Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Was the Cat ever on Mars for Curiosity to Kill?

The expression, "Curiosity killed the cat," is very common among us. But does it really?
This cat might be dead
A rover was recently sent up to mars to check if there was ever life on mars. It's looking for signs of life, love and the pursuit of happiness...oh wait wrong quote. But it is looking for signs of life or even signs of things to support life such as water. Curiosity is the name of the rover and it's on mars collecting rock samples and taking pictures just to see if mars is or ever was capable of supporting life.
A lovely picture showing the good side of Curiosity

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Everything's a Copy of a Copy

I don't watch movies very often. I cannot even tell you the last time that I have been to the movie theater. In fact, practically every movie that I have seen are because of my best friend from high school (who is now a film and theater major) and my college roommate from freshman year (who made it his job to educate me on only the greatest movies). Part of the reason I see very few movies is because only a good football game can hold my attention for two to three hours. The other reason has to do with the lack of creativity in today's movies. It seems that every storyline is a copy of a copy.

Don't worry, this rambling does lead to science, I promise... I just love Fight Club and wanted it in my blog somewhere.

Let's begin in 1992. FernGully: The Last Rain forest is a great cartoon involving fairies, beautiful rain forest, a goofy bat, and evil humans sent to destroy the land! That is until Zak, one of those evil humans, gets shrunk down to fairy size. He discovers that the forest is beautiful, and should not be torn down. The humans unleash a oil monster who operates the logging machine, which Zak (against all odds) must try to stop to protect the forest.
Hexxus, the evil oil-like antagonist, from FernGully

I think this movie has too many environmentalist undertones for my taste. If oil was in the form of a fiery cloaked skeleton who knew how to control a logging machine, I would be terrified as well. But I digress... 

Next movie, Disney's Pocahontas (1995). Coming to America in search for gold, Captain John Smith and his crew have little respect for the Natives of the land. Once Smith meets Pochahontas, they fall in love. Both the tribe and the settlers are not happy with each other, so they begin to fight. The settlers finally learn to live with the Natives rather than try to kill them for their gold.

Sounds familiar? If it doesn't, then how about we move forward to 2009. I guess James Cameron believed that 90's kids would forget their childhood movies, because Avatar seems eerily familiar. Don't wait for me to tell you, so check out the picture of the plot line compared to Pocahontas.

Now do you see my point? Hollywood continually reuses plot lines for new movies. Now here comes the science! Is it possible that scientific research is borrowing ideas from Hollywood? 

After discovering Planetary Resources, I would say yes. Their mission is simple, find near-earth asteroids that contain water or rare earth metals and mine them for their resources. The company believes that "Harnessing valuable minerals from a practically infinite source will provide stability on Earth, increase humanity’s prosperity, and help establish and maintain human presence in space." 

Now this company is still in the beginning phases, but they do have many wealthy contributors including Larry Page, Co-Founder of Google, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and who other than James Cameron. 


There is no other person on earth who is more qualified for this operation than the man who "wrote" and directed a movie about mining resources on other planets. I highly doubt aliens will be inhabiting the asteroids they mine, but better safe than sorry, right?

So Planetary Resources' objective looks promising on paper. They plan on launching satellites which will locate near-earth asteroids and determine their composition. Once these are determined, another satellite can attach to these asteroids to mine them. The resource that Planetary Resources is most interested in is water. Water from these asteroids can be used as rocket fuel, which will allow asteroids to serve as "interplanetary fueling stations." 

This water can also be used to propel asteroids closer to earth in order to retrieve rare-earth minerals. Propelling these asteroids to earth can be easily explained in the video below. Imagine the man is a mineral-rich asteroid, and the skateboard is the recently extracted water. When the water is used as a fuel, it is shot out into space, sending our mineral-rich asteroid to earth (the white car).

Naturally, this is going to be a costly endeavor. Planetary Exploration has done well in attracting interest in their goals, but the largest hurdle will be the technology that comes with mining asteroids. Until then, they are accepting job applications. (Notice the position General Space Nut)

I look forward to seeing what Planetary Resources does in the future. If they are successful, it will change the course of history in terms of resource scarcity for the better. Unfortunately, there will probably be a few more FernGully/Pocahontas/Avatar remakes by then.

