Sunday, 13 August 2017

Clockwork Rovers, Missing Chunks, And The Pending Eclipse

To address the problem of electronics frying in the heat of the Venusian surface, JPL have created an entirely clockwork rover.
This instantly conjures images of a 'Steam-punk' contraption exploring a distant world.
Sadly, the actual design is purely functional, looking like a table with treads, and without the extra gears and embellishments associated with Steampunk (although another prototype appears to have 'spider-legs').
Still, the principle is there, and operating in temperatures of almost 500 degrees c, the risk of warped and damaged parts would be too great...

'Table on Treads' Venus rover mock-up      ©JPL

Since 1994, Venus has been neglected in favour of the exploration of Mars and the outer worlds of our solar system.
Even so, NASA have earmarked money for a mission which may be a joint effort with Russia, whose Venera13 was the last mission to send full colour images from the surface of Venus.
As Venus is close in size and mass to Earth, it may give us valuable information about climate and other mysteries ; one of which is why does it have such a thick atmosphere ?
The thick, hazy atmosphere is partly the reason for a probe being necessary - but it's also the reason for the surface being hotter than Mercury .
As we found with Magellan, it's impossible to clearly see the surface of Venus from above.
On the other hand, if it all looks like this, then we're not missing much...

Venus viewed by Venera 13 . Homely place...      

In Other News...

Let's just take a moment to remember that the plucky New Horizons probe is out there, travelling at over 30,000 mph towards a rendezvous with Kuiper Belt Object MU69.
The latest news tells us that MU69 may be multiple objects, or, rather oddly, just one with a chunk bitten out of it.
I'm conflating and exaggerating, of course, but how else do I make this update interesting ?

Meanwhile, back on Earth...

You may notice that I have barely mentioned the pending Stateside eclipse - not intentionally, although I am a little jealous - the last full eclipse I saw was in London long ago, in 1999...I'd like to say that I 'partied like it was 1999', but ironically, I was working underground at the time, and had to come to the surface just to watch the sky darken...

Eclipse 1999                           picture by Jurgens Mandeldorf

I'm pretty sure that this once in a lifetime total eclipse is well documented elsewhere, I'm sure there will be attempts to follow the progress coast -to -coast, but at only two minutes in each area, that would be a fast road trip !

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Jumping Lunar Bots, And The Methane Seas of Titan

The mystery 'island' on Titan 

Recent news of complex, possibly life - capable molecules in the upper atmosphere of Titan got me a little excited.
Putting two and two together, and making five, I remembered a brief flurry of interest when images emerged of a vanishing something in the hydro-carbon sea of Ligeia Mare.
This was made even more intriguing by a documentary* about Titan which , in the final moments (start viewing at approx 35.24), examines micro-organisms thriving in Pitch Lake in Trinidad , the  closest thing on Earth to the hydrocarbon / methane lakes of Titan (minus the below- freezing temperatures).
 In the film,Dr Sarah Hörst replicates the conditions of the Titan atmosphere, successfully creating four major components of DNA, and a Dr McKay postures that life in such a nutrient - poor environment may take the form of a large, thin mat, maximising surface area...

Another anomaly on Titan is the cloud which shouldn't exist ( by our understanding, anyway)
These discoveries, and many more, were made by Cassini, the intrepid little probe that's been examining the Saturn system for twenty years ( and makes its final swan dive through the rings of Saturn next month).
The 'impossible cloud' , Titan      image  NASA/ JPL
I feel humbled, remembering the hugely impressive feat of the ESA probe Huygens being sent from Cassini down to the inhospitable surface of Titan in 2005, where it lasted just over an hour.
It remains our furthest landing on a planet in the solar system to this day.
Okay, there was the comet too, but that was just passing through, right ?
We are now agog at the wonders of Enceladus and Europa , both of which appear to contain large amounts of water, and great potential for life - or at least pre-biotic** conditions
Regardless of the possible existence of strange hydro-carbon based life forms , the sheer wealth of information gathered by Cassini has greatly increased our understanding of the Saturn system, and I will be drinking a farewell toast when it finally descends into the Saturnian depths...

Meanwhile, closer to home, a recent competition has resulted in the creation of jumping lunar nanobots.

The article speaks of profitability and rugged design, but I know that secretly, we're gearing up for nano-robot races on the moon !

