Tag Archives: World

Astronauts Plant Trees in Russia That Tower Above Politics

Cosmonaut-grove

Trees line the path of Cosmonaut Grove at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Russia.
Image: Flickr, Eugene Kaspersky

In their last days on Earth before launching to the International Space Station, astronauts sees the same thing: two rows of trees that punctuate the otherwise austere landscape outside the space launch facility in Baikonur, Russia.

The trees that outline the T-shaped path are mismatched in size, but that’s for a reason. Each one was planted by an astronaut just before he or she launched to space, a tradition that Yuri Gagarin started 50 years ago when he planted the first tree just before he became the first human in space. His tree is the largest.

A fresh three-member crew — Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European astronaut Alexander Gerst — will launch to the ISS on Wednesday. All three astronauts planted their trees last week.

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Expedition 40/41 crew (from left) NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, Roscosmos commander Maxim Suraev and ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst during the traditional tree-planting ceremony in the run-up to their launch to the ISS on May 28.

Image: European Space Agency

“There’s a whole wealth of Russian traditions,” NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, who planted a tree before his mission in 2012, told Mashable. “Some are funny, some are beautiful.”

Marshburn-Hadfield-Tree

t the Cosmonaut Hotel crew quarters in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Expedition 34 crew members Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency (left), Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko (center) and NASA Flight Engineer Tom Marshburn (right) pose for pictures Dec. 13, 2012 at the site of their tree planting.

Image: NASA

Many Russian traditions are based on the success of what a cosmonaut did before. “In a lot of ways, it’s about honoring the person who came before you,” Marshburn said.

The simple ceremony always takes place shortly before launch, no matter the environment. Be it a harsh Russian winter or an even colder political standoff, the tree will be planted.

But given the current political climate between the U.S. and Russia, these trees have a deeper meaning within the space community, which, until very recently, has been able to operate above bureaucratic squabble.

As the U.S. continues to unleash sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine, both nations have put targets on the backs of each other’s space programs.

In April, NASA sent a memo to employees stating that it was cutting all ties with Russia, except for when it comes to the space station — as the U.S. depends on Russia to launch its astronauts to the ISS.

At the same time, NASA made a grandiose public statement that it would return spaceflight to the U.S. by 2017, completely nixing the need for Russian involvement at all.

“We’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017,” NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told Mashable in April. “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple.”

Although NASA, at the time, said politics wouldn’t make it to the space station, Russia unveiled a different plan just weeks later. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters on May 13 that Moscow would deny U.S. requests to use the ISS after 2020. He also said he would prevent the U.S. from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.

Astronauts, however, have subtly voiced their continued commitment to teamwork — a seemingly passive protest to the two countries’ efforts to drag the ISS into their battle.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who planted his own tree alongside Marshburn, is among the most vocal. In an April interview with RT, the ISS commander condemned weaponizing space.

And just hours after the news broke that Russia wanted to ban the U.S. from the ISS — coincidentally, that was on the same day a crew of both American and Russian astronauts was returning to Earth — Hadfield tweeted this:

And just on day after the U.S. issued its first round of sanctions against Russia, NASA released the photo below before a scheduled launch, showing the two flags together.

Russia-US-Space

The flags of the countries representing the crew members of Soyuz TMA-12M are seen at the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev, Russia on Friday, March 28, 2014.

Image: NASA

“Living in space really does break down barriers,” Marshburn said. “It is a family up there. We have to survive.”

Even NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in March — around the time Russia invaded Crimea — that the space station has been the cornerstone of peaceful relations.

During a press conference, Bolden, who commanded the first U.S.-Russian space shuttle mission in 1994, told the story of flying with Russian cosmonauts only a few years after the Cold War. The men talked of their families and of their aspirations for the world over dinner.

“I found that our relationship with the Russians in the space program has been the same ever since,” Bolden said. “We have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies.”

For his part, Marshburn, who is currently training in Houston for a future ISS mission, said he will continue to work as though the next trip will be with Russia. He’ll still study Russian, and he’ll work with Russian cosmonaut colleagues on site.

“We are well padded from the political goings on,” said Marshburn. “So, I just don’t think about it because who knows where it’s going to go.”

And as long as NASA astronauts climb into a Russian spacecraft, they’ll continue to add their tree to the growing grove around the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well.

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Read more: http://mashable.com/2014/05/28/nasa-russia-tree-cosmodrome/

Hubble Snaps Photo of ‘Christmas Ornament’ Nebula

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It’s the time of year when even the scientists at NASA get into the holiday spirit. Last year, the space agency’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer snapped an image of a cosmic Christmas wreath for the holiday season.

Not be outdone, the venerable Hubble Space Telescope delivered holiday cheer in the form of this image of NGC 5189, a nebula that — if you’re brimming over with holiday cheer or just squinting a little — resembles a very merry Christmas ornament wrapped in a festive ribbon.

