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.


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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Mirror, mirror

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May 15, 2017

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

Through a House Bill, Darkly

We didn’t think it could get more bizarre, yet in a week’s time, we are on the brink of a Constitutional crisis worse than Watergate.

The Psychopath-Narcissist-in-Chief fires the man leading the investigation into his criminal and treasonous arrangements with Russia; and then his hand-picked Himmler-midget Attorney General Jeff Sessions not only breaks his oath to recuse himself from that clusterfrack, but he also announced on Friday to re-instate the moronic War on Drugs by prosecuting pot-smokers with life sentences again, and refilling the prisons, once again – undoing the progress so boldly commenced by President Obama and former AG Eric Holder. Is it any wonder?  After all, there is a direct connection between Republican campaign coffers and the private prison conglomerate and the U.S. prison guard union.   Will these morons ever realize that prohibition only begets violence and criminality??

Ah well.  We here at the Galactic Sandbox won’t be bothered by this week’s national political pettifoggery.  But we will concern ourselves with the latest political stink bomb fobbed at this planet’s environment.  Specifically, our thumbs-down vote goes to the latest GOP attempt to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.  Yeah, that’s right. In fact, the world is just now learning that in February, Florida congressmen Matt Gaetz (R-Dante’s Inferno) introduced to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee the bill which he shamelessly admits is an out-and-out wipe-out of the EPA.

Think about it, though: Gaetz, plus four other GOP “freedom caucus” Tea-anderthals who co-sponsored this abomination, have been trying to shove this through the right-wing-heavy Congress for the past three months.  In the meantime, the hits keep coming as:

  • The Greedy Crybaby in the White House has signed a platoon of executive orders that attempt to undo all of Obama’s executive orders that placed tighter regulations on polluting corporations in order to save our rivers, our air and our land. 
  • Trump’s chosen EPA chief, oil lobbyist and law-skirting Scott Pruitt, has worked with anti-science republicans to re-write the 300-year old scientific method of peer review to make it impossible for Earth scientists to present their facts without fear of the political ax to their federal grant-sponsored work on behalf of all things living on this planet – including humans. 
  • And we have now learned that late last week, Pruitt somehow fired every scientist on the EPA Science Advisory Board, to be reportedly replaced by pro-corporate Big Oily lobbyists. 

It’s been said by far greater thinkers than myself that Pruitt et al are trying to dismantle the EPA and all environmental safeguards piece-meal.  They are trying to murder the 50-year-old Clean Air and Clean Water Acts via death by a thousand cuts, not by the simple quick shock of cut throats.  (The optics would not favor that.) That’s why I figure only now media outlets are finding out about the Kill EPA Bill, that it has been darkly slumming around DC since last winter.

If nothing else, remember this… it is something that GOP elected bastards, especially the newest ones, somehow miss, even when and after they swear an oath to “uphold and protect the United States Constitution”… and it is this:  Will there ever be a time when these Trumpenfuhrer loyalists realize that they are traitors to the notion of democracy, that their unwavering party-pulling line is detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of this nation and the Earth??  It is that last clause they so cavalierly deny and turn their backs to that we, as a civilization on the brink of totalitarianism and/or destruction, can never forget.

In the meantime, sign this petition to let yer lawgivers know you do not dig erasing the EPA.

 – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


But First, a Year of Hell

NASA lunar base concept.

NASA now says they want to put astronauts in orbit around the Moon for a year before blasting them off to Mars in the 2030s.  At the Humans to Mars Summit held last week in Washington DC, a NASA spokesman said that the four-part plan to get to Mars will begin in 2027 with placing a crew to cislunar orbit first, for a year, on the Deep Space Transport system, before beginning the 1,000-day voyage to Mars and back.  But before any of that happens, NASA has to spend a few years getting stuff up to lunar orbit on its new super-duper Space Launch System – which just got pushed back, again.  Trump’s White House told NASA to put humans on the SLS maiden voyage – which is not only moronic but unnecessarily reckless – and NASA looked into it, but said publicly on Friday that, ah, no, it ain’t gonna happen that way. The first unmanned launch of the SLS is now moved up a year to 2019.  

