Alone Together

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December 19, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Friend or UFOe

Warning – do not adjust your Tin Foil Hat!  In an uncharacteristic show of candor, the U.S. Department of Defense fessed up to the existence of a five-year, multimillion-dollar program dedicated to investigating “unidentified aerial phenomena” (i.e, UFOs) spotted by pilots and military personnel, according to reports published nearly simultaneously by the New York Times and Politico last week. Dubbed the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP), the unclassified but highly hush-hush operation that officially “ended” in 2012 was the brainchild of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and late Senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK), who along with Reid were concerned, not that we were being visited by beings from another world, but rather that other nations were developing high-tech super toys that could pose a security threat to the U.S.

Billionaire commercial space entrepreneur and UFO enthusiast Bob Bigelow.

That said, a significant influence on Reid who pushed for the now mothballed program was pal and fellow Nevadian Bob Bigelow, who owns space technology and government contractor Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow, whose firm ultimately received some of the research contracts from the effort, is well known for his outspoken views in which he believes extraterrestrial visitors have frequently travelled to Earth.

While the AATIP program was fiscally shut down in 2012, it recently garnered attention because of the resignation this past October of the career intelligence officer who directed the initiative. According to Politico, in his resignation letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis, Luis Elizondo complained that the AATIP effort was not being taken seriously by the Pentagon.

Former AATIP head Luis Elizondo.

“We tried to work within the system,” Elizondo told Politico recently. “We were trying to take the voodoo out of voodoo science.”

Elizondo described scores of sightings by Navy pilots and others of strange aircraft with capacities way beyond what is currently regarded to be aerodynamically possible. According to Elizondo, these super-craft were often spotted near nuclear facilities, ships at sea, or power plants. “We had never seen anything like it.”

But, in Elizondo’s view, no one in authority seem particularly alarmed.”If a Russian ‘Bear’ bomber comes in near California, it is all over the news,” he said. “These are coming in the skies over our facilities. Nothing but crickets.”

Elizondo, who is now involved in the for-profit company called To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences that claims “there is sufficient credible evidence of UAP [unidentified aerial phenomenon] that proves exotic technologies exist that could revolutionize the human experience,” released previously-classified 2004 footage recorded from the cockpit of a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet in which the pilots can be heard marveling at a wingless object as it seemed to violate the laws of physics.

“I can tell you, I think it was not from this world,” one of the pilots, retired Cmdr. David Fravor, told ABC News this week. “I’m not crazy, haven’t been drinking. It was — after 18 years of flying, I’ve seen pretty much about everything that I can see in that realm, and this was nothing close.” “I have never seen anything in my life, in my history of flying that has the performance [and] acceleration,” added Fravor, who witnessed seeing the 40-foot-long wingless “white Tic Tac” that flew at incredible speeds in an erratic pattern.

“No aircraft that we know of can fly at those speeds, maneuver like that and looks like that,” ABC News contributor and former Marine Col. Stephen Ganyard commented.

Fravor offers no rational explanation for what he and his co-pilot saw that day. “I don’t know if it was alien life, but I will say that in an infinite universe, with multiple galaxies that we know of, that if we’re the only planet with life, it’s a pretty lonely universe.”

Not surprisingly, the military brass decided not to investigate the incident. As our dear friend and colleague Kate Woods would say – “Utterly putrid!”

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Short Bursts

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Road Trip

Hi-tech empresario and human mimic Elon Musk had tongues wagging again late last week after tweeting that he plans to blast one of his Tesla cherry red Roadsters atop the first  launch of Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket early next year.

“Falcon Heavy to launch next month from Apollo 11 pad at the Cape. Will have double thrust of next largest rocket. Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,” Musk tweeted on Friday, adding the kicker, “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing [David Bowie’s] Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”

While Musk is known as a practical joker, his commercial space company has a history of sending eyebrow-raising choice of payloads aboard its maiden voyages. Although it is most likely the sacrificial coupe will end up in flaming midnight-cherry pieces rather than anywhere near the Red Planet.

Once fully-operational, SpaceX plans to use its powerful new booster for some lofty goals,  including flying two paying customers around the moon as early as next year.

Blast from the Past

NASA announced last week that it successfully fired up a set of backup thrusters aboard the interstellar-traveling Voyager 1 spacecraft last Wednesday – just 37 years since they were last used.  “With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years … we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Every so often the probe – now more than 13 billion miles from Earth – relies on tiny, millisecond-long pulses or “puffs” from its main attitude control thrusters to ensure the craft’s antenna is pointed towards our planet.

However, since 2014, NASA engineers noticed that the primary boosters had been degrading, so after putting a few heads together, the space agency decided to give the orientation job to the mothballed thruster set that had been dormant since 1980. “The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” said Jones, chief engineer at JPL. Following the successful thruster firings, NASA plans to switch to the backup boosters in January. In fact, Voyager 1’s backup thrusters performed so well, the JPL team is expected to perform a similar test on the craft’s twin, Voyager 2, which is expected to enter interstellar space within the next few years.

Thrice in a Blue Moon

Photo: Agnett Bonwitt.

Last night’s  full moon was the first of three consecutive “supermoons” that will include an “extra-special” celestial show on January 31, 2018 featuring a total lunar eclipse visible from western North America, the Pacific, and Eastern Asia. The next “supermoon” will occur New Years Day, followed by a “blue moon”  happening January 31, which is also the night of the lunar eclipse. These full moons, occurring when our satellite is at it closest orbital point to the Earth (called perigee),  appear up to 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than when the moon is at its furthest point from our planet (apogee).

Superm*n

Many thanks to Randall Monroe, xkcd.

Worth a Thousand Words

NASA’s Juno spacecraft snapped the above spectacular pix on October 24th, the top image capturing a cloud system in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere when the probe was a mere 11,747 miles above the swirling gases, while the lower photo taken of the gas giant’s southern hemisphere when Juno was 20,577 miles from the planet. “Citizen scientists” Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran processed both photos using data from the JunoCam imager.

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Loud and Clear

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Under the Rainbow

As Donald Trump spouted his “America First” trade rhetoric to gatherings of gleefully unimpressed representatives of Asia-Pacific nations earlier this month, one could sense a not-so-subtle diminution of America’s mojo as leader of the global pack as China challenges our perennial alpha dog status. And while Trump closes his eyes, clicks his heels three times and recites, “There’s no place like home,” most of the rest of the world is racing to cooperate in an increasingly tech-connected and environmentally-marred world.

This paradigm shift includes humanity’s endeavors to understand and explore the cosmos, as a recent Atlantic article about China’s spanking-new, state-of-the-art, alien-searching radio telescope illustrates. The 1,650-foot-wide “Tianyan” dish, the first such instrument built specifically for eavesdropping on extraterrestrial civilizations (as well as possibly snooping on other countries’ military satellites), showcases China’s intellectual gusto and political will to jump into the unknown head first, while our own leaders abandoned the original SETI program a quarter of a century ago, declaring “the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.”

China’s ginormous “Tianyan” radio telescope dish located in Guizhou, the country’s most remote province. Despite lack of official U.S. funding, the scientific world is experiencing a SETI renaissance, with global players such as Russian billionaire Yuri Milner pouring $100 million of his own cash into a new SETI program led by scientists at UC Berkeley who perform more sky scans in a single day than what took years to do just a decade ago. Andrew Siemion, the leader of Milner’s SETI team, who has coordinated efforts in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa (and now China), has called the Tianyan instrument the world’s most finely-tuned telescope in the part of the radio spectrum that is “classically considered to be the most probable place for an extraterrestrial transmitter.”