What are your opinions on Planetary Resources' goal of mining near-earth asteroids?


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Low Friction... in Space!

Everybody loves low friction right? Without it cars wouldn't run well, machinery would come to a grinding halt, and men like this wouldn't have any fun at all.

In fact, almost everything we know and love wouldn't work correctly if low friction lubricants like oil hadn't been invented. It's a huge industry here on earth.

But what about in space? We don't want friction up there do we?

We certainly don't. But conventional lubricants won't work up there because of the low-gravity and extreme temperature differences encountered. None of the oil would stay where it needs to be, and it would gel up like strawberry jelly that's been sitting out too long. Neither of which are any good for the cause of reducing friction.

I recently had an opportunity to interview the owner of a high-tech coating company, Tribologix. They do very low friction coatings that are ingrained into the metal of the parts that have been coated. This makes for a great low friction surface that won't gum up, squeeze out of the part, or wear away over time. These coatings have been tested on the ISS, and the gears on the mars rover have been coated like this. There hasn't really been much research on lubrication and friction in space because, well, you have to test in space. The lubrication business has just begun to start testing in space to find better alternatives to the relatively poor space lubricants we have now.
A tribometer (friction tester) going to the ISS. Source
With more testing and development, making parts move in space will become easier and easier, and extremely costly failures like this won't happen nearly as much.

-Colin Downs

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mars Water Wars!!

Is there water on Mars? Well, according to Curiosity...no. But, there is evidence that there used to be some water or ice there. Our team was tasked with making a video related to this blog for our class. We brainstormed for a while and came up with a great idea for our video...Mars Water Wars. This isn't just some run of the mill boring video here friends, this is a masterpiece!

Our video is loosely based on Star Wars, but we have thrown in some extra creative material related to Mars. It's mostly just silly and fun, but there is some science thrown in this video if you pay attention. According to Athena Hessong's article found here, river rocks are formed by flowing water and other rocks bouncing into them. Our video is about finding these "river rocks" on Mars and figuring out there is water there.

Cool River Rocks
Finding river rocks on a planet is a clear indication that there was a river once present in that area. So in our video, we talk about how drilling in locations where river rocks are found is how our evil friend found his water. After this is discovered, an epic battle ensues so we can get the water and save our ship. We hope you enjoy our video as much as we enjoyed making it.

-Shane Giskaas

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Magnetics From Space

Everybody knows about magnets. We all have them on our refrigerators and people even do groovy things like this trick with them:

But the earth also has a magnetic field. The earth needs this magnetic field as it protects us from solar winds blasting us with energized particles that could strip our ozone away. it's made by the sloshing around of the earth's inner core. Some scientists wanted to quantify and measure magnetic fields by satellites because the magnetic fields change and vary even more over Africa and the South Atlantic Ocean. They use the data from the satellite to better understand how the field varies over time and in turn can help us to understand the goings-on in the earth under the surface. The super technical article with the data and results can be found here.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

I Want It All, And I Want It Now!

Humans have always wanted to know everything about anything, especially when it comes to things they knew were much greater than themselves. Take the stars for instance. Try to imagine being a Greek back around 400 BC or so. Besides having great abs, all you needed to do was look up during the night at all the stars and you could immediately recognize the "known" universe, constellations, and nearby planets.

How am I supposed to see the constellations with all this rain?
The problem is, human nature made us want to know more, so a millennium later, a man by the name of Galileo Galilei decided to improve the telescope and use it to look out at the night sky. What did he find? Well he discovered a lot of stuff that made a lot of people mad, like agreeing with Copernicus on the heliocentric model. He also found that Jupiter was indeed a planet with its own moons and that Saturn had rings. So what happened next? It took some years and development in telescope technology, but the discovery of new stars, planets and even whole galaxies, skyrocketed.

