Tag Archives: US & World

6 Surprising Facts About World’s Most Powerful Radio Telescope

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The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is the world’s most powerful observatory for studying the universe at the long-wavelength millimeter and submillimeter range of light. It’s designed to spot some of the most distant, ancient galaxies ever seen, and to probe the areas around young stars for planets in the process of forming.

The opening of the $1.3 billiontelescope array is being celebrated in an inauguration ceremony on Wednesday (March 13) at its observation site in Chile’s Atacama desert. Here are six things you should know about the ambitious, not to mention immense, astronomy project.

1. It Is Ginormous

ALMA combines the forces of 66 radio antennas, most almost 40 feet (12 meters) in diameter, to create images comparable to those that could be obtained with a single 46,000-foot-wide (14,000 meters) dish.

The observatory is accurate enough to discern a golf ball 9 miles (15 kilometers) away.

2. It Took a Decade to Build

The telescope is a collaboration of four continents, being sponsored by countries in North America, Europe and East Asia, with the cooperation of Chile. Planning and constructing the observatory took thousands of scientists and engineers from around the world more than 10 years.

3. ALMA Is One High Eye on the Sky

The observatory is among the highest instruments on Earth, at an altitude of 16,570 feet (5,050 meters) above sea level. Its perch high atop the Chajnantor plateau puts it above much of the Earth’s atmosphere, which blurs and distorts light.

4. It’s in the Driest Place on Earth

ALMA’s location in Chile’s Atacama desert, the driest place in the world, means almost every night is clear of clouds and free of light-distorting moisture. Some weather stations in the desert have never received rain, and scientists think the Atacama got no significant rainfall between 1570 and 1971.

5. ALMA Dishes Are Nearly Perfect

The surfaces of its dozens of radio dishes are almost perfect, with none deviating from an exact parabola by more than 20 micrometers (20 millionths of a meter, or about 0.00078 inches). This prevents any incoming radio waves from being lost, so that the resulting picture captures as much distant cosmic light as possible. The radio dishes, which weigh about 100 tons each, are made of ultra-stable CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic) for the reflector base, with reflecting panels of rhodium-coated nickel.

6. This Is One Cool Telescope — Literally

The electronic detector called the “front end” that amplifies and converts the radio signals collected at each ALMA antenna must be kept at a chilling 4 Kelvin ( minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 269 degrees Celsius), to prevent introducing noise to the signal.

Ultimately, the ground-breaking observatory promises to reveal many new secrets of the cosmos — not to mention some really pretty pictures.

Image courtesy of ESO/B. Tafreshi

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/03/11/facts-chile-radio-telescope/

Latest Mars Photo Shows Curiosity’s Tracks From Space

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NASA’s newest Mars rover Curiosity is taking its first tentative drives across the Martian surface and leaving tracks that have been spotted all the way from space in a spectacular photo snapped by an orbiting spacecraft.

The newview of Curiosity’s tracks from space was captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released today. It shows the rover as a bright, boxy vehicle at the end of two tracks that create a single zig-zag pattern in the Martian surface.

Another photo from the MRO spacecraft spotted the car-size Curiosity rover’s parachute and protective backshell, which were jettisoned by the rover during its Aug. 5 landing. A previous photo by MRO taken on Curiosity’s actual landing day captured an image of theMars rover hanging from its parachute.

Scientists used the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on the MRO spacecraft to take the new photos, which have created a buzz among the Curiosity rover’s science team.

“The HiRISE camera on MRO continues to take amazing photographs of Mars, and of us on Mars,” said Mike Watkins, Curiosity mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a briefing today.

The photo of Curiosity also includes the rover’s landing spot and shows the scorch marks left behind by the rockets on the sky crane that lowered the rover to the Martian surface.

“It’s a great image of where we stand relative to the touchdown point now,” Watkins said.

This isn’t the first time the MRO spacecraft has captured views of rovers on Mars. The orbiter repeatedly observed NASA’s smaller Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity as they explored the Martian surface following their own landings in January 2004. The Spirit rover’s mission was declared over last year, but Opportunity continues to rover across the Martian plains of Meridiani Planum.

The Mars rover Curiosity took its first drive on Mars on Aug. 22 and completed its longest drive, a 100-foot trek, on Sept. 4. So far, the rover has driven a total of 358 feet on Mars, but is actually just 69 feet away from its landing site due to the turns the rover has performed along the way.

