Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Galaxy Far, Far Away

From the BBC via Shakesville:

An international team of astronomers has detected the most distant galaxy yet.

The galaxy is about 30 billion light-years away and is helping scientists shed light on the period that immediately followed the Big Bang.

It was found using the Hubble Space Telescope and its distance was then confirmed with the ground-based Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Because it takes light so long to travel from the outer edge of the Universe to us, the galaxy appears as it was 13.1 billion years ago (its distance from Earth of 30 billion light-years is because the Universe is expanding).

Lead researcher Steven Finkelstein, from the University of Texas at Austin, US, said: “This is the most distant galaxy we’ve confirmed. We are seeing this galaxy as it was 700 million years after the Big Bang.”

The far-off galaxy goes by the catchy name of z8_GND_5296.

When you think in terms that 700 million years is “immediately” after the Big Bang, it puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Are Not Alone

Via Kevin Drum, a graphic from New Scientist speculates at the number of habitable planets in our galaxy.

They started with the 3,588 planets discovered by the Kepler space telescope and then pared this back to only smallish planets in the “habitable zone”—not too near their star to boil over and not too far away to be iceballs. That got them down to 51 planets. But that only counts the planets we could see because our view from Earth was directly on their ecliptic. Extrapolating to all the rest produces 22,500 Earthlike planets. And since Kepler only covered 0.28 percent of the sky and only looked out 3,000 light years, extrapolating yet again produces a final estimate of 15-30 billion possibly Earthlike planets.

Hello out there.

earthlike planets 09-26-13

Friday, September 13, 2013

Now, Voyager

To boldly go…

Voyager 1By today’s standards, the spacecraft’s technology is laughable: it carries an 8-track tape recorder and computers with one-240,000th the memory of a low-end iPhone. When it left Earth 36 years ago, it was designed as a four-year mission to Saturn, and everything after that was gravy.

But Voyager 1 has become — thrillingly — the Little Spacecraft That Could. On Thursday, scientists declared that it had become the first probe to exit the solar system, a breathtaking achievement that NASA could only fantasize about back when Voyager was launched in 1977, the same year “Star Wars” was released.

“I don’t know if it’s in the same league as landing on the moon, but it’s right up there — ‘Star Trek’ stuff, for sure,” said Donald A. Gurnett, a physics professor at the University of Iowa and the co-author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Science about Voyager’s feat. “I mean, consider the distance. It’s hard even for scientists to comprehend.”

Even among planetary scientists, who tend to dream large, the idea that something they built could travel beyond the Sun’s empire and keep grinding away is impressive. Plenty of telescopes gaze at the far parts of the Milky Way, but Voyager 1 can now touch and feel the cold, unexplored region in between the stars and send back detailed dispatches about conditions there. It takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for Voyager’s signals to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.

“This is historic stuff, a bit like the first exploration of Earth, and we had to look at the data very, very carefully,” said Edward C. Stone, 77, NASA’s top Voyager expert, who has been working on the project since 1972. He said he was excited about what comes next. “It’s now the start of a whole new mission,” he said.

Good luck, and keep in touch.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Take Us Out of Orbit, Ensign

NASA gets down to some serious research.

NASA has invested $50,000 in equipment for “warp speed” research that would allow space travel faster than the speed of light. The research remains in the science phase and is unlikely to produce a practical application in the near future, but the team’s intention is to get the ball rolling.

Though it seems ripped straight from an episode of Star Trek, NASA has invested real money into understanding the science behind travel faster than the speed of light.

Harold G. White, a NASA physicist, leads the small team at NASA who are trying to make reality out of a theory that suggests the possibility of traveling faster than the speed of light.

They’d better get on it.  We have less than fifty years until April 2063 which, as everyone knows, is when Zefram Cochrane will launch the first warp-drive ship and we make first contact with the Vulcans.

