Archive for the ‘Space & Astronomy’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 April 2010 at 2:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Pac-Man in the moon

Mimas is fast shaping up to be the nerdiest object in the solar system. The tiny moon of Saturn has already been compared to the Death Star from Star Wars, but the Cassini probe has revealed another geek-culture icon – Pac-Man.

Nom nom nom
Nom nom nom

The appearance of the classic video game character during a thermal scan of Mimas has baffled scientists. It could be due to differences in texture on the moon’s icey surface. Old, densely packed ice conducts heat away from the surface, while recently fallen snow acts as an insulator, trapping heat to create the distinctive Pac-Man shape.

Just A Review: Just A Theory

Physics World has published a rather nice review of Just A Theory. You’ll have to register on their site to see it in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Just A Theory offers a moderately UK-centric perspective on science news for interested members of the public and busy professional researchers alike. You will not find too many detailed, hard-science articles here, but sometimes that is not the point. As a student or professional physicist, it is easy to develop tunnel vision as you dig ever deeper into a relatively narrow research topic, but keeping the “bigger picture” in sight can be a time-consuming process in an ever-more-crowded media world.

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3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 9 March 2010 at 4:47 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Yesterday details emerged that China has selected its next generation of astronauts; a crew of five men and two women. However, to be one of those two women, recruiters demanded a rather unusual qualification, motherhood.

The Chinese space programme is known to be stringent in its selection of potential astronauts; even bad breath can shatter your chances. However, this requirement for maternity doesn’t stem from an inferred ability of mothers to better cope with the gruelling conditions of space. Instead China fear for what damage space-based radiation might inflict on a would-be female astronaut’s ability to have children in the first place.

Xu Xianrong, an expert at the air force general hospital, is quoted on the Guardian website as saying of the unique approach,

“It’s out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots. Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious. After all, it’s unprecedented in China.”

Such things may be unprecedented in China, but the radiation dangers experienced when leaving the protective cocoon of the Earth have long been considered.

There are two main types of radiation that can cause damage to space travelers, high energy particles from the Sun, and cosmic rays arriving from the galaxy beyond. For those of us on the Earth’s surface our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field duly shield us from these potential dangers. However, those in space can be hit with their full force, particularly when venturing to places like the Moon, which has neither a magnetic field nor an atmosphere.

In fact, the Apollo astronauts of the late 60’s and early 70’s knew full well the risks that an event like a solar storm could unleash and they travelled to the Moon anyway, albeit keeping mission length to a premium to narrow the risks. Such a storm would rain high energy particles upon the unprotected astronauts, penetrating their skin and ripping apart the DNA in their cells. Cosmic rays, coming from outside the solar system, represent a longer term threat; it is thought they could cause illnesses ranging from cancer to cataracts.

Clearly these doses of radiation harm both men and women alike, what is unclear are the effect such doses would have on female fertility. What is looking increasingly clear, particularly with President Obama’s recent cancellation of NASA’s Constellation programme, is that the next feet to scuff the lunar dust will be Chinese. If such feet happen to be female, then their obligatory offspring would be rightly proud.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 2 March 2010 at 5:30 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

The devastating earthquake which struck Chile on February 27th may well have had an effect on the rotation of the Earth itself according to a NASA scientist. Richard Gross of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has used computer models to calculate that our day is now about 1.26 microseconds shorter than it was on February 26th.

A small amount and yet it serves as a reminder that whilst we have exactly twenty four hours in our standard day, this never quite matches the actual rotation period of the Earth. Back in 1999 Gross published a paper in Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors in which he modeled the spin of the Earth from 1832 to 1997. The shortest day on record was apparently August 2nd 2004 whereas the longest day was sometime during 1912, the year the Titanic sank.

“The annual changes in the length of the day are caused mostly by the atmosphere – changes in the strength and direction of the winds, especially the jet stream. The Sun warms the equator more than the poles. That temperature difference is largely responsible for the jet stream. Seasonal changes in that temperature difference cause changes in the winds and, hence, the length of the day,” says Gross.

More significant events, like those in Chile, can enhance this process. The quake, which measured 8.8 on the magnitude scale, is also likely to have knocked the Earth’s axis slightly out of its previous alignment by about 2.7 milliarcseconds (roughly 3 one thousandths of one 3600th of a degree) or the equivalent of about seven centimetres.

Whilst this might not sound significant, knowing the precise alignment of the Earth is crucial for many modern day technologies such as GPS. And in an age where solar system exploration is on the increase, knowing the precise location of the Earth’s orientation with respect to these craft is a fundamental part of planning successful interplanetary maneuvers.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 March 2010 at 3:28 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG), in partnership with the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Zooniverse are launching Solar Stormwatch, a new web project where anyone can help spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research.

The Sun is much more dynamic than it appears in our sky. Intense magnetic fields churn and pummel the Sun’s atmosphere and they store enormous amounts of energy that, when released, hurl billions of tons of material out into space in explosions called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) – or solar storms.

Solar Stormwatch volunteers can spot these storms and track their progress across space towards the Earth. Such storms can be harmful to astronauts in orbit and have the potential to knock out communication satellites, disrupt mobile phone networks and damage power lines. With the public’s help, Solar Stormwatch will allow solar scientists to better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth.

Julia Wilkinson, a Solar Stormwatch user says,

“The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighbouring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like.”

Dr. Chris Davis, one of the STFC scientists behind Solar Stormwatch says of the project,

“The more people who can take part in Solar Stormwatch, the more we will know about solar storms. Collective measurements by many people are worth much more than the subjective opinion of one person.”

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. The UK has a major input in STEREO, providing the two widest-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers, which provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometres from the Earth to the Sun.

Solar Stormwatch is the latest chapter in a long history of solar research at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, dating back to the 1870’s, when the Observatory housed a photoheliograph, a telescope that took daily photos of the Sun to track sunspots. Visitors will be able to see this telescope again when the Altazimuth Pavilion at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, reopens in March 2010.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 31 January 2010 at 6:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Chimp cinema

Earlier this week the BBC broadcast the first ever film shot entirely by chimpanzees:

The acting isn’t that great, and the special effects are terrible, but it’s still more interesting than some of the rubbish churned out by Hollywood! The film was part of a scientific study investigating how chimps perceive the world around them.

Mars movies

Although it seems we’re probably not going to step foot Mars any time soon, you can go there virtually today. Doug Ellison, founder of, has used data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to recreate a faithfully recreated flyby of the Martian surface:

See more on his YouTube page.

Magnets…in space!

Have you ever wondered how magnets work in zero gravity? “Very well,” is the answer, according to video game developer/astronaut Richard Garriot:

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3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 28 January 2010 at 11:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Rumours are circulating that President Obama plans to scrap NASA’s new generation of rockets. It’s been leaked that his budget next Monday won’t include cash for the Constellation program, a series of spacecraft designed to replace the ageing Shuttle, and return us to the moon by 2020.

If that’s true, I’m incredibly disappointed. I understand that in a time of global economic turbulence, space exploration may not be Obama’s top priority, but his new vision for NASA seems incredibly short-sighted.

Instead of “boldy going”, astronauts will spend another ten years floating around the International Space Station. NASA will concentrate on Earth-based projects – mostly climate change related – and private companies will take over the Space Shuttle’s job of ferrying cargo in to orbit. The moon and Mars will just have to wait, it seems.

This worries me, but not because of some romantic idea of humans exploring the final frontier – my concerns are far more practical. I believe getting off Earth and colonising other planets is essential for the continuation of the human race. At the moment we’ve got all eggs in the proverbial basket – if an asteroid were to strike Earth, it could potentially wipe us out completely. Colonisation simply spreads the risk.

Building a base on the moon and then eventually Mars would not only be an incredible feat of human ingenuity, but also a kind of species-wide insurance policy. It’s a project that would take decades, and unfortunately politicians only think in four-year terms. I understand that Obama is under attack because of his healthcare plans, and the budget has to be balanced somehow, but cutting Constellation isn’t the answer.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 January 2010 at 5:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Oh dear, one week in and I’m already off schedule. Two words: food poisoning. Leftover Chinese food can be deadly! On with this week’s roundup:

Next stop, outer space

Even London natives can struggle with the complicated spiderweb that is the Tube map, but surprisingly enough it is actually intended to simplify getting about the capital. Inspired by its iconic design, Harvard scientist Samuel Arbesman developed a similar map for getting about the Milky Way:

But where is Morington Crescent?
But where is Morington Crescent?

The coloured lines correspond to an arm of the spiral galaxy, and each stop is a star or other astronomical object.

Mental time travel

You won’t be journeying to the age of the dinosaurs just yet, but psychologists at the University of Aberdeen have discovered a strange form of time travel. Apparently thinking about the past or future causes people to move backwards or forwards. The researchers suggest behaviour could be the origin of temporal metaphors such as future = forward and past = backward.

Bond. Strange Bond.

The Royal Society of Chemistry continued it’s tradition of strange PR stunts this week by announcing a search for a Sean Connery lookalike.

As if devising a new ending for the Italian Job or cooking the perfect Yorkshire pudding weren’t enough, they want to use the lookalike in a bizarre photoshoot designed to highlight the importance of British research keeping the nation healthy. No, I don’t get it either.

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 18 December 2009 at 8:00 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

NASA have released a photo of sunlight glinting off a lake on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The image, snapped by the Cassini space probe, confirmed liquid in the Northern hemisphere to add to the discovery of liquid lakes in the Southern Hemisphere in 2008.

Sunlight reflecting off a lake on Titan
Sunlight reflecting off a lake on Titan

This part of Titan has been shrouded in darkness for the last 15 years as the moon’s North pole was angled away from the Sun, but as Saturn approached it’s equinox the lake in question slowly titled into the Sun’s glare.

A clever piece of detective work has pinned down the lake responsible as Kraken Mare, an enormous body of water stretching 400,000 square kilometres across Titan.

Titan is one of the most exciting places in our Solar System, particularly when it comes to finding life, and this discovery further adds to the wealth of information scientists are collecting about the planet-sized satellite.

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 November 2009 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

A busy week has meant a pretty poor showing on Just A Theory, but hopefully a packed roundup will make up for it:

LHC a-go-go

The Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running again! As our CERN correspondent Emma mentioned last month, scientist in Geneva have been working on restarting the LHC after it had to be shut down last year. Their hard work paid off on Friday, and proton beams are now successfully colliding in the 27km-long ring of the world’s largest experiment. Now for the science!

What if the Earth had rings?

Speaking of rings, check out this short video showing how it would look if Earth had its own set, like Saturn.

At the equator they appear to be a thin line through the sky, but further north or south they make an amazing sight, lighting up the sky even at night. Anyway we can build these things and cover them in solar panels or something?

Field less players to win the World Cup

It seems that having a large squad to choose from can actually be a hindrance when it comes to top football. You might think fielding substitutions lets mangers pick the best players for every situation, but research shows that sticking with the top 11 is the key to success.

Bacteria that can detect landmines

Scientist at the University of Edinburgh have developed a strain of bacteria that glow green near explosives. By mixing them with a colourless solution, they can be sprayed from the air on to suspected landmine fields, turning the ground green if mines are detected.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 October 2009 at 8:40 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

Today I was getting ready to leave my flat for my afternoon shift when, hurrying to finish my lunch, I managed to catch the very end of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) on the TV.

The twelfth and final question was asked by the Conservative member for Wells, David Heathcoat-Amory, and this is what he had to say:

“As the Prime Minister knows, this is the International Year of Astronomy. Does he therefore support the Campaign for Dark Skies, which is good for astronomy and also saves energy? If he does, will he play his part by turning off—or at least dimming—the lights in public buildings, including Downing Street, where all the lights are on very late into the night?”

As someone who is passionate about astronomy my ears immediately pricked up and I was momentarily diverted from my Marmite sandwiches. Did I really just hear a question on astronomy asked in the House of Commons? Really? Well this was our learned Prime Minster’s response:

“I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about European regulations, because that is normally what he does. All of us have a responsibility to save electricity and all Government Departments and all parts of government should be involved in doing so.”

What a bullshit answer. Now I’m the first to admit that this question wasn’t the most pressing matter of the day. There had already been questions on the Afghan election, the Lockerbie disaster and climate change, far more important than whether you can adequately star spot.

However, Gordy barely even answered the question instead using it to score cheap points against the Opposition. The token answer of “all of us have a responsibility blah blah blah blah” was about as satisfying as my Marmite sandwiches. He might as well have said piss off lets all go for some lunch.

And this is the great problem; there are too few advocates of science in Government. Regular Just a Theory readers will recall my ongoing debate with Labour peer and Science Minister Lord Drayson (which I am happy to say is going to happen with the next month or so). Despite my well documented grievances, Lord Drayson is really on science’s side and we should continue to hope for more of his ilk.

So, having seemingly ranted for eight paragraphs thus far I feel I should tell you the premise behind Campaign for Dark Skies. The essence is that there is so much wasteful light thrown up into the night sky that the skylines of most major UK cities are horribly hued a kind of murky orange. This limits the glory of the night sky to around 50-100 stars rather than the normal 1500 that should visible from these shores.

Jacob blogged earlier in the week about the Trillionth Tonne, a website counting the cost of our inability to tackle climate change. In his post he called the ever increasing figure “sobering to watch”. Equally the Campaign for Dark Skies have a counter clocking up the amount of money wasted due to street lamps showering some of their light up into the sky rather than down where we need it.

In fact, the counter ticks along at £4 a second, which means since the 1st January 2009 the UK has wasted over £100 million on electric lights that serve no purpose whatsoever. And that is just street lights. The full estimate, including business and industrial based lighting, is likely to be over £1 BILLION. I’m not even going to argue the astronomical perspective on this one. Yes you would be able to see more stars but £100 million pounds, or more likely £1 BILLION, is just a pointless waste our OUR money.

This comes on a day when after PMQ’s, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth stood before Parliament and detailed a report suggesting MOD cost cutting led to the deaths of 14 service personnel in a Nimrod crash in 2006. Ainsworth said that,

“in our pursuit of financial savings the MoD and the RAF allowed their focus on safety to suffer. We accept this with regard to the Nimrod XV230”

Don’t get me wrong I am not blaming the deaths of those 14 servicemen on wasteful street lighting. However what really gets my goat is that when a valid science question that could save our economy upwards of £1 billion is actually asked in Parliament, and on a day when the Government is held to account for its penny pinching, that our dearest PM shits all over it.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 19 October 2009 at 4:02 pm by Colin Stuart
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy

Scientists in America have located what they believe to be the world’s largest crater and what’s more they are holding it responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

Researchers have traditionally pointed their finger at the Chicxulub crater in Yucatan, Mexico as the culprit for the extinction of T-Rex and his chums 65 million years ago, but Sankar Chatterjee and his team are turning their attention to India’s Shiva Crater.

This underwater basin measures almost 500km across, easily overshadowing Chicxulub’s measly 180km, and was most likely carved out when approximately 25km of space rock came hurtling to Earth. Dr Chatterjee and his colleagues hope to study the crater further to establish once and for all whether it was indeed caused by an impact 65 million years ago.

The underwater Shiva Crater, off the coast of India, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
The underwater Shiva Crater, off the coast of India, may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The tell-tale sign of a space-based impactor is abnormally high levels of Iridium, an element abundant in asteroids but a rarity in the Earth’s crust. Iridium levels at impact sites tend to be a hundred times greater than usual.

Whilst impacts of this size are certainly not every day, or even every millennium events, there have been five extinction level events, where over 50% of the animal population have been pole axed, in the last 540 million years. Many are attributed to asteroid and/or comet impacts, although there are other possibilities.

Subsequently the study of the position and trajectories of the asteroid and comet families has become big scientific business including NASA’s dedicated Near Earth Object program. Programs such as these led to a potential impactor being discovered in 2004 that experts rated as a 1-in-60 chance of colliding with the Earth.

Happily, they have since revised their estimations upwards. However, asteroid 99942 Apophis (2004 MN4) will still pass the Earth over 13 times nearer than the Moon, rather eerily on Friday 13th April 2029, culminating in the closest approach of such a sizeable object for a thousand years.

It is not a question of if but when a Shiva Crater causing asteroid has our name on it. Yet if Dr Chatterjee and his team are correct it will be another piece in the puzzle explaining what led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the advent of the mammals that would evolve to worry about a similar fate.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 18 October 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Apologies for my lack of posting this week, I’m once again hepped up on Lemsip as I battle against a cold. My fellow bloggers have done a great job at picking up the slack, but I still have a collection of interesting links from the past week. Here we go:

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 11 October 2009 at 8:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Cuddly quarks

Maybe I’m just a big nerdy kid, but it seems I just can’t resist plush versions of scientific concepts. Earlier this year we had internal organs, and now this week I came across The Particle Zoo. It’s all your friends from the standard model of physics, and more! My favourite has to be the incredibly devious looking tachyon:

Time for a new table?

The periodic table has been in use for nearly 150 years, ever since its invention by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Is it time for chemists to rearrange the furniture and bring in something a little more…round? Mohd Abubakr of Microsoft India seems to think so, and presents his own version:

The circular periodic table
The circular periodic table

One advantage is that the 7 rings represent the 7 electron shells of an atom. Another is that the elements get larger as you move out from the center. As the Physics arXiv blog points out though, it’s hard to read a circular table without rotating it – which unlike the regular table, doesn’t make for a great wall poster!

Obama, the astronomical President

Colin provided me with this final roundup item, so I’ll hand over to him:

What a week it has been for President Barack Obama. On Friday morning he was woken up at 6am by his aides who broke the news that he had (rather controversially) won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

With such news his diary commitments on Wednesday evening have largely been overlooked. Yet on that evening he and 150 local school children took to the South Lawn for Astronomy Night at The Whitehouse with guests including the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin.

