This Week in Space

Several news stories dealing with space exploration came out this week but didn’t receive much attention so I decided to take a moment to highlight them.

The first item on my list is the beginning of the final, and perhaps most exciting phase of the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to the planet Saturn. The Cassini mission is expected to end in September of next year with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere but starting this week the spacecraft has begun a series of ring grazing orbits that will be followed by orbits closer to the giant planet than anything ever attempted.

In the picture below the gray lines indicate the ring grazing orbits while the blue lines are the planet grazing orbits. These orbits are dangerous, a collision with debris from the rings could easily destroy the spacecraft which is why NASA has waited till the end of the mission to attempt them. The possibility of close up observations of the ring system is too great a chance to miss however.

Cassini Spacecraft Ring grazing Orbits

Hopefully in the next several weeks NASA will be able to release spectacular images of Saturn’s Rings. If you’d like to know more about the Cassini mission here’s a link to the official NASA website.

Another interesting NASA story is the awarding of a contact to the California based company Space Systems/LORAL. I used to work for them back in the 1980s designing antennas for geostationary communications satellites. The contact is for the development of a satellite refueling spacecraft called the Restore-L spacecraft bus.

Refueling satellites in space is an idea that’s been talked about since the 80’s and I’m glad to see they are finally getting around to doing it. You see, all the satellites we put into space to sent you your direct TV signal or complete your overseas telephone call or keep an eye on the hurricane brewing in the Atlantic have only a limited amount of fuel to keep them in the proper orbit and, just as importantly pointing in the right direction. Once their fuel is gone these technological miracles costing hundreds of millions of dollars are just trash.

Having an unmanned spacecraft that could go to these satellites and refuel them is another step on the road to building the infrastructure of space, turning low Earth orbit (LEO) into a work environment of benefit to everyone here on Earth. If you’d like to read more about Restore-L here’s a link to the story.

A closely related story is the selection by INTELLSAT, the international consortium managing most of the world’s communications satellites, of Orbital ATK as the provider for a Mission Extension Vehicle-1, MEV-1. The objective of the MEV-1 will be very similar to NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft in that the MEV-1 will go to satellites already in orbit and either refuel or repair them, thereby extending their useful life.

These twin spacecraft, are scheduled to be developed over the next three to four years and together they will provide a new capability for mankind in space. To read the original story from Spacecraft Insider click on the link below.





Was Einstein Wrong??? Is the Speed of Light not Constant???

Over the past week there have been a series of news articles reporting that two physicists, Niayesh Afshordi at the University of Waterloo in Canada along with Joao Magueijo at the Imperial College of London have proposed that Einstein may have been wrong. The Speed of Light may not be constant, right after the Big Bang it may have been a lot faster.

Do you want the short answer or the long answer. For the short answer read the next 3 paragraphs, for the long answer keep going. If you want to read the news report use the link below.

What Afshordi and Magueijo were looking for is a solution to the problem in cosmology of just how the early universe was in such good thermal equilibrium as is evidenced by the Cosmic Microwave Background, CMB see picture below. For different objects, at different initial temperatures to come into thermal equilibrium requires some kind of contact between those different objects. In this case we are taking about the entire early Universe which is flying apart at the speed of light and that ain’t good contact.

Cosmic Microwave Background from Plank Satellite
Cosmic Microwave Background from Plank Satellite

What Afshordi and Magueijo have proposed is that, in the Early Universe the speed of light was far greater than it is now allowing greater thermal contact by the process of radiation. Remember there are three ways for heat to flow: conduction, convection and radiation, well Afshordi and Magueijo’s model would make radiation a much more efficient process thereby eliminating the thermal contact problem.

The point to remember here is that this is all mathematics at present, no one has measured a different value for the speed of light. Afshordi and Magueijo do make a prediction of the scalar fluctuations in the CMB as an experimental check but at the moment this is all just a model.

Also, we’ve been here before. The problem of thermal equilibrium in the CMB goes back to the 1970s when Alan Guth of MIT proposed cosmic inflation as the solution. The idea of inflation was that, right after the big bang itself, and we’re taking pico-seconds here, a huge amount of energy was dropped into the universe causing it to expand faster than the speed of light so that a small section of the universe that was in thermal equilibrium became the entire universe that we see. For thirty years after Guth published his model inflation was a standard part of cosmology, I learned it, but no one has been able to figure out where all that energy came from so inflation is no longer quite so highly regarded.

