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.


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 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..
 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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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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Hell or High Water

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September 4, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Eclipsing Expectations

A handful of the Galactic Sandbox team and friends had the privilege to witness the total solar eclipse last month from a front-row perch in the Idaho Rockies. Below are a few photos of the experience, including an exclusive shot of the totality by filmmaker and photographer John Zibell who was with us (note, the planet Mercury can be seen at about 8 o’clock from the Sun/Moon), and partial eclipse pix taken by yours truly.

As we stood agog over the spectacularly silent celestial show, it wasn’t hard to understand how such an event has made an indelible impression on humanity for thousands of years, and how little we’ve scratched the surface of our wondrous universe. It was also hard not to think of how our dear friend Kate Woods would have loved to have been there — in a just cosmos, she should not only be in a place looking up to the stars, but looking out from them!  — Agnett Bonwitt

                                                    ECLIPSE REVIEW

Many thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.


Flooded Gates

While the human and economic toll from Hurricane Harvey continues to (rightfully) remain as a top concern for rescue and relief efforts as well as the focus of media attention, the general public may forget that NASA’s mission control is headquartered in besieged Houston. According to Space News, Johnson Space Center was drenched with 42 inches of rain last week, and through Labor Day is being manned by a skeleton crew to monitor International Space Station operations. In addition, the space agency’s next-generation, $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope that is scheduled to launch late next year, has been at JSC for testing and while the building it’s being housed at was flooded, the telescope fortunately remains unscathed.

Quick Editorial Aside: Obviously, the recent flooding – not only in the Gulf Coast, but also the catastrophic deluge which has left over a thousand dead and one third of Bangladesh under water – if not directly caused by climate change, does offer a chilling preview of things to come if Trump and his cronies continue to willfully and greedily turn their backs from the ability of humankind to survive a greenhouse gas-choked Earth.

Days of Future Past

As many US citizens continue to reel from the political, environmental, and cultural devastation that has reached a possible point of no return with the Trump administration, ultimately we can’t say that we weren’t warned of such an Orwellian scenario. Making the internet rounds lately is an excerpt from a 1996 Carl Sagan book, “The Demon Haunted World,”  in which Sagan paints an eerily familiar picture of our present time:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

Sagan also provides a warning that applies all too fittingly to our orange-tinted sociopath-in-chief: “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Celestial Sweepstakes

In July, Elon Musk’s Space X commercial space venture passed the $20 billion valuation mark.

Investors’ appetite for commercial space ventures continued to be ravenous in 2016, according to newly-compiled data from industry consulting group Bryce Space and Technology that reported a record-smashing $2.8 billion in more mainstream capital thrown at out-of-this-world projects last year – a $400 million increase since 2015. And while the SpaceXs and Blue Origins continue to be the darlings of the burgeoning sector, it is a new generation of small, relatively inexpensive satellites beaming terabytes of data to Earth that have venture capitalists drooling over the potential returns on everything from the satellites themselves, to software used to interpret their data, and from the new rockets designed to boost them into orbit. “Fundamentally, investors go after opportunity, and the way I would sum it up is, this is one of the last frontiers, to be a little cliché,” said Tom Barton, chief operating officer at Planet, whose 190 imaging birds grind out 7 terabytes of new Earth imagery each day. “It’s still old-school; it hasn’t really been touched by Moore’s Law,” Barton told CNBC.

In 2016, 114 investors poured more than $2.8 billion into space start-ups. Above satellite imagery produced by commercial space firm, Planet.

However, according to authors of the Bryce study, the industry has advanced to the point that investors are anxious to see a return on dollars, not just pie-in-the-sky dreams. “We’re not yet seeing the outcome of investment in a lot of funded companies,” said Bryce’s CEO Carissa Christensen. “We’re seeing their ability to raise money, we’re seeing their ability to design and deploy their systems, but we’re not seeing their ability to return profits,” she added. It’s also a make or break time for many start-ups which according to Planet’s Barton, could go bankrupt in the next few years. “As much as I say that we’re at the start of consolidation in the new space sector, I think we’re probably at the start of some of these companies going bankrupt,” Planet’s Barton says, adding, “I would guess that over the next two years we see five or 10 significant bankruptcies or acquisitions for pennies on the dollar for people that just aren’t going to make it on their own.”


US astronaut Peggy Whitson returned to Earth last weekend from the International Space Station, breaking the record of cumulative days in space for any American or any woman worldwide. According to, Whitson’s homecoming aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule at a desolate region of Kazakhstan early Sunday morning local time marked 665 days in orbit, with 288 days for her just-completed mission. As well as time marked in space, Whitson broke past a few other milestones: world’s oldest spacewoman, at age 57; the most experienced female spacewalker with 10; and the first woman to command the ISS twice.

Rock Stars

The largest asteroid in more than a century to cruise safely pass Earth reached within 4.4 million miles our planet on Friday as professional and amateur astronomers stampeded optical and radio telescopes to get a detailed glimpse of the mountain-sized space rock that last visited our neck of the solar system in 1890. Nicknamed “Florence” after nursing pioneer Florence Nightengale, the 3 mile-wide boulder provided scientists with a celestial living room view of an object we usually have to send multi-million dollar spacecraft to chase down and study. And in fact a team of researchers operating the humongous radar-equipped dishes at NASA’s Goldstone tracking station in California and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico took advantage of Florence’s lumbering speed and discovered that it has two moons, each estimated at 300 to 1000 feet across.


Asteroid 2012 TC4’s path past Earth.