Mission scientists have also tested the rover’s mast-mounted cameras and laser, which is used to study the composition of Martian rocks, and are preparing a weeklong set of tests to calibrate Curiosity’s instrument-tipped robotic arm.

NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity rover is designed to spend the next two years exploring the vast Gale Crater on Mars to determine if the area could have once supported microbial life. Mission scientists also plan to send the rover up Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-high mountain rising up from the center of the crater.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/06/nasa-photo-curiosity-tracks/

Astronauts Will Have Thanksgiving Feast in Space

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Turkey and all the trimmings are a staple for Americans on Thanksgiving, and that doesn’t have to change for Americans in space.

Astronaut food has come a long way from the early days of human spaceflight, and crewmembers on the International Space Station these days can enjoy many Turkey Day traditions, such as cornbread stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, cherry blueberry cobbler, and, of course, turkey itself.

This year, NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, commander of the space station’s Expedition 34 mission, will celebrate with his Russian crewmates Evgeny Tarelkin and Oleg Novitskiy.

“Thanksgiving is not a holiday that the Russians celebrate, but we have found that on orbit the crewmembers celebrate each others’ holidays,” said Vickie Kloeris, manager of the Space Food Systems Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “They will take part in Kevin Ford’s celebration of Thanksgiving, just as American crewmembers will take part in some of the Russian holidays.”

The space station’s Thanksgiving delicacies will come in somewhat different forms than what may be on most holiday tables, though. Space food falls into two categories: freeze-dried (just add water) or thermostabilized (comes in a pouch). And all food sent to the space station has to meet certain microbiological requirements and have a sufficient shelf life.

For example, the cornbread dressing on offer is a replacement for the traditional bread-based stuffing that many people are used to. However, break makes too many crumbs that float around in all directions in weightlessness and are difficult to clean up.

Still, the current Thanksgiving menu is a huge improvement over what earlier space travelers had available.

“If you want to go all the way back to Mercury and Gemini, there were no holiday meals back then,” Kloeris told SPACE.com. “All you had was cube foods and tube foods. We’ve definitely expanded greatly the amount of traditional items that we have made available for holiday times, and that only makes sense because when we started having crewmembers stay on space station long term, we knew every year we’d be hitting Thanksgiving and Christmas with somebody.”

In addition to the standard holiday menu items, each astronaut gets a certain number of “bonus containers” to pack whatever particular foods they’d like, provided they meet the basic requirements. Most pack off-the-shelf products like cookies and other treats.

“We have crewmembers who take icing in tubs and cookies, and they’ll ice them at Christmas time,” Kloeris said. “We’ve even had crewmembers take food coloring so they could color the icing.”

The importance of having traditional holiday foods varies from crewmember to crewmember, she said. “That’s always evident when they go to plan their bonus containers. You immediately know who has the strongest ties to holiday food because they’ll be the first ones to bring up the fact that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be up there at Christmas.'”

Each of the holiday foods that are provided by NASA have made it through a thorough vetting process.

It starts with a basic recipe for, say, cherry blueberry cobbler. Then the NASA food scientists modify the recipe so that it can be packed in pouches, which is similar to canning. After that, they test its texture, color, and taste.

“When it goes through the thermostabilizing process, the chemistry of the food changes quite a bit,” Kloeris said. “Often what happens is we’ll take a formulation and we’ll try it afterwards, and it’s like, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.'”

The scientists often have to go through many iterations of a recipe, including scaling it up so it still tastes good if made in large batches, before a food is ready for orbit. And some recipes just never quite make it.

“We tried for a while to come up with thermostabilized cheesecake, and we just flat gave up on it,” Kloeris said. “The color changes we got were just too severe. Not everything works.”

But other foods that are stereotypically associated with space are actually rarely eaten there.

“The freeze-dried ice cream actually only flew once” on an Apollo mission, when a crewmember requested it, Kloeris said. “It’s more like hard cotton candy. Certainly if [astronauts] wanted to request that they could, but that’s not something that adults want. Kids like it; they sell it at the gift shop.”

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/11/21/astronauts-thanksgiving-space/

Hubble Telescope Image Reveals a Cross Section of the Cosmos

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An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history.
Image: NASA, ESA

A new photo from NASA’s Hubble space telescope captures a variety of celestial objects both near and far, providing a glimpse of many different stages of cosmic history all at once.

