Pluto’s Flyover Amazes

It might not be a planet anymore, but Pluto is still a pretty amazing place. It’s a rocky world covered in a thick layer of water ice and frozen nitrogen, and it’s close enough that we can study it with relative ease. Now, using data gathered by the New Horizons spacecraft when it flew past the pint-sized planet in 2015, NASA has published a video that offers the best look yet at what it would be like to fly high over Pluto’s frigid peaks and valleys, and it’s glorious.

Image result for pluto flyover new horizon

New Horizon approaching Pluto.

Flyover Explained

“This dramatic Pluto flyover begins over the highlands to the southwest of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain informally named Sputnik Planitia,” NASA explains of the video. “The viewer first passes over the western margin of Sputnik, where it borders the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, with the blocky mountain ranges located within the plains seen on the right. The tour moves north past the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra and then turns southward over Pioneer Terra — which exhibits deep and wide pits — before concluding over the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa in the far east of the encounter hemisphere.”


We have had an interesting relationship with Pluto lately. After many decades being labeled the ninth planet in our Solar System, scientists reclassified Pluto about ten years ago, officially dubbing it a dwarf planet rather than a full-fledged one.

If you want to learn more about Pluto and it’s fall from it’s planet classification check out Neil deGrasse Tyson’s excellent “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America;s Favorite Planet”.

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Doom in 2029?

Asteroids are one of the most serious threats to life on earth that we know of. This is not something we think about very often. It was almost certainly an asteroid that took out the dinosaurs. This is a very real threat that humanity faces. The good news is that scientists are getting better at watching out for these large rocks which whiz by our planet more often then you might think. The bad news is that, today there is very little we can do about one of these striking us. See my rant at the end of this article for more about what we can do.

Image result for 99942 Apophis

This week it was reported that a massive asteroid, called 99942 Apophis, is going to make a very close pass of Earth in 2029, and that flyby could determine the fate of our planet.

“We can rule out a collision at the next closest approach with the Earth,” Astronomer Alberto Cellino told Astrowatch. “But then the orbit will change in a way that is not fully predictable just now, so we cannot predict the behavior on a longer timescale.”

The flyby in 2029 will be very-very close, with the asteroid expected to pass within 20,000 miles of Earth’s surface. That’s a ridiculously close by space standards, and it’s such a tight squeeze that the gravity of Earth is expected to alter the path of Apophis in such a way that its future passes will become much more unpredictable until further forecasting can be accomplished.

This video from the Discovery Channel depicts that tragic events of a large asteroid striking our planet.

The threat from Apophis is particularly scary because of its size. The asteroid has a diameter of over 1,200 feet, and a collision with our planet would be a catastrophic event. Scientists have forecasted the potential impact, estimating that the rock would strike with an amazing 750 megatons of energy. By comparison, the Tunguska event — which flattened a huge forested area in Russia’s Siberia — is thought to have only been about 10 megatons of force.

My Asteroid Influenced Rant

All of this talk of potential global doom from space kind of makes you think that we should be working together as opposed to engaging in endless political arguments. Our combined energy should be used to better ourselves and collectively protect each other. The type of healthcare we have, or what political ideology we each have will help us ZERO if we can’t prevent a rock like 99942 Apophis from striking our little blue marble. Instead of engaging in endless arguments we should collectively science it up and work on preventing disasters like the one that is possible in 2029.

OK – now I need to go watch an episode of Star Trek.

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Parallel Universes Might Exist

The idea that we might be living in just one of an infinite number of universes is not a new scientific concept and scientific debate surrounding this possibility has been going on for decades. The idea that we may be living in just one of countless universes has also been a popular narrative in science fiction as well.

The crew of Star Trek’s Enterprise has encountered multiple universes in several occasions – always leading to complex & exciting adventures.

Up until recently provable evidence to support this theory has been hard to come by. Now, researchers have discovered something in space that they can’t quite account for, and one of the possible explanations is that our universe actually bumped into a neighboring, parallel one. That’s right our universe may have had a car crash with another universe.

What the Heck Happened?

When gazing into the heavens, scientists spotted what they refer to as a “cold” area of space. It was observed some time ago, and explaining it proved difficult. Originally a 2015 study suggested it was merely an area of the universe in which the number of galaxies is dramatically lower than the rest. However subsequent investigations couldn’t support that finding, and a new study by Durham University suggests the slim possibility that it’s actually evidence of parallel universes.