Coming Soon - for those in the U.S.A. Once in a lifetime total eclipse of the Sun on the 21st August! To be extensively covered by NASA, I just leave this link here

*  Thanks to PlanetDr / SarahHörst for the link

**This seems to be the new buzzword

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Our Watery Moon, The Inevitability Of Life, And The Height Of A Sheet Of Paper

Recent reports tell us that there is an abundance of water on the moon , more than was previously thought
Time for a re-think / return to the moon ?
Sub-lunar bases ?
At a mere 230,000* miles distant, it's a lot closer than Mars - and with possibly as much water as Earth- (beneath the surface), I say that we should go for it.
Not to be outdone, we hear evidence of ancient bodies of water on Mars.

It appears that particles have been detected in the atmosphere of  Titan which could serve as the building blocks of life - speaking of which, this article asserts that life on Earth was an inevitable result of physics, rather than a biological fluke...
upper atmosphere of Titan         Cassini image : NASA/JPL 

On the subject of moons, the first exo-moon has possibly been discovered - it's four thousand light years distant, but hey- its an exo-moon.
My enthusiasm is muted, as I ponder the many unexplored moons in our own solar system.
Still, it's a new thing....even though it has not yet been confirmed -  infact the whole thing was made public on social media by a third party, thus forcing the hand of those involved, and creating a premature media hype.
This is the downside of social media.

A sheet of paper- relevant ...
My personal interest is in the burgeoning world of quantum mechanics.
I'm not smart enough to fully grasp what's going on, but that's part of the wonder.
The fact that it seems to defy accepted laws of physics,
whilst allowing for almost magical interactions,
is what attracts me to it.
The sense that there is much more to come;
that there is a missing key somewhere...
I think we have problems even describing this new ' realm '
For instance :

Excerpt from this article :

Mir Faizal, one of the three-strong team of physicists behind the experiment, said: “Just as many parallel sheets of paper, which are two dimensional objects [breadth and length] can exist in a third dimension [height], parallel universes can also exist in higher dimensions.”

Surely even a humble sheet of paper has height ?
Which means that a sheet of paper is not two-dimensional, technically.
My assertion is that this metaphor is clumsy.
We need to stop thinking in terms of human scale.
Our visual perception is limited
Which is why we have aids to vision;
Spectacles, contact lenses,
Microscopes and telescopes.
I don't think we'll ever truly understand the quantum world
Until we stop making comparisons
And there's the rub - without comparisons, how can we define something enough to understand it ?
Until next we meet...


* Arbitrary figure, unscientifically guesstimated.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Red Planet, Red Dragon And The Red KBO

Since the Pluto flypast on July 14 2015, New Horizons has been hurtling through space at approximately 32,000 mph, heading for its next rendezvous - Kuiper Belt Object MU69.
The report I linked is a tad speculative, as recent attempts to observe the object drew a blank - it remains uncertain whether it is a single object, or a cluster of smaller space rocks - all that is known for sure is that it is red.
Although which particular shade remains uncertain...
Artist impression               ©NASA/JHUAPL/SwRi

Regardless, New Horizons powers onward through the bleak vastness of space, aiming for a rendezvous on New Years day 2019
I must set my alarm...
Seriously though, I'm still trying to get my head around the sheer distance being covered.
That's another year and a half at 32,000mph.
Travelling 24 / 7
Without even a pitstop.

Speaking of things that move quickly...
Elon Musk may or may not have permission to build a hyperloop between Washington D.C. and New York.
Transporting people at 700 mph  would certainly ease the pressure of road traffic and the carbon footprint of flights...
staying with the innovative Elon Musk, his Dragon outfit are reworking their Mars landers.
This was reported widely as a complete withdrawal from commercial landings, but apparently it's just a re-design...

Meanwhile, those pesky alien signals...

The latest on the signal from Ross 128, is that it comes from a geostationary satellite.
However, there are still uncertainties .
At least it's not the microwave oven , this time...

Meanwhile, on Mars...   ©NASA/JPL

It has been asked of NASA, whether there were ancient civilisations on Mars.
Personally I hope the answer is yes, and the atmosphere vanished due to unchecked global warming...

Apologies for that outburst.
No more politics, or conspiracy theories...I promise !
Well, that's what the martians said...


Saturday, 15 July 2017

Pina Coladas, Dusty Basements, And Signals from Stars

Okay, I said not so much of the space stuff, but I got a tiny murmur of excitement with news that a mysterious signal has been heard from a star
Cue eyes rolling heavenwards , mutterings of: 'Not that old chestnut, again...'
'Lets pray it's not the microwave this time', etc
Okay, this time, the intrepid astronomers are determinedly downplaying the signal , saying that it is probably interference from an overhead satellite
But !
I'm interested because
A) they are so keen to dismiss it, and B)
They're checking again today
and C)
 Professor Abel Mendez has a Pina Colada waiting for a positive result...