But what really captured the imagination was his opening speech. It was a rallying cry for a change in education, an eloquent rendition of just why science matters and a piece of science communication par excellence. Take a look for yourself:

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 8 October 2009 at 7:03 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Scientists and curious onlookers are gearing up for what many are calling the day NASA ‘bombs’ the Moon in search of water. Tomorrow, at approximately 12:30pm UK time, the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will send 2,305kg of American engineering headlong into the south pole of our nearest neighbour in space.

The impact will see a new crater added to the already much pockmarked lunar surface with this man-made moon scar stretching twenty metres across. The momentum of the impact will hurl a 350 tonne plume of material into lunar orbit which the waiting Shepherding Spacecraft will fly through, searching for traces of water before impacting the Moon itself four minutes later.

The target is Cabeus, a crater found some 100km from the Moon’s South Pole, a location that precludes much penetration from sunlight, rendering the maximum temperature 100K.

Such low temperatures and data from a previous mission have led scientists to predict the existence of water ice hidden in Cabeus’ murky shadows. Slamming into the lunar surface is the best way to unveil the Moon’s hidden secrets.

As Jacob reported earlier in the year, evidence for lunar water has already been provided by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe and further evidence of water on the Moon would add to our understanding of our Solar System.

However, despite its scientific merits there has been a backlash against the mission with accusations of extra-terrestrial terrorism. Apparently LCROSS is NASA committing “an eco-sin on a galactic scale.” Nevermind that the Moon is 385,000 km away and the galaxy is 100,000 light years across.

With these words the blogger of warns that, “the Moon is a celestial body revered by Earthlings of all cultures, inspiring poets, shamans and lovers across the globe.”

These feelings seem to be echoed by the imaginatively titled who quoth that, “it is dangerous to bomb the moon when we are unclear of the outcome. We feel that bombing the Moon could bring us consequences that are both psychic and physical. Disruption of cycles.” take the celestial biscuit though when they philosophise that, “the problem is this, by bombing the moon in many exopolitic experts opinion is this action will cause an all out war in space with extraterrestrials. These same extraterrestrials even have bases and crafts placed on the Moon.”

This last totally absurd notion aside, there seems to be this wide held belief that the Moon is sacred and that by making a miniscule pinprick in it that somehow we are going to cause apocalypse. Never mind that asteroids hit the Moon all the time. Never mind that with your very own eyes you can see evidence of hundreds of much larger impacts which have left our “cycles” untouched. This isn’t the first time lunar lunacy has made it onto one of my blog entries.

There are just so many things wrong here. However, part of the blame for such nonsense has to lie at the media’s door. In their perpetual attempt for an attention grabbing headline they have fashioned this notion of ‘bombing’ the Moon, a label which quite misrepresents what is actually going on.

Depending on which camp you sit in, you can either watch an innovative scientific experiment or the destruction of life as we know it from 11:30am tomorrow at

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 October 2009 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Autotune the cosmos

Autotune is a piece of software designed to tidy up slightly out of tune singers, but people have discovered it can also be used to turn almost anything in to a song. Results vary, but this Autotuned version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is actually really good:

Ig Nobel 2009

This year’s Ig Nobel awards, which celebrate “improbable research” in science, were announced earlier this week. Amongst the winners were a team who investigated whether it is better to be hit over the head by a full botle of beer or an empty one, and the creators of a bra which can convert in to two protective face masks.

The best seat in the house

Above is Bruce McCandless II, around 100 meters away from the space shuttle Challenger. He’s the furthest out in space that anyone has ever been, and he’s got quite a view.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 27 September 2009 at 4:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists find water EVERYWHERE

Well, not quite, but close. In a strange coincidence, the discovery of water on the surface of both the Moon and Mars was announced this week. Future astronauts could use the water to establish a lunar or Martian bases.

The findings were made by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe, a fantastic result for the nation’s first lunar mission. The probe detected that light reflected from the Moon’s surface was missing wavelengths known to be absorbed by water. This was later backed up by the NASA Deep Impact and Cassini probes.

NASA also made the discovery on Mars, where the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped pictures of melting water-ice that had been thrown up from under the surface by a recent meteorite impact.

Science rap returns

It’s nearly exactly a year since rapper Jonathan Chasa entertained us with his astrobiology rap, but now he’s back again as
Oort Kuiper to tell us about genes:

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 23 September 2009 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

Recently I’ve been getting quite excited about the prospect of augmented reality. If you’ve not heard the buzzword, its about about overlaying digital information on to the real world. With the rise of powerful handheld devices like the iPhone, augmented reality is becoming more common – check out this Tube-location app that helps you navigate around London.

Mobile phones are a start, but what I’m really interested in is a wearable computer. Rather than living in your pocket, such a device would be built in to a pair of glasses or even contact lenses. Its not a new idea – people like Steve Mann have been using wearable computers for decades – but now there seems to be a greater appetite for a proper commercial product.

The WEAR in action
The WEAR in action

That goal could be getting closer, thanks to some experimental kit being used on the International Space Station. Astronauts are trialling the Wearable Augmented Reality (WEAR), developed by Belgium-based Space Applications as a replacement for their current system – pen and paper. This surprisingly low-tech solution allows the ISS crew to consult operational manuals with ease, but requires them to physically hold on to their instructions. WEAR offers voice-activated hands-free controls, highlighting important objects in the real world and displaying information directly in the user’s field-of-vision.

The WEAR is built from off-the-shelf components, but is currently limited by scheduling and budget constraints, rather than technology. All equipment used on-board the ISS is subject to strict checks, and the team behind the WEAR found it easier to use what was already up there. Rather than using an ultra-modern PC, the WEAR interfaces with tried-and-tested laptops that are over five-years-old. As a result, the WEAR can only operate for an hour at a time before the batteries need recharging.

While the hardware up in space may be limited, there are no such restrictions here on Earth. Space Applications is considering applying the technology to fire-fighting, presumably as a way of navigating smoke-filled buildings. I’m excited to see new uses of augmented reality coming up, and I’m looking forward to eventually trying it myself!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 September 2009 at 11:21 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Amazing astronomy

Check out this set of astronomy images from flickr user victorvonsalza. This one below is my favourite – be sure to click through for the larger version!

The images were taken in Portland, Oregon, and show a variety of dramatic starscapes.

See-through frog

This little guy comes from an amphibian family known as glass frogs, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. It’s both fascinating and slightly horrifying that you can see their innards from the outside…

Wet Mars, Dry Mars

Giant cracks across the surface of Mars hint that the dusty planet had a much wetter past. Although the cracks have been observed before, it’s only now that their true origin has been revealed.

Ramy El Maarry, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, created a computer model of the cracking process, which forms irregular shapes in the ground up to 250 metres in diameter. The marks have previously been attributed to the heating and cooling of the planet’s surface, but El Maarry’s model showed that this would only produces shapes as large as 65 metres.

He realised that the shapes resembled the “desiccation cracks” found on Earth when water evaporates to leave dry and dusty mud. Comparing the two side by side makes it a pretty convincing hypothesis:

Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 1 September 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

You’ve probably noticed that things have slowed down a little bit here on Just A Theory. We’re all hard at work pumping out 10,000 words of juicy dissertation goodness, and unfortunately that doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Science doesn’t stop though, and I’ve still been collecting interesting science news and links from all over the web. Enjoy:

Weird NASA mission badges

NASA create patches for each of their missions, and sometimes they like to get a little wacky. Wired Science has a rundown of some the weirdest, including this little gem:

Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space
Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space

The “ideal” David Bowie song

Health psychologist Nick Troop has created what he calls the “ideal” David Bowie song by performing a lingustic analysis. Bowie’s back catalogue was scanned to calculate the use of positive and negative words, as well as references to different categories such as sex, religion and food. Troop then used the data to write “Team, Meet Girls; Girls, Meet Team”, which he performs here:

I admit it sounds a bit like Bowie, but I when I read the headline I was hoping for some sort of average of all of his songs – “The Man Who Sold Changes to Rebel Rebel Heroes Ziggy Stardust in Suffragette City on Mars”, perhaps. Anyway, everyone knows that this is the ideal Bowie song.

Molecular paparazzi

Researchers at IBM have created this amazing image of pentacene, a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen:

The structure is clearly visible
The structure is clearly visible

Using an atomic force microscope, they mapped the chemical bonds between the molecules atoms. The instrument works by detecting changes in vibrations as a scanning tip passes close to the molecule. This previous attempts to image molecules found that the tip was just too blunt to get a decent picture, but they realised that a single carbon monoxide atom, which doesn’t interact with the pentacene, made the perfect tip.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 July 2009 at 8:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I,Science is now online

Many contributors to Just A Theory also worked on this year’s editions of I,Science, the Imperial College science magazine. Until now, the only way to get a copy of this esteemed publication was to pick it up around campus, but the I,Science website has now been updated for all to read.

For some reason only the first two editions of this year are up on the site. Perhaps the summer term issue, which featured a scratch-n-sniff cover, could not be so easily digitised.

How to read a scientific paper

Reading scientific papers can be intimidating if you’ve never tried, but much of the literature is fairly accessible if you’re prepared to give it a go. offers some advice on where to start.

Tips include not reading from beginning to end – the dull methods section will bog you down. Instead, skim the abstract then jump to the discussion section, before moving on to the conclusion. Worth a read.

Is it me, or is it getting dark?

Wednesday this week saw the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century. If you missed it, which you probably did because it didn’t effect the UK or US, check out this image capture by a Japanese satellite:

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 July 2009 at 5:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Sometimes a picture is all you need:

The Soap Bubble Nebula
The Soap Bubble Nebula

But for the full details, see the Guardian.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 12:44 pm by Colin Stuart
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy

As you have been hearing from the Just a Theory team, this week has been a special one for everyone and particularly those of us involved with astronomy and space science.

With Jacob pipping me to writing stories both about the moon landings and Lord Drayson’s announcement that the UK will once again fund UK astronauts, you can hear my take on it, as well as a shameless plug for Just a Theory on this week’s BBC 5Live Pods and Blogs podcast.

Head on over to the BBC website to check it out (21st July episode, I’m first up)

More to come from me on tomorrow’s solar eclipse soon!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 9:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Science Policy, Space & Astronomy

I really must stop with that headline, but I just can’t help myself. Last weekend, science minister Lord Drayson announced that Britain is to officially support human space-flight. In the reversal of a decades-old government policy, British citizens will now receive funding to become astronauts. Speaking to The Sunday Times, Drayson said:

“Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration. There was a special fund for training astronauts and we did not contribute, but that is now changed. There are important benefits that come from manned space-flight and we have dropped our opposition. We have an astronaut entering training soon and I hope he will be the first of many.”

Army test pilot Tim Peake became the first European Space Agency astronaut earlier this year, and it is thought that Drayson used Peake’s appointment as leverage for the policy change.

Drayson has always been in favour of human space-flight, and is also considering the expansion of the British National Space Centre from just 30 civil servants into a full-blown space agency. However, The Observer reports that there will be no extra money for this “British NASA”, making me wonder how this expansion might actually happen. He said:

“We spend around £250m a year of public money on space projects, and that generates more than £6bn for the economy in terms of contracts for the manufacture of satellites, robotics and other industrial work. We get a tremendous bang for the buck when it comes to space, but we have to ask if there is a better way to do it.”

If the current return on investment is 2400%, surely a small increase of cash would be worth it? Either way, it seems we can expect more Brits heading to space in the coming years.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 July 2009 at 7:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

To mark the anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the lunar surface, Google have decided to release an updated version of their Google Earth software, featuring detailed maps of the Moon:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first small steps on to the surface of the moon. Forty years later you can join them, thanks to a new release from Google. Moon in Google Earth brings the lunar landscape to your desktop, complete with photos, video and guided tours provided by the astronauts themselves.

Downloading the new Google Earth software allows users to roam the moon in full 3D for the first time. You can visit the historic Apollo landing sites to see the astronauts at work, or fly above the surface hunting for your favourite crater.

Read the rest at the Guardian

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 July 2009 at 10:18 am by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

I quite enjoyed putting this story together, as it involved looking through the auction catalogue to see all the cool space stuff on offer:

Artefacts from the history of space exploration went under the hammer yesterday at an auction in New York. Auctioneers Bonhams presented nearly 400 lots, including many that were used on the surface of the moon.

The auction coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, with over 50 items from that mission on sale. These included the star chart used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to determine their position on the lunar surface, which went for $218,000. The chart comprises two rotating plastic discs 9 inches across, and a velcro patch on the back containing traces of lunar dust.

In a letter accompanying the chart, Aldrin called it “the single most critical navigational device we used while on the moon.”

Read the rest at the Guardian.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 8:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

The piece I wrote for the Guardian today hasn’t gone up yet, so instead of linking to that I’ll write briefly about something else that happened today – albeit, 40 years in the past. On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off in to space. Today marks the 40th anniversary of what would be humanity’s first journey to another world.

It’s amazing to think that nearly two decades before I was even born, men walked upon the surface of the Moon. Sometimes that seems so unlikely, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that it actually happened.

NASA has released restored video of the landing to celebrate. Whenever I watch the famous footage, I can’t help but imagine what a modern day landing would look like. I hope that it isn’t too many years until we can find out.

For now, you will have to settle for the past. We Choose The Moon allows you to follow Apollo 11 in “real time”. As I write this, the mission has entered stage 6, with the ignition of the command service module.

Occasionally the voices of the crew crackle through on the radio, communicating with mission control. These are recordings of the actual conversations the astronauts had on their way to the Moon. It’s incredibly well done, and I feel as if I’ve been transported back to 1969, awaiting the landing in just under four days time. Great stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 July 2009 at 9:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Drayson vs Stuart, round two

Our very own Colin Stuart had an article in the Times Higher Education supplement this week, in a continuation of his Twitter debate with science minister Lord Drayson. In it, he criticises the decision to merge science with business, fearing it will result in pure science losing out as applied science is brought to the fore.

The internet…in space!

A headline I never get tired of, because it always sums up a story beautifully. The internet now has a permanent connection to space, aboard the International Space Station.

The space internet differers slightly from our Earth-bound version. The regular internet uses TCP/IP connections, which repeatedly sends information until the computer knows they have got through. This wouldn’t work in space due to bandwidth issues, so the computer aboard the ISS uses delay-tolerant networking, which holds on to information at each step in the communication chain until it has been received.

Citizen science exposes false vegan restaurants

This is pretty neat. Vegan food blog were worried about imported vegan foods being served in a number of restaurants in Los Angeles, so decided to run some tests.

Using industrial food testing tools, they examined meals from 17 establishments for traces of egg, cheese and shellfish – all foods which are not compatible with a vegan diet. The found evidence of these foods in all of the meals, suggesting that the common source of production, Taiwan, has not been enforcing strict vegan regulations.

What I like about this is the way their investigation is presented in a very scientific manner. Hypothesis, methods, results and discussion are all laid out in such a way that anyone wishing to dispute or replicate their results can do so. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, with many of the restaurants contacting the blog to say they would conduct tests of their own. It just goes to show, you don’t have to be a scientist to follow the scientific method.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 July 2009 at 6:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Darwin’s children’s drawings on display

Charles Darwin used sheet after sheet of paper when writing On the Origin of Species, since redrafting before the days of Microsoft Word meant writing the whole thing out again. Only a handful of these draft papers have survived, mostly because Darwin gave his used sheets to his children for use as drawing paper.

Battle of the Vegetables
Battle of the Vegetables

Next week one such sheet will go on display in a new exhibition at Cambridge University Library. Named “Battle of the Vegetables” by Library staff, it depicts a battle between one man riding a carrot and another on what could possibly be a stale potato.

Did Michael Jackson’s death contribute to climate change?

Duncan Graham-Rowe of the Guardian asks whether we should consider the carbon cost of all the increased web activity following the singer’s death. I’ve discussed the carbon cost of Googling before – 0.2g per search, according to the company’s own figures.

As one commenter points out, if you added up the tiny contributions of all the tributary Tweets and YouTubes they probably wouldn’t exceed the Jackson’s personal carbon footprint, considering the lavish life he led.

The Guardian’s James Randerson also chimes in to say the point of the article isn’t really the carbon cost of Jackson’s death, but to highlight the issue of unsustainable internet growth. Whilst this is a problem, I can’t imagine that alternative methods of information distribution are any greener. As with many climate change conundrums, the answer is far from clear.

What’s on alien TV?

Webcomic Abstruse Goose has this rather nice image of what aliens might be watching on TV. When TV signals are broadcast some of them radiate out from the Earth, and could be picked up by any extraterrestrials out there. Like all electromagnetic radiation, the signals travel at the speed of light, so depending on how far from Earth the aliens are it’s going to take them a while to receive our latest programmes.

Whilst inhabitants of the relatively near Sirius system might have been enjoying episodes of Family Guy and The Sopranos for the past few years, everyone out in Aldebaran is still waiting for coverage of World War II to arrive. I just hope any aliens out there will forgive us for polluting space with broadcasts of Big Brother…

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2009 at 10:25 am by Colin Stuart
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

The days of the lone astronomer are long gone. Modern astronomical research is a multi-national and highly organised outfit with million dollar telescopes perched high on mountain tops in some of the most remote places on Earth. These optical leviathans don’t even need a pupil at the eyepiece; computers are more than capable of doing that for us.

You might think then, that this world of highly mechanised, suped-up star-spotters was beyond the clutches of your average Joe, but you’d be wrong. Around the world an army of enthusiastic amateurs, often armed with nothing more than their home computers, are reeling in the secrets of the universe. Meet the citizen astronomers.


