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Wednesday 28 September 2016

Are Mars colonies looking less crazy?

Fancy a space art cushion cover, clock, mug, mobile phone, art print, or laptop skin, designed by an actual space scientist?

Above: That rock waited 4.5 billion years for a visitor. How long will Mars have to wait for one?

I'm a child of the eighties. I've listened to grand schemes for returning to the Moon, and landing on Mars, for my entire life. In fact, amongst space fans of my generation, it's become a cliche:
The Moon base is  always ten years away, and has been for the last thirty years. 

The Mars landing is ten years behind that!

Elon Musk? Well, he starts up a rocket company, with an eye to launching people into space for money: Everyone thinks it's crazy - an eccentric millionaire's hobby.

He tells the world he wants to hugely reduce the cost of space flight by developing re-usable rockets: I thought he was crazy - NASA already tried that with the space shuttle.

He bids to take over NASA's manned missions to the International Space Station: "Totally crazy," came the cry, "only massive government agencies can fly people to the space station!"

And then... it starts to work: SpaceX has become one of the new rock stars of space flight. The re-usable boosters have been launched and landed, and will  be re-used in the coming year. SpaceX has a contract to fly people to the ISS using it's Dragon 2 space craft.

Elon Musk, however, isn't happy with all this. Oh no. 

He wants to set up a colony on Mars. 

What's more, he has a plan to do it - which he announced in Mexico. Here's the quick version


So... the question for today: Is Elon Musk a crazy man? 

Yes. Undoubtedly, yes. Sane people don't dream up a colony on Mars then start a business to make it happen. 

But that doesn't mean he won't succeed: Apollo, the great space race rooted in cold war antagonism, wasn't rational in its motivations either. Perhaps it's the way he's led up to this, perhaps it's that SpaceX have proved the nay-sayers wrong so far - but his plan sounds like a reasonable way of accomplishing a crazy thing:
  • Finish and launch the Falcon Heavy - the biggest rocket of the falcon family.
  • Use it to send a Dragon 2 capsule (unmanned) to Mars at every launch window from 2018 onwards.
  • Build and launch the monstrous Super Heavy Lift Launcher.
  • Learn to re-fuel spaceships in orbit.
  • Build up to manned Mars missions.

For all its mad ambition, the plan builds with small steps that use the technical know-how SpaceX have. For example: They've already been testing the raptor class engines for the Super Heavy Lift Launcher. 

Will they succeed? I don't know - but they have already achieved so much that I can make one prediction confidently: Whether it's Mars or Bust for SpaceX, they will have revolutionised space travel before they're done.

So stay crazy, Mr Musk.

Monday 26 September 2016

What did Hubble see around Europa?

NASA has found more evidence of water plumes over Europa, Jupiter's ocean and ice covered moon. It's more evidence of an internal ocean, which is great. Even better, it suggests a way to sample what's in that ocean without needing to drill through thousands of meters of rock hard ice.

Above: A cutaway of  th possible vents, warm ice  blobs, and the internal ocean of Europa

What's a surpthisrise is that this wasn't a discovery from a new Hubble image. This discovery was made by going over images of Europa from 2014, with two independent teams using new software and analytical techniques to tease the signature of the water plumes out of the data. Each used an different method, but both hit the same conclusion: The plumes are saline water. As Bill Sparks, from the the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore puts it:
“When we calculate in a completely different way the amount of material that would be needed to create these … features... it’s pretty similar to what Roth and his team found. The estimates for the mass are similar, the estimates for the height of the plumes are similar.  The latitude of two of the plume candidates we see corresponds to their earlier work,” 
Like any scientific discovery this one will need independent checking, and lots of arguing about on the internet*. We should all keep a pinch of doubt in mind about it until then. But it's a great boost for hopes of exploring Europa, and it's ocean: The case has never been more compelling. For a bit more detail I'll point you to the press relese here, the paper here, and pass you over to the NASA Goddard video:  


*It's amazing how some people will happily believe aliens frequently come to Earth and steal our underwear while texting the Lizardmen and Illuminati, but will balk at the idea of a team of scientists teasing new information from old data with upgraded software.

