Short Bursts

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Road Trip

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

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

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

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

Blast from the Past

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

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 “The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” said Jones, chief engineer at JPL.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

Thrice in a Blue Moon

Photo: Agnett Bonwitt.

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


Many thanks to Randall Monroe, xkcd.

Worth a Thousand Words

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

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Outside the Box

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October 23, 2017

Agnett Bonwitt, Managing Editor

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

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

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

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

Size of neutron star compared with Chicago skyline

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

Neutron star death-spiral.

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

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

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

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

Many thanks, Randall Munroe, xkcd.


Down the Tubes

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

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

Dawn of New Days

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

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

Up to Speed

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

Cradle May Have Fallen

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

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

Bravado New World

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

Problem is, the Jedis had Darth Vader too.

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Gone With the Windbags

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September 28, 2015

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large

Even while the Times Square New Years Eve Ball drops toward Earth’s environmental Doomsday, Congressional Republicans aren’t even bothering to double-talk and whitewash their aversion to NASA’s earth monitoring space programs anymore.  They are outright voicing and voting their disdain for the health of our wheezing planet.

True to form, the Republican-heavy House Science, Space and TechnologyScreen shot 2015-09-27 at 3.33.43 PM Committee recently slashed $300 million from NASA’s Earth-science budget consisting mostly of weather and Earth-sensing satellites, in space.  Unfortunately, the GOP-laden committee, which has oversight on the EPA and NASA budgets, among others, is one of the few committees that Congressional peers actually heed.

NASA head administrator Charles Bolden, a former U.S. Marine Corps Major General and astronaut, indicated a controlled disgust in his response to the cuts: “NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.”

In a press event this week, committee head Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, aged 67,  gushed lovingly about space exploration.  He wants to be an astronaut!  Isn’t that special?

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 3.41.29 PM

Lamar Smith – If you don’t study climate change, it doesn’t exist.

When he was pinned down on his feelings about monitoring Earth’s changing environment, Smith finally blurted, “I don’t want to cut NASA, I don’t want to cut what we do in space, and that’s why I’m resisting the administration’s transferring funds from NASA to climate change! I want to keep NASA, NASA!”

In other words, don’t study it so you can continue to deny it.

It should also be noted that NASA’s written mission statement since the late 1950s includes exploring the environmental systems of our own planet for mankind’s welfare and to better understand our relation to the rest of the Universe.
Earth-science sat

Sadly, any proposal or satellite mission that might galvanize the overwhelming evidence proving the exponentially growing threat of global warming, or “climate change,” is program non grata now.  And whether climate change is caused by humans or is naturally cyclical, or both – it’s immaterial to them.  As far as these conservative, bought-out lawgivers are concerned, climate change doesn’t exist … especially since what they perceive as the  Earth-science Greenland“Muslim President Obama” pushed for Earth-science funding in NASA’s budget.  Whatever President Obama is for, they are against.  If Obama wanted them to not cut off their noses to spite their faces, they would snip their beaks off, pronto.

Not surprisingly,  Smith’s budding 2015-2016 re-election campaign has accrued, so far, $27,900 from a plethora of carbon-belching oil/fracking companies and $5,500 from lobbyists.

All Wet
Ironically, it just so happens NASA also announced this week that sea-level sea-level riserise due to global warming and Earth’s melting ice caps will eventually submerge Cape Canaveral and a myriad of NASA facilities into the oceans in as little as 35 years.

NASA’s Climate Adaptation Science Investigators (CASI) Working Group recently reported that the agency’s five coastal facilities can expect between five and 27 inches of sea-level rise by 2050. It also warned that the coastal flooding that usually occurs about once a decade in these areas will become more frequent. As for the San Francisco Bay/Ames Research Center area, it could become up to ten times more frequent.

In terms the GOP might understand, the future loss equals an estimated $32 BILLION and 60,000 jobs.  Maybe they’ll wipe the glee off their faces when they finally grasp what that means for their chances at re-election.

