Tag: Astronomy

Science Sunday: New Horizons Back Online

Well, that was a bit nervous-making:

NASA’s New Horizons mission is returning to normal science operations after a July 4 anomaly and remains on track for its July 14 flyby of Pluto.

The investigation into the anomaly that caused New Horizons to enter “safe mode” on July 4 has concluded that no hardware or software fault occurred on the spacecraft. The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby. No similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter.

I was bit worried when I heard New Horizons had gone into safe mode, but not terribly. Spacecraft almost always have a “safe mode” they can go into in case of an unexpected error. It’s basically a standby that keeps all the instruments and hardware from potentially being damaged while the ground teams figure out what has happened. In this case, it seems like the software didn’t quite time right (which happens; spacecrafts is complicated). So we’re back in business.

Safe modes are a bit nerve-wracking. But they’re not as nerve-wracking as silence. Thankfully, we appear to be back on track for a great flyby.

Science Sunday: Philae Revives

Great news from ESA:

Rosetta’s lander Philae has woken up after seven months in hibernation on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The signals were received at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt at 22:28 CEST on 13 June. More than 300 data packets have been analysed by the teams at the Lander Control Center at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

“Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available,” explains DLR Philae Project Manager Dr. Stephan Ulamec. “The lander is ready for operations.”

For 85 seconds Philae “spoke” with its team on ground, via Rosetta, in the first contact since going into hibernation in November.

When analysing the status data it became clear that Philae also must have been awake earlier: “We have also received historical data – so far, however, the lander had not been able to contact us earlier.”

Now the scientists are waiting for the next contact. There are still more than 8000 data packets in Philae’s mass memory which will give the DLR team information on what happened to the lander in the past few days on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Philae shut down on 15 November 2014 at 1:15 CET after being in operation on the comet for about 60 hours. Since 12 March 2015 the communication unit on orbiter Rosetta was turned on to listen out for the lander.

You may remember Philae as the spacecraft that descended to the comet and landed on the surface. The thought was that it landed at an angle in a crater and it’s solar panels were not well-illuminated. It did some experiments before running out of power but there was always hope that, as it got closer to the sun, the increased sunlight would be enough to revive it.

It looks, tentatively, like that’s happening. If so, it’s gravy on the lovely roast that has been Rosetta’s mission. We’ve already gotten tons of awesome data and breath-taking images. Now we’re might get even more.

Welcome back, Philae.

Science Sunday: Twin Spin

Two stories I want to highlight this week.

The first is some exciting news in cancer research. It’s been over four decades since President Nixon declared a “war on cancer” and while we have many treatments for it, of varying effectiveness, a “cure” is elusive. The biggest reason is that we’ve discovered that cancer is an incredibly complex panoply of conditions, some of which respond to certain therapies, some of which don’t. Last week, we heard about a therapy that’s having stunning results:

The 49-year-old woman had had three melanoma growths removed from her skin, but now the disease was spreading further. A several-centimeter-sized growth under her left breast went deep into her chest wall. Some of the tissue in the tumor was dying because of lack of blood flow.

Doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offered her an experimental combination of two drugs: Opdivo and Yervoy, both manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, both among a vanguard of new medicines that boost the immune system to attack tumors. Three weeks later she came back for her second dose.

“She didn’t say anything and when I examined her, I said, ‘Wait a minute!’” says Paul Chapman, the doctor who was treating her. “She said, ‘Yeah, it kind of just dissolved.’”

Where the tumor was before was, literally, a hole – a wound doctors hope will heal with time. Chapman took some fluid from it, and found there were no melanoma cells there. “I’ve been in immunotherapy for a long time, and we’ve talked and fantasized about reactions like this, but I’ve never seen anything this quickly,” he says. He skipped her next dose, and gave her two more before she stopped treatment because of the diarrhea the drug combination was causing. She has no detectable melanoma – amazing for a disease that has long been considered close to untreatable.

The drug is proving very effective, wiping about about 20% of the cancers its encounters. The results from an investigation into lung cancer were so effective that Bristol-Myers Squibb ended the trial early because it was unethical to withhold the drug from placebo patients.

This isn’t a “cure” but it is very promising. There are concerns, because the drug is very expensive ($250,000 per year of treatment). As McArdle points out, the new emphasis on cost effectiveness may limit access to the drug. But even if it only goes to the super rich for now, it’s blazing a path that other less expensive drugs might follow.

And people wonder where the money for prescription drugs goes.

In other news, this week marked the 25th birthday of the Hubble Space Telescope, which they celebrate with this spectacular image of Westerlund 2 (Click to see the full image):


I’ve written about Hubble before (here, here, here and here). It has challenged everything we thought we knew about the universe and thrown down the gauntlet for future missions. Happy Birthday.

Science Sunday: Super Civilizations

So I’ll kick off what I hope will be a regular feature here: science sunday, where I’ll blog about a recent scientific result I think is interesting. This week, I’ll blog on something a bit close to me.

(It’s a bit late this week since I’ve been chopping down trees, spreading mulch and dealing with a sick kid. But it’s still Sunday somewhere.)

One of the biggest questions in science — indeed in human history — is whether we are alone in the universe. I am convinced that we will soon find evidence of very simple life within our solar system — archaea or some other simple organism in martian fossils or in the seas of Europa, Ganymede or Titan. We have now detected thousands of planets beyond our solar system, including a number in the “goldilocks zone” where liquid water can exist. But detecting intelligent life is way beyond our current capabilities.