David Evans works for SERTEC, a company based in Coleshill, Warwickshire, specialising in the manufacture of parts and components for the automotive industry. At least that’s what pays his bills. David’s real passion is astronomy and he has discovered nineteen comets previously unknown to science, all from the comfort of his home PC.

“My first discovery was confirmed 22 June 2002 by Derek Hammer of NASA. I found the comet in images which were taken by the SOHO Space Telescope on 13 June 2002,” David explained, referring to a telescope whose job it is to stare at the Sun. As these comets pass in front of the Sun their silhouettes can be spotted by those who have the patience to sift through the mountains of data produced by modern telescopes.

And that’s the appeal of citizen astronomers to those who research the cosmos for a living. Often a human is still better at discerning detail than computers, but the professional astronomers simply don’t have the time or the resources to analyse all the data. By farming it out in manageable chunks to citizen astronomers, more research can be done and the public get a real chance to contribute to cutting edge science.


One extremely successful example is Galaxy Zoo, a citizen astronomy project designed to get members of the public classifying galaxies. Galaxies are huge collections of stars gathered together in space, and they come in many different shapes and sizes. The Galaxy Zoo community are presented with photos of galaxies and asked simple questions about what they can see. They might be asked to choose from a sliding scale as to how round it is, or how many spiral arms it’s got.

The beauty of Galaxy Zoo is that it sends out the same photo to many users and only if a consensus is reached between a high percentage of users do the team know they can trust the classification. Such has been the success of the project that a completely new type of galaxy has been discovered this way.

Melanie-Jane Ryal, a personal assistant, is a keen Galaxy Zoo user, “The Galaxy Zoo project is amazingly easy to get involved with. All you have to do is register and then do a short test to ensure you know what you’re looking at. As an amateur it allows you to feel involved as you’re helping to classify galaxies that very few other people have seen,” she said. That’s the kicker, sometimes you get to be the very first human ever to lay eyes on a particular galaxy, a galaxy that contains billions of stars, and perhaps even other life forms.


And the search for aliens, or more officially The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), hasn’t been overlooked by citizen astronomy; in fact it was one of the trail blazers. I’ve previously blogged about the SETI@home project celebrating it’s tenth year keenly listening to signals from space and trying to detect evidence of an interstellar phone call. But the key to the success of this project has been that, in true citizen astronomy style, the data is farmed out to you and I. SETI@home uses your spare computer power to work its way through the radio waves received by the giant Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico.

Once downloaded to your PC the SETI@home program gets to work whilst your not. When you’re away from your PC having a cuppa or fielding a phone call, SETI@home kicks in and starts using your computer to decipher the messages. No signal has been found yet that astronomers believe not to have come naturally from space but thanks to home PC’s they are getting through the data much faster than would otherwise be possible.

Public Engagement

It is appropriate that SETI@home is celebrating it’s inaugural decade, just as astronomers are celebrating another temporal milestone. This year has been designated International Year of Astronomy or IYA2009, to mark four centuries since Galileo first used the telescope to gaze at the heavens. IYA2009 has been an opportunity for professional astronomers to engage with the public and Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and sees citizen astronomy as an indispensable tool in this process.

“Citizen astronomy is a tremendous opportunity to engage members of the public with real scientific research in a way which would have been impossible only a few years ago,” he said. And he agrees that the astronomers get more than just an extension of their computing power. “It’s not a one-sided process either – the scientists also benefit enormously because it enables them to answer questions which they simply couldn’t tackle on their own, getting extra value out of the large amounts of data which are now routinely gathered by telescopes, space missions and earth-monitoring experiments.”

So citizen astronomy is many things. It’s an opportunity for astronomers to engage with the public. It’s an opportunity for that public to actively, and often indispensably, contribute to cutting edge research. But most importantly it’s a way for astronomers to unlock the scientific secrets hidden amongst the astronomically sized sets of data churning out of the myriad of hardware both in space and on the ground.

As we move into the 401st year of the telescope, the next great discovery could just come from you, your friends, or the citizen astronomer next door.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 June 2009 at 7:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

That’s one small Tweet for man…

To mark the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission next month, Nature are using Twitter to relive the Moon landing, 40 years on. You can follow @ApolloPlus40 in the run up to July 20th, and imagine what a mission to the Moon would be like in the internet age.

First image from Herschel

Emma covered the launch of Herschel and Planck, the two latest telescopes to be sent off in to space, and now Herschel’s first image has been beamed back.

The first Herschel image.
The first Herschel image.

It shows the Whirlpool Galazy, also known as M51. First discovered by Charles Messier in 1774, it lies 23 million light-years away. Impressive stuff.

World’s first spaceport begins construction

I’ve been following the progress of Virgin Galactic for quite some time, as they bring the promise of commercial spaceflight ever closer to reality. I even blogged about the company in Just A Theory’s very first week. It’s quite exciting then to see construction begin for Spaceport America in New Mexico. The design is fantastically futuristic:

You can tell it's the future, look at all the blue lights.
You can tell it's the future, look at all the blue lights.

Due to be completed in 18 months time, it will serve as the commercial base for Virgin Galactic, but other companies will eventually make use of the facility. I can’t wait.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 June 2009 at 4:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Three stories for you today from the great big universe out there. First up, astronomers have found evidence for the birth of a new planet orbiting a binary star system. A rotating molecular disk formed around a pair of stars known as V4046 Sagittarii is thought to be a planet in the making. It is also first confirmation that planets can emerge from binary star systems, giving us new places to look in the search for other planets. David Wilner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says:

“This is strong evidence that planets can form around binary stars, which expands the number of places we can look for extrasolar planets. Somewhere in our galaxy, an alien world may enjoy double sunrises and double sunsets.”

Whilst that star system is growing, another one is getting smaller. The red supergiant Betelgeuse, located in the top left of the constellation Orion, has shrunk by 15% in 15 years.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have been monitoring the star, but don’t know the cause for the shrinkage. Betelgeuse is about ten times wider than the distance from the Earth to the Sun, meaning it has shrunk be a distance equivalent to the orbit of Venus.

Discoveries like these could get harder to make in the future however. Light pollution now means that one fifth of the world’s population cannot see the Milky Way in the night sky. Those missing out are mostly in mainland Europe, the UK and the US, according to Connie Walker, an astronomer from the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. She presented her findings to the American Astronomical Society at a meeting this Wednesday.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 June 2009 at 3:05 pm by Emma Stokes
In Space & Astronomy

When Thomas Passvogel applied for a job at the European Space Agency in 1996 he did so for one reason. He had his sights set on the role of Programme Manager for the launch of a satellite called Herschel. Four years later his dream was realised, but before long he found himself co-ordinating the launch of two satellites, as a second satellite, Planck, joined the line-up.

Herschel and Planck have been hailed as two of the most sophisticated astronomical spacecraft ever built, and the project itself is an impressive example of worldwide teamwork between scientists and technicians. Although the two satellites are going to the same region of space, they are there to observe very different things.

Herschel is looking for clues as to how stars and galaxies are formed. The problem is that much of this process occurs in the heart of vast dust clouds, so is difficult to see. This is where Herschel’s huge mirror comes in. It is the largest mirror ever to be launched into space, and allows Herschel to detect light at the far infrared. This type of light is able to penetrate through the clouds and will hopefully produce a unique insight into what happens in these areas of deep space.

The Planck satellite will look at echoes of the Big Bang itself. Background radiation still lingers from the Big Bang moment, and is subject to temperature changes. Planck will monitor these changes, to hopefully give clues as to the universe’s origin, evolution and future.

Charles Lawrence from NASA describes the project as an “outstanding example of international collaboration… despite the issues of working together across different time zones.” Dr Passvogel admits it wasn’t easy to co-ordinate teams from around the world. “In theory,” he said, “all the pieces would arrive from all the different labs on the correct day, and would be assembled together. However in practice, there was much more to it.”

The only real hiccup in the project was a delay in the launch. In March, the European Space Agency revealed the launch was being postponed by at least a couple of weeks. Although this announcement came close to the original launch date, Dr Passvogel explained that this was the best scenario as “the time allowed us to be better prepared for the launch which went like clockwork.”

The two satellites were finally launched into space on May 6th, and nobody was more excited than Dr Passvogel. He described the feeling as “fantastic but emotional, like when your kids leave home. You’re happy for them because they’re living on their own; however it’s still emotional to let them go.”

It is clear when talking to both Dr Passvogel and Dr Lawrence that they are very proud of this project, and indeed passionate about their fields. “I can’t imagine doing anything else that I enjoy as much,” says Dr Lawrence, whilst Dr Passvogel describes the launch as “the most exciting moment of my academic career.”

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 6 June 2009 at 3:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Space & Astronomy

I’m almost tempted to leave you with just the title of this post, but perhaps a little bit of explanation is required. It seems that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have found a rather novel way to monitor penguin population levels in the ice region – using satellite imaging to search for their poo.

Peter Fretwell and Dr Philip Trathan of the BAS outlined their novel technique in a paper published this week in Global Ecology and Biogeography. Using images taken by space satellites they were able to identify colony locations of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Despite the image quality being too low to pick out individual penguins, they were able to infer the presence of a colony by the distinctive brown stain they left behind.

Spot the stain.
Spot the stain.

Penguin poo, or guano, stands out from the white and blue sea ice as the only brown around. By picking out these areas of discolouration, Fretwell and Trathan found a total of 38 colonies, 10 of which were previously unknown. Emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in the sea ice, so accurate information about colony locations is important in assessing the impact of climate change on the population.

Whilst searching for poo from space might sound silly, this research actually has important consequences for animal conservation. Unfortunately this method, whilst useful for finding unknown colonies, cannot really provide accurate estimates of the number of birds at each location. As such, the researchers call for further research to determine emperor penguins vulnerability to climate change.

Fretwell, P., & Trathan, P. (2009). Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies Global Ecology and Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2009.00467.x

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 28 May 2009 at 5:23 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

Imagine an unknown journey without now commonplace GPS systems. Ping a quick signal between a few pieces of high flying space hardware and you know exactly where you are. Now two astronomers believe they have an equivalent system, a sort of cosmic TomTom than can pin your galactic position down to the nearest metre.

Yet in deep-space dialling up a satellite in Earth orbit would be pretty useless, so instead the new system proposed by astronomers Bartolome Coll and Albert Tarantola uses pulsars. Pulsars are the rapidly rotating, super-dense relics of massive stars that give out very precise and regular signals of radio waves. By measuring the arrival times of these stellar pulses from four different pulsars you can work out where you are in relation to them.

On the vast scales that any future wider exploration beyond our Solar System would require, Einstein’s relativity comes into play and that is why four pulsars beacons are needed to map out space-time; three to cover the dimensions of space and the other to deal with time.

The only limitation to precision of the arriving signal is interaction with the interstellar medium but this only affects the pulses on the order of nanoseconds (billionths of a second) which translates into an accuracy of the nearest metre.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 8:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

So far, astronomers searching the universe for planets outside of our solar system have mostly discovered gas giants, like Jupiter. If you want a planet that can support life, something a bit smaller and wetter is in order. Now scientists believe they have found such a planet. It’s called Earth.

Well, obviously they haven’t only just comes across it. Using Deep Impact, a probe launched by NASA in 2005 to study a comet by smashing in to it, researchers devised a new planet-hunting method by re-discovering Earth. By imagining themselves as aliens hunting for planets like our own, they were able to ‘discover’ that Earth does indeed have liquid surface water.

By making two separate 24-hour observations of Earth’s light intensity, in wavelengths from near ultraviolet to near infrared, the researchers were able to monitor the changes in brightness as the Earth rotates and cloud-cover shifts. These changes show up as deviations from an average colour. Two wavelengths were dominant: red for long wavelengths and blue for short.

Interpreting red as land masses and blue as ocean water, the team were able to make colour maps of the planet as it rotated. Comparing this to the real Earth, the oceans became crystal clear. Nicolas Cowan, a University of Washington doctoral student, explains:

“You could tell that there were liquid oceans on the planet. The idea is that to have liquid water the planet would have to be in its system’s habitable zone, but being in the habitable zone doesn’t guarantee having liquid water.”

Cowan, who is lead author of a paper explaining the research and due to be published in Astrophysical Journal, hopes that their new technique will guide the construction of future Earth-hunter telescopes. Just don’t expect to be going for an extrasolar dip any time soon.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 May 2009 at 3:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Flying carpets…in space!

I pretty much never get tired of that headline.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata has demonstrated a “working” flying carpet aboard the International Space Station, as part of a series of experiments submitted by members of the public.

A whole new world...
A whole new world...

He had to cheat a little bit, however. Wakata’s feet were stuck to the carpet with sticky tape, which if you ask me doesn’t really count.

The Science News Cycle

Courtesy of PhD Comics, the Science News Cycle:

Strange measurements of science

The BBC have an article on some of the more interesting measurements made in the name of science. From the bluest sky to the crunch of a fresh biscuit, they’re quite strange. All were requests to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, which is responsible for defining and standardising units in the UK. Sounds like quite a cool job, and last Wednesday they celebrated World Meteorology Day in honour of their meticulous measuring.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 May 2009 at 5:10 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

A pioneering project linking together millions of computers around the world, all in the name of finding out whether we are alone in the universe, turned ten this week. SETI@home (SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) was launched on 17th May 1999 and broke new ground in harnessing your idle computer time to crack some of science’s greatest questions. The internet is now awash with similar projects such as or the World Community Grid but SETI@home was the first such scientific distributed computing project.

The project regularly farms out data from signals captured by the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico straight to your desktop. Then when you pop out for a quick cuppa it uses your computer to trawl the radio waves for signs of artificial messages sent by alien civilisations.

Unsurprisingly the search thus far has been fruitless. The usual needle and haystack analogies just don’t cut it when it comes to what the project is looking for. For a more in depth look the current state of SETI, including where astronomers are looking and how likely they are to find them, you can read my account of it here. To borrow a quote from it, what the astronomers behind SETI@home are doing is “casting their nets a few times into a vast ocean of interstellar signals, searching for a minute bottle that may, perhaps, contain a tiny piece of paper.” That’s the thing, we don’t even know if what we are looking for exists, let alone exactly where to look for it.

However, we shouldn’t give up hope of receiving an interstellar phone call from our galactic cousins. The work SETI@home continues to do, based wholly on charitable donations, could yet provide the most momentous discovery in the history of science. Happy Birthday SETI@home!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 May 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Were Neanderthals wiped out by our stomachs?

Bit of a strange one this. A study published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences suggests a possible explanation for the disappearance of the Neanderthals – we ate them.

A Neanderthal jawbone appears to show marks similar to those found on deer remains from the early Stone Age. Lead researcher Fernando Rozzi, of the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris, believes that this idea has been suppressed in the past. “For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.”

I’m not sure eating Neanderthals is technically cannibalism, as they are a different species, but they’re human enough to make it pretty creepy. Urgh.

Beware the “super rats”

The governing principle of natural selection is that the fittest survive. In the case of rats, those with a genetic resistance to poison will survive attempts to exterminate them, and pass on this immunity to their descendants. Before you know it, we’ll be over-run by super rats.

Ratcatchers in Swindon are reporting a 500% increase in rodent populations, and Professor Robert Smith of the University of Huddersfield thinks that Darwin is to blame:

“Natural selection means that when you have a rat population in your town, poison will kill the ones that aren’t resistant, the ones that survive may have the gene, they then have babies who can receive the gene themselves,” he said.

“There are mutations and changes in their DNA that alter the ability of rats to deal with these poisons. It appears to be moving west and has now been located in Swindon and Bristol. It is a warning of things to come.”

An appropriate photo for Sunday

You may have already seen this image circulated around the press, but it’s worth another look:

The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)
The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)

Earlier this week astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis undertook a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, and photographer Thierry Legault managed to catch them in the act. The spaceships appear as tiny dots in front of the vast Sun, but you can just make out the iconic shape of the Shuttle. More pics available here.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 7 May 2009 at 9:11 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

What were you doing when you were eleven? I was just starting high school having broken my wrist the night before Princess Diana died. Whilst stumbling bleary eyed into my parents bedroom, sporting a plaster cast, and breaking the news of the car crash is still very much a vivid memory it is hardly anything to go down in the annals of history.

The same can’t be said for Venetia Phair who died on the 30th April aged 90. In 1930, aged just eleven, she became the unlikely heroine of world astronomy when she offered the name for a newly discovered planet. Pluto was named over the breakfast table. The story goes that a young Venetia was in Oxford having breakfast with her grandfather Falconer Madan, the retired librarian of The Bodleian Library in the town. In a highly middle class moment the tale tells of Madan reading The Times and relaying the fact that a new planet had been discovered and was yet to be named. The young Venetia who, in an interview with the BBC in 2006, said “I was quite interested in Greek and Roman myths and legends at the time,” suggested that that the planet should bear the name of Pluto, The God of The Underworld. And it stuck.

Venetia Phair, the woman who named Pluto.

Madan just happened to be chums with Herman Turner, Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, who also just so happened to be attending a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society who were discussing possible names for the newly discovered celestial body. Venetia’s suggestion was eventually passed to Clyde Tombaugh, the original discoverer of the planet and Pluto was officially adopted.

What was her reward for such a landmark moment? Five pounds in pocket money from her granddad. It might not sound like much but one estimate puts that at roughly £230 in today’s money, not too shabby for a quick comment over the breakfast table. There was some suggestion that she had named the planet after the Disney character Pluto but it was subsequently proven that her suggestion came first.

Then in 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto’s rank, robbing it of planetary status, instead relegating it to the lowly newly coined group of dwarf planets. All Phair had to say was “I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

What happened to the only woman to ever name a ‘planet’ and only the third person to do so in the history of modern civilisation? She went on to study Mathematics at Cambridge and went on to lecture in economics.