Galactic Prix

Buzz Aldrin explains his Cycling Pathways to Mars concept.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin has called on NASA to hand over the International Space Station (ISS) to private hands such as Space X, Boeing, and Blue Orbital so the space agency can focus its energies on human interplanetary missions to Mars and other extraterrestrial locales. “We must retire the ISS as soon as possible,” Aldrin said at the 2017 Humans to Mars conference in Washington, D.C. this week reports the Houston Press. “We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost.” The octogenarian, who believes NASA is wasting precious resources in low-Earth-orbit, peddled his his own plan to get humans on Mars, based on the concept of “cycling pathways,” a sort of space-age Silk Road in which spacefaring Earthlings and equipment hitch rides on rocketships constantly shuttling between Earth and Mars.. These celestial express routes would first be established between the Earth and the Moon to easily settle a lunar colony where trans-solar system living can be tested and developed. The next “evolutionary development” would be to expand the cycler space-based highway to a near Earth asteroid by 2020, then on to a landing on Venus by 2024, and finally to a permanent human presence at the Red Planet by the 2030s.

Workers of the Universe Unite

Wonder Boy Elon Musk’s Space X corporation just got bitch-slapped when they lost a class-action lawsuit this week.  Seems Musk forgot to pay his employees at the Hawthorne, CA plant for their government-mandated breaks.  (The Hawthorne headquarters is where the company manufactures its swimmingly successful Falcon 9 reusable rockets.)  According to Inverse publication, $4 million will be paid to some 4,100 employees who say the company refused to allow them to take legally mandated breaks during the workday.Each worker will get about $500 – with the highest payouts coming out to about $2,000 per person.”  But here’s the bigger rub: one third of that payout – about $1.3 million – will go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  No justice, no peace.

Surf’s Up

Boasting the latest advances in land-based imaging technology and “adaptive optics,” astronomers announced Friday in the publication Nature that they have used the Large Binocular Telescope perched atop Arizona’s Pinaleno mountains to detect two massive lava waves undulating around a volcanic crater the size of Lake Ontario on Jupiter’s pockmarked moon, Io. While the scientific observation in itself is significant, what’s stunning is that professional star-gazers from the (relative) comfort of terra firma can now – at least for solar system observations – rival findings from space-based instruments like the Hubble Telescope, and identify cosmically tiny features 391 million miles away on a Jovian satellite approximately the size of our own.  This new-fangled wizardry enabled cosmologists in March 2015 to take snapshots of a rare orbital alignment in which Jupiter’s icy moon Europa gradually eclipsed the volcanically-active Io, blocking more and more light emanating from the magma-filled Loki Patra crater (see gif on right). From this data, researchers were able to create a “heat map” indicating how the temperature varied across the basin, revealing one lava wave moving clockwise and the other staring from a different direction swirling counterclockwise.


Off the Blacklist

Star scientists have recently concluded that supermassive black holes are not as indiscriminately voracious as once thought – or at the least, their perceived rapacious “consume all and anything” reputations could never hold a candle to Republican congressmen seeking re-election.  Astronomers started to change their tunes about black holes some years back, but it became a lot more convincing recently after they observed a slew of galactic head-ons merging into one another when they realized that it takes a ginormously disruptive event to make the humongous critters to get sufficiently provoked, and thereby hungry.  Using their NuSTAR space telescope, NASA brains studied 52 galaxy collisions and concluded that it was in the late stage of the smash-ups that galactic black holes got hot and bothered and then started gobbling what was orbiting them.

Great Balls of Fire

For illustration purposes only.

Adding to your list of existential fears including Donald Trump ordering a nuclear strike instead of a Coke or a giant asteroid walloping our planet, researchers now believe the “kill zone” in which a supernova could cause mass extinctions on Earth is probably 50 light years wide instead of the previously calculated 25, reports Space Daily. Or at least this is an estimate made by brainiacs at the University of Kansas in a follow-up to their 2016 report regarding the effects of supernovae on Earth’s biology and the “slam dunk” evidence that radioactive debris from an exploding star rained on our planet some 2.6 million years ago. According to KU scientist Adrian Melott, while the isotopic shrapnel from a spent sun that bombarded Earth originated a relatively safe 150 light years away, we wouldn’t be so fortunate if such a cataclysm occurred much closer:

People estimated the ‘kill zone’ for a supernova in a paper in 2003, and they came up with about 25 light years from Earth … Now we think maybe it’s a bit greater than that … We don’t know precisely, and of course it wouldn’t be a hard-cutoff distance. It would be a gradual change. But we think something more like 40 or 50 light years.