The Hubble image, released April 17, is a 14-hour exposure that shows objects about 1 billion times fainter than the naked eye can make out, researchers said. Most of the galaxies visible in the photo lie less than 5 billion light-years away, but some objects are much more distant.

For example, the photo shows a quasar located 9 billion light-years from Earth, meaning it has taken about two-thirds of the universe’s history for the object’s light to reach Hubble. (The Big Bang that created the universe occurred 13.8 billion years ago.)

The most luminous objects in the universe, quasars are incredibly bright galactic cores powered by supermassive black holes that contain millions of times more mass than the sun.

The light from the distant quasar in the Hubble photo is being bent and amplified by a galaxy cluster that lies closer to Earth along the line of sight from this planet — a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. This cluster, known as CLASS B1608+656, is visible as a small loop near the center of the image.

CLASS B1608+656 isn’t the only lensing object in the new photo, which combines observations in visible and infrared light.

Two galaxies — dubbed Fred and Ginger, but more formally known as ACS J160919+6532 and ACS J160910+6532, respectively — are also warping spacetime enough to distort the light emitted by objects behind them, researchers said.

Both Fred and Ginger appear close to CLASS B1608+656 in the Hubble photo. But only Fred is actually close to the cluster, researchers said; Ginger is much nearer to Earth.

The Hubble image is new to the general public but not to scientists, who have studied it extensively over the years. It was spotted by Adam Kill during the 2012 Hubble’s Hidden Treasures competition, which invited contestants to identify the most interesting and beautiful Hubble photos that a wide audience has yet to see.

The iconic Hubble Space Telescope, a joint effort involving NASA and the European Space Agency, launched in April 1990. Astronauts repaired and upgraded the orbiting instrument five times over the years using the now-grounded space shuttle, sharpening Hubble’s vision considerably.

Officials have said they plan to operate Hubble through at least 2020. That would allow some scientific overlap with the telescope’s successor, NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently scheduled to launch in 2018.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/04/22/hubble-telescope-universe/

Chinese Astronauts Beam Science Lesson From Space

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There’s a lot to learn from living in space, but only so many get to have the experience firsthand. In order to share what they’ve seen with curious students, the three Chinese astronauts currently in orbit have delivered a lesson from space to students and countrymen on Earth.

The Shenzhou 10 astronauts (or “taikonauts”) beamed down China’s first live space science lesson video to 330 elementary and middle school children in Beijing from their position onboard the nation’s Tiangong 1 space module. More than 60 million students and teachers also watched the televised broadcast from around China, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Nie Haisheng and Wang Yaping — the second Chinese woman to fly to space — demonstrated the high points of weightlessness during the lecture while Zhang Xiaoguang photographed the lesson, which was broadcast live on China’s state-run CCTV news channel.

“In a weightless environment, we are very skillful marshal artists,” Wang said after Nie floated around the lab in various positions.

Wang showed the students how water behaves in space, creating a bubble of liquid to demonstrate the properties of surface tension while in microgravity.

“Okay everybody, this is where magic happens,” Wang said as she held up a bubble of water trapped within a metal ring.

Wang engaged the students by asking questions throughout the nearly hourlong lecture. Students discussed how they weigh themselves on Earth before the taikonaut demonstrated how the space flyers weigh objects in microgravity.

The astronauts also took questions from their student audience.

“Do you enjoy any view that’s different from what you can see on the Earth?” one student asked Wang. “Do the stars twinkle, and do you see the UFOs?”

“From the window, we can see the beautiful Earth and the sun, the moon and the stars, but we haven’t seen the UFO,” Wang said. “As we are now in outer space without the atmosphere, we can see the stars shining brightly, but they do not twinkle.”
China’s Shenzhou 10 crew launched into orbit on June 11 for a 15-day stint in space. Tiangong 1 is expected to remain in service for another three months, after which it will be deorbited or destroyed, experts have said.

This trip marks China’s fifth manned spaceflight. China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, launched into orbit in 2003, making China the third nation to launch astronauts into space using its own vehicles after Russia and the United States.

The Tiangong 1 space lab has been orbiting Earth since September 2011 and is considered China’s first step on the way toward building a large space laboratory by about 2020.

