January 12th, 2011

species pep talk

November 3rd, 2010

space smells

ISS Space Officer Jon Pettit:

Few people have experienced traveling into space. Even fewer have experienced the smell of space. Now this sounds strange, that a vacuum could have a smell and that a human being could live to smell that smell. It seems about as improbable as listening to sounds in space, yet space has a definite smell. Being creatures of an atmosphere, we can only smell space indirectly. Sort of like the way a pit viper smells by waving its tongue in the air and thenpressing it to the roof of its mouth where sensors process the molecules that have been adsorbed onto the waggling appendage. I had the pleasure of operating the airlock for two of my crewmates while they went on several space walks. Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses. At first I couldn’t quite place it. It must have come from the air ducts that re-pressed the compartment. Then I noticed that this smell was on their suit, helmet, gloves, and tools. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces. It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as “tastes like chicken.” The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space.

From NASA (via reddit).

Posted in Ha!, Space | No Comments »
September 30th, 2010

a great day for geeks

Two things to geek out about, today. Firstly, an Earthlike, ‘goldilocks’ planet has been discovered! One not too hot, not too cold — just right for life to have evolved.

Gliese 581g’s atmosphere is hugged snugly in place by the planet’s gravity. The conditions are thought to be suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface of the planet. The climate is stable — with one side always facing the sun, it receives constant daylight on one side and constant darkness on the other. Its sun is ancient, meaning that life should have had plenty of time to gain a foothold on the planet. It’s 20 light years from our planet. That means it would take 20 years to reach the planet from ours if we were travelling at the speed of light (which is currently not possible).

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, told Discovery News.

More at Discovery news.

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

The other story is smaller in scale but, relatively speaking, perhaps equal in merit and profundity: a father and son send an HD camera into space by balloon, practically discovering planet Earth for themselves. And the footage is glorious, perhaps all the more for the traditional home-movie-like shakiness.

(Both stories via Reddit.)

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September 23rd, 2010

stand back a bit… bit more… bit more… bit more… bit more…

The International Space Station has a LIVE webcam, beaming video of Earth back home. Stream.

(Via reddit.)

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August 14th, 2010

life in a box

People can’t anticipate how much they’ll miss the natural world until they are deprived of it. I have read about submarine crewmen who haunt the sonar room, listening to whale songs and colonies of snapping shrimp. Submarine captains dispense “periscope liberty”—a chance for crewmembers to gaze at clouds and birds and coastlines and remind themselves that the natural world still exists. I once met a man who told me that after landing in Christchurch after a winter at the South Pole research station, he and his companions spent a couple days just wandering around staring in awe at flowers and trees. At one point, one of them spotted a woman pushing a stroller. “A baby!” he shouted, and they all rushed across the street to see. The woman turned the stroller and ran.

I enjoyed this article (an excerpt from a book) at Seed Magazine, about the psychological challenges of life in space. It covers several of my pet subjects: space, the mind, nature…

Read more: Life in a Box @ Seed.

August 13th, 2010

a model of the universe in a pot of boiling water

Image courtesy of Flickr user VeloSteve.

Does adding salt to water really make it boil quicker? Not by any significant degree, according to the article Everything you ever wanted to know (plus more!) about boiling water.

Adding a handful of salt to simmering or boiling water certainly appears to make it rapidly boil. This is because of little things called nucleation sites, which are, essentially, the birthplace of bubbles. In order for bubbles of steam to form, there needs to be some sort of irregularity within the volume of water—microscopic scratches on the inside surface of the pot will do, as will tiny bits of dust or the pores of a wooden spoon. A handful of salt rapidly introduces thousands of nucleation sites, making it very easy for bubbles to form and escape.

Ever notice how in a glass of champagne the bubbles rise in distinct streams from single points? It’s a good bet that there’s a microscopic scratch or dust particle right at that point.

On a much grander scale, entire galaxies were formed when matter started to collect in gravity wells formed initially by tiny nucleation sites in the early universe. This baffles scientists (if there was nothing before the big bang, what then were these primordial nucleation sites?). But that’s neither here nor there (or perhaps it’s everywhere?)

The full article is boiling over with further factoids. Read more at Serious Eats.

May 1st, 2010

in space, staying healthy is half the work

Learning about how our bodies behave in space, one appreciates more how automatic and self-sustaining our bodies are on earth.

This episode of Euronews’ Space series gives insight into the challenges of staying healthy in space. It goes a little more in depth than the usual “yer bones get weak n stuff”.

