It’s Not Easy Being Green

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April 24, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

I marched for science on Saturday, in Santa Cruz, CA, and it was emboldening and comforting to realize how many Americans realize what the Trump Cabal is doing to hard science and “facts” in this new age of nationalism and greed.  My guesstimate is that there were a good 8,000 people marching through downtown Santa Cruz, from City Hall to San Lorenzo Park, carrying signs and feeling good to be among like-minded folks.  There were Marches for Science in all major cities of the Bay Area in California this weekend.  

If you read the Sandbox regularly, you will be aware of the bludgeoning that scientists and their hard-found facts have taken in this first “100 days” of this white supremacist/pro-corporate Bannon presidency.  Agnett Bonwitt has written a lovely story this week about the chilly reception oil lobbyist and new EPA head Scott Pruitt got in Texas at an Earth Day event.  It was not pretty.  (See the story below!) 

Congressional Republicans are all too eager to assist Trump in trashing and obscuring scientific information from the American people.  Witness how Texan Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Hell), head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is unraveling our 300-year-old scientific process by proposing that the EPA abide by only repeatable scientific results, ruled by a board of Big Oil polluters.  Already Trump – whom we all know is afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder – and Pruitt have frozen all EPA pollution clean-up projects and are hoping to slash the agency’s budget by a third of normal (Not to mention that the EPA was always underfunded in the first place.)  Earth scientists are leaving long-established careers in federal agencies — where they once served the public interest with honesty and accuracy — by the droves.  

And while Earth Day and the March for Science has come and gone, we cannot let it escape our consciousness, nor our political activism.

Galactic Sandbox’s own Kate Woods delivering a poignant message to he-knows-who-he is.

You may have determined by now that I am vociferously clamorous about keeping this planet alive and healthy.  Predictably, I created a sign that read, “They Deny Global Warming, and we say:  Not Today, Mother-F&#*#+%er.”  At least it had a lot of pink glitter on it.  As I was marching with my dear friend Wendy, a refugee amateur astronomer herself now retired from working at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in San Jose, I expected to get arrested at any moment for public profanity and sedition… though there was very little police presence and no police harassment.  Every time someone tapped me on the shoulder I thought, “Here it comes,” but it was always a fellow marcher wanting to snap a photo of the sign!

Pence has a long history of climate change denying.

At this point, I believe our only hope is to elect a pro-environmental, pro-science candidate in 2020.  The Liar-in-Chief very possibly could be impeached before then, but then we are stuck with VP Mike “What, Me Worry?” Pence, who is intentionally ignorant regarding anything scientific.  Next in line is Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan, who wants to jail or drown all poor people, so let’s not even imagine how he feels about other species on this planet.

Tell your representatives you won’t stand for environmental pollution or laws made on hunches that guarantee re-election, not science.  Insist on real science and real facts. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large



On the eve of Earth Day last Friday, comedian Bill Maher poured a bucket of ice water on the recent manifest destiny mantra that Red is now the new green and that we can become Martians while ditching our own home planet. “Everyone has to shut up about Mars and how cool it would be to live there,” Maher groused during the New Rules segment of his weekly Real Time show, as he scolded the Trump administration, gazzillionaire space entrepreneurs, the news media, and even Hollywood for spreading the notion that Mars is”the party planet right next door.” “If we’re going to overhaul a planet,” Maher said, referencing Trump’s proposed budget to scrap Earth observation science and pour $450 billion toward landing humans on Mars by 2033, “let’s do this one.” Maher criticized the recent Mars mania that the Red Planet “is a reasonable planetary back-up” (including human look-alike Elon Musk’s claim that we should be an interplanetary species and colonize Mars with a million people within 50 years) as a “stupid fantasy” and a “dangerous idea that our culture is already too taken with – that we can keep on trashing Earth.”

Before donning a rip-off of Trump’s red topper emblazoned with the turn-of-phase “Make Earth Great Again,” the “politically incorrect” comic had these parting shots:

You want to explore something cold and hard? How about facts – facts that confirm climate change is killing us but completely do-able policies could reverse it. Stop looking for the Goldilocks planet, this is it.

