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!

The Need for Scientific Literacy

When a layman gazes up at the night sky they see these little points of light in this blackness. When someone who’s scientifically literate gazes up at the night sky they see these enormous suns, and galaxies, and magnetic fields, the fusion, the interaction of molecules, the collisions of black holes, the destruction of solar systems and immense distances…and great mysteries.

That was an adaptation of something Joan Feynman said in an episode of Horizon in 1993 and it really hits the nail on the head (although it isn’t the entire story here). If you’re scientifically literate you understand a lot more about the world.

But what do we mean by being scientifically literate? (Or more what is it I think it should mean) Is it the ability the recite facts: the Earth is round, Mercury is the innermost planet, leaves have chlorophyll in them, radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. In a way, yes, it is partly this. These are facts everyone should know (there are ofcourse many more people should know) but what I think is really important is for people the understand the scientific method and to be sceptical. That’s how science works and to ask the right questions.

Broadly speaking the scientific method works be guessing something (a new law for example), then you see what that new law would imply, and then you compare it to experimentation to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it’s wrong.

The next step is asking the right question. For example, you’re ill and someone suggests crystal healing (putting some crystals under your pillow) do you say ‘cool, i’ll try that’ or do you ask ‘hmm, how does that work?’

In my opinion if these two simple principals can be entwined into the education system, the world will be a slightly better place.

Here’s Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing scientific literacy a bit further.

The Secrets of Gale Crater: Why Curiosity Isn’t Looking for Life

The Mars Science Laboratory Rover ‘Curiosity’

It’s about four months until Curiosity, NASA’s new Mars rover, plunges into the thin Martian atmosphere at a good few thousand miles per hour, releases a parachute and then finally uses a retro-rocket jet pack to place her safely down on the surface…hopefully (watch this great video of the landing sequence). She’s a well equipped machine with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator as her power source and a large swathe of spectrometers, microscopes, cameras and sensors. All these gadgets aren’t going to help her look for life though. Why is that? Why hasn’t NASA loaded a Martian rover, sent it Mars (somewhere where we think life may be) and decided not to go hunting for it? It all stems back to NASA’s first missions to land on Mars, the Viking missions, back in 1976. These were two landers that were equipped to look for life. What went wrong?

Mars from Viking 2

The Viking landers consisted of 3 biology experiments along with two other supporting instruments. I want to focus on one of the biology experiments and one of the supporting instruments. I should note first though that two of the biology experiments provided results consistent with non-biological processes. The two aspects I’m focusing on are the labelled release (LR) biology experiment and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS).

A GCMS is a device used to identify different substances in a test sample and the LR experiment was designed to test for metabolic activity of any microorganisms that consumed nutrients that were provided by the experiment. The results were confusing and yet intriguing.

The LR experiment produced results showing positive life detection. The experiment basically involved a small sample of ‘soil’ being moistened with a nutrient of distilled water and organic compounds that had been labelled with radioactive 14C. Any microorganisms that appeared would consume the nutrient and give off gases containing 14C. In the actual experiment labelled gas was emitted (suggesting the presence of microorganisms) but further additions of nutrient caused the gas level to decrease and then increase slowly again. This was very bizarre if this was due biological activity.

The GCMS, however, didn’t find any evidence of organic compounds at the surface thus making all the biology experiments redundant as they were designed to test organic matter.

This is all a very confusing result. One experiment saying there’s no organic matter so there can be no life whilst another says there could be life here. It’s now thought however the the LR experiment can be explained non-biologically and that all the biology experiments showed chemical processes.

So the overall result? Inconclusive. Although some scientists have started to question the LR experiment recently saying that it did actually find life (see ‘Is this proof of life on Mars?‘). They don’t seem to answer questions about there being no organic matter though.

NASA have since taken the view of ‘follow the water’. They don’t want to spend millions or billions of dollars on a mission to get another inconclusive result. So they’re more recent missions have been to understand the geology and chemical processes, and to figure out where the water has been. After a while we may find evidence of an area that could have extant or extinct life, only then will NASA be confident enough to send a life searching mission to Mars.

Gale crater with Curisoity’s landing site

Gale crater, Curiosity’s destination, is an interesting place though. It appears to have been an old lake bed where sediments have been laid down over long periods of time when Mars had water. A good habitat for life? Possibly, but we’re not going to find out conclusively for a long time yet.

My Favourite Places in the Solar System

Here I’m going to show you some of my favourite places in our solar system. They’re in no particular order, partly because I don’t think I can pick out an absolute favourite. I’ll provide some pictures for each and briefly describe why I think they’re interesting places.

  • Pele Volcano, Io – Jovian Moon

Pele Volcano, Io

Io is a pretty interesting place. Due to various gravitational interactions it is the most volcanically active place in the solar system. Because it’s quite small, volcanic plumes can reach 300 odd kilometers high, as opposed to a few 10’s of thousands of feet on Earth. The most notable aspect about this volcano though is the large red/orangey ring surrounding it (as can be seen in the picture). This is the sulphurous fallout from the volcanic plume. Pretty good start, right?

  • North Polar Region, Saturn

Hexagonal Cloud Pattern

No ice caps up on the poles on Saturn, it’s too big. It’s one of the gas giants. It still has a rather unique and interesting feature though. It’s called the ‘north pole hexagonal cloud pattern’. Not very catchy at all, is it? But it’s a truly bizarre feature. Each straight side of the hexagon is about 14,000km long, making them larger than the diameter of the Earth! No one quite yet knows exactly how it formed or how it works, however, although there are plausible theories.

  • 433 Eros, Near-Earth Asteroid

The Asteroid Eros

Eros is only here because I remember the photos coming through, when I was 10, when the NEAR spacecraft landed on its surface. Some of the larger rocks found on the asteroid are all thought to originate from a single crater from a meteor impact about 1 billion years ago. The asteroids got a pretty funky shape too.

