Boing Boing 

It is not good to be a weightless fish

Maybe somebody who speaks German can explain why this poor goldfish is being tortured. It's certainly interesting to watch the water in its tank float and blob around — while the fish struggles to follow. But I'm really unclear on the point of this particular experiment.

Via Miriam Goldstein

Big news from Mars coming soon, maybe

The Curiosity rover comes complete with a mini chemistry lab. It's designed to analyze the composition of Martian soils and Martian air. And, right now, that particular piece of equipment is at the center of a giddy storm of activity. Curiosity has turned up something important — big enough for Curiosity's principal investigator to tell NPR, "This data is gonna be one for the history books."

What is it? NASA's not telling just yet. Right now, researchers are in the process of verifying said exciting data, in order to make sure they aren't deceiving themselves into thinking they've spotted something that isn't really there. That's pretty good policy, given the recent flap around over-hyped studies about Earth-like planets and arsenic-based life.

On the other hand, if you're trying to avoid overhyping something, might I suggest that "We have groundbreaking, world-changing data that we can't tell you about yet," is maybe not the best way to do it.

Stay tuned.

Pictured: A 360-degree view of Mars, taken by Curiosity on October 5th, from the location where it first started collecting samples of rocks and dirt. NASA/JPL

3 astronauts return to earth from ISS, touching down in chilly Kazakhstan steppe

After a 125-day stay at the International Space Station, NASA's Sunita Williams, Russian astronaut Yury Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of Japan's JAXA space agency landed in their Soyuz capsule at 07:56 a.m. local time (0156 GMT) northeast of the town of Arkalyk, in the very cold steppes of Kazakhstan. More in an Associated Press bulletin.

Apparently, planets don't always orbit stars

Because sometimes nature just likes to mess with you, here's CFBDSIR2149. It's an object in space — a relatively nearby object in space, as evidenced by the fact that this is an actual picture of it — and scientists are pretty sure that it's a planet. If they're right, then CFBDSIR2149 is also a "rogue planet", so called because it doesn't actually orbit a star. Seriously. It's just hanging out in space, doing its own thing.

Also, it's not the first time a rogue planet has been identified.

In fact, these things are probably not even particularly rare. A 2011 study published in the journal Nature estimated that rogue planets might even outnumber normal stars by 2-to-1 in the Milky Way Galaxy.

It's worth noting that rogue planets do not seem to be Earth-like. For instance, CFBDSIR2149 is roughly the size of Jupiter and, with an estimated surface temperature of 850 degrees Fahrenheit, it is not exactly a pleasant place for people. As for rogue planets come from: That's a mystery. One of the things that makes CFBDSIR2149 special, according to Phil Plait, is that it's actually close enough to us that we can collect some good data on the thing.

Read Phil Plait's description of CFBDSIR2149 at the Bad Astronomy Blog

Read the research paper announcing the discovery of CFBDSIR2149

Read about rogue planets in a Science News story from last year

Image: CFHT/P. Delorme

Paintballs may deflect an incoming asteroid

Tim O'Reilly tweeted about this proposal to deflect pesky asteroids on a collision course with earth. I'm reading The Last Policeman so this is even more interesting to me than usual.

In the event that a giant asteroid is headed toward Earth, you'd better hope that it's blindingly white. A brightly colored asteroid would reflect sunlight — and over time, this bouncing of photons off its surface could create enough of a force to push the asteroid off its course.

How might one encourage such a deflection? The answer, according to an MIT graduate student: with a volley or two of space-launched paintballs.

Paintballs may deflect an incoming asteroid

Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312: a novel that hints at what we might someday have (and lose)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is an insanely ambitious novel of life three hundreds years hence, set in a solar system where the Earth continues to limp along, half-drowned, terrified, precarious — and only one of many inhabited places.

Read the rest

Auction of laptop used by Clinton to email John Glenn in space


Hurry, hurry, this is your chance to own the Toshiba Satellite Pro that President Bill Clinton used to email John Glenn in space on November 6, 1998. Apparently, the laptop belonged to a member of Clinton's medical staff who helped the president send the email to orbit. The laptop is listed at $125,000. Wonder how much RAM is in it. "Bill Clinton computer -Presidential email on it, to John Glenn in space!"

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.