You can take a trip through the cosmos to zoom in on the nebula just like the Hubble did in the short video below.

Is the “ornament” interpretation meeting astronomers — and we suspect NASA’s PR wonks — more than halfway? Yeah, probably a little more than half, but come on — ’tis the season. You can afford to be that generous, right?

Either way, we can all agree that the beauty of the image on its own is enough to make you smile.

Image courtesy of NASA

This article originally published at Geekosystem
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/12/19/christmas-ornament-nebula/

Microsoft May Be Making a Smartphone for China

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The latest reports from Asia have resurrected a popular rumor: that Microsoft is planning to launch its own Windows Phone smartphone and initially sell it in China, where smartphone use is exploding. However, with a delicate ecosystem of hardware partners to balance, and huge competition in China, it could be an uphill task for the software giant.

Ever since Microsoft announced its landmark Windows Phone agreement with Nokia, there have been mutterings that the company is thinking about producing its own smartphone. Earlier this month came the clearest sign yet, when the Wall Street Journal quoted officials at Microsoft parts suppliers in Asia as saying that testing had already begun.

Add to this the recent launch of the Microsoft Surface tablet—which showcases the touch-screen capabilities of Windows 8 and RT operating systems—and CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent speculation that the Redmond, Washington–based firm would “obviously” make more hardware, and the case becomes even more compelling.

China is likely to be a key battleground for smartphone makers. IDC recently pegged it as the world’s largest smartphone market, and, unlike the U.S. market, it is still growing. Canalys stats put Q2 shipments at 27% of the world’s total, ahead of the U.S. at 16%. China and Asia have for some years also led in smartphone production—which accounts for Microsoft’s reported testing of the new phone with Asian suppliers.

A low-cost, high-spec smartphone from Microsoft could be popular in China. But the success of such a device will likely depend on how well the American giant partners with local firms to tailor a device for the domestic market.

Microsoft has already failed with a previous smartphone launch, the ill-fated Kin, and its only hardware success to date has been Xbox. Nonetheless, Ovum analyst Tony Cripps argues that it’s quite possible Microsoft is taking the same strategy with the smartphone that it took with its recently launched Surface tablet. “While there were risks involved, Microsoft created Surface, and it made sense to do so. Why not do it again?” he says. “It’s about staying relevant.”

However, IDC analyst Melissa Chau cautions that Redmond could find its options limited by the need to avoid upsetting existing hardware partners, just as Google’s options with its Android-based Motorola phones have been limited. Partners including Acer were somewhat hostile to its Surface launch, and Microsoft cannot afford to alienate the Windows Phone partner ecosystem.

Chau argues that Microsoft‘s testing of the device might be aimed not at a product release but at showing partners the direction it envisions for Windows Phone devices. It’s also possible the device could be kept in reserve as a ”Plan B” in case Nokia’s hardware offerings fail to capture the popular imagination and drive the platform forward, she says.

In any case, Microsoft’s biggest problem is Android. IDC’s preliminary Q3 stats put Android shipments for the period at a record-breaking 136 million units, 75% of all smartphones. Apple’s iOS came in second with 26 million units (14.9%), and Windows Phone shipments totalled 3.6 million units and just 2% of the market. It’s still early days for Microsoft, but with HTC and Samsung both more committed to Android than Windows Phone, only Nokia is left to blaze the trail. Android also has a 77% share of China’s smartphone market, according to Beijing-based analyst Analysys International.

Chau explains that China has the “fastest adoption of high-end specs at cheaper prices.” The most popular devices are slick quad core devices with screen sizes around the 13 cm mark. In the past six months alone, we’ve seen the launch of Huawei’s 11 cm Honor II, at 1,888 yuan ($305); the Xiaomi Phone 2 at 1,999 yuan ($310); ZTE’s U950 at 999 yuan ($160); and Meizu’s MX 4-core, which now retails at 2,399 yuan ($380). “They’re not innovating, but there’s an appetite for this type of hardware we don’t see in other countries,” she explains.

Local handset makers—both big brands and the huge number of smaller, low-margin “white box” producers—are also targeting the sub-1,000 yuan ($160) market with gusto, aware that the huge installed base of feature-phone users in countries like China and India will soon be looking to upgrade to a smartphone.

Canalys reckons that by 2015 almost half of Chinese smartphones will be handsets under $200. The Lenovo A65 recently came down from around 1,000 yuan ($160) in Q4 2011 to around 700 yuan ($112) in the first quarter of this year, for example.

What these handsets and more high-end devices have in common, in China at least, is that the user interface and services preloaded onto them are localized for the Chinese market. When it comes to Web services, the Chinese government’s rigorous approach to online censorship has meant that some sites Western users take for granted, like Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube, are virtually pointless to have on a smartphone.