Cosmic College Bowl
HIAD heat shield Mars landerAnd while Congress also cut some funding for NASA’s Orion human mission to Mars – now bumped ahead to 2023 — the agency plans on using any resources they can scrounge.  NASA just put out a call to university and college science students to submit ideas for inflatable spacecraft heat shields for the Mars lander.  Students are to send in white papers by Nov. 15, after which NASA will divide those with winning concepts into three to five groups.  Each finalist team will be given $6,000 to develop their creations, and present their heat shields before a NASA panel at Langley in Hampton, Virginia, on April 16.

Go To the Head of the Class
ion space driveTrolling science students for their brains is proving to be a good move on NASA’s part.  University of Sydney PhD student Paddy Neumann recently came up with an ion space drive that blasts all of NASA’s fuel efficiency records to smithereens.

Like the rest of the world’s space agencies, NASA has been burning standard chemical propellants to move spacecraft since we started watching The Jetsons in the ‘60s.  Ion propulsion technology uses some of the same chemicals, but ionizes or electrically charges the gases.  We’re hoping Neumann’s findings will be applied to the Orion Mars Mission, yet we know that nuclear propellants are in the running.

NASA uses Xenon gas for its ion propulsion-driven craft, while Neumann uses a range of metals for his ion propulsion, including metal magnesium.  So far, Neumann’s system is way ahead of NASA’s in getting the biggest bang for the buck.

Wizards of Id
HI-SEAS IVAnother preparation for our Mars quest is the study of human psyches – including the abilities and limitations of our social graces – on extended space missions.  In a dejà-vu scenario of Biosphere 2, six scientists entered a self-contained (and much smaller) domed habitat on the slope of a dormant volcano in Hawaii on Aug. 23.  The mix of men and women will reside there, 8,000 feet above sea level, for a year, and whenever they step outside to gather rocks or fix a solar panel, they must wear the bulky spacesuits astronauts are expected to don on the surface of Mars.

The NASA-funded Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation habitat (HI-SEAS) is 993 square feet on the ground floor where they will exercise, cook, and conduct experiments, with a smaller upstairs to contain their personal spaces and sleeping quarters.  A former shipping container attached to the dome serves as a workshop.  Let’s hope ball ping hammers are not allowed in the habitat.

Crackpot House
tin foil houseTin Foil Hatter of The Month:  And the award goes to … (drum role) …  Arthur Brown of Pennsylvania, who wrapped his suburban house in tin foil and shines ‘round-the-clock spotlights from his porch in order to thwart the imminent extraterrestrial alien invasion. (Rim shot!)

Let’s ask his neighbors how much they appreciate Brown as a foil guyteam-member of the community:  “Who wants to buy my house?”  said a frustrated Nancy Raich, who lives across the street from Brown.  “A nice decent house, garages, acreage in Hermitage, a nice place to live, when this yahoo across the street decides he wants to shine lights on me?”

It gets better.  Raich recently learned that Brown now believes she and her husband are secret liaisons for the aliens, out to “foil” Brown.  How dastardly.

A judge ordered Brown to take down the lights and pay a $500 daily fine.  Brown refuses to comply and has chalked up more than $20,000 in penalties for breaking local public disturbance and “eyesore” laws. At least the aliens haven’t attacked yet.


Edward Snowden

Lost in Translation
In the more credible pursuit of intelligent life outside the Earth, our signals sent to ET and our attempts to find a signal from them through the SETI program are getting screwed by high-tech encryption meddling, according to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.  The former National Security Agency employee is still living in asylum from U.S. prosecutors somewhere in Russia.

In a remotely podcasted StarTalk interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Snowden said that since tech companies and the NSA started encrypting communication signals, any message from ET would be indecipherable from background microwave radiation noise – and vice versa.  The only time signals were distinguishable and therefore, noticed, was in the early days of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence efforts, kicked off by Dr. Frank Drake in 1961 from West Bank, Virginia and continuing today at the Hat Creek installation in California.

It’s an interesting theory, considering the only and best candidate as a genuine signal from a distant planet, to date, is still the “Wow!” signal picked up in April, 1977, by SETI’s University of Ohio “Big Ear” radio telescope installation.

Snowden said humanity would not even realize it had received such communications today.

Always the optimist, a smiling deGrasse Tyson said to Snowden, “Only, if they have the same security problems as us.”