China’s cosmic bugging device also embodies that country’s transition from a focus on applied sciences such as building the world’s fastest supercomputer, to fundamental sciences that includes constructing an atom smasher that will “conjure thousands of ‘god particles’ out of the ether,'” making Cern’s Large Hadron Collider look like a technological has-been. And of course the “Celestial Kingdom” has it eyes on this century’s ultimate photo-op: landing astronauts on Mars.

So while our “Prosimian-in-chief” and his neo-Nazi buddies are busy channelling the status quo from a time when America wasn’t so great, others in the US chain of command are starting to panic a bit regarding our stature as a cosmic superpower. For instance, a couple of weeks ago Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast expressed concern that China is bearing down on our rear view mirror when it comes to leadership in space, at least militarily. “In my best military judgment, China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey,” Kwast told CNBC. Kwast, who authored a recent study called “Fast Space” in which he stresses that public-private partnerships must be the nation’s focus, not an “an Air Force in space” is obviously also focused on national security matters.

China and Europe are looking to establish a lunar base without the cooperation of NASA.

Militaries will soon operate between the Earth and moon, said Kwast, adding that “China is working on building a ‘navy in space'” that would work even beyond Earth’s gravity. However, China is the not the prime threat that’s keeping him awake at night. North Korea, with its continued missile testing, is “a real problem,” Kwast warned, adding that “Right now, if North Korea were to launch a missile into space and detonate an electromagnetic pulse, it would take out our eyes in space.”

The problem facing Kwast, as well a host of other more grounded bureaucrats and policy experts, is that they are paddling upstream against the most scientifically-bereft administration in perhaps the past 80 years. And as anyone with a modicum of intelligence tries to deliver the message, “Donald, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” all they get back are the lumbering strains of “If I Only Had a Brain.”

 

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Outside the Box

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October 23, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Ripple EffectIn what is being hailed as a new era of astronomy by an army of cosmologists, scientists for the first time have directly detected both gravitational waves and energy covering most of the electromagnetic spectrum of the same cosmic event – the “spectacular collision” of two neutron stars. Scientific dividends from the discovery are still pouring in; however brainiacs are already gushing how this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon has increased their understanding of the nature of short gamma ray bursts, as well as given them the clearest explanation to date on how heavy metals are produced in the universe.

Gravitational waves and then gamma ray bursts were detected for the first time on August 17, 2017 in what is called a “kilonova,” or the merging of two super dense neutron stars.

The sighting was also a huge feather in the cap of the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the European-based Virgo detector, as well as a gaggle of 70 ground- and space-based observatories that joined in an unprecedented opportunity of global collaboration.

“It is tremendously exciting to experience a rare event that transforms our understanding of the workings of the universe,” says France A. Córdova, director of the National ScienceFoundation (NSF), which funds LIGO.

Size of neutron star compared with Chicago skyline

According to the LIGO-Virgo results published last week in the journal Physical Review Letters; on August 17th this year, two identical LIGO detectors, located
in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, in addition to the Virgo detector situated near Pisa, Italy, picked up the gravitational waves – or ripples in spacetime – caused by the cosmic smashup of two tiny, super-dense neutron stars (dubbed GW170817)  that occurred 130 million years ago in the elliptical galaxy NCG 4993  that many light years from Earth (a neutron star, which is generally only 12 miles in diameter, is so compact that a teaspoon of its material has a mass of about a billion tons).

Neutron star death-spiral.

As these neutron stars corkscrewed together, they belched out gravitational waves lasting 100 seconds, followed by a flash of gamma rays two seconds later. According to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, in the following days and weeks, other forms of electromagnetic radiation — including X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves — were also spotted.

The recently-observed  kilonova is believed to have created roughly 50 Earth masses’ worth of silver, 100 Earth masses of gold, and 500 Earth masses of platinum in just one second.

In additional to what is the astronomical equivalent of having snatched a great white whale, what has made all these researchers giddy is that having the unparalleled opportunity to view two colliding neutron stars has provided them the key to unlock some of the nagging mysteries of the universe.  For instance, observations made by the U.S. Gemini Observatory, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed “signatures of recently synthesized material,”  including gold and platinum (worth approximately 100 octillion dollars in today’s market prices), solving a longstanding conundrum of where about half of all elements heavier than iron are produced. In addition the European Space Agency’s gamma-ray observatory INTEGRAL, was able to confirm that at least some short gamma-ray bursts are spawned by the mingling of neutron stars — something that was only theorized before.

“From informing detailed models of the inner workings of neutron stars and the emissions they produce, to more fundamental physics such as general relativity, this event is just so rich. It is a gift that will keep on giving,” said David
Shoemaker, spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and senior research
scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Many thanks, Randall Munroe, xkcd.

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Down the Tubes

Japanese scientists found a huge underground volcanic cavern potentially several kilometers in length — and at least one kilometer in height and width – near the Moon’s Marius Hills “Skylight.”

A massive network of lava tubes found beneath the Moon’s surface could be large enough to accommodate a lunar colony the size of several large Earth cities, according to a study by Japanese astronomers published last week in the science journal Geophysical Research Letters.  In fact, a mammoth open lava tube, found in the Moon’s Marius Hills region, could provide a ready-made shield against human-killing space radiation say researchers from the Japanese space agency JAXA (take note NASA scientists who are dreaming of creating Frankenastronauts to make them impervious to electromagnetic energy found in deep space). “It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base,” says Junichi Haruyama of JAXA that operates the Japanese lunar orbiter SELENE, which along with NASA’s GRAIL gravitational field mission, was designed to find the underground volcanic lunar structures. According to the scientists who are looking for additional smaller lava conduits, the recently-discovered tunnel will need to be mapped and scanned by a future robotic probe mission to accurately determine its size and condition.

Dawn of New Days

Ready for my close-up. Hi-res pic of Ceres released by NASA late last month.

Fans of the dwarf planet Ceres have a renewed season of scientific binging to look forward to now that NASA has given the green light for a second extension of the Dawn  mission currently parked in orbit around the largest – and enigmatic – asteroid between Jupiter and Mars. According to NASA, the Dawn probe, which has been circling around Ceres since March 2015, will be placed in a new elliptical orbit that could take the spacecraft just 120 miles from the orb’s surface – about half the distance of the closest encounter to date. In fact the spacecraft is expected to remain in its final, stable orbit indefinitely after the newest scientific investigation ends and its hydrazine fuel runs out. In addition to its extended imaging and mapping studies, the probe will be online as Ceres reaches its closest approach to the Sun (or perihelion) in April 2018 at which time a significant portion of ice on Ceres’ surface may turn to water vapor, and create a thin atmosphere similar to one detected by European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory before Dawn’s arrival a few years ago.

Up to Speed

While NASA held a PR party last week to show off the test of its old-school, heavy-lifting RS-25 rocket engines that are planned to someday power the space agency’s SLS rocket designed to launch humans to Mars, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan working with NASA unveiled a new ion-based “X3” thruster capable of propelling spacecraft eight times the speeds of chemical-propulsion rockets. “You can think of electric propulsion as having 10 times the miles per gallon compared with chemical propulsion,” said Alec Gallimore, leader of the X3 project, who added, “We have shown that X3 can operate at over 100 kW of power. It generated 5.4 Newtons of thrust, which is the highest level of thrust achieved by any plasma thruster to date.” Instead of igniting highly flammable rocket fuel, ion engines vibrate plasma atoms resulting in a blast of energy that creates – compared to what we have now – phenomenal speeds.