(Editor’s note: While we think Bill Maher is right about fixing the environment on Earth, we feel this should not rule out at the same time an intelligent and sober approach to voyaging to Mars and beyond.)

With Friends Like These…

EPA chief and Trump hatchet man Scott Pruitt, who like some creepy Freddy Kruger stalking a doomed teenager, showed up for Earth Day celebrations in Dallas Saturday where he felt the heat from some disgruntled green celebrants. According to the Dallas Morning News, Pruitt’s “fireside chat-style” event with Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton was interrupted by protestors not feeling the love from the corporate crony who is deep-sixing environmental protections as fast as he can find them. “You’re gutting the EPA!” shouted a man from the crowd, adding “How much have you been paid to do this? You’re a monster!” After the third person who talked down the EPA head was ushered out of the room, Sitton joked with Pruitt, Oklahoma’s former attorney general: “I told you that OU (Oklahoma University)-Texas rivalry was quite intense.” (Yuk, yuk! Someone please pass the beer and tortilla chips!) Pruitt on the other hand, stuck to his script, basically explaining that polluters are the best ones to determine what should be regulated. Accusing previous administrations of continually raising the bar or changing environmental requirements, Pruitt explained his philosophy of taking “the long view,” allowing industry time to innovate methods to meet current standards. “Certainty and a long-term view are key,” he said. “Those who are regulated want to know what’s expected of them.” (Yuk, yuk! Someone please pass the cyanide tablets!)

Long March to Orbit

Artist depiction of fully-completed Tiangong-2 space station, which is designed to operate for 10 years once online in 2022.

China’s first unmanned space taxi successfully docked with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab on Saturday, completing the next major step toward that country having a fully-functioning space station by 2022. According to Zeenews, the Tianzhou-1 cargo craft, which will be tested two additional times, is 10.6 meters long and can carry over six tons of supplies, satellites, and/or experiments. China’s ever-expanding space program currently includes plans to land a  probe on the far side of the moon by 2018, as well as a goal to launch its first Mars probe around 2020, to be followed by a  second mission that would include collecting soil samples on the Red Planet.

Crown Jewel

While the Cassini spacecraft comes closer to its final swan dive into Saturn this September, the venerable probe continues to take spectacular pix of the planet’s icy ring system and moons, as well as a recent shot of our own pale blue dot 870 million miles away. According to NASA, while too small to be visible in the image, the part of Earth facing Cassini on April 12 was the southern Atlantic Ocean. (To the right is a cropped, zoomed-in version of the photo with our Moon just visible to the left.

Kiwis in Space

While the US is nonchalantly staring down a potential government shutdown this week, New Zealand lawmakers are busy zipping through new legislation that will define that country’s future commercial space activities. “Space launches are a new activity for New Zealand, and it’s important that we provide a regulatory framework that allows companies to operate safely and securely, while encouraging innovation and industry development,” Economic Development Minister Simon Bridges told the Scoop Independent News. The “Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Bill” — expected to be passed late this year — will cover a wide range of endeavors that include celestial as well as terrestrial research. “New Zealand’s interests in space extend beyond rocket launches and we have the potential to be a niche player in other parts of the industry such as space research, materials development and testing, weather and atmospheric research,” Mr. Bridges said, adding that “New Zealand has advantages that make it an attractive location for space launches – clear seas and skies, access to valuable launch angles for rocket launchers, a skilled workforce, and an innovation friendly business environment.”

Welcome Wagon

Taking a swipe at the Trump administration’s recent attempts at a travel ban covering several Muslim nations as well as its aggressive illegal alien deportation campaign, an editorial last week in the Lansing (Michigan) Star titled, “Don’t Deport Aliens (From Outer Space)” muses over the latest discoveries of potential Earth-like planets and how we would treat hypothetical “aliens” visiting us from these (cosmically) close star systems.  “The chances of encountering aliens from outer space are fairly low.,” writes the author of the piece who adds, “If aliens ever do make it to Earth I hope we’ll treat them better than we are currently treating the Terran variety.  After a trip that long the only polite thing to do is to offer them a drink.  And maybe a doughnut.  Because deporting someone back to their home planet 54,000 years away is just plain rude.”


