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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At an Intersection of Art and Science

Detail of image showing 3D model by Klaus Leitl, ca. 2014.

Perhaps it is simply best to say click the link, or even the picture above.

Suffice to say, what you are looking at is not a real photograph of a real organism, but, rather, a real photograph of a real model created using 3D printing technology.

It is easy enough to forget that the intersection of science and art is hardly rare. While the art of science might seem somewhat elusive, the science of art is everywhere. The work of Klaus Leitl just happens to be a spectacular intersection.


Alec. “Austrian artist creates life-like insect models using a Form1+ 3D printer”. 15 October 2014.

Photosynthesize This

via JPL
So there is this joke we have, about how being the one government agency that routinely does its job … never mind. At any rate, NASA would have you know:

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.

Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as a fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.

Research in 2013, led by Joanna Joiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out from existing data from satellites that were designed and built for other purposes. The new research, led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universität Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring—and maybe even predicting—regional crop yields.”

Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most active in photosynthesis. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”

You are allowed to be impressed. It really is cool, after all.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt”. March 31, 2014.

(Tip o’the hat to S.L.)


Animal armory

• The legend of rocket cats.

• How does the internet get from here to there?

• Two words to brighten your day: beekeeping donkey.

• It turns out your teeth can teach scientists about how to make glass stronger by cracking it.

• Study well, and one day you, too, can unlock the secrets of the Universe.

• Space is really, really big, right? Contemplate our solar system with interactive models from BBC Future and Josh Worth.

• The name of your next band? Try earthquake lights.

• It’s not all in the wrist; the “flat loop” rope trick is also in the thumb and forefinger.

Chris Hadfield Still Rocks

A brief note aside: Yes, we know. Every once in a while it behooves us to check the instructions. It really is that easy to embed a tweet. This Unfortunately Requisite Duh has been brought to you by Diving Under Many Bogus Assumptions. Take the note.

More importantly, there is a reason why @Cmdr_Hadfield remains awesome.

Nothing to See Here, Just NASA Doing What it Does

Yes, that NASA:

NASA logoNASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) has made history using a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over the 239,000 miles between the moon and Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits per second (Mbps).

LLCD is NASA’s first system for two-way communication using a laser instead of radio waves. It also has demonstrated an error-free data upload rate of 20 Mbps transmitted from the primary ground station in New Mexico to the spacecraft currently orbiting the moon.

“LLCD is the first step on our roadmap toward building the next generation of space communication capability,” said Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation (SCaN) in Washington. “We are encouraged by the results of the demonstration to this point, and we are confident we are on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon.”

Since NASA first ventured into space, it has relied on radio frequency (RF) communication. However, RF is reaching its limit as demand for more data capacity continues to increase. The development and deployment of laser communications will enable NASA to extend communication capabilities such as increased image resolution and 3-D video transmission from deep space.

“The goal of LLCD is to validate and build confidence in this technology so that future missions will consider using it,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “This unique ability developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory has incredible application possibilities.”

LLCD is a short-duration experiment and the precursor to NASA’s long-duration demonstration, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). LCRD is a part of the agency’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which is working to develop crosscutting technology capable of operating in the rigors of space. It is scheduled to launch in 2017.

Detail of Jeff Berkes via APoDHeh. And here you thought the cool part of LADEE was the launch.

Reminder: When juxtaposing the insanely cool stuff NASA pulls off as a matter of routine in the course of being a public agency that regularly does its job just fine against the proposition of showing up to work in the morning and not making a special effort to completely botch the job, the notion arises that perhaps we should put the agency eggheads on the task of building a Congress that actually functions properly.

I mean, you know ….

They will get to that, I’m certain, right after they achieve faster-than-light travel while accidentally proving that God is a Buddhist hedgehog running a pâtisserie in Ballard.

In exchange for which … well, right. Congress will just … er … cut their budget.

Because, you know.

IBM’s Atomic Punks

We will let Gareth Halfacree explain this coolness beyond cool:

IBM’s research arm has been playing with atoms in order to create what is officially the world’s smallest stop-motion animation feature.

A Boy and His AtomDubbed ‘A Boy and His Atom,’ the animation combines 242 frames of action into a short advert for IBM’s expertise in all things tiny – and does so by having a stick figure befriend a single atom. Oh, and the atom is real: in fact, everything in the animation is constructed from visible atoms, magnified 100 million times using a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to make the normally invisible building-blocks of matter visible.

Technically, the blobs that form the pixels of the animation aren’t single atoms but molecules of carbon monoxide – a single carbon atom joined to a single oxygen atom. Using the STM and an ultra-sharp needle hovering just one nanometre from the surface of a copper plate, the team is able to attract the molecules and drag them to specific locations – using the unique sound they make to figure out how far the atoms have been moved.

It sounds like a mantra: Study hard, and you, too, can make movies out of atoms when you grow up. But it’s not just about the exponential coolness:

IBM is hoping that the technology used to create the animation will pave the way forward for novel computer circuits that can bypass the rapidly-approaching physical limits that threaten to put an end to Moore’s Law – the observation, made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, that the number of transistors in a circuit, and therefore its relative performance, doubles roughly every eighteen months. The team behind the animation has already created the world’s smallest magnetic bit, constructed from just 12 atoms – compared to the million atoms a traditional bit takes up on a mechanical hard drive.

Yeah, saving the world by being cool, one atom at a time.

Okay, so the world will do fine without 128 zeptobyte data storage in our wristwatches, but still ….

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.

Twit le Monde

TweetpingTwitter is a curious beast, a nest of contradictions. To the one it is annoying and inane. To the other, it is fascinating and transformative. And, really, it depends on who you pay attention to. That is to say, sure my favorite novelist likes to tell the world what and when he’s drinking, or what he thinks the dog thinks, or the latest idea for a band name. But I like his sense of humor, so it’s hardly as annoying as a high school friend who constantly shares coupons and sale prices from various online and brick-and-mortar retailers via Facebook; my own Facebook page, incidentally, is littered with bad jokes about news, and updates on what beer I’m drinking. To the other, you can get important news updates, or find out what rock Curiosity is drilling, or even how far away the Voyager probes are. And, of course, there are the constant updates of who has posted what on the internet. (NovSci does not currently have a Facebook page or Twitter feed, but we are considering the merits.)

Enter Tweetping, which might actually be more interesting than Twitter itself. The site allows you to watch Twitter in realtime, and is strangely hypnotic.

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