In a related story, on October 12, researchers will have a rare opportunity to assess Earth’s “planetary defense” systems – or lack thereof – when a house-sized asteroid travels harmlessly by our planet at a distance of only an eighth of that between us and the Moon. “It’s damn close,” said Rolf Densing, who heads the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany as he commented on the hair’s-breath 27,300 miles the wayfaring space rock dubbed 2012 TC4 will approach before continuing its path into the void of space. Observing TC4’s movements “is an excellent opportunity to test the international ability to detect and track near-Earth objects and assess our ability to respond together to a real asteroid threat,” said an ESA statement.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Sierra Nevada’s mini-me “Dream Chaser” space shuttle completed a “captive carry” test above the Mojave Desert in California at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, as part of  a significant step toward returning American-made civilian winged spacecraft to orbit by 2020. While the Colorado-based firm lost out to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronaut crews to the international space station, NASA approved Sierra Nevada’s development of a dwarfed, robotically-piloted spaceplane that will deliver supplies to the orbiting station. “Today was a great accomplishment on Sierra’s planned march towards doing that approach and landing test,” said Mike Lee of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is led from Kennedy Space Center, following the captive carry test. Their are at least two launches of the reusable Dream Chaser slated from Cape Canaveral atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

Relatedly, the Air Force’s fifth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mission is slated for launch this Thursday aboard a SpaceX Falcon rocket, and will carry an Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload that will study the long-durational exposure of experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in space, reports Space Daily. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community,” said Randy Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. The uncrewed X-37B space plane completed its fourth mission last May, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending the total number of days off the Earth to 2,085.

Mixed Signals

Scientists are scratching their heads over the origin of 15 recently-recorded radio bursts from a galaxy 3 billion light years away that have ignited a barrage of sensational headlines speculating that the mysterious signals could have been produced by an alien civilization. A UC Berkeley-based team employing the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia caught the ancient radio beacons on August 26 and reported their initial findings as an Astronomer’s Telegram that can be read here.  The California researchers are part of the Breakthrough Listen project,  a global astronomical initiative launched in 2015 by Internet investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner and famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking to “observe nearby stars and galaxies for signatures of extraterrestrial technology.”

Untested Waters

According to recent Hubble Telescope findings, out of the 7 Earth-sized Trappist-1 planets located 40 light years away, the inner two worlds could have lost more than 20 Earth-oceans-worth of water during the last eight billion years, while the outer planets, including e, f and g which are in the habitable zone should have lost much less moisture, suggesting that they could have retained enough H2O for habitable life.

Another report that sent news outlets in a tin foil hat tizzy involve findings by an astronomy team using the Hubble Space Telescope suggesting that the outer Earth-sized planets orbiting the recently-discovered Trappist-1 solar system might still harbor substantial amounts of water, making them prime candidates for habitable life. Swiss astronomer Vincent Bourrier, lead researcher of the squad that studied the effects that ultraviolet rays from the Trappist dwarf star have on breaking up water vapor on its now famous seven planetary offspring, noted that information garnered by our our current scientific instruments is insufficient to draw final conclusions on how wet these planets are. “While our results suggest that the outer planets are the best candidates to search for water with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, they also highlight the need for theoretical studies and complementary observations at all wavelengths to determine the nature of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and their potential habitability,” Bourier said.

Clap Traps Tin Foil Hat Pusher Alert!

Over the past week or so, there has been an avalanche of news items covering the above puzzling radio bursts and Trappist-1 water stories that range from a mild ding to a full-blown, circus clown horn blast on our Tin Foil Hat meter, suggesting, and in some cases unabashedly asserting, that these inconclusive cosmic observations involve proof that alien civilizations exist. One of the more blatant offenders was the UK’s  Daily Star that laughingly proclaimed the following: 

As if this error-laced screamer weren’t bad enough, scattered throughout the actual “story” like IQ-reducing buckshot were unsubstantiated (and grammatically incorrect) claims such as  “Scientist find [sic] evidence aliens could have been living on Trappist for billions of yea [sic],” and “more than 40,000 Americans have taken out insurance against being abducted by aliens,” While all of this is neither surprising or new, it does show that  Carl Sagan’s prophesied “celebration of ignorance” continues to rage at a fevered pitch. Tin Foil Hats all around!

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Fast and Dubious

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July 31, 2017

By Elizabeth McMahon, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Burning Down the House

Revealing NASA photo taken in 2012 shows extensive methane flaring that occurred at oil extraction operations in the Bakken region of North Dakota (highlighted in box). Such unnecessary methane flaring that contributes to climate-changing greenhouse gassing and wastes vast amounts of energy could be possible again under the Trump Administration.

While the US media continues to be gobsmacked by “The Apprentice – White House Edition” meat grinder narrative where contestants cannibalize each other as our Republic burns to the ground, concertmaster der Trumpenfuhrer makes sure his administration keeps on truckin’ in its accelerated fossil-fueled assault on planet Earth and the US citizens it purports to govern.

In a recent article titled, “An Environmental Disaster in the Making,” author Sarah Okeson sounds the alarm bells, reporting that the US Interior Department is fast-tracking drilling permits for the “New Texas Oil Boom,” while the EPA turns a blind eye as it works to unravel “Obama-era regulations on methane, a greenhouse gas that worsens climate change and has been linked to asthma.”

Bringing back wild west oil drilling – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke As with several other Trump Cabinet members, Zinke has called for increased energy drilling and mining on public lands and has expressed skepticism about the urgency of climate change.

The recipe for this environmental time bomb starts with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (the same goon who last week threatened Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan with retaliatory actions agains their state if Murkowski continued to vote against the [ultimately] failed Republican healthcare reform bill), who is making it easier for energy companies to slice up the Permian Basin, a region covering Texas and New Mexico that is rich in oil and gas reserves with “more recoverable oil than any field outside Saudi Arabia.” So much crude, in fact, that North American drillers plan to drop most of their $84 billion play money this year in the area, which Citigroup estimates “could be producing 5 million barrels of oil a day by 2020, more than Iran or Iraq.”

Then the EPA – led by big-oil stooge Scott Pruitt – steps in and stonewalls new regulations restricting methane emissions at new oil and gas wells even though more than 203,000 Americans, about a quarter of them children, live within half a mile of the 18,000 gas and oil facilities subject to the EPA rule, according to the FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that studies oil and gas development. (The Interior Department also is quashing a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) dictum limiting the amount of methane that can be vented, burned or wasted from oil and gas operations on federal and Native American lands.)

Fortunately, a federal appeals court has blocked Pruitt’s attempt to delay the EPA statute, and .environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, are suing Zinke and the Interior Department for not enforcing provisions of the BLM rule. The attorney generals in California and New Mexico have also sued over the delay in enforcing the BLM edict.

“As much as Zinke talks about valuing our public lands and emulating Teddy Roosevelt, the truth is that he and Donald Trump share the same priority: giving Big Oil free rein on our publicly-owned lands, whatever the cost to our health and our environment,” said Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club.

