December 2008

Stephen Hawking On The Possibility Of Alien Life

Bad news for all who have put stock in the tales and theories revolving around Alien abduction: Steven Hawking, while commenting upon the 50th anniversary of NASA, called such stories the product of "weirdos." Even I will admit to feeling a tad heartbroken at such a remark coming from the revered physicist, thinking at first that he was dismissing the very thought of alien life itself. Not that I have piled all of my chips in said claims, but there have been times in my life when I desperately wanted them to be true. I grew up in space, not literally of course but in grand works of fiction, both literary and cinematic, that regaled the swashbuckling tales of futuristic heroes and heroines. Now, I also had enough legitimate astronomy texts and an elementary grasp on the physics of space travel to know that tales such as those would likely never happen within my life-time, if ever at all. But I had always hoped that at some point, I'd be able to witness some sort of 'First Contact,' no matter how small it was.

Liquid Photographed on Titan?

In 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Saturn's moon, Titan. It snapped pictures for an hour before its power ran out. Wired News is reporting that one of the images has been announced as proof that methane exists in liquid form on the moon. Astronomers have cause to believe that there might be a full environmental cycle of liquids on Titan, similar to what we have on Earth. Except where Earth's cycle involves water, Titan's cycle would involve methane. Methane would evaporate from the surface, form into methane clouds, fall back to land as methane rain, and gather in methane lakes. Titan has observable clouds and lakes, so the question is whether methane mingles between the two. If so, Titan may be supporting life at the microscopic level. On earth, microbes that live off methane do quite well for themselves.

Researchers Refute "Space Elevator" Concept

New Scientist has published a report which deems the concept of a space elevator unsound. This adds another salvo to the eternal "Would It Work?" debate which has been raging through the science (not to mention the science fiction) community for years. Many people have proposed a space elevator as a permanent, cost-effective alternative to using various forms of flight to reach space. In the typical scenario, a tether is attached to the planet (firmly, one would hope) at one end, and to a counterweight at the other end. The counterweight is a big object in geosynchronous orbit, which keeps it in a fixed position above the anchor pad. A variety of different vehicles could then traverse the tether, ferrying passengers and materiel into space at a fraction of the cost of, say, a shuttle launch.

Cool Space Station Stuff

Sapporo, the Japanese beer-maker, has brewed "Space Beer" entirely from barley grown on the Space Station. The beer has a 5.5% alcohol content. There are only 100 liters of the special Space brew, so don't look for it in the U.S. anytime soon. There's something enormously fun about the fact that one of the first things humans do upon reaching space is figure out how to make beer.

What is Machholz 1 and Why is It Interesting?

In the field of cosmology, some chunks of gas and dust are fascinating enough to be named. One in particular has been of interest to scientists since its discovery in 1986. It is an unusual comet called Machholz 1. Unusual is Relative Our solar system has its fair share of comets. Until recently, all of them have been classified into two categories. The majority of the comets observed in our solar system have a chemical composition that favors water ice. The estimated average H2O content of the first class of comets is 10^13 of ice. The second class of comets are distinguished by the notable presence of carbon molecule depletions, giving them the title "Carbon-Chain Depletion Comets". Why the difference? The current consensus is that comets develop different chemical composition based on where they typically reside. Class 1 comets are believed to have formed in the vicinity of our system's gas giants and subsequently traveled to the Oort Cloud where many of them remain.

Endeavor is Home for the Holidays!

After traveling more than six and a half million miles in sixteen days, the space shuttle Endeavor landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California, on Sunday the 30th of November. Originally scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center, the weather didn't cooperate so NASA had to change the original re-entry and landing plans. Endeavor will be ferried home on a Boeing 747, probably later this week. You can find mission pictures here.

I always breathe a sigh of relief when a shuttle takes off or touches down safely. Since the Challenger exploded just after launch in 1986, and the Columbia re-entry disaster in 2003, there's been that awareness of tension about the danger our explorers face, and that poignant sense of waiting and hoping for their safe return. It's always been part of the experience of those who stay behind, I suppose.