Cradle May Have Fallen

A portion of Mars’ Eridania shows blocks of deep-basin volcanic deposits. (NASA/JPL)

An analysis of data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicates that undersea hydrothermal activity on Mars may have been present about 3.7 billion years ago at the same time similar conditions were present on Earth where life may have emerged. Based on the recently-released international report, this cradle-of-life scenario on the Red Planet has been strengthened by what appear to be extensive deposits found in a basin on southern Mars that are being interpreted as evidence of heated water from volcanic activity located at the bottom of an ancient sea nearly 10 times as massive than all of North America’s Great Lakes combined.  “Ancient, deep-water hydrothermal deposits in Eridania basin represent a new category of astrobiological target on Mars,” the report states. The researchers, however, don’t seem phased if their hunch turns out to be a dead end.  “Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” said Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston.  “It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds — life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water,” Niles added.

Bravado New World

If a senior inventor at IBM is to be believed, the era of machine-enhanced humans may be closer to our doorstep than we think. According to John McNamera of IBM’s Innovation Center who recently briefed England’s House of Lords’ AI Committee, the next technological renaissance is just around the corner, and artificial intelligence-enhanced nanomachines used to augment human health and cognitive abilities will be a reality by 2040. “These [AI nanobots] will provide huge medical benefits, such as being able to repair damage to cells, muscles, and bones,” he told the UK lawmakers, adding that uber-tiny AI appliances could actually end up improving our original biological frameworks. “Beyond this, utilizing technology which is already being explored today, we see the creation of technology that can meld the biological with the technological,” McNamara points out, adding that with an added bit of tech wizardry, we can “enhance human cognitive capability directly, potentially offering greatly improved mental [abilities], as well as being able to utilize vast quantities of computing power to augment our own thought processes.” And the Huxlian tentacles don’t stop there, as McNamera went on to suggest that nano AI could merge our brains to our environment, making us able to use our thoughts to control our homes, TVs, computers, etc.,  just like a Star Wars Jedi.

Problem is, the Jedis had Darth Vader too.

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Running Around in Circles

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October 16, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Blown’ in the Wind

A new study published last week has breathed new life into efforts to use deep-ocean-based wind farms as a viable means of supplying a non-fossil fuel source for the world’s energy needs. The research, conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, CA, concludes that there is so much wind power packed in the world’s oceans that it could theoretically be used to generate “civilization scale power.;” however, in practice it would be difficult to commit entities to find ways to install wind turbines located over huge stretches of global seas often in extreme environments.

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

While it’s highly unlikely that we would ever construct open ocean turbines on such a grand scale (the scientists also warned that a gianormous network of wind farms could actually affect global weather patterns), the study does send a more modest message that floating wind farms over deep waters could be the next major step in wind energy technology, reports the Washington Post.

“I would look at this as kind of a green light for that industry from a geophysical point of view,” said Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford.

Unlike land-based wind generators that lose a lot of potential energy from friction and immediate use, ocean-based turbines, while being able to collect up to 70 percent higher wind speeds, also can take advantage of what is known as wind replenishment. In other words, the new research found that over the mid-latitude seas, storms typically transfer powerful wind energy down to the surface from higher altitudes, providing a lot more bang for the buck.

“Over land, the turbines are just sort of scraping the kinetic energy out of the lowest part of the atmosphere, whereas over the ocean, it’s depleting the kinetic energy out of most of the troposphere, or the lower part of the atmosphere,” said Caldeira.

Statoil’s Hywind floating wind farm off the coast of Scotland will be the first of its kind in the world.

If taken seriously, the new research points to a kind of third act for wind energy following well-established land, turbines and offshore installations located in relatively shallow waters.  However, to reach to the next stage where floating structures accompanied by cables anchoring the wind generator to the seafloor over a mile below will take a considerable leap over the current technology. “The things that we’re describing are likely not going to be economic today, but once you have an industry that’s starting in that direction, should provide incentive for that industry to develop,” said Caldeira.

That said, experimentation with deep sea wind technology is beginning to happen. For instance, energy exploration company Statoil has committed to building a large floating wind farm off the coast of  Scotland, which will be located in waters around 100 meters deep and have 15 megawatts (million watts) of electricity generating capacity.

Latest CO2 -eaking El Nino caused different weather patterns globally.

On a down note though, in light of increasingly dismal news on health of our planet (at least from a human survivability standpoint), one wonders again if this is all too little to late. The latest dire report comes from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) that has recorded the greatest greenhouse gas spike in the last 2,000 years occuring during the 2015-16 El Nino period, as well as monitoring overheated tropical forests oozing with CO2.  Perhaps we can leave a note of warning for future civilizations, so unlike us, they can hoist their sail when the wind is fair.

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Pinky Ring

The astronomy world is abuzz overt the discovery of a ring around an odd-shaped dwarf planet located beyond Neptune,making it the furthest object in our solar system to own such a feature. According to a team of scientists who published their findings in the journal Nature, the 43 mile-wide, 1,400 mile-long ring system belonging to the planetoid Haumea was spotted on January 21st this year using a battery of 12 telescopes from 10 countries as the tiny orb passed in front of a distant star. “There are different possible explanations for the formation of the ring; it may have originated in a collision with another object, or in the dispersal of surface material due to the planet’s high rotational speed,” said study team leader Jose Ortiz, who added that the new discovery shows that the presence of ringed bodies could be more common the in universe than previously thought. One of the most bizarrely-formed objects in our solar system, Haumea takes 284 years to orbit the Sun and rotates on its axis once in only four hours.

Splice of Life

One of the main problems to solve if humans are to successfully settle Mars and beyond (besides air) is how to overcome the dangers of radiation in space once we leave the protection of our Earthbound bubble.  Well, some brainiacs at NASA are taking a creepy Victor Frankensteinish approach to this puzzle and are proposing the possibility of actually altering the DNA of travelers to the Red Planet so their bodies would act as radiation-repellent armor.  “We’re looking at a range of things,” NASA’s acting Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier told The Times “following a talk in London he gave on the idea of creating GMO astronauts. “From drug therapies, and those seem to be quite promising, to more extreme things like epigenetic modification all the way to manipulation. I think those have a lot of ethical consequences so they’re still in the experimental thought stages,” Terrier added. While the space agency is considering far less extreme remedies such as special suits or spacecraft modifications, we’re afraid this is just the excuse for a wide-eyed geneticist with a God complex (and a wad of cash from someone like Elon Musk) to open a Pandora’s Box of Gattaca-like quandaries and miseries.

Lost and Found

Two separate scientific teams appear to have solved the mystery of why, under the current models of our universe, we can’t seem to find roughly half of the “normal” matter that should exist (not counting dark matter and dark energy). Apparently, the “missing” protons, neutrons, and electrons – called baryons – have been lurking between galaxies, linking them via filaments of hot diffuse gas.“The missing baryon problem is solved,” said Hideki Tanimura at the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France, leader of one of the groups. The other separate study was led by Anna de Graaff at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “There’s no sweet spot – no sweet instrument that we’ve invented yet that can directly observe this gas,” says Richard Ellis at University College London. “It’s been purely speculation until now.” Since none of our X-ray telescopes are sensitive enough to pick up the tiny threads of intergalactic gas, both teams had to analyze data collected by the Planck satellite that mapped light left over from the Big Bang, and through a process of creative data “stacking” of between 260,000 and a million pairs of galaxies, were able to “observe” the ghostly baryon wisps.