Read the rest

We have the technology to look for life on Mars

The Curiosity rover can do a lot of things, but nobody is expecting her to find direct evidence of life on Mars. In fact, the hunt for life on the Red Planet has been a pretty stunted one. The last time we really looked was during the Viking missions, which tried to find chemical "footprints" that would exist if there had once been life on Mars, but that could end up on that planet for other reasons, as well. What we got back was a less-than-enthralling "Outlook Hazy. Try Again Later."

Ever since, we've contented ourselves with searching for indirect evidence — assessing the planet for signs that it might once have had the conditions necessary for life to happen. That's important, and it will make direct evidence of life more believable if we ever do find it, but it's not quite the same thing.

But now, DNA sequencing tools have become portable enough (and drilling technology has become powerful enough) that some scientists and Craig Ventner think we could send a probe to Mars which could find buried traces of actual DNA protected in the dirt and sequence that DNA on site.

It's also possible that life hitched a ride between Earth and Mars in their early days. Asteroid impacts have sent about a billion tonnes of rock careering between the two planets, potentially carrying DNA or its building blocks. That could mean that any genetic material on Mars is similar enough to DNA that we have a chance of finding it using standard tests.

Even if we don't, we can set up future sequencers to look for molecules that use alternative sugars or chemical letters in the genetic code. "We're not there yet, but it's not a fundamental limitation," says Chris Carr of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who works on the NASA-backed Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes.

Read the rest of the story at New Scientist

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!

Simulated Mars mission to study space food

NewImageIn March 2013, six people will spend four months on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano simulating a Mars mission. Funded by the NASA Human Research Program, HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) is focused on what future astronauts might eat during long space adventures like a trip to the red planet. More than 700 people with a variety of science/tech/space/health backgrounds applied to participate in the study. Science journalist Kate Greene, a former editor at Technology Review, was one of those selected to be an astronaut "analog." Kate says, "In particular, we are examining the hypothesis that astronauts cannot live by rehydrated foods alone: we will be cooking and baking with shelf-stable ingredients as astronauts on future Mars missions might." Kate will be writing about her experience in various places, including her blog. "Simulated Mars Mission"

Orbital Habitat concept had supercomputer, dolphins

"Michel's ultimate plan was a dolphin habitat IN SPACE. The dream was called Bluestar and it is about the most awesomely crazy idea I've ever heard. A ring of laboratories and places to think would surround a sphere of water that contained a population of dolphins who programmed a supercomputer with "their sophisticated sonar systems." — Alexis Madrigal

The binary stars of Alpha Centauri, as seen from Saturn

Earlier this week, we learned that there is (most likely) at least one planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B. If you want to get really in-depth on this discovery, how it was made, and what it means, you should be reading Paul Gilster's Centauri Dreams blog.

I wanted to highlight this image, specifically, in order to quote some particularly evocative writing that Gilster posted yesterday. Cue the stirring music:

When planet-hunter Greg Laughlin (UC-Santa Cruz) took his turn at the recent press conference announcing the Alpha Centauri B findings, he used the occasion to make a unique visual comparison. One image showed the planet Saturn over the limb of the Moon. Think of this as the Galilean baseline, for when Galileo went to work on the heavens with his first telescope, the Moon was visually close at hand and Saturn a mysterious, blurry object with apparent side-lobes.

Laughlin contrasted that with [this image], showing the Alpha Centauri stars as viewed from Saturn, a spectacular vista including the planet and the tantalizing stellar neighbors beyond. Four hundred years after Galileo, we thus define what we can do — a probe of Saturn — and we have the image of a much more distant destination we’d like to know a lot more about. The findings of the Geneva team take us a giant step in that direction, revealing a small world of roughly Earth mass in a tight three-day orbit around a star a little smaller and a little more orange than the Sun. What comes next is truly interesting, both for what is implied and for what we are capable of doing.

Read the rest of this post, which explains what happens next with the research and why astronomers will be focusing their planet-hunting efforts on Alpha Centauri B.

Why you should care about the planet found orbiting Alpha Centauri, even though it's not a good place to live

Last night, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory announced that they'd found a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B — an orange star a little smaller and a little less bright than our own Sun. That's important, because, while more than 700 planets have been found outside our solar system, this one — Alpha Centauri Bb (yeah, I know) — is by far the closest. To give you an idea of what we're talking about in distance here, imagine that we are Kansas City and Mars is Toledo. Alpha Centauri Bb is like Tokyo — but you have to get there the long way around and nobody has invented the boat or the plane yet. Basically, it's closer than any other planet we know of outside our solar system, but not really close close. Just 4.37 light years is still more than 25 trillion miles, which is still a long ways away.

