Expect Northern Lights and power grid fluctuations this week

Good news! This week, folks living in as far north as Michigan may get treated to a stunning light show as Auroras will be shining brighter and further away from the planet’s axis than usual. What a rare treat! The bad news: the same phenomenon that causes the Northern Lights to do their thing could also screw with a few important technologies that we rely on, every day.

According to Seeker.com, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated that charged solar particles, the result of a ‘moderate’ solar flare barfed out of the Sun on February 12 could cause minor fluctuations in power grids and have an impact on communications with satellites that are currently orbiting the earth. In her story on the issue, Seeker’s Elizabeth Howell took the time to explain how the particles are created:

Solar flares and particle ejections are associated with sunspots — dark areas on the sun's surface — that host intense magnetic activity. As the magnetic fields in a sunspot cross, NASA stated, this can cause a sudden energy explosion, also known as a solar flare. This sends radiation out into space.

Sometimes these explosions can also send off charged particles, which are called coronal mass ejections or CMEs. "CMEs are huge bubbles of radiation and particles from the sun," NASA stated. "They explode into space at very high speed when the sun's magnetic field lines suddenly organize."

These bubbles of radiation generally bop off into space, away from the earth. But not this week. Read the rest

Carl Sagan and the Pale Blue Dot, Valentine's Day 1990

In 1990, once NASA's twin Voyager probes had completed their grand tour of the solar system, it came time to shut off their cameras to preserve power and memory for the other scientific instruments onboard. But before that happened, there was one last photo opportunity not to be missed. Carl Sagan, a member of the Voyager Imaging Team, persuaded NASA engineers to turn Voyager I’s cameras back toward the sun and take the first ever ”portrait” of our solar system from outside of it. Taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1990, thirty-nine wide-angle views and twenty-one narrow-angle images were combined into the single mosaic image below, a “Solar System Family Portrait,” albeit without Mars, Mercury, or Pluto. Centered in a scattered light ray caused by sunlight in the camera’s optics is a tiny speck, just .12 pixels in size, seen in the image above. That’s Earth from 4 billion miles away -- the “pale blue dot” as Sagan called it.

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world,” Sagan wrote. “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Below, Sagan's inspiring Pale Blue Dot speech:

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Flat-Earther's rocket failed again

Over the weekend, flat-Earther and DIY rocketeer Mike Hughes tried again to launch himself into space. Unfortunately, he failed. As a result, his belief that the Earth isn't round stands. The Washington Post has been following Hughes's misadventures:

All critics would be silenced, Hughes promised then, when he finally launched on private property outside the town of Amboy, Calif., on Saturday....

“I pulled the plunger five different times,” Hughes said. “I considered beating on the rocket nozzle from the underneath side. But you can't get anyone under there. It'll kill you. It'll scald you to death. It'll blow the skin and muscle off your bones.”..

Hughes's plans are unclear now. He said he'd take apart the rocket to see what went wrong, but he has commitments to think of besides science. He was supposed to be in court on Tuesday, he told the crowd, because he was suing the governor of California for unspecified reasons. He was also trying to claim the legal right to Charles Manson's guitar. He is a man of many ambitions...

“Guys, I'm sorry,” Hughes said. “What can you do?”

"A flat-earther finally tried to fly away. His rocket didn’t even ignite." (Washington Post) Read the rest

#StarMan: Watch live views of Elon Musk's SpaceX 'pilot' driving Tesla Roadster in Space

We were promised flying cars, and we finally pretty much got 'em. Elon Musk, Tesla, and SpaceX's 'Live Views of Starman' is the first car commercial broadcast in real time from space. Read the rest

#FalconHeavy success: SpaceX launches world's biggest rocket

UPDATE: THEY DID IT. It couldn't have gone more perfectly.

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Amateur radio astronomer discovers long-lost satellite

In December 2005, NASA lost contact with the IMAGE satellite. After trying to reconnect for two years, the agency gave up. Over a decade later, hobbyist Scott Tilley was able to confirm that IMAGE is not only still in orbit, but also transmitting data.