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Thursday 22 September 2016

What Has NASA Seen At Europa?

Above: Europa, courtesy of NASA. The brown stripes are thought to be zones where upwelling ice is carrying material up from the ocean.

NASA has teased the world by announcing a press conference today about a 'surprising find' made regarding Europa. 

So what's the big buzz about? 

Europa is the second moon out from Jupiter and one of a handful of worlds known to have a substantial ocean. That makes it one of the best places to look for present day extraterrestrial life - but there's a catch: Europa’s ocean is ice covered, moonwide. The depth of the ice is unknown, but the optimistic models suggest its thousands of meters deep. 

So it's a cosmic middle finger: Here's what space explorers were always looking for, and they get stopped by the last few kilometres to the prize. 

But in 2013 Hubble picked up something potentially game changing: A plume of water vapour over Europa's pole. 
That suggests that the ocean sometimes breaks through the ice, as it does at Saturn's (much more distant) moon Enceladus. Right now a lot of space fans are hoping the news is more plumes.... But is it? 

Lets take a look at the details that have been released for the conference:
NASA will host a teleconference at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Sept. 26, to present new findings from images captured by the agency’s Hubble Space Telescope of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. Astronomers will present results from a unique Europa observing campaign that resulted in surprising evidence of activity that may be related to the presence of a subsurface ocean on Europa. Participants in the teleconference will be:

•Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington

•William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

•Britney Schmidt, assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta

•Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland 
What can we get from that?

  • Paul Hertz is Director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA in March 2012. He's head honcho of research programs and missions 
  • Dr. Britney Schmidt's research interests are astrobiology, icy shell and ocean dynamics of moons, and the evolution of water-rich asteroids and other small bodies  
  • Dr. Jennifer Wiseman is a senior astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where she serves as the Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. 
  • Bill Sparks is part of the Astrobiology institute, and the deputy division head for the Instruments Division and is a member of the Advanced Camera for Surveys Instrument Definition Team (ACS IDT). His most recent research project involves using polarised light to detect chiral molecules.
We have two astrobiologists, one with an interest in Europa, the other a camera expert with an interest in characterising molecules using spectrometry. We also have two high ups involved with Hubble.

My guess (and it's definitely only a guess) is that Hubble has used a background star to back light the space around Europa and found evidence of more plumes. In fact Jupiter and Ganymede were predicted to occult a 7th-magnitude star on April 12, but Europa was not. Perhaps a plume did? 
As an outside possibility, I wonder if Bill Sparks' latest project on detecting chiral molecules - often regarded as a biomarker - has anything to do with this?

Or it could be that Hubble has spotted a discarded pizza box orbiting Europa, and everyone at NASA is having a breakdown... but one way or another we'll find out tonight!

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Tuesday 20 September 2016

The Universe in 101 words: How does a supernova build a neutron star?

Supernova are complicated. The star doesn’t just explode, like a primadonna asked to do the dishes: First the core stops producing energy – unfortunate, as that energy was supporting the star against gravity - and the star collapses. That superheats the unused fuel around the core, igniting all of it at once. 

And, well, adios neighbourhood. 

The dead core is surrounded by the explosion, and gets squeezed so hard the nuclei of the atoms in it join together. The resulting 20km ball of fused nuclei is the neutron star – so dense and magnetic it warps space, time, and re-writes the laws of chemistry. 

Above: NASA introduces us to spinning neutron stars.

Friday 16 September 2016

The Universe in 101 words: Alcubierre's Warp drive...

Above: A SpaceX spaceship leaves Earth behind.
Here’s a loophole: Strictly, the rules say ‘no exceeding light speed, as compared to local space’. 

Alcubierre’s engine would exploit that loophole by forcing space in front of itself to rapidly contract, and space behind to rapidly expand - so things behind move away at FTL rates, and the things in front approach at FTL rates... 