The multiverse theory hinges on the idea that all possible outcomes of any given scenario are all playing out at the same time in a layered reality of which we are only experiencing one of those layers. It’s a wild idea that has a foundation in quantum mechanics, but it’s also entirely unproven. But could it be true?

As the study suggests, the researchers believe the mysterious cold spot, while still totally unexplained, could actually be “the remnant of a collision between our universe and another ‘bubble’ universe during an early inflationary phase.” In short, if the idea is correct, our early universe collided with another young universe early on, causing something of a “bruise” which we are able to observe today.

Mind blowing isn’t it? Its looking more and more like we are not alone.

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7 New Planets Could Mean We Are Not Alone…

Our universe just got a little more crowded! That’s because NASA announced today that they have discovered seven new Earth-sized planets, at least three of which could potentially support life. And the best news of all is that they are relatively close by.

NASA discovered seven nearby planets that could support life

All of the planets orbit TRAPPIST-1, an ultra-cool dwarf star roughly the size of Jupiter. The system is close to Earth, relatively speaking – TRAPPIST is located in the Aquarius constellation, less than 40 light years from us.

What makes these exoplanets special is they are temperate which meant that all seven could potentially have water. Three of the planets are in the habitable zone, making them the most likely candidates to support life.

The TRAPPIST system is named after the telescope in Chile with which researchers originally spotted the exoplanets. Their existence was recently confirmed with NASA’s Spitzer Telescope.

So far, all we know about our potential new homes is they are likely to be rocky. They are all also closer to their star than Mercury is to our Sun, but the star is so cool that the furthest of the seven is probably a ball of ice.

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Tuesday’s Leap Second Explained

This Tuesday, a single second will be added to clocks around the world to help counter Earth’s rotation slowing down.

What is a “Leap Second”?

A leap second is a one-second adjustment that is occasionally applied to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in order to keep its time of day close to the mean solar time, or UT1. Without such a correction, time reckoned by Earth’s rotation drifts away from atomic time because of irregularities in the Earth’s rate of rotation. Since this system of correction was implemented in 1972, 25 such leap seconds have been inserted. The most recent one happened on June 30, 2012 at 23:59:60 UTC. A leap second, the 26th, will again be inserted at the end of June 30, 2015 at 23:59:60 UTC.

Humans can handle the additional second without even being aware of it, however computers are are another story and can get a little “confused”  where a path of time suddenly changes.

When a leap second was last added to the clock in 2012, during a weekend it wreaked some havoc online.

The leap second in 2012 caused Reddit, Foursquare, Yelp, LinkedIn, Gawker and StumbleUpon to be knocked offline entirely, as well as hundreds of flights to be delayed in Australia.

Many issues were caused by a bug in the Network Time Protocol used to keep Linux system clocks in sync. The flaw caused NTP to lock up some systems entirely, requiring a reboot before they could recover.

When the leap second comes around, it means the system clock sees an additional figure, like so:

2011-12-31 23.59.57
2011-12-31 23.59.58
2011-12-31 23.59.59
2011-12-31 23.59.60 <– leap second
2012-01-01 00.00.00
2012-01-01 00.00.01
2012-01-01 00.00.02

The second will be inserted into network time services at the exact same moment worldwide, on June 30th at 23:59:60 UTC.

This time around it’s critical that businesses are ready, with the leap second being added during a time when trading on stock markets is open.

Some businesses are ready for the leap second to be added, like Google and Amazon, which adjust server clocks gradually over a number of weeks so that it’s not a sudden change.

Others that rely on time-critical systems, like stock markets and utilities are nervous about it going wrong. A single second of downtime for a stock market means up to $4.6 million could be lost.

Linux systems specifically should be fine. The bug that affected them last time has since been resolved, along with other issues found in Java and other operating systems.

The leap second is mostly a headache for system administrators who need to ensure their services are highly available and need to plan how to handle the change. Hardware providers such as Cisco now provide detailed advice on how their hardware handles the leap second, but the side effects are unpredictable.

The Leap Second’s Future Demise?

Leap seconds might not be around for much longer with the International Telecommunications Union planning to vote on a proposal to eliminate the leap second in November 2015.

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Lenoard Nimoy’s Asteroid

February 27, 2015 was a sad day for countless Star Trek fans. Now we have something in the night sky we can look up to for to help us lift our spirits.

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who passed away on February 27, 2015 has now been memorialized in a way that honors his career-defining role Star Trek role. The man who embodied Mr. Spock for decades on television and film now has an asteroid named after him. The asteroid, formerly dubbed 1988 RA5, was discovered in 1988 by Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne. The folks over at Universe Today have some hot tips on just when you might be able to pull out your trusty telescope and catch Nimoy on his way across the night sky.

