Astronomy and Human Progress

This morning, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory issued a press release, which in and of itself is hardly extraordinary. Its contents, however, are extraordinarily awesome:

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

While this photo is not about to save a life or help a man improve his intimate relations, it occasionally occurs to us to remind that astronomy is not just about fancy photos. The human species needs astronomers.

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Look Ahead: Cassini “Proximal” Mission

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First, there was Equinox. And then came Solstice. Ever faithful, the Cassini probe continues to defy even the wildest expectations at its launch in 1997. And now, NASA is asking for public participation in preparing the spacecraft for its final mission:

Starting in late 2016, the Cassini spacecraft will repeatedly climb high above Saturn’s north pole, flying just outside its narrow F ring. Cassini will probe the water-rich plume of the active geysers on the planet’s intriguing moon Enceladus, and then will hop the rings and dive between the planet and innermost ring 22 times.

JPL-CassiniProximalMission-1Because the spacecraft will be very close to Saturn, the team has been calling this phase “the proximal orbits.” But they think someone out there can conjure up a cooler name. Here’s where you come in: you can choose your faves from a list already assembled, or you can submit your own ideas (up to three). The big reveal for the final name will be in May 2014.

This naming contest is part of the 10-year anniversary celebration. The mission will mark a decade of exploring Saturn, its rings and moons on June 30 PDT (July 1 EDT).

The name game is already underway. And they’ve already released an awesome trailer in advance of Cassini’s astounding swan song.

No, really, watch the trailer.

This is going to be so cool.

Cassini’s last mission could well be the inspiration of our next generation of scientists. It really is all that.

Hip To Be Square

Thomson ReutersIt’s not your average top-ten list, that much is certain. Jeffrey Marlow’s list, distilled from Thomson Reuters includes some familiar notions like, “Impact of Climate Change on Food Crops”, and, “Ocean Acidification and Marine Ecosystems”, but also some wake-up suggestions and reminders such as, “Enhanced Visible Light Photocatalytic Hydrogen Production”:Light, Rocks, Water

Hydrogen fuel cells have been “the next big thing” in energy for years, with proponents trumpeting their potential to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But producing the hydrogen has been a stumbling block. New materials – complex catalysts often involving metals such as cobalt, nickel, iron, or molybdenum – have helped scientists learn more about the molecular mechanisms of water-splitting hydrogen production. With continued progress, futuristic fantasy of sunlight-powered cars may be resuscitated.

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see King and Pendlebury.

Sheep Trip

“From another direction he felt the sensation of being a sheep startled by a flying saucer, but it was virtually indistinguishable from the feeling of being a sheep startled by anything else it ever encountered, for they were creatures who learned very little on their journey through life, and would be startled to see the sun rising in the morning, and astonished by all the green stuff in the fields.”

—Douglas Adams

And now they glow in the dark. No, really. Okay, only sort of:

Scientists in Uruguay have genetically modified sheep to glow in the dark. The fluorescent sheep are a world first, the scientists report.

GlowSheep-greenThe flock of nine lambs was born last October at a farm belonging to the Animal Reproduction Institute of Uruguay, an nonprofit organization affiliated with the Pasteur Institute’s genetically modified animals unit. The laboratory incorporated a green fluorescence protein into the genes of the sheep, which will glow when exposed to certain ultraviolet light, making the the ruminants easily identifiable as genetically modified.

Other than glowing green in UV light, the sheep look and behave normally. Scientists modified the sheep’s genes with the fluorescent protein of the Aequarea jellyfish.

“We did not use a protein of medical interest or to help with a particular medicine because we wanted to fine-tune the technique. We used the green protein because the color is easily identifiable in the sheep’s tissues,” said Alejo Menchaca, the head of the research team.

And there you have it.

(We might also note that it makes a decent pitch to the younger generation: Study hard, and you, too, can make random animals glow in the dark. I mean, come on, with that kind of career path? Boundless potential.)

Cosmic Coolness

ISS TryptichWe would be remiss if we failed to mention Nathan Bergey’s incredible visualization of location data harvested from the International Space Station photographs of Earth. Analyzing the data from 1.13 million images, Bergey plotted a map that is as entrancing as it is enlightening.

It really is that cool. Science is only boring if one cares none about the answers.

Or the questions. There are no answers. The adventure is its own reward.

Okay, so science is occasionally boring. But as Bergey’s plot and, say, Chris Hadfield’s photographs remind, it all pays off in the end.

Skip the aphorisms, proverbs, and witless witticisms. Just follow the science.

The Upside of Education

Mini Cooper Countryman backflipA note for the kids: Study hard, and you, too, might make history someday. After all, backflipping a car is the sort of thing that takes all sorts of knowledge, namely in physics and engineering.

MINI and its stunt driver Guerlain Chicherit have done the impossible: executing the perfect “unassisted” backflip.

Using a heavily modified MINI Cooper Countryman, Chicherit, a French rally driver and avid skier, completed the stunt recently at a resort in Tignes, France.

The stunt qualifies for the unassisted certification because the ramp used by Chicherit was static ….

…. For his take-off, Chicherit used a static ramp similar to those used by skiers. With the ideal ramp breakover angle in place, the 34-year-old needed only two other things to record a successful attempt: an extremely light touch with the accelerator and a MINI with a suitably buoyant suspension setup.

Guerlain Chicheret backflipAssisted backflips? Those have been done before.

But this? Well, sure, it’s just a publicity stunt, but one must admit it’s pretty cool.