To me however, this new idea of Afshordi and Magueijo is just kind of the opposite of inflation. Instead of having a small part of the universe after the big bang expand faster than the speed of light they increase the speed of light, in a sense making the early universe smaller. And they now have the problem of describing what made the speed of light so different, and what makes it so constant now? Kind of the opposite of Guth’s problem of where all that energy came from. I wish Afshordi and Magueijo luck but as I said, we’ve been here before.

Now I get to give my opinion. To me the reason the early universe was in thermal equilibrium right after the big bang was that it was in thermal equilibrium before the big bang. That’s right I’m one of those big crunch guys, that is I think that about 15 billion years ago, before the big bang,  the universe was collapsing at the speed of light. Eventually the universe collapsed as much as it could and then rebounded, that rebound is what we call the big bang. A universe that is collapsing is coming into greater contact and therefore will achieve thermal equilibrium before the rebound, giving it thermal equilibrium after the rebound.

Anyway, that’s what I think. I know this has been a bit of a long post but I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you think.


Better Thanksgiving through Chemistry

Some holidays are religious, some are patriotic but let’s be honest, Thanksgiving is all about the food. So tomorrow, as we wait impatiently for ma, or grandma, to perform that wonderful miracle in the kitchen maybe we should all take a moment to think about chemistry, that’s right chemistry.

Cooking is really just practical organic chemistry after all. Consider the changes your turkey will go through as the heat of your oven makes it so delicious. The muscle proteins will coagulate making them easier to digest, the carbohydrates in the skin will caramelize making it nice and crispy while the lipids will liquefy making everything wonderfully moist.

Heat is also important in preparing our vegetables, breaking down the tough cellulose cell walls. If you boil your potatoes don’t forget to salt the water, and not just for taste. Salt also raises the boiling temperature of water and is simply a good catalyst speeding up many chemical reaction.

Besides heating there are other important cooking techniques as well. Consider making a nice vinaigrette for your salad. Now we all know that oil and water don’t mix but if you employ mechanical agitation, shake them or stir with a whisk, you can produce thousands of little oil bubbles suspended in the vinegar. This is called an emulsion and here’s a little secret, add a teaspoon of mustard before you shake. The proteins in the mustard dissolve in the vinegar but can hook onto one of those oil drops helping to keep the emulsion from separating. The mustard also adds a lot of flavor.

Perhaps the most complex chemistry performed in the kitchen involves yeast. Yeast are living cells of a fungal organism and their metabolism is as complex as any creatures but we humans use then basically for two purposes. When added to a mixture of carbohydrates and lipids, flour and butter, the yeast will produce carbon dioxide bubbles making the bread dough rise. The other use is to produce alcohol from simple sugars giving us the nice glass of Riesling I plan on having with my turkey.

Yes, a delicious meal is really just better living through chemistry. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Space and Dinosaurs in one article, who could ask for anything more!

Recently there have been a few stories about a scientific project to learn more about the asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Researchers Joanna V. Morgan of the Imperial College of London and Sean P. S. Gulick of the University of Texas at Austin have been drilling thirty kilometers off the Yucatán peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico looking for the inner “peak” ring inside the larger crater rim caused by the asteroid  that struck Earth 66 million years ago. To see the original article in Science click the link below.

These inner rings of craters have been often seen on our Moon and other Planets and moons in the solar system but where unknown here on Earth before now. With the samples of granite and other materials retrieved by the scientists we are now able to study this type of crater formation up close.

The present model for the formation of these double ringed craters is shown in the figure below.

Double Ringed Crater Formation
Double Ringed Crater Formation

Data and samples gained from the present drilling project will help to either confirm or reject the current model.

Like the dinosaurs, we are still threatened by another such disastrous collision from outer space. Unlike them however we are beginning to develop the necessary technology to recognize the threat before it strikes and someday soon to prevent the disaster from occurring.

Quick update: Just this morning a new article in Live Science has reported that the scientists drilling into the Yucatan crater believe that the asteroid may have actually punctured the Earth’s crust. If that is true some of the samples the team are finding may be material from the Earth’s mantel, a region of our planet less well explored than our Moon. Use the link below to read the article.

National Geographic Channel Gives Us A Night Of MARS

Last Night the National Geographic Channel debuted the first episode of it’s new six part miniseries “Mars” from Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Formatted as a dramatization of the first voyage to Mars the program adds in comments from some of the scientists and engineers who are working to make that first voyage actually happen.

