Science Sunday 11-26-17

A Brief History of Flight – The Rocket Age, Part 2

Telstar 1

On July 10, 1962, Bell Laboratories, in conjunction with NASA and other telecommunication organizations, launched the first true transatlantic telecommunication satellite from Cape Canaveral.

Launched from a Thor-Delta rocket, the satellite, known as Telstar 1, occupied a highly elliptical orbit, with perigee at 903 miles, and apogee at 3505 miles.  It weighed 170 pounds, was 3 feet in diameter, and ran on a mere 14 Watts of solar assisted power.

Telstar 1 was the first satellite to relay television images across the Atlantic Ocean.  The first image was that of the US transmission station in Andover, Maine.  Subsequent images included part of a Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, a press conference by then President John Kennedy, and a singing performance of the French legend Yves Montand.

Unfortunately, the satellite suffered irreparable radiation damage while travelling through the Van Allen Belts, radiation deposited there by a US high altitude nuclear bomb detonation.  It ceased functioning in November of 1962, a mere four months later.


Yuri Gargarin – First Man in Space

On April 12, 1961, a most remarkable event occurred.  Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.

It was not a routine journey.  Gargarin had only a 50 percent chance of returning safely to Earth.  He would orbit the Earth only once, travelling 25,000 miles, in 108 minutes, at an average speed of nearly 14,000 miles per hour.

Gargarin was chosen to be the first human in space in part because of his short stature, but also because he was athletic and a very level-headed person.  He had grown up in Nazi occupied Russia, and had to live for a while in a mud hut, while his older brothers were shipped off to a Nazi slave labor camp.

His capsule, the Vostok 1, did not fare as well as he did.  Part of the capsule was supposed to detach before reentry, but it failed to do so, causing his reentry to be virtually uncontrollable.

Fortunately, the unwanted part detached from his capsule because the tether connecting it burnt up in reentry.  Gargarin was able to eject from the Vostok 1, as planned, at 20,000  feet somewhere over Siberia.  The capsule, by contrast, crashed and burned up.

Unfortunately, Gargarin did not live very long after his successful orbiting of the Earth.  Just eight years later, on March 27, 1968, Gargarin died in a MIG-15 military jet aircraft training accident.

He was only 34 years old.


We Choose to Go to the Moon

On September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy gave a most extraordinary speech at Rice University in Houston, TX, where he challenged Congress, and the nation, to inspire the United States to become the preeminent agent in space travel, and all activities contingent to that goal.

Kennedy repeated the mantra “We choose to go to the Moon” three times, explaining that we, the United States will land on the Moon, in less of a decade, not because such a task is easy, but precisely because it is difficult.

As a result, the budget for NASA quadrupled, and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were set in motion, culminating in the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, less than seven years later.

Science Sunday 08-06-17

Clingy Drones

Vice News’ Motherboard reports that a new type of drone has successfully been designed by researchers at the Createk Design Lab at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec that can semi-autonomously alight on, and cling to, vertical surfaces, both hard and soft.

Besides obvious spy applications which were not intentionally part of the design process, the researchers suggest that the drone can be used to survey areas damaged by earthquakes, or inspect tall structures that are difficult to get to.



Recently, a team of eleven geologists strongly recommended that the sunken land mass between Australia and New Zealand, called Zeelandia, be declared a full (as opposed to mini) continent.

Zealandia was completely submerged until about 23 million years ago, when New Zealand, the French territory of New Caledonia, and assorted islands began popping out of the sea.

If the gelogists recommendation flies, we will have eight continents, instead of the seven we learned in grammar school.


Matter Matter Everywhere

Science Daily reports that scientists may have finally determined the reason why matter dominates our Universe, and why we are actually here.

In physics there is a kind of symmetry called CP (shorthand for charge parity), and it has been thought for some time that this symmetry might be violated for a certain subatomic process called neutrino oscillation.

Neutrinos come in three varieties (or flavors) depending on what lightly massive particle the neutrino is paired with.  There is a neutrino for electrons, one for muons, and one for tauons, and as odd as it sounds, as these neutrinos fly through space, they repeatedly change (or oscillate) from one neutrino kind to another.

Maintaining CP symmetry would require that these neutrino oscillations be exactly mirrored by their antiparticle cousins (for example an electron antineutrino), but recent work in Japan strongly suggests that this is not the case.

The above video is a nice introduction to neutrinos and how we detect their existence.

Stay tuned: some folks might soon be winning a Nobel prize in physics for this work.


 Job Opening

This week featured a bizarre and somewhat amusing story about a job opening at NASA for “planetary protection officer”, with annual pay of about $187K.  A nine year old boy was an early applicant for the job.

