Monthly Archives: December 2014

Science Thursday: December 17, 2014

Happy Thursday folks! With Christmas only a week away, and holiday festivities in full swing, take a moment to science in your holiday fervor. If you’re baking, you’re doing chemistry. If you’re cutting down a christmas tree, you’re doing physics. Science!

We start this Thursday’s weekly science wrap up with…Rosetta! Some new images have arrived from the lander, which is on a comet, that show just how magnificent the comet is. Comets used to be the bad omens, associated with death. They used to be these things that flew throug the night sky, different from the other stars. And now, today, there is a spacecraft that is sitting on one, next to a cliff. With all the ambiguity that came with the landing, and the lifespan of the spacecraft, and the harpoons, the fact is, that in the year 2014, human beings landed a thing on a comet, shedding light on what used to forshadow darkness. One day, maybe, this will not be such a celebrated event. One day, this will be common, and we will be a spacefaring people by practice, not just in our heads.

Another interesting thing that has happened recently, as documented on Engadget and Wired, is that Audi has a self driving car, that can go 150 mph. In this article found in Wired, the differences between the GPS maps that we use today for turn by turn directions, and the GPS maps that self-driving cars will need. Something intersting to think about as we propell into an age where things are increasingly computerized things.

So for those who watched the Orbital Sciences rocket explode in late October, there is an intersting bit of news regarding that launch system. The engines used in the October launch were Aerojet AJ-26 engines, which were refurbished Russian RD-180 engines. Essentially, these were an Americanized version of a Soviet-era technology. It is suspected that these engines were instrumental to the catestrophic failure of that October launch, which was supposed to be visible over a large portion of the eastern seaboard. In a bit of news so sadistically poetic it must be true, Orbital Sciences announced this week that it will be purchasing Russian RD-181 engines to power future rockets. The story can be found here on SpaceNews. I suppose the thing to do in this situation is just hope that the Russians have worked out the bugs.

In other news, there is a new virtual reality game which allows you to experience weightlessness. To be clear, the game does not make you weightless, it just lets you play with stuff as if there were no gravity, like on the space station. (There actually IS gravity on the space station, but the force is so small it might as well be zero.) This article found on Universe Today includes a youtube link to a trailer for the game, which uses Oculus Rift to simluate the wieghtlessness.

We’re only two weeks from the end of the year, and as humans do, many people are spending a lot of time on recaps of 2014 in all sorts of areas. Music, movies, television, biggest news issues, video games…you name it, there’s a 2014 recap somewhere on the internet. Science News is no exception to this rule. Science News is doing a top 25 of 2014, and there are many things on that list. One of these is particularly interesting for a few reasons, and that is the second item on their list. According to this article written by Science News’ Christopher Crockett, humans were close to finding gravity waves that rippled out from the Big Bang. In a Rosetta-esque saga the gravity waves were discovered, then not discovered, then maybe discovered. It was also possible that dust had caused the readings that were originally thought to be gravity waves. There’s always hope for next year.

Finally, a cool science thing. This is the homepage to Chrome Experiment which visualizes all of Wikipedia as a galaxy. You can navigate through articles like you’re a cyber spaceship, traveling at warp speed. Pretty cool.

Enjoy the remianing week of Christmas maddness, if that’s what you celebrate. If that’s not what you celebrate, then may your holiday, whenever it is, be everything you want it to be. Thanks for reading, and remember to science.

Science Thursday: December 11, 2014

Well hello everyone. My last two Thursday’s have been busy, with thanksgiving and then finals week preparations, so I have slacked off on writing these little sciencey newsey…things. Which means several things. First and formost, there has been quite a bit of news in science since I last wrote one of these, and, that I am too lazy to do this and other things too. One of those is awesome, and for the other, I apologize. Now enough of that, let’s get to the science. This weeks installment will be more space science, because, well, SPACE guys! Am I right? …don’t answer that…