So next time you are having idle chit chat over the morning papers, tread carefully, if you’ve got the right connections you may just find yourself indelibly marked on the pages of history.

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 29 April 2009 at 6:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

As someone with more than a passing interest in science I often find myself screaming “that’s just plain wrong!” at films or TV programmes with a laughably poor grasp of basic scientific principles. One notion that just will not go away is the prorogation of sound in space. Whether it’s the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars, or Dalek spaceships being vaporised in Doctor Who, everything in space seems to go ‘boom’.

Sound waves reach your ear as vibrations passing through matter – normally air. If you’ve ever been at a gig with large subwoofers you might have felt these vibrations passing through the floor and up your legs, providing you with that ‘thumping bass’ feeling.

Air is actually not a very good medium for transmitting sound. Try tapping a hard surface and listening to the sound it makes. The vibrations caused by your finger have been transferred through the molecules in the air and into your ear. Now place your ear on to the surface, and tap again. The sound should be louder. This is because the molecules of the solid surface are more tightly packed, and thus transfer the vibrations faster than air can.

What does this have to do with the Death Star? Well, in the vacuum of space there are no molecules – that is essentially what the word ‘vacuum’ means. Since there are no molecules there is nothing to transmit the vibrations caused by the Death Star blowing up, and so Luke Skywalker (and the audience) should not be able to hear the explosion.

At this point I have to mention Firefly, a TV programme created by Joss Whedon (best know for Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In Firefly, spaceships float serenely by in complete silence, often accompanied by some twangy (a very scientific technical term) guitar music. The effect is very strange, but only because the myth of sound in space has been perpetuated on our screens for so long.

Thankfully, someone is fighting back against this and other on screen gafs. The Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics website is one that I discovered many years ago now, but if you have never seen it before, it’s well worth a look. Sound in space is part of the ‘Generic Bad Movie Physics’ list, along with flaming cars and visible laserbeams.

The site also reviews movies, but not in the traditional sense. Ratings are dished out on a scale based on the American system ranging from GP for good physics to XP – physics so bad they can only come from a universe other than our own. The Terminator is deemed ‘pretty good’ despite the titular time-travelling cyborg, whereas Star Wars Episode III takes place, as you might expect, in a galaxy of physics far, far away.

Unfortunately it looks like the site hasn’t been updated in a while, but what is up there is still pretty entertaining. Of course, no one is expecting Hollywood to have a team of expert scientists on every film set, but it doesn’t hurt to get a few facts right.

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 1:10 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

With the sun-drenched days we’ve had of late, chances are you’ve been enjoying the glorious weather and topping up your tan; and you aren’t the only one. Research published in Nature by a team at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) suggests that, as well as bronzing your skin, the Sun colours the surface of asteroids too.

But unlike us, the hue of the asteroid is honed not by UV light but by particles streaming away from the Sun in the solar wind. This ionised surge of matter from the Sun peppers the surface of the asteroid in so-called ‘space weathering’, turning the surface of the asteroid a distinctive red colour.

What has surprised astronomers, using ground based telescopes such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, is the shear speed at which these asteroids seem to ‘tan’. Studying collisions between asteroids, and examining the freshly exposed surfaces of the resulting fragments, the team discovered that this tanning process takes only a million years. That may sound a lot to a very short lived species such as ourselves, but taken in the context of the age of the solar system, it is the equivalent of five days in the lifespan of a seventy year old human.

This rapid timescale has led to better understanding of the so called Near Earth Asteroids (NEA’s), which Jacob talked about recently. Some of these space rocks, the ones mostly likely to worry us about possible impacts, don’t appear to exhibit this reddening. This could suggest that they are less than a million years old and caused by asteroid-on-asteroid collisions that are more frequent than previously thought. However, the team suggest their apparent ‘freshness’ is due to gravitational interactions with planets effectively wiping the weathered red dust off the surface, therefore the asteroids are much older.

Vernazza, P., Binzel, R., Rossi, A., Fulchignoni, M., & Birlan, M. (2009). Solar wind as the origin of rapid reddening of asteroid surfaces Nature, 458 (7241), 993-995 DOI: 10.1038/nature07956

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 22 April 2009 at 10:07 am by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Astrobiologists looking for the building blocks of life in the centre of our galaxy have instead found the faint aroma of rum and a slight taste of raspberries.

The team from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany used a 30m telescope based in Spain to probe deep into the heart of our home galaxy, The Milky Way. They were looking for amino acids, thought to be a crucial factor in the development of life. Radio telescopes are perfect for this kind of astronomy as it allows you to peer through layers of cosmic dust right to the heart of the galaxy.

However, they failed to find what they were looking for. Instead their investigations yielded traces of ethyl formate, the chemical that apparently puts the taste in raspberries and the smell in rum. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as actually finding the ingredients for life, you could always make yourself a nice pavlova. And the novelty factor of this story hasn’t been lost on the national media, with the story reported in The Guardian.

So it seems astronomers are discovering quite a kitchen store cupboard in space. Now we have raspberries and rum to go with steak and beer. Sounds like we have the possibility of a three-course meal on the cards. Steak and beer for main, and pavlova for pudding. Deep fried Mars bars to start?

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:58 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

I have to admit I have a bit of a soft spot for wine; good old grape juice is probably my greatest vice. As an astronomer at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, the Moon also plays a big part in my life too, whether I’m being asked about how it was formed or looking at it through a telescope. So it will come as no great surprise that a story invoking these two staples of my life grabbed my attention.

The BBC magazine reported yesterday on Maria Thun’s Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar, devised in the 1950′s. The calendar is based on the cycle of the Moon as it orbits around the Earth and its effect on living organisms on it. It particularly talks about how wine tastes better on different days of the month. Now obviously this calendar is nothing new, it’s been around for half a century. However, the interest comes in when you find out that Tesco and Marks & Spencer have adopted Thun’s musings, to the extent that they will only let wine critics sample their wares (or should that be ‘weres’) on days when her Moon calendar suggests their goods to be most palatable. On a day when Tesco have announced ‘credit crunch’ busting profits of £3.13bn who am I to argue with their business strategy? Well let’s take a closer look at this magical moon calendar.

Thun classified five different types of day based on the motion of our nearest neighbour in space. These days are “fruit”, “root”, “leaf”, “flower” and “unfavourable”, and apparently the wine will satisfy your tastebuds most completely on a “fruit” day. Quite how these days are defined is far from clear. However, it seems to form part of growing belief that the Moon has an effect upon human, animal and now even plant behaviour. From what I can tell, the thinking most often behind this notion is that as the Moon has such a significant tidal effect of the world’s water mass that it somehow must have an effect upon water in living things, altering their behaviour. Now I’m not normally one for diving into the maths of things in a blog entry, but this time I will make an exception (Jacob will be pleased!)

Let us turn to our good friend Sir Isaac Newton for a little mathematical inspiration. I want to find the force with which the Moon pulls on a 1 millilitre droplet of water. Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation states that the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the distance between them squared. In equation form,

Might look scary but not if you break it down. In the above equation the letters mean the following:

• F is the gravitational attractive force we are after.
• G is a constant, just a number and it’s equal to 6.67 x 10-11 (units unimportant)
• m1 = mass of the Moon at 7.36 x 1022 kg
• m2 = mass of water particle. 1ml of water has a mass of 1 gram or 1 x 10-3 kg
• r = distance between the Earth and the Moon. Let’s use 3.63 x 108 (see below)

NB. If you want to nitpick, then the Moon doesn’t follow a perfectly circular orbit around the Earth. Instead it traverses around our planet in a squashed circle, or ellipse, and so at some points it is closer to the Earth than at others. To account for this I have used the closest distance the Moon gets to the Earth, above. Right, stick with me it’s about to get interesting.

Crunch all these numbers together and you get a force of gravitational attraction between the Moon and a 1ml droplet of water as roughly 4 x 10-8 Newtons. To put this into perspective that is the equivalent force that a speck of dust exerts as it rests on a table! Or put another, perhaps more apt way, the same as the force exerted on a table by about 250 millionths of your average (full!) bottle of wine; a miniscule force and hardly likely to have much of an effect.

Wine may well taste better on different days but a small piece of high school physics tells us that it is highly unlikely that our Moon will have a gravitational effect. It might stabilise our seasons, pull our tides and make our days gradually longer, but I’m afraid to say its gravitational influence doesn’t improve a smooth glass of Merlot. Another piece of lunar lunacy.

In fact, taking a closer look at Thun’s predicted upcoming “good” days for wine tells a truer tale. Join in me in raising a glass between Friday at 6pm and 9am on Sunday and you’ll realise that she probably just wanted an excuse for a good weekend bender!

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:03 pm by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

At the beginning of the month, NASA told us that last year’s record low in Solar activity may well be bettered in 2009. 87% of the days in the first quarter of this year had no solar flares. 73% of the days in 2008 saw similarly inactivity. The Sun is keeping very quiet.

Today, the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh produced a video news report on UK astronomers’ reaction to this. One of the physicists he interviewed, Professor Mike Lockwood from Southhampton University, was on the Radio 4′s Today show discussing it.  And, inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.

It was inevitable because Solar radiation effects our weather: it certainly feels much warmer when the Sun is out. But, climate change patterns are a very different thing to our day-to-day local weather. There is significant debate over both the possible scale and nature of the sun’s affect on climate change. The Royal Society have a brief summary that explain the situation better than I can.

A clip of Lockwood’s Today show interview is available here. There is a wonderful Radio 4 ‘ah’ when Lockwood explains that there might be changes on Earth because of this lack in solar activity, but that solar variation is only by  “hundredths of percents”. And so the effects are likely to be very small. Lockwood’s story is not really related to climate change. The excitement for scientists is that the Sun, the things they spend all day studying, is doing something strange.

To give Ghosh credit, that is what he reports. Nor were the Today show’s team at fault either. They have a political mandate and were right to take this angle during the interview: particularly given the extent to which some climate sceptics rely on solar activity as an argument against anthropogenic climate change. They questioned the scientist hard about the potential climate repercussions, leaving no room for spin-off reports to exaggerate the claims made. A good interview technique in my book. Even if it did aggravate Professor Lockwood a little.

There was nothing loaded about the questions and reporting here, but back in 2007 the BBC was criticised by its own news executives for having a biased stance on climate change. It was planning a PlanetRelief day that would encourage green-thinking in everyday activities.  This was seen as pro-anthropogenic climate change campaigning, and the day was eventually cancelled. What aggravated me at the time was that most of the BBC reporting on climate change is of the kind we saw today: interview-based and quite science heavy. It is not biased in general, but was tainted by that episode.

The exception to that rule was Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online’s science editor and now author of ‘The Sun: a biography’. Yet, he was biased against anthropogenic arguments: the opposite point of view to the one the BBC were criticised for. He expounded his minority views about solar effect on global warming on the BBC website for almost ten years without any comeuppance.

In 2000, Whitehouse reported on weather records found in Armagh in Ireland that supposedly showed that the Sun has been the main contributor to global warming over the past two centuries. He did not mention of the complex scientific debate behind the solar effects on our climate, choosing instead to quote Dr John Butler, who discovered the records: “I suspect that the greenhouse lobby have under-estimated the role of solar variability in climate change.”

Four years later, he reports on the high solar activity levels in the later 20th century. A group from the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich claimed that over the last century the number of sunspots rose at the same time that the Earth’s climate became steadily warmer. According to the article, there is a causal link. The only reason why the Sun’s recent low activity (it was low in 2004 as well) is not matched by a reverse climate change is because fossil fuel burning is starting to have some effect. Again, nothing about the debate over whether the sun can really effect climate change.

By 2007, Whitehouse starting writing in the mainstream press. Interestingly his tactic changes. He is no longer arguing that the Sun’s high levels of activity last century increased global warming. He claims instead that the Sun’s potential inactivity over the next fifty years might cause global cooling, reducing the effects of man made warming.  He wrote a long feature for The Independent, “Ray of hope: Can the Sun save us from global warming?”, in December that year.

That newspaper piece takes a much less contentious stance than the BBC reports. This is in part due probably to the increase in evidence against Whitehouse’s position. But it also highlights the difference in care taken over an online piece buried in a Science and Technology tab and one in the mainstream press. Which is worrying. Not least because that BBC tab is taking more and more of the newspaper readership.

Today’s reporting of solar activity showed a return to form by the BBC. There was no climate change headline: no overenthusiastic claims about a new model for global warming. Instead, the science came first. The sun is being a bit strange, which has got some scientists very excited. But that’s it really – no one really knows what it means for next summer’s hose-pipe ban.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 6:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

Fans of late 90′s disaster flicks will remember that 1998 saw the release of not one but two films about Near Earth Objects. Both Deep Impact and Armageddon featured massive space rocks on a collision course with Earth, and in both cases the day was saved by blowing them up with nuclear weapons.

Back in the real world, David French of North Carolina State University has come up with an unusual alternative. Instead of breaking out the nukes, aerospace engineer French has suggested using a big rope and some weights to save the planet from destruction.

It’s an idea that probably won’t be picked up by Hollywood any time soon, but it would work. By using an asteroid-tether-ballast system you change the object’s centre of mass, which according to Newton’s laws will in turn change its orbit. The space rock flies by, completely missing Earth, and Bruce Willis doesn’t even have to get out of bed. It’s a bit like attaching a tennis ball to a football – the change in centre of mass would mean even David Beckham would find it hard to score a goal/destroy the planet.

Would such a scheme be practical though? One thing’s clear: we’d need a lot of rope. French estimates using a tether of between 1,000 kilometres to 100,000 kilometres – the latter of which you could wrap around the Earth two and a half times!

Maybe it’s not such a good idea then, but when you compare it to other options it doesn’t seem so far fetched. Alternative proposals for Earth defence include painting the asteroid to alter the effect of sunlight on its orbit, and a cosmic game of snooker which uses one asteroid to knock another off course. As for the nuclear weapons used in the films, French thinks they come with just too many problems:

“Nuclear weapons are an intriguing possibility, but have considerable political and technical obstacles. Would the rest of the world trust us to nuke an asteroid? Would we trust anyone else? And would the asteroid break into multiple asteroids, giving us more problems to solve?”

Looks like the tether and ballast wins out then – if we can work out how to build one. Perhaps the same technology could be used to make a space elevator? Oh, and if you’re still up for a game of Asteroids – enjoy.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 11:42 am by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

One of the most powerful telescopes ever constructed has finally seen first light. The e-MERLIN array, centred on The Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, is the only system of telescopes in the world capable of rivalling the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) for resolution.

In order to achieve this one telescope is not sufficient. Instead e-MERLIN is made up of seven radio telescopes separated by 217km and spread all over Britain. It turns out that the maths behind this is very simple. To work out the resolution of your telescope all you have to do is divide the wavelength of the signal you are receiving by the diameter of your telescope. That’s it. So the e-MERLIN is almost three thousand times more sensitive than the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell, itself a leviathan in ‘scope terms, at 76m. It is the Lovell (which you can see me climbing in a short film about it, here) which is the centre-piece of the array and makes up a considerable fraction of the observing power.

A map showing the 7 e-MERLIN telescope spread across the country.

However, this system of telescopes is not new; it is used to be called MERLIN. What makes e-MERLIN new is the way that the seven telescopes communicate with one another. Super-fast optical fibres have now been laid underground to replace the old system of microwave transmission which restricted astronomers to receiving only 1% of the signal received at the telescopes. Dr Tim O’Brien, Head of Public Outreach at Jodrell, is likening the upgrade to switching from dial-up to broadband internet. In truth, this is an understatement. The upgrade means that that e-MERLIN can now do in one day what used to take three years to achieve.

This speedy connection and almost unrivalled resolution means that the array can tackle new astronomy when it goes fully online at the beginning of next year. Jodrell’s speciality is pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars formed when massive stars collapse at the end of their lifetimes. These exotic objects are so dense that just a spoonful of their material would weigh more than every person on Earth put together. Over 100 institutions worldwide have bid for observing slots on e-MERLIN, to study pulsars and other cosmic phenomenon that stretch all the way out to the edge of the observable universe.

But it almost didn’t happen. In a spending review in early 2008, the UK funding panel the STFC decided to pull the plug on the funding for Jodrell and the e-MERLIN upgrade. At the time I was a final year undergraduate at The University of Manchester, the university which owns and operates Jodrell and e-MERLIN. The department rallied together to try and save what we felt was a very necessary project from losing funding. For my part I shot and directed a campaign video airing the views of the students and explaining what actions could be taken to save the project. I also went on local TV to argue the case for overturning the decision. Eventually, at the eleventh hour, the STFC had a change of heart and the project was saved.

So as an ex-Jodrellite and for my former colleagues who campaigned for this cutting edge project to continue, today is a very proud day.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 2:11 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

The first picture has been released from Kepler, NASA’s $600m planet-hunting satellite. This latest eye-in-the-sky is pointing its 95 mega-pixel camera at the same patch of sky and staring at it for three and a half years. Hidden deep within this cosmic window are over 100,000 suns that astronomers have identified as possible host stars for Earth like planets. The aim of the mission is to get a handle on just how many Earth like planets there are out there in our galaxy.

The patch of sky in which Kepler team hope to find Earth's 'twin'.

To do this the Kepler team are utilising what is known as the transit method, one of three main techniques for looking at so-called extra-solar planets. Of course, planets like our own are far too dim compared to their luminous gravitational masters and so can’t be seen directly. Instead Kepler is looking for small dips in the star’s brightness as the planet passes or ‘transits’ in front of it. Kepler’s instrumentation is so sensitive that it can detect dips in brightness of just one part in 50,000 or 0.002%. This is actually more sensitive than required to find planets the size of the Earth. If there were some alien blogging astronomer out there staring back at us, they would see our Sun dim by 0.008% as our planet glided across our star.