...but the ship stays (locally) still. 

It's like parking a new car on a super-strong travellator that's disguised as road, under a speed camera**: Speed with the travellator, then… 

“Officer, that camera’s broken! This car can’t have been speeding, its mileage is zero.” 
 **In other words: It’d be very, very, hard to pull off. 


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Thursday 15 September 2016

The Universe in 101 words: The Lightspeed Barrier

The Enterprise: Inspiring physicists to look for loopholes.

Nothing goes faster than lightspeed. Why? 

It’s because of something noticed over a hundred years ago: Lightspeed measures as 299,792km/sec, whether you’re stationary or doing 299,791km/sec. Every experiment shows it always measures the same. 

Weird, but triple checked as true. 

The explanation? If someones's speed is close to 299,792km/sec, compared to yours, time appears* to run slower for them. That's not all: 

• They get shorter.
• They get heavier. 

Close to 299,792km/sec these effects get incredibly strong – and slowing of time slows any acceleration. Things very near lightspeed appear frozen, squashed, and super heavy. They can't accelerate. 

Going faster will mean cheating… 

*I'm saying 'appears', because to them you're the one that's slow and squashed.

Above: For some more details here's Fraser Cain of UniverseToday.

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Wednesday 14 September 2016

The Universe in 101 words: There are rocks and metals older than the world...

Most people know that shooting stars are meteorites – rocks arriving from space, hitting Earth’s atmosphere. When those rocks reach the ground some are picked up, clues found inside them, and their stories revealed. 

Those stories are… astounding: Many of these rocks are parts of worlds destroyed billions of years ago - worlds with internal heat, water flowing underground, and the carbon chemistry that could lead to life. Some are from surviving worlds, like Mars or the Moon, and tell stories of ancient atmospheres, or long dried waters

Exploring those worlds is as hard as picking up fallen rocks… 

...OK, you probably need a laboratoy too.

Above: Imperial College scientists explain how we use meteorites to learn about other worlds..

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Tuesday 13 September 2016

The Universe in 101 words: A Balloon/Rocket Hybrid?

Is there a better way into space than rockets? 

For a long time huge ideas like space elevators or space cannons have been touted as the rockets successor. Much like a manned Mars mission.... the world always seems to be ten years away from really starting work on them. 

But what if the answer is simpler? What if it's a giant ladder balloons? A company called Bloostar has a truly unique (read: Fairly weird looking) design for balloon/rocket hybrid. It could float to 20 km altitude before flying the rest of the way like a rocket – here’s their video: 

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Monday 12 September 2016

The Universe in 101 words: Is there a Planet 9?

Above: Pluto and Charon in all thir weird glory, coutesy of  NASA.

A lot of people felt that Pluto’s demotion to ‘Dwarf planet’ was unfair, especially as it’s turned out to be so interesting.... ..although, personally, I don’t think Pluto cares’ much what it’s called: World’s generally don’t. 

But the Kuiper belt – the ring of icy worlds that surrounds the solar system - has turned out to be full of weird worlds as big and as fascinating as Pluto – which means that either we had to change Pluto’s status or make school wallcharts of the solar system absurdly long. 

Now astronomers think they’re closing in on a true Planet 9…

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Saturday 10 September 2016

A video round up on OSIRIS-REX

In this post:
Despite sounding like an ancient Egyptian pooch, the OSIRIS-REX mission could perhaps be  as important as the search for life on Mars. How could a mission to a chunk of rock in deep space compare? Partly because asteroid Bennu, it's target, may well have a record of the chemical steps that led up to life's emergence, and partly because it caries zero risk of stranding Matt Damon on Mars...

A video round-up on OSIRIS-REX:

Journey to asteroid Bennu - a trailer for the mission:

Why is asteroid Bennu so interesting? 

Osiris Rex Launch: 

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Starship drives part 5: Have engine will travel(ish)...