Likewise, Alpha Centauri Bb is classified as an "Earth-like" planet, but that shouldn't give you any ideas of colonizing it Zefram Cochrane-style. Bb is way too close to its star for that — closer, even, than Mercury is to our own Sun.

But you should still be excited about this. Terrible, filing-cabinet name aside, Alpha Centauri Bb is jeffing epic. Until now, we didn't think our closest neighboring solar system had any planets at all. And because of the way planets work, writes Lee Billings at the Centauri Dreams blog, this single find means we're much, much more likely to discover other Centaurian worlds. Billings is a former guest blogger here at BoingBoing and his work on exoplanets is second to none. I highly recommend reading his full piece:

Anyone in the Southern Hemisphere can look up on a clear night and easily see Alpha Centauri — to the naked eye, the three suns merge into one of the brightest stars in Earth’s sky, a single golden point piercing the foot of the constellation Centaurus, a few degrees away from the Southern Cross. In galactic terms, the new planet we’ve found there is so very near our own that its night sky shares most of Earth’s constellations. From the planet’s broiling surface, one could see familiar sights such as the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter, looking just as they do to our eyes here.

Read Lee Billings' full post about Alpha Centauri Bb, and keep an eye on the Centauri Dreams blog for further updates/analysis.

Read Phil Plait's take at Bad Astronomy

A helpful NASA primer on distance in space

• In the late 1980s, NASA considered sending an unmanned probe to Alpha Centauri B. It would have taken 100 years to get there, using nuclear explosions to create thrust.

Image: Marco Lorenzi via NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day

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)

Highlights of the Felix Baumgartner Red Bull Stratos "free-fall from space"

A highlight reel of yesterday's spectacular skydive from the edge of space. As blogged during the event, and reimagined in LEGO and cat GIF form, Austrian parachuter Felix Baumgartner dropped out of the stratosphere yesterday from a pressurized capsule, for the Red Bull Stratos mission. The successful jump (and, landing!) set world records for the highest freefall and highest manned balloon flight in history. Early specs, via Red Bull's Facebook page: Altitude: 128,097 ft. Duration of freefall: 4:19. Total jump time: 9:03. Speed: 1137 kmh. No beans. (via Laughing Squid)

A menu for the intrepid space jumper

Step one: Skip the beans. On Sunday, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon capsule in the stratosphere, parachuting safely down to Earth. Today, The Guardian answers some interesting questions about the feat, including an inquiry into Baumgartner's pre-jump diet. "For at least a day before the jump, Baumgartner consumed a "low-residue, low-fibre" diet on the orders of his medical team. They wanted his food to pass quickly through his body without any build-up of gas. In a low-pressure environment, the gas might expand and cause him severe internal pain – a condition known as barotrauma." (Via GrrlScientist)

Free-fall from stratosphere, live now

The Red Bull Stratos attempt is happening now. Above, an embed of the live stream. 7 weird but magical words: Red Bull Mission Control Roswell New Mexico! Expert parachuter Felix Baumgartner, best known for completing an unprecedented freefall flight across the English Channel using a carbon wing, will be the man who fell to earth.

Red Bull Stratos is a mission to the edge of space that will try to surpass human limits that have existed for more than 50 years. Supported by a team of experts, Felix Baumgartner will undertake a stratospheric balloon flight to more than 120,000 feet / 36,576 meters and make a record-breaking freefall jump in the attempt to become the first man to break the speed of sound in freefall (an estimated 690 miles / 1,110 kilometers per hour), while delivering valuable data for medical and scientific advancement.

Status updates on Twitter. More about the mission 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.

Shuttle Endeavour's California flyover, as seen from an FA18

This NASA video captures shuttle Endeavour's aerial view during its tour of Southern California on September 21, 2012.

Read the rest

Follow along as Felix Baumgertner skydives from space

Felix Baumgartner is going to skydive from space today. At Popular Science, editor Jennifer Bogo is on site and live blogging the whole thing. As of 12:18 Central time, Baumgartner was in his capsule and preparing for the inflation of the balloon that will carry him into the stratosphere. From which he will jump.

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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Why is the sky dark at night?

So, the sky looks blue because of the particular gases in our atmosphere reflect and scatter the blue wavelengths of light from the Sun. Fair enough. But that leads directly to a second question that, I'm ashamed to say, I never really thought to ask — why doesn't the light from all the stars in the Universe reflect and scatter off our atmosphere, producing a blue sky, all the time?