Make it so.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

That’s Us

This photo of the Earth was taken from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.

cassini_saturn_earth.jpg.CROP.original-original

That little speck of light is us. As Carl Sagan noted, that’s everyone and everything you’ve ever known or heard of in your life and our history.

It puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

Traveling Music

Everybody else is posting this, so why not?

This is Commander Chris Hadfield, commander of the International Space Station, doing his version of David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity” from the space station.

Nerdgasms all around, Ensign.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunday Reading

Gun Shots — Hendrik Herzberg on getting reasonable people to talk about guns.

It was hard, in the massacre’s immediate aftermath, to find a presentable advocate for the view that the No. 1 cause of gun violence is a shortage of guns. (The No. 2 cause, presumably, is a surplus of people, since people, not guns, kill people.) “Fox News Sunday” and its host, Chris Wallace, had to settle for Representative Louie Gohmert, of Texas. Representative Gohmert, a birther and a climate-change denier, is normally dismissible as an amusing eccentric, a self-lampooning clown. Not this time. His chilling advice for Sandy Hook’s murdered principal—“I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office, locked up, so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, but she takes him out, takes his head off, before he can kill those precious kids”—has been widely quoted and widely deplored. What Gohmert said next has received less notice. Wallace pressed him further on why he thinks civilians should possess weapons like the M-4 (the Congressman’s choice) and the AR-15 (the school shooter’s choice and the top-selling rifle in the nation, notably in the past two weeks). “Well,” Gohmert replied,

for the reason George Washington said: a free people should be an armed people. It insures against the tyranny of the government. If they know that the biggest army is the American people, then you don’t have the tyranny that came from King George. That is why it was put in there. That’s why, once you start drawing the line, where do you stop?

After Sandy Hook, as after the Columbine horror, in 1999, and the dozens of mass shootings since, many Americans, gun owners among them, wondered why any sane person would require a rapid-fire killing machine with a foot-long banana clip to feel safe in his or her home or person, let alone to take target practice, shoot skeet, or hunt rabbits. But, for Hobbesian gun nuts of Gohmert’s ilk, the essence of the Second Amendment, when all is said and done, is not about any of that. Its real, irreducible purpose is to enable some self-designated fraction of the American people, in a pinch, to make war against the American government—to overthrow it by force and violence, if that is deemed necessary. If that’s the line you draw, then where, logically, do you stop? In Georgian times, when the amendment was ratified, the most fearsome weapon anyone, soldier or civilian, could carry was a single-shot musket. And today? “Shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles don’t shoot down black helicopters, people with shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles shoot down black helicopters”? Gohmert is a fringe figure, but the fringe is as long as an AR-15’s barrel. His seditious fantasies of freelance insurrection are shared by a nontrivial portion of the N.R.A. membership and board, by the N.R.A.’s feral kid brother, the Gun Owners of America, and by a gaggle of locked-and-loaded politicians who, not long ago, were threatening “Second Amendment remedies” for policy offenses like the Affordable Care Act.

Second Acts — Actor Reed Birney comes back to Broadway in the revival of Picnic.

Winning a Tony was a childhood dream of Mr. Birney’s ever since he began fantasizing about Broadway from his rural hometown, Seaford, Del. But at 58, after landing his second job on Broadway, he is quick to say that he’d be getting ahead of himself to imagine winning Tonys.

“Right now I just feel like I’m the poster boy for perseverance,” Mr. Birney said during a recent interview in the shabby-chic living room of his boxy Upper West Side apartment, where the bookcases hold part of his 7,000-film collection and board games like Life and Battleship that he plays with his wife, the actress Constance Shulman, and their two teenagers.

“When I was young and cute, I thought I had to really get rich and famous,” he continued. “And I was getting older and my looks were going, and I wasn’t getting famous, or even a little bit famous, I thought — oh dear, what a sad thing. I was just wildly frustrated. I felt like I had something more to give, but no one was buying for the longest time.”