Chinese users need Youku instead of YouTube, Sina Weibo instead of Twitter, RenRen instead of Facebook and Taobao instead of eBay—and Baidu, not Google, is favored by around 80% of the search market, even on Android devices.

Some Chinese handset makers, Web companies, and mobile operators have gone a step further and built their own mobile operating systems, although success has been limited so far. Baidu (with its Yi platform), e-commerce giant Alibaba (Aliyun), Xiaomi (MIUI), and others hope that their operating systems will drive more users to their services and “build fences and drive stakes into the ground” in the country’s fast-growing mobile market, according to a recent IDC report.

Although big names including Motorola, Huawei, HTC and Samsung have plants in countries such as Vietnam, India and Malaysia, and while Foxconn recently unveiled plans for a huge factory in Indonesia, the majority of smartphone production remains in China. Most of the big Taiwanese companies, including Foxconn, Pegatron, Wistron and Compal, have plants producing for most of the world’s biggest tech brands, including Apple, HP, Samsung, Dell, Nokia and, of course, Microsoft.

Thanks to government subsidies, low wages, good infrastructure and, most important, a centralized supply chain, China remains the No. 1 location for smartphone manufacturing, with the focus having spread from the historical center of the tech world, in the Pearl River Delta around Shenzhen, to new hubs in Chengdu, Chongqing, Henan province, and elsewhere as more local governments offer financial incentives.

In the end, whatever Microsoft’s plans are in the smartphone space, it and every other Western tech giant needs to get used to a new reality—if you want to succeed in the 21st-century global smartphone market, you need to pivot towards Asia.

Image courtesy of Flickr, okalkavan

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/11/13/microsoft-smartphone-china/

How NASA Keeps Earth’s Germs Out of Space

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In 1967, the United States joined the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in signing the “Outer Space Treaty,” which remains the closest thing the world has to “space law.” It stipulates, among other things, that as countries explore space they should avoid contaminating it with the microbial life of Earth.

So while we may talk, with a mixture of fantasy and inevitability, about the colonization of other planets by humans, NASA takes great pains to avoid colonizing those bodies with life of a different variety: bacteria and spores that might hitchhike their way through the galaxy via American spacecraft.

But keeping space free of earthly critters is a difficult task. In fact, it’s an effectively impossible one. Curiosity, for example, was not completely sterile at its launch; rather, the rover was built to ensure that it would “carry a total of no more than 300,000 bacterial spores on any surface from which the spores could get into the Martian environment.”

In that way, Curiosity is like the Mars landers that preceded it: just a tiny bit dirty. “When we clean these things, it’s virtually impossible to get them completely, totally, 100% clean, without any organic material at all,” says Dave Lavery, NASA’s program executive for solar system exploration.

Instead, he says the agency enforces “allowable limits” — a kind of controlled biological chaos — that aims to mitigate, rather than eliminate, microbial life on its vehicles. The margins here are extraordinarily slim: When you’re talking about microorganisms, 300,000 across the entire spacecraft is actually a remarkably low number. (A human adult, after all, can play host to a href=”http://discovermagazine.com/2011/mar/04-trillions-microbes-call-us-home-help-keep-healthy” target=”_blank”>as many as 200 trillion microorganisms. Trillion, with a T.)

To keep the Mars Science Laboratory mission within its 300,0000-critter range, the technicians who built Curiosity regularly cleaned the rover’s surfaces — and those of the spacecraft that delivered it to Mars — by wiping them with an alcohol solution.

They baked the mechanical components that could tolerate high heats to kill the microbes that remained. And they sealed off Curiosity’s core box, which contains its main computer and other key electronics, to prevent any traveling microbes from escaping its confines.

Pictured in the video below, the clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is where Curiosity spent much of its pre-Martian existence. Note the bunny suits worn by the technicians, the better to ensure that human microbes wouldn’t be transferred to NASA’s now-rove-ready rover.

For its standard antibiotic regimen, Lavery says NASA has three main goals. First, of course, there’s scientific accuracy — since, for many of the agency’s missions, the subtext if not the stated objective is to learn about the life that might exist beyond our atmosphere. “If we’ve taken Earth bugs with us, it defeats the entire purpose,” he says.

Second, there’s the Outer Space Treaty and the desire to be a good steward of space — by avoiding contamination of the world beyond Earth’s borders. Third, there’s protecting Earth itself — not just by preventing the passage of earthly life into space, but also by preventing any extraterrestrial life from coming back. (Hence those amazing photos of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins hanging out in their decontamination module after completing the Apollo 11 mission.)

Planetary protection has been one of the protocols that has unified NASA’s missions since they started as missions in the first place. It’s been a priority, Lavery notes, “since the very beginning of the space program.”