This Minute Physics video provides a great explanation, which is grounded in both the timey-wimeyness of astrophysics and the limitations of our own human biology.

Via BrainPickings

Mark your calendar now for December 2013 comet-viewing party

Provided that the world does not end in December of 2012, you might have the opportunity to view a particularly impressive comet around Christmastime in 2013. The poetically named C/2012 S1 (ISON) will pass at a-safe-yet-great-for-viewing distance from Earth, after first passing close to the Sun — a combination that promises to produce a beautiful tail and fabulous comet-spotting opportunities, especially in the Northern Hemisphere.

The surface of Venus

I love rediscovering cool things. I'm sure I learned, at some point, that the Soviet Union had once sent probes to land on the surface of Venus. But I had completely forgotten this fact until today.

This photo comes from Venera 9, which landed on Venus on October 22, 1975. The lander remained operational for 53 minutes, which isn't bad considering we're talking about a planet with hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid in the atmosphere, and a surface temperature (as measured by Venera 9) of 905° F.

The photo — at three different phases of processing — comes from the website of Don Mitchell, an enthusiast of Soviet space history. Mitchell did the processing that resulted in the clear, bottom image in this stack.

The upper image is the raw 6-bit data. The center images include the telemetry brust replacements, with remaining bursts blacked out. The 6-bit values have been transformed to linear brightness, using the published photometric function of the camera, and then converted to sRGB standard form (gamma 2.2). In the final version, I filled in missing regions, using Bertalmio's inpainting algorithm.

Read more about these photos at Don Mitchell's website
Read more about the Venera landers and how they survived on Venus

Thanks to OMG Facts for reminding me of this cool bit of history

The weird, black, spidery things of Mars

See those weird, black, spidery things dotting the dunes in this colorized photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010? Yeah. Nobody knows what the hell those things are.

What we do know about them just underlines how incredibly unfamiliar Mars really is to us. First spotted by humans in 1998, these splotches pop up every Martian spring, and disappear in winter. Usually, they appear in the same places as the previous year, and they tend to congregate on the sunny sides of sand dunes — all but shunning flat ground. There's nothing on Earth that looks like this that we can compare them to. It's a for real-real mystery, writes Robert Krulwich at NPR. But there are theories:

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it's transformed my idea of what it's like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I've thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain.

"If you were there," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, "you'd be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice. All around you, roaring jets of carbon dioxide gas are throwing sand and dust a couple hundred feet into the air." The ground below would be rumbling. You'd feel it in your spaceboots.

Read the rest of Robert Krulwich's post — and check out some spectacular photos of the things — at NPR

Start saving now!

It would cost $384 million to launch my 1500-square-foot house into space. Theoretically. Based on estimated weight of the house. But the point is, there's an app that can show you how much it would cost to launch your house into space. What you do with it once it's up there remains anybody's guess.

Goldilocks in space: Interview with Lee Billings about the hunt for aliens and habitable planets

Are we alone in the Universe? Last year, journalist Lee Billings wrote an excellent series of guest posts for BoingBoing about the quest to answer that question. One of those posts — Incredible Journey: Can we reach the stars without breaking the bank? — was recently reprinted in The Best Science Writing Online 2012.

As part of the publication of that anthology, journalist Steve Silberman interviewed Lee about space, the final frontier, and the voyages of starships (both the ones that already exist and the ones we imagine and hope for).

Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?

Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?

Read the full interview at Steve Silberman's Neurotribes blog

Buy the anthology The Best Science Writing Online 2012, featuring amazing stories from all around the Internets

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.

Searching the universe for habitable planets (video)

Filmmaker Matt Checkowski sends word of two cool new documentary shorts he produced for the University of California video series "Onward California." These episodes focus on the work of a UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist who has discovered two potentially human-inhabitable planets.

Most of the universe is incredibly hostile, it's a vacuum, it's freezing-cold space or you're burning hot near a star. The first habitable planet found outside our solar system is in a habitable-zone orbit; it's a place of refuge from the unbelievable harshness of the universe. This episode of Onward California follows Steve Vogt, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy and astrophysics, into the Lick Observatory, where he has devoted years of research to find earth-like planets.

Watch: An Incredibly Hostile Universe and How To Discover Habitable Planets.