Planet Nine from Caltech

Just in time to confuse a public whose collective cognitive skills are already on life support as claims of a mythical Nibiru/Planet X cataclysm continue to echo throughout the internet, a pair of astronomers have updated a paper published in January 2016 in which they predicted the existence of a humongous planet hidden in the outer realms of our solar system beyond Neptune which they dubbed, “Planet Nine.” “There have been new detections of distant Kuiper belt objects since the publication of our original paper,” says Konstantin Batygin, a Caltech professor of planetary science and co-author of the original paper. ”We now better understand how the expanded observational dataset shaped by the gravity of Planet Nine,” he added. Basically the planet-seeking gumshoe (along with Alessandro Morbidelli, from the University of Côte d’Azur) has created an up -to-date computer simulation, which defines the orbital behavior of “Planet Nine.”  “With our new understanding of how Planet Nine sculpts the observed patterns in the data, we have been able to zoom in on its true orbit further,” Batygin explains.

In the meantime, the hunt continues, with Batygin and Mike Brown, co-author of the original paper, spending a few nights last month at the Mauna Kea Observatory scanning the skies for a sign of their great white whale of a planet. “Frustratingly, we do not yet know if we found Planet Nine this time around. The data is still in the process of being processed and analysed, there is a lot of data. So nothing observational to share yet.”

Crash Test Dummies

Set your clocks for the year 2079 when there is a 1 in 750 chance that the house-sized Asteroid 2012 TC4 that safely whizzed by Earth last Wednesday at an altitude of only 27,500 miles will return for a possible direct hit following additional flyby in 2050. “We know today that it will also not hit the Earth in the year 2050, but the close flyby in 2050 might deflect the asteroid such that it could hit the Earth in the year 2079,” Rüdiger Jehn of the European Space Agency said. Fortunately 2012 TC4, if it does strike, will not pose a doomsday threat, and will likely cause a brief hullabaloo much like the bolide that burst over Russia in 2013, and blew out a few windows.

In a more imminent threat, the abandoned Chinese space station Tiangong-1 that has been careening out of control for the past year is expected to break up into Earth’s atmosphere anytime from now until April 2018. While authorities believe the odds of being nailed by pieces of the falling 9.4-ton space station whose name translates to “Heavenly Palace 1” are slim since most of the structure will burn up on reentry, astrophysisist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian that hunks weighing 200 pounds or more could hit the Earth, so keep your hard hats ready! In fact, you can checkout the satellite-tracking website NSYO.com where you can monitor Tiangong-1’s spiral Earthward. Meanwhile, China’s “Heavenly Palace-2” launched last year housed Chinese “taikonauts” for 30 days 2016 along with various uncrewed missions.

Blown Out of Proportion

Speaking of headgear, Galactic Sandbox’s Tin Foil Hatter of the Week collectively goes to the media in general, and the New York Times in particular, for inadvertently turning its coverage of a recent study that looked at the timing of the Yellowstone supervolcano eruption 631,000 years ago into a frenzy of end-of-the-world headlines reading something like, “Yellowstone Supervolcano Could Erupt Sooner Than Expected.” According to Robert Walker of the excellent Science 2.0 site who confirmed  with one of the study’s authors that  the research had nothing to do with predicting any imminent blowup, “Nobody even knows if it will ever erupt again as a supervolcano. It may have finished doing that.” Walker added that there are between 1.4 and 22 supervolcanic eruptions globally every million years, and the chances per century of a catastrophic kablooey are between 1 in 500 and 1 in 7000. Walker also published the following instructive email from Mike Poland of the USGS, scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory”

“Unfortunately, the NY Times article, which was then picked up by a number of other news outlets, is a good example of how some research can be misunderstood, exaggerated, and sensationalized.  The research being described by the news articles is actually about the eruption that occurred approximately 631,000 years ago.  Researchers think that there might have been some sort of magma mixing event a few decades before that eruption.  The research has nothing to do with the current conditions beneath Yellowstone.  This is a critically important bit of information that most news outlets seem to have omitted, perhaps in order to make their story more attractive to readers.”

“We have no indication that there is any similar magma mixing event happening now, and surely we would know from earthquake activity, ground deformation, thermal anomalies, water chemistry, and other indicators that would show changes.  Yellowstone is one of the best monitored volcanoes on Earth, so these are changes we would not miss! “

Robert Walker: Tin Foil Hat foiler.

On a similar note, in light of all the Planet-X/judgement day flapdoodle bouncing around cyberspace recently, one should check out Walker’s Doomsday Debunked  Facebook group intended to help young adults 13 years and older as well as parents with children who get scared that the world will end before they group up. ” By scared I mean vomiting, panic attacks, crying constantly, often unable to eat or sleep … [or otherwise]  severely impacted in their lives by stories that suggest the world will end suddenly and completely before they can grow to adulthood.” Walker’s group, it should be noted, is not just for kids. Believe me, the rest of us need some hand-holding too.

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Don’t Hold Your Breadth

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October 9, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Moonrise Agendum

It’s finally official – or at least as conclusive as anything can be in Trumpland. Aftter months of hemming and hawing, the Trump administration, as articulated by Vice President Mike Pence at the first assembly of the newly-reconstituted National Space Council, announced its intention to boldly go where we’ve been before (and probably shouldn’t have left) and direct NASA to land humans on the Moon and sooner than later establish a continual occupancy on the lunar surface. The move is an about-face to former President Obama’s focus on Mars, and hearkens back to ex-chief George W Bush’s lunar priorities, as well as aligns with the focus of many other countries vying for lunar real estate..

“We will return NASA astronauts to the Moon — not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation, we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said to a gaggle of representatives and press at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

While this move hardly comes a surprise, it does create a whiplash effect for the US space agency, which has been preparing to send humans to mars since 2010, and currently has no official plans for sending people to the Moon. Giving the old college try, NASA is expected to retool its deep-space transportation duo comprised of the Space Launch System and Orion crewed spacecraft to deliver the new lunar mandate. The space agency also is expected to forge partnerships with commercial space concerns to help shoulder the current priorities. In fact, a large part of last week’s Space Council fete concentrated on how NASA can buddy up with private space firms both for lunar and solar system exploration and for maintaining Earth-orbit operations.   “American companies are on the cutting edge of space technology, and they’re developing new rockets, spaceships, and satellites that will take us further into space faster than ever before,” Pence said. “By fostering much stronger partnerships between the federal government and the realm of industry, and bringing the full force of our national interests to bear, American leadership in space will be assured.”

Some feel, however, that NASA’s future is as cloudy as before, since much of Space Council meeting was big on talk and slim on concrete measures. Seems that the gathering was another opportunity for space industry leaders to hawk there wares and for Trump’s proxy to score political points, grandstanding that the days of America’s lost edge is space “are over,” without providing any real  follow-up.

Many thanks to Randall Monroe, xkcd.

Ultimately, with no new policies coming out the the Space Council summit, the US Congress will have the final say on how NASA’s money is spent. “With the upcoming budget process, we will look to solidify this work with our new goals in place,” NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot said in an overly-optimistic statement. For the time being, though, America’s leadership in space, as well as its road to the Moon, are still a no-go..
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 Air Ball

Artist’s impression of the Moon with an atmosphere 3-4 billion years ago. At that time, the Moon was nearly 3 times closer to Earth than it is today and would have appeared nearly 3 times larger in the sky

While future lunar inhabitants won’t be taking long, unsuited constitutionals at the Sea of Tranquility, a recent paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters indicates that the ancient Moon 3 to 4 billion years ago actually had an atmosphere created when violent volcanic eruptions belched more gases than could escape into space. “This work dramatically changes our view of the Moon from an airless rocky body to one that used to be surrounded by an atmosphere more prevalent than that surrounding Mars today,” said David King of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). King, along with Debra H. Needham,of NASA Marshall Space Center calculated the amounts of gases that rose from the erupting lavas to form a transient lunar atmosphere that was the thickest around 3.5 billion years ago and lasted for about 70 million years before dissipating into space.