One has to respect the astronauts for the conditions they endure and the risks they take, and one has to respect everyone involved in such projects for their vision and ambition and professionalism.

See the video (8m) at Euronews sci-tech.

January 31st, 2010

don’t stare at the sun

Unless you have an ultraviolet video telescope.

Here’s a video of the moon’s transit of the sun (recorded by NASA’s stereo-B spacecraft in 2007).

Posted in Space, Video | No Comments »
January 16th, 2010

moonvilla concept


Here are 3 fun designs (via notcot):

Tree Trunk Garden House.
Beijing Noodle Restaurant design
Moonvilla Concept (as seen above. more pictures)

The Moonvilla has an outer shell/screen that revolves with the sun to regulate the climate inside. Neat. Although I wouldn’t want to be around when the motor is on the blink. Having said that, there is cleverly a little underground level built into the design.

There are no stairs. Due to the lack of gravity on the moon, people can leap from floor to floor!

December 17th, 2009

and now back to our home…

The American Museum of Natural History has prepared a video in the vein of Charles & Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten which lets you see our planet’s size relative to the universe. The Museum’s is scientifically accurate — based on data compiled by their astrophysicists.

It’s nice to watch in full screen (at high quality, if your computer can handle it [mine can’t!]).

(via kottke)

November 22nd, 2009

there’s no ice cream on the moon

Alan Bean, of Apollo 12, on returning to Earth:

Since that time I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic. I’m glad there’s people around. One of the things I did when I got home, I went down to shopping centres, and I’d just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something and just watch the people go by, and think “Boy, we’re lucky to be here, why do people complain about the Earth?”. We are living in the garden of Eden!

I just saw the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) on TV. In my experience it’s rare to see the Apollo astronauts’ stories so personally and compellingly told as in this film. They, as talking heads, tell you the little details that in other contexts are crowded out in favour of cliché and sensationalism (ironically lessening the excitement), but whose inclusion here make the movie special.

The documentary also makes use of materials and footage that was unreleased for 30 years. There’s some cracking imagery.

The movie seems to be online in its entirety on YouTube.

November 13th, 2009

Notes from a Hadron Collider

Image: David Bebber.

The author Bill Bryson has an article in the Times’ science supplement to explain where the CERN team currently are with the Large Hadron Collider.

Three other mighty detectors are arrayed around the LHC perimeter, all of them complex and wonderful and calibrated to find various puffs of quantum liveliness. It is hard not to be struck by the inverse relationship between the tininess of what the physicists are looking for and the costly massiveness of the equipment needed to find it. I ask Virdee if it can possibly be worth investing so much money and brainpower in a search for obscure and evanescent particles.

He smiles, but instantly says: “Yes. Undoubtedly. You know, a little over a century ago when the electron was discovered nobody saw it as having any practical applications. It was just an interesting addition to the sum of human knowledge. But that bit of knowledge was what made the electronics industry possible. Imagine a world without electronics. It is impossible to know where discoveries we make here might lead, but you can be certain that one day people will be glad we made the effort.”

Read more at The Times.

November 1st, 2009

a glorious doom

What a thrilling concept theoretical physicist/cosmologist Paul Davies entertains: A no-going-back approach to Mars exploration.

A round trip to Mars would be demanding of many resources and put astronauts in twice as much mortal danger (probably more than twice — taking off from barren Mars would be no walk in the park) than if they only had to risk their lives once, on the way over. Therefore: send people to live on Mars until they die.

I would envisage probably four people would go in the first instance. But a one-way mission to Mars would not just be a one-off exercise. They would be trailblazers. It would be the first step to establishing a permanent human presence on another world. Although they would go without the expectation of returning, they would have the expectation that sooner or later they would be joined by others and that this Mars base would grow and eventually become a permanent Mars colony that might take hundreds of years to establish.

Who would be so unhinged, who would have supportive enough underpants, to do such a thing? Well it’s hardly unheard of, argues Davies. Take those who first explored antarctica.

These people often went knowing that there was a high probability that they would not come back, and that if they didn’t come back, they were going to their deaths. I’m not suggesting that going to Mars necessarily means an instant death, but it may mean a premature death, it may mean your life expectancy is shortened by a little bit. But as I said, people attempt that risk in all sorts of other walks of life.

And what I have in mind is not just four miserable people sitting around on the martian surface waiting to die, (laughter) but that they would actually be doing useful job work. Of course, your accommodations would be cramped. People have said to me: it would be horrible living in these conditions. And my answer is, it’s not as bad as Guantanamo Bay.