In Other News...

They recently found some old nasa computers in a basement in Pittsburgh.
As you do
The engineer concerned obviously thought they were worthwhile mementos
Nasa were underwhelmed
The only other connection which I know with Pittsburgh is that George Romero* made his first zombie film there (in which the undead were infected by some weird virus from space)...

George. A. Romeros first 'zombie' film 1968
Last week, I posted a piece entitled 'Retro-Causality, Foreshadowing and Entanglement' - which was essentially about the weirdness of quantum science
Within days of my post , there was news of an experiment involving entanglement by China, and the transporting of information to space.
I suddenly felt vindicated.
' ...Foreshadowing, and Entanglement'
I rest my case.

I find the world of quantum to be fascinating, but challenging- this link is for an excellent piece by Dr James Wootton, a scientist who wants to simplify quantum principles, without 'dumbing down ' .
I'm very pleased that there is such a thing as ' Quantum Error Correction ' .

Meanwhile, back in space...

I recently heard that there is renewed interest in ' Tabbys' star - remember the colossal mega- structure in space that almost certainly isn't ?
Turns out the dimming is happening again, albeit less dramatically.
Some twelve observatories have been taking measurements- whatever it is, it's not a regular thing...

...and on that vague and unscientific note, I shall take my leave...

Have a good week !


* I learned of the passing of director George A Romero the day after publishing this post. R.I.P. - and thanks for virtually creating the whole zombie film genre
G. 17 . 07. 17.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Retro-Causality , Foreshadowing, and Entanglement

I decided that I wanted to move away from the 'space-centric' stuff,
and return to what this blog used to be, which was more of a general reaction to events.
Then I learned of a new theory that supports retro causality: the idea that an event could generate its own cause .
I got excited.
Sadly my attempts to further research this became quickly enmeshed in fringe theories, with psychokinesis and parapsychology looming large-like ominous foresight.

Foreshadowing occurs frequently in visual media, comics,  films and t.v. - an event or image which alludes to future developments.
This is commonly accepted as a plot device.
Almost as though we want to learn precognition.
I'd go further and say it's accepted as normal.
Are we learning to harness pre-cogniton ?

The Phantom Menace

Which brings me back to retro - causality.
The only way that an event could create its own cause would require the ability to transcend time.
Then I got excited again, because Tachyon particles travel faster than light , therefore they travel through time.
I had to remind myself that Tachyons are hypothetical particles - after all, they contradict accepted notions of physics.
Which is my problem really; who gets to define what is accepted ?
The more I pondered this, the more I realised that quantum mechanics subvert accepted models, but they are already in use.

MRI machines operate on quantum principles*

MRI machines involve quantum ideals , affecting the spin of protons in the body to allow for precise imaging at a microscopic scale.
And flash cards used for storage on our phones / laptops etc
The most obvious application utilising quantum knowledge is the silicon chip - found in every computer.
From computers, we get the internet - which, to my mind, is a good example of quantum tunnelling.
I'm using the term loosely of course - but it is surely true that miniature particles breach physical barriers...
In terms of quantum computing, using qbits and computing on a tiny, atomic scale is a little beyond us, even now.
The largest quantum calculation yet managed is 3x5 =15
Which sounds underwhelming , until you realise that this calculation was done using  five atoms.

Quantum even allows for storage and retrieval of info from a single atom.
The difficulty is with the interference from the outside world.
Maintaining the equilibrium of fragile quantum systems is hugely problematic.
For this reason, alternatives are already in development- we may well be using molecular computing before quantum systems exist.

Despite the obvious problems, quantum mechanics exist and function .
A dramatic example would be touch screen technology - which allows us to alter 2d to 3d...
Perhaps the most dramatic effect that exists is the process of fusion on the sun.

Meanwhile, back online...

I mentioned the internet as an example of quantum tunnelling - it allows us to transcend physical and spatial boundaries.
Its normal state is passive-aggressive, with content jostling for position and preferential treatment - mostly memes , cats and trolls.
However, it is also a place where ideas are exchanged at lightning speed, and language is constantly (d)evolving, being refined / reduced to acronyms and symbols, which are more immediate and easily understood.
It seems obvious that the online world is a new paradigm with its own behaviours and mores
Sure there's the hive - mind that seems to drive things, especially on 'social media ' - it's almost frightening to go against the grain of popular opinion at times.
'Social media', however, is only one aspect of the online universe.
Away from the surface world of emojis and trolls, the internet is more like a neural network.
I view it as a series of islands linked by cables carrying power.
Being quantum, however, the cables are switching constantly with connections being made and broken.
the 'information islands' are always there, like little libraries or archives.

