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Posts Tagged ‘nasa’

Awe Arousing Appearance of Aurora

September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

I love aurorae. Possibly one of the most beautiful and spectacular natural phenomena to grace this planet.

Astronaut Ron Garan recently posted a fantastic photo of an aurora from Earth’s orbit on his Twitter feed:

One of the last pictures I took #FromSpace #Aurora - southern lights - dancing with #Orion 9/14/11 18:48 GMT

Makes me feel like a 9 year old kid again, wishing he could be an astronaut when he grows up.

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Ryan

Star Trek: 45 Years of Awesome!

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

It was 45 years ago today that we were first introduced to Star Trek (not counting “The Cage”; superfans know what I’m talking about).

The cultural and even scientific implications of Star Trek are incalculable. The first interracial kiss on television was shown on an episode of The Original Series between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura. Current devices like the tablet computer and catchphrases like “Beam me up, Scotty” all permeate our lives today. (Although, Kirk never actually said “Beam me up, Scotty”, but I digress.)

The Original Series, as well as the later incarnations, have been sources of inspriation and wonder for scientists, engineers, inventors, writers and countless others.

File:Enterprise free flight.jpg
The Space Shuttle “Enterprise” was named after the Starship “Enterprise”

I’m certain that my minor obsession with Star Trek led to my 6 (almost 7) years of studying physics at the University of Western Ontario. Science has always been a passion of mine, and my life is now better for it, and I owe part of that to Star Trek.

Personally, my favourite series was The Next Generation, and I think I am in good company. TNG benefited from seeing what worked for The Original Series, and giving it a good modernization.

File:TNGopeninglogo.svg

I also quite enjoyed Deep Space Nine. Opinions are quite divided on this series, but I felt the main story arc was a fresh detraction from tradional Trek that it was well worth watching.

Recently, I had a rousing game of “Star Trek: Scene It?” with some fellow nerd friends. When my team did not answer the final questions correctly (did you know that Lt. Reginald Barclay was on an episode of The A-Team?) we moved on to a discussion of what each of our favourite episodes were.

For me, the episode that sticks out the most is The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect”. The plot involves the crew of the Enterprise-D getting caught in a time loop and attempting to send messages to their “past selves” in order to break out of loop. The intensity of the episode is kept pretty high as the time loop always ended with the destruction of the Enterprise. (The episode also has a nice little cameo by Kelsey Grammar!)

So, what is YOUR favourite Trek episode? Any series, any season, lemme know!

Now, I think I will go celebrate the rest of this day by watching a few of my favourite episodes and enjoying a nice cup of tea.

Earl Grey.

Hot.

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REMINDER: This blog is moving! The new location is http://www.aquantumofknowledge.com/ 

Remember to update your subscriptions! This site will go dead on September 30, 2011. 

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Ryan

Last Shuttle Launch and A Comet Across the Sun’s Bow

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Some cool stuff happening in and around space these last couple days.

This video from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a comet streaking across the face of the Sun!!

And of course, the final shuttle launch EVER happened earlier today.

Screen grab of video from NASA website.

No More Tears in Heaven

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment
File:Astronaut-EVA.jpg

Photo: NASA/JPL

Drew Feustel, an astronaut currently in space with the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, had a small problem with his spacewalk on Wednesday.

Some anti-fog solution he had rubbed onto his visor started to flake off during the spacewalk. Since the anti-fog solution is really just dish soap, it caused a problem because it flaked off into his eye.

If you have ever gotten soap in your eye, you know its terrible, terrible sting.

Aside: I used to put dish soap on my glasses when I played hockey so they wouldn’t fog up. I didn’t realize this was a “space-age” solution.

So poor Drew’s eyes started to water. But because of the lack of gravity, the tears would not fall down, they just sort of hung around on his eyeball.

“Tears in space don’t run down your face,” he said, according to lead spacewalk officer Allison Bollinger

“They actually kind of conglomerate around your eyeball,” Bollinger recounted.

Eventually, he was able to rub his eye on a device inside his helmet to release the fluid from the surface of his eye.

So disaster averted. This indeed sounds like one of the ultimate #firstworldproblems

The Great Moonbuggy Race

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

NASA's 2011 Great Moonbuggy Race (April 1-2, 2011) - Photo: NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center

This past weekend in Huntsville, Alabama, the 18th Annual Great Moonbuggy race was held.

The fact that this has been going on for 18 years and I’ve only just learned about it, makes me sad.

