What's up with NASA's warp drive spaceship?

Here's the best way I can sum up this story: Yes, some NASA scientists are working on a design for a warp drive. No, that doesn't mean warp drives are real.

Warp drives — as a purely theoretical thing and/or science-fiction plot device — involve manipulating space-time to allow a spaceship to go faster than the speed of light. It's basically loophole that would allow you to get around those pesky laws of physics. Swiss bank account:taxes::Warp drives:speed of light. You get the picture.

Harold White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center is currently leading an effort to design a warp drive space ship. But, as Amy Teitel explains in a story for Vice's Motherboard, the fact that this is happening does not necessarily mean a real working warp drive is possible. It's more about the fact that NASA is partly in the business of letting really smart people try things that are kind of crazy and unlikely, if they can back up the idea with a reasonably plausible hypothesis. Speculative research is a thing that happens.

The problem is that breaking the light barrier isn’t at all like breaking the sound barrier. The sound barrier–properly, the aerodynamic effects of pressure waves interacting with a body as it approaches the speed of sound–was broken with a cleverly engineered aircraft and an at-the-time state of the art rocket engine.

Bell’s X-1 was, importantly, a physical aircraft made of matter, not made of sound. But the atoms and molecules that make up all matter are connected by electromagnetic fields, and that’s the same stuff that light is made of. So when it comes to breaking the light barrier, it’s like breaking through light with light (sort of… ask Brian Greene). As NASA poses the question, “How can an object travel faster than that which links its atoms?” It’s a very different matter.

Another issue special relativity brings up is the light speed barrier. Moving takes energy, and the faster you move the more energy you use. So, theoretically, to move at the cosmic speed limit of light you need an infinite amount of energy. That’s a distinct barrier if there ever was one.

Read the rest of the story at Vice's Motherboard

Cool things to find (Curiosity parody of "Dumb ways to die")

What might the Curiosity rover find on Mars? So many cool things. Maybe friends that hug your face! Maybe Nixon's secret tapes! Or maybe even something less easily fit into song lyrics, like significant amounts of Martian methane.

This video, made by Cinesaurus, is a parody of "Dumb Ways to Die", an adorably demented public safety message from Australia's Metro Trains Melbourne. If you've not seen that yet, you should check it out as well.

Thanks to Andrew Balfour and Michael Bernstein!

NASA downplays still-unannounced findings from Mars

Just before Thanksgiving, the lead mission scientist for the Curiosity rover told NPR that his team had found something that would "be one for the history books." Naturally, we all began speculating about the presence of life, giant obelisks, and half-buried Statues of Liberty. Yesterday, however, a different NASA spokesman basically asked the world to not get its hopes up too high, revising the level of importance down from "earthshaking" to "interesting". So far, nobody has said what, exactly, was discovered. (Via Colin Schultz)

Report: Now that election's decided, NASA may announce new manned lunar mission

Space.com spoke to space policy expert John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University, about rumors that NASA may soon unveil new manned moon missions.

"Plans have probably already been cleared with the Obama Administration but have been kept under wraps in case Republican candidate Mitt Romney won," according to Space.com.

As the Independent notes, these comments sync with remarks by NASA deputy chief Lori Garver at a conference in September. (via Jenny Winder)

This NASA simulation of a galaxy is begging for a snazzy soundtrack

This computer simulation uses what we know about physical forces in the universe to model how a galaxy might have been born, and how it might grow over 13.5 billion years.

This cosmological simulation follows the development of a single disk galaxy over about 13.5 billion years, from shortly after the Big Bang to the present time. Colors indicate old stars (red), young stars (white and bright blue) and the distribution of gas density (pale blue); the view is 300,000 light-years across. The simulation ran on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and required about 1 million CPU hours. It assumes a universe dominated by dark energy and dark matter.

The result is a beautiful (if silent) video that is significantly labeled as public domain. It seemed like something you guys might enjoy playing around with.

Check out this Wikipedia article for more information on the growth of galaxies

Via labgrab

Sandy, as viewed from the International Space Station (pics)

Said one astronaut on the ISS just now, during the video transmission I screengrabbed these stills from: "We just flew over the big storm down there, hope everyone's doing okay." Source: NASA TV.

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Carl Sagan's Cosmos: The Meat Planet (with pork volcano)

"A giant planet with a liquid interior full of liquid beef and pork, into which a thousand earths would fit."

Darren Cullen of Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives and friend Mark Tolson edited together this 'lost episode' of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, about a fabled Meat Planet, with details of its famous pork volcano, Mount Sustenance, "well-known to astronomers since the time of Galileo."

If NASA would focus on the important planets, the delicious bacon-y ones like this, perhaps we'd have a real future in space exploration. Astronomy-gastronomy!

Curiosity's big idea: Was Mars ever a habitable planet?

This video interview with Ashwin Vasavada, Deputy Project Scientist of the Mars Science Laboratory, is a nice overview of the what everybody's favorite currently operational Mars rover is looking for.

