Monday, March 30, 2009

Life on Mars Not Just a TV Show

With data this year from HIRISE and Phoenix, Mars is on the mind of planetary scientists. Thursday morning at the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference, one had to choose from three different tracks on Mars: "Dunes, Dust and Wind," "Volcanism," and "Upcoming and Future Missions." Most interesting is what is said between the lines. Opening the latter set of talks, Clive Neal talked about primordial life and the possibility of contemporary life. Attitides toward life on Mars have changed, and for the better.

Though we have all grown up with Sci Fi stories about Martians, science itself has been skeptical. When signs of fossil life were found on a Martian meteorite in the 1990's, scientists were quick to come up with alternate explanations. The possible bacteria were smaller than Earthly life forms, the detractors said. Since then we have found that Earthly bacteria come in smaller sizes, barely the length of molecules. One by one the objections to Martian life have fallen away.

NEXT: Attitudes on something else have changed too.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Secrets of Mercury's Core

Today at the 40th Lunar & Planetary Science Conference in the Woodlands, Texas: We saw new data from the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. No spacecraft has flown by the innermost planet since Mariner 10 in 1974. Surprisingly Mariner discovered that tiny Mercury has a strong magnetic field. On its way to orbit the planet, MESSENGER has already made two flybys that have vastly increased our knowledge of the planet.

Analyzing the data, scientists have found that Mercury's field is concentrated in the core, with virtually no crustal magnetic field. This is not surprinsing, since the surface so far appears devoid of magnetic minerals. How tiny Mercury maintains a magnetic field has been a mystery for 38 years. If Mercury's core had formed around a tiny singularity, the planet's centre would be a hot cavity of charged plasma. This would generate heat that would reach the surface as vulcanism. If the Black Hole rotated, spinning plasma would create a magnetic field concentrated at the core. Mercury's centre would be an excellent place to find a Black Hole.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Space 101

This week at Johnson Space Center was a fascinating course called SPACE 101. We learn about fascinating subjects like Beta-angle cutouts. At the day's conclusion we were introduced the planning documents for Space Station construction. Working here is an enormous privilege; a human return to the Moon is now a matter of "when" not if.

At The Woodlands, Texas (North of Houston) this week is the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science conference. Tuesday morning we saw results from India's Chandrayaan mission to the Moon. Despite difficulties with heating, all the mission's experiments have returned data. Chinese scientists also appeared with data from the Chang'e spacecraft, despite some problems with visas. This afternoon Japanese scientists showed some fascinating HD video from Kaguya, like this Moon flyby. For more recent videos, see the JAXASELENE Youtube channel.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

STS-119 Proves Goddard Right

74 years ago this week Dr. Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket from Aunt Effie's cabbage patch. It created such a reaction that the fire authorities asked that he cease and desist. After great difficulty with reviewers, Goddard published a paper innocuously titled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." This caused the New York Times to ridicule his ideas, saying that he didn't know the physics ladled out daily in schools. According to the Times, a rocket could not work in the vacuum of Space without something to push against. This week STS-119 finally lifted off, proving once more that Goddard was right.

With a crew in orbit, this has been an exciting week at Johnson Space Center. Monday night was a special screening of the new movie MOON. Today at lunch one could stop by Mission Control to watch EVA 1. Also this afternoon at Building 30 was a talk by none other than Flight Director Gene "Failure Is Not an Option" Kranz. He talked about his experiences from before Mercury to Apollo 13. He was very encouraging to us young people, and encouraged in turn by all the young faces working at JSC. Later this afternoon at the Lunar & Planetary Institute, Peter Smith gave a talk about the Phoenix mission to Mars. Among the people to talk with afterward was astronaut Tom Jones. This is an incredibly exciting place to work.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Big Bang Needs Your Help

The cover of this month's ASTRONOMY magazine asks: Is the Big Bang In Trouble? This follows last year's article from NEW SCIENTIST, Why the Big Bang is Facing Its Toughest Test. A growing body of evidence has made astronomers doubt today's model of cosmology. This has led to ad hoc fixes like "inflation" and "dark energy." The need for such speculative forces shows that the standard model desperately needs help.

Once upon a time most astronomers believed that the universe was eternal and unchanging, a steady state. Einstein in 1917 thought the universe was static, and added a repulsive "cosmological constant" to keep it from collapsing under its own gravity. The idea that the everything expanded from a tiny point was derided as a "Big Bang." After years of evidence--redshift of galaxies and the 2.7 K microwave background--most scientists agreed that the universe expanded from a hotter, denser state.

One key bit of evidence was the redshift of galaxies, increasing linearly with distance. While the evidence was debated, some astronomers proposed a "tired-light" hypothesis. According to this idea, the universe is static but light is slowing at such a high rate that it makes the galaxies appear to recede. This is quite different from the modern c change. Expansion of the universe is predicted by R = ct. Gravity causes this expansion to slow, predicting that c slows according to GM=tc^3. This tiny change is not enough to cause redshifts, but enough to make redshifts appear to accelerate.

The cosmic microwave background is key evidence for a Big Bang, but it also shows that Big Bang theory is incomplete. When one looks at the CMB (above), large areas of the sky have reached thermal equilibrium. This indicates that those areas could communicate faster than today's speed of light. Just as retrograde motion of planets shows that they orbit something other than Earth, uniformity in the CMB indicates that the speed of light was once much higher.

