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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Take a Hike

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May 1, 2017

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

Pot, Meet Kettle

Trump’s assaults on this planet now seem to be incoming on a daily basis.  This week I read in horror as his hand-picked oil lobbyist, new EPA head Scott Pruitt, threatened to unplug the agency’s Open Data Web Service – a source of essential information on environmental justice, health impact analysis and climate change.

But after public outcry, the agency – in true Trumpian style – lied its way out of the issue by saying it was a misunderstanding over a possible government shut-down on Friday if Congress did not agree over the nation’s budget.  The website would remain up, Pruitt acquiesced, with only a few “outages.”  We’ll see.

Just days later our Conman-in-Chief made a big deal out of yet another Executive Order by “giving the federal monuments back to the people.”  Let me translate that: It means that states may soon be allowed to place 27 national monuments under their own jurisdiction, and in turn allow oil drilling, fracking, coal mining and logging on one billion acres of pristine federal public lands, and yes, ocean sanctuaries too, in the Pacific and the Caribbean.  Everyone – even the TV news talking glamour pusses – could crack the code of this corporate land-grab executive abomination. 

“Trump and the anti-public-lands zealots in Congress are plotting to destroy some of the country’s most stunning landscapes and cultural treasures,” said Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program. “They couldn’t care less how much Americans treasure these iconic places. Their goal is to hand our public lands over to corporations to mine, frack, bulldoze and clear-cut till there’s nothing left to dig up.”

Pinnacles National Park

National Monuments are often precursors to becoming National Parks, and as such lack fewer protections from bully-in-the-pulpit shenanigans that Trump pulled last week. For example,  where I live, in San Benito County, CA, we boasted the Pinnacles National “Monument” for decades – a beautiful expanse full of ancient volcanic spires, caves, endangered species like the California Condor and legends of banditos from the Old California days (before we stole it from Mexico).  Tenacious teeth-pulling from our long-time former Congressman Sam Farr (D-Monterey) finally resulted in its designation as a full-fledged National Park some seven years ago.  Naturally, residents here were relieved and delighted for his victory, since the Miocene-era sanctuary is now less vulnerable from plutocratic wrecking balls.

Grand Staircase-Escalante, UT

Which – getting back to my point – is why the grabby Baby-Rattler-in-Chief is going after the easier pickings of Monuments. HIs executive order directs the Department of the Interior (which is responsible for protecting our federal lands, parks and monuments) to review all national monuments “over 100,000 acres” in size, then decide how far to shrink them down in order to open them up to corporate raping.  The Union of Concerned Scientists makes it clear that Trump and his greenhouse gas-breathing overlords are specifically drooling over the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, which together comprise 3.23 million acres in Utah.  The Secretary of the Interior as much as signaled the drum beat by describing Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears as the “bookends of modern Antiquities Act overreach.” If that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black! To which environmental organizations say, “Hey, DC:  See you in court!”

Mind the gap: Greenland’s Petermann Glacier formed a new crevasse, setting the stage for massive ice field to crack in half.

After the massive Marches for Science last weekend and the March for Climate Change on Saturday, we don’t know if the Administration is utterly tone deaf to the will of the people or if they just don’t give a rat’s ass.  I suspect it is both, along with a rapacious greed for more money.  We’re expecting Trump to pull out of the planet’s Paris Climate Accord any day now, as we are also expecting the Petermann Glacier in Greenland to break off the mainland at any moment. A new crack found by NASA’s aerial fly-overs and sat monitoring (the agency’s Operation IceBridge program) show the massive fissure heading towards an intersect with an older fracture, which could break the glacier – three times the size of Texas – in half.  Do you think that if the Trump Gang realized global warming causes ginormous real estate loss, they would start paying attention?  