To keep the fire blazing under their toes and not ours, we encourage folks to send love messages to both Pruitt (Facebook and Twitter sites, / Phone: 202-564-4700) and Zinke (202-208-3100, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240, Facebook and Twitter sites).


Facts of Life

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, boasts the most complex atmosphere in the solar system that many scientists believes mimics the atmosphere of early Earth before the build-up of oxygen.

Researchers are abuzz over the detection within the smoggy nitrogen/methane atmosphere of Saturn’s moon, Titan, of a molecule instrumental in the creation of life. The European Space Agency last week revealed that the international Cassini-Huygens mission may have found a “universal driver for prebiotic chemistry,” forming conditions that may be similar to those that led to the development of life on Earth. The new Cassini-Huygens findings, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, describes the unexpected discovery of a particular type of  highly-reactive, negatively-charged molecules “understood to be building blocks towards more complex molecules, and may have acted as the basis for the earliest forms of life on Earth.”  When exposed to sunlight, these energetic particles generate reactions involving nitrogen, hydrogen, and carbon, leading to more complex compounds that eventually drift down towards Titan’s lower atmosphere, possibly reaching the moon’s surface.

Over the Moon

 In a potential new coup for the Kepler Astronomy Telescope, scientists are reporting initial findings showing that the space-based planet-seeker may have recorded data of an extraordinarily-large moon the size of Neptune orbiting a giant planet nearly 4,000 light years away, reports the National Geographic. If confirmed, the discovery of the ridiculously-huge satellite marks the existence of an “exomoon,” opening a new chapter in the study of worlds beyond our solar system. In order to affirm their detected signals, researchers have booked time this October to aim the Hubble Space Telescope at the planet’s home star. “This candidate is intriguing, and we obviously feel good enough about it that we’ve asked for Hubble time,” coauthor Alex Teachey, a graduate student at Columbia University, says in an email. “But we want to be crystal clear that we are not claiming a detection at this point.” Until then Teachey’s team will be keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that Kepler will add a remarkably new feather in its cap, on top of the already confirmed 2,000 alien worlds and 4,000 potential exoplanets it has spotted.

Penny Pinching

According to a newly-released report obtained by Buzz Feed, NASA passed up the opportunity to send astronauts around the Moon in 2020 – not because it wasn’t safe – but due to lack of sufficient funding. The document explains the reason space agency acting head Robert Lightfoot last May declined the Trump administration’s urging to include humans on the first mission of the jumbo Space Launch System rocket that would make an eight-day express trip around our nearest celestial neighbor in 2019. “NASA concluded crew could have flown on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), provided timely and sufficient funding,” if the launch were postponed until  2020, the report signed by Lightfoot read,  A crewed EM-1 mission would have had “significant” benefits, the report adds, including a “better overall flow” of future flights and by accelerating the possibility of shipping humans to Mars aboard spacecraft launched via SLS rockets. “NASA wants people to know it could have done this, if they had the money, but won’t because they don’t,” Keith Cowing of NASA Watch told BuzzFeed News. While NASA usually refrains from sending human guinea pigs on maiden space voyages, the maturity of the repurposed space shuttle rockets integrated into the SLS vehicle and the successful flight test of an Orion capsule in 2014 dispelled signifiant fears regarding astronaut safety. However, the $600 million $900 million NASA needed to cough up in order to add life support systems was the ultimate show-stopper.

Up in Arms

Iran’s “Simorgh” rocket was launched at the Imam Khomeini Space Center, Iran, on July 27. (Tasnim News Agency/Handout via Reuters)

The U.S,. along with France, Germany, and Britain,  cried foul last week after Iran announced that it had successfully tested a rocket that can launch satellites into orbit, a move the group of nations said breached a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding ballistic missile development.  Acting further, citing continued “provocative actions,” the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on six Iranian missile manufacturing firms owned or controlled by the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group that was involved in the production of the rocket. According to Reuters, the move enables the U.S. government to block those companies’ properties under its jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. citizens from conducting business with the firms. “The U.S. government will continue to aggressively counter Iran’s ballistic missile-related activity, whether it be a provocative space launch … or likely support to Yemeni Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia such as occurred this past weekend,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the other hand, defended his country’s  space program on Twitter, arguing that it does not build missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons. “Iran—unlike the U.S.—has complied in good faith with the letter and spirit of JCPOA [the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and five other powers],” Zarif said, adding that the United States’s “rhetoric and actions”  “show[ed] bad faith.”

New Kids in Town

Soyuz MS-05 carrying NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) docks with the International Space Station on Friday, July 28.

A Russian-made Soyuz rocket lofted three astronauts – including veteran American, Russian, and Italian space farers,  to the International Space Station, joining two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonauts already onboard the orbiting laboratory. According to NASA, the new Expedition 52 crew members will spend more than four months conducting a smorgasbord of approximately 250 science investigations in fields such as biology, Earth science, human research, physical sciences and technology development. The new additions also mark the first time the space agency has four crew members (including Italy’s Paolo Nespoli) available for these scientific demonstrations, effectively doubling the amount of research time for NASA and its partners.

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Hot Spots

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July 17, 2017

By Elizabeth McMahon, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

That Sinking Feeling

Our celestial observatories do more than just look skyward; they are also used to stockpile valuable data about what is going on right here on our home planet. An important example of this is the project started in 1958 by Charles Keeling who began to measure the amount of CO2 in our air from the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. It was originally planned to run for only a year, but half a century later the project is still being run by his son Ralph, and the information produced is used to measure how human activity is affecting the planet. This knowledge has been employed many times by climate scientists who call it the “Keeling curve”, an uncomfortably rising line that we have not successfully leveled out despite the lowering of emissions in the last few decades.

Charles Keeling receives the National Science Medal from President Bush in 2001. Also in 2015, the The American Chemical Society designated the Keeling Curve as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

And now we may have the answer as to why we’re continuously chasing our tail. It seems that humans have nearly maxed out ‘carbon sinks’ – large areas of land and ocean that absorb huge amounts of CO2 as we pump it into the atmosphere. In the past, these carbon eaters helped keep the planet from warming as quickly as it otherwise could have, but now they are approaching capacity. Ralph Keeling explains that the sinks we have now can only suck up about half of greenhouse gases, the rest builds up in the atmosphere. In order to at least stop the toxic hemorrhaging, we would have to reduce our emissions by a drastic 50%, a number no country is anywhere near, and is far more radical that what is called for in the 2015 Paris climate change accord. As the sinks reach saturation we have to continue to lower our greenhouse gas belching to basically zero and then begin creating new carbon collectors to take out what we have already produced.

