Tricked By Astrophysics

I think ScienceDaily has a new algorithm to sort their releases. Not only did the previous post‘s bicycle story show up in my chemistry feed. But now two firm space stories have shown up in my materials feed… both containing the vague word “matter” (i.e. not a good sort term). Both also deal with the fabric of reality, so to speak, so maybe someone out there is just confused what materials science is. But, guess what. I read them anyways. Maybe the mislabeling wasn’t so much a “mis” but more of a “trying to get people to read more topics” labeling.

Like everyone lately, I’ve been interested in astronomy. And Halloween’s gotten me in a spooky mood (my holiday mood has some lag time). So when I read “Universe may face a darker future: Is dark matter being swallowed up by dark energy?” I clicked and then I scrolled and then I read it really fast. Turns out our universe is slowly being consumed by dark energy. At least according to a new report based on observations from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. In the press release, the PI, David Wands, had something optimistic to note, “If the dark energy is growing and dark matter is evaporating we will end up with a big, empty, boring Universe with almost nothing in it.” Happy Halloween and Merry Christmas.

The next misplaced article is about theoretical research on parallel universes. Typically, it’s assumed that parallel universes don’t interact and that we can never, ever reach them. This puts parallel universes firmly in the theoretical realm (with some Negative Nancys calling it pseudoscience). Now, Howard Wiseman and Michael Hall (no relation) have developed a new idea where parallel universes interact. And not only that. This interaction is the reason for all of quantum mechanics. In addition to this fun bit of theory, Hall says in the release, “We also believe that, in providing a new mental picture of quantum effects, it will be useful in planning experiments to test and exploit quantum phenomena.” Take that, Nancy.

Now, I watched Fringe to the very end and I think it’s safe to say that things didn’t turn out well for the two interacting universes (spoilers!). Though it would be cool to meet my own Walternate, my Jenternent, no I don’t like that so far off to a bad start, Jennalternate, better closer warmer, Jalternate, that’s it.

This Year In Space

There’s a lot to be excited about this year, especially if the study of outerspace is your thing.

New Year’s Day ushered in the Curiosity rover’s 500th sol (or Martian day) and her mission isn’t over. Curiosity’s ready for the coming year, showing us her excitement by tweeting: “Goals for 2014: Finish driving to Mars’ Mount Sharp & do all the science I can.” Once at Mount Sharp (officially called Aeolis Mons), Curiosity will test for water and organic molecules in sedimentary rock layers, as her search for life continues.


Panoramic of Mount Sharp taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover.

With Curiosity considered a success, NASA has moved on to their next Mars project. The mission, called Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, MAVEN for short, will explore the thin atmosphere hovering above the red planet. Data from the probe, which launched this past November, should tell us about the planet’s history in terms of atmosphere, climate, and liquid water. We won’t see results until mid-to-late 2014, as the journey to Mars takes a long 10 months.

India is also hosting their own Mars Orbiter Mission, but the mission’s goals aren’t solely about Mars. Three of the four listed goals were about developing the technology to achieve deep space exploration, including design and realization of a Mars orbiter, long-range communication, and the creation and addition of autonomous features in the spacecraft. The probe was launched in early December and is expected to travel 300 days before reaching Mars. Once there, the probe will remain in orbit to study surface features such as morphology, mineralogy, and atmosphere composition.

In a final exciting mission, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will finally reach its target. The European Space Agency has been playing the long game, as one must do when playing in outerspace. The probe first launched in 2004 and only now (and by now I mean in almost a year) is it coming in contact with its target. The plan is to both orbit and land on the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. If successful, Rosetta will be the first probe to land on a comet and give us the first images of what the surface actually looks like. Part of the probe will stay in orbit to collect gas and dust samples from the coma (the head of the comet) and the tail.

I expect there will be a lot of news coming from these projects in 2014 and 2015. I’m most excited about the photos the probes will send back, especially from the Rosetta spacecraft. Everything we know about the surface of comets is a well-educated guess. Now we’ll finally confirm or, even more exciting, disprove that guess. We’re exploring new frontiers and proving that that exploration isn’t dead. It’s a good time to be alive.