Now, it seems, no one can get enough of Mr. Birney, at least among downtown theater artists, many of whom are half his age. “Blasted” hit at the same time that a new crowd of cool kids was emerging Off Broadway, which included the ubiquitous director Sam Gold and his frequent muse, the playwright Annie Baker. The two recruited Mr. Birney and other actors to develop Ms. Baker’s play “Circle Mirror Transformation,” which became a major critical and audience hit Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2009.

Mr. Birney’s character, the heartbroken carpenter Schultz, became his stock in trade: Charles Isherwood began his review in The New York Times of a later production, David West Read’s “Dream of the Burning Boy,” by writing, “Reed Birney is quickly becoming New York’s foremost actor in a particular subspecialty, communicating the grief of average men facing extraordinary loss.”

Yard Sale — Want some slightly used rocket launching equipment?

On July 20, 2011, at 5:57 a.m. EDT, the space shuttle Atlantis made its final touchdown on the runway of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s storied shuttle program wasn’t the only thing that came to its official end that day; the intervening year-and-a-half has also seen the slow obsolescence of the tools that allowed the program to be what it was: the rocket launch pads and the equipment hangers and the buildings of Cape Canaveral.

Now, it seems, those items — those relics of a program past — will be slowly sold off. Or, perhaps, rented off. NASA, the Orlando Sentinel reports, has been advertising — quietly — a long inventory of the facilities and equipment at the Kennedy Space Center, “listing them as available for use, lease or, in some cases, outright purchase by the right business.”

Among the items in that inventory:

• launchpad 39A, where shuttles were launched;
• space in the Vehicle Assembly Building, the 526-foot-tall structure first used to assemble Saturn V-Apollo rockets;
• Orbiter Processing Facilities — essentially large garages where shuttles were once maintained;
• Hangar N (including its high-tech test equipment);
• the launch-control center;
• a 15,000-foot landing strip;
• a parachute-packing plant;
• an array of aerospace tracking antennas;
• and various other buildings and sections of undeveloped property.

NASA’s little enormous yard sale, if it does take place, may also be something of a fire sale — no rocket-fuel pun intended. The equipment in question requires careful (and expensive) maintenance; and federal funding for that maintenance is scheduled to expire by the end of 2013. The swampy environment of Cape Canaveral’s particular stretch of Florida coast is harsh on metal and other materials; if the transferrable equipment isn’t transferred within that timeframe — and if buildings aren’t used and maintained — they’ll start to rust and otherwise deteriorate in their inhospitable environment.

Doonesbury — One size fits none.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

We Are Not Alone

Via TPM:

The Milky Way contains at least 100 billion planets, or enough to have one for each of its stars, and many of them are likely to be capable of supporting conditions favorable to life, according to a new estimate from scientists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California (Caltech).

That specific figure of 100 billion planets has been suggested by earlier, separate studies, but the new analysis corroborates the earlier numbers and may even add to them, as it was conducted on a single star system — Kepler 32 — which contains five planets and is located some 1,000 light years away from Earth in between the patch of sky found between the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, where NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope is pointed.

I just hope none of them are watching us.  How embarrassing.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Last Men To The Moon

Forty years ago today Apollo 17 was launched.  The liftoff was delayed until after midnight by a minor technical glitch.  I was living here in Miami, so a few seconds after the launch I went out to the balcony of my apartment and looked to the northeast.  A moment later I saw the flames of the Saturn rocket streaking into the night sky like a huge meteor, except it was going up, not down.  It was the last planned mission to the moon, and so far, it still is.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

In A Galaxy Far, Far Away…

Via TPM:

The most ancient and distant galaxy yet observed — the light from which traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth — has been pinpointed by scientists taking an unprecedentedly deep look through the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA announced on Thursday.

The galaxy, named MACS0647-JD, is tiny by comparison to most of the galaxies we’re more familiar with, including our own Milky Way.

