navigation systems to use in space...how we decided where to place the Prime Meridian on Mars, how we can accurately describe the orbits of satellites, etc.

I was delighted to be able to give a talk on this subject at this Spring's Where 2.0 Conference in San Jose.

Here's a video of the talk.

Photo by Duncan Davidson. Used with permission, all rights reserved

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