And yet sterilization, just like other NASA protocols, varies significantly by mission. The particulars are determined by two broad considerations: where a mission is going and what kind of spacecraft it’s using to get there. There’s an overall cleanliness standard that’s in place for every mission, Lavery notes — no earth bugs being the general goal — but beyond that, there’s a procedural spectrum NASA employs to determine its approach to decontamination.

For vehicles like the Voyager crafts, wandering the void of space with no planetary destination in mind, standards can be (relatively) less stringent. For a lander like Curiosity, however — or like the lunar modules that brought human life to the moon during the Apollo missions — the sterilization standards are stricter. Because, harsh as those environments may be to earthly life, large or small, there’s a far greater chance that life would find a way to survive in those environments than elsewhere.

We already know, for example, about the space-surviving skills of the tardigrade. And just recently, scientists discovered a species of bacteria able to survive in a lava tube, gleaning energy from a chemical reaction with the iron from basalt rock — precisely the kind of rock abundant on Mars.

Given all that, NASA ranks its missions into five general Planetary Protection categories:

nasa_pp.png

So why not simply give every mission, by default, the highest cleanliness standard, just to be safe? Because sterilization, like pretty much every protocol NASA goes through, isn’t cheap. It’s budgetary concerns, ultimately — and resource concerns more generally — that make decontamination a matter of calculated risk.

Because of that, NASA’s attempts at preventing cross-planet contamination have relied not just on antibiotic practices, but also on a near-universal feature of earthly life: its fragility. Catherine Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer, last year told Becca Rosen about the slim likelihood of biological commerce between Earth and Mars.

While Conley suspects NASA has transported things like bacteria and pollen spores and other pieces of life inside its spacecraft, there’s been a big caveat to the potential of contamination: “The surface conditions on Mars are pretty hostile to Earth life,” Conley says. Which means that “it’s not very likely that those organisms could actually reproduce, or even survive if they came off the spacecraft.”

Curiosity relies on the same slim odds. And the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, with a roving lander as its vehicle, is ranked as a Category IV. There are subclasses within that category, Lavery points out, based on the different environments Curiosity will be exploring within Mars itself. Just like on Earth, some areas of Mars are more (potentially) hospitable to life than others.

But protocols can also evolve. For Curiosity, the process of selecting exploration sites on Mars took place simultaneously with the process of its design — meaning that a shift in one led to a shift in the other. The Mars Science Laboratory mission started out as a Category IVa — the most stringent possible for landers and probes. (“We wanted to give ourselves as much leeway as we could,” Lavery explains.)

But when the Gale Crater was chosen as Curiosity’s landing site, NASA engineers realized that the IVa classification was “a little bit of overkill,” Lavery says, and downgraded the category — since, given the crater’s aridity, there was virtually no chance that Curiosity would encounter water or ice or anything else that could potentially foster life.

At the same time, engineers at JPL began to rethink the strategy they’d built for the rover’s drill bits. Growing increasingly concerned that a rough landing could damage the rover and the drill mechanism it would rely on so heavily to do much of its work on Mars, the engineers decided to open its previously sterilized box to add a new drill bit to Curiosity’s suite — thus ensuring that, even if one got damaged, another would remain to carry out the mission.

This switch-up, which wasn’t communicated until later to NASA’s planetary protection staff, is the subject of a recent Los Angeles Times article about the “rift” between microbiologists and engineers at the agency.

The notion of a strong divide at NASA might have been a bit overblown, though. The changes made to Curiosity, being not immediately communicated to Conley, were indeed a bureaucratic “slip-up.”

But, beyond that, not only did the implemented changes follow NASA procedure, Lavery says; they were also standard practice — part of the normal evolution of spacecraft design as it accounts for changes made to mission objectives. The mission changed; the vehicle changed along with it. And there’s always that magic 300,000-critter standard. Before Curiosity was launched, “We were able to do an assay that said we were well under that number,” Lavery says. “And we were good to go.”

The question remains, though: What if Curiosity does find water? Probabilistically, that’s unlikely. But Martian water — or Martian ice — is certainly not an impossibility. Particularly given the fact that Curiosity’s work involves drilling into the Martian crust. If the rover does encounter water, any earth-borne microbes lingering on its drill might simply perish in the harsh temperatures and atmosphere of the Red Planet. On the other hand, though … they could survive.

NASA will deal with that possibility when — and, more likely, if — it comes. There are procedures for that circumstance, too. As Lavery points out, those procedures would include NASA’s mission operators, its scientists and its planetary protection officers in a discussion about the best way to move forward. Procedures meant to avoid terraforming of the unintentional variety — procedures meant to ensure that, as we explore Mars, we don’t end up colonizing it, as well.”

This article originally published at The Atlantic
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/11/nasa-space-germs/

How Is Social Media Changing Diplomacy?

