January 28, 1986

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
“Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.

“High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Every generation has at least one event during their formative years—childhood, young adulthood, & such—where they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. It’s something of a cliché, really, but it’s still a moment frozen in time for each of us.

For my parents’ generation, it was the Kennedy assassination, November 22, 1963. For many, many people, myself included, it was September 11, 2001. For me, and many people around my age, it was also January 28, 1986, the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. Continue reading


Investigating Mars via Lawsuit

By NASA / JPL / University of Arizona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to tell, but the Face is expressing great disappointment right now.

A self-proclaimed astrobiologist has filed a petition for a writ of mandamus against NASA and NASA Chief Administrator Charles Bolden, seeking to compel it to investigate possible alien life on Mars (h/t). If you have access to the PACER online database, you can access the court file here, but the complaint is also available on Scribd.

Remember when a mysterious rock appeared in front of Opportunity, the rover that has been tooling around Mars for over a decade? It led to a bit of wild speculation as to how it might have gotten there, but scientists tend to take a cautious approach when forming hypotheses.

For one Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D., however, NASA scientists are not speculating nearly wildly enough. He saw the picture of the rock and thought it looked familiar, since (begin sarcasm) an object on Mars will obviously have immediate analogues here on Earth. He claims that he:

immediately recognized that bowl-shaped structure…as resembling a mushroom-like fungus, a composite organism consisting of colonies of lichen and cyanobacteria, and which on Earth is known as Apothecium.

Then he magnified an earlier picture of the same area, saw what he claims are spores, which would grow into an apothecium, and so on. NASA apparently did not come to the same conclusion right away, so he filed a pro se lawsuit seeking a writ of mandamus, by which a court would compel NASA to, um, investigate or something. It would involve “close up photos from various angles” and “microscopic images of the specimen,” for a start. Continue reading


Don’t Panic

By NASA, ESA, ESO, F. Courbin (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland) and P. Magain (Universite de Liege, Belgium) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsResearch that has apparently been around for a while suggests that time and space do not actually exist. It is also possible that the universe is a hologram.

Somehow, I suspect I’m still going to have to pay the mortgage this month.

Photo credit: By NASA, ESA, ESO, F. Courbin (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland) and P. Magain (Universite de Liege, Belgium) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


You won’t be summering on Gliese 581g any time soon, so don’t get too excited

Artist's conception of the Gliese 581 system by Lynette Cook, via NASA

Artist's conception of the Gliese 581 system by Lynette Cook, via NASA

Digital Journal ran a slightly hyperbolic headline this morning, “Habitable planets like Earth ‘now in the billions'”:

An international team of astronomers have discovered “billions of planets” not much bigger than Earth and have the potential to sustain life, BBC News reports.
Planets like Earth are circling the faint stars in the Milky Way according to the new research. The estimate for the number of so called “Super-Earths” are based on detections of the number of red-dwarf stars in the Galaxy.

Harps employs an indirect method of detection that infers the existence of orbiting planets from the way their gravity makes a parent star appear to twitch in its motion across the sky.

The team’s leader Xavier Bonfils from the Observatoire des Sciences de l’Univers de Grenoble, France said:

“Our new observations with Harps mean that about 40% of all red dwarf stars have a super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the surface of the planet.

“Because red dwarfs are so common – there are about 160 billion of them in the Milky Way – this leads us to the astonishing result that there are tens of billions of these planets in our galaxy alone.”

The only reason this isn’t quite as exciting as it sounded to my un-scientifically-trained ear at first is because “discovered” doesn’t necessarily mean “directly identified.” I think most people know that, but the way it’s phrased makes it sound much more earth-shattering (pun sort of intended) than it is. Based on the findings made so far, it seems safe to extrapolate, but it’s not like the researchers will be publishing a billion-entry guidebook to the planets of the Milky Way. It almost seems like the headline and lead-in to this story were specifically designed to disappoint laypeople.

The team investigated a total of 102 of carefully chosen red dwarfs, which are stars that are dimmer and cooler than our sun.

The team found nine super-earths, which are planets with mass one to ten times the size of Earth, with two of these planets being inside the habitable zone of their stars.

So we’ve gone from “billions” to nine, with two in the “Goldilocks zone.” And about that whole “habitable” thing…

Liquid water is deemed a necessity for life to develop on potentially habitable planets.

“The habitable zone around a red dwarf, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on the surface, is much closer to the star than the Earth is to the Sun,” commented co-researcher Stephane Udry from the Geneva Observatory.

“But red dwarfs are known to be subject to stellar eruptions or flares, which may bathe the planet in X-rays or ultraviolet radiation, and which may make life there less likely.”

Rachel Nichols as Gaila in "Star Trek," from Historyguy.com [Fair use]We know there is life on earth that can exist without liquid water, or even oxygen. It’s kind of a leap to assume that all life needs liquid water, although every mechanism of evolution that we know of required liquid water at some point. It also doesn’t help that no one has ever come up with a clear, concise definition of “life” in a biological sense (cf. viruses). Alien life is highly unlikely to be anywhere near our level of technological advancement, and is most likely to be microbial. Aliens certainly won’t look anything like Rachel Nichols. Won’t that be a disappointment?

Getting back to the number of planets, keep in mind that this is only about the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of at least a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. That’s potentially (I think this is the scientific term) a shitload of planets. Unless we come up with some kind of wormhole or super-warp technology, though, we’ll never know very much about planets in other galaxies.

So this is exciting news. Just don’t get too carried away with it.

On the other hand, we could just send James Cameron to look for other planets. That guy goes everywhere.

Photo credits: Artist’s conception of the Gliese 581 system by Lynette Cook, via NASA; Rachel Nichols as Gaila in “Star Trek,” from Historyguy.com [Fair use]