Mashable composite, images via iStockphoto, inhauscreative and courtesy of Flickr, nist6ss

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/06/21/lesson-from-space/

Space Shuttle Endeavour’s LA Landing Delayed to Friday

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Space shuttle Endeavour’s highly anticipated arrival in Los Angeles has been deferred by a day.

The retired spacecraft, which will be ferried on top of NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a modified Boeing 747 jet, was originally targeted to land at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Sept. 20. Destined for display at the California Science Center (CSC), Endeavour, riding piggyback atop the SCA, is now scheduled to touch down on Friday at about 11 a.m. PDT (2 p.m. EDT; 1800 GMT).

“The decision to reschedule the flight was made Monday in coordination with the science center to ensure a safe flight for Endeavour and the SCA,” NASA announced in a statement.

The one-day delay stems from NASA having to postpone Endeavour’s departure from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a result of a low pressure weather front and its associated thunderstorms posing a threat to the ferry flight during its first leg to Houston. The carrier aircraft had been set to takeoff from Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility on Monday morning, but was delayed twice, first to Tuesday and then Wednesday.

“Weather predictions are favorable on Wednesday for the flight path between Houston and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center,” the space agency said.

Endeavour’s last liftoff from Florida and the final ferry flight of the shuttle era is now targeted to begin on Wednesday (Sept. 19) at sunrise, at about 7:15 a.m. EDT (1115 GMT).

[Gallery: Shuttle Endeavour Rolled Out Atop Aircraft]

Delaying the shuttle’s Los Angeles arrival to Friday offered NASA the leeway to resume its plans to conduct several low flyovers and stopovers at many of its facilities spread across the southern and western regions of the country.

After taking off from Kennedy on the same runway where Endeavour made its 25th and final return from space in June 2011, the shuttle and SCA duo will perform a flyover of Florida’s Space Coast, including Kennedy, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base.

The aircraft and spacecraft will then fly west and conduct low level passes of the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where NASA tested the orbiters’ engines and built space shuttle external tanks, respectively. As the ferry flight arrives over the Gulf Coast area, the SCA will fly low passes over the Houston area before touching down at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The Texas Gulf Coast region flyover is scheduled to occur between about 9 – 10:30 a.m. CDT (10 – 11:30 a.m. EDT, or 1400-1530 GMT). Landing at Ellington is scheduled for approximately 10:45 a.m. (11:45 a.m. EDT; 1545 GMT). Endeavour and the SCA will spend the night in Houston.

At sunrise on Sept. 20, the aircraft and shuttle will depart Ellington, make a refueling stop at Biggs Army Airfield in El Paso, Texas, and conduct low-level flyovers of White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, N.M., and the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., before landing around mid-day at Dryden.

On the morning of Sept. 21, the SCA and Endeavour will take off one last time from Dryden and perform a low-level flyover of Northern California, passing near NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field and various landmarks in multiple cities, including Sacramento and San Francisco. The aircraft will also fly over many Los Angeles landmarks before arriving at LAX.

Once on the ground and following a ceremony welcoming Endeavour to Los Angeles, the shuttle will be removed from the SCA and spend a few weeks at a United Airlines hangar undergoing preparations for transport and display. Endeavour will then travel through the streets of Inglewood and Los Angeles on a two-day, 12-mile (19-kilometer) road trip from the airport to the science center, arriving on the evening of Oct. 13.

Beginning Oct. 30, the shuttle will debut on display in the science center’s Samuel Oschin Space Shuttle Endeavour Display Pavilion, beginning its new educational mission to commemorate past achievements in space and inspire the next generations of explorers.

Go to shuttles.collectspace.com for continuing coverage of the delivery and display of NASA’s retired space shuttles.

Image courtesy offotopedia.com

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/19/shuttle-endeavour-los-angeles/

How Obama Won the Internet — in an Hour

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Mashable OP-ED: This post reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Mashable as a publication.

In the cold calculus of presidential politics, here’s how things are supposed to work. You spend hours of travel time going from campaign rally to campaign rally, where if you’re lucky and your staff has found a big enough venue, a few thousand people will watch you give the same old stump speech. You hope it’ll get picked up in the news, even though the last thing you’ll be doing is breaking news (unless it’s for an unplanned gaffe).