An artist's conception of LightSail - a technology that could be developed into a simple stardrive - in low Earth orbit. Image credit: The Planetary Society
In this post:

A stardive and a destination isn't a space mission, its just the early stages of very fast shower of wreckage. That's because, at starship speeds, even hitting the ultra thin stuff between the stars is like having someone blowtorch your ship's front end (although it's a lot more expensive). But every problem has a solution*...

* Although occasionally it's 'give up'

Starship drives part 5: Have engine will travel(ish).

Ask yourself this: What makes a bullet lethal?

Because, if you look at one sans gun, all you have is a teeny piece of metal. What makes that dangerous? Many handgun calibres you could even swallow without choking - it’s not the bullet that kills, it’s the speed. 

To prove I know stuff and should be trusted on that, here’s an equation*:

K.E. = ½ x M x V x V 

Where K.E. is kinetic energy, M is the objects mass, and V is its velocity.

… and that’s not just any equation - that’s the equation that tells us something’s kinetic energy (how much energy it contains because of its speed). Velocity is in there twice, which means that it’s a much bigger part of the equation than anything else. So if you want something to transfer more energy to a thing it hits (and hence do more damage) it’s easier to pump its energy up with extra speed than extra mass.  

That's how bullets work, and it's also why just pointing a starship at your destination and flooring it will result in a very fast cloud of wreckage: Starships will need to travel very, very fast. Even the slowest of slowboat starship concepts needs speeds of tens of kilometres per second, and any vehicle that could reach another solar system in a human lifetime needs speeds of tens of thousands of kilometres a second. These are speeds that we just don’t encounter on Earth - put simply, our intuitions on what would be dangerous thing to hit are all off.

OK, your intuition is right that hitting a planet would still be bad.

Running into a dust grain barely big enough to see, at say 5% of lightspeed (5% means 80 years travel time to the nearest star), would have a similar effect to a blowtorch being pressed into your starship’s hull. Things get worse as speed climbs up towards light speed – hitting the same dust grain at 99% of lightspeed would cause a significant explosion. 

A TIE fighter wouldn't stand a chance.

Although they usually don't anyway. Sorry Darth.
Even interstellar gas can cause damage, gradually eroding your ship.
So how does a starship captain deal with the danger of space dust and gas? Well, there are a few ideas….

1. Actually push a shield ahead of your ship: 

It’s not going to help with the drag or your fuel efficiency, but a big chunk of ‘dumb matter’ (rock, scrap, the bloated corpses of a space pirates victms… whatever yo have to hand) will keep you ship safe and your crew un-irradiated.

2. Multiple redundancy: 

Don’t just send one ship, send fifty – that’s the philosophy behind the 'starwisp' idea: If you can miniaturise your space ships then you can send a cloud of them, and statistically a couple of them should make it to the other end with enough electronic brains intact to carry out their mission. Not the best idea for crewed ships through, unless you’re truly desperate.

3. Shoot the buggers down: 

This also doesn’t help very much with the radiation problem, but as far as particles large enough to cause macroscopic damage…. You could think about mounting a laser on your starship to shoot them out of the sky. 

4: Use a magnetic shield:

A lot of the particles between the stars carry an electric charge, which means they could be deflected from a starship's path using magnetic fields - Centauri-Dreams takes a look at that idea here.

Not to mention high energy particles zipping about deep space: A hit from a cosmic ray in your computers memory cache could leave the ship thinking it has been built by chickens as a way to strand you in deep space without a helmet.You can shield your computer, but that means extra weight. And those cosmic rays? Not so great for your DNA either.

When it comes to higher performance starship drives - the physically possible but hugely fuel guzzling ones that could get up to nearly light speed - you start to run up against the strange effects of general relativity (a brilliant theory clearly designed to present a huge middle finger to stardrive enthusiasts everywhere). You’ll encounter some seriously weird problems if you manage to get close to light speed like: 

• Time slows to a crawl 
• Distances contract along the direction you’re travelling 
• Your mass increases. 
The starlight becomes lethal gamma rays 

All of the above becoming more-or-less infinitely strong as you get closer to light speed. Why?