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advocates for what she calls “twenty-first century statecraft,” the use of technology and social media by ambassadors and their staff to connect and engage with their local communities. But can Facebook and Twitter really change the art of diplomacy?

That was one question posed to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs for Digital Strategy at the State Department Victoria Esser, Indonesian Ambassador to the United States Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan Casamitjana and American Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray during a panel at the 2012 Social Good Summit.

“[Social media] is an integral part of how we’re conducting our diplomacy around the world, said Esser. “We have 300 Twitter profiles, 400 Facebook pages. To me, it’s about creating virtuous circles online and offline — nothing will replace face-to-face diplomacy, but social media is an important way to connect with people and cut away time, distance and diplomatic rank barriers and have a real conversation.”

Esser pointed to a recent State Department experiment with Google Hangouts as an example of such a conversation.

“Earlier this year, we did a Google Hangout in Persian,” said Esser. “We were trying to figure out a way to really engage in a dialogue in Iran, where we don’t have a diplomatic presence.”

Esser, subtly acknowledging the situation at the American Embassy in Cairo wherein a staffer sent tweets later reported to have gone without authorization, also said that Washington largely gives individual missions free reign to tweet as they will.

“We’ve devolved [control] so missions in the field are responsible, with general guidance from Washington. You can’t manage a tweet at a time, and it’s important not to or it won’t be authentic to the community you’re trying to engage with. We recognize there will be bumps along the road, but as my colleague Alec Ross points out, the twenty-first century is a terrible time to be a control freak. If you want to engage in this dialogue, there’s a certain loss in control involved.”

Ambassador Ray shared a unique story of using Facebook to circumvent a local government’s obstructionism.

“When the government discovered our face-to-face meetings with young people were having an effect … they started disrupted meetings. They hated it with a passion. So we came up with alternative, which was a wild suggestion at the time: A live Facebook chat, along with SMS, Twitter, and YouTube. In the first one, 200 people enrolled and we had 250 comments in the first 30 minutes.

“Facebook didn’t replace face-to-face diplomacy, but it filled a gap, it became a tool we could use to do face-to-face diplomacy when that wasn’t available.”

For Ambassador Djalal, Twitter especially has become a crucial mechanism for interacting with Indonesians at home and in the United States.

“If not for social media, I’d have no other medium to reach out to [Indonesians],” said Djalal, who only started tweeting when he first became an ambassador. “I recently made a tweet. . .I have about 100,00 followers. I said, ‘if you want to give me a gift for my birthday, do one act of kindness.’ A few hours later, the hundreds of replies I got were amazing: ‘I proposed to my girlfriend,’ ‘I kissed my mom on the cheek.’ That’s when I realized. . .the power of social media. It has a remarkable use for the field of diplomacy.”

About Ericsson

Read more of Mashable’s coverage of the 2012 Social Good Summit:

Day One:

Day Two:

Day Three:

Images courtesy of Flickr, SEIU International

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/09/22/social-media-diplomacy/

Saturn’s Glorious Rings Dazzle in NASA Photo

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Saturn’s southern reaches are draped in the shadow of the huge planet’s iconic ring system in a spectacular new picture from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

The near-infrared photo, which Cassini snapped on June 15, looks toward the southern, unlit side of Saturn’s rings from 14 degrees below the ringplane, researchers said. The spacecraft was about 1.8 million miles from Saturn at the time. The image scale is 11 miles per pixel.

Saturn’s ice-covered moon Enceladus, which is 313 miles wide, is visible as a tiny, bright speck in the lower lefthand corner of the image.

Many researchers regard Enceladus as one of the best bets in our solar system to host life beyond Earth. Though surface temperatures on the moon are frigid, Enceladus is believed to harbor a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

Enceladus also boasts huge amounts of internal heat, which power a system of geysers that erupt from the moon’s south polar regions. Cassini discovered these geysers in 2005 and has snapped many photos of them since.

The $3.2 billion Cassini mission is a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. It has been studying the ringed planet and its many moons ever since, and should continue to do so for years to come. The Cassini mission has been extended to at least 2017.

In early 2005, Cassini’s Huygens lander, an ESA probe, touched down on the enormous moon Titan and relayed the first photos ever from the surface of that intriguing world.

Titan has a thick, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and a weather system based on methane and ethane, which have pooled to form lakes in various places across the moon’s surface.

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/10/01/saturn-rings-nasa-photo/

9 Terrifyingly Awesome Facts About Asteroids

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asteroid

Phil Plait, also known as the “Bad Astronomer,” is a Discover columnist known for making really complicated space stuff (Black holes! White dwarves! Spacetime!) not only totally understandable, but completely fascinating.

Plait made a stop in Portland, Ore. on tour with his latest book, Death from the Skies, to speak at Science Pub, a monthly summit of beer and geeks hosted by Portland’s excellent science museum, OMSI.