With Kepler scrutinising this patch of sky for around 42 months it should be able to catch approximately three orbits of such Earth-like planets. And there is good reason to look for planets with the same orbital period as our own. Johannes Kepler, the 16th century astronomer after whom the satellite is named, formulated three laws of planetary motion, one of which says the time it takes a planet to orbit its star is precisely related to its distance from it. Planets that take a year to traverse their elliptical path around their Sun will be in the habitable zone, the small window of space around a star where water is liquid. Sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Hypothesis, where the Earth is porridge that’s temperature, instead of being too hot or too cold to have liquid water, instead is just right, this region around a star is the most likely place to find life.

And so the search to answer the age-old question of whether we are alone in the Universe has entered a new and I have to admit an exciting phase. When the data from this mission is released, probably in the middle of the next decade, we should have a much better idea of just how rare watery blue marbles like our own are. Perhaps, as always in science, the most intriguing outcome will be the unexpected. The question of just how rare Earths are formed a part of my undergraduate dissertation (which you can read here). At the time I approximated that there should be around 10 million Earths in our Milky Way galaxy. Whether this prediction is in itself a form of Goldilocks’ porridge, being too low, too high or just right, I really can’t wait to find out.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 12:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy

This week in Ben Goldacre news

Everyone’s favourite doctor/columnist has put an extra chapter of his book Bad Science online for free. I’m actually a bit behind the times on this one, it was meant to go in last week’s Roundup but I forgot, so you might have already read it. If not, you can grab the PDF here.

The chapter deals with vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath, who was suing Goldacre and The Guardian when the book was first published. Now that they have won the court case the book is being republished with the extra chapter, but Goldacre was kind enough to provide it for everyone else as well. Isn’t he nice? For the next few days you can also see him on the latest episode of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. His section starts around 11 minutes in, with a tirade against “the media’s greatest ever science hoax”, the MMR vaccine.

New science journalism course at City University

The Association of British Science Writers has highlighted a new science journalism course starting this September at City University. With tuition fees of £7,495 it’s a lot more expensive than the Imperial course (which covers more than just journalism), and the general feeling on the ABSW members mailing list is it’s perhaps just a re-branding of City’s existing journalism courses with a bit more science thrown in.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science

Speaking of Imperial, fellow sci-commer Tim Jones has put his group project online for all to see, and it’s a far cry from my group’s altar piece. Along with Arko Olesk and Graham Paterson, Tim drew inspiration from the exquisite corpse of the surrealist movement to create a picture of science as perceived by the public, the media, and scientists. Go have a look.

Time to feel small

As both Douglas Adams and I have said before, space is big. Really big. So big that I’m only able to include a small part of this excellent illustration in the post:

You ain't seen nothing yet.
You ain't seen nothing yet.

Go here if you want to see the rest, and appreciate just how vast the universe is. Unless that’s just too much for a Sunday afternoon!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 April 2009 at 6:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

We’ve had a few stories on Just A Theory about people sending objects into space using impressively cheap materials, and each time I’ve come away wondering just high high about the planet we count as “space”. Now, scientists at the University of Calgary in Canada can provide an answer.

Two years ago their research team created an instrument for a NASA mission designed to monitor the difference between the winds of Earth’s atmosphere and the flow of charged particles in space. These flows can reach speeds of over 1000 km/hr, and they mark they very edge of the atmosphere – the gateway to space.

Data from that instrument has now been analysed, and results published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research confirm that space begins 118km above the Earth’s surface. I can’t access the paper, “Rocket‐based measurements of ion velocity, neutral wind, and electric field in the collisional transition region of the auroral ionosphere”, but it’s there if you want it.

Called the Supra-Thermal Ion Imager, the measuring instrument was launched aboard the JOULE-II rocket on 19th January 2007. Costing $422,000 to develop, it collected data for just five minutes as the rocket passed through the edge of space. An expensive way to find out where out planetary backyard ends and the rest of the universe begins, but carrying out such a measurement is actually quite tricky.

The region containing the edge of space is too high for balloons, but too low for satellites. This experiment marks the first time comprehensive data has been gathered, says one of the paper’s lead authors, David Knudsen:

“It’s only the second time that direct measurements of charged particle flows have been made in this region, and the first time all the ingredients – such as the upper atmospheric winds – have been included.”

Knudsen is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary, and explained that the Supra-Thermal Ion Imager measured the heat released by frictional forces rubbing on the atmosphere:

“When you drag a heavy object over a surface, the interface becomes hot. In JOULE-II we were able to measure directly two regions being dragged past each other, one being the ionosphere — being driven by flows in space — and the other the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Besides the simple satisfaction of knowing, is there any reason to find the edge of space? Yes, says Knudsen. It could further our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere and help in the fight against climate change.

“The results have given us a closer look at space, which is a benefit to pure research in space science,

“But it also allows us to calculate energy flows into the Earth’s atmosphere that ultimately may be able to help us understand the interaction between space and our environment. That could mean a greater understanding of the link between sunspots and the warming and cooling of the Earth’s climate as well as how space weather impacts satellites, communications, navigation, and power systems.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 April 2009 at 11:33 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Before we get on with the Weekly Roundup, I should introduce the latest Just A Theory blogger. You may have already noticed Emma’s post yesterday about tasty vaccines, but if not go and have a read. She previously studied pharmacology at Newcastle University before joining the sci comm course at Imperial, and works part time at Understanding Animal Research. Welcome Emma! Now, on with the roundup.

Finding the science behind the news

It’s terribly annoying to read an interesting science story with no link to the original paper. Ever since I started writing Just A Theory, I’ve come across this problem again and again. When I write something, I’ll always link to the paper if I’ve been able to track it down.

A new tool will hopefully make this a little easier. Recently launched, the science behind it will hunt down those pesky papers for you. It currently only works for stories on the BBC and Reuters and since it uses PubMed it’s generally only of use for biological or medical research articles. It seems that designer Adam Bernard is planning to expand its scope though.

I had a go with the “robotic scientist” story that Sam wrote about on Friday, and it seems to work quite well. The result could be a bit prettier, but that’s a fairly minor complaint if it means I can get my hands on a few more papers!

Life on Mars Russia?

Ah, David Bowie, where would we be without you? Having to come up with original headlines for stories about Mars, that’s where. Earlier this week the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow began a 105 day experiment to simulate a journey to the Red Planet.

Six volunteers climbed into their new home, three windowless steel capsules only 550 cubic metres big – just enough space to hold a tennis court under a moderately high ceiling. Inside, each volunteer has their own cabin furnished with bed, desk and chair. They will be able to contact the outside world, but only with a simulate Earth-Mars delay of 20 minutes.

Although it sounds like a potential Channel 4 reality show, the volunteers will be conducting serious science. As well as finding out how astronauts might deal with a cramped journey to Mars, they will conduct experiments and wear electrodes as they sleep to monitor brain activity.

It could be worse. If this experiment is a success, a subsequent experiment lasting 520 days will simulate a round trip to Mars with a 30 day stay on the surface. Unlike a real Martian mission however, the volunteers will be allowed to leave if they wish to abandon the task, though this will be counted as “death” for the purposes of the experiment…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 22 March 2009 at 3:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Prince Charles, Told Off

Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals company, which recently hit the headlines with its false “detox” claims, has been .

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) informed Duchy Originals they must change the product description on their website. The MHRA granted Duchy Originals a license to sell their products, but not to make claims on their effects. At time of writing, the product page remains unchanged.

Underwater volcano

Earlier this week a volcano off the coast Tonga erupted from in the Pacific Ocean. This spectacular display has resulted in the formation of a new island, made up of pumice as the result of emerging lava and gas.

To the stratosphere on just £56

The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.
The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.

Four students at a Spanish school have capture images of the stratosphere using a weather balloon and camera that cost just £56. Whilst there is no clear boundary between the Earth and outer space, the stratosphere is defined to be between 20 and 50km above sear level.

Aged between 18 and 19, the students attend the IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia. Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort were “overwhelmed” with their results, and had to travel 10km to find the balloon when it eventually came crashing back to Earth.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 15 March 2009 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Webcams in spaaace!

NASA have stuck a webcam on the outside of the International Space Station, so that we can watch the world go by. The camera will normally transmit 6pm to 6am GMT, whilst the astronauts inside are asleep. Outside of this time, you’ll see a map of the world showing the current location of the ISS, streamed in from Mission Control in Houston. Pretty cool.

The Map of Science

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have created a “Map of Science“, which describes how different areas of science link together. Similar projects have been undertaken before, but the team lead by Johan Bollen took a new approach.

“This research will be a crucial component of future efforts to study and predict scientific innovation, as well novel methods to determine the true impact of articles and journals,” Bollen said.

Rather than relying on citations in papers to find links, the new method tracked user requests for online scientific papers. By observing how scientists would hop from one paper to another, Bollen and team were able to study the network of articles and journals.

Whilst the citation method typically places the natural sciences at the centre, this latest map gives prominence to the humanities and social sciences. These areas can act as interdisciplinary bridges that can connect otherwise unrelated areas of science. The map could also be used to indicate emerging relationships between scientific areas, such as ecology and architecture.

What’s the risk?

I stumbled across this interesting tool for exploring risk. As regular readers will know, I can get quite cross about the confusion between relative risk and absolute risk. By playing with this little application, you’ll easily be able to get an understanding of the difference.

The tool allows you to display in various ways the increased risk of cancer from eating bacon sandwiches. There are of course options for relative vs absolute, but you can also choose to see the results in text form, pictorially, or as a variety of graphs. Have a go, and hopefully you’ll find it useful

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 March 2009 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime. Todays’ post is less of a roundup and more of list of links – I’m hoping that normal service will resume on Wednesday, when both my cold and essays should be a thing of the past! Here we go:

A newly discovered species of tree has been named Sorbus Admonitor or “No parking” after the sign stuck to the first known sample. Discovered in the 1930s in Watersmeet in North Devon, it is only recently that a biochemical analysis has identified it as a distinct species.

The state of Illinois has declared that Pluto is still a planet, despite the 2006 ruling by the International Astronomical Union that downclassed it to “dwarf planet”.

Don’t miss your chance to bid on Einstein’s doctorate diploma. Issued 15 January 1906 by Zurich University’s school of mathematics and natural sciences, bidding will start at around SFr20,000-SFr30,000 ($17,340-$26,000).

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 5 March 2009 at 7:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

Hopefully you didn’t notice, but yesterday’s post was of the “here’s one I prepared earlier” variety. I’m smack in the middle of the busy period that began a few weeks ago, with two essays due next Tuesday, so being able to fall back on pre-written posts is always nice.

The reason for that rather rambling intro is that today I was amused to stumble across even more astronomy software! Coincidences, eh? Robert Simpson, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, has been working on scripts for Google Earth, Google Sky and Twitter.

If you’re a Google Earth user you can import his data to show you the current location of satellites in orbit around Earth. This includes the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, and even space junk. If you spot some satellites of your own, you can input the time and place, and the software will calculate a trajectory for you.

Google Sky, the outer space aspect of Google Earth that is also available online, gets its own additions. Using information from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope SCUBA data, Simpson’s add-on will overlay thermal maps of space dust on to the visible spectrum.

Finally, everyone’s favourite Web 2.0 application Twitter gets in on the action. Subscribe to one of the many Twitter feeds for cities from Amsterdam to Vancouver (and a few others I’ve never heard of) and you will be alerted when the ISS and other objects of interest are about to pass over. The feeds give around a 30 minute warning and tell you where to point your telescope. Cleverly, you’ll only get a tweet when the weather is good enough for satellites to be visible. Neat stuff!

I’m increasingly geeking out over the possibilities of Twitter and other web applications for communicating science, so I just had to take a break from essaying to point these cool toys out. I’m afraid you can expect slightly slimmer pickings over the next few days, though I will hopefully still be putting something up daily.

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 4 March 2009 at 9:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Space & Astronomy

It may have slipped by you with all the Darwinmania that’s about, but 2009 is also the International Year of Astronomy. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at some of the software out there that can allow you to explore the universe to your heart’s content.

Now, there really is no substitute for the real thing; a night’s sky crammed with stars truly is a wondrous sight to behold, but unfortunately I’ve only ever experienced it on rare holidays to the middle of nowhere. If you live in a city like London, a combination of cloud cover and light pollution mean it’s hard to even see the brightest stars on most days.

Enter Stellarium and Celestia, two free open source simulations of space with two slightly different approaches.


Stellarium is a planetarium for your computer. The slick interface allows you to select any location on Earth from which to view the stars, as well as a whole host of other options.

Stellarium after the initial load (click for bigger)
Stellarium after the initial load (click for bigger)

You can move about the sky at will, zooming in on objects of interest at any point in time – controllable at will, backwards and forwards. As you can see from the initial image, I couldn’t see much to begin with – it was day time! After a bit of fiddling, such as removing the atmosphere and adding in some labelling, I was able to come up with this:

That's more like it (click for bigger)
That's more like it (click for bigger)

There are a whole host of other options however, such as some rather nice constellation art – and not just Western constellations. Other cultures have their own starlore, and Stellarium can accommodate many other celestial join-the-dots. You can even change the ground view from the default field to a few other options – including the view from a Mars rover.

Stellarium is a very nice piece of software, and the ease of use is especially impressive considering it is currently at the very early version 0.10.0! My only criticism is that it’s very Earth-centric – exploring the galaxy (or beyond) is a little tricky. To be fair, that’s because Stellarium is designed to be used from the Earth’s point of view, unlike our next piece of software.


Would you like the entire universe on your desktop? That’s what Celestia offers – well, not quite. Memory limitations mean the “universe” is cut short at about 16,000 light-years from the Sun, but a fully 3D representation of even this relativity small section of space is pretty impressive.

Celestia's default view (click for bigger)
Celestia's default view (click for bigger)

You’re not just shackled to Earth, either. A few keyboard commands will send you whizzing off in any direction, travelling at anywhere from walking speed to much faster than light. The entire solar system is modelled in 3D, as is much of the rest of the galaxy.

As with Stellarium, Celestia allows you to manipulate time to your whims at a number of speeds – although the date will freeze at the year 5,874,774! Also included are a guided tour of the solar system, and an eclipse finder, demonstrated below.

An eclipse due to take place later this year, simulated in Celestia (click for bigger)
An eclipse due to take place later this year, simulated in Celestia (click for bigger)

Celestia is much less use friendly than Stellarium, however. Not much can be done with the mouse, so I was forced to leave the list of keyboard commands on screen (as you can see above) which rather spoils the view. Having said that, once you get to grips with it Celestia is the more powerful of the two programs.

In addition to natural phenomena, Celestia can also display a number of man-made objects up in the sky. I enjoyed watching the International Space Station floating serenely over the Earth’s surface – it’s seriously tiny. If that’s not enough, you can add to the default object set with a series of add-ons – even fictional places from Star Wars and Star Trek!


It’s hard to choose between these two great pieces of software, as they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, it’s a toss up between depth and dedication. If you just want a quick look at some stars, plum for Stellarium with its easy interface. On the other hand, for a galaxy and more at your fingertips, Celestia is your answer, provided you take the time to learn to use it.

I will add one caveat: as I said before, Stellarium is still fairly early on in development. Hopefully as the software improves more features will be added, and if so it might just pull ahead. Even so, both programs are a great way to admire the stars.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 February 2009 at 5:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Space & Astronomy

I don’t think I’ve posted before about NASA developing a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, but I recently read a preview that I thought I’d share.

For the uninitiated, an MMO game is one in which large numbers of players come together in a shared game world. Rather than playing your own single player game, you can team up with people across the globe. The most popular of the genre is the fantasy based World of Warcraft, but NASA are hoping that their game, with its basis in reality, could be a tool for learning as well as fun.

A screenshot from the NASA MMO.
A screenshot from the NASA MMO.

The game, set around the year 2035, is being created for NASA by development company Virtual Heroes, who also produced America’s Army for the US military. In-game missions will include dealing with the possibility of an asteroid impact on Earth and mining other planets for fuel. Completing these tasks will build your persistent character and unlock new abilities and places to visit, much like in other MMOs.

Interestingly, the game will also encourage players to work together to stave off virtual climate change. Founder and CEO of Virtual Worlds, Jerry Heneghan, explains:

“There is a component for the space station that needs to be built to combat the environmental concerns around an impending event that is happening,” explained Heneghan. “People are actually cooperating together to mitigate this crises. There is a sense of urgency about the gameplay in which players will want to get better and not let their team down. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”

It’s not just futuristic missions that will be available, however. Virtual Worlds also plan to include historical scenarios such as the Apollo missions, allowing players to relive moments like to Moon landings from a first person perspective.

Sounds fun, but why is NASA spending money on building a game instead of spaceships? The idea is to inspire players to become NASA’s next generation, and to encourage an interest in science. An interesting concept, but we’ll have to wait until the first part of the game is released this autumn.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 17 February 2009 at 12:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Two stories out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting caught my eye, both for making claims that seem a little bit “out of this world”. Oh yes, that is a poor excuse for a gag.

Speaking at the meeting, held this past weekend in Chicago, Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC said that there could potentially be as many Earth-like planets as there are stars in the universe – one hundred billion trillion, according to the Telegraph, though estimates vary.

Boss predicts that with four years we will find one of these planets in our galaxy – aided perhaps by a new telescope being launched by NASA in three weeks time. Named Kepler after the great mathematician and astronomer, its mission is to seek out planets that could support life.

“We already know enough now to say that the universe is probably loaded with terrestrial planets similar to the Earth,

“We should expect that there are going to be many planets which are habitable, so probably some are going to be inhabited as well.”