Enumerating all the Trump Coterie’s attacks on our environment since he cheated his way into office would take up volumes at this point.  You would destroy a forest if it were ever to be printed out on paper.  Is it any wonder we here at the Galactic Sandbox keep hollering for humankind to get off this poor planet and leave it alone?  In the meantime, here are some petitions (click here or here) to sign to let the politicians know you won’t stand for this pillaging of our most cherished national sites.  – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large


Last Hurrahs

NASA last week received the closest photos ever taken of Saturn as the remarkable Cassini spacecraft begins its “Grand Finale” with a first pass between the planet’s icy ring system and the giant gas ball itself.”No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The raw pix released by the space agency shows “ethereal blips and blotches against the planet’s swirling clouds,” reports NPR. The probe’s final chapter will end after an additional 23 swooping maneuvers through Saturn’s ring/planet gap when on September 15 the craft will make a last swan dive into a data-rich Saturnian atmosphere.

Cosmik Eyesore

You would think it would be NASA to call on the international space community to do something, for Dog’s sake, about the ever-growing threat orbiting Earth – the shroud of dense space junk that now compromises all missions that launch off this planet, posing a hazard to astronauts on the ISS, China’s station as well, and all space-faring craft, not to mention the welfare of all satellites residing above the exosphere.  But no.  It was the European Space Agency that gathered more than 400 scientists, engineers, university reps and space experts together in Germany last week for a four-day conference to come up with solutions to the menace.

At this point there are 750,000 pieces of space junk measuring between one and 10 cm in diameter floating in our low-Earth orbit space, that’s up from 500,000 pieces we reported on just half a year ago.  This doesn’t even include the tens of thousands of pieces larger than softballs shooting around like  pinball balls, and at much greater speeds, in the same orbit as the International Space Station.  But one thing that Sandbox writers noticed was glaringly absent from all stories about this latest development was any solution being offered.  Hey!  We put men on the Moon half a century ago.  Why can’t we clean up our backyard (and send Trump to the Moon permanently), for the good of this planet and its reputation in the multi-Galactic Sandbox?

Green is the New Red

Future Mars dwellers won’t have to live off just potatoes grown in human waste like Matt Damon’s character in “The Martian.”  NASA has teamed up with the University of Arizona to build some prototypes for future greenhouses on Mars, where many humans hope to someday have a working, sustainable colony. 

  And what they’ve come up with are nothing near the old-fashioned concepts of your great aunt’s outside hothouse.  The Mars greenhouses – at least in this initial incarnation – are 18-foot-long, seven-foot-wide inflatable cylinders that recycle water and waste.  But the real kicker is that they would be buried under the surface of the Red Planet, or the Moon, to avoid the radiation so prevalent in both orbs’ atmospheres.  The tubes will not only grow fresh veggies for future explorers, they will use the carbon dioxide expelled by the visiting humans and convert it to oxygen.  The greenhouse tubes will also employ LED lighting, with fiber-optics to give concentrated light to specific plants.

X Marks the Sucker

The late Moon-walker Gordon Cooper has sparked a frenzy among treasure hunters and get-quick rich dreamers.  In the ’60s, while Cooper was on the Mercury-Atlas 9 (Faith-7) flight orbiting Earth, he was presumably on the hunt for signs of Soviet nuclear warhead activity (during the Cold War), equipped with specialized photo equipment to zoom in on anything suspicious.  But what he found was what he believed to be the relics of a shipwreck in the Caribbean.  Just before Cooper died in 2004, he revealed to friend Darrell Miklos his subsequent research on the X Spot he wanted to explore, but according to Miklos, Cooper knew his time was running out.

Further investigation using magnetometers and special dives in the area has Miklos believing that there are, indeed, colonial shipwrecks, in the area.  And now the Discovery Channel is on it like a duck on a junebug, following Miklos and his crew around, betting against common sense that they will be gurgling “Eureka!” during any episode of their new reality treasure hunt series.  Do you think it will end up like the Oak Island farce they reeled viewers into a few years ago, with a big fat nothing at the end?  We do.