So for the past several decades, the full effects of our emissions have been kept somewhat in check, allowing many to disavow that the situation calls for urgent action because the data is not sufficient. But now some are sounding the alarm that our window of opportunity for avoiding the worst effects is closing fast.

Thanks to Randall Munroe, xkcd.

An open letter by six scientists and diplomats states that we have approximately three years before the worst effects of climate change take hold. They aren’t just Cassandra’s with no solutions however, they propose six goals to hit by 2020 to avert this catastrophe, but the whole world would have to adopt them. And this is of course at the time our current de-evolutionary administration has declared climate change is not on the agenda, and has freed the US from the burden of ensuring the Earth has a chance of supporting the existence of future generations. Unfortunately, by the time it’s no longer possible to deny the science on CO2 emissions and our part in them, it will be too late to update anyone’s agenda.


Spot On

“Sleepy Eye” by Tom Momary.

Detail of Great Red Spot by Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Last week, NASA’s state-of-the-art Juno probe in its most recent Jupiter flyby snapped the most detailed pix of the gas giant’s iconic Red Spot, displaying what the space agency calls “a tangle of dark, veinous clouds weaving their way through a massive crimson oval.” Stretching 10,159 miles wide (as of April 3, 2017), the famous Jovian “storm”  is 1.3 times as wide as Earth, and has been monitored since 1830. The magnificent maelstrom, which is believed to have lasted 350 years, appears in recent years to be shrinking. “For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now we have the best pictures ever of this iconic storm. It will take us some time to analyze all the data from not only JunoCam, but Juno’s eight science instruments, to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.” As with other photos snapped by Juno, “citizen scientists” have been taking the available raw images and transforming them into glorious works of art. “I have been following the Juno mission since it launched,” said Jason Major, a JunoCam citizen scientist and a graphic designer from Warwick, Rhode Island. “It is always exciting to see these new raw images of Jupiter as they arrive. But it is even more thrilling to take the raw images and turn them into something that people can appreciate. That is what I live for.”

Skating on Thin Ice

In a CNN opinion piece written by John Sutter titled, “That huge iceberg should freak you out. Here’s why,” the author challenges the media blitzkrieg last week that scientists believe the trillion-ton runaway ice block that broke off of the Larsen C South Polar shelf has nothing to do with human-created climate change – a characterization which he calls at best misleading, and at worst, wrong. Among the five “takeaways” Sutter concludes after spending time discussing the Antarctic ice shelf calving with scientists is that we shouldn’t brush the event off as just a naturally-occurring event, with many researchers worried that their compatriots are failing to see the forest for the trees. “They’re looking at it through a microscope” rather than seeing macro trends, including the fact that oceans around Antarctica are warming, helping thin the ice,” Sutter quotes Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. Again, Sutter records the concerns of another leading researcher: “To me, it’s an unequivocal signature of the impact of climate change on Larsen C,” said Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine. “This is not a natural cycle. This is the response of the system to a warmer climate from the top and from the bottom. Nothing else can cause this.” Colleagues who say otherwise, added Rignot, are burying their heads “in the ice.” (To read Sutter’s full column, click here.)

Red Hot

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin kicked off a multi-year commemoration leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing in July 2019 with his own version of a star-studded gala as he raised $190,000 for his ShareSpace Foundation and rolled out the red carpet to hype his goal of landing humans on Mars by 2040. According to CBS News, Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham, Michael Collins and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt joined Aldrin  at the sold-out fete held under the shadow of a historic Saturn V rocket. “I like to think of myself as an innovative futurist,” Aldrin told a crowd of nearly 400 people in the Apollo/Saturn V Center. “The programs we have right now are eating up every piece of the budget and it has to be reduced if we’re ever going to get anywhere.” (Editors Note: Although, if NASA is forced to blitz its Earth observing programs, we may not have a place here to come from.) Aldrin’s Foundation also awarded and spaceflight company Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with the first Buzz Aldrin Space Innovation Award. “We can have a trillion humans in the solar system. What’s holding us back from making that next step is that space travel is just too darned expensive,” Bezos said. “I’m taking my Amazon lottery winnings and dedicating it to (reusable rockets). I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do that.”

Also honored at the festivities was former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, who was bestowed with the Buzz Aldrin Space Pioneering Award. “When Buzz says, ‘Get your ass to Mars,’ it’s not just about the physical part of getting to Mars. It’s also about that commitment to doing something big and audacious,” Jemison told The Associated Press. “What we’re doing looking forward is making sure that we use our place at the table.”


Buzz Kill

There may be, however, no table to scoot up to, at least according to the gloomy assessment by a NASA official, who speaking at the recent propulsion symposium, admits that at current costs, the space agency doesn’t have the resources to “put boots on the face of Mars,” by 2030 as Vice President MIke Pence put it just as week or so ago. “I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier said on Wednesday during a propulsion meeting at the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

NASA’s Deep Space Habitat near the Moon would help test astronauts’ ability to withstand long-duration space missions.

That said, NASA is expecting to get more funds to focus on human exploration to the Red Planet, and, according to Gerstenmaier, returning to the Moon is still within the agency’s grasp. “If we find out there’s water on the Moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the Moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” he said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.”

Grab Bag

Other space-age collectables on the auction block this week include the Apollo 13 flight plan annotated by its crew, a spacesuit worn by U.S. astronaut Gus Grissom, and lunar photographs taken by NASA.

The tale of a long-lost sack used by Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong to collect lunar dust should be coming to an end this week when it is expected to be auctioned off for about $4 million along with other space memorabilia by Sotheby’s in New York City. The 12 by 8.5-inch bag tagged “Lunar Sample Return” disappeared for decades after the first Moon landing, and eventually turned up in the garage of a Kansas museum manager who was convicted in 2014 of pinching It. After the U.S. Marshals Service unsuccessfully put it up for auction three times, the satchel was bought in 2015 by a Chicago-area attorney Nancy Lee Carlson for $995. When she sent it to NASA for authentication, the space agency decided to keep it after discovering that it still had traces of moon dust inside. Carson successfully sued NASA’s butt, and the hoopla generated by her legal challenge brought several potential buyers out of the woodwork, so Carlson decided to have it auctioned again. Sotheby’s Cassandra Hatton told Reuters she was confident the bag would find a good home. “Just know that the kind of person that would pay money like this for this item is going to take excellent care of it,” she said. “Nothing is lost forever.”

