Archive for the ‘Science’ Tag

A Valentine from NASA

They want to capture a small asteroid and put it into lunar orbit so it can be studied at our leisure.

THAT is the sort of balls-out mission NASA hasn’t had in a very long time. They’re targeting a 20′-40′ asteroid, or a comparable sized chunk of a larger asteroid. That’s planetary system engineering. And it arguably moves us, for the first time, up a notch on the Kardashev scale — if not all the way to Type I, then at least Type Nought-Point-V or so.

And it gives the moon a moon of its own.

Entering the Total Perspective Vortex

(note: this is essentially a re-post of something I wrote on Flickr this morning, but hey, my blog, I get to do that once in a while)

Exoplanets.  Lots of them.

Every one of the green spots in this most-of-the-sky view is an exoplanet, as downloaded by a plugin for Stellarium this morning; I don’t know how complete it is, but two things are crystal clear: everywhere we look, we find planets, and everywhere we look closely we find lots of planets — the two clusters are the Kepler and OGLE projects.

I take away two lessons from this.

One: we, humanity, are not the point of creation. We are incidental to it. We are not the center of the universe. The universe doesn’t care about us. So we need to grow the hell up as a species and start taking care of ourselves, because ain’t nothing out there going to do it for us. We are insignificant; the universe will not notice if we wipe ourselves out by war, disease, or environmental stupidity, and it will not step in to make sure we don’t. It has plenty of other planetary experiments going on, and it won’t notice if our little test tube flames out. That’s the bad news.

Now the good news.

Lesson Two: if we’ve found this much in less than two decades of looking, think how rich the diversity of planets must really be out there. As sure as I can be without any data to back it up, I am convinced that there’s other intelligent life out there. I don’t know where. I don’t know when or whether we’ll ever contact them. But just on the basis of statistics (and modesty), one almost has to assume there are other inhabited planets with intelligent beings on them.

I mean, there are estimated to be anywhere from eleven to forty billion potential habitable planets–planets in their star’s habitable zone–just in our own galaxy… and there are an estimated half a trillion galaxies in the universe.

Using the Milky Way and the lower estimate of eleven billion Earth-like planets, just taking the odds of hitting the MegaMillions jackpot (1:2.59×108) as the chance of intelligent life would mean somewhere around 40-44 inhabited planets. Powerball odds are even better–1:1.75×108 or around 60-65 inhabited planets. If the odds are like winning my local state lottery, about 1:1.4×107, it’s the jackpot all right — over 780 inhabited worlds. And everyone’s favorite guess for long odds (“Oh, that’s gotta be one in a million!”) gives eleven thousand inhabited worlds.

Eleven thousand.

Just in our own galaxy.

Now multiply any of those by five hundred billion.

If that doesn’t make you go ‘wow’, do the math again until it does.

Hats off

First, in celebration of Peter Higgs and his overdue and well-deserved Nobel Prize in Physics, shared with Fran├žois Englert.

Second, in memory of Mercury 7 alumnus Scott Carpenter, who passed away this week aged 88, leaving John Glenn as the last living member of that group. Carpenter never flew again after his Mercury flight, later teaming up with both the Navy’s SEALAB project, and with Jacques Cousteau to study the ocean, making him both an astronaut and an aquanaut.

Just asking for trouble

Even though the PDF spells out the rules for what names are and are not acceptable, I expect the number of people who read them before submitting names to the International Astronomical Union under their new initiative to solicit names for astronomical objects from the public will be an exceedingly small percentage of the number of people who actually do submit names.

That said, I wonder what I would suggest for the planet candidate I co-discovered earlier this year–which I just noticed I never blogged about. I participate in several online citizen science projects, Planet Hunters among them (a Zooniverse project — join us, join us!), and one of the light curves I marked as possibly being a planet appears to actually be one. That was one of the coolest emails I ever received. :D

Anyway, the host star is a 15th magnitude one in Lyra (which gave me a lovely Contact moment when I learned that!), and is generally quite unremarkable. And it’s right here.

Ohio’s grand astronomy tradition fails for once

Which is to say, there wasn’t an annoying high haze that blocked out anything dimmer than first magnitude, nor were we wholly socked in by clouds.

First off, a tip o’ the blog to Suburban Banshee’s head’s-up about Nova Delphini 2013, which has brightened to naked eye visibility, the first one in quite some time.

Anyway, the sky tonight was magnificently clear, and even though there was a pesky gibbous moon, I could put a building between myself and it, and see the nova for myself, first in binoculars, and then just faintly naked eye, with averted vision.

It’s not known yet whether it will brighten further; it’s been reported around mag 4, which ain’t bad, although most measurements are closer to 4.4-4.5. Even so, that’s epic.