If we were to send out unmanned spacecraft to take pictures of a newly discovered planet, Boss estimates it would take at least 2,000 years for us to receive them, because an Earth-like planet could potentially be 30 light years away. If you’re expecting little green men however, you’ll probably be disappointed; Boss expects any life out there to be microscopic organisms.

Also speak at the same meeting was British scientists Professor Paul Davies, who called for a “mission to Earth” in order to look for “alien” creatures who may already be here.

No, he’s not suggesting we draft in Mulder and Scully; rather Davies believes we should search for microscopic life in remote and hostile environments that could potentially have a different biochemistry to our own.

“No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself,” he said.

“So if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet.

“Life as we know it appears to have had a single common ancestor, yet, could life on Earth have started many times?

“Might it exist on Earth today in extreme environments and remain undetected because our techniques are customized to the biochemistry of known life?”

Davies suggests that the discovery of a “shadow biosphere” would be “the biggest sensation in biology since Darwin”. Such a mission would be much cheaper than looking for life on Mars, and so-called “weird life” may already be lurking in deep sea vents, at the bottom of lakes, and in deserts and caves. The truth is out there…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 26 January 2009 at 11:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

A new theory suggests that Mars and Mercury could have formed out of the “byproducts” of Earth and Venus, according to Brad Hansen, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who presented his research earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Current scientific consensus says that the Earth and other planets were formed around 4.5 billion years ago, from a gigantic disk of gas and dust that surrounded the Sun. The force of gravity caused the minuscule particles of dust to come together, eventually forming pebble-sized objects that in turn grew larger and larger to eventually create the planets.

The theory is not without its problems, however. Scientists normally assume the initial dust disk was the same thickness throughout, but crunching the numbers in a computer simulation shows that this would result in planets of similar size with circular orbits. In fact Mars and Mercury are much smaller than Venus and Earth, and orbit the Sun in an ellipse.

This discrepancy is normally explained away by the presence of Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, which exerts a heavy gravitational force. Hansen believes he has a different answer.

In his model, the dust disk is not uniform; rather, it is clumped at different distances from the Sun. He suggests that Earth and Venus formed in a particularly large clump, known as an “annulus”, capturing much of the proto-planet debris as they immerged from the dust.

Not all of the material is captured and some particles can be ejected into a different orbit. It is these ejected particles that would go on to form Mars and Mercury – Hansen estimates that only 10% of the initial material would make up these two planets, with the majority gobbled up by Earth and Venus.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 January 2009 at 8:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I’m a bit pressed for time this evening, so the weekly roundup edition will be a little short I’m afraid. There are four items in today’s post thought, so perhaps that will make up for it.


The Virtual Museum of Minerals and Molecules is a pretty nifty site. If you care to browse its online exhibits you’ll be able to check out the molecular structure of various materials in full 3D. The exhibits are manipulatable and come with a number of display options, so its easy to get that perfect viewing point that every molecule-buff craves. My favourite has to be buckminsterfullerene, also affectionately known as the “bucky ball” for its football-like shape.

What’s wrong with “Rover”? It works for dogs…

NASA, in partnership with Disney’s Wall-E, are offering America school children the chance to name the latest Mars rover, due to launch in 2011. Currently known as the Mars Science Laboratory, the rover will continue the search for life on the Red Planet. It’s not as cute as Wall-E though…

The Science of Back to the Future

Pop-culture blog Overthinking It has devoted an entire week to the classic Back to the Future trilogy. I particularly liked this post on the science behind the films. In it, they cover the basic problem I have with all time travel films: when you travel in time, the Earth doesn’t stay in the same place. Annoyingly, the article is spread over multiple pages, but it’s worth a read for the entertaining diagrams alone.

It won’t be long before they take over…

Wired presents the 8 best non-human tool users, including moles that wear face masks, gorillas propped up by walking sticks, and dolphins that uses sponges. Great stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 16 January 2009 at 5:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Space & Astronomy

…but is there life on Mars? “Maybe” is the latest answer from NASA, with news that methane has been detected in the red planet’s atmosphere. The gas, which consists of four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom, could have biological or geologic origin according to NASA and university scientists.

The discovery of methane is significant, because many organisms here on Earth produce methane as by-product of digestion – cow flatulence being the famous example. We can’t say for sure the same thing is happening on Mars however, as methane can also be produced underground in a geological process that is similar to rusting. This could have happened in the past, when Mars was more volcanic, and it is only now that the methane is bubbling to the surface.

Something must be actively releasing methane though, because the gas is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere. If it is indeed a form of microscopic life, it must be far enough below the planet’s surface to be insulated from the cold Martian air, as liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life to exist.

Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the lead author of a paper in on the research which appeared in Science Express yesterday. He believes that organisms on Mars could be similar to those on Earth:

“On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon.”

Unfortunately, it will be 2011 before we can get any further answers. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, due to launch in a couple of years, will be able to discover the origin of the Martian methane. By measuring the isotope ratios of the gas (isotopes are heavier versions of elements that are sometimes produced), the mission will be able to determine if life, which tends to use lighter isotopes, is the origin of the methane. I guess we’ll wait and see…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 11 January 2009 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

On Friday I said I’d do a big Weekly Roundup, but I quite liked the “fishy” post yesterday, so I’m going to do a couple more of those to clear my backlog of links. Look for them soon.

Science journalists need new clichés

Hank Campbell at Scientific Blogging thinks that a few science journalism phrases got overused last year, and it’s time to invent some new ones for 2009. On the list (complete with many examples) are “baffled”, “stunned”, “alarmed” and “shocked”. I’m pleased to say that according to the site’s search function, none of these words have appeared on Just A Theory! Until now, that is…

Blast off on a broomstick

Unlike the above clichés, I have talked about the concept of a space elevator before. The basic idea is a satellite orbiting above a fixed point on the Earth’s surface, with a super strong cable in between. Passengers and cargo can be lifted into space by a “climber” attached to the cable, much easier and cheaper than rockets.

Now, a new idea on how to power the climber has come from an unlikely source – a broomstick. Age-Raymond Riise of the European Space Agency proposed that by using carefully timed jerks of the cable and a specially constructed climber, getting into space would be a simple, if bumpy, ride. A suspension system would soon smooth that out, however.

Talking at the Second International Conference on Space Elevator and Tether Design in Luxembourg, he used a broomstick and an electric sander to demonstrate the concept. You can watch a video embedded in the above article – it’s a great combination of low- and high-tech!

Free poster!

Just A Theory hasn’t quite grown to the point where I can hand out freebies, but fortunately the Open University is in a slightly better position. They’re offering a free “Tree of Life” poster to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary. Grab yours now.

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3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 4 January 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Things are still a bit slim, weekly roundup wise, but here you go:

Keep on rovin’

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the Mars rover Spirit, which touched down on the red planet on 3rd January, 2004. Spirit was joined 21 days later by a second rover, Opportunity

NASA had planned for the plucky little robots to last for at least three months, but half a decade later they’re still providing useful information about our planetary neighbour. The data gathered by the pair has conclusively shown that Mars was at one point home to liquid surface water, raising the possibility that life once existed there.

The pair of rovers are starting to show their age, however. Spirit has to explore the Martian surface backwards due to a jammed wheel, and Opportunity’s robotic arm has a glitchy shoulder. When they do eventually fail completely they will not be replaced until the 2011 launch of a more advanced probe, the Mars Science Laboratory, which has been delayed by technical and monetary difficulties.

The Sky in Motion

This video is made from a series of 7,000 separate images, and depicts the changes in the night sky over time. Stars dancing around, the Moon and Sun flying by, and many other astronomical wonders are all highlighted in this rather neat video:

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 1 January 2009 at 12:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

…0! Happy New Year! Sorry if you’re a bit confused due to the reverse chronological nature of blogging, but I’m actually finishing the countdown of the previous post from moments earlier. How exciting. Well, let’s see in the new year with some predictions of what 2009 holds for science. The Telegraph spoke to some leading scientists to find out what’s in store.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge (phew, deep breath) points out that it is both 400 years since Galileo first wielded his telescope, as well as Darwin’s bicentennial. I expect we’ll see a little competition between these two scientific greats in 2009, but Rees hopes that we will gain answers to a question “equally interesting to astronomers and to Darwinians” – is there life on other planets? In 2009 the search for exoplanets will continue, and Rees hopes that we will figure out where we should be looking.

The editor of New Scientist, Roger Highfield, expects that commercial space travel will be big in 2009, with Virgin Galactic beginning their test flights. The space agencies of the US, Russia and the rest will also be looking to increase our knowledge of the heavens, with missions to Mars and the launching of telescopes on the cards. Highfield also looks forward to the publication of the Neanderthal genome, the relaunch of the LHC, and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Colin Pillinger, Head of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, thinks that the credit crunch will scupper any space-based plans, and that most of the year will be spent looking back at past achievements. Pessimistic perhaps, but we shall see. Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, is a little more positive, hoping to see advances in the field of neurodegeneration, including treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences also hopes to see further cures by searching for genetic links using the human genome project. Finally, science minister Lord Drayson had a rather dull and on message prediction:

“My predication for 2009 is that the Government will continue to invest in science despite the global economic downturn.”

Only time will tell. If you’re still not quite ready to let 2008 go, have a crack at the Guardian’s Science Quiz 2008. I’m afraid to say I scored a measly 10 out of 20! Other than that, all I have left to say is happy 2009!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 31 December 2008 at 11:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Space & Astronomy

As another year draws to a close, you’ve got just 61 seconds left of 2008. That’s right, 61. This year, official timekeepers are adding a “leap second” on to the end of the last minute of the last hour of 2008. You might not notice the extra second flit past as you Auld Lang Syne your way in to 2009, but it serves an important purpose.

Our measurement of time used to be based on the movement of the Sun; you got up when it rose and went to bed when it set. Advances in technology meant that timepieces had to become more and more accurate. It starting with the need for coordinated train timetables across a country, meaning that local time just didn’t cut it any more. In the mid-19th century, railway companies around Great Britain adopted Greenwich Mean Time, the familiar GMT. Use by all soon followed.

GMT was still based on the movement of the Sun however, and this is where we hit a problem. The Sun, of course, does not actually move across the sky; it only appears to because the Earth is rotating. The Earth’s rotation is not constant though; changes in the atmosphere or the planet’s molten core can cause it to speed up and slow down.

With the introduction of technology such as GPS positioning and the internet, even more accurate time was needed. Physicists found that oscillation of caesium atoms could be used to define a second; and in 1967 the International System of Units (SI) decreed the duration of 9,192,631,770 such oscillations to be exactly one second.

These so-called atomic clocks are now the de facto standard of time, known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The trouble is, this highly accurate measure doesn’t have any connection to the Earth’s rotation, so if we still want noon to occur when the Sun is at its highest point, corrections to UTC must occasionally be made. Enter the leap second.

Without the occasional leap second (the last was three years ago) UTC would gradually drift away from what we might perceive was “real” time. Eventually, the position of the Sun would have no relation at all to the time, and we can’t be having that. Earlier this year, some scientists proposed that rather than adding a leap second every few years, we should add a leap hour every 6 centuries. This doesn’t sound like the best idea to me – adding a few seconds here and there is easy to slip past people with out too much fuss, but an entire hour? No thanks.

What would we even call such an hour? For those of you with timepieces connected to an atomic clock (like this one, perhaps) might notice the strange occurrence of 23:59:60 before it flicks over to 00:00:00 and the new year. Would a leap hour run from 24:00:00 to 24:59:59? Surely it would cause nothing but problems.

No, a leap second seems to be the way to go. Even though you’re probably not reading this at 11:59pm (and let’s be honest, the sever is posting it at this time, not me!), join me in the rather unusual New Years countdown of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 December 2008 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Warning: This music may cause head injuries

The British Medical Journal is reporting that head banging, the favoured dance of rockers everywhere, may be bad for your health. The detrimental effects can be avoided however, by reducing the motion of the head, rocking out to lower tempo songs or on every other beat, or even resorting to neck braces.

Declan Patton and Professor Andrew McIntosh of the University of New South Wales attended concerts of noted metalers including Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne, in order to construct a “theoretical head banging model”. It turns out that the risk of neck injury begins at a tempo of 130 beats per minute, but the average head banging song exceeds this at 146 bpm, and could lead to headaches and dizziness. Thankfully, the authors suggest a number of remedies, including public campaigns headed by Cliff Richard and the labelling of CDs with anti-head banging warnings. Rock n’ roll.

Crackle, like a bad reception? It almost works. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t pass up the post title

Were things always better in the good old days? It seems that this may not be the case, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. New research has found that negative memories could possibly fade faster than positive ones, as a defence mechanism against getting old.

Scientists at Duke University showed a series of 30 photographs to two groups of adults, one with an average age of 70, another with an average age of 24. Some were fairly mundane whilst others depicted negative images such as acts of violence. It was found that the older group could remember fewer negative images than the younger group – perhaps explaining their rosier outlook on the past.

Still waiting for a comment from the bear in the woods

Pope Benedict XVI has praised Galileo for his work in demonstrating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and in fact revolves around the Sun. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with you nowadays, but back in 1633 Galileo was branded a heretic and forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Pope was speaking at an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations with a telescope. He said that understanding the laws of nature could stimulate an appreciation of God’s work.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 17 December 2008 at 8:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

I’ve finally succumbed to whatever winter bug is currently going around, and thus my ability to blog/think has been somewhat curtailed. As such, all I have for you today are some rather wonderful Hungarian maps of Mars, Venus, the Moon and the Earth. They’d make some nice wallcharts, if you’ve got a big enough colour printer.


Hopefully, I’ll be feeling a little better tomorrow, and return you to your regular blogging fun.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 December 2008 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Space & Astronomy

TIME magazine, as part of their “Top 10 Everything of 2008″ series have released the ten most impressive scientific discoveries of the year. “Discoveries” might be stretching it a bit for some of the entries – accomplishments, perhaps? Semantics aside, let’s have a look at the list:

1. Large Hadron Collider

No surprises here. The LHC was the biggest thing in science for most of the year, with extensive coverage in the mainstream media. Even here at Just A Theory I’ve written quite a bit on everyone’s favourite particle accelerator. Unfortunately, there won’t be any discoveries made at CERN for a while yet – a helium leak soon after it was started means the collider won’t be up and running again until sometime next June.

2. The North Pole of Mars

Well, we already knew it was there, but this year in May NASA’s Phoenix probe landed in Mar’s far northern region. No signs of life were found, but we now have further confirmation that Mars was once a wet planet, much like our own Earth.

3. Creating Life

Geneticist J. Craig Venter, instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote the genetic code for an entirely new type of bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium. He and his team put together 582,000 base pairs that make up the genetic information of the new species. Next, this DNA must be inserted into a living bacterium to see if it can take over, effectively creating artificial life.

4. China Soars into Space

The world’s biggest country made new strides into space this year, with the first Chinese spacewalk spacewalk. Pretty impressive, since it’s only their third mission in a space programme that began in 2003.

5. More Gorillas in the Mist

For once, some good news on animal conservation. It turns out that previous estimates of the number of western lowland gorillas were too low, and the Republic of Congo is now thought to contain 125,000 gorillas – twice as many as previously thought.

6. Brave New Worlds

The discovery of extrasolar solar planets continued at a rapid pace this year, with 45 new worlds announced in June by Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. Later on in November, we got the first ever pictures of planets around another star thank’s to good ol’ Hubble.

7. The Power of Invisibility

Scientists at Berkeley, University of California, announced the invention of an invisibility cloak. Nanotechnology and metamaterials make it possible for an object to completely vanish, but don’t expect your own cloak soon – it’s far from ready to be practical yet.

8. Cenozoic Park?

In Novemeber, biochemistry professor Steven Schuster of Penn State University revealed 80% of the genome of the ancient woolly mammoth, painstakingly recovered using fossilised hair. This lead to speculation we might one day be cloning the furry creatures – has no one seen Jurassic Park?!

9. Can You Spell Science?

Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of science literacy in adults has doubled to 17%. It’s not that great news though – according to the survey by the University of Michigan, a quarter of the US population count as “civic scientifically literate”. In other words, three in four adults will struggle to understand science stories printed in the media – I wonder if that includes this blog?!

10. First Family

Finally, we have the discovery of the first “nuclear family”. In Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany, a 4,600-year-old grave was discovered to contain the remains of an adult male and female, and two boys aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5. DNA evidence confirmed their relationships: they are indeed the First Family.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 12 December 2008 at 2:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

If you’re wandering about outside this evening, you may notice your surroundings feel a bit brighter than usual. No, I’m afraid the council haven’t sprung for additional street lamps. Look up at the sky, and you’ll see the Moon, closer to Earth than it has been for the past 15 years.

Assuming clouds don’t obscure the view (from where I’m sitting, that might unfortunately be the case) the Moon could potentially appear 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full moons this year, according to NASA. The effect is due to the elliptical orbit of our satellite friend. This oval-shaped path varies the distance between the Moon and ourselves. Normally, it orbits at around 385,000km from Earth, but tonight it will close the gap to around 363,000km.

A lovely full moon.
A lovely full moon.

According to Dr Marek Kukula, an astronomer at the UK’s Royal Observatory, this astronomical event only occurs every so often:

“Its only every few years that a full moon happens to coincide with the part of the Moon’s orbit when its closest to the Earth,

“What people will see is a full moon that’s really bright and a bit bigger than what they’re used to.”

Interestingly, a psychological illusion actually makes the Moon appear even bigger when it rises and sets, says Dr Kukula:

“When it’s close to the horizon, our brain interprets it as being bigger than it actually is, this is called the moon illusion,

Dr Robert Massey of the UK Royal Astronomical Society cautions against expecting too much of a sight, however:

“The Moon may be brighter and may appear somewhat larger, but it’s really quite hard for the eye to notice the difference; the eye will compensate for the extra brightness, it’s not like going from night to day.”