If the concept of naming a celestial body after a deceased person has become somewhat of a trend. The International Star Registry was founded in 1979, and gives you the chance to name a star after a special friend or loved one. Of course this is somewhat of a gimmick, and there is nothing official about it, but it’s a pretty clever business idea. The inventory is free, and obviously will not to run out for billions of years. I would not recommend spending your money on this gimmick.

However the official process is handled by the International Astronomical Union, and that’s serious business. Nimoy is one of many figures to be recognized by the IAU, which, in addition to naming stars, names minor planets. Many of these minor planets are named after people, and the IAU gets quite creative in handling this process. Astronomers (amateur and professional), chemists, mathematicians, composers, and even pop-culture figures get a piece of the action. There are planets named after Carl Sagan, Aristotle, Donatello, and Andy Warhol, but those are some of the recent choices. So you can see that Nimoy is in good company.

An asteroid is a fitting tribute for someone as close to the hearts of so many scientists as Leonard Nimoy. Star Trek’s  role in inspiring young scientists across generations is very real. As a genre, science fiction takes the dry material from our Earth-science textbooks and uses it to inspire us with a vision of the future that’s full of wondrous possibilities.

(4864) Nimoy is a small asteroid circling the Sun with trillions of other rocky bits outside the orbit of Mars. But “small” is a relative term. (4864) Nimoy is about the size of a mountain (10 kilometers across), and orbits the Sun once about every four years.

And even though this Spock rock doesn’t produce its own light, it certainly reflects it, and Universe Today reports that “amateurs with 14-inch or larger telescopes might glimpse it” in mid-July when (4864) Nimoy moves from the constellation Capricornus into Sagittarius.

Leonard Nimoy was so much to so many people. His life and untimely death inspired both tributes in real life and in extraterrestrial life. It’s fitting then that his name should truly live long and prosper, as his namesake asteroid is sure to explore our solar system well beyond the 23rd century. Fascinating.

Over at Universe Today you can learn more about how to find 4864 Nimoy in the night sky.

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Is Warp Drive Possible?

Just maybe all my 40+ years of indulging in all things Star Trek was actually time well spent. I always knew that there was so much to learn from Gene Roddenberry’s Trek universe. Among the life lessons I started learning at a very young age and have carried with me all of these years from Star Trek is how to treat others, how to work together for the betterment of the greater whole, how to embrace wonderment and exploration, how to accept everyone for who they are and of course infinite diversity in infinite combinations is to be celebrated. But hey what about all of the amazing technology in Star Trek? From transporters, to phasers, to universal translaters, tricorders and warp drive, amazing tech is everywhere.

The USS Enterprise uses Warp Drive to explore the universe in a very timely fashion.

 

It’s warp drive that has me writing this little post.

Star Trek of course introduced the world to the concept of warp drive. Warp drive for those of you who do not know is the propulsion system that allowed the Enterprise to travel faster than the speed of light. Warp speed is the holy grail that would let us to explore the universe safely surrounded and protected by a space-distorting warp field.

What is the Real Concept of Warp Drive?

emdrive-moteur-sans-combustible

An EmDrive prototype.

To get around the theory of relativity, physicist Miguel Alcubierre came up with the concept of a bubble of spacetime which travels faster than the speed of light while the ship inside of it is stationary. The bubble contracts spacetime in front of the ship and expands it behind it. The warp drive would look like a football inside a flat ring. The tremendous amount of energy it would need made this idea prohibitive until Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center calculated that making the ring into a donut shape would significant reduce the energy needs.

At the same time NASA and other space agencies have been working on prototypes of the EmDrive or RF resonant cavity thruster invented by British aerospace engineer Roger J. Shawyer. This propulsion device uses a magnetron to produce microwaves for thrust, has no moving parts and needs no reaction mass for fuel. In 2014, Johnson Space Center claimed to have developed its own low-power EmDrive.

If Star Trek is any indication going from Warp 1 to 7 will be a snap.

 

So what now? To prove that the warp effect was not caused by atmospheric heating, the test will soon be replicated in a vacuum. If the same results are achieved (and we hope they are), it may mean that the EmDrive is producing an actual warp field, which could ultimately lead to the development of a warp drive.

Last week there was some very exciting news released about the theory of warp drive and I bet you missed it.