That said, it’s probably not something not worth losing sleep over. According to, there are “only” 133 stars located within a 50 light-year radius of the Earth, so while the potential exists that life on Earth could be obliterated by a gas ball blowout, the probabilities within our lifetime is pretty low. So sweet dreams – sort of.

Through Many Lenses, Brightly

NASA has a new view of the Crab Nebula, and to see it in this new light is spectacular.  The agency combined photos from an array of their space telescopes set on the same angle of the massive cloud of dust and gas that resides 6,500 light-years away – and the group effort is decidedly out of this world.  NASA achieved the new view of our neighbor by layering pix from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and of course the Hubble Space Telescope, the XMM Newton to capture ultraviolet waves and the Chandra Space Telescope to grab the X-Rays.  The result, as one can see, is quite stunning.  The good ol’ Crab Nebula is part of the “Local Group” of galaxies orbiting our larger Milky Way Galaxy, and its sun  supernovaed in 1054 A.D.  We thank Dog that Chinese astronomers observed and documented it while the tribal Anglo-Saxons were still bickering about the Battle of Hastings.

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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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Eyes Wide Open

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August 29, 2016

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

B l i n d e r s  O n  T h e  R i g h t

This week our imaginations and creativity are aflame.  We just discovered a new rocky planet, near Proxima b, and it’s close to us; it may be habitable.  NASA is recruiting Earthlings to become the first Martians with inspiring new posters and other artists have come up with the viable concept of a solar train whizzing us around to new worlds.

But first, let’s don our hazmat suits as we delve into the minds of Congress or the Republican candidate for president, and enter the black hole of vanity, greed and blindness.  Those dreams of discovery are obliterated, spaghettified.

Screen shot 2016-08-28 at 2.52.12 AM

©Copyright 2016 Nate Beeler.

For more than a year, news outlets – particularly those with a scientific bent such as Galactic Sandbox — have been desperately trying to pry from the presidential candidates just where they stand regarding space exploration and the future of NASA.  It’s like pulling donkey teeth.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has given precious little lip service toScreen shot 2016-08-28 at 9.21.46 PM what her position on space exploration is, but we are not very troubled by it.  Her campaign has repeatedly said that NASA and space science is a priority in the party’s plank, and they’re going to stick to that.  NASA has always fared better under Democratic presidents.  And on a personal note, Mrs. Clinton’s original dream in her younger days was to be an astronaut, and she actually applied to NASA for a career.  Luckily for us, they turned her down.

On the other hand, Donald Trump infamously said that America has “to fix the potholes first.”  We agree that there needs to be a massive program to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure, but any bean counter knows that both public works and a robust space program can be accomplished at the same time, itrump and little NASAf only Republicans would quit stonewalling every decent piece of legislation merely to foil “that black guy in the White House.”  It’s a well-known fact that President Obama’s political foes launched their miserable obstructionism the day after he first got into office.

Recently, Aerospace America managed to crowbar this out of Trump: “A lot of what my administration would recommend depends on our economic state. If we are growing with all of our people employed and our military readiness back to acceptable levels, then we can take a look at the timeline for sending more people into space.”

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A top-secret military space plane landed in California after a two-year test flight ended in 2014.