Still, for all you amateur astronomers out there, look to the skies tonight!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 6 December 2008 at 8:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

I’m afraid I’m in full on essay mode this weekend, so today will be brief. Thankfully, this is the last essay of the term, so soon it’ll be all Just A Theory, all the time.

What I have for you this evening is an interesting astronomical quirk. If you’ve been staring up in to the sky recently you might have noticed two very bright stars, quite close together. In fact, these aren’t stars at all, but a very visible Venus and Jupiter. We are also experiencing a crescent moon at the moment, and if you’re in the Southern hemisphere these three astronomical bodies may have come together quite satisfyingly to form a smiley face, much like this one :)

There are some great photos around, so if you were unable to see it don’t worry. The Daily Mail have a few nice ones, as do the BBC, but my favourite has to be this one on Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s currently enjoying a spot on my desktop background!

Can you spot the face?
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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 4 December 2008 at 8:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Just a short little story for you today, but it’s quite a sweet one. Earlier this week, four teddy bears have been sent to the very edge of space by a group of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, with the help of members of the Cambridge University Spaceflight student club.

Boldy going bears!

The brave bears were lifted to just over 30 km above sea level with the aid of a helium-filled latex balloon. Each bear wore a different space suit, designed by the kids to determine which materials provide the best insulation against the -53 °C temperatures they would encounter during their mission.

The Daily Mail have a few quotes from the kids involved. Thia Unsworth, aged 12, said:

“It was unbelievable to see the balloon take off and it’s incredible to see the pictures of the teddy bears in space.

“I’ve always loved science before, but I now understand how it helps in the real world.”

It’s great to see kids involved with activities such as these, which allow them to see that science isn’t just sitting in the classroom and reading textbooks; it also involves getting out into the field and designing experiments. Their teacher, Steve Hinshelwood, seems to agree, as he told the Guardian:

“Suddenly scientific ideas such as insulation, convection, conduction and radiation became important. Thinking about weight made ideas of buoyancy, pressure and the composition of the atmosphere relevant,” he said.

“The need to get the teddies back gave the students a chance to think about computer control and radio communications.

“I don’t think that the students realised how much science they were learning – they were just having fun.”

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 23 November 2008 at 5:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Four months without a heart

In what is really an amazing story, D’Zhana Simmons, a 14-year-old girl from South Carolina, USA, spent 118 days hooked up to a machine that kept her blood flowing – because her heart had been removed. It is believed that this is the first time such a young person has been kept alive this long without a heart.

On July 2nd of this year Ms Simmons underwent a heart transplant operation at Miami’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, but the operation was unsuccessfully and the new organ had to be removed. Artificial substitute heart chambers were implanted and hooked up to two blood pumps, until she was was strong enough to have another, successful, transplant.

Unfortunately, doctors believe that her troubles are not over yet. Although her prognosis, is good, there is a 50% chance she will need another new heart before she turns 30.

Live longer and prosper

Increased amounts of telomerase, a naturally forming protein, in the body could prevent cells from dying and extend your lifespan, according to a team at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid.

Telomerase protects a cell’s chromosomes, but as we age and cell division activity increases this protection can get worn out, causing cells to die. By increasing natural levels of telomerase, scientists hope to stop this from happening.

The theory was tested with genetically engineered mice, whose bodies produced 10 times the normal levels of the protein, and as a result lived 50% longer than normal mice. Lead researcher, Maria Blasco, was optimistic but cautious about the results:

“You can delay the ageing of mice and increase their lifespan,” she said.

“(But)I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing.”

One problem to overcome is that telomerase can lead to increased risk of cancer, but Dr Blasco believe that this could be overcome by combining the treatment with cancer drugs.

Lost in space

NASA has lost one of its astronauts aboard the International Space Station – but thankfully, it’s not one of the human crew. One of two spiders that were launched into orbit on the Endeavour last week has gone for its very own spacewalk.

After finding it absent from its tank, NASA managers insisted that the spider was not lost; it just couldn’t be found. So says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy space station programme manager:

“We don’t believe that it’s escaped the overall payload enclosure,

“I’m sure we’ll find him spinning a web sometime here in the next few days.”

Efforts to search for the spider in its neighbour’s tank have been scuppered, because the poor creature is so confused by the zero-gravity environment that it has filled it with a dense web, making any search difficult.

The two arachnids had been sent into space by the University of Colorado, who hoped to answer schoolchildren’s questions about spider webs in space. It’s clearly a very sticky issue.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 22 November 2008 at 11:30 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy

I’m in Cambridge this weekend, so I’m afraid all I have for you today is the image below. It’s a recently restored photo taken in 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1, and represents the first glimpse of the Earth from the Moon. I’ve lifted it from Astronomy Picture of the Day, so go there to check out the full resolution version. Have a look around whilst you’re there, it’s a great site.

If you’re still hungry for some science, might I suggest watching Einstein and Eddington this evening on BBC2 at 9.10pm. Starring Andy Serkis and David Tennant in the titular roles, it tells the story of the relationship between the two great scientists. I’ve been looking forward to it for some time, and you can expect a full review next week. See you tomorrow for the usual Weekly Roundup, but until then I’ll let the picture do the talking:

The first ever image of Earth from the Moon
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Comments Off Posted on Monday 17 November 2008 at 1:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Recycling seems to be all the rage these days, with our collective eco-conscience pushing us towards rummaging through the bins to sort the paper from the plastic. In space however, recycling is a necessity. Each extra kilogram of material that has to be blasted into orbit increases the cost of a launch, so making the most of what you’ve got is essential. To this end, NASA’s latest scheme is to make astronauts drink their own urine.

The crew of the International Space Station require water just like the rest of us, but at 350 km above the surface of the Earth there is a distinct lack of rainfall. Up to now, NASA’s solution was a rather ingenious one: use waste water from the space shuttle. The spacecraft produces water as a byproduct of its normal electrical systems, so this was simply bagged up and delivered every time the shuttle and the ISS docked. Unfortunately, plans to retire the vehicle in the next two years will put an end to these regular deliveries.

Just try not to think where it came from...

The space shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS yesterday for a mission that has been unofficially dubbed “Extreme Home Improvements”. In addition to providing expanded crew quarters and a new toilet, Endeavour is also carrying the astronauts new water system.

By distilling, filtering, ionizing and oxidizing the waste water of the ISS (including the astronauts own urine), the crew will be provided with an ample supply of fresh water – but how does it taste?

“Some people may think it’s downright disgusting, but if it’s done correctly, you process water that’s purer than what you drink here on Earth,” said Endeavour astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.

Bob Bagdigian, who oversaw the development of the new water system, found that the most common complaint was a faint taste of iodine, which is used in the recycling system in order to restrict the growth of microbes.

“Other than that, it is just as refreshing as any other kind of water,” Mr Bagdigian said.

“I’ve got some in my fridge. It tastes fine to me.”

So next time you find yourself grumbling as you sort the weekly recycling, remember: it could be worse!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 14 November 2008 at 6:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the first visible-light picture of a planet outside the Solar System. Although so-called “extrasolar” planets have been found before – 300 had at the last count – this is the first time we have been able to view one directly. Previous discoveries were made using indirect methods such as radial-velocity surveys which search for stars that “wobble” due to their planets.

The new planet, called Fomalhaut b, is suspected to be more than three times the mass of Jupiter. It orbits the star Fomalhaut, 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis, which is surrounded by a huge cloud of dust similar to the Kuiper Belt around our own sun.

This debris disk was discovered when Hubble took a picture of the star in 2004. Astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley suspected in 2005 that the dust was being gravitationally modified by a planet lying between the star and the ring’s inner edge.

The dusty Fomalhaut system, and the newly discovered planet Fomalhaut b.

Kalas and his team’s suspicions have finally paid off now that Hubble has photographed a point 1.8 billion miles inside the ring’s inner edge. Taking the picture was no mean feat however.

“Our Hubble observations were incredibly demanding. Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than the star. We began this program in 2001, and our persistence finally paid off,” Kalas says.

“Fomalhaut is the gift that keeps on giving. Following the unexpected discovery of its dust ring, we have now found an exoplanet at a location suggested by analysis of the dust ring’s shape. The lesson for exoplanet hunters is ‘follow the dust,’” added team member Mark Clampin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

A second observation of Fomalhaut in 2006 was used to confirm the planet’s existence. By noting the difference between the two photos, the team were able to calculate a 872-year-long orbit for the planet. By comparison, Pluto only takes 248 years to orbit the sun.

An artist's impression of the planet.

Scientists will be keeping their eye on Fomalhaut b for a while yet. Future observations will attempt to view the planet using infrared light and look for evidence of water vapour in the atmosphere. This and other observations will be made possible by the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The replacement for Hubble is scheduled to launch in 2013.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 9 November 2008 at 3:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Cash for codebreakers

Bletchley Park, home to the Allied codebreakers of World War II, has secured a grant of £330,000 to restore the roof of the historic site. The Grade II-listed mansion is at risk due to previous neglect.

Codebreakers who were at Bletchley include Alan Turing, arguably the founder of computer science. The need to crack the German Enigma machine lead to great developments in cryptoanalysis and other sciences. It’s a fascinating place that I’d love to visit one day, so hopefully this new money will help preserve the site.

China plans their own Moon buggy

The Chinese media has reported the nation’s ambitions to put an unmanned buggy on the moon by 2012 as a step along the road to a full-on manned mission.

The news follows on from China’s previous space efforts at the end of September, in which they broadcast footage of a first space-walk back to those watching on Earth. It could also be seen as an answer to the American’s testing their latest moon buggy prototype.

China says that its lunar mission will include three steps of “orbiting, landing and returning”, but has not yet set any dates for manned moon mission yet.

Not lead into gold, but tequila into diamonds

Mexican scientists have discovered a way to turn tequila into diamonds. It turns out that the chemical makeup of the drink has a ratio of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms which places it within the “diamond growth region.”

The scientists turned to tequila not for its intoxicating quality, but because previous efforts to create diamonds from organic solutions such as acetone, ethanol, and methanol had proved unsuccessful. They then realised that their ideal compound of 40% ethanol and 60% water was remarkably close to tequila.

Luis Miguel Apátiga was one of the researches from the National Autonomous University of Mexico:

“To dissipate any doubts, one morning on the way to the lab I bought a pocket-size bottle of cheap white tequila and we did some tests,” Apátiga said. “We were in doubt over whether the great amount of chemicals present in tequila, other than water and ethanol, would contaminate or obstruct the process, it turned out to be not so. The results were amazing, same as with the ethanol and water compound, we obtained almost spherical shaped diamonds of nanometric size. There is no doubt; tequila has the exact proportion of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms necessary to form diamonds.”

The diamonds were made by heating tequila to transform it into a gas, and then heating this gas further to break down the molecular structure. The result: solid diamond crystals, about 100-400 nanometres in size. They could be used to coat cutting tools, or as high-power semiconductors, radiation detectors and optical-electronic devices.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 1 November 2008 at 1:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Apparently “socialite” Paris Hilton has bagged herself a $200,000 seat on the first Virgin Galactic (for the long-term readers, you may remember one of my first posts was about the company) flight into space.

She joins other rumoured “commerc-onauts” (a phrase I believe I’ve just coined) such as William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Hawking, but has expressed some rather strange fears.

“I’m very scared to do it. What if I don’t come back?” she said. “With the whole light-years thing, what if I come back 10,000 years later, and everyone I know is dead? I’ll be like, ‘Great. Now I have to start all over.”

Ah yes Paris, that “whole light-years thing.” The esteemed Ms. Hilton appears to be referring to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, in which your perception of time can be affected relative to others, depending on your speed. In a famous thought-experiment Einstein suggested that placing one of a pair of twins on a near-light speed flight, whilst the other remains on Earth, could have some interesting effects.

Due to time dilation, the journey would take much longer from the point of view of the twin on Earth. When the space-faring twin returns, he would find that his Earth-bound brother had aged much more than him. It’s all due to the fixed speed of light, and explained by Einstein’s theory.

Paris seems to have been slacking in her Advanced Physics class however, because this effect (known as the twin paradox) can only happen at the speed of light. The Virgin Galactic flights will barely leave the atmosphere, let alone get up to 300 million metres per second, so she’s probably safe for now. Unfortunately.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 27 October 2008 at 10:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Last week a team of NASA engineers, astronauts and geologists took a new lunar rover prototype for a spin in the Arizona desert. The Small Pressurized Rover was tested in the 11th annual Desert RATS field tests. Research and Technology Studies, that is – no rodents here!

The Small Pressurized Rover in action.

The design differs from the old Apollo lunar rover, because it allows the crew to sit inside a pressurized environment and drive about with the need for bulky spacesuits. The new rover was put through its paces with day-long trips around the desert to determine performance. Although these are some of the longest trips the prototype has made, this week the team will shift gears and begin three-day testing.

The original Apollo rover, on the surface of the Moon.

Although I understand the need for more versatile equipment, I’m kind of sad to see the Apollo buggy bite the moon-dust. It has a kind of retro-futuristic feel, looking kind of like someone knocked it up in their backyard in a spare afternoon, and it just looks pretty stylish. The new rover, whilst it might have increased functionality, just looks a little bit awkward. You certainly wouldn’t catch me puttering about the Sea of Tranquillity in one.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 October 2008 at 7:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Does your name decide where you work?

When I first read the press release that psychologists in Belgium have discovered that a person’s initials have a link to the company they work for, my immediate thought was “yeah, whatever.” I thought that the conclusion had probably come about because some letters in the alphabet are more common than others, so a Mr E was more likely to work for E Inc. simply because there are more “E”s floating about than any other letter.

On reading the actual paper however, I can’t fault their methodology. It really does seem that a persons name can unconsciously effect their choice of work place. The phenomena is known as the name-letter effect, and has been demonstrated in other areas, for example a Jack is more likely to live in Jacksonville than in Philadelphia. It just goes to show that whilst scepticism is healthy, it’s not always right!

Now you seem them, now you don’t

The Daily Mail have some wonderful pictures of camouflaged animals. Yes, it’s a bit of a fluff piece, but they’re really quite something. My personal favourite is this one:

I'm not telling you what it is, you'll have to guess!

It came from outer space

A couple of weeks ago, The University of Western Ontario Meteor Group caught a falling meteor on camera. The team of astronomers are now looking for local residents who might have seen meteorites break off and crash to Earth.

The meteor streaks across the sky in this time-lapse image

Videos of the meteor are available online. I’ve never managed to see one of these space rocks in real life, so it’s pretty cool to be able to catch one on film.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 October 2008 at 7:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to have ever walked on the Moon, has suggested that the first astronauts sent to Mars shouldn’t plan on coming back.

In an interview with AFP, he compared a Martian expedition to European explorers heading for America knowing that they would not be returning. His argument is that since Mars is a much more hospitable place than the Moon, a one-way trip makes sense – especially considering the time taken to get there.

At between 55 and 400 million kilometres (depending on the arrangement of the planets around the Sun), Mars is much further than the 0.38 million km to the moon. Aldrin made the trip with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins in just 8 days in 1969, but a Martian mission would be in transit for around a year and a half.

“That’s why you [should] send people there permanently,” said Aldrin. “If we are not willing to do that, then I don’t think we should just go once and have the expense of doing that and then stop.”

He asked: “If we are going to put a few people down there and ensure their appropriate safety, would you then go through all that trouble and then bring them back immediately, after a year, a year and a half?”

As I mentioned earlier this week, NASA already have plans for a return to the Moon. They hope to apply the knowledge gained from this experience into a manned mission to Mars, to take place around 2030 or 2040.

Life support systems and other equipment would be sent in advance by unmanned rockets, followed by half a dozen people. Aldrin suggested others could join them in later missions to make a colony of 30.

“They need to go there more with the psychology of knowing that you are a pioneering settler and you don’t look forward to go back home again after a couple a years,” he said.

“At age 30, they are given an opportunity. If they accept, then we train them, at age 35, we send them. At age 65, who knows what advances have taken place. They can retire there, or maybe we can bring them back.”

I tend to follow the British government’s official view: manned space exploration is an unnecessary expense and risk, and we should focus our efforts on improving the probes we send out. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel something stir when I think how much of an achievement a colony on Mars would be.

Perhaps Aldrin is right, but would anyone volunteer to leave the planet and never return? I think required reading for any potential Martian is the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, an epic tale of the colonisation of the Red Planet. Even if you’re planning on keeping your feet firmly on the Earth, I highly recommend it.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 October 2008 at 7:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

India’s unmanned moon rocket Chandrayaan 1 was successfully launched today from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of Andhra Pradesh.

Chandrayaan 1 on the launch pad. The name is Sanskrit for 'moon craft'.

It will take about eight days to reach its destination, the Moon. It’s mission: detailed mapping of the lunar surface, and analysis of the distribution of mineral and chemical elements.

The chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Madhavan Nair, called the launch a “historic moment” for India.

“Today what we have charted is a remarkable journey for an Indian spacecraft to go to the moon and try to unravel the mysteries of the Earth’s closest celestial body and its only natural satellite,” Mr Nair said.

The entire mission is expected to cost 3.8bn rupees (£45m), much less than Japanese and Chinese probes sent to the Moon last year. India is keen to keep up with its other space-faring neighbours, leading to an Asian space race in much the same way the US and USSR competed during the Cold War.

The spacecraft will move to increasingly higher orbits in order to get to the Moon.

One objective of the mission is to look for water in the form of ice on or just under the surface of the Moon, particularly at the poles. The presence of water could make a permanent base on the Moon more likely, although such a mission would be far, far into the future.