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Hell or High Water

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April 17, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

 The Bigly Picture

Life always finds a way.  You know that feeling you get when you are walking along a cement sidewalk and suddenly you see an improbable lone weed or flower sprouting through a tiny crack in the unforgiving concrete, and you say to yourself, “Against all odds, life perseveres.”  Well, we collectively had one of those moments last Thursday when NASA made a big deal announcement that Saturn’s moon Enceladus harbors the recipe for microbial life.

This “watershed” data was gleaned from the wondrous Cassini spacecraft, doomed to die this September when its handlers steer it to a swan dive into the clouds above Saturn, Enceladus’ mother gaseous planet.  Scientists say that’s better than crashing it into the exotic satellite or any other of Saturn’s watery moons since it is quite possible now that one or some of them may contain some form of life; it’s the NASA version of Star Trek’s “prime directive” tenet of non-interference with the evolution of other life forms of other worlds. 

According to NASA, Cassini discovered geysers spouting ice and gas on the tiny moon’s south pole in 2005, and when scientists went in for a closer look in 2015 they made the probe fly through one of these geysers.  It turns out a key component of the jets is molecular hydrogen – a sure sign of hydrothermal activity.  Saturn may be far from our Sun, and Enceladus is a frozen salt water world with an ice shell 19 to 25 miles thick, but the core of the moon is heated by the gravitational pull of the great ringed planet.


Dr. Frank Drake

Artist rendition of possible Roswell UFO crash.

I will never forget a conversation I had 20 years ago with Dr. Frank Drake, father of the Drake Equation (that measures how many intelligent civilizations there are in our galaxy alone) and founder of the SETI Institute in Mountain View CA, (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio waves).  If it sounds like I am name-dropping, it’s because I am.  We were both bemoaning the government’s latest “explanation” on the Roswell Alien Craft Flap of 1947 – now the “aliens” everyone saw were supposed to be crash test dummies dropped from the exosphere from Mogul weather balloons — except that the brass did not start using the dummies until 1952 so they were five years off, and gee, would anyone notice the discrepancy?  Over lunch, we both had steam coming out of our ears:  Drake, because he was disgusted by the government’s imbecilic explanations of what he did not believe was an alien craft crash, and I, because I wanted to believe the aliens had really crashed and the government was giving yet another lame, insulting account of what really did not happen.  (Click here for The History Channel’s version of Roswell and here for The Roswell Museum’s version)

This deep ocean worm (Nereis sandersi) lives off the minerals from hydrothermal vents.

However, the upshot was we both knew unequivocally that life is more probable on planets where there is water, rather than just possible.  We talked about the then newly discovered super hot ocean thermal vents that give birth to microbial life, which feed more critters on up the food chain ladder; how microbes have been found to thrive in the deep freeze permafrost (which is now melting) of both poles; and in the intricate depths of caves that have not seen sunlight for millions of years.  

In the case of Enceladus, the hot water from its ocean floors has a further jump on all the ingredients needed to form basic life, through something called serpenitinization. The iron-rich rock of those sea floors reacts with the moon’s hot water to form that molecular hydrogen, the element that indicates life can find a way.  After the Hubble Telescope took pix of Jupiter’s moon Europa, scientists are hoping the same hypothesis for life may be true for that moon – which is much older than Enceladus and therefore could have more advanced, evolved life in its ice-covered oceans – and for so many of the other moons orbiting the two big “gas” planets.

But don’t look to the Trump Cabal to understand the importance of this…for that matter, the importance of anything that doesn’t have to do directly with the Liar-In-Chief or that isn’t gilded.  NASA has slated the Europa Clipper mission for the late 2020s to explore more about the geysers on Europa, and in 2016 Congress approved a landing component to the mission to examine the oceans beneath Europa’s icy surface.  But, predictably,  the Trump team wants to cut the lander (along with many Earth monitoring sats and missions) from NASA’s budget.  The Verge and Eric Berger of Ars Technica publications give us hope: 

While Trump’s budget request doesn’t provide any funding for the lander, chances are the project isn’t dead yet. The Europa lander has been a personal pet project of John Culberson (R-TX), who is in a prime position to bring the mission back. He’s the chairman of the US House Appropriations Subcommittee that’s responsible for coming up with the budget for NASA. And since Congress has the final say in how NASA gets funded, it seems pretty likely that Culberson will bring the lander back from the dead.