If you answer questions, it’s in a controlled Town Hall format, not a cacophonous free-for-all. You trumpet your appearances in advance for maximum exposure. And you certainly don’t try for anything major during your opponents’ convention.

President Obama broke all those rules Wednesday afternoon, when he became the first candidate of either party to do an AMA (“ask me anything”) on Reddit. The appearance was a complete surprise, even for veteran Redditors (who immediately demanded Obama post a picture to prove it was him; he complied).

The president also broke news, floating the idea of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (which gave rise to Super PACs) for the first time.

The Value of a Connected Audience

Though the AMA was unannounced, word quickly spread on Twitter, and Reddit’s servers were overwhelmed. The site said more than 200,000 people were trying to view Obama’s Q&A at any one time. More than 1.8 million people subscribed to the thread.

Ask any politician if they would like to speak directly to 1.8 million people for an hour — or even 200,000 — and they’ll probably start weeping with joy at the thought. For comparison, Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in 2008 — held in the open air at Mile-high stadium in Denver — had a capacity crowd of 84,000.

So let’s recap. Obama sat at a laptop for one hour, typed out answers to all of ten questions (leaving hundreds unanswered), ending with a quick in-joke referencing a popular meme (the “not bad” Obama rage face). In return he won the attention and interest of nearly 2 million people on Reddit, and many more without. (On the Internet, Reddit has a coolness factor that goes far beyond its borders.)

Creating New Rules

Regardless of your affiliation, that kind of return on investment has to change the political calculation. Don’t be surprised, in 2016, if candidates from both parties spend a lot of time doing online AMAs — official ones on Reddit, and otherwise.

Is that a good thing? There are reasons to think not. The AMA format does allow candidates to cherry-pick which questions they’re going to respond to. It’s “ask me anything,” not “I’ll answer everything.”

Then again, it would be hard for politicians to ignore questions that get a lot of upvotes, making the format superior to, say, a Twitter Town Hall. And giving the candidate time to type out answers is something of a win-win: the candidates gets to double-check their answer for gaffes (though Obama did accidentally refer to “a asteroid” in response to a NASA question), while the questioner gets a more measured, longer response.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the AMA may be the worst form of political Q&A — except for all the others that have been tried.

BONUS: Obama Reddit Photo Gets Meme Treatment

Astronaut Ron Garan Joins Social Good Summit

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The speakers roster for Social Good Summit — a three-day conference exploring how digital technology is impacting the world for good — is filling up fast. The Social Good Summit partners are hard at work planning sessions that address all of the world’s greatest challenges, and feature some of the brightest minds in digital and social good.

Register for Social Good Summit 2011 - Presented by Mashable, 92Y and UN Foundation - September 19 - 22, 2011 in New York, NY  on Eventbrite

We’re pleased to have the following speakers join the dynamic agenda:

Ron Garan: Astronaut Ron Garan has traveled 71,075,867 miles in 2,842 orbits around the Earth. Garan is also passionate about openness, collaboration and transparency, especially in government. He was involved in NASA’s Open Innovation Initiative, and he’s been involved with many global mass collaboration and citizen science programs. Garan’s entrepreneurial spirit shines through numerous projects like Unity Node, which seeks to develop a universal, open source, collaborative platform to enable humanitarian organizations around the world to work together toward common goals.

Jack Andraka: Jack Andraka is not your average teenager. When he was 15 years old, he created a paper sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer in five minutes, costing as little as three cents. He’s given several amazing TED Talks on his views on the medical industry, and he’s been featured on 60 Minutes, NPR Marketplace and the BBC. Andraka also speaks about open access, STEM education and universal Internet availability.

Steve Howard: Steve Howard is IKEA’s chief sustainability officer and a member of its Executive Management Committee. He is responsible for the company’s sustainability strategy, a trend that he believes will shape society’s landscape greatly over the next century. Howard focuses on making sustainability attractive and affordable for everyone.

These speakers join a list of other great speakers who are already confirmed. We’ll be announcing more speaker updates for Social Good Summit each week on Mashable, so stay tuned!

Purchase Your Tickets to Social Good Summit

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The Social Good Summit is where big ideas meet new media to create innovative solutions and is brought to you by Mashable, The 92nd Street Y, The United Nations Foundation, The United Nations Development Programme, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Ericsson. Held during UN Week, the Social Good Summit unites a dynamic community of global leaders to discuss a big idea: the power of innovative thinking and technology to solve our greatest challenges.