In the first episode we were introduced to the international team of six men and women who will take the spaceship “Daedalus” to Mars. Last night’s episode concentrated in the difficulties and dangers of the actual landing on the red planet. Without giving away to much, a life threatening malfunction occurs, the mission commander is injured while fixing the problem enabling the Daedalus to land safely.

It appears to me that the plot for each episode will resemble last night’s in examining one aspect of the voyage to Mars, adding in an emergency and letting the crew survive by their technical skill and courage. My biggest criticism of last night’s episode would be the sound, with the crew’s helmets on and all of the background noise I never did get to hear what the malfunction actually was.

The interspersed comments from the scientists included Elon Musk the CEO of Space X corporation, Neil deGrasse Tyson the Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Star Talk, Andy Weir the author of “The Martian” along with my favorite astronaut (I met him once) Jim Lovell and a host of other scientists. In general the commentators succeeded in informing rather than interfering but towards the end I almost got the feeling I was watching a commercial for Space X.

We’ll see how future episodes go, I’ll certainly be watching. National Geographic has announced that they plan on producing more series like Mars and less of the the Tuna Fishing, Surviving in the wild with nothing but a camera crew to help type of reality show and I for one appreciate the change.

After the premier of Mars came the weekly installment of Star Talk with the aforementioned Neil deGrasse Tyson. Doctor Tyson’s guests were the aforementioned Andy Weil along with NASA Engineer Adam Steltzner the team leader on the Mars Curiosity Rover’s sky crane landing system and Jim Green, NASA’s lead planetary scientist. As you might guess the discussions were all about Mars without making an explicit tie in to the miniseries.

Television was once described by Newton N. Minow as a “Vast Wasteland”. Well last night the wasteland of Mars gave us some of the best TV I’ve seen in quiet a long while.

These are a few of My Favourite Things

I assume anyone who visits this blog, or at least anyone who comes back, has an interest in science, space and astronomy. With that in mind I thought I’d take a moment to tell you all about some of the web sites I like to visit, these are a few of my favourite things.

I guess the best place to start would be NASA’s main page. Now this page is pretty general, intended for students and the general public but it does allow you to access to information on every mission NASA has ever undertaken. Seriously, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found here.

Another NASA site, which actually isn’t easy to get to from their main site, is “How to spot the Station” which allows you to get detailed sighting information to find the International Space Station as it flies over your head. I’ve seen that station now over thirty times and it’s always pretty cool

And if you like NASA you’ll love the Jet Propulsion Labouratory (JPL) in California. Their main page is also general interest but again, if you look around there’s a lot to see.

JPL also has a really cool site that’s hard to get to from their main page. This is the small body database. Orbital and physical parameters for thousands (it’s growing all the time) of small asteroids and other objects in our solar system. It takes a little bit of figuring out but I really love the orbital diagrams, especially for Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Caution, the orbital applet is JAVA enabled so you need JAVA on your computer.

There are now several commercial sites that are also worth checking out on occasion. The best known is which is a news site dedicated to the latest happenings in space.

A new one, as far as I know, is Spaceflight insider. This site also has space news but it also has a launch calendar of upcoming launches from around the world.

One last cool space site is Yes there is a web site dedicated to giving you the latest weather report from our solar system. A couple of interesting things to see here are the latest sun spot report, the solar wind and cosmic ray intensities and near Earth asteroid approaches during the next month.

Now let’s change course a little bit and look at some astronomy sites. I guess a nice segue would be the main web site for the Hubble space telescope. You can spend days just going through the beautiful images.

One of my favourite sites is the SEDs Messier data. Charles Messier was a French astronomer about the time of our revolution who was studying comets. Well he made up a list of fuzzy objects that weren’t comets. The objects on that list turned out to be galaxies and nebula and star clusters and supernova remnants. The SEDs site has tons of beautiful images of these objects.

A daily astronomical note of interest can be found at by  the McDonald Observatory in Texas. They often have information on things to see in the sky tonight.

Another observatory with a cool web site is Keck in Hawaii. Again plenty of beautiful images.

A great commercial site is Sky and Telescope magazine. The best part of their site, as far as I’m concerned, is the interactive sky chart which can show you what the sky will look like anywhere in the world not just for tonight but for any night for the next hundred years. Oh, and the last hundred years as well. Lemme tell ya, I’ve planned many nights of stargazing using that site. This is also a great place to look for telescope and accessories to buy.