The job is not about protecting Earth from an invasion of ruthless space aliens, but is instead all about keeping the Earth, and solar system places NASA space probes visit, biologically separated.  What NASA doesn’t want under any circumstances is to bring Earth bacteria (and other living stuff) to (say) Mars, or vice versa.

This way Earth would not inadvertently be biologically injured by life from outside Earth, or vice versa.  Such life might be so different that Earth life might be literally defenseless.

You have until August 14th to apply for the position.


Mars Or Bust

Elon Musk of Space X is determined to get to Mars, and soon, and like his work with electric cars, he cannot be faulted for lack of vision.

The video above shows an ingenious system for sending a proto-colony of 100 brave souls to the red planet in a time frame of about 10 years.

Powered by 42 newly designed Raptor engines, our pioneers will have to wait in orbit a while before taking off for Mars, as the original booster rockets needs to come back a few times to refuel the mother ship for the long (roughly three month) journey ahead.

As a first step, Space X expects to send a Dragon cargo ship to Mars sometime in 2018, so stay tuned.

But don’t worry, Dave Chapelle is on the job:

Science Sunday 07-16-17

Deep Space Testing

On July 10th, NASA sealed the James Webb Telescope into a chamber designed to see how well the telescope will work in the environment of outer space.

The telescope is a successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope, and is expected to pick up the much fainter infrared light of galaxies shining from near the edge of the visible universe, some 13.4 billion light years away.

Testing is expected to last 100 days, with the first 40 days devoted to conditioning the spacecraft to the extremely cold conditions needed for it to operate properly.

Named after NASA’s second administrator James Webb, the telescope is extremely complicated in form and deployment.  It will be positioned at Lagrange Point 2, about 1 million miles away from Earth’s unilluminated side.  The scope will have a primary mirror greater than 20 feet across, and will permanently face away from the Sun, protected by a football field sized sunshield that reduces the temperature around the mirror to minus 370 degrees Fahreinheit.

The mission will launch in October of 2018, from French Guiana, aboard an Arianne 5 rocket.  It will take about 10 days from launch to become fully operational.


Banana Nana Fo Fana

From Time Magazine:

Genetically engineered bananas, packed with micronutrients, are to undergo their first human trial in the United States to test their ability to battle rampant vitamin A deficiency — a large cause of infant death and blindness throughout low-income communities around the world.

“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide dying … each year and at least another 300,000 going blind,” the project leader, Professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

The six-week trial backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation expects to have results by the end of the year and plans to have the bananas growing in Uganda by 2020.


CAR-T Therapy Shows High Cure Rate for Leukemia

CAR-T stands for chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy, a gene editing technique that promises to cure certain cancers on an individual by individual basis.

The FDA has just given tentative approval for a version of this therapy that promises to knock out B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).  Clinical trials showed a complete remission (or cure) rate of 83%.

The treatment is called CTL019, and is being manufactured by Novartis.


Exploring Inner Space

The above video is a Ted Talk by Robert “Bob” Ballard, deep sea explorer extraordinaire.  Professor Ballard is best known for finding sunken ships like the Titanic, the Bismarck, and the Yorktown.

But Mr. Ballard is a polymath of the unexplored world of Earth’s oceans and seas, known not only for finding lost ships like those listed above, but also for exploring the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which altogether comprise an essentially uninterrupted span of underwater mountains over 40,000 miles long.

Along this mid-ocean ridge and its accompanying “rift” valley, hydrothermal vents spawn an amazing diversity of life, including bacteria that can change chemicals into the energy needed by the creatures hosting them (chemosynthesis).

In Mr. Ballard’s Ted Talk, he “complains” that the yearly budget for NASA would pay NOAA’s budget for 1600 years.  A compelling speaker, Mr. Ballard makes the case that humanity should as much explore the inner space of our oceans and seas as we do the outer space we seek to understand.





Science Sunday 06-03-17

Popular Science Cassini Retrospective


Popular Science has put together an amazing retrospective collection of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.  It’s just one web page, so it will probably blow out your browser’s temporary memory, but check it out anyway.  There are quite a few worthy wallpaper images you can use.  Click on the link above to see this collection.

The white dot next to the arrow is Earth.

Icarus Redux

NASA just announced that it will be sending a probe to the Sun to study the Sun’s corona and its solar wind, among other things.

The probe is named after University of Chicago professor Eugene Parker, who first hypothesized the existence of a supersonic solar wind emanating from our star.

The probe will launch in July of 2018 and will fly to within 6.2 million kilometers of the Sun.  That’s about 96% of the way from the Earth to the Sun, so the probe will have to withstand very high temperatures and immense solar radiation.