Monster Mash

black-hole-collisionTwo black holes are about to smash into each other in the constellation of Virgo, according to astronomers at Columbia University.  Their research concludes that a pulsating light emanated by the regurgitations of two black holes in the pulsar PG 1302-102 are indicating an imminent collision … about 100,000 years from now.  That is considered soon, in astronomical time.
Astronomers believe quasars, the brightest objects in the Universe, are powered by black holes.

This One’s Just Right
In more black hole news, scientists at NASA Goddard have discovered a third class black holenew class of these exotic light-gulping bodies.  Until now there were two kinds: stellar massive black holes about a dozen times the mass of our Sun, and supermassive black holes a million to several million times the size of our Sun (one of those big guys is looming at the center of the Milky Way right now,  and according to recent studies, is about to feed again on hapless nearby stars).

Now there’s a “mama bear” of black holes, a medium-sized one that is in the middle of the two others, about 5,000 times the mass of our Sun.

Galactic Sandbox readers will be treated soon* to a fascinating new world concerning these phenomena when we introduce “amateur” astronomer Tom Chargin and his absorbing new theories.  Believe me, this protégé of the late John Dobson is anything but amateur.  *Soon – in impatient human terms.  Seriously.

Basket Case
PongSatLaunch Alert!  A traditional Native American Indian basket will soon be launched to the edge of space.  I’m not kidding.  Young students of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians’ Noli Indian School of San Jacinto, Calif. are teaming up with JP Aerospace to blast-off the basket.  The students’ teacher, Kim Marcus, wove the basket by hand and gave it the name “Tukmal Tuupayum,” a Luiseno term meaning “Basket to symbolize connecting the Heavens and Earth.”

Accompanying the basket will be 70 ping-pong balls.  I wish I were yanking your chain, but alas, I am not.  The students’ experiment is called PongSat, and each student gets to load their ping-pong ball with whatever they want: magnets, a Lucky Charms marshmallow, candy, seeds. One student, Poe Pacheco, put two pennies and a corn seed in his.  When he plants the corn seed on the payload’s return, he predicts, “I think when the corn grows, it will be weird.”  Yeah.

The launch is slated for Oct. 4.  JP Aerospace uses a small sounding rocket and a platform called the “Tandem AirShip” balanced between two balloons.

Show Stopper

space junk 1

Ring around the collar – Orbiting junk belt poses galactic threat to future space missions.

This last story is about low-Earth orbit space junk.  Again.  But now it seems the problem has jumped to what experts are calling “critical density,” which means if the problem of orbiting trash isn’t solved soon, space exploration missions (like the Orion Mars Mission) to far points in deep space will have to be scrubbed.

NASA scientist Donald Kessler led the agency’s Orbital Debris Program Office for 20 years, and recently retired.  But since the problem has reached critical mass, he came out of retirement to help NASA come up with a plan.  We hope.
space junk 2

Some 200 miles above Earth there are currently half a million pieces of man-made space trash – nuts, bolts, paint chips, parts of satellites – flying at 17,500 mph.  An estimated 23,000 of these chunks are the size of softballs, or larger.  This is treacherous for the crew onboard the International Space Station, not to mention lethal for satellites and other craft in geosynchronous orbit as well.  The clogged belt around the Earth gets compounded when the space junk flies into each another, causing yet more pieces of space junk to join the garbage belt.

For decades we have heard how the problem gets worse and worse, but no one is stepping forward with a solution – like how about some kind of orbiting garbage trawler, a cow-catching scooper … anything, please!  Now, a gaggle of companies want to get in on what they call the “Space Situational Awareness” (SSA) game.  These firms expect to cash in on the object tracking market for space companies, but no, not actually invent a way to remove the trash.  Oh the humanity.


Galactic Sandbox Exclusive! Near-total through partial total Lunar Eclipse taken Sunday evening September 27 by Managing Editor Agnett Bonwit – Enjoy!

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 10.16.32 PMScreen shot 2015-09-27 at 10.41.20 PMScreen shot 2015-09-27 at 10.39.36 PMScreen shot 2015-09-27 at 10.40.57 PM

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