There’s nothing like vanity when it comes to assuaging Republican ego, so get your emails ready to solicit Culberson to do his job.

This next Saturday is the Big One, folks.  Put on yer pink knitted brain caps and March for Science!  – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


High Time

Taking former First Lady Michelle Obama’s admonition to “go high” when others “go low” hasn’t stopped the Autonomous Space Agency Network (ASAN) from also hitting below the belt when it comes to Donald Trump. In staging the first-ever cosmic political protest, the Phoenix-based independent group of grass roots space exploration programs launched a printed tweet via a high-altitude weather balloon containing the partial quote of the late Moon-walker Edgar Mitchell, who wanted to take politicians by the scuff of their neck and drag them out in space to view the beauty of our planet, and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.” Unfortunately, we don’t expect the Baby Bomber-in-Chief to quit playing cowboys and indians long enough to take in such a highbrow message.

Passing Through

Here we go again.  On April 19th the asteroid 2014 JO25 – 60 times bigger than the one that exploded in the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February, 2013 – will come its closest to Earth in 400 years and might be visible in the night sky. Still, the 2,000-foot wide asteroid will be 1.1 million miles away.  But scientists make the point that cutting key projects like the Asteroid Redirect Mission from NASA’s budget do nothing to help our understanding in how to avoid the planet killers in the future.  2014 JO25 was first discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona in May 2014 and is listed as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid by the Minor Planet Center.  It may be visible in the night sky with amateur telescopes for 18 minutes starting at 3:40 AM Central Time. For more details on how to spot it, read EarthSky. Also click here to view a video of the cosmic wanderer.

Eight Days a Week

Flush from the success of SpaceX’s first-ever launch of a recycled Falcon-9 booster, company head Elon Musk tweeted recently that his firm’s next goal is to promise a 24-turnaround using the same reclaimed rocket, ultimately lowering the cost of in-orbit deliveries by 30 percent. Echoing Musk’s new line in the sand, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted before last month’s historic reclaimed rocket mission that “We’re really looking for true operational reusability, like an aircraft, An aircraft lands, goes to the gate, passengers come off, passengers go on, you refuel, and then you fly again. What we’re looking to do is exactly that. We land and relaunch on the same day.” Eventually, the commercial venture wants to make space travel to Mars as ho-hum as a trip to Dubuque, Iowa, with an “Interplanetary Transit System” bustling with streamlined spaceliners ferrying wide-eyed “colonists” from the Earth to the Red Planet.

Stranger Than Fiction

NASA just funded 15 wild ideas, some which seem ripped from some of our favorite science fiction stories. From artificial gravity devices, to the concept of terra-forming Mars with benevolent bioengineered microbes, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts or NIAC program doled out $125,000 in grants to each of the 15 winners, and will help another seven inventors in Phase 2 of the program with an additional $500,000 each to develop their concepts.  Some of the other concepts funded by NIAC include, as “Midnight in the Desert” put it, “a swarm of robotic spacecraft to pick apart asteroids, a method for growing food in Martian soil, two fusion projects, a JPL study on interstellar propulsion techniques, [and] a system to physically tether spacecraft to Mars’ moon Phobos.”  That last one we’d like to see, considering the many “inexplicable” problems that Martian moon has caused humans. 

Jet Lag

A new report from NASA”s Office of Inspector General has dampened the hopes that the space agency will get its next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) off the ground by late next year because of insufficient funds to cover unexpected technical glitches and general high costs. Currently, NASA has penned in an uncrewed flight around the Moon in late 2018 and a human mission to our nearest celestial neighbor no later that 2021;  however, there are still various moving targets that could cause setbacks including software development delays and the possibility that the space agency, under pressure from the Trump administration will change its first trip to the Moon to include humans aboard the Orion space capsule.

