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Saturday 20 May 2017

The Universe in 101 words: Invisible galaxies?

Above: A timelapse, composite, photograph of the Milky Way - a sight you'd never see in a dark matter galaxy...

When is galaxy (almost) invisible? 

When it's mostly just a cloud of dark matter - the mysterious and almost undetectable stuff that experiments on the ISS may finally be closing in on. Dark matter galaxies do have some normal stars, pulled along by the cloud's gravity, but they're rarer than Grindr users in Russia.

We need powerful telescopes to see them from Earth. So to human eyes, even from the inside, a dark matter galaxy is be too faint for human eyes to see - if you lived in one all you'd see was the dim, distant, glows of other galaxies.

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Above: Dragonfly 44 A dark matter galaxy as big as the Milky Way, but with so few actual stars only powerful telescopes can see it - and even then the images must be computer enhanced.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

What a space warp looks like, and a few other amazing odds and ends...

Sometimes there's too much cool stuff going on it's hard to keep pace with it all - so here're some recent stories that I haven't had time to cover... but which you need to find out about:

What does warped space look like?

This stunning image, taken by the  Hubble space telescope, is of the Abell 370 cluster of galaxies. But look closely, and you'll see that some of those galaxies look to be distorted into very odd shapes - lines and arcs of light. It's as if we're looking at them through a huge sheet of warped glass.

We're not. Have you ever tried getting a quote for double glazing? No one has that much glass.

The culprit is the immense gravity of the cluster, which distorts the fabric of space - and that magnifies and warps the images of galaxies into these weirds arcs of light.

US Air Force's mystery spaceplane returns to Earth after two years:


The US air force has, for years now, been running a small fleet of teeny unmanned space shuttles, called the X37B's. True, it sounds like an indie pop band, but these spacecraft regularly travel out into space to... well, no-one's entirely sure, since their missions are top secret. 

But what we do know is that last week one returned to Earth after a mission lasting nearly two years - a record breaking length of time. Residents of   were in no doubt about this, as the sonic boom it caused as it re-entered our atmosphere shook windows.

Cassini flies between Saturn and its rings:

NASA's Cassini space craft, and it's mission to Saturn's system of rings and moons, has been one of the wonders of my lifetime. It's revealed them to be more like a miniature solar system, including one world that could support life, and another that is almost too bizarre to imagine. But the ship's fuel is running out, and so NASA has started it on one last, spectacular, phase of it's mission: Making 22 dives into the space between the giant planet and the lowest rings, to study Saturn up close and learn how the rings and planet interact. It's just completed the first dive, and returned some of the most stunning images ever returned from space: 

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Friday 5 May 2017

Could anyone gain Superman style powers ?

Superman, most comic book fans can tell you, gets his powers from Earth's yellow Sun like some sort of red and blue houseplant. 

But that wasn't always the case.

In early versions of the comic his power - which were just super strength and speed at that point - was all down to gravity: His home planet of Krypton was a world with higher gravity than Earth, so his muscles had evolved to be much more powerful in compensation. Superman was just the nth generation result of a world where you had to be a power lifter to not be crushed by your own hair.

As writers added powers to Supes the 'high gravity' explanation started looking a bit weak: X-ray vision, laser eyes, and bullet proof skin... from being used to higher gravity? Er... So the modern explanation of the red/blue super houseplant was invented. But what if we go back to that original explanation? 

Could it really work - not for Superman , but for humans some day? 

To the delight of my inner super villain... hell, yes: A human living on a lower gravity planet than Earth would be capable of astounding feats of strength: Lifting hugely heavy things, jumping over (small) buildings, even out pushing some motor vehicles - if gravity is lighter the friction between wheels and the ground is less - could all be possible. The effect doesn't just apply to lifting objects, but pushing and pulling them too... and to aerodynamics. Why do I mention aerodynamics? Not only are humans immensely strong in low gravity... but we could fly. 

This astronaut didn't flip his Moon buggy one handed in an irritable display of superstrength, after finding out Houston had forgotten to pack Wotsits in his lunch. But he could have done...
This is not something the Apollo astronauts really got to play with in the cramped confines of their landers. But, in a large lunar base, on the surface of the Moon after it's been terraformed, or Moon-sized world with its own atmosphere like Titan, humans would be light and string enough to fly by flapping strap on wings. You'd need a bit of help to get the initial launch speed, unless you're a champion sprinter, but a pair of roller skates and a steep hill would take care of that

Would it look silly? Yes, probably, but I really wouldn't care as I flapped off into the sunset, roller skate wheels spinning.

Flying and giant boulder juggling may one day be popular sports on a terraformed Moon or Mars, but it's possible to experiment with low gravity today, using the 'Vomit comet' - a plane that flies on a specially designed series of parabolas, creating the illusion of reduced gravity inside the aircraft. 

And if you'd like to know what a bunch of humans with low gravity induced superpowers would look like, here's Jane from Outside Xbox doing just that...

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