Lets fast forward to 1988. Gas is $0.91 per gallon, new houses cost $91,600, Michael Jackson came out with "Dirty Diana," and Crack Cocaine and Prozac appear (that sounds like one crazy year). But something else happened in '88, something that actually turned heads when talking about aliens, Canadian astronomers Bruce Campbell, G. A. H. Walker, and Stephenson Yang discover a planet orbiting the star Gamma Cephei using radial-velocity observations, the first confirmed extrasolar planet.
Artist's concept of the extrasolar planet, Gamma Cephei AB, with the Gamma Cephei star in the background.
So lets review the ways new planets were discovered that we've talked about. There was simply looking up at the sky, using a telescope, and observing something called radial-velocity. There's many more ways to do it, like using IR to find "invisible" planets as talked about in our post Predator Vision. This brings us to the real topic of today's post, technique 3720 on finding new planets in our vast universe: pinpointing the source of Gamma Rays.

A group of over 170 scientists (mainly physicists) from USA, Italy, Sweden, Japan, and France discovered a way to find new planets in the depths of our universe by tracking this insanely high energy radiation. They used the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) to detect pulses of gamma radiation at various energy levels. This "super group" of scientists chose to search at random energy levels and random areas of space, basically a "blind" test, to find previously unknown sources of these radiation pulses.
Think of the brown dog as a gamma ray pulse and the yellow dog the LAT randomly searching an area of space, hoping to find the gamma radiation.
The end result of these blind searches was the discovery of 16 gamma ray pulsars (as of 2009, reportedly 70 were found as of 2010). A pulsar is the source of the gamma radiation, typically neutron stars or supernova remnants. Now why is finding a neutron star that emits gamma rays important? The frequency that these gamma rays pulse are so precise and rigid, that any small disturbance may indicate an orbiting planet!

Using this technique, and of course the many other techniques out there, humans just may be able to fully map out our galaxy's planets and stars.

Whats next? The mapping the entire universe of course.

Human intentions sound similar to Brain's if you think about it...

Are Saturns Rings Made of Cardboard??

We've all been to Starbucks and gotten a super hot cup of coffee. We pick it up expecting to taste greatness only for the cup to scorch our tender hands! What do we do in this situation? Well we reach for that dreamy little cup jacket to protect our delicate paws.

Hot model with Starbucks hand protector sleeve

The model in the photo above has her hands protected by a neat little invention...cardboard! But this isn't just any type of cardboard, this is magical corrugated cardboard. It looks like waves on the inside and it is a heat transfer work of art.

Amazing coffee sleeve close-up
I'm sure by now you're saying "Cool story Chewblagga, but what does this have to do with Saturn??" Well my friends, as you are aware, Saturn has "rings" around it. These rings are made up of tiny chunks of ice, rocks, and dust. A video with more information about the rings and their composition can be found here.

In August of 2009, NASA spacecraft Cassini was cruising around Saturn taking pictures of the rings from different angles and sending pictures back to Earth. What they found from a few photos of the "C" ring was something they hadn't expected. It was almost as if the ring was made of water and somebody had dropped a pebble in the water creating ripple type waves. Well, a few guys form Cornell thought this was pretty interesting and decided to do a research paper on it which can be found here. The waves were created as a result of Saturn tilting and then something rather large colliding with the ring as it was tilting. Shown to the right is a cartoon representation of what the authors believe the creation of the ripples looked like. The top picture shows the tilt and a slight distortion caused by something hitting it on the left side. When the planet tilted back to the right, the ripple began to form. As the planet tilted back and forth, the waves continued to propagate. The waves ended up looking very similar to corrugated cardboard.

The waves remain present today and interestingly enough, Saturn's "D" ring has the same ripple effect. It is possible that the same object created the ripple in both rings, but that object would have to be very large (like the empire state building hurling through space and hitting the rings).

In the end, Saturn's rings and cardboard don't have too much in common. Although they are both made up of tiny materials that conglomerate into something larger, the rings are mostly rock and cardboard is paper. It is still fascinating to me that a pool of organized rocks can be rippled by a collision like a pond ripples when a pebble is tossed in. The universe is mysterious to me and I'm excited to see what waits around the next corner.

-Shane Giskaas