It might actually be possible to detect a sufficiently advanced civilization. SETI has looked in the radio for a long time with no results. But radio communication may be a short-lived phase for alien civilizations. What may be more plausible is looking for heat signatures:

One of the largest-ever searches for distant alien empires has scoured 100,000 galaxies for signs of suspicious infrared activity and found… nothing.

The study by Penn State used data from Nasa’s Wise (“Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer”) orbiting observatory to scour far-off galaxies for radiation which, astronomers theorise, would likely be produced if a civilisation were powerful enough to colonise thousands of stars.

The theory that aliens might be visible on a galactic scale is based on the ideas of physicist Freeman Dyson, who suggested in the 1960s that galactic civilisations would almost by definition use most of the starlight in their galaxy for their own ends. This should be detectable using mid-infrared telescopes. That wasn’t possible when Dyson’s theory emerged, but Nasa’s Wise telescope does have the ability to make close measurements for thousands of galaxies, and so allow scientists to study the data for telltale signs of life.

No, they didn’t find it. But scientists have found 50 galaxies with unusual radiation signatures, indicating something strange is happening inside many distant collections of stars — even if it’s nothing to do with aliens at all.

There have been a few other studies looking for the radiation signatures of nearby Dyson Spheres but there haven’t been any hints of anything yet.

An alien species would have had to have been around for millions of years for us to see the effects of their capturing vast amounts of starlight. So this is the extreme end of the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence. But with millions of galaxies out there, there’s at least a chance we could find one. It’s a million to one shot but if it ever paid off it would be an incredible discovery. And even it doesn’t, we’ll still learn a lot about galaxies.

From 9 to 8 to… 10?

WTF? After they demoted Pluto to a planetoid, are they about to tell us that there are two other planets in our solar system? Remember when they told us we had 9 planets in our solar system and that was settled? Let me tell you something: science is never settled. What will they call these 2 big planets out so far from the sun that they probably make Pluto look like the tropics? Maybe they can use the name of one of these cold ass crazy bitches I have been dating lately….

Hal, you know anything about these Spaniards and their research? Inquiring minds want to know.

Echoes of the Big Bang

The Universe got a little more amazing today. Thirty years ago, the theory of cosmic inflation was proposed. The idea is that, for about one billion billion billion billionth of a second, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light.

The inflationary theory explained a lot of things, such as the remarkable smoothness of the universe. And it had some interesting implications, such as the potential existence of other universes, perhaps with different laws of physics. But a scientific hypothesis isn’t really a theory until it has made a successful prediction.

That happened today:

Inflationary models predict that other marks were left on the Universe, and one of these is that as the Universe underwent rapid expansion, it would create ripples in the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves. These are literally small expansions and contractions of space itself, like a wave traveling down a Slinky. We know these exist—we see their effects in astronomy, and two astronomers won a Nobel Prize in 1993 for finding an example of gravitational waves—but seeing them coming from the inflationary period of the Universe is incredibly difficult.

We don’t see the waves themselves, but we can detect the effect they had on light coming from the early Universe. The waves would polarize the light, in a sense aligning the waves of light in certain ways. There are many different ways light can be polarized, but gravitational waves left over from inflation would do so in a very specific way (called B mode polarization, which twists and curls the direction of the polarization; see the image at the top of this post). Finding this kind of polarization in the light leftover from the fires of the Big Bang would be clear evidence of gravitational waves… and it was precisely this type of polarization that was finally detected by a telescope called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), located in Antarctica.

You should read Phil’s entire post. You should also watch this video of Andrei Linde, the father of inflation theory, getting the news that he was right.

Here’s the thing. BICEP2 closed shop two years ago. According to one source, they’ve have this result for three years but have spent those years making absolutely sure they were right. The patience involved in that relentless checking is amazing.

We live in a great time. First Higgs and now Linde vindicated by observations.

When Meteors Attack

We don’t say this enough in science: holy shit!

A meteor that exploded over Russia this morning was the largest recorded object to strike the Earth in more than a century, scientists say. Infrasound data collected by a network designed to watch for nuclear weapons testing suggests that today’s blast released hundreds of kilotonnes of energy. That would make it far more powerful than the nuclear weapon tested by North Korea just days ago and the largest rock crashing onto the planet since a meteor broke up over Siberia’s Tunguska river in 1908.

“It was a very, very powerful event,” says Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has studied data from two infrasound stations near the impact site. Her calculations show that the meteoroid was approximately 15 metres across when it entered the atmosphere, and put its mass at around 7,000 metric tonnes. “That would make it the biggest object recorded to hit the Earth since Tunguska,” she says.

Click through, my friends. There’s video of the meteor lighting up the sky and more video of the shockwave that shattered windows and injured over a thousand people. This likely happens fairly often (every few years or so) but is usually over areas that are uninhabited or covered in water. This ia also unusually well-documented because of the ubiquitous use of dash cams in Russia (a response to horrific traffic accident rates).

Much more from Phil Plait. There are the usual calls for more funding for research but part of that may already be underway with the private space mining consortium springing up.

We live in a dangerous universe. Occasionally, it reminds us.