Tuesday, 17 October 2017

When Stars Collide, Hyperloop Pods, Propellors and Quantum Catapults

Apparently, half the missing matter in the universe has been found.
I breath a sigh of relief, as I'm sure we all do.
Personally, the idea of dark matter and black holes gives me a sense of deep dread.
All that nothingness...

One hundred and thirty million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, two neutron stars collided.
In August, the signals from that event reached Earth, and became the first ever visual and graviational record of such a cosmic cataclysm.
The visual and gravitational records arrived within 17 seconds of each other, which is pretty damn good for a journey spanning aeons* of time...

The image below looks underwhelming, but don't forget that you're looking at an event that took place long before we existed...

NGC 4993     When Stars Collide                   NASA/Swift
Personally, I'm still reeling with the simple fact that telescopes are time machines...
What we need is a quantum catapult, enabling us to cross the vast divide of space and time.
I'm working on it, but I need more elastic for the catapult.
It's a minor inconvenience - I'm sure Elon Musk could sort it out - speaking of whom, in a recent discussion of his hopes to use rockets as glorified 'airliners' on Mars, he displayed a masterful use of terms like 'rapid unscheduled disassembly' (rocket explodes) , and ' ...getting somewhere in thirty minutes by rocket...will be negatively affected if ...' you might die', is on the ticket.'
Fear not, though, as current tests for his (Earthbased)  hyperloop system are exceeding their own speed records, and it won't be long before intercity journey times are vastly reduced.

Google have expanded their maps to include places in our solar system: enjoy, but please don't confuse them with your own GPS...

'Propellor' imaged by Cassini    NASA

Remaining with our own corner of the cosmos, I found this article interesting, as it ponders a few discoveries of the belated (do we use this term for a spacecraft? ) Cassini, particularly the interesting 'propellors' created by moonlets in Saturns rings.
A world with moons named from figures of Greek mythos , including Janus, Pandora, Atlas, Dione and Prometheus is always worth revisiting, although my personal favourite is the little oddity known as Pan...

35km wide Pan...

* Using aeons as a fluid measurement

Friday, 6 October 2017

Dusty Stars, Colonies On Mars, And The University That Wasn't

Eugene Cernan, last lunar mission, Apollo 17, 1972

Continuing from last weeks thread about developments in space travel and the race to Mars, it seems that the Trump™ administration has pressured NASA to go with lunar projects, as a 'stepping stone' for Mars.
Given the commercial edge introduced by Elon Musk, it should make for a busy and fruitful time. It's good to see progress - after all, it's been over forty years since the last moon landing.

My Mars boarding pass! Send your name to Mars! Follow the link !

In a blow to the ' Dyson Sphere' theory of the mysterious dimming of Tabbys star, this article tells us of a possible dust-cloud which could have the same effect
Mildly disappointing, but I'm glad that the mystery seems to be solved, rather than wasting time entertaining fantastical theories; speaking of which, a popular conspiracy theory which tied in with cyberpunk 'The Matrix', was the idea that the world we live in is only a computer simulation. Not so, according to physicists at Oxford University. The argument (based on the computational requirements) is convincing. My problem with it is the fact that 'Oxford University' is a matriculation body which oversees the exams for all the colleges in Oxford, it is not a 'university' at all; so the theory that our world does not really exist is disproved by a university that does not really exist.

Dione          (pic by Voyager 2)

Interesting article here about the proliferation of potential ocean worlds in our solar system - including some love for the sadly overlooked Saturnian moon Dione, which was overshadowed by the discovery of plumes of water on Enceladus and Europa.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Moon Colonies, Telescopes On Volcanoes, And Ancient Collisions

It's all systems go for Elon Musk, who is eager to get people on Mars.
His latest suggestion, the BFR (no prizes for guessing the acronym) can accomodate 100 people and will be used to create a lunar staging post , apparently.
His words appear designed to steal a march on NASA, whose SLS was to be similar - but their hands are tied , certainly in regard to funding and bureaucracy.
The flipside of that coin is pressure from the Trump™  government to accelerate the process of putting people on Mars.
Taking a step back from the politics, I'd say that having a proven player in the field ( Musk has multiple succesful landings and relaunches of the Falcon 9 rockets to his credit, as well as the Space X cargo missions to the ISS) can only be a good thing.
My confusion stems from the 'space race' angle - given that NASA have already announced a joint mission with Roskosmos : I'm pretty sure that this is just muscle-flexing as a demonstration of the prowess of Space X, and the fact that NASA are no longer the only game in town.
After all, it can't possibly be a  new space race, given that Trump™ and Russia are allegedly on the same side...