“It’s less than a percent of the Milky Way in terms of its diameter and its mass,” said Dan Coe, the astronomer at the multi-institution Space Telescope Science Institute, who first discovered the galaxy back in February 2012, in a phone interview with TPM on Thursday.

In fact, as NASA notes in its press release on the news, MACS0647-JD is just 600 light years wide, while the Milky Way is 150,000 light years across. The ancient galaxy is small even by the standards of other dwarf galaxies, which are typically on the order of 2,000 light years across.

The ancient galaxy appears to have been spawned just 420 million years after the Big Bang is theorized to have occurred or earlier, an incredibly short period in cosmic time.

In the time it has taken the light from that galaxy to get here — 13.3 billion years — that cluster of stars could have expanded to be the size of our own galaxy, planets could have formed, life could have begun, evolved, become sentient; civilizations could have begun, flourished, faded, and died away; all in the time it took for those photons to reach the Hubble telescope.  And we’ll never know.

But what an amazing journey nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Short Takes

Another number 2 leader of Al-Qaeda has been killed.

The Taliban threatens to kill Prince Harry.

Syria — Russia says Assad would leave if he was voted out. (I think the people have spoken…)

The Chicago teachers’ strike takes on political overtones.

Anonymous claims credit for hacking GoDaddy.

Flash spotted on Jupiter. (That’s how War of the Worlds started….)

Tropical Update: TS Leslie is far north, heading for the Maritimes. Hurricane Michael is also heading northeast, and the newest disturbance is going that way, too.

Andy Murray won the mens’ title at the U.S. Open.

The Tigers’ slump continues with a loss to the White Sox.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sunday Reading

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the delicate balance of racial tension in America and equal opportunity as framed by the first black president.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

By virtue of his background—the son of a black man and a white woman, someone who grew up in multiethnic communities around the world—Obama has enjoyed a distinctive vantage point on race relations in America. Beyond that, he has displayed enviable dexterity at navigating between black and white America, and at finding a language that speaks to a critical mass in both communities. He emerged into national view at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, with a speech heralding a nation uncolored by old prejudices and shameful history. There was no talk of the effects of racism. Instead Obama stressed the power of parenting, and condemned those who would say that a black child carrying a book was “acting white.” He cast himself as the child of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas and asserted, “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” When, as a senator, he was asked if the response to Hurricane Katrina evidenced racism, Obama responded by calling the “ineptitude” of the response “color-blind.”

E.B. White — In remembrance of Neil Armstrong, a note from the July 26, 1969 edition of The New Yorker.

The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers who kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.

Carl Hiaasen on keeping your distance.

As the Republican delegates this week struggle to stay six feet from the strippers, Romney is trying to put about 600,000 light years between himself and Todd Akin. However, the presidential nominee has a big problem, and that problem is his running mate, Paul Ryan.

The Wisconsin congressman, another “social conservative,” joined with Akin to co-sponsor anti-choice legislation in the House. The bill would ban all abortions “unless the pregnancy is the result of an act of forcible rape or incest.”

Last week, during the Akin fiasco, Ryan clammed up when he was asked to explain the term “forcible” rape in relation to other rapes.

“Rape is rape,” he said over and over in the tone of a constipated macaw.

Like Akin, Ryan doesn’t really believe rape is rape. He and many anti-abortionists favor a narrow definition of the crime. For example, they think statutory rape involving teens is different, and that pregnancies resulting from those acts should not be terminated.

The philosophy is pure Akin and Ryan. They want to be in your bedroom, in your doctor’s office, in your church. Forget privacy. Forget personal decisions.

A 14-year-old girl who gets pressured into having sex with her boyfriend must have the baby. Same goes for a wife forced by threat to have sex with a violent husband. Same goes for any woman with a medical condition that makes pregnancy dangerous.

Meet your new Republican Party, hijacked by reactionaries.

Doonesbury — Take me to your leader.