So, first things first, Rosetta. We last left this adorable little comet lander in a state of maybe’s. Maybe they’ve found proof that comets really did bring life to Earth many millions of years ago, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they landed, maybe they landed 3 times. (Ok, ok, we know, they landed three times.) But, that other thing is really in the maybe category. So, the BBC reported yesterday that the results from the comets scientific experiments suggest that the water they found on the comet is not the same water that we have on Earth. This is blow to those who believe that comets brought water, and subsequently life, to Earth millions of years ago. They can do this, because in water, there is an occaisonal deuterium atom. Comparing the concentration of deurerium atoms can give scientists a measure of how much two different samples of water match. Well, the water on the comet did not match the water on Earth. Now, what does this actually mean? Well, it means that this particular comet did not bring water to Earth. But, there are lots of other comets out there. So maybe it could have been one of those comets. Or maybe not. According to the article, some scientists think that asteroids could be the source of water for Earth. This is one of those things that ultimately just goes to show that we really have no clue when it comes to some of this stuff. (Ok, so maybe we have like, one or two clues. But not a lot. I digress.)

In other news, reported yesterday that NASA is going to get some money. This is exciting, because most nerds like NASA, and what NASA does, and without money, NASA can’t do the things that it does. What’s really exciting is that NASA got about half a billion more dollars than the Obama Administration originally asked congress to give NASA. According to the article, included in the bill that gives them all this mulah, is 1.438 billion for interplanetary science, and 70 million for NASA’s flying telescope. That’s right folks, NASA has a flying telescope, and it’s not the Hubble. Or Kepler. It’s called SOFIA and it is a telescope which is installed in the back of a Boeing 747. It was supposedly nearing the end of its life (with NASA, if any of you rich people out there want a flying telescope, keep your eye out), but the new infusion of cash from congress might prevent that from happening for at least another year (sorry, rich people). Another high profile item on the budget for NASA is the Orion space capsule and the SLS (Space Launch System). The SLS launch date recently got pushed from December 2017, to sometime in 2018, according to this article. While the SLS is being pushed back, however, the Orion has entered this little post with it’s test flight last Friday.

Orion flew for the first time on December 5th, as documented here by, or in many other places on the internet which you can find by googling “NASA Orion Test Flight”. The mission was origionally supposed to launch a week ago Thursday, but a slew of unrelated issues kept the rocket on the ground. (A stray boat, wind, fuel valves, and a problem with the autostart sequence.) The mission lifted off at the planned 7:05 a.m. on December 5th, and conducted it’s four and a half hour test flight virtually flawlessly. This was very exciting for space nerds, because it’s the first first flight of a new manned spacecraft (albiet, this was an unmanned testflight) since 1980 when Columbia first flew. The Pacific Ocean splashdown gives Apollo buffs something new to gawk at, since the last time we did anything like that was in the early 70s. So, what does this mean for spaceflight? Well, this was a very short testflight. Orion is not scheduled to fly with the SLS until 2018, and manned missions are not scheduled until 2021. But, what it is, is a step towards that. Which is enough to get any space nerd a little excited.


A computer rendering of Orion during re-entry. Image courtesy of NASA.

Now, just so that we don’t spend this entire post on space, although there would be nothing wrong if we did, here’s some other news. A dad has had his son play all the video games, in chronological order. All the video games. Here. I don’t know quite what this says about this dad, or his son for that matter. However, I’m pretty sure whatever is says is soemthing awesome.

It is on that note that we wrap up this edition of science Thurdsay. Stay tuned for more science news and musing from my head. Thanks for reading. SCIENCE!

Ahh, but science.  I was reading the internet this evening and realized that something truly terrible happened.  I realized that I didn’t know that December 11 was the date that Apollo 17 landed on the moon.  Ladies and Gentlemen, today, 42 years ago, was the last time human beings landed on the moon.  I do apologize for making the rest of your evening depressing, but know that I will be with you in spirit sulking in the lack of spaceflight achievement since that glorious, glorious time.  So long Apollo, and thanks for all the fish.

Normal Aircraft Movement

It’s just past the thanksgiving holiday here, which means a few things. One of those, is that eveyrone in my little universe (solar system, if we want to use a cosmic term that’s scaled somewhat appropriately. Actually, Florida is a cosmic term, because we’re all made up of star stuff in the first place, but back to the point) is fretting over things like final exams, final papers, final exams that look like papers, projects, design reviews, presentations that must be exactly 13 minutes long, and the like. It also means that some of us who thought we could both go home, and keep up with all of our work (ha!) just returned from a few days eating turkey and conversing with distant relatives. For me, returning from the homeland means getting on an airplane. In this case, an Airbus A320 operated by JetBlue Airways.