The downside of this posturing is the lack of any realistic plan for a sustainable colony.
Colonising the moon would surely be the logical first step. Recent discoveries point to the existence of a great deal of water which could sustain life systems and provide fuel for further planet hopping.

Enough of my idle conjecture - the spirit of the Space Treaty of 1967 looms large in this picture
The moon is to all intents and purposes, a dead world-on the surface...which brings us to the mystery of the subterranean lava tubes, and a possible sub-surface body of water.

Artist impression - Alamy stock 'photo'

A fourth gravitational wave has been detected using the two observatories in the USA, and Virgo, an observatory in Italy - giving an image of the 3D shape of the wave, and allowing triangulation for the precise location of the event (the collision of two black holes 1.8 billion years ago).
Personally, I wish I could remember the location of objects I put down five minutes ago.

P.S. As I finish this piece, I learn that the creators of  LIGO have just deservedly received the Nobel prize for physics
  Solar activity affecting Mars     image NASA/GSFC/Univ. of Colorado

Recent solar flare activity caused fluctuations on Mars, and a resultant worry about safety for future explorers.
I wonder whether gravitational ripples contain similar disruptive potential - the one mentioned above involved a combined mass of 53x our own sun, a stupendous amount of energy .
At a distance of 1.8 billion light years, any effect here would probably be negligible - would you notice a tremor on a single sheet of paper on your desk ?

The James Webb Telescope has been pushed back to a spring 2019 launch, which, considering the original proposed date was 2011, is a wee bit late...
Staying on the subject of controversial telescopes, a proposed new telescope has fallen foul of indigenous Hawaiians. The dormant volcano Manua Kea is the proposed site for the telescope which will be capable of seeing 13 billion years into the past.
Despite protests, the telescope is going ahead.

Final image from Rosetta

Monday, 25 September 2017

Tilted Worlds, Tilted Beds, Little Green Men, And Solar Probes

Uranus - natural colour

First planet to be discovered by telescope, Uranus is a strange world.
Tilted at almost ninety degrees, it rolls around the sun like a big frozen ball
An ice giant like Neptune, it exhibits quirks which imply that unknown processes are at work. deep within.
The best images which we have date from 1986 when Voyager 2 flew by, yet no probe / lander is proposed until 2030, by which time, we'll be well established on Mars- there are already six explorers / orbiters on Mars,  (and some publicity boosts in the form of popular films) *
It has been suggested that we could inhabit lava tubes on Mars, at least at first...hmmm, what could possibly go wrong?

NASA are already looking into ways to reduce journey time to Mars - with some innovative proposals on the table .
Various tests are underway for the human response to space travel ; recently subjects emerged from eight months of isolation and bed tests are underway for a sixty day period, with subjects being tilted downwards for that whole time.
It's a busy time, but there is room for more, with a serious discussion asking why we don't have at least one orbiter around each world in our solar system.
I just wonder when we will reach the ultimate military / space crossover point - i.e. when one of our orbiters gets shot down by disgruntled extraterrestrials who don't want their world to be streamed live...

Artists impression  The binary asteroid 288P. Credit: ESA/Hubble, L. Cal├žada, CC BY 4.0

Regardless of the planets of our solar system, let's not forget that NASA are sending a mission to the sun.
Set for launch in 2018, the Parker Solar Probe will endure blistering temperatures of 1200 degrees centigrade: if that sounds rather trifling for a solar temperature, don't forget that the probe will be some 3million miles from the sun...hopefully, it will survive long enough to transmit its discoveries on this one-way mission.