NASA finds Cookie Monster on surface of Mercury

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Institution of WA

"The superposition of younger craters on older craters (in this case two smaller craters upon the rim of an older crater) can result in landforms that appear to resemble more familiar shapes to human eyes." Definitely Cookie Monster. More: NASA.

(thanks, Miles O'Brien)

Shuttle Endeavour transits Los Angeles this weekend, en route to her final resting place

NASA orbiter Endeavour is squeezing her way through tree-stripped streets of Los Angeles this weekend, en route to a permanent retirement home at the California Science Center.

Here's a Google Map of the route, with stopping points. Big shuttle is big. Bigger than the streets that must accommodate her. Basically, the whole thing is like the ultimate slow-speed car chase, but with fewer live news choppers overhead.

Above: BB reader Troy B. Asher caught Endeavour parked in a parking lot today. More of his pix here.

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully attaches to ISS

For the second time in 2012, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft has connected with the International Space Station. ISS expedition 33 crew members Akihiko Hoshide and Sunita Williams grappled Dragon and attached it to the station, completing a critical stage of the SpaceX CRS-1 cargo resupply mission.

Meet NASA's apocalypse expert

OK, I know that I promised to never post anything ever again about a certain hypothetical disaster that rhymes with Schmapocalypse MiffyMelve, but hear me out. This really isn't about that. Instead, I want to highlight an excellent profile of a scientist whose work and interactions with the public have been affected by that unnamed bit of urban mythology.

David Morrison is a 72-year-old senior scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. He runs NASA's "Ask an Astrobiologist" column, and considers it his way of following in the footsteps of Carl Sagan. In this story, written by Dan Duray at The Awl, we learn about Morrison's deep commitment to communicating science to the public ... a commitment that has led him to spend the last eight years answering a increasingly heavy flood of letters about the end of the world. It's an interesting look at the effects pop culture has on real people.

The questions that Dr. Morrison receives circle around a surprisingly cohesive set of theories, each grounded in some kind of real science that then veers off in a wild direction ... It's possible that many of the people who write to Dr. Morrison are trolls, or have Kindle books to sell, or want to garner enough YouTube views to merit an ad before their videos (some of the "Nibiru exposed" videos now feature a pre-roll for the conspiracy movie Branded). But his younger questioners certainly aren't faking it. He read me some of the more serious emails over the phone:

"I know that everyone has been asking you the same question but how do I know the world is not going to end by a planet or a flood or something? I'm scared because I'm in 10th grade and I have a full life ahead of me so PLEASE I WOULD REALLY LIKE AN ANSWER TO MY QUESTION."

"I am really scared about the end of the world on 21 December. I'm headed into 7th grade and I am very scared. I hear you work for the government and I don't know what to do. Can someone help me? I can't sleep, I am crying every day, I can't eat, I stay in my room, I go to a councilor, it helps, but not with this problem. Can someone help me?"

It's not all serious business, though. In one of the funnier moments, a 72-year-old man tries to figure out how to deal with YouTube commenters accusing him of being a secret Lizard Person.

Read the full profile at The Awl

Image: Apocalypse, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from torek's photostream

SpaceX launches first official cargo resupply mission to International Space Station

SpaceX this weekend "successfully launched its Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on the first official cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station," at 8:35 p.m. ET on Sunday from Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Details from the commercial space startup below.

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A four-year-old's interpretation of the Mars Curiosity Rover mission

Josh Stearns writes,

My four year old son painted this at school and told his teacher, “This is Mars. Mars is red. And there is a robot there taking pictures and sending them back to earth.”

Mars Curiosity, eat your heart out.

Curiosity adds to evidence that water once flowed on Mars

When a narrow stream, flowing downhill, meets a wide, significantly-flatter valley, you get an alluvial fan — a place where the flow of water spreads out, slows down, and leaves behind all the rocks and sediment it's no longer moving fast enough to carry. At least, that's how it works on Earth.

Once upon a time, it may have worked that way on Mars, too. Yesterday, NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had documented geology that looks very much like an alluvial fan and rocky deposits that also look very much like what would be left in an alluvial fan on Earth. You can see the comparison of some of those in the image above. In these Martian geological features — as in an Earth-bound stream bed — you find smooth, rounded pebbles and conglomerates, masses of pebbles cemented together over time. The rocks photographed by Curiosity are also too large to have been blown into this sort of arrangement by the wind.

All of this adds to the long string of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface. In fact, reading up for this post, I was surprised to see how much evidence there actually is for this, some direct and some indirect, stretching all the way back to the Mariner 9 orbiter mission in the early 1970s. And, of course, there is water on Mars right now. It's just not flowing water. Previous probes have measured a small amount of water in the Martian atmosphere, and the planet's polar regions contain both frozen carbon dioxide and frozen water. Viking 2 took pictures of frost on the ground in the late 1970s, and in 2008, the Phoenix lander literally dropped out of the sky onto a patch of ice.

Read the rest