Date: Sunday, Sept. 22 through Tuesday, Sept. 24
Time: 12:00 to 6:00 p.m. each day
Location: 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y.
Tickets: $130 for a three-day pass

Register for Social Good Summit 2011 - Presented by Mashable, 92Y and UN Foundation - September 19 - 22, 2011 in New York, NY  on Eventbrite

Press: Press credentials will be given to press and bloggers from around the world for all Social Good Summit sessions and the Digital Media Lounge (DML). The DML is a fully wired workspace at 92Y to report out of, network with fellow members of the media and self-organize interviews and exclusive content from Social Good Summit sessions. The DML will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 22 though Sept. 24. To apply, please fill in the form here.

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Image courtesy of Ron Garan

Is Jupiter Earth’s Friend or Foe?

Jupiter1

Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, ducks behind the red giant once every seven days.

Is Jupiter a friendly planet, Earth’s enemy, or perhaps both? For decades, scientists have talked about how the giant gas planet keeps some asteroids from striking our small world, while others have pointed out that Jupiter’s gravity could send some civilization-shattering asteroids our way.

While that debate goes on, a subtler question arises about how influential Jupiter was in the early Solar System. Jupiter is by far the heavyweight planet in the Solar System, weighing in at 320 Earth masses. Its gravity not only influences small asteroids that go by, but also tugs on other planets in the solar system – including our own.

What if Jupiter had had a more eccentric orbit? Could that have affected the habitability of Earth? A new peer-reviewed study published on preprint site Arxiv, called “The role of Jupiter in driving Earth’s orbital evolution,” examines these questions in more detail. It was presented at the Australian Space Science Conference.

At first blush it appears Jupiter’s position in the solar system could vary greatly without hurting life’s beginnings as we know it, but more studies of how other planets influence Earth’s climate are needed before we can better understand what’s going on, the researchers said. Depending on how Jupiter interacts with Earth in different scenarios, Earth’s orbit could vary dramatically, thereby influencing the amount of sun we receive on the surface. Once we begin to figure out the ranges of habitability in the models, this could help us narrow the search for other habitable planets outside the Solar System that have gas giants nearby.

Life-friendly scenarios

Surveys with NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other observatories reveal one great truth about planets: they tend to form in groups. Most planets outside the solar system are found with companions. We’ve also seen an array of planetary systems, including those where gas giants known as “Hot Jupiters” are close to their parent star.

The search for habitability is often focused on finding rocky planets or moons similar in size to the Earth, and ones orbiting at the right distance from a star to make liquid water possible. However, other factors include the variability of a planet’s orbit, or the tilt of its poles, both of which could be influenced by bigger planets in that planet’s solar system.

Researchers got interested in the effects of nearby planets on life after observing the Moon.

“I started looking at the effects of the moon on Earth’s climate,” said University of London geologist David Waltham, a co-author of the study. “It’s often said the moon stabilizes the Earth’s axis. It’s wrong. It actually nearly destabilizes the axis.”

Certainly, if you suddenly took the Moon away, the Earth’s axis would destabilize. But Waltham said the better question is to ask what would happen if there was a larger moon from the beginning.

“Any initially stable planet will eventually become unstable as its spin slows but, without a moon, this could take tens or hundreds of billions of years,” Waltham said.

“Having a moon increases the rate with which the spin slows so that, in Earth’s case for example, it will only take 6 billion years (from formation) for the Earth’s axis to become unstable.”

In a nutshell, taking the Moon away today is not the same thing as not having a Moon in the first place.  We’ve had 4.5 billion years of lunar-generated spin-deceleration.

From there, Waltham began considering scenarios where moons would not destabilize a planet as quickly. One of them would be if the solar system was precessing, or moving, more slowly. This led him to wonder about the influence of other planets on Earth, a question also preoccupying Jonti Horner, an astronomer and astrobiologist at the University of Southern Queensland, who is affiliated with the Australian Centre for Astrobiology.

Jupiter on the move

The researchers ran models of our Solar System. With each iteration, seven of the eight planets in the solar system are in the same starting conditions in terms of mass, location and orbit. The eighth, Jupiter, kept the same mass but was moved around in various ways.