More relevant for today, says Needham, is that some of the water released during the eruptions may have found its way to the lunar poles and now exists as ice.This, according to the scientists, has important ramifications for future exploration, and in fact, the new analysis can quantify a source of frozen H2O in the shadowed polar regions suitable for sustained lunar missions, providing fuel and air for astronauts on the surface as well as for excursions beyond the Moon.

Flare for the Eccentric

Mystifying KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s star, is 1,500 light years from Earth.

Since two years ago when a team of astronomers led by Tabetha Boyajian revealed a mysterious, long-term dimming of star KIC 8462852 (now known as “Tabby’s star”) wild theories have swirled around cyberspace claiming that the puzzling observation is evidence of anything from a giant network of solar panels to a destroyed planet, and even proof of the existence of a highly-advanced alien “megastructure.” And not surprising, a new study published last week in the The Astrophysical Journal, advanced a more prosaic explanation for at least some of “Tabby’s” star’s weirdness, concluding that the dimming is caused by dust, which is more pronounced in ultraviolet light. “This pretty much rules out the alien megastructure theory, as that could not explain the wavelength-dependent dimming,” lead author Huan Meng of the University of Arizona said in a statement. “We suspect, instead, there is a cloud of dust orbiting the star with a roughly 700-day orbital period.”

Artist illustration of Kepler telescope.

The new report, however, does not solve all of KIC 8462852’s enigmas. For example, it does not account for the short-term 20 percent brightness dips detected by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. On top of that, a different study — spearheaded  by Joshua Simon of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California — just discovered that Tabby’s star experienced two brightening cylces over the past 11 years. “Up until this work, we had thought that the star’s changes in brightness were only occurring in one direction — dimming,” Simon said in a statement. “The realization that the star sometimes gets brighter in addition to periods of dimming is incompatible with most hypotheses to explain its weird behavior.” Alien megastructures anyone?

Dishing the Dirt

Climate change scientists are starting to sweat a bit more following the release of data from a 26-year study showing that carbon released into the atmosphere by warmed soil is a greater contributor, and in fact an accelerator, of global greenhouse emissions than previously thought. Ominously, the report, published in the journal Science, indicates that 17% of carbon discharged from bacterial microbes in the earth is the direct result of heat, and with the planet topping temperature records each year, the process ultimately worsens climate transmutation by adding to the overloaded stockpile of human-caused carbon dioxide smothering us. And with more than 3,500 billion tons of carbon lurking under our feet, it’s hard to imagine how our current iteration of life on Earth will end well. According to Jerry Melillo of the U.S. Marine Biological Research Laboratory (one of the three research groups involved in the study), this self-reinforcing feedback loop with soils – once it starts – might be very difficult to turn off. “When we think about the current climate change, the soil wasn’t given any attention. It plays a significant role in climate change which cannot be ignored,” he added.

Hold  the Sugar

A senior astronomer from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute made splashy headlines last week following his semi-bold wager that he “bet everybody a cup of coffee that we’ll find intelligent life [outside the Earth] within 20 years.” Aside from generating more press for SETI since the release of the movie Contact 20 years ago (even the non-sciency publication Food and Wine picked it up), researcher Seth Shostak proceeded with some pretty boiler plate pablum during an interview with Futurism at the Worlds Fair in Nano, NY that was packed with snorers such as, “We may find microbial life – the kind you’d find in the corners of your bathtub. We many that a lot sooner, but that remains to the seen. But it’s gonna happen, I think, in your lifetime.” And when he says “find,” he doesn’t necessarily mean in your face, take-me-to-your-leader stuff.  “I don’t know about contact,” Shostak said. “I mean if they’re 500 light years away. . .you’ll hear a signal that’ll be 500 years old, and if you broadcast back ‘Hi we’re the Earthlings, how’re you doing?’ — it’ll be 1,000 years before you hear back from them. If you ever hear back from them. So, it’s not exactly contact, but at least you know they’re there.” So .. I guess that’s where the coffee bet comes in – to keep us awake while we continue to wait.

 

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Future Stock

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October 2, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

The 6-Gazillion Idea Man

A recent excellent article in The Verge makes a strong case for our suspicions that Space X chief Elon Musk is really a replicant from some dismal Blade Runner-type future as the author Andrew J. Hawkins rips apart the lack of human consideration in his latest seemingly off-the-cuff proposal to use his company’s future mega rocket launcher to blast people between major cities on Earth in 60 minutes or less.

“His [Musk’s] frustration with our current outdated methods of transportation is understandable,” Hawkins writes.  “After all, we’ve been stuck with four modes of travel (road, air, water, and rail) for almost a century … And while throwing cold water on his ideas has become a media cottage industry unto itself, his latest pitch to connect cities by suborbital rocket needs much closer scrutiny.”

SpaceX BFR concept.

According to Hawkins, Musk’s quixotic proposal  would involve his yet-to-be built “BFR” super rocket that would lift a spacecraft into orbit around the Earth, and would then alight down on floating landing pads near each destination city. While both launcher and spaceship are still only a gleam in his eye, Musk said he hopes to begin construction on the rocket within six to nine months.

Specifically, here are a few item’s in Hawkins’ laundry list of complaints about Musk’s newly-announce plan and obsession that “no trip between any two cities on the planet should last longer than an episode of The Big Bang Theory.”

  1. Musk hardly touches on the ginormous risks passengers would take ” by boarding one of these rockets “for a breezy trip from Shanghai to Paris or Dubai.” While’s SpaceX ‘s Falcon 9 rockets have had more successes than failures, the current triumph-to-defeat ratio is still unacceptable on a commercial basis (see recent blooper reel).
  2. From a physics standpoint, Musk’s idea is doable; however the human stress from spaceflight, even on short trips, could have adverse consequences too great just for shaving a few hours off a trip. “You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people.”
  3. Another danger with launching people like intercontinental ballistic warheads is the radiation exposure present in space. And while most deep space particles are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field thereby posing a less significant health threat,  Anderson feels that the high-tech empresario’s “indifference toward the impact that these interstellar concepts would have on human bodies is classic Musk.”
  4. Another huge hurdle is costs. Musk declared that these express trips would be competitive with commercial air travel. However this would be possible only if reusable rockets were able to be operated for up to 10,000 flights as conventional airplanes are. And since a recent US Air Force study found that recycled rockets were only good for about 100 flights, Musk’s space-age shuttle jaunts are “probably going to be 10 times the cost per-seat,” said Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC. “He may be 1-in-10,000 [for] loss of vehicle, but it’s nowhere near the 3-and-10 million reliability of airlines,” Miller noted.
  5. One of the surprising conclusions from a recent Department of Transportation paper is the effects that futuristic commercial space travel would have on pilots. “The pilot will have to deal with activities ranging from direct control of the vehicle to oversight and situational awareness to planning,” said the paper’s author, Ruth A. MacFarlane Hunter.  “The much larger array of instruments and situations may require the pilot to quickly shift to a different activity using different instruments,” subjecting him or hert “to confusion and cognitive overload,” she added.
Essentially, Hawkins’ major beef is that while “we need visionaries to motivate us as a society …  Musk’s approach has always been more fatalistic than inspiring.” We would add, as Hawkins mentions earlier in his piece, that ultimately this is just another Silicon Valley scheme that “will most likely benefit wealthy VCs, billionaire industrialists, and no one else.”