This getting to be a bit of a long post so I think I’ll save Physics and Paleontology and Archeology for a later date. I have one more site for today and it’s possibly the most interesting. Back in the 1960s Jodrell Bank Radio observatory in Manchester England discovered the astronomical objects know a Pulsars. Well Jodrell Bank has a web page where you can hear, that’s right hear the sound of collapsed stars only a couple of kilometers across that are spinning so fast that they generate a magnetic field so huge it shoots out a radio beam like a searchlight and every time that beam passes Earth Jodrell Bank hears a click. So go to this site and listen to the sound of a dead star.

You may have noticed I haven’t even mentioned Science Fiction. Don’t worry, I get ’round to it.

Happy Halloween

Tomorrow is Samhair, pronounced Sah’-win and better known in our modern world as Halloween. Samhair is one of the quarter points, the days that mark the middle of our seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. The days halfway between a solstice and an equinox.

Samhair is the quarter point for the Fall season just as Imbolc, we call it Ground Hog’s day, is the Winter quarter point. There is also the Spring quarter point of Beltane, May Day, and the Summer quarter point of Lughnasa which somehow never got a more modern name.

From what historians and anthropologists can tell, people have celebrated the quarter points just as long as the better know first days of the seasons. The same ancient astronomers who watched the movements of the planets against the background of fixed stars, who saw how the place where the Sun rose in the East every day changed during the course of a year gave us not only the four seasons but the four quarter points as well.

In pre-Christian Europe, the ancient Celtic world (by the way it’s Kel-tic, not Sel-tic) Samhair was the new year, the harvest time and a time when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the spirits was lifted. This was true of all the quarter points, for iron age people they were a time of both fear and promise. Because of the mystical, magical nature of the quarter points the Christian church tried for centuries to wipe out the ancient celebrations related to them. It is a historic fact that one of the heresies that Joan of Arc was accused of was dancing around a May Pole.

In the wider Universe of course, Samhair and Beltane as well as the Solstices’ and equinoxes are special times unique to our planet Earth having no significance on Jupiter or Pluto let alone another star system. It’s only because we are so tied to our home planet and it’s orbit around our Sun that the very idea of a certain day of the year having any significance makes sense. On other worlds Christmas, or your birthday or the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo have no meaning of any kind.

Nevertheless, as human beings we like to celebrate, to party and the recognition of certain days being special, being a good reason to party gives us pleasure and a chance to connect both with the living and those who celebrated before us. So get out an enjoy your Halloween, have some candy of roast some marshmallows over an open fire and remember how the rhythms of our world are the rhythms of our lives and have been since the beginnings of life on Earth.

Does Dark Energy really Exist?

For the past twenty years the greatest mystery in all of Science has been the Nature of Dark Energy, a unknown force that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe and whose energy makes up more than three quarters of everything there is. Now a new study by Cosmologists J.T.Nielsen, A. Guffanti and S. Sarkar has called into question the very existence of Dark Energy.

To understand what is going on we have to go back to 1929 when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the galaxies he was studying were all receding from our milky way and that the further a galaxy was the faster it was receding. This is Hubble’s law for the expansion of the Universe and the rate of expansion is called Hubble’s constant.

Almost immediately after Hubble’s announcement physicists and astronomers began to theorize what could have caused this expansion and so they developed the Big Bang Theory which was finally confirmed by A. Penzias and R. Wilson in 1965. But if the Big Bang Theory was true then the gravitational attraction of the galaxies should be slowing the rate of expansion, Hubble’s constant should not be truly constant. Cosmologists also theorized that there could be two basic solutions. One, the gravitational attraction was strong enough that eventually the expansion would come to a stop and the entire Universe would enter a Big Crunch phase. The other solution was that the expansion was so great that the Universe had achieved escape velocity and would expand forever.

It was to discover which of these two alternative Universes was true that two teams of astronomers, one led by S. Perlmutter and the other by A. Riess and B. Schmidt used Type Ia supernova to try to measure the deceleration of Hubble’s constant. In 1998 these two teams independently announced their findings that the expansion of the Universe was in fact accelerating, a discovery that shocked the world of science and led to Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt being awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The search was now on for the cause of this acceleration, an unknown force that was quickly named Dark Energy although cosmologists prefer to call it Dark Pressure. Literally hundreds of theoretical papers have been written over the past two decades speculating on the nature of Dark Energy but little more observational detail was provided by astronomers.

