#PlutoTime in Jishou, China

#PlutoTime in Jishou, China
As you’ve probably heard by now, the New Horizons probe swung past Pluto yesterday, taking the first close-up photos of the most distant planet (now classified a dwarf planet) in the solar system. Pluto is almost 32 times further from the Sun than Earth is, so midday on the surface of Pluto is going to be a lot dimmer than it is here. But how much dimmer? Well, as it turns out, there’s enough light to read a book, though standing outside near a lake of frozen nitrogen is probably not a wise choice. Better bring a blanket. NASA has a web app, called Pluto Time, to give you an idea of the lighting conditions on Pluto’s surface. Find your location on a map of the Earth and it will tell you the time when the ambient light on Earth approximates the conditions on Pluto, minus the starry skies and frozen lakes of nitrogen that your feet have just melted into. Generally speaking, #PlutoTime on Earth is in twilight, either before sunrise or after sunset. For Jishou today, it was 7:44 pm. So after dinner, I went to the top of my apartment building and took five shots of the ...

How to poop in orbit – astronaut Sam Cristoforetti’s how-to video

More at the Washington Post, or hit Cristoforetti’s webpage for articles and other videos. The International Space Station also has a new coffee machine that makes espresso. It was designed by Lavazza, the Italian coffee company. Molto buono!

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 Space.com.

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.

More amazing astronomical eye candy

JISHOU, HUNAN — Phil Plait at Slate.com 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.

Christmas card from the far side of Saturn

JISHOU, HUNAN — NASA/JPL has released a gorgeous image of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft while in the planet’s shadow. Cassini was about 500,000 miles (800,000 km) away from Saturn at the time. Its cameras took separate images using violet, red and infrared filters, and those images were combined to make this one. Two of Saturn’s moons, Tethys and Enceladus, are visible as little dots on the lower left section of the image.

RIP Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012)

JISHOU, HUNAN — There are many people about my age who can remember being glued to the TV set on July 21, 1969, as the networks (we watched Walter Cronkite on CBS in my house) covered the first manned landing on the Moon. I can remember that July night when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar lander and became the first man on the Moon. It was a moment of elation for me, and millions of others, because walking on the Moon seemed to be such a fantastic goal at the time — almost like the science fiction movies and TV shows then available. But we did it. Armstrong died yesterday after a heart operation at age 82. I won’t go into his life here, because the big media guys have already done a superb job. He was a farm boy from Ohio who learned how to fly airplanes (and be an engineer — a Purdue graduate, go Boilermakers!) and ultimately ended up as an NASA astronaut. By chance, he became the first human to walk on another world. May we, as a nation, continue to dream big dreams, and then make them happen. It would be ...

Arsenic-based lifeform? Maybe, maybe not. 5

JISHOU, HUNAN — Just a few days ago, the Internet was in a hub-bub about the discovery of a strain of bacteria that thrives in an arsenic-laced environment. Several biologists, however, are not so convinced, and have pointed out weaknesses in the scientific paper announcing the discovery. Carl Zimmer at Discover magazine just published a summary of some of these objections. The late astronomer and author Carl Sagan once wrote that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In other words, if you claim you saw a UFO zipping across the sky from your backyard, your photographic “proof” had better not look like blurry shot of a modified dinner plate. Briefly, that’s what critics of the arsenic-loving bacteria paper are saying. They believe the authors’ methodology and analysis is flawed, so they want further evidence that these bacteria have really incorporated arsenic into their DNA, for example. This is how science works. Even Newton and Einstein, whose theories of gravity and relativity are now considered foundations of modern physics, had their critics when they were first published. Science is all about testing and verification of hypotheses. Peer-reviewed journals, like Science, run submissions past a panel of editors, who judge in part whether ...

Photographic proof we were there

JISHOU, HUNAN — NASA has released new photos taken from lunar orbit of the Apollo landing sites, just in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the Moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is mapping the Moon’s surface in preparation for later missions to the satellite. So far, it has imaged five of the six Apollo landing sites. One image clearly shows the path taken by the Apollo 14 astronauts between the Lunar Module and a package of scientific instruments they deposited about 150 meters away. Despite the disbelief of a small, but vocal denialist movement, men (so far, just men) have walked on the Moon. Moon-landing doubters claim the entire Apollo program was a sham, and that videos and photos of the astronauts on the lunar surface were Hollywood-style simulations. Well, rocks don’t roll around the lunar surface by themselves, so those footpaths were either put there by shuffling astronauts or by some lunar creature. The simplest explanation (Occam’s Razor) suggests the astronauts did it. Not that it will stop the True Disbelievers™ from claiming these latest photos are doctored. **** Incidentally, the Moon will have a starring role next Wednesday here in China as it blocks ...

Meanwhile, back on Mars …

JISHOU, HUNAN — Most of my posts lately have been about China, for obvious reasons, but it’s hard to abandon being a physics teacher. So, here’s a science post. While humans have been flitting around in low-earth orbit, NASA-JPL’s Martian probes have been busy on the red planet. The arctic explorer, Phoenix, has discovered water ice in the soil and in the sky, detected snow falling from the clouds, and photographed the sun creeping up above the horizon as the martian winter approaches. This sequence just fascinates me in particular. It shows clouds scooting through the sky, much as they would here in Earth. These are water-ice clouds, like the high-altitude cirrus clouds here. Aside from practical issues like not having any oxygen to breath and sub-sub-zero temperatures, you could almost imagine yourself standing there watching the clouds go by. Phoenix has been operating for more than four months, but the approaching martian winter solstice may kill the little fellow off. Temperatures are dropping to -120C (-184F), which is bad for its electronics and especially its solar panels. Carbon dioxide frost is forming on the solar panels, cutting down sunlight reaching the solar cells. And the sun itself, as it ...

Mercury’s “far side” for the first time, takes closeups

The MESSENGER probe captured this image of Mercury yesterday from 27,000 km away, giving us our first view of this previously unseen side of the planet. At the time, the probe was receding from its first flyby approach. [Click on the image to see a larger version.] As MESSENGER passed by, it snapped this image of the “near side” of Mercury, showing the crater Vivaldi on the right. Mariner 10 had imaged this part of Mercury on its pass in 1974. NASA will be releasing more images as MESSENGER sends them for processing.

MESSENGER successfully flies by Mercury

The MESSENGER probe zipped past Mercury yesterday in the first of three flybys needed before it settles into a regular orbit. NASA scientists say the probe survived the encounter, which brought it to within 200 km (124 miles) of the planet’s surface. MESSENGER is the first probe to visit Mercury in 30 years, so planetary scientists are excited to see what new data the new probe returns. MESSENGER (short for “MErcury Surface Space ENvironment GEochemistry and Ranging” — NASA must have a special office to devise names like this one) will investigate Mercury in ways that were not possible when Mariner 10 paid it two flyby visits in 1974. Mariner 10 was able to image only one side of Mercury. Here’s an image of Mercury taken by MESSENGER on its approach Sunday, from 760,000 kilometers away (about twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon). (Click on the image to see a larger version.) After two more flybys this year and next, MESSENGER will settle into a regular orbit in 2011 when it will begin a longterm study of the innermost planet, the first in its history. The peculiar trajectory is a fuel-saving measure, to enable the probe to ...
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