Plait’s talk was packed to the gills with both avid Bad Astronomy fans and science-minded folks curious about an astronomer’s take on the end of the world. Here are our favorite asteroid factoids.

1. Objects From Space Hit the Earth… A lot

We see mini-asteroids (meteoroids) crossing paths with Earth quite often, but most of time they fall to the earth as no bigger than a grain of sand or burn up altogether. “It seems like these things are whizzing past us all the time,” Plait says. “That’s because they are.”

2. Asteroids Kind of Look Like Potatoes… Or Dog Bones

According to Phil Plait, it’s a common fact that asteroids often look a lot like potatoes. But Kleopatra, one of Plait’s favorites, is as big as a state and shaped like a dog bone. Kleopatra is actually so big that it has a couple of moons orbiting it as it tumbles through space.

3. Asteroids Can Have Mountains Taller Than Mount Everest

The asteroid known as Vesta boasts a mountain that puts even Everest to shame. And Vesta isn’t the biggest asteroid around, either — that honor goes to Ceres, a dwarf planet that’s 590 miles in diameter.

4. The biggest Asteroid Was Discovered in 1801

We’ve known about Ceres since 1801, when Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi came across the massive body of rock and ice while looking for a star. He initially believed it to be a comet, but now we know Ceres to be much more on par with the size of a small planet.

5. Hollywood Usually Gets it Wrong

Plait thinks Armegeddon is up there with the least scientifically accurate movies ever cooked up in Hollywood. In Armageddon, an asteroid headed toward Earth is blown up into two halves. Among the inaccuracies, Plait noted that there’s no asteroid as big as Texas and if there was we’d know about it for well more than 18 days before it was set to impact Earth.

But not all movies go quite so wrong. Plait does like Deep Impact, another film about an asteroid hitting Earth from the same year. Plait thinks the depiction of the asteroid’s impact and its ensuing wildfires and tsunamis is actually “fairly accurate.” That’s terrifying.

6. Even Tiny Asteroids Are Dangerous

The main reason asteroids are dangerous is because they’re hurtling through space so fast. Asteroids fall to Earth at 50 times the speed of a rifle bullet. An asteroid’s impact could well exceed 50 megatons, the impact of the Soviet Union’s AN602 hydrogen bomb and the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated on Earth. You can even play around with an asteroid impact calculator if you’re curious about just how devastating an Earth impact could be.

7. A Group of Scientists Is Taking the End of the World Very, Very Seriously

The B612 foundation is a privately funded organization on a mission to create a “comprehensive, dynamic map” of the inner solar system. The map will identify the current location of asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth and provide data on just how close to Earth they might pass in the future. Worried? You probably should be. You can always donate to the B612 foundation — it might help you sleep at night.

8. Scientists Are Monitoring an Asteroid Headed for Earth in 2029

An asteroid called Apophis is set to pass near the Earth in 2029. Initial calculations gave Apophis a 2.7% chance of striking our planet. Now we know that Apophis’s odds are much, much smaller. But the asteroid could still pass through a half mile-wide area called a “keyhole,” which would change its orbit and up its chances of impacting the Earth on April 13, 2036.

9. How to Fend Off an Asteroid: Whack it, Don’t Blow it up

It sounds like science fiction, but according to Plait, “The idea is now that if you see one of these things coming, you send a probe at it and you smack it.” Even a tiny shift in an asteroid’s velocity and path can make a huge difference if it’s impacted when far enough away in space.

Another option would be harder to pull off: “You could land a rocket on it and push it, but it would be almost impossible to physically land on it, especially for asteroids like Kleopatra that are tumbling.” That asteroid, the one shaped like a dog bone, has an irregular orbit that would make a landing hard to stick.

Learn anything surprising? We certainly did!

This article originally published at Tecca
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/08/17/facts-about-asteroids/

Ancient Cambodian City Revealed in Laser Scan

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Airborne laser scanning has revealed the remnants of a vast urban structure in the vicinity of Angkor Wat, a famous temple in Cambodia. The study, which will be published soon in the journal PNAS, follows earlier research that showed Angkor Wat to have been one of the world’s most complex preindustrial cities.

Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is making it easier for archaeologists to explore human settlements in tropical vegetation; previous LIDAR work has found evidence of new cities in Central America, in addition to further enhancing the layout of known settlements such as the Mayan city of Caracol.

For the new study, the researchers used a LIDAR setup emitting up to 200,000 laser pulses each second from a helicopter. Amazingly, the entire operation for the data collection spanned just two days in April 2012 for a total 20 hours of flight time, capturing imagery that would have taken many years to assemble from the ground, if at all. The LIDAR analysis also appears to have discovered what could be an older city beside Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat

A digital recreation of Angkor Wat temple site (top) based on raw LIDAR digital terrain data (bottom). Image courtesy of PNAS.