America, the only nation to have sent men to the Moon, have announced plans for a return in 2019. The Russians also intend to land humans for the first time by 2025, and establish a base by 2027-2032. Whatever happens, it seems that the Moon will be much busier in the coming decades.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 October 2008 at 5:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Now that’s what I call a sticky situation

The world’s longest stick insect has been discovered in the rainforests of Borneo. A member of the species Phobaeticus chani, the specimen measures 56.6cm, beating the previous record holder Phobaeticus serratipes by over a centimetre.

As you might imagine, it looks like a stick.

If you want to check it out for yourself, it will soon go on display in the Creepy Crawlies exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

‘Perfect shower’ is far from it

Yet another “formula for” story, with “scientists” developing a “mathematical formula” for the perfect shower. Apparently “The balance of privacy, pressure, time and temperature in the shower all need to be carefully moderated to create the perfect shower experience.”

The “research” was of course sponsored by someone – surprise surprise, a shower manufacturer. Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis of Mindlab International had some nonsense to spout which I won’t bother repeating here.

You know what the worse thing is? They didn’t even include the bloody “formula” in their press release.

What does space smell like? Steak, apparantly

News about the aroma of space is doing the rounds at the moment. Supposedly NASA have hired fragrance firm Omega Ingredients to recreate the smell of space, to help astronaut training feel more realistic. Right…

Astronauts de-suiting after a space walk have reported “particular odours”, such as fried steak and hot metal. Surprisingly, the Sun is alone in reporting that this is most likely “non-scents”, with Sir PatricK Moore weighing in:

“These odours may have come from astronauts’ suits or spaceships. The vacuum of space is unlikely to have its own scent. It is more likely to be reacting to man-made equipment. There is nothing in space and nothingness cannot really have a smell.

“Boys or girls attempting to go to space because they think there is fried steak flying about might be disappointed.”

That looks pretty hot

And finally, some beautiful pictures of the sun (our star, not the newspaper discussed above, that is), perfect for brightening up any cold autumn morning. Enjoy.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 October 2008 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Space & Astronomy

Today is the 10th of October, or 10/10. The Eames Office has dubbed this “Powers of Ten Day” in honour of Charles and Ray Eames, who in 1977 created a film that allows one to grasp the diverse scales that make up our world, going up in powers of 10 from a picnic to the vastness of space and back down to a single atom in a human hand. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s well worth a watch:

When I watch this I find it amazing that science has allowed us to see so far out into the universe, whilst also giving us the ability to peer right into the basic building blocks of everything around us. It’s both humbling and awe inspiring, communicating many ideas about the world in a clear, engaging, and easy to understand many. No wonder that “over ten million” have viewed the film. It’s something that I think everyone should see, so I hope you watch it and enjoy Powers of Ten Day!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 October 2008 at 11:43 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Better luck next year

Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the highest achievements a scientist can win, but what about the Ig Nobel Prize?

The organisers say they honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – and winners have certainly come up with some of the strangest discoveries in science. This year, the 18th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held last Thursday at Harvard University.

Highlights include Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse who discovered that fleas on a dog can jump higher than those on a cat, and Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Douglas Smith of the University of California who mathematically proved that a heap of string will inevitably tangle into knots. You can view the full list of winners here.

It’s the freakiest show snow

It’s not quite “Life On Mars”, but maybe David Bowie would consider changing the chorus of his classic song – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars. Using a laser sensor from the planet’s surface, the plucky little probe detected snow 4 kilometres above its landing site. Whilst the snow evaporated before hitting the ground, scientists think it might be possible to find signs that snow has reached the surface in the past.

Another experiment that analysed soil samples has also found suggestions of calcium carbonate (which makes up chalk) and possibly, clay. These substances tend to form only in the presence of liquid water here on Earth, giving further evidence that Mars had a “liquid past”.

Could future cars be used for electric storage?

The popularity of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius continues to increase as drivers become more environmentally concious – so much so that the Prius actually goes up in value, as hybrid enthusiasts are prepared to pay over the odds for a second hand car.

Hybrids work by using a traditional petrol-based engine in combination with a recharging battery that captures energy from wasteful actions such as braking, but plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) take this one step further, allowing you to hook up the car to a socket and charge from the National Grid.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a cunning idea to use PHEVs as overnight batteries, storing excess energy in your car whilst you sleep, and then releasing back into the gird when it is needed. Storing electricity until it is needed can often be costly and inefficient for power plants, but using this distributed model would allow the electric companies to keep up their supply without wasting energy. They’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your car’s battery – if the system ever takes off, that is.

Round ‘em up boys – it’s the carbon capturers

Carbon, carbon, carbon. Life as we know it could not exist without carbon, but this poor little element has a bad reputation these days. Really, it’s only when carbon gets together with two of it’s oxygen friends to form carbon dioxide (CO2) that the trouble starts. Now, a team of climate change researchers at the University of Calgary have invented a machine that pluck CO2 straight out of the air.

Although CO2 only makes up around 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is the main contributor to global warming. Removing CO2 molecules from the air would help slow down climate change. The new machine uses less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity to remove one tonne of CO2 from the air, and can capture the equivalent of a US citizen’s average yearly emissions – around 20 tonnes CO2 per annum – on one square metre of scrubbing material. Team leader David Keith is optimistic about the technology’s prospects:

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,”

At the moment, however, the machine is still in its early stages. The current cost of capturing CO2 is too high to make it commercially viable, but work continues on bringing the technique to market.

Tiny pictures, big prizes

You can now vote for your favourite entry in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. Some stunning pictures of the very small have been entered, so I encourage you to take a look. Winners will receive thousands of dollars worth of Nikon photography equipment, and personally I’m going for this strange looking chicken embryo.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 October 2008 at 9:05 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Following on from the LHC rap, postgraduate student Jonathan Chasa (aka Oort Kuiper) has created a rap explaining all about astrobiology, the study of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I have to admit I prefer the LHC rap (indeed, I actually found myself humming it at one point…) but Chasa’s effort is a good one, with lots of scientific language presented in an accessible way. Commissioned by NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine European Edition, the rap was reported on by the BBC and already has over 65,000 views on YouTube. Watch it for yourself:

Which scientific topic will be next for the rap treatment, I wonder?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 September 2008 at 6:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

In “bad thing turns out to be good, but only in small amounts” news

Chocolate lovers rejoice; new research shows that eating 6.7 grams of dark (not milk, sorry Cadburys) chocolate a day could help protect against heart disease. A joint study by the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso and the National Cancer Institute of Milan investigated the link between the levels of C reactive protein in the blood and a persons chocolate intake. The amount of the protein in the body increases during inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease amongst other conditions. The researchers hypothesised that antioxidants in cocoa seeds could help fight inflammation:

“We started from the hypothesis,” says Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study “that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state. Our results have been absolutely encouraging: people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced.”

Unfortunately this isn’t an excuse to pig out just yet: 6.7 grams a day works out to a small square two or three times a week. Sorry!

Turns out, he couldn’t actually see the Great Wall

China conducted its first spacewalk over the weekend, in only the country’s third manned space mission. The honour fell to Zhai Zhigang, who’s words of welcome were broadcast live: “I am here greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world.”

Just three nations have demonstrated the ability to launch people in to space: the US, Russia (and the USSR before it) and China, who first sent a man into space five years ago. It seems that we have the beginning of another space race on our hands, with both China and the US aiming to send manned missions to the Moon by 2020. The last space race, although militaristic in origin, brought with it many technological marvels that still benefit us to this day such as frozen food and GPS tracking systems. Bring it on, I say!


An artist's impression of Dasornis, a gigantic bird which once flew over Britain.

Britain was once home to birds that were nearly the size of a small plane, a newly discovered fossil skull has shown. The species has been known for nearly 150 years, but the skull found on the Isle of Sheppey is one of the best preserved examples of Dasornis. This bird lived 50 million years ago and ith a 16 ft wingspan and a beak full of sharp teeth, it’s slightly more intimidating than its modern-day relatives of ducks and geese.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 26 September 2008 at 9:36 am by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

If you’ve ever been to the Empire State Building, or any other similarly tall structure, you may have found yourself taking a rather long ride in a lift. Imagine then how long riding a lift into space might take. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi nobel, and indeed the concept of a “space elevator” (sorry for the Americanism, but “space lift” just sound a bit naff) was popularised by the great Arthur C. Clarke in his book The Fountains of Paradise.

A space elevator - it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'lift-off'!

Here’s how it works: a satellite is launched into a geostationary orbit at a height of 35,786 km above the Earth’s equator. This orbit is so-named because at this exact height the satellite appears to remain stationary above a fixed point on the surface of the Earth, making it perfect to run a space elevator up to. The main problem is producing a cable strong but light enough to send anything up. Scientists at Japan’s Space Elevator Association believe that they are close to producing such a material, and building a space elevator.

The JESA is holding an international conference in Japan to try and lay out a timetable to construction. They believe that carbon nanotubes could hold the key to making the all-important cable. These special particles are much thinner than they are long, meaning they can be woven to incredibly strong fibres whilst also remaining relatively light.

Yoshio Aoki, director of the JESA and professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University thinks that the cable would need to be four times stronger than current nanotubes, but is confident that this can be achieved since improvements of around 100-fold strength has been made in the past five years.

Carbon nanotubes - one 50,000th the width of a human hair, but several millimetres long

A space elevator would be an amazing sight to behold, and perhaps the greatest ever feat of human ingenuity. Who could not fail to be moved by the sight of a cable reaching from the ground, far into space? Not I, for one. A space elevator would have many other (and more practical) benefits: easy and cheap access to space. Solar-powered generators could bring cheap electricity down to Earth, whilst rocket ships such as the inefficient Space Shuttle could be completely replaced. In their stead, space ships could be built with parts sent up into orbit on the elevator, and then launched from there.

Its all impressive stuff, but can the Japanese pull it off any time soon? I’d love to say yes, but I fear their November conference might be a bit too ambitious. Still, if they can build it, I can’t wait to ride it – even if it does mean hours upon hours of muzak!

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 28 August 2008 at 1:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, makes a good point. The sheer giganticness of the universe is extremely difficult for us to comprehend. I find that even with adequate analogies, my brain still wants to dribble out my ears in protest at just how big it is. Even so I’ll give it a try. Let’s start locally, in our own solar system.

The Earth orbits the sun at an average distance of around 149,598,000 km – a distance known as one astronomical unit, or AU. In comparison, the average circumference of the Earth is just 40,041 km, or 0.0003 AU. Already, the mind boggles. Don’t Panic, as Douglas Adams’ Guide would tell us. We can use a trip to the chemist’s to help us understand.

Imagine we shrink the Earth to a circumference of 1 km. Forget about pesky things like changes in gravity or the question of where all 6.5 billion of us are going to stand – we’re just interested in making a new scale. On one side of our 1 km Earth is your house. On the exact opposite side is the chemist’s – at 500 meters away, it’s about a 5 minutes walk. The orbit of the Earth around the sun is now 3736 km – still pretty big, but we can visualise it. Roughly the same as the journey from New York to Los Angeles on the real Earth, it would take you a little over three and a half weeks to walk there from your house. That’s quite a few trips to the chemist’s.

Suppose the chemist’s decides to open a new branch, on the sun. Maybe head office decided they’d make a killing in the sun cream market, who knows. The trouble is they’ve closed your local branch on the 1 km Earth, and you really can’t be bothered to make the three and a half week trip to the new solar store. You call up head office to complain, and they agree to cut you a deal. They’re still going to open their new branch, but they’ve offered to shrink the solar system for you, so that the Earth is 1 km away from the sun. It’ll be twice the walk you had before, but it’s only ten minutes away so you can’t really grumble.

In other words, we’re now working at a scale of 1 km = 1 AU. The nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centuri, is about 4.2 light years away. A light year is exactly what it sounds like: the distance light will travel in a year. Light is pretty speedy at 300,000 km/s, and takes approximately eight minutes to get from the sun to us on Earth. Even so, Proxima Centuri is going to take you much longer to get to than the chemist’s. It works out that 4.2 light years is just over 265,600 AU, so in our shrunken solar system a walk to Proxima Centuri takes five years.

Time to kick things up a notch. The Andromeda Galaxy, the largest in our Local Group of galaxies, is 2,560,000 light years away. You’ve got some friends there, but you don’t see them very much because in a 1 km = 1 AU universe it takes 3 million years to walk and really, that’s hard to fit in to a day trip.

Thing is, they have some sort of magic communication device that can send messages across the vastness of space in an instance and they keep telling you about this great chemist’s, just round the corner from them. You borrow the magic communication device and call up the chemist’s to explain the situation. They’re very sympathetic, and shrink the universe for you down to 1km = 1,000,000 light years. We’re talking the better part of half an hour’s walk to get there, but it really is a very good chemist’s. Sure, your old chemist’s back on the other side of the Earth is now only a 0.000000000003 seconds away and you could walk there and back 15 million times in literally the blink of an eye, but let’s be honest – you never liked them anyway.

What does the universe look like on our new scale? Our current best estimate of the diameter of the observable universe is 93 billion light years. The observable universe is a subtly different concept to the universe proper. Since nothing can travel faster than light, we can have no knowledge of an object in the universe unless light emitted by it has reached us. The Big Bang, which created the universe, took placed 13.73 billion years ago.

“Hang on a moment,” you cry. “How can light have reached us from 93 billion light years away if there have only ever been 13.73 billion years for it to travel in?” The answer is expansion. The universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, and the space between galaxies and all other objects can expand faster than the speed of light.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. The question that immediatly pops up is “what is the universe expanding into?”, but the truth is that there is nothing to expand into – it just expands. It’s a topic I plan to return to in the future, but for now let’s just stick to our figure of 93 billion light years.

After all this walking to and from various chemist’s, you’re probably pretty hungry. I’m going to steal another Hitchiker’s device, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In the book the restaurant is at the temporal end of the universe, the end of everything, but I’m going to place my restaurant at the edge of the observable universe. Oh, and it’s a chain of restaurants so there is another one on the other side, separated by 93 billion light years. Even on our absolutely massive 1km = 1,000,000 light years scale, it would still take nearly two years to walk from one restaurant to another. That’s certainly a little bit further than a trip to the chemist’s.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 3 August 2008 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I have decided that Sunday’s post will be a roundup of all the links that didn’t quite make the cut during the week. Enjoy.

The NASA Phoenix lander has found water in a soil sample on Mars. Previous probes had observed water-ice, but this is the first time actual water has been analysed by a probe. Apparently the White House has been briefed to expect a more “provocative” announcement than just the discovery of water, but I don’t think we can expect little green men any time soon.

A study of bees could help police hunt serial killers. The thinking is that bees create a “buffer zone” around their hive in which they do not forage for pollen, in order to avoid predators finding their home. Similarly, those who commit a series of murders tend to stay close to home, but not in the immediate area around their house. Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London tagged bees with coloured markers in order to track them as flew around a field of fake flowers filled with artificial nectar. Using “geographic profiling” – a technique used by police to hunt serial killers – they were able to identify the buffer zone and pinpoint the location of the bees nest. The study allowed them to refine the geographic profiling technique, which in turn will allow more accuracy for deceives in the search for a killer

Nearly all Spanish bank notes are contaminated with cocaine. I’d heard this one before (for British bank notes) but I didn’t actually think it was true. Chemists at the University of Valencia found the notes contained an average concentration of 155 microgrammes of cocaine, the highest in Europe. A full study has not been conducted on British notes, but data exists suggesting between 40% and 51% of bank notes are contaminated with 0.0011 microgrammes of cocaine per note.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 31 July 2008 at 9:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

At just past 9am tomorrow morning in the UK, a solar eclipse will begin. Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun. The moon casts a shadow on the Earth as it passes, causing the sun to appear to dim and even vanish momentarily. Unfortunately for those of you in the UK, the eclipse will not be “total” – meaning a complete blackout of the sun – it will be more like 20% coverage, so only a slight dip in light levels.

Total solar eclipse in 1999

To see a total eclipse you would have to be on the “path of totality” -in this case northern Canada, central Russia, western Mongolia, India or China. These lucky countries will experience a moment much like the image above. You can check out the path with this handy Google Map.

A word of caution: as you should know, looking directly at the sun is extremely dangerous, and can damage your eyes. Even during an eclipse this risk is still present, and the safest way to view one is through indirect methods such as pinhole projection. Be safe when observing an eclipse!

On a slightly lighter note, I leave you with this not very scientific, but classic, Jaffa Cake advert:

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 29 July 2008 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Yesterday Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s private spaceflight company, unveiled WhiteKnightTwo, designed to carry the smaller SpaceShipTwo 15.5km above the Earth before flinging it (along with its cargo of six passengers and two pilots) on its journey into space. The new WhiteKnightTwo has been christened “EVE” after Sir Richard’s mother.

WhiteKnightTwo on the tarmac

WhiteKnightTwo is based on the prototype White Knight, which together with SpaceShipOne won a $10mil prize in October 2004 when it was successfully launched to the edge of space, at 100km above the Earth. This success lead to Virgin Galactic commission the spaceship’s designer Burt Rutan to develop WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo with his company Scaled Composites.

WhiteKnightTwo is to begin test flights in the coming months, so it can be ready to carry SpaceShipTwo into the sky. Scaled Composites are nearing completion on the craft and they expect it to join its larger sibling in 2009.

SpaceShipTwo is launched with the aid of WhiteKnightTwo

Around 250 seats have been sold on Virgin Galactic flights so far, at a cost of $200,000. Sir Richard and his family plan to be aboard the maiden voyage which is set to take place in late 2009 to early 2010. Personally I wish them all great success, as going into space has always been a dream for me. I just hope the prices fall to affordable levels in the next few decades!

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