Minority Report

The BBC reports that Dr. Doris Tsao has shown that a mere 200 neurons in a monkey’s brain completely specify the image seen and remembered by the monkey.

Dr. Tsao was able to take the excitation pattern of the 200 neurons and recreate with remarkable accuracy the image that the monkey actually saw.

In principle, this means that at least for visual memories, it might soon be possible to “read” a person’s mind and accurately recreate the visual image the person is seeing in her mind.  Police could use this technique to produce significantly more faithful “sketches” of an eyewitness’ visual account of a reported criminal.

A New Ripple From Outer Space

Scientists at Caltech have just announced that a third gravitational wave (or space-time ripple) has been detected.  The wave detected is due to two black holes merging after circling each other.  The combined mass of the two black holes was estimated to be 49 solar masses (49 times the current mass of the Sun).

The two LIGO observatories have localized this latest collision to a spot 3 billion light years away, meaning the event detected in January, 2017, actually occurred 3 billion years ago.  Talk about ancient history!

The previous two instances of gravitational wave detection were also black hole mergers, the first having a combined mass of 62 solar masses, and the second having a combined mass of 21 solar masses.

For a primer on gravitational waves and why they are so important, check out this video:

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

As is often the case, I stumbled upon a series of Numberphile2 videos about a fellow named Godel who basically showed that there are some truths (statements known incontrovertibly to be true) that cannot be proven within the axiomatic boundaries of mathematics.

The above video (which is the third of three videos) deals with the suggestion that maybe theology can invoke Godel’s theorems to “save itself” from the ongoing assault of science on various religious assertions.





Science Sunday

Climate Change

In the video above, Hari Sreenivasan of PBS News Hour interviews the editor in chief of National Geographic Susan Goldberg about the lead article in the magazine’s latest issue concerning the seven facts about global warming we need to focus on going forward.

To view a very nice animation of these seven facts, click here.


Emails From Heaven

Robert Kuhn interviews the ever ebullient and entertaining physicist and futurist Michio Kaku on the always pressing question of whether life – and the Universe itself – has any meaning.

Kaku ultimately suggests that meaning for homo sapiens comes from what we do with our lives, and how we value our activities.

Kaku quotes Freud’s answer to this question, namely that life gains meaning through work and through love.  He speaks of more conservative scientists who say that the purpose of life – to quote Saint Ignatius – is to give greater glory to God (ad majorem dei gloriam).

Putting the two together, it seems to me that work that makes a difference in society, as well as helping our fellow human beings in a Christ like way, is doing God’s work.

I once asked my brother – who was teaching Sunday School, and didn’t know how to pop the hood of his car – where heaven was.  He knew he was in for a sparring, but his answer was nevertheless brilliant:

Heaven is where your heart is.


Whither the Martian Atmosphere?

In late 2013, NASA launched a mission to Mars called MAVEN.  The MAVEN spacecraft was designed to orbit Mars and try to find out what happened to its atmosphere.

The principal scientific team – out of the University of Colorado at Boulder – has now just reported what it thinks happened to Mars’ atmosphere.

Because Mars does not have a significant magnetic field, it cannot “shield itself” from the solar wind and that wind’s own magnetic field.

When the solar wind’s charged particles hit the Martian atmosphere, at speeds up to 1.8 million miles per hour, molecules in the Martian atmosphere become ionized, and can be transported into space by the solar wind’s own magnetic field.  This process is called sputtering.

If you have time for a more extended discussion of why life flourished on Earth but failed on Mars, check out this video from SpaceRip:

Two For the Price of One

This image, taken with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows the galaxy NGC 6052, located around 230 million light-years away in the constellation of Hercules. It would be reasonable to think of this as a single abnormal galaxy, and it was originally classified as such. However, it is in fact a “new” galaxy in the process of forming. Two separate galaxies have been gradually drawn together, attracted by gravity, and have collided. We now see them merging into a single structure. As the merging process continues, individual stars are thrown out of their original orbits and placed onto entirely new paths, some very distant from the region of the collision itself. Since the stars produce the light we see, the “galaxy” now appears to have a highly chaotic shape. Eventually, this new galaxy will settle down into a stable shape, which may not resemble either of the two original galaxies.NASA announced today that the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 of the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the collision of two galaxies merging into one.

The double galaxy is identified as NGC 6052, and is located 230 million light years away, in the constellation Hercules.

So the image to the left shows the galaxies colliding about the time that dinosaurs were starting to dominate this planet, and when the mean Earth day was about 23 hours.

No need to check back for an update of the picture though: the whole merging process will take about a million years.