Night Lights

NASA Earth Scientist Miguel Román and his team have devised a way to create composite night photos of the Earth from space sats while eradicating light from the Moon phases, snow, ice cover, clouds and atmospheric emissions. The results are stunning, and can give one pause on how humans are shaping – and altering – this planet.

Free to a Good Home

Just in time for this year’s Earth Day this Saturday, NASA has placed our home planet up for adoption.  And it’s not just the agency’s way of participating in the annual environmental and climate literacy celebration – NASA is saying Earth needs some responsible parents, because the current “leaders” are complete assholes when it comes to protecting it.  The agency has sectioned the planet into 64,000 segments and set up a “virtual adoption agency”  wherein participants are assigned a a 55-mile wide section of the Earth to monitor.  There is nothing legal about it, no deeds or rules, but rather, it is to make people realize how precious this pale blue dot is.  And boy, we need some stewardship now more than ever.  Scientists this week are claiming that the Great barrier Reef is now terminal, and some journalists are writing its obituary:  “The Great Barrier Reef: Dead at 25 Million Years Old.”  Another disheartening story:  A land mass the size of India in northern Norway, peat mounds that were permafrosted since humans started walking this orb, has officially thawed.

Galactic Sandbox is the proud “steward of a section of the Southern China Sea southeast of Australia, and you can check it out here.

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Dazzled and Confused

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April 10, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

Science or Bust

After our two-week hiatus, we’re back!  And boy, are we pig-biting mad over the war against science the Trump regime continues to lob upon this nation.  This is glaringly evident by the absence of people, any people, save ONE, wandering the halls of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in DC, also known as the OSTP. 

Shaken and Stirred: The lone peanut rattling around the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy office is Peter Thiel’s former chief of staff and James Bond wannabe Michael Kratsios.

Normally, there are 24 scientists staffing this important office, tasked with advising the president on all matters regarding science issues, and providing expertise on federal research budgets, emerging trends and technical crises.  President Obama had this building staffed weeks before his first inauguration, and relied on it appropriately during the world Ebola outbreak, the BP oil spill catastrophe, and the Fukishima nuclear ocean (and everything else) pollution calamity.  But so far, Trump has hired only one guy to staff the building, a lobbyist who sports a bachelor’s degree in political science: Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and one of Trump’s wealthiest supporters, as the deputy chief technology officer.  How’s that for  “pay to play?” The building is a ghost town – or ghost swamp, if you will.  

And now there is talk of gutting this office altogether in Washington.  Naturally, Republicans are saying that the OSTP is a “bloated bureaucracy,” that it is redundant to other agencies.  Really?  Which agencies?  Certainly they can not mean the now useless and neutered Environmental Protection Agency, which President Bannon wants to cut by 31 percent.  Or did they mean the National Institutes of Health, which our president-child wants lacerated by 18 percent?  Then they must have been talking about the Energy Department’s Office of Science (which does the basic research at many national labs), which the Trump Administration wants scalped by 20 percent.

No wait!  Further good news, Republicans:  Bannon/Trump just revised its/their request to cut another $90 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a further $50 million from NASA. Could there be redundancies be in these two stunted scientific organizations? Utterly retarded!

We have heard news reports on how the Trump/Bannon Beast seems disturbingly yet cavalierly disinterested in filling some 900 national positions from federal judge-ships to button-pushers in nuclear guardhouses, and you have to wonder why Bannon, er, Trump is so intent on crippling the functionality of the country.  Among those empty posts are 40 top government science positions, including that of presidential science adviser. The ramifications of stifling knowledge, indeed, of ignoring science reality will cobble the U.S. competitively. Worse, it will cost lives.