This is significant to my story for two reasons. One is that airbuses are terrifying beasts flown mostly by computers, and the other is, JetBlue provides their customers with complimentary (Which really means, you pay for it with the price of a ticket and we’ll call it free to make you feel better) cable on their flights. This is convenient for things like Sunday flights while your favorite team is playing, those can’t-miss NCIS reruns, and giving your small child some cartoons to look at so they don’t scream the whole flight. Ok, so it’s only conveinent for two of those things. I’ll let you guess how my flight was.

During the course of the flight, probably just after take off or just before touch down, you might notice that the service stops for a few moments. This is a heart wrenching moment when the mother next to you has briefed you on how her child flies with the words,”don’t worry she’s really a good flyer once the cartoons come on,” in any particular order. After a few seconds of wondering how long the child will in fact be making noise, you’ll notice the screen that comes up in place of the fancy moving pictures that were just a few inches from your face. It is a nice screen. It tries to explain to you that there is nothing to worry about, that, although some might find the disruption of a television stream to be warrent for anxiety and panic, you, sitting in the airplane chair, should not do those things. It does a good job.

The way it does this is by listing all the reasons why the signal could have stopped. (‘All?’, you ask. ‘Really? All?!’ Yeah, we’ll get to that.) It has some nice things, most of which I’ve completely forgotten. But one stuck with me. “Normal Airaft Movement.” It’s the first thing on the list The signal could have been disrupted from normal aircraft movement.

This struck me. I’ll admit, my first thought was,’that’s a silly thing to say.’ The signal could also be disrupted from unusual aircraft movement. It’s funny, the things we don’t think about. But, back to the normal aircraft movement. It’s funny the things we do think about. The logic that get’s us from “my airplane tv stopped working” to “the plane must be about to crash” eludes me.

The device that is responsible for the television working at all is pretty small. If you are boarding a flight in the near future, look our of the terminal window before boardning your plane. Take note of the small, unassuming hump on the top of the fuselage. (Like this one.) This, this little hump, is what gives you in flight wifi, cartoons, football, you name it. Let’s put this in perspective.

You’re flying on an airplane. Which means, that at any given time, you are sitting in a chair that is bolted to the interior of a fueslage that is strapped to some wings with engines that are marvel of engineering, moving at anywhere from 150 miles an hour to 550 miles an hour, at anywhere from 1 – 45,000 feet above the only place in the universe you’ve ever lived. The air outside is probably 70 or 80 degrees (fahrenheit) below 0. It contains so few air molecules, that you would be concious for only a matter of seconds were it not for the pressurized tube you’re in. The little hump on the back of the plane talks to a satellite, which is moving at some 17,000 miles per hour, making your 550 look stationary. The satellite then talks to a place on the ground. After exchanging brief plesantries, the satellite and the ground station decide to beam the television signal from the ground, to the satellite, to the little hump. The little hump is then relieved, because it frets about whether the satellite will return its calls due to their off-again-on-again relationship.

This state of being has become such a commonplace, that we need to be reassured that the television will come back on momentarily, because of ‘normal aircraft movement’. The fact that television exists inside of ‘normal aircraft movement’ at all is something that shoud keep your mind occupied for the couple hours you’ll be in the air. (If you’re flying internationally, there’s plenty of other things about airplanes to keep your mind occupied for the other hours.) We’ve forgotten that normal aircraft movement is such a feat of engineering that it’s incredulous that it exists at all.

Now, I get it. Airplanes fly all over the Earth every day. You might fly on them often. The televisions might be a nice way to pass the time, if you like football or NCIS reruns. I’m not saying they’re bad. I’m not saying that you should or should not watch them. What I am saying, is that when the signal that’s travelling from the little hump moving 550 miles an hour to the satellite – in space – moving at 17,000 miles an hour, to the ground station, and back, stops for a moment or two, look at the screen that says ‘normal aircraft movement’ and appreciate that. Or, if flying is the kind of thing that terrifies you, think about a field full of puppies. Thanks for reading.