Tilley stumbled on the find while looking for another satellite named Zuma. Via the Washington Post:

When Tilley caught a signal after a week of searching, on Jan. 20, he almost ignored it. Whatever it was, it was orbiting much higher than Zuma was supposed to be. There are hundreds of active satellites in space, most of which didn't interest him. “I didn't think of it much more,” he wrote on his blog.

But as he continued to scan for Zuma, he came across the signal again — stronger this time — and out of curiosity checked it against a standard catalogue.

The signal matched for IMAGE. But IMAGE was supposed to be dead.

Tilley had to Google the old satellite to find out what it was, as it had been all but forgotten on Earth. Eventually, he came across a decade-old NASA report on the mission's failure.

“Once I read through the failure report and all the geeky language the engineers use, I immediately understood what had happened,” Tilley told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News.

Then he rushed to contact NASA himself.

NASA's IMAGE RECOVERY Read the rest

Future astronaut food could taste like shit

Scientists have been working on a way to turn poop into an edible which, even if it winds up tasting like French fries, will never let you entirely forget about the fact that you're eating poop.

According to Penn State News, researchers at the university's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences have been puttering about their lab, looking for a way to turn human waste into a viable food source for astronauts on deep space missions.

As most people don't want to play with their own brand, the researchers turned to an artificial human waste analog, commonly used for testing purposes in waste treatment plants. The waste was placed inside of a closed cylinder and treated with microbes. These microbes broke down their faux-feces through a process called anaerobic digestion. This breakdown of the waste results in a discharge of methane, which can be used to produce a microbe called Methylococcus capsulatus. Methylococcus capsulatus is currently used in animal feed, and since humans are animals, BOOM: astronaut food. By growing the microbes at a temperature that kills harmful bacteria, the research team was able to produce a bio mass consisting of 61% protein and 7% animal fats.

According to Penn State professor of Geosciences, Christopher House, the resulting foodstuff would have the consistency of Vegemite or Marmite.

With this being the case, there could be a large contingent of future astronauts that would prefer to eat their own crap, instead.

Photo via Flikr, courtesy of Dave Young

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Quiz: pancake or moon?

Pancakes are delicious, and they can also look a lot like moons, as proven in Alternative Moons by Nadine Schlieper and Robert Pufleb. I tried my hand at making a few lunar flapjacks and gathering up some mouthwatering moons. Answers in the comments! Read the rest

Buy your own space artifact at this meteorite auction – or just read the fun descriptions

Christie's is holding an auction of meteorites, and they're strikingly gorgeous. Prices? Anywhere from $1,000 to $250,000.

The essays attached to each meteorite are unusually fun to read. Auction-houses typically explain the provenance of an object up for bid -- but in this case, they're describing artifacts that originated in various far-flung parts of our solar system. They begin with a sort of Yelp-like description of the meteorite (in this case, the one above) ....

An uncommon smooth metallic surface delimits a somewhat ellipsoidal metallic abstract form. Numerous sockets and perforations abound in a very-rarely-seen proximity. Wrapped in a gunmetal patina with splashes of cinnamon and platinum-hued accents, this is among the most aesthetic iron meteorites known.
... and then dive into the provenance:
Like all iron meteorites, the current offering is more than four billion years old and originated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Evocative of a Henry Moore, this sculptural form was once part of the molten iron core of an asteroid that broke apart—a portion of which was deflected into an Earth-intersecting orbit. It was approximately 49,000 years ago that it plowed into the Arizona desert with the force of more than 100 atomic bombs. Fragments were ejected more than 11 miles away from the point of impact and the main mass vaporized, creating the most famous and best-preserved meteorite crater in the world—the renowned Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona nearly one mile across and 600 feet deep. The fragments of iron that survived the impact are referred to as Canyon Diablos (“Canyon of the Devil”), and they are the quintessential American meteorite prized by museums and private collectors everywhere.
Read the rest

It took 83 engines to get to the moon

Amy Shira Teitel of Vintage Space shares lots of cool facts about the golden age of space exploration. Here, she enumerates the engines (and motors) it took Apollo to get to the moon. Read the rest

Scientists figure out how to make and measure time crystals

Time crystals, a theoretical phase of matter proposed in 2012, can now be reliably created and measured, thanks to researchers at UC Berkeley. Above: a great primer on time crystals.