Australia are set to have their own space agency - and why not ?
After all, there's plenty of wilderness for launches and landings.
Then again, large untamed spaces are  a rarity these days, and I wondered why we can't avoid the
monstrous amount of fuel wasted in reaching escape velocity from Earth.

* Okay, so the old little green men / alien invaders trope is hardly flattering but no publicity is bad publicity. Besides, with our robot Mars explorers, we are the alien invaders...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Cassini, Future Missions, And The Paradox of Time-Travel

Jean Dominique Cassini 1625-1712 first discovered four of the moons of Saturn

Cassini is no more, a moment I watched with a glass of Absinthe - the cloudy liquid resembled the swirling atmosphere of Saturn - that was my excuse, anyway.
It lent a strange ambience to the last hour of the mission, and I sensed the bittersweet feels of those who had spent so much time on the amazing voyage of discovery.
But enough - I could go on at length, about how its discoveries had been attended and enabled by so many dedicated people that it really felt like the perfect antidote to world-weariness, how it left me with a sense of pride in the potential of our eternal curiosity, and thirst for knowledge.
With this in mind,further missions to Saturn and its moons are being considered, with two contenders earmarked for Titan and Enceladus, the possible life - bearing moons.
Here is a link to a pdf of the Cassini legacy
Sadly, the next proposed launch to Saturn is a few years away - but don't forget Juno is in orbit around Jupiter*, the next Mars probe will leave next year, and Bennu / Osiris- Rex is also already underway-the daring mission to collect and return with a sample from an asteroid.
The next chance for keen observers to see Osiris-Rex will be on Sept 22 , as it approaches Earth for a gravity assist on route to Bennu (101955 Bennu, to give its full name).
Don't wait up for the sample, though, it won't be back on Earth until 2023.

Goldstone, which rec'd the signals from Cassini

Speaking of distant worlds (okay, that's a tenuous link), in a turnaround for the world of radio telescopes, it has been determined that Earth is in the visual sightline of at least nine exo-worlds, so they could be watching us...**
Pointless trivia perhaps, but it shows the sort of thing that occupies the mind of bored scientists.

Intrepid engineers at the University of New South Wales have developed the 'flip-flop' quantum qubit, which could be controlled elctrically rather than magnetically, allowing for the speedy development of silicon - based quantum computers.
The most impressive aspect for me is the fact that the entangled particles can be manipulated whilst remaining entangled.

I decided that the occupants of the ISS are technically, time- travellers.

It transpires that time travel is possible, but only forward, really (to avoid all those pesky paradoxes  - as explored in films like Back To The Future- i.e.if you went back in time and killed your evil grandfather, then you would not be born so you couldn't travel back in time, etc)
To keep everything tidy, then, only future time travel is allowed.
Except, apparently, if you could manipulate a wormhole - then it would be theoretically possible to travel back in time, but only as far back as the beginning of the wormhole.
Could quantum entanglement be used to create a nano-wormhole between two entangled particles ?
I decided that whilst it may be possible in the quantum realm, it could never be upscaled for common use.
Then it was time to lie down quietly in a darkened room...

Until next time


* Jean Dominique Cassini was also first (with Robert Hooke) to observe the Great Red Spot on Jupiter

** It has already been pointed out to me that they would be looking at dinosaurs. Thank you, Pedantic Interwebbers

Monday, 11 September 2017

Countdown For Cassini, Plumes on Enceladus, And The Pale Blue Dot

The Countdown for Cassini nears its end - only a few days now to its 'Grand Finale' , following an epic twenty years of exploration in the Saturnian system, and some truly amazing finds-
as well as releasing the furthest ever man- made probe to land on another world (when Huygens landed on Titan), Cassini has also relayed a treasure trove of new knowledge about the mysterious gas giant and its moons - eye opening stuff, like the amazing plumes of water on Enceladus - tantalising and interesting enough to have sparked further exploration
The proposed Enceladus Life Finder- ELF mission is a possible contender in 2020 - the other being LIFE, which is intended to bring samples back to Earth - but we all know how that plays out......