Piece of the Pie

Moon Express’ proposed “Harves Moon” expedition to bring back lunar samples back to Earth.

One of the contestants looking to nab Google’s $20 million Lunar XPRIZE contest has revealed its long-term plans to mine the Moon and bring back samples by 2020. Last week, Florida-based startup Moon Express unveiled its ambitious two-phase proposal that will include 1) a 2019 “Lunar Outpost” mission that will establish a research station on the Moon’s south pole to search for ore as well as ice lurking in dark, chilly craters, and 2) “Harvest Moon” slated for a 2020 launch that will employ three robotic spacecraft to bring lunar rocks back to Earth to be available for scientific research as well as for collectors. Still, the private firm needs to get its MX-1E robotic lander off the ground and prove that it can get the craft to the lunar surface and perform the required hopping around and video taking by the December 2017 deadline so it can qualify for the XPRIZE gold ring. So far, however, the company’s “Lunar Scout” mission continues to face some roadblocks in that the experimental “Electron” rocket designed to launch the lander from New Zealand has in tests only reached sub-orbital space, and the MX-1E itself has yet to be completed. Other that that, if the firm can clear these hurdles, it will become the first private company to squish its toes on our nearest celestial neighbor.

Small Wonder

A team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge has boasted finding the smallest star yet measured, with a size just an ooch larger than Saturn,  and a gravitational pull about 300 times stronger than what’s felt on Earth. Part of a binary system, the newly-measured, fun-sized “EBLM J0555-57Ab” is about 600 light years away, and was discovered as it passed in front of its much more significant other, using a method usually employed to detect exoplanets.  “Our discovery reveals how small stars can be,” said Alexander Boetticher, the lead author of the team’s findings that will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.“Had this star formed with only a slightly lower mass, the fusion reaction of hydrogen in its core could not be sustained, and the star would instead have transformed into a brown dwarf,” he added. Such celestial mini-mes are of particular interest to scientists, since they are the best candidates for being the home of temperate Earth-sized, liquid-water containing planets such as those recently-found surrounding  the ultra-cool TRAPPIST-1 dwarf star.

Spot Check

Dubbed Active Region 12665, the recently-appearing sunspot area is the only one currently on the Sun’s surface. To give a sense of scale, the darker core on the right is bigger than Earth.

NASA scientists are monitoring a new, rapidly-growing dark patch on our Sun that is currently facing Earth. Spotted by the space agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the ominous  sunspot area, which is appearing at a relatively low ebb in solar activity, could create flares, which at a minimum can generate increased amounts of polar auroras to at worse possibly creating potential disruptions in communication satellites and electric power grids here at home.




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Repeal and Replace

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June 12, 2017

By Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

Hell or High Water

Donald Trump’s actions leading up to and including him pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Change accord to further extend America’s greenhouse-gas frat party triggered several  impeachable offenses,  charges a Huffington Post op-ed piece last week written by Marjorie Cohn, Professor Emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Quoting the Constitution as providing for impeachment of a president when he commits “High Crimes” and misdemeanors, Cohn argues that such infractions don’t necessarily have to include conduct punishable by criminal law. In fact, Cohn says that Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist No. 65 writes that misdeeds can be impeachable if they “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust,” and “are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

Therefore, Cohn argues, Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate deal is an impeachable, political offense since “he acted in  concert with 22 Republican senators, who collectively receive $10,694,284 in contributions from the coal and oil industries” and who “put their own political and economic interests above the safety, security and indeed survival of the American people and the entire planet.” Particularly egregious, Cohn notes, is that Trump’s new energy policies stumble far short of the Obama administration’s promise under the Climate Change deal to reduce carbon emissions 26 to 29 percent by 2025, while the second most polluting country on the planet will now at best cut greenhouse gas exhalations by 15 to 19 percent below 2005 levels.

In addition, Cohn charges that Trump’s conduct falls under “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Continuing, she explains:

No individual embodies the trust of the public more than the president, who is elected by the people. When the people choose their president, they are entrusting that person with their security, well-being and survival. The voters trust the president to act in their best interests and protect them from harm. By withdrawing from the climate agreement, Trump is violating the trust that “We the People” have placed in him.

Finally, again quoting Hamilton, Cohn states that our Gasball-in-Chief deserves an impeachment nod for resulting “injuries done immediately to the society itself,” from the continuing contribution America will make as a gargantuan polluter to the Earth and ignoring the overwhelming red flags showing that we’re on the verge of a catastrophic life-ending epoch in our planet’s history. Punctuating this point, Cohn quotes Dahr Jamail’s analysis for Truthout, in which he reports, “Scientists have said that the U.S. withdrawal [from the climate accord] could add up to 3 billion tons of CO

2 into the atmosphere on an annual basis.” Further, Jamail adds, the anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) “is now recreating the conditions that caused the worst mass extinction event on Earth, the Permian mass extinction that took place approximately 250 million years ago and annihilated 90 percent of life.” Such “dramatic oceanic warming and acidification” he explains, “were key components of this extinction event, and these conditions align with what we are seeing today.”

I don’t know about you, but all this makes Trump’s arguably impeachable Comey/Flynn/Russia shenanigans look like running a stop sign, instead of a head-on collision of planetary proportions.


Shooting the Moon

SpaceX founder Elon Musk dropped a tantalizing tidbit last week regarding the launch-ready timeline of the private space venture’s newest “Falcon Heavy” rocket. According to a tweet, Musk boasted that all elements of the  230-foot-tall booster “should be at the Cape [Canaveral] in two to three months, so launch should happen a month after that,” bringing Musk’s goal of blasting a private mission to the Moon by the end of 2018 one step closer. While most experts believe the gazillionaire entrepreneur is biting off more than he can chew, Musk is the first to admit he might be a bit overzealous: “We will probably fly something really silly on Falcon Heavy because it is quite a high-risk mission,” Musk said in March after the successful  SES-10 mission launch, which was the first to recycle a Falcon 9 booster. The high-tech mogul has yet to announce what that “silly payload” might be, however his firm one time launched a big wheel of cheese into orbit.  (And may we suggest a pink-frosted doughnut with sprinkles?)