Trump’s sum total idea of paying homage to science is to re-establish the failed National Space Council, and just about all space cadets from aficionados to astronauts have wildly varying opinions on that one.  Of course, no word yet on who would be filling the “council” positions.  But here’s the kicker: It seems he has given the job of rebuilding and presiding over the old toothless bureaucracy to….Ta Da!…that moron from Indiana, that out-of-the-looper chief funeral-attender picked to make Trump more fetching to old guard crusty conservatives, our Vice President Mike “He Lied to Me!” Pence.  Now that’s beyond retardation.  

I could say a lot more about the onslaught of hideous anti-science news I have had to choke down these past few weeks, but if I continued, my head would blow off.  So again, I must leave you on this note of hope:  Send a message to the imbeciles running the White House on April 22.  March for Science and march for Earth Day. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


Exit, Stage Right!

Renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking told an interviewer on the  “Good Morning Britain” show that there seems to be no place for him in Trump’s America.  He also revealed that he accepted Virgin Galactic boss Richard Branson’s 2015 invitation to fly free into space as a tourist.  “I thought no one would take me, but Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately,” said the famous black hole brainiac.  No date yet on when the SpaceShipTwo might make that flight, but the 75-year-old Hawking, who has long suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), reiterated he has already completed his first weightless test in a parabolic jet flight – known as the “Vomit Comet.”  

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo

When asked to explain how Trump could have ever risen to take the American presidency, Hawking said, “I can’t.  He’s a demagogue who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.”

Hawking also had some choice words about EPA “bomber” and climate-denier Scott Pruitt, chosen by der Trumpenfuhrer to head the agency a month ago.  Hawking said he wanted to tell Trump that Pruitt (who illegally lobbied for the dirty energy industry while he was Attorney General of Oklahoma) should be replaced as the EPA chief, adding that “climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent.”  All hail Hawking!  

Juno Jubilee

You may have already taken a gander at the Juno spacecraft’s latest gobsmacking photos of Jupiter, but in case you missed them, be prepared to have your socks blown off.  The Juno craft entered Jupiter’s orbit in July of 2016 after a five-year journey, and all we can say is that these ain’t yer daddy’s Jupiter pix! 

[NASA has posted the raw images from its JunoCam on the internet, and invited the public to add their own color enhancements, or crop them to highlight a particular feature of the atmosphere.

Four-Minute Hayride

Wielding a microphone, flanked by his New Shepard rocket and a new prototype of his Blue Origins space capsule, space entrepreneur and Amazon king Jeff Bezos gave his audience quite the show last Wednesday at the Space Symposium held in Colorado Springs, CO.  The big deal this time was a peek into the interior of that capsule, which Bezos says will be flying space tourists 62 miles up into sub-orbit – possibly within a year…or more.  Inside the capsule, the six seats look comfortable, the walls are padded and handles sprout everywhere to enable Bezos’ tourists to fly around with glee while soaking in the greatest view so far known to humans.  That’s exactly four minutes of glee, which is how long the passengers will be in zero-gravity before descending back to Earth. 

The remarkable part of Bezos’ spiel was how he almost flippantly described the preparation for such flights, that is, for the riders.  The flights would require a scant minimal of training, ten minutes worth, then the passengers would board the capsule some 30 minutes before blast-off.  A minute or so later, the booster would separate from the capsule, the tourists would unbuckle, float around for four minutes, buckle back up, experience 5 Gs (five times the amount of normal gravity) for a few moments and touchdown at 2 miles per hour.

Bezos declined to say how much his space rides will cost, but Virgin Galactic (the company that will be taking Stephen Hawking up when they get off the ground) is charging $250,000 per passenger, so whether Blue Origins will try to undercut that is anyone’s guess.

Bursting Upon the Scene

Curious radio bursts of potential alien origin were first snagged by the Parker telescope in 2007.

Astronomers in Australia using their newly spiffed-up Molonglo telescope have confirmed that a series of puzzling radio bursts that have been detected as far back as 2007 are in fact not of this Earth. In order to eliminate the possibility that the mysterious signals weren’t caused by researchers microwaving their TV dinners, scientists spent two years overhauling the Molonglo radio telescope located near Canberra, adding features such as enabling the 194,000 spare foot instrument to collect multiple beams at once, allowing scientists to distinguish the difference between local interference and genuine pulses from outer space. “Because of the telescope’s characteristics, we’re a hundred per cent sure the bursts came from space,” said researcher Manish Caleb, who works at Swinburne University. The next challenge, he added, was to pinpoint where the signals are coming from. So far, about 20 similar bursts have been picked up by telescopes around the world.