To explain CMB uniformity and other discrepancies, physicists proposed that the universe "inflated" at warp speed, many times faster than light. Inflation would violate both the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy) and Relativity's stipulation that nothing travels faster than light. This paradigm relies upon a repulsive "inflaton" causing accelerated expansion. Though "inflation" has been subject of 30 years study, no one has a clue how nature could move faster than light.

Evidence from Type IA supernovae indicated that redshifts accelerate related to c, as can be predicted from GM=tc^3. Since physicists assume that c is constant, they concluded that the universe is accelerating. This would also violate the First Law of Thermodynamics, so physicists inferred another repulsive "dark energy" causing acceleration. Like inflation, nothing resembling DE has ever been observed in the laboratory. With a fixed speed of light, the standard Big Bang needs both "inflation" and "dark energy" to explain observations.

Problems with the Big Bang have led some to doubt it entirely. ASTRONOMY features an article by physicist Paul Steinhardt: "Why the Universe Had No Beginning." Steinhardt was once a follower of inflation, but became tired of the utter lack of evidence. His article deals with cyclic universes, and idea that does away with the need for inflation.

The magazine points out many problems with cosmology's standard model. They point out the anisotropies in the CMB, which ought to spell doom for inflation. The inflationary paradigm predicts that the universe is flat, like the Earth. Temperature fluctuations are the same at all wavelengths. In fact fluctuations are nearly zero for angles beyond 60 degrees, exactly as predicted for a universe of scale R = ct. This evidence, which should doom inflation, has been blithely ignored.

Eventually the old cosmology, with its ad hoc fixes of inflation and :"dark energy," will collapse under the weight of its epicycles. We can end with the common-sense view of columnist Bog Berman. His comments on physics may apply to cosmology, a field that has been invaded by physicists and their methods:

"Most of us already are bored with today's mind-numbing list of particles. The Large Hadron Collider will surely discover many more bits of evanescent flotsam. To what end? Bosons, meson, pions, kaons, anti-quarks, J-particles--how much of this can we handle? Desperate theorists keep hoping for the Higgs Boson and other ultimate answers. A Grand Unified Theory of Everything. Yeah, right. Any day now."

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dark Heart of Dwarf Galaxies

We were hoping to watch STS-119 launch Thursday. This writer was in JSC Building 2, near the Press Room, when the launch was scribbed at 1:37 PM CST. Hopefully the problem can be fixed by Sunday. If the delay lasts until Monday or Tuesday, they will shorten the mission by 1-2 EVA's. A longer delay will mean postponing the mission until after the Soyuz flight due March 26. This may impact the Hubble servicing mission STS-125 scheduled for May 12. However, a delay for that mission decreases the risk of debris from the February 10 satellite collision. In turn a delay in STS-125 will affect pad availability for the Ares 1-X test. It has been decided to keep both Pads 39A and 39B available for a possible shuttle rescue mission.

In the meantime, Hubble has found more evidence that small dwarf galaxies are held together by some sort of "dark" mass. By looking at the Perseus cluster 250 million light-years away, Hubble found dwarf galaxies in places where the cluster's gravity could tear them apart. Giant clusters like Perseus are probably anchored by enormous hidden Black Holes. The dwarf galaxies may also contain Black Holes. Calling them "dark matter" would be a misnomer since they were never matter at all. The Black Holes are probably primordial, formed from quantum fluctuations shortly after the Big Bang. Someday astronmers may find that "dark" mass is made of billions of Black Holes.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Send in the Clowns

Congratulations Kea! After waiting long months for a visa, she has finally reached her new post in Oxford. She has displayed boundless patience and support. Her scientific work will add greatly to the United Kingdom.

Clowns and circus performers are the latest victims of British bureacracy. In November the Home Office introduced a points system to control immigration. Like Kea, it is easy for an honest performer to get a high score. Because of bad software and poorly trained staff, visas are often denied or delayed. This interferes with the itinerary of travelling performers, often stranding them outside the UK.

Many scientist, including this one, have missed appointments because of Britain's insane Home Office. Terrorists are not so delayed--perhaps Britain should keep them out and let honest people in. As has been stated here before, Britain's problems come not from without but from within. Circus performers are not a terrorist threat to Britain. Better for the country to let in as many clowns in as possible. They are infinitely better than the clowns in Downing Street.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Chris Pine, Zack Pinto, and J. J.

At a film industry event over the weekend the surprise guest was none other than J. J. ABRAMS. He often visits ILM for effects, and joined his STAR TREK actors to plug the movie. In the trailer to be released Friday along with WATCHMEN, we learn that Kirk's father was briefly in command of a starship.

I asked Chris Pine (Kirk) if he had any favourite episodes of Classic Trek. He was fond of "The Enemy Within" and "Shore Leave." Zachary Pinto (Spock) did not need to see any old episodes, because he had Leonard Nimoy on set advising him. The original STAR TREK has lasted so long because Roddenberry sought the technical advice of NASA and the aerospace industry. In turn many in space today were inspired by the show. We can hope that the movie is good.


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