The New Stuff

NASA has picked a new crop of 12 astronaut candidates from a record-breaking pool of more than 18,300 hopefuls. “You are the 12 who made it through, you have joined the elites, you are the best of us,” VP Mike Pence said at a ceremony introducing the new recruits last Wednesday. “These are 12 men and women whose personal excellence and whose personal courage will carry our nation to even greater heights of discovery.” In an NPR interview, spacefarer-in-training Jasmin Moghbeli, who will start her cosmic bootcamp at Johnson Space Center in Houston this August, spoke about what it takes to be selected for the final frontier (hint, hint – seven of the 12 rookies are military officers): “Start looking into science, technology, engineering, math, those kinds of fields,” the German-born, New York native explained, adding, “But whatever you do, love it.”

Making It Count

According to math wiz Carl DeVito, any attempted communication between Earthlings and intelligent ETs should be based on a shared “exo-arthimetic” language. DeVito, who is an emeritus faculty in the mathematics department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has proposed such a universal numeric lingo, and recently detailed his concepts at the Astrobiology Science Conference held in April. According to DeVito, since mathematics is such an integral part of our humanity from science to the arts, such a system would have a high probability of being understood – or even familiar – to alien civilizations. For a more detailed explanation, click this NBC article by Leonard David of

To The Wonder

Take a 2017 space sojourn with the spectacular video below created with recent fly-by photos of Jupiter by NASA’s state-of-the-art Juno probe. Produced by German mathematician Gerald Eichstaedt, who spent 60 hours stitching 36 stunning Juno pix, and London animator Sean Doran, who, according to Wired, took 12 hours smoothing and enhancing the clip’s 2,400 frames before adding the Ligeti’s Requiem soundtrack used in Stanley Kubriick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Kate Woods

Photo: Tom Chargin

For regular readers of Galactic Sandbox’s Weekly Revolution, most likely you are aware of Kate Wood’s passing last week of injuries suffered in a single car crash near her home in New Idria, CA. No doubt, a good chunk of our audience is comprised of friends, associates, or fans of Kate who are heartbroken that this vibrant and irreverent life force is no longer with us. Having known Kate for almost 30 years, I can join with many who feel that her death is all too sudden and way too soon. That said, I am grateful for her rich legacy, part of which was her conviction that politics is entwined in all the minutiae of our lives and the planet, and if we don’t become masters of political forces, they will be our masters.  And she didn’t mean that we just holler, “throw the bums out!” (although she did that too),  but encouraged an intelligent resistance of and alternative to the consumptive virus infecting modern civilization (of which the morally-bankrupt Donald Trumps of this world are but a symptom) that will destroy the Earth for life as we know it.  

On a personal note, I will mourn the loss of Kate’s “voice,” and will simply miss my good friend. And like all true companions, Kate provided a mirror (however irascible) for my own life, giving it meaning, context, and purpose.  Hopefully, we can continue Galactic Sandbox so long as it serves a good end, and one that Kate would be proud of!

  • Brian McMahon (Agnett Bonwitt) May 29, 2017


And Then There Was One

Despite pressure from G7 leaders last weekend to endorse the historic 2015 Paris climate change accord, America’s greenhouse gas emissions friend-in-chief played coy with the fate of the Earth, tweeting that he would wait until this week to decide if the U.S. will back the 195-nation agreement (Spoiler Alert – Fat chance!). G7 heads of state who intensely pushed Trump during meetings in Italy last week to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the climate agreement, expressed frustration over President Cheese Puff’s “America First, Earth Last” platform. According to the Atlantic, German chancellor Angela Merkel said the discussions with Trump “had been very difficult, and not to say very unsatisfactory,” adding that “here we have a situation of six against one, meaning there is still no sign of whether the U.S. will remain in the Paris accord or not.” Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron said it was “essential for international equilibrium and the reputation of America that it remains engaged with the Paris treaty. The G7 had shown [that] issues such as climate change are not side issues that can be left to others.” Update: On Sunday afternoon, the Axios news outlet citing three knowledgable sources reported that Trump has told “confidants,” including EPA head hatchet man Scott Pruitt, he indeed plans to have the U.S. exit the Paris accord. (Hmm … sounds like Trump’s “evolving” view of the Paris deal grew a tail and scampered back to the Cretaceous Period.)

Not Yer Grandfather’s Jupiter

Taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft 32,000 miles above Jupiter’s south pole, this composite pic shows oval-shaped  cyclones up to 600 miles in diameter.

The first scientific results from NASA’s Juno probe are in, and space agency brainiacs are breathlessly marveling at what they’re calling a “whole new Jupiter,” filled with Earth-sized polar cyclones, a gargantuan “lumpy” magnetic field, and swooping storm systems piercing deep into the belly of the gas giant. According to NASA, these initial findings based on Juno’s 2,600-mile Jovian flyby last August 27 were published last week in the journal Science, as well as in Geophysical Research Letters. “We knew, going in, that Jupiter would throw us some curves,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “But now that we are here we are finding that Jupiter can throw the heat, as well as knuckleballs and sliders. There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter.” Juno’s next close pass of the gas giant will be on July 11, when the probe will focus its scientific instruments on the planet’s iconic Great Red Spot.

Lunar Bombed

Last Thursday,  NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, witnessed the Moon throwing some shade in a space-based partial solar eclipse that lasted an hour. According to the space agency, our closest celestial neighbor blocked 89 percent of the Sun’s face during the peak of the transit.  A much ballyhooed Earth-based total solar eclipse will be visible in parts of the US this August 21st in a 70-mile-wide ribbon of land stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. A partial eclipse will also occur that day throughout the rest of North America as well as parts of of South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

Joining the Fray

US-New Zealand commercial space firm Rocket Lab is celebrating the first test launch of its state-of-the-art “Electron” rocket partly made of carbon fiber and equipped with engines fashioned from a 3D printer. While the spacecraft’s third stage failed to reach its planned 500-km orbit above Earth, the company’s founder Peter Beck hailed the mission a success anyway:

We didn’t quite reach orbit — we’ll work out exactly why.But we got a long, long way there. It was really a fantastic first flight.