Your Mother …

Neil Degrasse Tyson takes “you first” position on commercial trip to Mars.

Leading cosmologist and science populist Neil Degrasse Tyson rained on Elon Musk’s “hop on the Mars bandwagon” parade recently when asked if he would take the Space X challenge and venture to the Red Planet aboard the commercial firm’s home-brewed spacecraft. “I really like Earth,” Tyson wrote on Reddit. “So any space trip I take, I’m double checking that there’s sufficient funds for me to return. Also, I’m not taking that trip until Elon Musk sends his mother and brings her back alive. Then I’m good for it.”  Last year Musk unveiled plans for an “Interplanetary Transport System” that would blast 100 Martian “colonists” on a three-month voyage to the Red Planet atop a gianormous rocket made with as-of-yet unproven and untested technology. Your move, Mom.

Photo Bomb

Cosmologists are giddy over the scheduled trial run next month of a bold plan that eventually will use a battery of radio telescopes located around the globe to compile a first-ever photo of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way. According to Nature, the “virtual,” worldwide-based Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) will use the observing power 1,000 times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope to produce the rarest of all cosmic portraits that also will include a pic of a gianormous gravity well in the more distant galaxy, M87. While all the techno-wizadry is impressive, astronomers will still need cloud-free skies at eight locations around the Earth once a year for a two-week observation window. “Everything has to be just right,” says EHT director Sheperd Doeleman, an astrophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After that, scientists will have to pour over almost 30 petabytes (1 petabyte  = 1,000 terabytes) of data to render the exotic snapshot. Even with a few, blurry rudimentary pix, researchers could usher in a new era of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology.

A Better Mouse Trap

Move over SETI, and make room for a new way to hunt for E.T. – not by seeking their radio signals, but through their expended gasses.  Caltech’s Exoplanet Technology Laboratory are closing in on a new technique that looks at “biosignatures” on exoplanets to determine if any signs of life are home.

By combining “high-dispersion coronagraphy” with high-resolution spectrometry, scientists will be able to zoom in on places like the newly discovered Trappist-1 system 40 light-years away to see what the seven new worlds’ atmospheres and terrains are made of.   Planetary scientists will distinguish, with colors, bio fingerprints of life such as photosynthesis, oxygen and methane gasses that could belay signs of organic matter, but combining the two techniques improves the sensitivity of the method 100 to 1,000 times greater.  CalTech astronomy professor Dimitri Mawet and his team propose using the new combo technique in the gigantic Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), now under construction in Hawaii.  When finished in the late 2020s, the TMT will be the largest optical telescope on Earth.  And remember!  Three of the Trappist-1 planets are located in what is known as the habitable zone of their small “ultra cool dwarf” (and thereby much longer-lasting) star.  

Data Minor

Real life Johnny Quest, Miles Soloman.

Uh, how would you like your eggs, NASA?  Served half-baked or on the face?  A 17-year-old British high-schooler saved the agency’s ass recently when its outreach educational program called TimPix actually yielded results.  The program allows UK students to sift through International Space Station radiation data during Brit astronaut Tim Peakes six-month stay on the station, to look for anomalies and patterns.   Student Miles Soloman actually found just such an anomaly and pattern in the station’s radiation sensors, which regularly spat out negative radiation readings – an impossibility – which Miles recognized as bogus.  NASA thought the faulty info was occurring once or twice a year, but Miles caught it happening several times a day.

Thanks Miles!

Miles and his instructor emailed NASA immediately with the findings, to which physicist Lawrence Pinsky from the University of Houston – collaborating on the radiation monitoring project on the ISS – said, “It was appreciated more so than being embarrassing.” Hmmm.  One thing is for sure.  NASA sure knows how to get free analyzed data from its fans.  Nice work, if you can get it!


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