The study has revealed new canals, temples and still unidentified manmade features, confirming a metropolitan area that housed many thousands of people, much as the Giza Plateau Mapping Project is doing for cities surrounding the Pyramids construction in Egypt.

As LIDAR technology gets cheaper, it will accelerate our understanding of early human settlements from the lingering geographic footprints we left, traces which can be almost as shallow as a footprint itself. As the authors write in their PNAS paper:

LIDAR technology has recently matured to the point where it has become cost-effective for archaeologists with sufficient accuracy and precision to identify archaeological features of only a few centimeters in size.

Image courtesy of sam garza/Wikimedia Commons

This article originally published at MIT Technology Review
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/06/18/lidar-angkor-wat/

50-Mile Landslides Spotted on Saturn’s Icy Moon

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Long landslides spotted on Saturn’s moon, Iapetus, could help provide clues to similar movements of material on Earth. Scientists studying the icy satellite have determined that flash heating could cause falling ice to travel 10 to 15 times farther than previously expected on Iapetus.

Extended landslides can be found on Mars and Earth, but are more likely to be composed of rock than ice. Despite the differences in materials, scientists believe there could be a link between the long-tumbling debris on all three bodies.

“We think there’s more likely a common mechanism for all of this, and we want to be able to explain all of the observations,” lead scientist Kelsi Singer of Washington University told SPACE.com.

Rock-Hard Ice on Saturn’s Moon

Giant landslides stretching as far as 50 miles litter the surface of Iapetus. Singer and her team identified 30 such displacements by studying images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

More From Space.com: Photos: Latest Saturn Photos from NASA’s Cassini Orbiter

Composed almost completely of ice, Iapetus already stands out from other moons. While most bodies in the solar system have rocky mantles and metallic cores, with an icy layer on top, scientists think Iapetus is composed almost completely of frozen water. There are bits of rock and carbonaceous material that make half the moon appear darker than the other, but this seems to be only a surface feature.

Ice on Iapetus is different from ice found on Earth. Because the moon’s temperature can get as low as 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the moon’s ice is very hard and very dry.

“It’s more like what we experience on Earth as rock, just because it’s so cold,” Singer said.

Slow-moving ice creates a lot of friction, so when the ice falls from high places, scientists expected that it would behave much like rock on Earth does. Instead, they found that it traveled significantly farther than predicted.

How far a landslide runs is usually related to how far it falls, Singer explained. Most of the time, debris of any type loses energy before traveling twice the distance it fell from. But on Iapetus, the pieces of ice move 20 to 30 times as far as their falling height.

Flash heating could be providing that extra push.

Flash heating occurs when material falls so fast that the heat doesn’t have time to dissipate. Instead, it stays concentrated in small areas, reducing the friction between the sliding objects and allowing them to travel faster and farther than they would under normal conditions.

“They’re almost acting more like a fluid,” Singer said.

On Iapetus, falling material has a good chance of reaching great speeds because there are a number of great heights to fall from. The moon hosts a ring of mountains around its bulging equator that can tower as high as 12 miles, and the longest run-outs discovered are associated with the ridge and with impact-basin walls.

Scientists think that the landslides are relatively recent, and could have been triggered by impacts in the last billion years or so.

“You don’t see a lot of small craters on the landslide material itself,” Singer said, although the surrounding terrain boasts evidence of bombardment. Over time, landscapes tend to be dotted by falling rocks, so the less cratered a surface is, the younger it is thought to be.

More From Space.com: Photos of Saturn’s Moons

Resting on the ridges and walls, the material gradually becomes more unstable. Close impacts could set them off, but powerful, distant impacts reverberating through the ice could also send them tumbling.

The research was published in the July 29 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Connecting Ice and Rock

Differences in gravity, atmosphere and water content make landslides seen on Iapetus difficult to duplicate in the laboratory. But the fact that they happen on different types of worlds makes it more likely that the mechanism triggering the extended slide is dependent on things unique to either environment.

“We have them on Iapetus, Earth and Mars,” Singer said. “Theoretically, they should be very similar.”

Singer pointed out the implications for friction within fault lines, which produces earthquakes. As plates on Earth move, the rocks within a fault snag on each other, until forces drag them apart.

But sometimes, the faults slip farther than scientists can explain based on their understanding of friction. If flash heating occurs within the faults, it could explain why the two opposing faces slide the way they do, and provoke a better understanding of earthquakes.

In such cases, flash heating would cause minerals to melt and reform, producing an unexpected material around the faults. Some such materials have been identified at the base of long landslides on Earth.

“If something else is going on, like flash heating, or something making [the material] have a lower coefficient of friction, this would affect any models that use the coefficient of friction,” Singer said.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This article originally published at Space.com
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2012/07/30/saturn-moon-landslide/

Aghast Over Beijing’s Pollution? Look at Pittsburgh 60 Years Ago

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The photographs and measurements coming out of Beijing these days are horrifying. You can see the brown clouds from space, and Chinese media have even been talking up the problem.