Rocket Lab is gunning for a niche sector of the booming private satellite launch business, targeting the nano satellite market in which swarms or constellations of devices are used for weather reporting or natural disaster prediction. In fact, Rocket Lab has customers already signed up, including NASA.  “We have a very busy 2018, and a business 2019 — and we’ve got a lot of customers booked and backlogged so it’s time to open the throttles,” said Mr Beck. A second Electron test is slated for this week.



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Too Big to Fail

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May 8, 2017

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

Fossil Fools

♪ The beat goes on.

It’s startling how diametrically different the mindsets are between politicians and scientists in this insane world. In just this last week, the world’s scientists have discovered a seemingly boundless galaxy cluster, named Abell 370, and then a solar system they are calling “a much younger version of our own,” again, in the backyard of our own Milky Way. Last week, NASA announced finding another exoplanet – a frigid ice-ball – a mere 13,000 light-years away.

Promising a rose garden from the Rose Garden.

Meanwhile back in fact-free land, Republican congressmen voted Thursday to literally kill poor, elderly and disabled Americans – so far the count is 24 million – with their new “health care bill” that repeals the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) and replaces it with nothing more than the old system of insurance companies denying anyone who is sick or gets sick, and charging those that get coverage exorbitant rates. The gall in calling it a health care bill is the zenith of Orwellian madness.  In France, Putin and his minions pulled the same stunts they did in our election with fake news stories, email thieving and leaking, and crafted terror attacks in order to get an avowed fascist, Marine Le Pen, elected. (Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that the French are smarter than we are and voted for the moderate!)

And on the environmental front, the schism between scientific thinking and cowardly political greed and stupidity is vividly aggravated. It will be daunting for me to list all the environmental crimes against this planet that have been committed by politicians in just the past 10 days, but I will try to name the most visible ones:

  • Global warming has melted the Arctic so severely that new shipping lanes have opened – which made it easy-peasy for Der Trumpenfuhrer to throw out Obama’s protections against oil exploration in the region and let the drilling begin.
  • The Planet-Killer-in-Chief, also in one of his copious Executive Orders, opened offshore drilling along the California coast and many other sensitive marine areas, including the Caribbean.
  • Scientists just announced that global warming has also made Quebec’s vast forests very vulnerable to mega-forest fires.
  • Scientists also warned that global warming will be responsible for a huge increase in air-flight turbulence since the jet-stream of air in flight paths is becoming super-heated.
  • Trump is still playing “she loves me, she loves me not” publicly on whether to decide if we will be in or out of the hard-fought 2015 Global Climate Accord between developed and developing nations made in Paris, while naturally, he has vowed to his idiot base that he will dump it. Environmentalists, indeed, the entire world, are hoping he pulls another about-face, as he has with so many other issues, and to that end Democrats – including CA governor Jerry Brown – have written the Moron-in-Chief a formal letter warning him of the existential dangers of scrapping the deal.

And then there’s Trump’s new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. Here we have a proven former lobbyist for filthy Big Energy (and many believe he is still working for the Big Oil/Fracking companies, while he is leading the EPA to oblivion), who actually sued the agency he is heading 14 times while he was Attorney General for Oklahoma (all this was illegal, but barely got a “meh” from Republican senators during his confirmation hearings). As a foreshadowing of the hell this crony-in-a-box plans to release, some two weeks ago he removed the “climate change” data page on the EPA website, angering environmentalists and scientists worldwide. Obviously, the incalculable harm and suffering this guy has the power (and intention) to inflict (including abolishing 56 EPA rules, dismantling the bipartisan chemical safety Lautenberg Act, and deep-sixing the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule) is breath-taking.

Late last month, Pruitt met with the National Mining Association’s executive committee members to personally request that the group write Trump to request that he withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

But here’s the latest: In a DC hearing on Wednesday, Pruitt was grilled by Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who asked him if he would recuse himself from his own ongoing lawsuits against the EPA, the agency he heads. He refused to say, other than he would rely on the advice of agency ethics lawyers. Huh?? Let’s not forget that Pruitt and his Political Action Committees were paid hundreds of thousands by Big Oil to push against drilling/fracking/spilling regulations while AG of Oklahoma.

“If you don’t agree to recuse yourself,” said Edward Markey (D-Mass.), “then you become plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on the cases you are bringing right now as attorney general of Oklahoma against the EPA.”

During the tense, packed hearing, protesters against Pruitt swarmed outside the chambers, and two managed to slip in: one was dressed as a BP technician carrying a fake can of oil, another as an oil-drenched seabird. The “BP technician” was removed by security after he yelled that Pruitt would gut the EPA.

Then there was the exchange Pruitt had with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).When Sanders asked Pruitt why the climate was changing, Pruitt said that his opinion was “immaterial.”

“Really?” Sanders countered. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?” (♪ crickets chirping.♫)

Getting any answers out of this turnip was like pulling donkey-teeth, apparently.

Yet as I write this, a tiny light appeared at the end of this blackest of tunnels. On late Friday night, The Hill announced that Pruitt has acceded to recuse himself from any of his own lawsuits against the EPA. What a guy! He will also not be involved in any cases challenging the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule, the 2015 ozone pollution rule, the methane emissions limits for oil and natural gas, and more.

We applaud the decision. The next obvious question is, why in hell is he even at the EPA? But for the diligence of these democratic senators and the tireless protesters, Pruitt would at this moment be awarding millions of our dollars to the Big Oily and blowing up every environmental safeguard going back to Nixon. The Galactic Sandbox urges you, dear reader, to keep screaming at them, and in the meantime, contact your senators and representatives urging that the US remain in the Paris climate change pact, as well as sign this petition to defend the EPA. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large 


Sith Happens

Space X officially became a card-carrying member of the industrial military complex last week with the successful launch and orbital deployment of a hush-hush payload for the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO). According to TechCrunch, the mission, which was nearly scrubbed for a second time because of high winds, also included a controlled landing of the company’s Falcon-9 first stage booster on the LZ-1 pad at Cape Canaveral.  While the rocket’s generically-named “NROL-76” secret stash was classified, Space-X did provide blast-off footage as shown below:


While We Were Sleeping

Hazmat-donned technicians secure secrete X-37B space plane after landing on Sunday.