Project Runaway

A new audit of NASA says that the agency blew $80.6 million on a new spacesuit design it didn’t need, and yet the astronaut corp is currently in dire need of spacesuits for the International Space Station. It seems there were crossed decisions made after the Obama Administration canceled the back-to-the-Moon Constellation Program in 2007 and someone forgot to tell the lunar surface suit designers to never mind.  What’s worse, says NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, there are now only 11 space threads left from the original 18 for the ISS environment –  four of which are on the station. On top of that, those suits are woefully outdated and inadequate, and are particularly susceptible to water getting into the helmets.  

And now NASA has to get cracking on a new generation of deep-space suits for Mars exploration. Make it work! Chop, chop!

Das Boot?

First the good news: NASA and the European Space Agency have announced they will pool resources for a combined landing mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, to occur hopefully in the mid-2020s.  The first five years of the Joint Europa Mission (JEM) would be spent just getting the spacecraft to its destination.  But here’s the part that leaves us stumped: The last year and a half of JEM will be spent orbiting the Jovian moon to obtain data, with only a “lander” slated to rove the icy surface for 35 days, screening for biomolecules and metabolites. This is great, but don’t we want to also send a submarine probe beneath the ice shell to study just what may be swimming around that cold ocean?  Since water plumes were discovered shooting from the satellite in 2013, scientists have been eager to know what sort of life Europa’s ice-sea could be harboring.

Finally, at the end of the mission, the orbiting craft would be crashed onto the ice surface, taking measurements of Europa’s atmosphere (particularly for life-related gasses like carbon dioxide and oxygen).  Hmmmm.  We still don’t detect a sub in this scheme.  Still, the Sandbox applauds NASA’s willingness to work with ESA on joint missions – especially when it bypasses the Trump Cabal’s designs for world management and underfunding of space endeavors.  Recently, DC only approved of funding a future Europa flyby, with no mention of a lander or sea-ice probe for any of our backyard moons.

Trump on ICE

Well, they asked for it, and they got it: The Moron-in-Chief’s much ballyhooed plan to establish an immigrant SNITCH hotline for “victims of illegal aliens” reaped its just rewards for the Idiot-Administration’s absurd and fascist nationalism when, upon initiating the dial-a-fink line, the “service” was inundated with crank calls about extraterrestrial aliens breaking into people’s backyards.  While an official Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE)I email denounced the calls as “a cheap publicity stunt … designed to harm victims,” there is a sinister repetition of history to the administration’s rat-out-an-alien program. In fact, the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) is practically a carbon copy of Hitler’s “reward program” of the 1930’s and early 40s in which German citizens were encouraged to tattle to the Gestapo about one’s  “irregular” neighbor, especially if said neighbor were Jewish or a foreigner. So, imagine the horror by many when last February during the not-written-by him joint speech to Congress and America, Der Trumpenfurher proclaimed through audible gasps in the room the establishment of VOICE, and that ICE would enforce it. It’s not surprising then, that organized groups of merry punksters determined that history not repeat itself swamped the “weasleline” the moment it was opened last week, crashing the VOICE website as well as the phone message service.  All we can say, gang, is KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!


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Dazzled and Confused

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April 10, 2017

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

Science or Bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Exit, Stage Right!

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

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo

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

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

Juno Jubilee

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

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

Four-Minute Hayride

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

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

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

Bursting Upon the Scene

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

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

Your Mother …

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

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

Photo Bomb

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

A Better Mouse Trap

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

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

Data Minor

Real life Johnny Quest, Miles Soloman.

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

Thanks Miles!

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


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Eyes Wide Open

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August 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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©Copyright 2016 Nate Beeler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K i n g  o f  t h e  W o r l d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C o l o s s a l  P i c k

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Mars 2020 rover.

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

P a s t  I m p e r f e c t

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

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

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

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

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

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







S t e p p i n g  O n  T h e  G a s

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

Until those snoopy NASA scientists showed up.

Aztec hot spot

Aztec, NM hot spot.

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

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

A c e  I n  T h e  H o l e

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


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