Tag Archives: Space

NASA Reveals Discovery of Arsenic-Using Life

NASA has announced the discovery of microbes that can replace phosphorus with arsenic, which is toxic to all other known life forms. It can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in the (normally phosphoric) backbone of its DNA and RNA, in its cell membrane, and even in its ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is a central energy-carrying molecule in all cells.

NASA’s release: http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2010/dec/HQ_10-320_Toxic_Life.html

So, how do you think this will affect the search for life elsewhere? It might not be life on Titan (as some speculated the news release might be about), but it’s still pretty cool.

Forum topic for convenience: http://forums.leagueofreason.org.uk/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=6453

The Loneliest Robots

Spare a thought for Voyager 2.

The spacecraft, which has been in operation for just over 32 years reached a humbling milestone this week; 20 years since the closest approach to Neptune. On August 25th, 1989 it came within 5000 km of the big, blue gas giant, taking spectacularly beautiful ‘close-ups’ that Adams, Galle and Le Verrier could only have dreamt of (see pictures after the jump). Just 5 hours later, it made its closest approach to Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, which is spiraling in slowly to its eventual demise.

Voyager 2 is so far the only probe to have visited Neptune (and Uranus) completing the reconnaissance of our Solar System’s main planets. I was only three years old at the time, but thanks to the achievements of the Voyager programme, I grew up with books containing a complete set of stunning photographs and they inspired me no end. Every time I look through my old books, I remember not to take this for granted. Most of the planets’ discoverers lived long before they were seen up close and it is only through the hard work of many scientists and engineers that in the time I live, we have landed probes on alien worlds (Huygens on Titan, 2005), we’ll soon be exploring dwarf planets (Dawn to Ceres, New Horizons to Pluto) and we’re continuously discovering other Solar Systems of all flavours. I can’t help but wonder how exploration will have improved hundreds of years after I’m gone, and how the distant planets being discovered today might also be seen in close up.

Continue reading The Loneliest Robots

In the shadow of Atlantis

Atlantis transits the Sun (click for full size)

This truly spectacular image (click for full size) shows us the silhouette of STS-125 Space Shuttle Atlantis against the Sun. Taken for NASA by Thierry Legault on Tuesday, it captures Atlantis en route to its rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST-SM4). Hubble is currently in the shuttle’s cargo bay, where the crew yesterday installed the Wide Field Camera 3 (successor to the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2). On saturday, they will also install the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and repair the Advanced Camera for Surveys. They are also making several other repairs, in what will be the final Hubble servicing mission before its orbit is terminated, probably around 2014. Atlantis is just under 40 metres long, and 350 miles high in this picture!

Anyway, I thought some of you might enjoy this beautiful image too.

Idealistic Musings On Space, The Universe, And What The Duck Has Planned For Us

Whatever the duck does have planned, I’m willing to bet it will be spectacularly unpleasant. Anyway.

It might be considered a disadvantage to talk about space considering I know virtually nothing about it. When I go on Wiki to discover new and crunchy space facts, I skip past all formulae or esoteric terminology; about the only numbers I can cope with are the ones describing size (15,000 miles? I must write that down). I am, in any practical sense regarding space, stupid. I gawp at the pretty photos and loll my tongue at the details of size, age and speed but when it comes to really understanding the underlying fabric I sort of zone out.

It’s tempting to defend my naivety by saying “Well, I see the world through the innocent eyes of a child, I don’t need any more’ but it’s not as if knowledge dulls your ability to feel wonder. We all need more, I’m just not fitted with a brain that can take it.

I’m pretty much a late arrival into the whole “space is fantastic’ thing, it was never something I considered much until recently. I made appreciative noises when confronted with facts like “OMG THREE EARTHS COULD FIT INTO JUPITER’S RED SPOT’ but never really made the connection between interesting facts and the true reality behind them.

Seasoned astrophys types like AndromedasWake, who is officially recognised as Knowing About Space, probably hide condescending smiles behind their hands when I go on like this. After all, they’ve known for years. But I’m like a child in a sweetshop and a stolen wallet, except the sweets are facts and the wallet is the interblagz. I could probably take this metaphor further.

I won’t.

The gist of this is . . . look up. Try to reconcile your limited perception of distance with the fact that we are tiny, just one planet going round a small star in a galaxy that is one of billions, hundreds of billions.

It’s tough. So start small. Let’s take the moon.

You can see the moon most nights, and it’s pretty. But even when it’s really very pretty indeed, it’s seldom remarked upon as anything more exciting than, say, scenery. People don’t look at the moon and think “Holy wowz, that’s a small planet. A small planet that’s so close I can make out incredible detail with my naked eye. With a telescope, I may as well be there.’ Why would you think that? It’s a more or less constant background to the night sky. But after the sun, it’s the clearest intrusion of the universe into our world. The nearest clearly visible extraterrestrial body, massively plunging through space even as you look at it. Just try to make a connection with it as a real object, as an entity in itself both separated and linked to us, far from reach but tantalisingly clear.