So, barring a magical forcefield, and Star Trek style warp drive - oh, hang on, I've got a post right here on just that... 

* Please forgive me, I don't do this often.

** Still want to know? Good, we'll make scientist of you yet. This is a good place to start:

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Wednesday 7 September 2016

Slow week....

Hi everyone, I need to apologise for what will be a slow posting week this week - I've got some things to do onthe book that meed sorting out by Monday, and I really need to make them the priority. Normal service will resume immediately after though, when we'll be looking at some of the practical problems of interstellar travel...

Sunday 4 September 2016

Saturn's polar hexagon...

Straight edges are a sign of something artificial… nature works in curves.... OK, that’s not entirely true – check out the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland - but when it comes to clouds it’s very nearly true. 

Seriously, you have got to check out the Giant's Causeway. I'm not being paid by the Irish tourist board. Honest
Planets are also very curvy, and they often have clouds. None of the above says ‘will form a huge spinning polygon’, not to my tiny brain anyway. 

So I wouldn’t expect the planet Saturn to have a ten thousand kilometre wide hexagon, made of clouds, spinning around it’s north pole. 

Which it does. 

This thing.

The great Saturn hexagon is odd, in much the same way that elephants are plus sized. What is it? Well… the answer involves the weird physics of fluid flows, and a motorised bucket. First a bit of background: Like Jupiter, Saturn is all atmosphere, with the planet's air getting thicker with depth until it becomes a supercritical fluid (don’t ask)*. There’s nothing solid, at all, on the whole planet. So the huge hexagon, bizarrely, must be made of clouds, wind currents, and vapour. 

Incidentally, the idea that it’s a sign of an incredibly powerful alien intelligence doesn’t really hold water, because it leads to awkward questions like: “What kind of alien would bother to do that?” 

So it’s essentially got to be some kind of cloud. Ruling out aliens, super man, and the flying spaghetti beast… how does the giant hexagon work? 

Oh that flying spaghetti monster... he is a scamp...
It turns out that you can create a vortex with hexagonal, square, or even star shaped sides here on Earth. 

In a motorised bucket, in fact. 

A team from the Technical University of Denmark proved this using transparent buckets with metal bottoms that rotated at high speed. They filled the bucket with water and spun the bottom to whip up the liquid into a whirlpool. The researchers found that, when their buckets got up to serious speeds, the whirlpool formed wasn't circular - as the bucket sped up, it became elliptical, then double eyed*, then a three-sided star, a square, a pentagon, and at the highest speeds (about seven spins of the base a second), a hexagon.
Above: They dropped some ink into the bucket, and lit it from underneath to get the photos. Courtesy of the Technical University of Denmark.
The problem with this is that Saturn is a huge ringed planet, not a huge bucket with a spinning bottom***. But it proves that spinning fluids can create straight sided shapes, so there doesn’t need to be anything fundamentally weird about Saturn’s north pole for the hexagon to happen. 

A better answer, using the some similar fluid physics laws to the bucket experiment, came from a team at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology: A series of computer simulations of a jet stream – a high altitude wind current - around Saturn’s pole were run and, to their surprise, with the right start conditions the simulated jet naturally settled into a stable hexagonal shape that rotates around the pole. 

So the hexagon is actually the result of the right start conditions and a few natural perturbations? 

That might be the answer – but hold on: The Mexico team’s simulation doesn’t replicate all the features of the hexagon… and it’s just a simulation, however well made and carefully run. 
A definitive answer will need a return mission to Saturn itself… 

*If you’re asking the question anyway: Supercritical fluid happens when the pressure and temperature of a fluid is so high it has properties of both a gas and a liquid - it’s a bizarre state, but deeper into a giant planets core things get weirder, with endless oceans of liquid metallic hydrogen, and possibly diamond bergs lurking I the murk.

** Both these first two have also been seen in hurricanes at Venus’ poles. 

*** If that's your personal theory I respect your opinion. Except I don't because it's not, and that's nuts.

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