The competition was inspired by the challenges which faced the designers of NASA’s first moonbuggy, which was shipped to the moon on Apollo 15.

Each Moonbuggy will be human powered and carry two students, one female and one male, over a half-mile simulated lunar terrain course including “craters”, rocks, “lava” ridges, inclines and “lunar” soil…

As a part of the competition, and prior to course testing, the un-assembled Moonbuggy entries must be carried to the course starting line, with the unassembled components contained in a volume of 4’x 4’x 4′ (dimension requirements similar to those for the original Lunar Roving Vehicle).

The College division was won for the second year in a row by racers from the University of Puerto Rico. Teodoro Aguilar Mora Vocational High School Team II of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, also won in the High School division.

More than 70 teams from 20 countries all over the world took part in the race this year; the largest turn out ever.

The Journal of Cosmology Strikes Back

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

So the Journal of Cosmology (JoC) has written a response to the criticisms of Richard Hoover’s paper claiming to have found fossilized alien bacteria in a meteorite.

They begin by stating that they are, indeed, a prestigious scientific journal.

The Journal of Cosmology is a Prestigious Scientific Journal

I dunno, but if you have to say that you are prestigious, then you probably aren’t. It’s kind of like Milhouse Van Houten saying that his mom thinks he is cool, or Ron Burgandy arguing his importance by stating he has “many leather-bound books”.

The paper itself has been very heavily criticized. Scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this year in Texas, regard it as “a dubious controversy that will do science little good”.

Meteoriticist Edward Anders, retired from the University of Chicago in Illinois stated in Science that

Despite [Hoover’s] generous sprinkling of fancy names, these structures are in a morphological no man’s land,

The blogosphere is responding in a similar fashion (including yours truly), with the consensus being that these claims are at best premature, and at worst they are outright bogus.

So in light of the large number of scientists showing doubt over the quality of Hoover’s research, the JoC felt it was necessary to respond directly to its critics. The title of their response is “Have the Terrorists Won?”

Umm…WHAT!?

You are comparing legitimate scientific criticism to terrorist attacks!? I’m already starting to feel sick, but let’s go further.

Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study…Tremendous efforts have been made to shout down the truth, and the same crackpots, self-promoters, liars, and failures, are quoted repeatedly in the media. However, where is the evidence the Hoover study is not accurate?

To paraphrase, the JoC is saying “prove to us its NOT true!” It is becoming abundantly clear that the editors of the JoC are hell-bent on believing this paper and are not willing to listen to any one else’s opinions.

Following the publication of Richard Hoover’s paper, what ensued could be likened to a rein [sic] of terror, a witch hunt, an inquisition designed to crush all discussion of his findings. There were even calls to “hang” Richard Hoover. Three hundred years ago, they would have burned us all at the stake.

Can you say “melodramatic”? The discussions on the legitimacy of Hoover’s work are somehow similar to a reign of terror or the with trials of the 16th to 18th centuries?

The silence is deafening. What prominent scientist would dare to publicly support Hoover’s findings, when they know that raving lunatics will be unleashed to destroy their reputation?

How can science advance in this country if NASA and the media promotes frothing-at the-mouth-attacks on legitimate scientists and scientific periodicals who dare to publish new discoveries or new ideas?

The Journal of Cosmology sought to promote science and scientific debate, but the scientific community is too frightened and terrorized to speak up.

It took courage to publish the Hoover discoveries. The Journal of Cosmology will continue to publish great theories and new discoveries.

The terrorists and the lunatic fringe have lost.

These sound more like the ravings of a conspiracy theorist than the commentary of a “prestigious” journal editor.

Their use of the historical references  in which the scientific consensus was proved wrong is the kind of faulty logic that many proponents of pseudoscience fall victim to. How many times have you heard the anti-vaxxers say that “tobacco was once considered safe”? That doesn’t mean vaccines cause autism, and just because there have been times in the past when scientists were proved wrong, doesn’t mean that every article published in the JoC is right.

Calling those who oppose your views “raving lunatics” and “frothing-at-the-mouth attacks” does not improve the JoC’s credibility, and only shows that they are set to believe this paper, whether we like it or not.

If I may channel the great Ron Burgandy once again: “Stay classy JoC. Stay classy.”

 

Mars Rover ‘Opportunity’ Seen From Orbit

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

I thought this was pretty cool.