Now, let’s try something a little bigger. Find some dark glasses and look at the sun. (I am, of course, obliged by some feeble moral tendril to tell you that looking at the sun without adequate protection can result in damage to your eyes. Don’t do it.) If you widen your eyes and get used to the glare, you can see the disc pretty easily. Much like the moon, the sun is seldom really thought of. It’s just there. Except the sun is a bit more special than the moon. All those stars you can see at night? That’s what the sun is, except it’s close enough to be seen as a large, visible disc. It’s a star, and it’s right there. Go outside and look at it. Now! It’s unimaginably large, unimaginably far away, and we can see it. There are billions upon billions of these things in the universe. Even from 93 million miles, we can barely look at it without protection. Are you looking yet?

And then there’s the other planets, some of which can be seen with the naked eye. Real objects, as real as this planet but strange and different and untouched.

It’s hard to get out of the comfort zone and think about where we really are, how we are utterly insignificant even within our own solar system – let alone the monstrous size of the universe. Scale ceases to have any meaning at all. As soon as you even try to grasp where we actually are, that every point of light in the sky is a bewilderingly large star that exists, as real as our own or the ground you stand on, and the intervening space is almost completely empty tracts of vacuum (and, of course, the stars we can see with our eyes are but a fragmented slice of the entirety) . . . your mind sort of sheers away. It’s like having a thought just out of reach of your mind, but so much more. Just think of the gaps, of the reality of such cosmic beauty that we’ll never touch, that we can only look at from a distance more or less impossible to grasp. And think of the near-certainty that there is other life of some kind, somewhere – probably some many wheres – within the hundreds of billions of galaxies we’ve so far detected.

I know the barest crumb of all the knowledge available, and couldn’t begin to understand most of it. To everyone who’s already realised how ridiculously magnificent the universe is, ignore my burblings. To everyone who doesn’t really think about it, go outside and look up. Try just to grasp the night sky as an entire panorama of reality completely outside ourselves. All I know is . . . it’s amazing. I can’t tell you how to feel it, I can just say that it freaks me out in a manner both depressing and uplifting.

Watch this video. It may or may not help.

Two new European missions are go!

At 13:12 UTC today, two European observatories blasted off without a hitch onboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. Controllers in Germany confirmed readings from both spacecraft about 40 minutes after liftoff, following their half hour flight and deployment from the launch vehicle. CEO of Arianespace, Jean-Yves Le Gall, described the launch as “perfect”. Both spacecraft are now en route to their designated L2 point approximately 1.5 million kilometers away.  Now, both of these missions are actually a really big deal for astronomy…

Firstly, we have Herschel. To me, infrared astronomy is by far the best astronomy! By observing the infrared, we can really draw a lot information about the structure, and particularly the formation of stars and galaxies. Since its launch in 2003, I have been an avid follower of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (named for the great Lyman Spitzer) and it continues to make astounding discoveries and send back beautiful images to this day (though now on borrowed time – it is expected to run out of helium coolant “at any time”.)

Spitzer has peered into stellar nurseries to show us baby stars, and revealed the intricate structure of Andromeda’s inner dust lanes. Now, Herschel (named for William Herschel: discoverer of Uranus) will become the new standard in infrared astronomy. It has a massive 3.5 metre Cassegrain telescope, making it the largest space telescope ever launched, and crucially, it will bridge the gap between previous space-based infrared missions and ground-based observations, by observing a waveband of ~55-672µm. Herschel’s huge mirror and cutting edge photometric technology will allow it to observe some of the coldest and most distant objects in the known universe. We can expect a lot of amazing science to come out of this mission.

Herschel (left) and Planck

Then, there’s Planck. This spacecraft, named for the German quantum physicist, Max Planck, is the third generation Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) mapping probe. It is the successor to WMAP (2001) which itself followed COBE (1989) and its principal mission objective is to measure the polarisation and intensity of anisotropies in the primordial CMB radiation that permeates the universe as a remnant of the big bang. It will also be carrying out a number of other scientific tasks, including measurements of our own galaxy’s magnetic field. Its scanning sensors will achieve several times the resolution of WMAP, with around 10 times the sensitivity, and the findings of this mission will be extremely exciting for cosmology buffs, as they will actually help us to understand the size and shape of the whole universe.

Personally, it’s thrilling for me to see these two great missions launch together in yet another flying success for Arianespace and ESA. These spacecraft will greatly influence our understanding of cosmic origins in several years. Excited? You should be!