It’s not as bad as Guantanamo Bay, folks!

How to fund such an ongoing operation, anyway? Selling television rights is one idea Davies reckons would be highly lucritive:

How do we pay for all of this? Given that NASA’s not going to do this, I think that ultimately this would have to be an international collaboration or some sort of commercial venture. Nobody is going to set up a permanent presence on Mars without having some sort of commercial arrangement. The discoveries that would be made by people working on Mars would have to be patented, there would have to be a cash flow that would pay for this. Imagine the TV rights – think of what people pay for football rights – I mean, huge sums of money. So a spectacular like this, a real life soap opera from another planet, I would think would be worth a lot of money. We can have more ambitious ideas about Mars Funds and long-term land titles and so on. Instead of selling worthless bits of land on Earth, with a time scale of some decades for their use, we’d have to extend that to some centuries. But there would be people prepared to do that.

Imagine the psychological pressure — “get good ratings or you’re dead!”. Ok so it would probably never come to that. But I like Davies’ ideas. You can read more of them at astrobio (via neatorama).


This story of such a large-scale challenge appeals to me at the moment especially because I’ve been trying to think of a way to put myself on a career trajectory that could lead to exciting places, even if things to start modestly.

I suppose if I were to try to draw a lesson from the above article it would be that grand challenges sometimes demand immodest beginnings, daring ideas… and balls so massive that only zero-gravity would make them managable.

October 17th, 2009

NASA melts Martian ice with warmth of heart

If that title was unexpectedly romantic then it was perfect.

NASA, it transpires, has for the past 50 years enlisted not just calculating concept artists in its ranks, but also artists employed to document the human experience that is attached to NASA’s
monumental missions.

John Walker of the National Gallery of Art quickly agreed to help, arguing that artists could “probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race.”

The results of this stunning collaboration between scientists and artists are collected in NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration, by James Dean and Bertram Ulrich, published by Abrams Books.


David Stone titled this painting “A Handful of Emeralds” after hearing astronaut John Young describe the stars as “a handful of emeralds thrown across the sky.” He tried to express the magnificent, revolutionary solitude experienced by an astronaut adrift in a manned maneuvering unit, staring out at the void of space.

Discover magazine has a selection of images from the book, with descriptions.

October 11th, 2009

get your ass to mars



Thousands of years ago, Mars and Earth probably presented similar primative environments so if life existed on earth, then we can legitimately consider the hypothesis that it could also have developed on Mars.

Watch the segment on Euronews.

October 7th, 2009

a glorious dawn

A tribute to Carl Sagan and Steven Hawking by colorpulse:

It turns out that autotuning can make clever people tuneful as well.

September 14th, 2009

making space perceptible


The above picture demonstrates in colour the amount of detail that is now attainable with the upgraded Hubble telescope (right) by comparison with what it was capable of before (left). Both images depict the Butterfly Nebula. More comparison pictures at universetoday.

Human eyes are not capable of appreciating the many shades of light of which images taken of Space are composed. That’s why photos taken by telescopes, such as the recently upgraded Hubble space telescope, are literally photoshopped before they reach the press and the public eye — to convert the invisible shades of light to colours within the humanly-perceptible spectrum.

Slate has reprised an article from 2005 in which this process is described:

First, they put the image into a file format appropriate for media. That means that the data from the FITS files, which show a range of about 65,000 shades of grey, must be squeezed into a standard JPEG or TIFF file, with only 256 shades. This process is counterintuitively called “stretching” the data and must be done carefully to preserve important features and enhance details in the finished product.

Then each grey-scale image is assigned a color. In reality, each shot already represents a color—the wavelength of light captured by the filter when that picture was taken. But in some cases the images represent colors that we wouldn’t be able to see. (The Spitzer, for example, registers the infrared spectrum.) To create a composite image that has the full range of colors seen by the human eye, an astronomer picks one image and makes it red, picks another and makes it blue, and completes the set by coloring a third image green. When he overlays the three images, one on top of the other, they produce a full-color picture. (Televisions and computer monitors create color in the same way.)

Read more.

August 25th, 2009

Venus the Spoilsport

Systemic (a blog mostly concerned with extrasolar planets) has a nice entry which charts how our perception of Venus has changed in recent history.

Venus used to be thought possibly habitable, if extremely humid. Greg of Systemic posts the opening paragraph of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story The Long Rain, which paints an imagined picture of Venus:

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

Read Greg’s post in full.

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