Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit may not wake up

JISHOU, HUNAN — YuTu (玉兔), China’s first lunar rover, is experiencing some mechanical problems as it enters its second night time period on the Moon, worrying earthbound observers. Night comes to the Moon every two weeks, and temperatures drop below -180°C (-290°F). YuTu is supposed to pull in its antenna and camera, fold up its solar panels and hunker down, keeping itself warm with its radioisotope power source. Apparently, that process didn’t quite happen, and Chinese space scientists are concerned the little rabbit may not wake up again. They are reportedly scrambling for some way to remotely repair the malfunction. The lunar lander, Chang’E 3, has also gone into hibernation, but it seems to be OK. The robotic duo landed last month and quickly sent back images of the landing site in Sinus Iridum, to the delight of the Chinese and space fans worldwide. YuTu, which is named after the mythical rabbit who lives on the Moon with the goddess Chang’E, has traveled 100 meters (about 100 yards) so far. Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed report at the Planetary Society website. Universe Today has several high-res photos, as well. This one was Chang’E’s Christmas gift to Earth.

Paleo-hokum 3

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” — David Hannum, P.T. Barnum’s competitor at hoodwinking the public (1860) JISHOU, HUNAN — Eat like a caveman! Lose weight! Be healthy! Science proves it! The paleo-diet is the latest in a series of diet fads that seem to crop every decade or so. (Anyone remember the Atkins diet, the grapefruit diet, the protein diet, the low-carb diet?) A few of my relatives and friends are trying the paleo-diet out. Since this amazing new diet plan has not yet made headlines in China, I had to go look it up. My bullshit meter hit level 9. While the actual dietary recommendations of the paleo-diet are not so bad, the so-called “scientific basis” for the paleo-diet is mostly a crock of mastodon droppings. (See photo at right) It’s a gimmick. It’s one of those ideas that at first glance seems almost plausible, but on deeper inspection is just hucksterism dressed up in a white labcoat. So, I’m going to put on my science teacher hat and analyze the paleo-diet. I’m not saying you need to give it up, but you should at least understand a lot of it is hokum. The basis of the paleo-diet ...

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos 3

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos
JISHOU, HUNAN — The Chang’E 3 lunar lander successfully touched down on the Moon earlier today, becoming another feather in China’s space exploration cap. After a short radio blackout, it sent back photos of its approach. Chang’E, named after the Chinese moon goddess 嫦娥, carries a six-wheeled rover, Jade Rabbit (yu tu 玉兔), also a figure in Chinese mythology. The rover, which resembles the NASA rovers exploring Mars, will deploy in a few hours to begin a three-month mission. China is only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon, following the former Soviet Union and the USA. The lunar project follows China’s successful low-earth orbit manned missions, and is a probable prelude to a manned mission to Earth’s nearest neighbor in the next few decades. The probe has landed far north of landing sites by the Soviet Luna 9 and 16 probes, landing in 1966 and 1970, respectively, and the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. India and Japan have also sent missions to the Moon, but have not had soft landings. The last soft landing was by the Soviet Luna 24 probe, in 1976. More details are available at

Ohio science/religion teacher Freshwater loses yet again

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, here’s the short version. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled, 4-3, last week that the Mount Vernon School District was well within its rights to fire teacher John Freshwater for insubordination, given that he repeatedly ignored orders to remove religious material from his classroom and from his teaching. The court’s ruling, however, sidestepped the thornier underlying question of how much discussion of creationism and Intelligent Design may be permissible in a science classroom. That question in fact was a large part of Freshwater’s appeal of a lower court’s decision. And the court’s failure to address the issue drew sharp words from the three dissenting judges. Writing for the dissent, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer writes: {¶ 105} What next? With the insubordination claim gutted, the lead opinion should have moved on to consider the constitutional issues remaining in the case. Instead, the majority walks away from the opportunity to provide helpful guidance to every school board in Ohio and to the thousands of great teachers who could benefit from knowing more about the extent of and limits on their academic freedom. Justice O’Donnell’s well-reasoned dissent addresses the issue, but goes unrebutted. In short, the majority shrinks from the ...

China space agency unveils shanzhai lunar rover

JISHOU, HUNAN — Rather than be new and creative for its upcoming lunar rover mission, China’s space exploration engineers have copied NASA’s Mars landers, rather like Chinese manufacturers’ notorious habit of selling counterfeit brand-name goods — called shanzhai 山寨. First, let’s see the Mars Exploration Rover and its smaller older brother, Sojourner. And now the Chinese lunar rover, due to be launched in December. See any similarities? So did China’s scientists, who worked hard to propose new designs for the state space agency. Instead, the agency went with NASA 2.1. From the South China Morning Post: It was the first time that the secretive space agency – run by the military – had invited civilian scientists to participate in a major exploration programme. Many top universities set up special teams of their best researchers, who proposed creative rover designs. Wen’s own team, for instance, offered a design with only four wheels but with a greater ability to manoeuvre over rough terrain. Civilian scientists were disappointed when authorities decided on a design they felt drew heavily on the American design. Zhu Jihong, a professor of robotics who entered the competition on behalf of Tsinghua University, said the outcome had dampened Chinese ...