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Cosmic Co-op

Artist’s rendering of the proposed US/Russia Deep Space Gateway that would act as a staging platform for future Moon missions and serve as a possible springboard to Mars and beyond.

While America’s Congress, intelligence agencies, and special prosecutor continue their sleuthing into the extent of Russia’s presidential election meddling, US and Russian space agencies quietly signed an agreement last week on a new venture to orbit the Moon, and to potentially explore other parts of the solar system.Coming one week before the 60th anniversary of the historic Sputnik satellite launch (October 4, 1957) that sparked the space age revolution, the newly-inked “deep space gateway” deal between NASA and Roscosmos initially calls for a lunar-orbiting station where astronauts can evaluate systems needed for interplanetary travel, and for logging time in space while only being a couple of days from Earth. Eventually, the two agencies hope to establish a lunar base that would serve as a staging area for more exotic celestial locales such as Mars and beyond.

Photo Finishes

Below is a spectacular series of pix taken by NASA’s Juno Cam on September 1 as swooped by Jupiter during its latest in a series of scheduled fly-bys of the gas giant. The sequence of 11 color-enhanced images from “Perjove 8” spans 95 minutes, starting with the Jovian north pole on the right of the first image and the planet’s south pole on the left of the 11th photo.

In a not-so-related story, European Space Agency scientists were surprised and delight to find a final snapshot transmitted by its Rosetta space probe before the craft ended its 12-year mission and crash-landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) just over a year ago on September 29, 2016. Apparently the final moments of photo data originally not recognized by the agency’s automatic processing software, but in a recent manual scan, technicians were able to reconstruct the final clear pic of the comet’s surface:

Sticky Situation

If tests from a recent study hold up, we may have a glimps into how protoplanets are formed as cosmic dust circles around a newborn star.

Effervescent ice under ultraviolet light.

New research suggests that a combo of low temperatures and ultraviolet light makes ice behave like a liquid, and could explain how planets began to form in the earliest epoch of our solar system, reports Science Alert. According to scientists at Hokkaido University in Japan, when these deep-space conditions are present, the resultant mutant ice can gobble up dust and other cosmic debris. forming a chain reaction that ends up with, for instance, a giant gas ball like Jupiter. Head researcher Shogo Tachibana and his team reached their tentative conclusions after deep-freezing a brew of water, methanol, and ammonia, and as it began to warm, the scientist noticed that the icy substance began to bubble like boiling water and had a viscosity similar to honey.  “The liquid-like ice may help dust accrete to planets because liquid may act as a glue,” said Tachibana. “However, further experiments are needed to understand the material properties of the liquid-like ice,” he added.

Cutting the Cheese

A newly-released study sponsored by NASA has climatologists raising their eyebrows over updated figures showing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions flatulated/excreted by livestock worldwide is 11 percent higher than estimates made over 10 years ago, reports Gizmodo. If correct, the new research published in Carbon Balance and Management, is a fresh blow to efforts fighting climate change since methane gas, while being less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, is 30 times more efficient in trapping the Sun’s heat and consequently rising the Earth’s temperatures. And with approximately 1.5 billion bovines expelling 30-50 gallons of the planet-warming gas a day, that’s  a problem the world will have to collectively hold its nose and address before we roast ourselves into extinction.

Racket Man

While it’s not hard to recall less than five offensive brain farts Donald Trump has billowed out in the past couple of months, our Twerp-in-Chief’s recent racially-charged comments regarding Charlottesville and NFL players protesting during the national anthem caught the attention to former shuttle astronaut and NFL gridironer Leland Melvin, who had a few choice things to say in an essay to friends that was recently published in Boing Boing.

Below are excepts from Melvin’s essay (Note: Melvin also is a former NASA educator and author of “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances,” is pictured here with his two adorable pups):

To Donald Trump

I believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this country even though at the time they were drafted, … only applied to a select group of people and not ones that looked like me.

… I listened to your Alabama rally rant and could not believe how easily you say what you say.

… I used to walk the grounds of UVA in Charlottesville, VA as a graduate student only to watch in horror as those same grounds became a battlefield being trod by Nazi and anti-Semitic worshippers armed with assault style weapons ready to fight to make America White again. (their words). You actually said there were nice people on both sides.

… Comparing this to what you say in condemnation of an unarmed black man peacefully protesting by exercising his constitutional First Amendment rights by silently taking a knee is appalling, unnerving and reprehensible.

Today, you called Colin Kaepernick “a son-of-a-bitch.”

You said he should be fired.

… The strong contrast in language for a black man and a Nazi is very telling. Do you have any sense of decency or shame in what you say to the American people that are part of your duty to serve respectfully with dignity, presidentially?

Our National Anthem has been edited to try not to offend, because when Francis Scott Key penned the song he watched freed slaves fighting for the British and wrote this stanza:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

I guess if I were a slave back then

 I probably would have done anything to obtain freedom from my American oppressors who were whipping, killing, raping, dismembering, hanging or releasing the dogs on people like me all under our Constitution.

 

… I served my country not in the military, but as 1 of 362 American Astronauts that have explored the universe to help advance our civilization. Not just Americans, but all humans. I also was briefly in the NFL and stood for the National Anthem with my hand over my heart. What makes us great is our differences and respecting that we are all created equally even if not always treated that way.

Looking back at our planet from space really helps one get a bigger perspective on how petty and divisive we can be. Donald Trump, maybe you should ask your good friend Mr. Putin to give you a ride on a Soyuz rocket to our International Space Station and see what it’s like to work together with people we used to fight against, where your life depends on it. See the world and get a greater sense of what it means to be part of the human race, we call it the Orbital Perspective.

Donald Trump, please know that you are supposed to be a unifier and a compassionate and empathetic leader. If you can’t do the job then please step down and let someone else try. I pray that you do the right thing.

May God bless you.

Sincerely,

Leland Melvin
Former Astronaut and NFL Player

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No Place Like Home

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September 25, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Good Grief Moon

The newest in a long line of schemes spanning 30 years or more calling for a lunar colony was revealed last week at the European Planetary Science Conference in Latvia where attendees were spun tales of a hundred people living on the Moon by 2040 who will melt ice for water, live in 3D-printed homes, munch on plants grown in lunar soil, and play low-gravity “flying sports.” Bernard Foing, ambassador of the European Space Agency’s “Moon Village” enthusiastically tried to sell the feasibility of populating our natural satellite first with 6 to10 researchers and technicians by 2030 and within two decades increasing the number of lunar denizens to 1,000, with the possibility of children being born on the colony by then.

Rare on Earth,Helium-3 found on the Moon can be used for fuel in fusion (as opposed to fission) reactors, creating “clean” energy.

With the International Space Station planned for decommission by 2024, scientists and commercial impresarios are keen on turning the long-abandoned Moon into the hub of a new space-age renaissance. However politicians – many of whom seem hell-bent on turning back the clock on matters of the Earth – in general have yet to commit to such a vision. “It is highly frustrating … We still don’t have the top leaders interested,” said physicist Vidvuds Beldavs of the University of Latvia, who runs a project called the International Lunar Decade, advocating joint exploration of the Moon. To get the attention of policy makers, Beldavs believes it’s necessary “To demonstrate that industrial activity on the Moon is feasible, that … large markets can emerge,” Such lunar commerce, Beldavs notes, could include the following:  transforming volcanic rock into 3D-printing material to construct satellites that are launched from the Moon at a fraction of the cost than from Earth; mining the isotope helium-3 for safe nuclear energy (this has been pitched since the 1980s); and extracting oxygen and hydrogen from water ice from the lunar poles to serve as rocket fuel. “To go into Earth orbit … it is 40 times cheaper to go from the Moon than from Earth, because the Earth has such high gravity that you have to fight against it,” explained Foing in his presentation.