The Mars Exploration Rover ‘Opportunity’ was captured in this image from the Mars Reconnasaince Orbiter while it was studying a crater.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter acquired this color image on March 9, 2011, of "Santa Maria" crater, showing NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity perched on the southeast rim. - Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Click for High-Resolution Version - Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Opportunity has been working on Mars since 2004, even though its initial mission length was only supposed to be 3 months.

Pretty damn impressive if you ask me.

What Does NASA Have to Say about the Meteorite “Bacteria”?

March 7, 2011 Leave a comment

If you’ve been following the drama around the Richard Hoover article in the Journal of Cosmology about fossilized alien bacteria in a meteorite, you may have been wondering what NASA thinks about all this.

I mean, Hoover works for NASA. They should have said something, right? Wouldn’t they want to get in on this publicity if they could?

Well the reaction has been less than positive. My review of the paper is that it is flimsy at best, and crap at worst.

But NASA did release a statement today about the paper. Via Spaceref:

“NASA is a scientific and technical agency committed to a culture of openness with the media and public. While we value the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry, NASA cannot stand behind or support a scientific claim unless it has been peer-reviewed or thoroughly examined by other qualified experts. This paper was submitted in 2007 to the International Journal of Astrobiology. However, the peer review process was not completed for that submission. NASA also was unaware of the recent submission of the paper to the Journal of Cosmology or of the paper’s subsequent publication. Additional questions should be directed to the author of the paper.” – Dr. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington

So they are basically saying that Hoover tried to publish this work a few years ago, and it didn’t make the cut. So NASA is distancing themselves from this claim as much as possible.

No one would be happier than me if evidence of alien life was discovered. But it hasn’t.

Alien Bacteria *Possibly* Discovered in Meteorite: UPDATE

March 6, 2011 5 comments

Filament structures found in the Orgueil meteorite - Dr. Riccardo Guerrero / Journal of Cosmology

So by now you’ve probably all heard about Dr. Richard Hoover, the NASA scientist who possibly has discovered alien bacteria in meteorites. Now that I’ve had a chance to read the paper itself and the opinions of some researchers more closely related to the fields of astronomy and, more importantly, biology, I want to give you a better idea of what this paper is saying.

Let’s start off with the journal itself, the Journal of Cosmology. It is a journal published entirely online, though it is technically peer-reviewed. However, the journal has been known to encourage the publishing of fringe ideas and scientists that jump the gun on certain conclusions about their data.

Take for example the supposed giant planet in the Oort cloud which was discussed last month. The paper was met with scorn and skepticism from a large group of scientists, including Phil Plait. A news article by Gabriel Beck on the Journal of Cosmology homepage had said this in response to the criticism:

The torches and pitchforks crowd, led by astronomer-wannabe Phil Plait claims its not so. But then, Plait’s most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer.

Not exactly a scientifically sound argument, nor something you would expect to read from a credible scientist reasonably discussing a paper. So the Journal of Cosmology is not impressing me, particularly since I love Phil Plait and actually try to model the style of this blog after his. In addition, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical about ANY finding. If your research is sound, then it should be able to stand up to the highest level of scrutiny and you shouldn’t get defensive.

But Beck’s pettiness aside, this does not discount Dr. Hoover’s research out of hand, so let’s look at the actual paper.

Essentially, the paper looks at two carbonaceous meteorites, named after the places they landed: Ivuna and Orgueil. Both meteorites were witnessed as they fell to the ground, and later recovered.

The meteorites were imaged using an electron microscope and the images examined. What Hoover found was that some of the images showed strange “filaments” in the structure of the meteorite. Upon further inspection, the filaments seemed to correspond with the general shape and size of certain species of bacteria.

Hoover believes that the filaments were not the result of contamination of Earthly bacteria after the meteorite landed because there was a definite lack of nitrogen in the samples. This is because nitrogen fixation is an essential part of the life cycle of “Earth-based” bacteria, and the level of nitrogen in the sample should be detectable for several thousand years. Since we know the dates on which these meteorites landed, the lack of nitrogen within the sample was evidence that the filaments were in the meteorite prior to it landing on the surface of the Earth.