The discovery built on the work of several teams of researchers:

Time crystals repeat in time because they are kicked periodically, sort of like tapping Jell-O repeatedly to get it to jiggle, Yao said. The big breakthrough, he argues, is less that these particular crystals repeat in time than that they are the first of a large class of new materials that are intrinsically out of equilibrium, unable to settle down to the motionless equilibrium of, for example, a diamond or ruby.

“This is a new phase of matter, period, but it is also really cool because it is one of the first examples of non-equilibrium matter,” Yao said. “For the last half-century, we have been exploring equilibrium matter, like metals and insulators. We are just now starting to explore a whole new landscape of non-equilibrium matter.”

Maybe the next step is the development of these time crystals:

Scientists unveil new form of matter: time crystals (UC Berkeley via EurekAlert) Read the rest

These are not paintings of Jupiter

Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran amped up the color and contrast of images of Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere as captured by NASA's Juno spacecraft. Below, for, um, comparison, Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" (1889) and Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (1893).

More of Eichstädt and Doran's stunning work here.

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We only see 5% of the universe

Astrophysicist Katie Mack (astrokatie.com) created this startling pie-chart to illustrate the ratio of observed matter to dark matter and energy, the invisible bulk of the universe.

From her 2014 article, The Dark Matter Poltergeist:

So what do we know? We know dark matter is real—the evidence is overwhelming. Something must be responsible for the extra gravity messing with the motions of stars and galaxies. If that doesn’t convince you, you can look to gravitational lensing—the bending of light around massive objects. The presence of dark matter accounts for the way the light from distant stars and galaxies is distorted as it travels through the universe, following the gravitationally induced curving of space-time itself. If motion and lensing don’t convince you, look at the evidence that galaxies existed within a billion years of the Big Bang. Without dark matter as a kind of cosmic glue, galaxies would have taken much longer to form, as the gravity of gas and dust and stars had to fight against the pressure of all that matter colliding and heating up. Or just take a look at the Bullet Cluster. It’s the aftermath of a cosmic collision in which clusters of galaxies collided but the bulk of the matter passed right through the collision, in the way only ghostly dark matter could.
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Incredible meteor over Michigan

“I went to turn and I noticed a ball of flame coming at an angle,” Danny McEwen Jr. told the Detroit News. "...It just blew up into a bunch of sparks. I didn’t even know what to think. It was kind of odd how orange the sky was behind me and this blaze of flame out of nowhere.”

A brilliant meteor tore through Earth's atmosphere around 8pm on Tuesday night over southeastern Michigan. The United States Geological Survey measured the rumble as equivalent to a magnitude 2.0 earthquake.

From the Washington Post:

(NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office lead Bill) Cooke said the fireball was caused by a small asteroid about one to two yards in diameter, moving at 28,000 mph. When it entered into the atmosphere, he said, it heated up and began to melt away, producing the bright light that people saw...

In the case of the Michigan meteoroid, NASA’s Cooke said, “there are probably meteorites on the ground in southeast Michigan right now. . . . I’m sure the meteorite hunters will be out in force.”

More at the Detroit News: "Hunt on for spec of space rock that shook Michigan" Read the rest

The size of the solar system if Earth were the volume of a basketball

Using a Google Maps overlay, Solar System Maps shows how large the solar system would be if Earth or other celestial bodies were much smaller than the are. Here's "Earth the size of a basketball," centered on SFO. The outermost ring is Pluto's orbit.

If Jupiter were the size of a tennis ball, Pluto's orbit could still encompass the British Library, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. Read the rest

Cosmos marathon now streaming live for free

You can now watch all 13 episodes of Carl Sagan's mind-expanding, life-changing 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage for free on Twitch! Written by Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, Cosmos is a profoundly important scientific head-trip that sparks the imagination and instills that sense of wonder and hope that we all desperately need right now.

Watch live video from COSMOS on www.twitch.tv Read the rest

"It’s Never Aliens—until It Is"

In 2017, the big mainstream stories of "near-hits" (aka "near-misses") in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence included episodic dimming of a star caused by possible "alien megastructures," a large object tearing through our solar system, and video captured by a fighter jet of a weird object capable of incredible maneuvers in the sky (video below).

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