This is disturbing to me on so many levels that it’s physically painful. However, I will try to unpack it. First, “with all of our people employed….” The problem is not a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of good jobs with a living wage. In fact, many of us low-income people have THREE jobs, all paying less than seven bucks an hour. Second, “our military readiness back to acceptable levels.” This guy is so devoid of facts it’s frightful. Congress keeps throwing money at the military, and the Pentagon has repeatedly told them to shove it. The brass doesn’t really pay $3,000 for hammers or $5,000 for toilet seats. They itemize mundane items astronomically to hide the cost of “black” projects.  Yet the Pentagon has said again and again it doesn’t need even that much money for their black ops… they are awash in money.  Republican politicians insist on this idiocy because many of the “white elephant” hardwares are made in their districts, and they are not only pork barreling but also price gouging to boot. Thirdly, “then we can send…more people into space….” Donald, you pathetic moron, it’s not simply about sending people “into space,” it’s about robotic exploration, space telescopes, research and development. Sigh.

With all this in mind, Galactic Sandbox has a new battle cry we’d like to share, and we encourage our readers to shout it frequently this election season:  ♫  Thank You, Republicans! ♫  (Sung to the tune of “Thanks for the Memories”)
–  Kate Woods

K i n g  o f  t h e  W o r l d

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View of Jupiter’s north polar region as taken by Juno on August 27, when the craft was 437,000 miles away.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft whizzed by Jupiter last Saturday at 5:51 a.m. PDT at a speed of 130,000 mph, marking the mission’s closest approach to the gas giant yet at a distance of about 2,600 miles. Last weekend also was the first time Juno’s full suite of scientific instruments were turned on since the craft arrived at the Jovian system on July 4th. “This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works,” said Scott Bolton,  the mission’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX.

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This dual view of Jupiter was taken on August 23, when the Juno spacecraft was 2.8 million miles from the giant gasbag

While high-resolution JunoCam pix of the Jovian atmosphere and the first portraits of Jupiter’s north and south poles are expected to be released later this week, results from other scientific measurements collected during the flyby won’t be available for some time, says NASA.

“No other spacecraft has ever orbited Jupiter this closely, or over the poles in this fashion,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is our first opportunity and there are bound to be surprises. We need to take our time to make sure our conclusions are correct.”

There are 35 more close encounters with Jupiter scheduled during Juno’s prime mission, which is scheduled to end in February of 2018.

M o r e  T h a n  M e e t s  t h e  E y e

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Will-o’-the-wisp: Shrouded Dragonfly 44 galaxy in Gemini Observatory photo.

Astronomers are all atwitter about the recent discovery of a massive galaxy, which on first glance doesn’t appear to exist. Apparently, the newly dubbed Dragonfly 44 cosmic island consists of 99.99% dark matter, and is the largest galaxy of its kind that has been identified to date. (Dark matter is the still-not-completely-understood “gravitational glue” that is thought to make up almost 85% of the universe’s mass.) An international team of scientists spotted the galaxy last year with the WM Keck Observatory and the Gemini North Telescope in Manuakea, Hawaii, and after clocking the speed of the few stars in the region, concluded that they would be flung apart unless held together by dark matter. “In the Dragonfly galaxy stars move very fast. So there was a huge discrepancy: using Keck Observatory, we found many times more mass indicated by the motions of the stars, than there is mass in the stars themselves,” said Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. Speaking of such “invisible galaxies,” last year, Dokkum explained, “If the Milky Way is a sea of stars, then these newly discovered galaxies are like wisps of clouds. They are found in a dense, violent region of space filled with dark matter and galaxies whizzing around, so we think they must be cloaked in their own invisible dark matter ‘shields’ that are protecting them from this intergalactic assault.”

P r o x i m a  F a m i l i a r i t a s

Screen shot 2016-08-26 at 11.58.40 PMA tantalizingly-close Earth-sized exoplanet has been discovered orbiting the nearest start system to our own. According to NASA, astronomers peering through the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile, have identified a rocky planet circling in the “habitable zone” around Proxima Centauri, the smallest member of the Alpha Centauri triple star system just 4 light-years away. In fact, scientists speculate the Earth-like orb could be warm enough to allow liquid water to collect on the surface, and are eager to determine whether it holds the ingredient suitable for life.

C o l o s s a l  P i c k

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Mars 2020 rover.

NASA has chosen United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) huge Atlas V rocket to launch the space agency’s next robotic mission to Mars in the summer of 2020, The Mars 2020 rover mission is the next phase  of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term motorized exploration of the red planet, and will be especially equipped to search for key clues to the potential for life. ULA rockets have sent spacecraft to Mars 17 times in the past 50 years.