In one of the meteorites (Orgueil) Hoover found structures within the filaments that resembled “heterocysts”, which are specialized cells used to fix nitrogen. Hoover says that

…the detection of heterocysts provides clear and convincing evidence that the filaments are not only unambiguously biological but that they belong to one of these two orders of cyanobacteria…

Another point Hoover makes is that the Orgueil meteorite is composed of certain minerals that dissolve when exposed to water. Since we know the meteorite landed in 1864, and that cyanobacteria generally require the presence of water to live, he suggests

that none of the Orgueil samples could have ever been submerged in pools of liquid water needed to sustain the growth of large photoautotrophic cyanobacteria and required for the formation of benthic cyanobacterial mats since the meteorite arrived on Earth. Many of the filaments shown in the figures are clearly embedded in the meteorite rock matrix. Consequently, it is concluded that the Orgueil filaments cannot logically be interpreted as representing filamentous cyanobacteria that invaded the meteorite after its arrival. They are therefore interpreted as the indigenous remains of microfossils that were present in the meteorite rock matrix when the meteorite entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

Those are the basic arguments. The paper then extends its assumptions far beyond the scope of the research to discuss how this finding could be indicative of life on comets or on Europa.

So as you have probably already gathered, there are some serious problems here. My biggest problem of the paper is that it is not quantitative. How many images in total did you take? How many filaments in total did you find? How many of them exhibit shapes resembling heterocysts? If there was a colony of bacteria in the meteorite, how many of these fossilized remains should we expect to see and how many of them should have structures resembling heterocysts?

I also have a problem with heterocyst structures themselves. Does it makes sense that a bacterium that is not from Earth would have a structure similar to what Earth-based bacteria use to fix nitrogen?

I will concede that these are strange structures in the meteorites. But given the huge diversity of bacteria, doesn’t it seem like it would be quite easy to take any structure that is remotely filament-like and match it with some type of bacteria?

The answers to these questions are not given. This could be because some of them are difficult questions with complicated answers, which is fair, but they do not seem to be addressed at all.

It comes down to the fact that Hoover is comparing filament structures in a meteorite to the shapes and sizes of certain bacteria on Earth. He is then making two conclusions:

  • That the filaments were there prior to the meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere and
  • That the filaments were caused by the fossilization of bacteria.

Consequently, there are 3 possibilities:

  1. Hoover is correct that these are fossilized bacteria of a non-Earth origin.
  2. The filaments were caused by bacteria contamination from Earth and the lack of nitrogen could be explained by something else.
  3. The filaments were caused by something other than bacteria, before or after the meteorite landed on the Earth’s surface.

Frankly, even though Hoover gives a few arguments as to why he thinks the filaments were caused by alien bacteria, I think possibilities 2 and 3 are much more likely. Simply because Hoover cannot come up with another explanation for the lack of nitrogen or the presence of what look like heterocysts does not warrant the conclusion that these are fossilized extraterrestrial bacteria. That is a huge leap and it is an extremely premature assertion.

But it is still early so we will see what the experts end up saying. PZ Myers already weighed in with his opinion in a blog post called “Did Scientists Discover Bacteria in Meteorites?”:

No.

No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.

No, no.

No.

He is chalking this one up to a glorified case of pareidolia.

In the end, it again comes down to “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

The claim is extraordinary. The evidence, unfortunately, is not.

Alien Bacteria *Possibly* Discovered in Meteorite

March 5, 2011 1 comment

It sounds too good to be true, especially since these kinds of claims have been made before.

But a paper published yesterday in the Journal of Cosmology by Dr. Richard Hoover, a NASA scientist who studies meteorites, claims to have discovered fossilized Cyanobacteria in a meteorite. His conclusion is that the fossils are not due to Earthly contamination, and that they are of a non-Earth origin, i.e. alien life.

Images of filaments found in a carbonaceous meteorite, believed to be fossilized bacteria - Dr. Riccardo Guerrero / Journal of Cosmology

The implications of such a discovery are huge. That is why the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cosmology has released a statement regarding this paper, saying that they will publish commentaries of the study by other experts:

Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover’s paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented. No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published. We believe the best way to advance science, is to promote debate and discussion.

Of course we shouldn’t start celebrating the discovery of life from outer space just yet. It is indeed a very interesting discovery, but let’s hold our excitement until after a large number of other experts have had a chance to look over the results.

I’ll write more about this after I actually read the paper myself and hear the opinions of other experts in the field. But as Dr. David Marais, another NASA scientist, told FoxNews,

“It’s an extraordinary claim, and thus I’ll need extraordinary evidence,” Marais said.

Carl Sagan couldn’t have said it better himself,

What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

UPDATE!

I’ve just written a second post about this topic. Not surprisingly, I’m more skeptical about this paper now. Check out my new post here.