Cassini dived through the water plumes on Enceladus in 2015

Not to be out done (by themselves), NASA simultaneously released the news that the Hubble telescope had seen water plumes on Jupiters moon Europa.
The legacy of Cassini will be covered in its final moments, more thoroughly than I can, so I will restrain myself from further outpourings - but I am proud and humbled to see such wonders in the heavens - proof of what can be achieved when humanity sets aside the petty politics and squabbles that consume so much energy.
The final 'swan-song' dive will furnish us with further science, and for that, I am grateful.

It's forty years for the two Voyager craft in space, and with Voyager1 now travellimg outside our solar system (40,000 yrs until the next star) , it's up to New Horizons to clinch the next rendezvous as it fast approaches the mysterious object MU69 - ok, so fast is relative with MU69 penciled in for a flyby in 2019, but in space terms, that's soon.
It also promises to be the closest flypast yet.

The journey of the Voyagers has blazed a trail, forcing us to upgrade our listening capabilities as they get further away, and let's not forget that the Voyager craft also produced the first images of planets in our solar system that were more than fuzzy blobs - and also the famous image of Earth known as the 'pale blue dot', taken by Voyager One in 1990:

'The Pale Blue Dot' -    Feb 14 1990  NASA/JPL

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Asteroid With Two Moons, Water On Mars, Distant Sounds, and The Octopus Invasion

A couple of days ago, a large asteroid named Florence flew past Earth, frighteningly close.
I didn't panic though as ' frighteningly close', in space/media terms is apparently 4.4 million miles away.
Phew, huh?
The media made much of the fact that it was the largest ever asteroid to pass by so close, and no doubt, some cultists and survivalists prepared for the Endtimes.
NASA even got footage that shows the asteroid had two moons !
I never thought that an asteroid would have any form of moon, but I suppose it depends on the size of it, and the strength of its gravity/magnetic core.

In other news, a further cluster of radio signals known as FRBs have been detected .
Emanating from the source FRB121102, a galaxy some 3 billion light years distant, the significance and origins are unknown - although one fanciful idea is that they represent the launch of deep space craft.
If that is true, then they left when our world was just beginning to host single - celled life forms...
by my own calculations, if they have been able to maintain their course, then technically, they are here already.
In which case, our only hope of survival is that they forgot why they left their home galaxy 3 billion years ago.

Meanwhile, in the rings of Saturn...

We are getting close to what's billed as the 'Grand Finale' , when Cassini plunges into the atmosphere of Saturn , bringing to an end its incredible voyage of discovery.
I shall be watching on September 15th, until we lose contact.
I'll miss the news from Cassini.

Is it a thing that we now humanise robot explorers ?
I feel a simiar empathy with Curiosity.
I remember the tense landing, billed as 'seven minutes of terror'.
Since then, I've been acutely aware of the reality of the lonely rover which is tirelessly cataloguing the environs, atmosphere and geology of Mars

Lest we forget:     Image from Opportunity           Sol 4824

Curiosity even has its own Twitter feed (shameless plug also for the Sarcastic Rover, which blends world - weary cynicism with wry political comment).
As well as Curiosity, let's not forget Opportunity , still trundling around Mars, long after landing on the 'Red Planet'.
Landing in 2004, both Opportunity and the Spirit rover had a projected three months of exploration on Mars.
Spirit lasted six years, and Opportunity, not to be upstaged by Curiosity, is still trundling around the Endeavour crater.
The next Mars launch will be Mars Insight, a static explorer tasked with sub-surface examination, which will launch in May 2018, followed by the Exo-Mars rover in 2020.
It's all systems go for Mars, we'll soon have many explorers / orbiters in action there, spurred on by the fact that water, one of the key ingredients for life, has been spied on Mars.
Let that sink in.
'briny water-flow' on a Mars hillside    NASA/ JPL / Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

Meanwhile, back on Earth...++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The largest x-ray machine in the world recently started up in a 38 mile complex of tunnels beneath Hamburg.
Boasting 37,000 pulses a second, it will be used to examine the process of photosynthesis, unravelling the mystery of how light becomes energy - also how antibiotics are formed, and what happens deep inside the sun.

Apparently, octopus (octopi?) are taking over the worlds oceans 
On the subject of water, scientists have apparently succeeded in quantum communication in sea-water.
Okay, so the test was only over a ten foot distance, but even so ...