I could reduce this to the political , because the constant efforts to restrain and undermine the online world by the ' old guard '** are there for all to see.
Demonise and marginalise are very obvious tactics used by the powerful against their enemies.
Knowledge is power, after all
It wouldn't do to have it just being given away...


* My personal experience with MRI machines led to my being diagnosed with P.P.M.S. , so I reluctantly thank quantum mechanics for that.
**'old guard'/ status quo / establishment

Friday, 30 June 2017

Signs and Portents, Asteroids And Omens

Today is Asteroid Day, so yay for strange lumps of rocky debris hurtling through space , occasionally appearing as shooting stars and leaving trails of omens and wonder in their wake !

An asteroid that appeared on St Andrews day 1300

Coincidentally, today is also the hundred year anniversary of the Tunguska incident, when a mysterious something exploded in the air above Tunguska, an isolated part of Russia, with the force of many megatons in 1907- it was an explosion that birthed a myriad of conspiracy theories, and continues to do so to this day.
Tongue in cheek advice from bygone days...

We are no longer so superstitious regarding the meaning behind shooting stars, yet there is still an almost primal fear of complete annilhation, such as the sudden event of another death-dealing comet.
Not really something to worry about - most comets are known and tracked.
It's just the ones we haven't seen yet that cause the most worry...

This article is a good 'primer' on comets etc, but please be aware that it dates from 2006 - there is another piece in this blog which is outdated, but then so are most predictions - as I am only too aware, when I spent the millenial new year in a deep bunker, and don't even ask about 2012*...

 The idea of impending apocalypse is buried deep in the human psyche.
It is marked in a symbolic way with the passing of the seasons, and the fire ceremonies which aim to bring light into the growing darkness...

Up Helly Aa marks the end of Yule      

In the lore of comets, we have fire from the sky.
Luckily we have an early warning system in place which is pretty accurate - well, better than anything the dinosaurs had.
Our knowledge of asteroids has increased hugely - in 1868, there were one hundred asteroids identified ; today, there are half a million.

In days of old, we had signs and portents. 
According to Ptolemy, comets signified wars , hot weather, and unusual disturbances.

With our recent achievement of landing on a comet and monitoring it for some time, the sky-born fireballs (once referred to as the flowers of the skies) have lost some of their superstitious allure.
Personally, I'm still in awe - the timeless journeys of these things can encompass the very beginnings of the universe, and the thought of where they'd travelled is enough to make me feel small and insignificant-
I still 'wish upon a star' occasionally; the old tradition that dates back to ancient Greece, and the belief that the gods would occasionally gaze down towards the Earth, out of boredom.
Whilst doing so, they would accidentally knock a few stars out of the sky, and as the stars were considered the souls of ancestors, to wish upon a star was to invite good luck.

The Hoba stone , Namibia

Possibly one of the greatest shooting stars to actually land on Earth, was the Hoba stone.
It is the largest meteorite in the world.
Weighing 60 tons, and flat on both sides, it skimmed the Earths atmosphere before blazing its way to the surface, where it now rests in Grootfontein, Namibia.
There is no evidence of a crater, and it is estimated to have fallen within the last 80,000 years -  it's also believed that it entered the atmosphere at a relatively sedate 720 mph.

Comets and meteors are different things, but I love both; although my observations of the Perseids and other meteor showers have been sadly tempered by city living with street lights casting a sodium glare and limiting the visible stars.
Deep sigh
On the plus side, it means that I am agog with wonder whenever I find myself in the countryside, gazing up at the all - encompassing blanket of stars.
I am forever grateful for this world we live in - as a youngster, I could only gaze in awe at the distant stars, and wonder about those tiny pinpricks of light.
Now I can click on live streams from the Curiosity Rover on Mars, or marvel at high definition images from so many worlds and moons in our solar system
I'm both humbled and amazed by this.
To think that such things once seemed so far away...
Sometimes I think we have become blasé about so many things.

This missive has been subject to the usual gremlins, but here it is, albeit in a shortened form than was originally planned.
I am publishing it now, and will add to it over the weekend-
however you intend to spend Asteroid Day, have a great one !


* I'm joking - but they only have to be right once...