The researchers used different orbital eccentricities ranging from perfectly circular to orbits that are moderately eccentric, or elliptical, where Jupiter’s closest and furthest distances range 20 percent further than usual. In distance terms, this means Jupiter would rove as much as two astronomical units or Earth-sun distances in its orbit, ranging from 4.2 AU from the Sun to 6.2 AU from the sun.

In addition, the authors moved the entire orbit of Jupiter inwards and outwards (testing what would happen if it had formed closer to the Sun, or further away), and at each new location, again tested a range of orbital eccentricities between circular and moderately eccentric. This meant that, in their most extreme close-in scenario, Jupiter came all the way in to 3.4 AU at perihelion, while in the most extreme distant scenario, it ranged out to over 7.4 AU from the Sun.

Using tens of thousands of permutations, Waltham and Horner stepped forward each simulation through a million years of time, recording Earth’s orbital parameters every 100 years and then charting the results.

“The default assumption is this is something that is important,” Horner said. “There’s a lot of flexibility where Jupiter will be, and you would assume that you’d have a very smooth, very gentle variation in how the Earth’s orbit behaves over time.”

The model showed that most of Jupiter’s locations resulted in little change in Earth’s orbit and tilt, although the effect on Earth’s climate is unclear. Horner said he is working with James Gilmore, a climatologist at University of London, to better understand how changes in the Earth’s tilt or orbit would affect its habitability. Changing the tilt would affect the seasons, while changing the orbit would alter the amount of sun on the surface.

Waltham, meanwhile, says there is a discrepancy between the results in this study and a previous one he had done with analytical equations showing that Jupiter’s position has a striking influence on Earth’s climate. While he believes this study is more accurate, he wants to go back to his earlier work to resolve the difference.

Searching for life beyond Earth

Although this simulation dealt specifically with the Earth-Jupiter relationship, there are implications for worlds that are beyond our Solar System’s reaches, the researchers said. Take solar systems that are comprised of planets orbiting in spaces as small as Mercury’s orbit of the Sun.

“It’s about spacing,” Waltham said. “I think there is a strong implication that compact solar systems are less likely to have planets with stable axes, which makes them less likely to be habitable.”

That said, he warns there are no “absolute rules” about habitability. There could be scenarios where the axis moves too quickly for complex life to keep up, but simple life forms such as bacteria are be able to evolve fast enough to adapt to temperature changes.

Horner, meanwhile, is examining scenarios under which giant planets send giant impactors, such as asteroids, towards inner planets. For Earth, a Jupiter-sized planet is both a good and a bad thing. The gas giant absorbs some impacts from meteorites, but also alters the orbits of small bodies and could send them towards Earth.

He added that the new research underscores how a small change in parameters could change habitability wildly, pointing to the need to look at more solar systems in formation to see under what conditions planets form. Examining new solar systems will be a strength of NASA’s forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which is launching into space in 2018.

Horner emphasized that the numerous simulations his team ran on Jupiter’s influence in the solar system shows that where planets end up is often a result of chance as much as physics.

“Every object you add to [a planetary] system adds complexity, and the end result is a result of random chances,” said Horner. “So if you change something very small when the solar system is forming, it’s kind of chaotic.”

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/06/01/jupiter-earth-stable-axis-habitability/

Building Solar in Spain Instead of Germany Could Save Billions

Building-solar

Building solar and wind projects in the wrong place is wasting billions of dollars in Europe.

Siemens says it would make sense to build solar power plants in sunny countries in Europe rather than in cloudy ones. And wind turbines should be built in windy places.

These blindingly obvious suggestions run contrary to what’s actually happening. For example, a solar panel in Spain generates about twice as much electricity as the same-size solar panel in Germany because the sun shines on it more. But last year nearly half of all solar panels installed in Europe were installed in Germany, and only a small fraction were installed in Spain (see “The Great German Energy Experiment“).

Siemens calculates that if you were to install solar panels and wind turbines where the natural resources are best, and then string power lines to convey the power to where it’s needed, you could save about $60 billion dollars by 2030 because you could install fewer of them. That savings figure accounts for the cost of the power lines (see “Supergrids“).

Europe isn’t the only place where solar is taking off in strange places. One of the major markets for solar power in the U.S. is New Jersey, which gets far less sun than the southwest U.S., but has policies that favor solar power.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Wayne National Forest

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/05/17/building-solar-spain-could-save-billions/