The Science from Columbia

Ten years ago today, my younger self sat down on a bean bag in front of the telly. I tuned into BBC News 24. A Space Shuttle was about to land, and I was going to watch it live.

I was only 12, and had recently been captivated by the Space Shuttle Program. I’d get up in the middle of the night, watch, and record on VHS, shuttle launches. They were enthralling. Now I sat down to watch, what I think should have been, my first shuttle landing. The date: Saturday 1st February 2003.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Everything seemed to be going smoothly, but as it progressed there were no pictures of the shuttle passing through 200,000ft. Still, I didn’t know any better. A few minutes later the time remaining to landing hit zero. Then the horrific pictures started to come in. The Space Shuttle Columbia had been lost.

Unlike the majority of Space Shuttle missions at the time, to develop the International Space Station, this mission was purely scientific. It carried the SPACEHAB module, where all of the experiments would be conducted. There were biological sciences, life sciences, combustion sciences, atmospheric sciences, physical sciences experiments and more to be conducted on this mission.

A lot of data was lost when Columbia disintegrated, but some data was downlinked during the mission, some of which is helping us down here today. Some include:

  • Combustion chemistry experiments have helped to develop cleaner burning engines
  • Experiments involving soot and how it can be used as a useful industrial product
  • An atmospheric experiment discovered a new atmospheric phenomena called Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red
  • An experiment looking into the use of fine water mists to aid firefighting techniques
  • An experiment into the development of prostate cancers

The results of these experiments have benefited us down here on Earth, and so I’d like to thank the crew of STS-107 for their efforts to further the human race.

Per Ardua ad Astra

Sources: NASA Space Research, Freestar ReportScience Gained from STS-107

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Why are Museum Gift Shops Filled with Non-Scientific Crap?

We all love a good museum or cave system to wander around. At least I do anyway! The history, the geology and even the prehistoric anthropology is astonishing. Your guide takes you around telling you about the immense aeons of time required to make wonder cave systems. You come out with new scientific awe, learning things you never knew before. So was my day with the family today at Kents Cavern. A fantastic place and one of the most important places on the planet with regards to human history. Go visit!

You then find yourself in the gift shop though. What utter crap. Crystals for crystal healing, mood rings, horoscopes and general non-science bullshit. Why? Why do superb scientific centres fill their gift shops with utter crap? I genuinely want an answer?

The same happened when a visited a geological and fossil museum in Glen Coe, Scotland. Wondrous science and then utter crap. Sometimes the crap sits right next the proper science books though.

I end up tutting and seething with anger. Places of scientific enquiry shouldn’t be filled with this stuff.

Someone, please find me an answer!!!

Curiosity’s Mission So Far – In Timelapse

One of the best things about the Curiosity mission is that the folks at JPL make all (and I mean every single last one) of the raw images available to the public to download and play around with. Indeed, this is what a lot of space bloggers have been doing like Emily Lakdawalla and @mars-stu‘s Gale Gazette (both are essential reading). I noticed however that a timelapse had yet to be done.

So, on my day off the other day with nothing much to do, thanks to the rain, I spent a few hours downloading every single (or the majority of) images from Curiosity’s left navigation camera. Slap em together at 6 frames per second, add some music and this is what you get…enjoy.

I am also working on a front hazard camera timelapse, but you will need to wait for more photos to be taken as there haven’t been as many yet. Stay tuned.

Welcome to the new Mars

A nuclear powered rover, the size of a mini, has landed on the surface of Mars. It pulled off one of the most complicated landings ever attempted. I still can’t quite believe they did it. For me this event topped off anything and everything that has happened at this years’ Olympics.

Landing the Mars Science Laboratory rover was, by any measure, the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration.

We’ve got at least 2 years of amazing discoveries ahead of us (it could last for a decade or more though). Every time we’ve landed on Mars we’ve seen Mars anew. And here she is:

Welcome to the new Mars

There will be better, full panoramic images to come in the coming days, so be sure to check out the MSL homepage.

And to those of you who think this is a waste of money, that we won’t benefit from this at all, and that the money should have been spent on more ‘worthwhile’ things, please read this.

It is far better to dare mighty things even though we might fail than to stay in the twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

 

 

The Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror

It’s a little over a month until NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory), lands on the surface of Mars (Anticipated landing time is 0531 GMT, 0631BST on the 6th August – subject to refinement).

The hardest part of this mission? Entry, Descent and Landing. Curiosity will hit the Martian atmosphere at a little over 13,000mph and it’s got to get to 0mph…in 7 minutes. This fantastic video shows you the difficulties that will be faced and the technology designed to overcome it. Trust me, you’ll be impressed!

I’m thankfully on a day off on the said date, and will be getting up early to follow the EDL’s progress and the first pictures that come through. I think the hashtag #MarsCuriosity will be used on Twitter. So join in!

And so the Noctilucent Cloud Season of 2012 begins…

What are these noctilucent clouds? Well, I’m sure you can easily deduce it. That’s right they are ‘night-shining clouds’. And now is the start of the season for them (they only occur in the northern hemisphere between June and August). These simply aren’t your normal clouds though, these are something special.

Noctilucent Clouds

First of all they are the highest clouds in the atmosphere. They occur in an area called the mesosphere (they’re also called polar mesospheric clouds for this reason). The mesosphere sits atop the stratosphere which itself sits atop the troposphere (which is where all other clouds and weather form). So these things are pretty high up, 75 – 85km up in fact.

So why do these things ‘night-shine’? It’s pretty simple really, they occur so high up that if you were where they were you’d be able to see the Sun. So they simply reflect the sunlight they’re seeing down to us.

The problem is is that not a lot is known or understood about these clouds, how they form and so on. The best thing though is that you can help. There’s a lovely little Facebook community who go out and report and photograph sightings. There’s also a very useful forum if you wish to know more.

So become a citizen scientist for the summer and help us learn more about these peculiar clouds!

Looking Back at Planet Dinosaur

Explaining why we think Spinosaurus hunted in water. Credit: BBC

I’ve been re-watching the BBC’s recent series ‘Planet Dinosaur‘. It’s basically a new, modern version of Walking with Dinosaurs. The thing to note is is that they are actually completely different. Walking with Dinosaurs told us what the dinosaurs did, how they lived and so on. Planet Dinosaur does the same but with one important additional feature. They provide the evidence. Parts of each episode swipe away to look at the fossils, so we can see what kind of predator attacked this type of herbivore because of the bite marks left behind, and similar things along these lines.

Explaining the Predator/Prey Relationship. Credit: BBC

In one episode they even manage to get the complex analysis of oxygen isotope data across to show you that a land based predator hunted in the water. Impressive stuff, the graphics are pretty immense too. It’s also narrated by John Hurt, who narrated Human Planet.

So once again, well done to the BBC, a truly corking job.
The series is available on iTunes too at the moment for only £7.99