Now go, get yourself a starmap, and go out with your binoculars and look!

So I was thinking, again.

I’m going to be 50 this year, and it really doesn’t scare me, not the way 40 did. I got the ol’ salt and pepper going, I wear bifocals, I take glucosamine supplements to keep my knees from sounding like Rice Krispies, and my digestion isn’t what it was 20 years ago, and in gay years it means I’m already dead, but you know what? If this is going-on-50, it doesn’t suck. Mentally, I still feel twenty-something, and I feel like I still have half my life ahead of me rather than most of it over with.

Heh. Back when I was going on 40, I kept seeing things saying ’40 is the new 30!’

Now I’m seeing ’50 is the new 30!’

Well, hell, if I can just keep resetting to 30 every ten years, I don’t mind that. Anyone care to wager if 60 will be the new 30 in ten years?

I will say this: there are a few things I want to live long enough to see.

I want to see equal marriage rights across the country. I give it about a 65% chance of happening this year or next, depending on when the cases hit the Supreme Court.

I want to see another manned landing on the Moon, and I don’t care which country does it. I give it 75% within the next 15 years. I want to live to see us reach Mars with people rather than robots. 40% within the next 30 years.

I want to see microbial life discovered on another planet or moon in our system. I give it 50% for Mars (once we get a mission to where the water is — permafrost, polar caps, or northern frozen sea if that theory pans out), 60% for Europa, and 15% for Titan. Everything we’ve seen about life just on our own planet is that once it gets a foothold, it doesn’t let go and it will find a way to make a living. As long as Mars’ climate change from warm and wet to cold and dry wasn’t catastrophic, I think any life that arose early on found a way to adapt. It won’t be more than microbes, but microbes would be enough. Europa, we need to get under the ice. It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, that the tidal stress Jupiter puts on it is enough to keep its core molten and therefore it should have an active geology — see Io — which means something quite like the black smokers in the Atlantic are likely there. If microbial life ever took hold, it’s had plenty of time to become multicellular, and maybe even more complex. As for Titan, I’d love to have something turn up there just to see life based on something other than water. It’s not likely… but something has to explain the excess acetylene in its atmosphere, and life is a possible source for that. You have a solvent and an energy source… whether it was enough to ever start anything, I don’t know, but if it did, wouldn’t cold methane life be an astonishing and awesome thing to be able to study?

I want one confirmed SETI signal. Given the size of the galaxy and all the other variables involved (I think the most difficult is: will we even recognize it when we see it?), I’m going to give it 1% within the next 50 years — but 100% within the next thousand.

I’d also like a MegaMillions hit. I put the odds of that at 0+ε% :)

On matters nuclear

I’m not a big fan of nuclear power, mainly because of the human side of the equation. Our “friendly neighborhood” nuke plants were Fermi in Detroit (victim of a partial meltdown) and Davis-Besse (responsible for two of the five most serious civilian incidents in the US since 1979, according to the NRC).

However, current energy needs do not admit to a non-nuclear solution until we have wider-spread and higher-efficiency renewable sources.

That said, when you are looking at places to site a nuclear plant, does it not make sense to not put it somewhere that there is an active offshore fault, the presence of which makes a combined earthquake and tsunami inevitable over time? Or if you must put it there, that precautions against both should be taken?

Let’s be clear. The containment vessels far outperformed what they were designed to handle. What let the Fukushima facility down is the failure of the support facilities, which it now seems clear were not designed to survive what the reactors were designed to survive.

Unfortunately, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and now not only is there a growing radioactive leak, but even the reactors that were already shut down are at risk.

Can we afford a non-nuclear future? No, not in the short term. However, the lesson is clear: site plants in geologically stable areas, harden them against whatever the local environment can throw against them, and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward corner-cutting, specifically including jailing executives, not just slap-on-the-wrist fines.

Half a century of wonders

Happy 50th anniversary today, NASA.

Coolest thing I’ve seen all week…

Element Coins: cent-sized tokens struck from essentially pure samples (99+%) of elements, including some damn obscure ones. NOt just the usual suspects like gold, silver, platinum, copper, but the stunningly obscure like yttrium and dysprosium and lutetium and praseodymium. They also mint gallium. They suggest storing it in the fridge, since it can melt in direct sunlight. :D

They say they’ve almost sorted out how to strike carbon and sulfur, which blows my mind. I need this collection — albeit at the prices of some of the strikes, I will gather it but very slowly.

Yet another moral imperative.

I will grant that I really should finish my theremin cozy first, but presented with a pattern for a Lorenz manifold, just don’t get between me and my crochet hook!

I seem to be making a personal mission of finding the gawdamdest things to knit and/or crochet…