Crew member during mock Mars mission in Hawaii.

But before you think now’s the opportunity to jump ship with a home planet battered by climate change and threatened with nuclear war, physicist Christiane Heincke warns that planetary pioneering it is a “tough” life, and not for everyone. “[The Moon] is completely devoid of any vegetation, all they see is rocks, regolith (loose rocks and dust), and a sky that is different from ours on Earth,” said Heiincke, who  spent a year in a mock Mars environment in Hawaii.”Being either inside [a lunar] habitat or inside a suit means that you’re never able to actually FEEL the moon/planet you’re on. You can’t feel the wind (if there is any, like on Mars), you don’t feel the Sun on your skin, and whatever you touch feels like the inside of your gloves.” Another problem: Heincke told the AFP news agency “You can never escape your crew mates.”

However Foing, who himself has spent time in a planetary isolation cell is not put off by these negatives, and hopes to join the “village” by 2040. The only hesitation he has for toting his family along would be the sticker shock: “that will depend on the price … The price of the ticket is in the order of 100 million euros. That’s now, but in 20 years, the price of the ticket could be 100 times less.”

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Astronomical Casualty

Aside from its major role in astronomy discoveries over the past 50 years, the Arecibo Observaotry has been featured in popular culture, with cameo roles in the James Bond film Goldeneye, the movie Contact, and the TV series The X-Files.

While the human tragedy is yet to be fathomed in the aftermath of hurricane Maria’s pummeling of Puerto Rico last week (and should be of fundamental concern), the scientific community is experiencing a significant loss of its own as it has learned that the famed Arecibo Observatory and its signature radio telescope suffered significant damage when the monster storm passed over the island with beyond punishing 155 MPH winds. While observatory staff members are safe (although they only have generator power, water, and food for a week), an atmospheric radar line feed and a 39-foot dish used for Very Long baseline Interferometry were lost to the tempest. Fortunately the humongous 1,000-foot diameter central dish is intact, although it was punctured in places when the line feed collapsed. According to Engadget, the storm damage has exasperated an already tough time for the observatory as the National Science Foundation has been looking for partners to help shoulder the costs, and considering the amount of repairs – along with the primary need to rebuild the lives and infrastructure of the island – the future of the instrument is certainly in limbo.

Odd One Out

Just when you think you know a place. Researchers at Yale University announced in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal that our Milky Way galaxy, might not be a “typical” as previously thought, and in fact, Milky Way-based models used to understand how other galaxies in the universe work could be misleading. “We use the Milky Way and its surroundings to study absolutely everything,” said Marla Geha of Yale University and lead author of the paper. “Hundreds of studies come out every year about dark matter, cosmology, star formation, and galaxy formation, using the Milky Way as a guide. But it’s possible that the Milky Way is an outlier,” Geha added.

What makes our home galaxy so different, the study found, is that it’s surrounded by smaller “satellite” galaxies, which unlike other galactic systems whose similar satellite structures pump out new stars, are fairly inert. making the Milky Way a poor choice as a standard cosmological study and possibly forcing a rethink of many studies on how galactic systems work.

Key Figure

Katherine Johnson, the African American mathematician whose calculations were critical to some of the most important NASA missions in the 1960s and whose story was told in the film, Hidden Figures,” was recognized last week with a new research facility that now bears her name. On Friday, the 99-year-old cut the ribbon to the Katherine G. Johnson Computation Research Facility at Langley Research Center in Hampton,Virginia where where she was honored as a trailblazing “human computer.”  According to The Guardian, in a pre-taped message, Johnson was asked about the distinction of having a space agency building named after her: “You want my honest answer? I think they’re crazy,” she said. “I was excited at something new, always liked something new, but give credit to everybody who helped. I didn’t do anything alone but try to go to the root of the question and succeeded there.”

Please Make Up Your Mind Department 

Tin Foil Hat Alert! If you are reading this column, you know that the end of the world did not happen last Saturday, but don’t feel cheated! – “Christian numerologist” David Meade. the epicenter of the most recent Doomsday prophecy is now saying he was misunderstood, and now predicts that October 21st will begin a seven-year Tribulation period. followed by “a Millennium of peace.” And what about Nibiru/Planet X? Quite frankly, this runaway train of a story has gone from Tin Foil Hat to Tin Foil Circus Tent proportions including tales of Nibiru-based “UFOs” being filmed above London, reports that Nibiru is actually another star system, and Youtube footage capturing a sky with two orbs, one being the infamous Planet-X! Granted, much of this Nibiru-sighting frenzy is being fueled by the British tabloids that are no strangers to pandering to the human race’s most gullible tendencies. So, until we see real scientific proof that a ginormous planet is going to steamroll us out of existence, all we have to say is, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
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On Another Planet

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September 18, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Final Hurrah

The now defunct Cassini spacecraft took its last pic of Saturn (above) less than a day before its fiery plunge into the gas planet’s atmosphere. According to NASA, the view was snapped 394,000 miles from the planet when the point of Cassini’s atmospheric impact was still on the planet’s night side. The spacecraft’s kamikaze descent occurred around 6:22 am ET, although news of its demise didn’t reach NASA for an hour and 23 minutes later (the amount of time radio waves travel 930 million miles).

Below are some of Cassini’s final pix taken last Wednesday that Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters were “the final picture postcards of the Saturn system.”

 

Weathering Heights

According to an article in the excellent DCReport.org, US weather forecasters are woefully behind their European counterparts in predicting storm paths, as illustrated earlier this month when Europe’s meterologists correctly called hurricane Irma’s westward path a week away while US weather folks relying heavily on The Global Forecast System model embarrassingly projected the monster storm to head north, probably missing the mainland US – a 194-mile whiff. While US weather prognosticators using computer modeling, satellites, weather balloons, and airplane dives into the eye of hurricanes are getting better, other countries are getting better faster. In fact, Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, said in 2016 U.S. global weather predicting was in fourth place, behind European, British and Canadian forecasters. Things are so bad that the U.S. Air Force now uses British modeling software.“The United States needs a ‘moon shot’ program to dramatically improve weather prediction,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and critic of U.S. forecasts. Unfortunately, the current system could deteriorate under Trump, who’s calling for a 16 percent cut for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) In addition, the National Weather Service is already understaffed, and still operates a system that has been putting out alerts in the same all caps format for 170 years because it was designed for the telegraph. DCReport.org urges readers to 1) call the White House at 202-456-1414 to give your opinion about staffing at NOAA and funding for weather forecasts; 2) contact your senators and representatives: 3) for more information, reach the Environmental Defense Fund, which has raised questions about proposed NOAA cuts, at 800-684-3322.

Clouding the Issue

The mysterious atmospheric clouds on Venus night side were taken with infrared cameras.

For the first time ever, scientists have been able to study wind and upper cloud patterns of Venus’ night side, and have been startled to discover that they behave very differently than those on the planet’s side facing the Sun. According to Javier Peralta of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), whose team used ESA’s “Venus Express” craft to gather data for its published report in the journal Nature Astronomy, “While the atmospheric circulation on the planet’s dayside has been extensively explored, there was still much to discover about the night side. We found that the cloud patterns there are different to those on the dayside, and influenced by Venus’ topography.”

