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Saturday, 27 May 2017

4 Astounding images of the Moon, from China's Lunar probe

Above: A raw image of a galaxy, taken by the Chinese Lunar observatory.

Technically this is old news, but I've enjoyed it: Some truly amazing high resolution images of the Moon's surface, taken by China's Chang'e 3 lander and Yutu rover, were released to the interweb last year. 

The Chinese space agency's site is a wee bit hard to navigate for a non Chinese speaker. To make things worse the images were returned to Earth piecemeal... but that's where citizen scientists and the clever bods at the Planetary Society have come in: They've stitched the separate pieces together into some nice accessible mega images, which can be downloaded here on the Planetary Society's website. To give you a taste, here are my highlights:

My favourite: The Chang'e 3 lander, as seen by the Yutu rover. After deploying the rover Chang'e became an unmanned lunar science base and ultraviolet lunar observatory...

...Pyramid Rock, an outcrop of lunar rock whose top sticks out of the gritty Lunar soil...

...the tracks of the Yutu rover, leading off into the Lunar wasteland...

...The rover heading into the harsh lunar desert, as photographed by the Chang'e 3 lander. Parts of the lander are visible in the foreground.

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Universe in 101 words: Why is the biggest volcano ever almost invisible?

Above: A very visible volcano on Earth. We're lucky our volcanoes aren't nearly as sneaky as the Martian ones....

Invisible volcanoes, like flying sharks, sound like a bad idea to me. But nature doesn't care what I think... 

Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system, stands 22 km high - but if you stood on its slopes you'd need special equipment to know it was there. 


Because it's over 500 kilometres across - bigger than Italy. That makes its slopes so shallow that, locally, they would be lost amongst the terrain. And almost all of it stretches beyond the horizon wherever you might stand on it. 

It’s literally so big you couldn't tell it was there....

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Above: The pancake-like Olympus Mons.

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.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Answers for authors: What were the cosmic dark ages?

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Above: Bok globules, the cocoons where new stars are growing, are one of the few places the conditions of the cosmic dark ages are closely (although imperfectly) replicated today.

It's 4.5 billion years ago. The energies of the big bang have faded, and the first stars are yet to ignite, so the universe is... dark. Which is why, with great logic and a nearly terminal lack of imagination, cosmologists call this period of the Universe’s existence ‘the dark ages’. 

What if I were to hop in a time machine and visit? Is utter darkness all there is to it?

Yes! End of post.

Ahem. No, no of course it's not...

The first important difference, and I might well find it's of terminal importance, is the temperature: Unlike today's universe, which has a temperature barely above absolute zero, in this time it’s warm to hellish – ranging from thousands of degrees Celsius to perhaps minus two hundred (still warm by the standards of space), depending on exactly when in the era I’ve arrived. 
The heat is left over from the big bang - in fact it was still hot enough to boil water 150 million years after the big bang happened. Once it's cooled to modern temperatures it will become the cosmic microwave background, but until then it's just plain scorching.

Hey, they did call it the big bang for a reason...

For most of this part of the Universes history I’d be cooked, and there’s literally nowhere cool to run to - the whole Universe is this temperature. Assuming I can avoid that, I'll find some other differences too...
  •  The utter darkness. Yes, I covered this with 'the dark ages' but it bears repeating: The sky is, to all intents and purposes, perfectly black. It’s possible there are some dimly glowing objects out there, as the compressing clouds of gas in the proto-galaxies heat up, but they are shrouded behind those same clouds. 
  • There’s nothing solid, anywhere – no stars, no planets, not even any dust (which is made in the atmospheres of elderly stars). This a Universe of hydrogen and helium gas, and very little else.
  • In fact there aren't even any of the chemical elements that make solid matter - most of these are cooked up in the cores of the yet unborn stars.
  • According to some theories there will be a lot of small black holes - some no bigger than an atom - flying around. They were created by fluctuations in the density of the Universe less than a second after the Big Bang, and by modern times all but the biggest will have decayed away or merged together.

So this is a universe still under construction and most of it is just dark and hot... but, towards the end of the dark ages, the temperature was below the boiling point of water, yet still above its freezing point. Called the ‘Early habitable Epoch’ the whole universe was a warm dark cauldron in which the laws of chemistry could run the kind of chemical reactions thought to lead to life - perhaps giving rise to early, alien life, or perhaps just setting the chemical stage for life in the universe today.

It may be dark to my time travelling human eyeball - but it’s certainly not dull...

Above: A star forming nebula - nothing really to do with the cosmic dark ages, it's just pretty. It's my blog, I can make it look nice if I want...

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Universe in 101 words: Did ET phone us?

Above: The Atacama large milimeter array. They're not among the telescopes involved if I'm honest, but they have cooler publicity shots, so...

Probably not... but right now it's 'the jury's still out' rather than 'no'. 

That's because the Breakthrough Listen project has been using Australian and U.S. radio telescopes to hunt for signals from other star systems. It's backed by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire who's put $100 million toward the 10-year project - and, over two years, Breakthrough Listen have identified 11 signals thar are worthy of a closer look.

You won't need that tinfoil fedora just yet though: The team think these are probably just odd natural signals. But with unsolved mysteries like 'Tabby's star' out there never say never... 


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Above: The view from the International Space Station, live. Because why not?

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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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Universe in 101 words: Could Mars be bought back to life?

Above: The dessicated plains of Mars today.

Well how did Mars die? 

Simple*: Its core froze, killing its protective magnetic field and letting the solar wind strip the atmosphere away. 


Simulations suggest that, if the field were replaced, Mars would naturally heal: CO2 (a greenhouse gas) would build up, increase temperatures, and evaporate more CO2 from the ice caps – a runaway effect, thickening the atmosphere. Ices would melt, forming oceans and an atmosphere thick enough to support plant life. 

NASA’s got an idea how: Station a giant electromagnet near the planet, to act as a prosthetic magnetic field. 

It’s a mad idea**… but those sometimes work… 

*By which I mean: Actually quite complicated, but I'll sum it up in a simple way because I've only got 101 words to get to the terraforming stuff..

**Not in the sense of ‘let’s harness ten thousand rabbits into an army with hypnosis’ mad idea, but more like a ‘let’s actually run in the charity marathon this year’ kind of mad idea.

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Above: An artists impression of a terraformed Mars.