Goodbye Moon

Ever wonder what the sky would look like if the moon was replaced by the other planets in our solar system? Well, wonder no more. Below are renderings of what the night sky would look like (barring any gravitational devastation from the sheer mass of the planets). I’ve put the diameter of the planet in parenthesis so you can see just how big it is.

Picture credit to Ron Miller.

The Moon (2,160 miles)


Mercury (3,032 miles)


Venus (7,521 miles)


Mars (4,212 miles)


Jupiter (86,881 miles)


Saturn (72,367 miles)


Uranus (31,518 miles)


Neptune (30,599 miles)


And as an added bonus….

Pluto (1,466 miles)


My own addition: Earth in the moon’s place seen from Earth (7,918 miles)


Give Those Women Some Space

When I grew up I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved outer space (specifically that of the Star Trek variety) and I thought it would be fun to float around in space and fiddle with the scientific instruments, maybe take a stroll on the moon.

Then I learned (slightly erroneously) that most astronauts are in the military. (A person can gain flying experience in the military, which is handy, but civilian astronauts are common, too.) I didn’t want to join the military. Even though I was a kid not too long ago (in the 90’s) the military wasn’t really a place for women, or at least wimpy petite women like me. I mainly gained life experience through movies/TV and there just weren’t women soldiers… or if they were they were buff and bald and manly (I’m looking at you Demi Moore).

So I gave up my dream of being an astronaut. And maybe that was better. The Guardian just reported that the number of women in space and just surpassed the number of dogs in space. But times are changing. Many women are looking into careers in space. Astronaut Cady Coleman noted that some people have the misconception that women don’t belong in space, they can’t do the jobs or won’t be as good as men. (Of course, since “normal people don’t care about science” they had to equate women in space to a popular movie. So skip to the end if you want to hear her quote.) But she’s been working hard to show people that women are just as capable. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, also offers hope to young women wanting to go into space: “Never let yourself be limited by other people’s limited imagination.”

Martian Time

Earthlings are meticulous about tracking time from the moment we get out of bed–to stop that blaring alarm clock–to the moment we get back in–when we reset that hated alarm. But how do we define time on other planets? For most of us, little could matter less, but for scientists involved in missions to Mars, little could matter more.

Astronomers mark the average length of a Martian day as 24 hours 39 minutes and 35 seconds. To set a Mars Local Time for use in exploratory missions, NASA developed a “Mars clock” based on the terrestrial 24 hour system, but with longer seconds, minutes and hours. Notable robots such as the Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, and the Phoenix and their mission controllers have operated on Mars time, rather than Earth time. The ever-shifting time gap between Earth and Mars required Earth-based controllers to advance their schedules by forty minutes each day–many calibrated their wristwatches to Mars time.

“You’re always jet-lagged,” Deborah Bass, the Deputy Project Scientist for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Phoenix Scout Mission, told Popular Science. “It’s only a little bit, because an hour–who cares, that’s not so bad. But it starts to take its toll.”

Many of the current rovers run on solar power–meager solar power at that. Rovers have only a four-hour period around local noon before their clocks run down. Scientists controlling the rover’s actions must be hyper-aware of the time on Mars. To make time keeping more complicated, five of the six successfully-landed rovers defined their own time zone. Only the Mars Pathfinder kept “local true solar time” set to the Martian midnight hour. The twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, used a “hybrid local solar time” to sync the true solar time with mission operations. For us, hybrid time is like using a watch set for Eastern Standard Time in central California–confusing, but it still counts passing minutes.

Though the length of a Martian day is close to a day here on Earth, the length of a year is almost twice as long on Mars. If months are kept to 28 Martian days to roughly align with Earth months, a year would have 24 months. But what would we call those extra months? Would there be a first December followed by a second December? Would we, as some enthusiasts suggest, alternate Earthly calendar months with Zodiac constellations or maybe science fiction authors? Or should months not be evenly spaced, since the orbit of Mars is not even itself? Mars wobbles around the sun in such a way that spring is the longest season at around 193 Martian days, while autumn is the shortest at around 143 Martian days. Do months need to reflect natural seasons and constellation cycles, or in this modern age are human economic and social patterns more important?

Unfortunately, most of us probably won’t stick around long enough to find out how humanity settles this question, but in the mean time it’s fun to think about.