Venusian super-rotation.

The hallmark of Venus’ atmospheric winds it that they churn much faster that the planet rotates itself. Known as “super-rotation,” these Venusian breezes spin up to 60 times faster than the planet below. While traditional modelling predicted the night-side super-rotating winds to act the same as the daylight side, the JAXA team’s findings show them to be surprisingly chaotic and irregular,and are dominated by puzzling, unmoving stationary waves.“Stationary waves are probably what we’d call gravity waves — in other words, rising waves generated lower in Venus’ atmosphere that appear not to move with the planet’s rotation,” says co-author Agustin Sánchez-Lavega of University del País Vasco in Bilbao, Spain. “These waves are concentrated over steep, mountainous areas of Venus; this suggests that the planet’s topography is affecting what happens way up above in the clouds.”

Hot New TIcket

Blistering pitch-black WASP-12b is is about 2 million miles away from its star and completes an orbit once a day.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered a smoldering gaseous planet outside our solar system that absorbs nearly 94 percent of light hitting it, making the Jupiter-like orb virtually pitch-black. “We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet,” said Taylor Bell of McGill University and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, lead researcher of the Hubble study. “Most hot Jupiters reflect about 40 percent of starlight.” According to NASA, newly found planet, dubbed WASP-12b, is so close to its sun that most molecules are unable to survive its 4,600 Fahrenheit day side, making it impossible for light-reflecting clouds to form, resulting in light penetrating deep into the planet’s atmosphere where it is swallowed up by hydrogen atoms and converted into heat. However, the planet’s fixed nighttime side is a different story. and is more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit cooler, allowing water vapor and clouds to form. “This new Hubble research further demonstrates the vast diversity among the strange population of hot Jupiters,” Bell said. “You can have planets like WASP-12b that are 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit and some that are 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’re both called hot Jupiters.”

Prophet of Doom

Hold on to your Tin Foil Hats! According to a Christian numerologist citing passages from the New Testament that the recent solar eclipse and Hurricane Harvey (Irma wasn’t bad enough?) are the predictive signs that the world will come to an end this Saturday when the famously-mythical Planet X (also known as Nibiru) will have a catastrophic encounter with Earth. According to British tabloid The Sun, Christian numerologist David Meade came up with September 23 as the day Nibiru will pass Earth, causing volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes, by extrapolating “codes” from the Bible and also a “date marker” shown by the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. NASA has repeatedly insisted the existence of Planet X is a hoax. Also, it’s only fair to note that Mead’s views are not endorsed by any other Christian or religious sect.

 

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Forward and Backward

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September 11, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Final Curtain

The Cassini spacecraft will end its unprecedentedly-successful seven-year run this Friday when it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending real-time science data just before the tiny capsule burns to a crisp. According to NASA, its mission operators are committing probiside to “ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration—in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.” Since last April, Cassini has been on a 22-orbit “Grand Finale” tour of Saturn and its rings, providing unparalleled front-row observations of the Saturnian system.

According to NASA, even in its final days, Cassini is expected to dazzle, scientifically-speaking, as it plans to do the following:

  • Make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields that will help determine exactly how fast the ringed planet rotates.
  • Vastly improve scientists’ knowledge of the rings’ material and origins.
  • Sample icy ring particles being funneled into Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • Take ultra-close pix of Saturn’s rings and clouds.

Cassini’s greatest hits

Recently, NASA compiles a list of “Nine Ways Cassini-Huygens Matters,” which we think best eulogizes one of the space agency’s most successful planetary endeavors:

Nine Ways Cassini-Huygens Matters

1. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe expanded our understanding of the kinds of worlds where life might exist.

2. At Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, Cassini and Huygens showed us one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve ever encountered, with weather, climate and geology that provide new ways to understand our home planet.

3. Cassini is, in a sense, a time machine. It has given us a portal to see the physical processes that likely shaped the development of our solar system, as well as planetary systems around other stars.

4. The length of Cassini’s mission has enabled us to observe weather and seasonal changes, improving our understanding of similar processes at Earth, and potentially those at planets around other stars.

5. Cassini revealed Saturn’s moons to be unique worlds with their own stories to tell. 

6. Cassini showed us the complexity of Saturn’s rings and the dramatic processes operating within them.

7. Some of Cassini’s best discoveries were serendipitous. What Cassini found at Saturn prompted scientists to rethink their understanding of the solar system.

8. Cassini represents a staggering achievement of human and technical complexity, finding innovative ways to use the spacecraft and its instruments, and paving the way for future missions to explore our solar system.

9. Cassini revealed the beauty of Saturn, its rings and moons, inspiring our sense of wonder and enriching our sense of place in the cosmos.

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The Slight Stuff

Acting against expressed objections of having a politician lead NASA, Donald Trump has picked Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine to head the space agency in a move consistent with his other administration appointees who are either ninth-round picks or nowhere near qualified for the job. Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma (hmm .. sounds familiar) since 2012, was once executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium, and served as a Navy combat pilot during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In addition, as a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee (chaired by anti-science corporate schillster Lamar Smith), Bridenstine led the charge toward a revitalized NASA with his starry-eyed  American Space Renaissance Act.

Part of Johnson Space Center in Houston inundated with Harvey-caused flooding earlier this month.

First the good news: Bridenstine has rightfully warned about the dangers of the ever-accumulating orbital debris, calling it “a problem that cannot be ignored any longer.” On a more debatable point, he also believes that the discovery of water ice on the Moon should be enough of a reason to deploy rovers and other exoplanetary tools to extract lunar materials to bring the cost down on space exploration. However, Bridenstine, with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, croons his masters’ mantra that human-based activities are not the cause of climate change. (Bzzzzzz!  Thanks for playing Jim!)  Of note, in a 2016 Aerospace America interview, Bridenstine provided a unique twist to the classic denier shuck and jive: “I would say that the climate is changing. It has always changed. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today,” Well, there’s one thing for certain: at the rate the oceans are warming, Bridenstine – if approved by the Sentate – will soon have to change his sights from the Moon to mop-up detail for water-logged Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers as greenhouse gas-fueled superstorms force NASA – and many Americans – to furiously tread water.

Star Corps

Speaking of which, just days before Hurricane Irma plowed into the Sunshine State, SpaceX successfully launched the Air Force’s super-secret  X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on its fifth experimental test mission (see last week’s Revolution). As planned, the Falcon rocket’s first stage landed safely back at Kennedy Space Center within minutes of liftoff. The X-37B is the commercial space company’s first military contract.

Very Haute Couture

SpaceX chief Elon Musk last week released a pic featuring a full-body shot of his company’s proposed space suit designed for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that will ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The image, which Musk shared on Instagram, shows an outfitted space suit model standing next to the firm’s Crew Dragon capsule.

 

 

New Kid in Town

Japanese astronomers announced recently the discovery of what they believe to be an enormous black hole 100,000 times more massive than the Sun lurking in the midst of a gas cloud near the heart of the Milky Way. If confirmed, the monster gravity well would rate as the the second-largest black hole found in our galaxy, just behind the supermassive “Sagittarius A” located at the Milky Way’s dead center. According to Tomoharu Oka of Keio University in Tokyo whose findings were published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the newly-found exotic object could be the heart of an old dwarf galaxy that was tore apart during the creation of the Milky Way billions of years ago.

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