Speaking of dark missions, the US Air Force’s ultra-undercover space plane prototype returned to Earth Sunday at Cape Canaveral following a record two-year stint orbiting the globe, reports Reuters. The uncrewed X-37B craft – a quarter the size of the mothballed Space Shuttles – ended its fourth flight in orbit 700 days after it blasted off for space aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in May 2015. Air Force reps said the orbiter performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.” Of course the cost of the program is under wraps. The nonprofit Secure World Foundation that promotes the peaceful exploration of space believes the military is likely testing or evaluating intelligence-related hardware due to the clandestineness of the project.

Suicide Squad

Depiction of a Breakthrough Starshot microprobe arriving at an Earth-like planet in the  Proxima b star system 4.2 light years away. Credit: Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Like bugs ker-splatting on a celestial windshield, Earth’s first messengers to an alien world may involve self-immolating nano sats crashing into a nearby exoplanet – at least that’s what the brainiacs at the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot initiative envision for their proposed fleet of tiny interstellar robotic craft that would buzz through the cosmos at 20 percent the speed of light. “I want 10 — at least 10 ships, not just one,” Harvard University astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov said last month at the annual Breakthrough Discuss conference at Stanford University, reports LiveScience. “So then, two of them I’ll point at the planet, straight into the planet, hit the planet and create a thermal event in the atmosphere,” added Sasselov. The remaining eight probes would “beam the data back, because you’ll get a lot better characterization of what’s in the atmosphere,” he said.

The postage-stamp-sized “starchip” would be laser-blasted from Earth tethered to a tiny sail, and at 20 percent the speed of light, would reach Pluto in three days and the nearest star in 20 years.

Philip Lubin, a physics professor at UC Santa Barbara, and the mastermind of Breakthrough Starshot’s planned lightning-speed, laser-propulsion system, curiously described how such a kamikazi mission would play out:

“Maybe you have a small mothership that sends out little daughters [and] drops them in the atmosphere,” Lubin said during the Stanford conference. “And then perhaps you could telemeter data back from the daughters to the mother saying, ‘I’m sacrificing myself for the good of science and humanity back home.’

Gee, even in interstellar space women have it tough.

One For The Dipper

NASA has cut a short movie comprised of images taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it swooped as close as 4,200 miles above Saturn late last month in a first of a series of encores before it plunges into the gas giant’s swirling cauldron of an atmosphere this September.  Imaging-editing magicians at the space agency stitched together one hour of observations as the venerable probe moved from the eye of the hexagon-shaped storm at the planet’s north pole down toward the equator. “I was surprised to see so many sharp edges along the hexagon’s outer boundary and the eye-wall of the polar vortex,” said Kunio Sayanagi, an associate of the Cassini team who helped produce the film. “Something must be keeping different latitudes from mixing to maintain those edges,” he added. And if you feel the quality of the photos are a little rough, just wait for the sequel, says Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini team member at Caltech. “The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings. We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 29 that we think will result in even better views.”

Young At Heart

Eridanus constellation

Scientists steering the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) have discovered a solar system remarkably like our own, only 10.5 light-years away but only one-fifth the age of ours.  It is named Epsilon Eridani, or “Eps Eri,” and it is located in the Southern Hemisphere of the Eridanus constellation.  Scientists have also found that the budding planetary arrangement not only has a star identical to our Sun, it also has a debris disk that’s still forming planets – one of which is very similar to our Jupiter.   The more we read about this latest SOFIA discovery, the more we are kind of creeped out… it’s like looking at a cloned Earth system in its infancy, wondering how much of our own history will be repeated.

Gas Guzzler

Researchers working with the Chandra X-Ray Space Telescope have just reported finding a colossal tidal wave of hot gas twice as big as the Milky Way galaxy, measuring 200,000 light years across.  That’s enough hot air to rival that coming from Washington DC!   The massive plasma tsunami, which scientists call a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave, was found cruising through the Perseus Galaxy Cluster, and it is thought to have been caused by a smaller galactic array that passed by billions of years ago, which in turn churned up the gas in the Perseus cluster, and, well…it just kept kept growing, sort of like the Great Garbage Patch of plastic coagulating in the Pacific Ocean which is believed to be bigger than the state of Texas at this point, and won’t dissipate for many millions of years. The researchers plan to publish their findings in the June issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society


Remember the days when they would show a “supercomputer” the size of an office floor (but at the time only had the computing power of a pocket beeper) on TV?  You don’t?  OK, so you’re younger than I or fearless editor Agnett Bonwitt.  But that’s the stuff you’d have to deal with if you want to win part of a $55,000 prize (a ton of dough in 1970s dollars) from NASA to update the speed – up to 10,000 times its current rate – of its old Pleiades supercomputer design software, written in ye olde Fortran code. The two categories that First and Second Place winners will compete in are ideation and architecture. Only U.S. Citizens can compete (since Fortran was written and created by the U.S. Government), and the deadline to enter is June 29, 5 pm Eastern Time.  Enter here and download the FUN3D link. Please, no punch cards!

Final Frontiers

This stunning pix of Abell 370 was taken as part of NASA’s Frontier Fields program that used 630 hours of Hubble observing time.

NASA”s unrivaled Hubble Space Telescope outdid itself again as it snapped a portrait of galaxy cluster Abell 370 with never-before seen clarity as the massive galactic neighborhood stares back at us 6 billion light years away.

According to the space agency, Abell 370’s ginormous gravitational clout warps spacetime around it, making background galaxies appear both distorted and magnified (seen as streaks and arcs in the photo). This phenomenon actually turns these clusters into natural telescopes providing a close-up peek of the distant galaxies behind the colossal cosmic assemblage, and a glimpse of how they looked in our Universe’s infancy just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Now that’s something to sing about.


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It’s Not Easy Being Green

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April 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pence has a long history of climate change denying.

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

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



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

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

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

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

With Friends Like These…

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

Long March to Orbit

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

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

Crown Jewel

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

Kiwis in Space

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

Welcome Wagon

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


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