Posts on NASASpaceFlight.com, a website devoted to the engineering side of space news, reported that NASA now has a tool to measure variances in the path-time of light. When lasers were fired through the EmDrive’s resonance chamber, it measured significant variances and, more importantly, found that some of the beams appeared to travel faster than the speed of light. If that’s true, it would mean that the EmDrive is producing a warp field or bubble.

What’s Next?

To prove that the warp effect was not caused by atmospheric heating, the test will be replicated in a vacuum. If the same results are achieved, it seems to mean that the EmDrive is producing an actual warp field, which could ultimately lead to the development of a warp drive.

And if all of this plays out as many hope, it will prove that Star Trek had it right, that…

the human adventure has just begun.

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Lyrid Meteor Shower Arriving April 22 & 23

We are entering my second favorite time of the year to stargaze, Spring – second only to the fall season.

Soon, very soon we will be in store for a meteor shower show.  The following news report is taken in part from from AccuWeather.

Beginning late in the evening, tomorrow, April 22 and continuing through the early morning hours of April 23, the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower will dazzle skygazers around the world.

Observers can expect to see 10-20 meteors darting across the sky during the height of the shower, but the Lyrids have a history of putting on surprising performances. In 1982 and 1922, the shower delivered a reported 90 meteors per hour.

The Lyrids will be visible to viewers in most parts of the world, but the timing of the peak may favor those in Europe, according to Slooh.

Astronomy fans saddled with inclement weather or cloudy skies, can view Slooh’s live broadcast of the meteor shower beginning at 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

Slooh frequently airs live astronomy events by using community observatories from all around the world. Additionally, Slooh’s broadcast will have an accompanying radio feed that allows viewers to hear the sounds of the meteors entering the ionosphere. After the event concludes, Slooh will show a replay of the event.

“As the meteors enter the ionosphere, they, appropriately enough, ionize the air and that serves as a reflector for radio waves, so they actually give a crackle and a sound at the speed of light,” Slooh Astronomer Bob Berman previously told AccuWeather.com.

The best viewing conditions in the U.S. will stretch from the northern Plains to the Upper Midwest, then down into the Ohio Valley and the mid-Atlantic region, AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Dave Dombek said.

The worst conditions, due to cloud coverage, might actually be across the Gulf Coast area from southern Texas over to parts of Florida, Dombek said. Other regions that could be hampered by clouds include the northern Rockies, northern Great Lakes, upstate New York and northern New England.

“This year the moon will be a waxing crescent only one-fifteenth the brightness of a full moon, and it will set early, allowing excellent dark sky conditions for this shower,” Berman said. “Typically, Lyrids produce a gratifying number of fireballs, which is surprising since their moderate speeds of 30 miles per second is only about 75 percent that of the August Perseids or November Leonids. This should be an exciting experience.”

The best time for viewing the Lyrids at their peak will occur between the midnight and predawn hours Thursday and observers can look anywhere in the sky to see the Lyrids, provided skies are clear.

The Lyrids radiant point is about 10 degrees southwest of the star Vega, a blue-white star that can be seen by stargazers in the Northeast by 10 p.m. in mid-April, according to Slooh.

Here are some more meteor showers on the schedule this year.

Unlike other meteor showers, such as the Quadrantids in January, there is no sharp peak for the Lyrids. As the star Vega gets higher in the sky later at night, you tend to see more meteors, Berman said.

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Life in 10 Years?

Captain Kirk faces off with a Hota, a silicone based life form from the original Star Trek.

Captain Kirk faces off with a Hota, a silicone based life form from the original Star Trek.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have posted a good space/science story. So with that in mind here you go.

It seems we may discover life “out there” sooner then later.

NASA believes that we will find signs of alien life in as little as 10 years including “definitive evidence” in about 20. Don’t worry because it it “hopefully” will not be the human-hating advanced races we have seen depicted in Hollywood movies. There is actually a good chance this alien life will simply turn out to be microbes. But this if true, will be very big news and will probably change how human being’s look at themselves, and could change the course of history.

Chief scientist of NASA, Ellen Stofan, made the bold prediction while speaking during a panel discussion.

“We know where to look,” Stofan said. “We know how to look. In most cases we have the technology and we’re on a path to implementing it. And so I think we’re definitely on the road.”

We have seen environments all over our solar system that suggest microbial life can be supported away from our little planet. Our closest neighbor, Mars was probably, in the past a hotbed of activity, while Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus have all shown evidence of environments conducive to these little microorganisms. We do notknow for sure that these moons or planets harbor life, but NASA feels these are our best shots.