I’ve heard from some Americans saying, “Why don’t they do something about this? How can they live like this?” Etcetera. To an early 21st century American, particularly one living in northern California or a relatively pollution-free Washington, DC, it seems crazy to live with such bad air.

But it was not always so.

As America became an industrial power during the 19th century, Pittsburgh emerged as the seat of metalworking, iron and then steel. This was a city powered by coal. Soot and smoke covered the city. There was no blue sky. Travelers from around the world visited Pittsburgh to see the wonder of American capitalism. The stories they tell are like — exactly, like — the ones you hear today about China. (This is a story that I covered in some detail in my book.)

A wry southerner observed, “If a sheet of white paper lie upon your desk for half an hour you may write on it with your finger’s end through the thin stratum of coal dust that has settled upon it during that interval.”

Another traveler recounted, “Every body who has heard of Pittsburgh knows that it is the city of perpetual smoke, and looks as if it were built above the descent to ‘the bottomless pit,'” that is to say, hell. And yet, this dirty power also happened to make a lot of people a lot of money. It was said, “He whose hands are the most sooty handles the most money, and it is reasonable to infer is the richer man.”

Everyone knew that the smoke covering their homes and clothes and trees was bad. But it made a certain group of people a lot of money. And so they fought pollution controls. And those people had friends.

So, while the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (granted, a less august institution back then) declared the health hazards of smoke and wondered aloud whether corporations should be allowed to produce what it called such “evil,” a Pittsburgh doctor maintained that soot and smoke “only go throat-deep” and said that fire and smoke “correct atmospheric impurities.”

The politics of how this works are pretty simple. The smoke and the soot are something we recognize now as an externality. A cost of doing business that the business doesn’t have to pay because they can dump it on society. Chinese citizens and activists and assorted air-breathers will have to get the polluting companies to internalize these costs. The polluting companies don’t want to internalize that cost. Here’s Chicago’s smoke inspector (yes htere was such a title and in this case, he was named F.U. Adams) in 1896 laying out the rhetorical positions of the two camps:

Viewed from the standpoint of the Smoke Inspector, the 1,600,000 people of Chicago are divided into two classes—First, those who create a smoke nuisance; Second, those who are compelled to tolerate a smoke nuisance. One class has radical champions who maintain that smoke is an irrepressible necessity; a concomitant of the commercial and manufacturing supremacy of Chicago; that smoke not only is not unhealthy, but that it is an actual disinfectant, and that the low death rate of the city can be largely attributed to the prevalence of smoke; that the smoke ordinance and its enforcement are aimed at the interests of the Illinois coal operators; that the advocates of smoke abatement are visionary sentimentalists, and in a general way they are emphatically opposed to any agitation on the subject.

The other side has partisans no less radical, and equally emphatic in voicing the story of their wrongs. They declare that the enforcement of the smoke ordinance is a farce; they demand that soft coal be excluded from the city; they insist that its consumption entails an annual damage greater than the difference in cost between soft and hard coal; they declare that the smoke nuisance is a positive menace to the health of citizens, that it has resulted in an alarming increase in throat, lung and eye diseases; they point to ruined carpets, paintings, fabrics, the soot-besmeared facades of buildings and to a smoke-beclouded sky, and demand that the Smoke Inspector do his plain duty under the law.

It is impossible to reconcile the radical partisans of these two classes. It is fortunate that not many of our citizens are so radical on either side of this most important question. There exists a growing contingent, around which is crystallizing a sentiment that it is practical and possible to abate the smoke nuisance without endangering the stupendous interests involved. The most intelligent and active members of this contingent are drawn from the ranks of those formerly largely responsible for the smoke nuisance. They now oppose smoke for the same reason that they once defended it.

They have made the discovery that it is cheaper to abate a smoke nuisance than to maintain one. And by reason of this discovery the smoke nuisance in Chicago will be a relic of the past before the close of the present century.

Ah, you beautiful visionary sentimentalists! My asthma thanks you. But man, F.U. Adams was optimistic. Change takes a long time. Pittsburgh, for its part, did not enact smoke controls until 1946! Yes, 1946! And they didn’t really get a handle on the smoke problem until well into the 1950s. That’s, oh, 120 years after all those travelers decried the place as hell with the lid off. I mean, this is what Pittsburgh looked like at noon, the lights all on because so little sunlight could penetrate the pollution:

This is what passed for fresh air.

Until finally, one day, after a century of agitation, activists got smoke control measures passed. The sky started to clear.

The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.

So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.

Image courtesy of NASA

This article originally published at The Atlantic
here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2013/01/16/beijing-pollution-pittsburgh/