P a s t  I m p e r f e c t

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What were we thinking? Scientist now believe that the oceans started warming immediately as the industrial revolution shifted into high gear by the mid 19th century.

A new study published last week in the journal Nature is challenging the length of time it is believed humans have affected climate change, reports the Washington Post. Using paleoclimate records from the past 500 years, the authors of the paper show that sustained warming began to occur in both the tropical oceans and the Northern Hemisphere as far back as the 1830s, and indicate that belching industrial-era greenhouse gas emissions were the culprit, even then. “I don’t think it changes what we know about how the climate has warmed during the 20th century, but it definitely adds to the story,” said Nerilie Abram, an expert in paleoclimatology at Australian National University and the new study’s lead author.

R i d e  O n  T h e  S p a c e  T r a i n

Screen shot 2016-08-27 at 12.12.42 AMTired of your metro commute to work? Someday, you may be able to board a “Solar Express” space train that would tote humans, supplies and minerals at lightning speeds between extraterrestrial bodies and space stations in our solar system. In fact, the concept’s creators, who are soliciting help from others to improve the idea, believe one could travel at 1% the speed of light (about 3,000km/s), meaning you could get to Mars in less than two days. Since acceleration and deceleration are the most expensive phases of space travel, the Solar Express will never stop – instead smaller capsules will hop on as it goes whooshing by. Comprised of a series of aligned cylinders at least 50 meters long, the Solar Express would be powered via a combination solar energy, hydrogen propellant supplied by water harvested form comets and small moons, and ion thrusters (see graphic above).

R e d  A l e r t . . . M a r t i a n s  W a n t e d !

NASA needs YOU! The agency just released a series of cool posters aimed at recruiting tomorrow’s new explorers, the 21st Century Marco Polos and Neil Armstrongs who may someday go to Mars or an asteroid near you.The colorful Bauhaus-style artworks are available for purchase, too.







S t e p p i n g  O n  T h e  G a s

fracking memeWhen the Oil and Gas Industry wants to dirty up a place, they like to go where people are so oppressed and poor that they are too busy trying to survive to complain about their kids’ nosebleeds, asthma or other long-term medical problems. So the Four Corners region of New Mexico, where numerous Native American reservations are located, is a perfect place for the filthy energy barons to drill and frack.

Until those snoopy NASA scientists showed up.

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Aztec, NM hot spot.

In 2014, when a NASA study pinpointed a colossal methane hot spot over the Four Corners, the industry went defensively ape. The oil PR guys actually said (we are NOT making this up) that the methane pollution was coming from natural sources and landfills. NASA did another study just to appease the polluters, and the results which they released last week were worse: NASA found 250 hot spots, especially in the Aztec, NM area where the oil and gas kings have numerous facilities that belch out the worst kind of global warming gasses: NASA detected methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with oil and gas production, including known carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, and xylene.

protest signThe EPA and the Bureau of Land Management say they are cracking down on any new facilities that emit such dangerous greenhouse poisons, but what about the existing ones? Galactic Sandbox agrees with the environmental organization, Earthworks, who confirmed this story with infrared cameras, that fossil fuels need to be where they are least harmful to living things: in the ground.

A c e  I n  T h e  H o l e

Screen shot 2016-08-28 at 9.52.55 PMLast but not least, famed physicist Stephen Hawking may finally get his illusive Nobel prize, thanks to a fellow scientist who was able to create a “fun sized” black hole in his lab. According to Popular Mechanics, Israeli professor Jeff Steinhauer has made a breakthrough challenge to the notion that nothing escapes a black hole’s clutches, which could lead to proving Hawking’s calculations made 42 years ago showing these super gravity wells actually “radiate” particles back into space. In his experiment, Steinhauer bypassed the difficulty of calculating such radiation, and simulated a “black hole” capable of engulfing sound using a laser that shot rubidium atoms in an environment cooled to near absolute zero. According to Steinhauer, since the rubidium atoms were traveling faster than the speed of sound, part of the sound wave was pushed out of the “black hole,” thus contradicting what the scientific community believes happens in real black holes.


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