Here is a image of a JPL proposal for a Europan ocean explorer. There is real evidence that life may exist on Jupiter’s most famous moon.

 

NASA has some aggressive plans over the next few decades to follow up on its early discoveries, with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. It might not be the paradise of our own blue marble, but the potential for life could solve some major mysteries about what’s out there in the universe.

Are we alone? it looks like we are closer than ever to figuring that out.

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The Surprising Long History of Smartwatches

Way back in 1979, Douglas Adams wrote that humans are “so amazingly primitive…they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

Way back in 1979, Douglas Adams wrote that humans are “so amazingly primitive…they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

On the eve of Apple releasing a smartwatch there is much talk of how innovative Apple is but I would venture to say that there were many “trailblazers” before them.

Here are the forerunners of Apple’s big watch and a short history of smartwatches.

2001 – IBM Research and Citizen Watch built a Linux-based watch called WatchPad, which they hoped would illustrate the viability of the then-novel operating system “across all platforms, from large enterprise servers, to medium-sized and small servers, workstations, desktop systems, laptops and the smallest intelligent devices”.

2002 – The Fossil Wrist PDA came in Palm and Pocket PC version and with a 190KB memory that could store 1,100 contacts, 5,000 To Do items, 800 appointments, or 350 memos.

2006Microsoft Spot was Microsoft’s early attempt at a smartwatch.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates displaying his Fossil SPOT watch in 2003

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates displaying his Fossil SPOT watch in 2006.

As a Microsoft exec said at the time: “Imagine how handy it would be to have a travel alarm clock that, in addition to telling time very accurately and auto-adjusting to time-zones, could also wake you to your favorite WMA-encoded music, display information about road closures along your expected travel route, and deliver urgent messages.”

Microsoft’s first watches were not a huge success. As well as being bulky and requiring frequent charging, the small screen meant a limited amount of information could be delivered and the ongoing cost of subscribing to services made them a less than appealing prospect.

2007 – Brought us the Sony Ericsson MBW-150. This watch could only be paired with a Sony Ericcson phone via Bluetooth and had a small single line OLED display. When an incoming call was received, the watch would vibrate and show either the name of the caller or their number. The watch could also notify the wearer about new text messages, and came in three models.

2009 – This is one of the slightly more unusual smart devices, and a first of it’s kind. A watch that was also a phone. This Samsung S9110 was at the time touted as the world’s thinnest “watchphone”, sporting a 1.76-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, email support and MP3 playback.

2012 – The Sony Smartwatch, effectively functioned as a second screen for your Android phone, which allowed you to read email, SMS and other notifications such as Twitter.

The Pebble remains my go-to smartwatch until another one comes along to beat it’s simplicity and elegance. Oh and it works on Android & Apple devices and even Windows Phones – kind of.

2012 – The Pebble watch is probably the best known of all current smartwatches and is my favorite. I use one today and do not plan on switching to the Apple watch. It began life as a Kickstarter project aiming to raise $100,000. It raised $10.3m instead.

The watch is compatible with iPhones and Android devices running OS 2.3 and up, but not Blackberry or Windows Phone 7. Alerts include incoming call, SMS, iMessage, calendar, Facebook messages and Twitter . A new model will be available this sping (2015).

2013 – Martian Watches offer the Passport Watch which features voice controls so that it can function as a speakerphone your smartphone or allow you to access services such as Siri.

2014 – Samsung has been making a major push when it comes to smartwatches, with recent models including the Galaxy Gear, Gear Fit, Gear 2,Gear 2 Neo and the Gear S . The Gear S is notably in that it will allow you to make calls rather than just act as a second screen for a smartphone. However this is rumor that Samsung will be giving up on smartwatches shortly.

2015 – Microsoft’s first entry since 2006’s Microsoft Spot was in the fitness wearable market, the Microsoft Band.  This one offers an array of sensors and a platform-agnostic nature along with the typical email, messaging and social media features we have come to expect from a smartwatch.

Now let’s travel back even further in time to 1976. 

Back in 1976 my favorite Science Fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke predicted the use of mobile devices, tablets & smartwatches in a very real and very specific way. The moral of this story is that many things we enjoy today were considered and predicted long ago.

Clark predicts and describes, again in great detail the “wristwatch telephone” at the 4:34 mark. However as opposed to skipping ahead I suggest you watch the whole video to see all the amazing predictions he made in this interview.

You can read my other articles about Arthur C. Clarke here.

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