Now a new study, using data from more than ten times as many Type Ia supernovas as was available to Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt has called into question the very existence of Dark Energy, asserting that the discovery was if fact only a statistical fluctuation. This new study by astronomers J.T. Nielsen, A. Guffanti and S. Sarkar uses data from 740 Type Ia supernovas and concludes that “we find, rather surprisingly, that the data are still quite consistent with a constant rate of expansion.”

This result is something of a shocker, have cosmologists spent the last 18 years chasing a phantom? Personally I’ll wait and see. There is other indirect evidence for Dark Energy in the Cosmic Microwave Background so Dark Energy isn’t gone just yet. In fact the new study found that the evidence for Dark Energy is at the three sigma level but scientists prefer five sigma so we are talking statistical weights of evidence.

Still this is yet another example of just how difficult it is to get real, precise details on the nature of our Universe. We have learned a great deal but that knowledge has required great effort, and just as often great patience. I’ll keep you informed.

I’m going to try a little experiment of my own and try to insert the actual article by Nielsen et al into this post. Enjoy.



Good week in Space

Last night I got to watch the occultation of Aldebaran where the Moon slides in front of the 1st order magnitude star. It took place at 1:41 AM, so I’m kinda sleepy right now. I’ve always wanted to see an occultation. These events have been very important in the history of astronomy with such discoveries as the first measurement of a star’s radius and the first identification of a Quasar taking place during an occultation.

But last night’s occultation was just one of a number of important space events that have occurred in the last several days. On Monday there were two events. First, there was the launch of two Chinese astronauts to their country’s new space station, they have since docked and entered the Tiangong II space module.

Also on Monday there was the launch of the Orbital ATK unmanned Antares resupply capsule to the ISS. I got to watch a minute or so of the launch from a distance of three hundred kilometers away in Philadelphia. It was my second launch but I still want to see one close up.

We’re not done either. Just this morning there was the launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft toward the ISS with three astronauts. So right now we have the six astronauts already on the ISS, the two Chinese astronauts and three astronauts on the Soyuz. A total of eleven humans in space at the same time! I wonder if that’s the record.

Last but not least, there’s Europe’s Exo-Mars orbiter and lander are due to go into orbit and land respectively this morning. The Exo-Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) should be firing it rocket at this very moment to insert itself in Mars orbit. The Schiaparelli lander is scheduled to touch down on the Martial surface in just an hour. Let’s hope both spacecraft are successful.

So it’s been a interesting couple of days in space, and that’s just space. There are also hundreds of discoveries being made everyday in other fields of Science and engineering from Archeology to chemistry to electronics to physics, and I could go on and on. That we have difficulty getting young people interested in STEM careers is something I just cannot understand.

P.S. The eleven humans in space at this moment is not the record. In March of 1995 there were three astronauts on the Russian Mir station, another three on a Soyuz on it’s way to Mir and seven on the space shuttle on a separate mission.

Update: Although the Exo-Mars orbiter has successfully entered orbit around Mars the European space agency lost contact with the lander when it was approximately one kilometer above the surface and nothing further has been heard from it.

Here we go again. The Universe just got ten times bigger!

A team of astronomers led by Christopher Conselice at the University of Nottingham in the UK have been studying the deep field images coming from the Hubble Space Telescope and concluded that the Universe contains ten times as many galaxies as was previously thought.

The previous census performed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, SDSS (link below) concluded that the observable Universe contained between 100-200 Billion galaxies.

This new census realized that the density of galaxies in the early Universe was far greater than it is now and that many of these early galaxies were too faint to be seen in the data used by the SDSS. On the basis of their data from the Hubble they have realized that the Universe contains on the order of one Trillion galaxies.

As exciting as this discovery is it’s really nothing new. Every time we study the Universe with new, more powerful, more precise instruments the Universe grows ever larger. Sometimes the expansion is linear as with this census by Dr. Conselice and his team, sometimes it is exponential as when Carl Hubble himself discovered that the smudgy nebula he studied were actual galaxies separate from our Milky Way. By the way, the Greek word galaxy just means Milky Way. From Galileo to Dr. Conselice we have learned that the Universe is more than we can ever imagine.

I have seen this phenomenon of expansion happen three or four times now in my life and I expect to see it happen at least one more time.The James Webb space telescope is expected to be launched sometime in 2018 and with this new window to infinity I have no doubt that the Universe will grow once again.

To read further about the new census follow in link below.