Browser planetarium from the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — A science moment!! I found Virtual Sky after reading an old Sky & Telescope magazine a friend mailed me just before summer vacation began. I only got around to reading it today. Virtual Sky is a browser-based planetarium that you can embed in your blog or website. Mine here shows the sky at it would appear from Jishou, because that’s where I live. The red line is the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun across the sky. That’s also where you’ll find the planets, the Moon and the signs of Zodiac hanging out, too. Holding down the left mouse button and scrolling left or right will change the view. Cardinal points are at the bottom. There are options you, the reader, can control, too. With the mouse pointer over the map, type a question mark (?) for a list of keyboard commands. Typing a capital S will show names of some bright stars, like Wentworth Miller or Natalie Portman. Typing p will show the planets, Sun and Moon. If it doesn’t work right, you may using too old a version of Internet Explorer. Sucks for you. Get Chrome or Firefox. And I was just joking about ...

Alabama has ancient cypress forest — 60 feet underwater!

JISHOU, HUNAN — Fishermen found it, then tipped off researchers. There’s a 50,000-year-old bald cypress forest just off the coast of Alabama, 60 feet underwater, which Hurricane Katrina apparently uncovered. Now, marine researchers have to race the clock before marine life colonizes the long-buried trees and destroys the otherwise pristine state of the site. Here’s a video of the underwater forest. (Link at Mobile Press-Register/ Details are at Carbon dating places the age of the trees around 52,000 years old. The changing shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico probably covered the forest with sand about 18,000 years ago, cutting off oxygen and halting the rotting process. Now that the trees are exposed, they are again rotting and being used as food and shelter by marine life. I await the Young Earth Creationist explanation of how these trees sprouted 46,000 years before God created the Earth.

Didn’t young Thomas Edison almost blow up a train?

JISHOU, HUNAN — Sometimes lab accidents have advantages. A Florida high school student expelled for creating an explosion at her school has received a scholarship to attend US Space Academy this summer. Her twin sister got one, too. Their benefactor is former astronaut trainer Homer Hickham, who knows what it’s like to get into trouble with the law. Back in the 1950s, he and a buddy were arrested on suspicions they started a forest fire near their high school. Hickham was cleared. So was his modern day counterpart, Kiera Wilmot, who nonetheless remains expelled because of her school’s zero-tolerance for … blowing up things. She wrote a blog abut it, which was reprinted at the ACLU website and The Huffington Post. The details about their scholarship to space camp are over at ABC News. Edison was never charged, as far as I know. But I think he did lose his job on the railroad, according to legend, after he cooked up some nitroglycerine and nearly blew himself and the train to kingdom come.

Panoramic, high-res view of Mars by Curiosity rover

Mars Gigapixel Panorama - Curiosity rover: Martian solar days 136-149 in Out of this World Andrew Bodrov has taken 407 high-res photographs taken by the Curiosity rover to create this 360-degree panorama of the Martian surface. You can use your mouse or the cursor arrows to pan and zoom.

Textbook publisher Wiley & Sons loses Supreme Court copyright case

JISHOU, HUNAN — Selling textbooks printed abroad in the USA does not infringe the copyright of the books’ publisher, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a 6-3 decision. The decision means a Thai entrepreneur can legally resell textbooks in the States. The adversaries in this case were John Wiley & Sons, which publishes the text I used for AP Physics for many years, among others, and Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai student who found a clever way to make money. He bought Wiley’s texts legally in Thailand, where the prices are lower than in the States, and then resold them (legally) in the USA for a tidy profit, while still undercutting Wiley’s American retail prices. (Which is not hard, considering how high those prices are, especially for science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — texts. One book alone might cost $150 or more.) As you can imagine, Wiley was not pleased, and took Kirtsaeng to court, contending that he was violating its copyright by reselling books intended for Thai consumers in the USA. Two lower courts found in Wiley’s favor, but the Supreme Court overturned those decisions, finding no clear provisions in existing copyright law that would make Kirtsaeng’s enterprise ...

Hubble telescope finds Space Invader!

This is an example of gravitational lensing. A massive object between us and a distant galaxy warps space-time, “blurring” the image of the distant galaxy into a bug-eyed monster. (The classic video game Space Invaders had similar-looking critters.) This cluster of galaxies — each containing hundreds of millions of stars — is about 2 billion light-years away. So, we’re seeing these galaxies the way they looked a long time ago. [Photo from Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute.]

More amazing astronomical eye candy

JISHOU, HUNAN — Phil Plait at has compiled the 21 best astronomy images of the year. You have to go see them. Here’s the Curiosity Mars rover “in country” as it were. I’m especially partial to surface shots of Mars, because they’re so Earth-like (if Earth’s surface were incredibly dry and icy cold 24/7 and there was no breathable atmosphere). In fact, the background image used for this blog’s nameplate is a sunset on Mars taken by an earlier rover. Bet you thought it was taken on Earth! This next photo was taken on Earth — Wyoming to be precise. The tall thing at left is Devil’s Tower, which I once flew around while chasing a solar eclipse in 1979 with my boss and my buddy Dave Ansley. That’s the Milky Way (our galaxy) in the sky. Now go check out the others.
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