  • Olympus Mons, Mars

Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons just had to make it in here. It’s the tallest mountain in the solar system (technically an extinct volcano) that stands a whopping 22km high, that’s 3 times the height of Everest! How does a volcano grow to be so big? It’s mainly thanks to Mars’ lower gravity. Lava doesn’t rush down at such a speed so has longer to cool in a given place. Also, it’s thanks to a mantle plume that used to sit beneath the volcano. This is where magma rises from the deep to the surface. We have these mantle plumes on Earth, but because of plate tectonics they move around and don’t stay in one fixed location, which is partly why we don’t have anything as impressive!

  • Verona Rupes, Miranda – Uranian Moon

Miranda

Now for one not so well known. We venture much farther out to a moon orbiting Uranus, Miranda. We’ve only had a brief glimpse of Miranda, thanks to the Voyager 2 spacecraft, so not all of it has been imaged. It’ll probably be another 50 or more years before that’s done. But from what we’ve seen it looks like a pretty cool place, it’s got some interesting geological features, in fact it’s the most geologically diverse moon of Uranus. Verona Rupes is the tallest cliff in the solar system, up to 10 km high. Imagine looking all the way up at that! It’s not known how it formed, although it’ll either be from an impact or crustal lifting.

  • Kraken Mare, Titan – Saturnian Moon

Radar Image of Kraken Mare, Titan

Titan ranks as possibly the most interesting place in the solar system. It’s the second biggest moon around (larger than the planet Mercury) and it’s enveloped in a thick atmosphere, thicker than the Earth’s. Titan’s sometimes referred to as a primordial Earth in deep freeze. That’s because it’s thought to resemble how the Earth looked a couple billion years ago, but in deep freeze. The most unique feature though is in relation to its temperature. At  about -175°C methane can remain in 3 different states – a gas, a solid and a liquid, much like water can on Earth. As a result there are large icy patches of frozen methane, a nitrogen atmosphere with many different hydrocarbons and there are large lakes of liquid methane, of which Kraken Mare is the biggest. It’s also the only other place in the solar system where it rains. Not water but methane, which drifts slowly down because of its lower gravity. What an amazing sight that would be!

  • The Rings of Saturn, Saturn

The effects of a moonlet on one of Saturn’s rings

What would this be if we didn’t discuss the majestic rings of Saturn? Made from trillions upon trillions of ice particles, some microscopic some up to a few metres in length, they are so bright because they’re mainly made from water ice and reflect a lot of the Sun’s light. They’re incredibly thin too, no more than a few metres thick! Amazing for such a vast system of rings. It’s thought over time these particles coalesce and then break apart, and the cycle continues. Some of Saturn’s little moonlets cause bizarre gravitational patterns in the rings too, and this is also partly why there are gaps between some of the rings. The moon Enceladus also provides material for one of the rings. More on that shortly though. The biggest question though? No one really knows how the rings go there in the first place.

  • Tycho Crater, The Moon

Central Peak of Tycho Crater

The only reason this one made it in is because of a photo taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter a few months ago. It’s quite a young crater (just over 100 million years old), easily seen with the naked eye and a favourite observing point for amateur astronomers. The crater has a central peak. This is where, moments after the impact that created it, material from deep below rebounded forming a small mountainous area in its centre. This is typical of most large impact craters. LRO took a photo of this central peak, and you can see so much detail that you can even make out a large boulder right at the top it. Impressive stuff, huh? (Click on the image to see the bigger, better version)

  • Tiger Stripes, Enceladus – Saturnian Moon

False colour image of the jets from the Tiger Stripes

Enceladus is a pretty special place. It’s a tiny little moon, so tiny in fact that it would nicely fit in the North Sea between the UK and Scandinavia. Like the gravitational interactions that make Io active though, Enceladus is active. Not with volcanism but with cryovolcanism (basically icy volcanoes – counter-intuitive, I know, but it really does happen). The Tiger Stripes are where it’s most active. Heat from inside melts icy products and a phenomena similar to geysers on Earth are produced, launching the icy products out into space. This creates Saturn’s outermost ring, the E ring. Due to the gravitational interactions warming the moons interior up it’s also possible that a liquid water ocean exists beneath the surface!

  • Conamara Chaos, Europa – Jovian Moon

Conamara Chaos, Europa

Another world shaped by cryovolcanism now, Europa, the moon lying slightly further out than Io. Whilst not as active as Io, and a tad cooler too, Europa remains the most exciting place in the solar system for the possibility of life. It has a thick icy surface, below which probably lies a massive liquid water ocean. If this exists, which is quite likely the case, then life, extraterrestrial life, could be there too. Chaos terrain is called as such because it’s pretty chaotic, there’s a lot that has been going on, as can be seen by the image. The area consists of icy rafts that have moved around and rotated, it’s all surrounded by a ‘matrix’ of jumbled up ice blocks too. Pretty hectic indeed!

  • Cantaloupe Terrain, Triton – Neptunian Moon

Triton’s south polar cap and cantaloupe terrain

Well I’ve got include a place that has such a cool name, haven’t I. This terrain on Triton is named Cantaloupe terrain because it looks like the skin on a cantaloupe melon! Triton is Neptune’s largest moon and it has a mysterious past. The moon goes the wrong way around the planet. Could it be a captured Kuiper belt object, now locked into orbit? Or did Neptune devour another planet billions of years ago and steal one of its moons? What is interesting about this place though is that its geologically active, again with cryovolcanism. It has geysers expelling nitrogen. These geysers appear to be powered by solar heating, which is odd because it’s so far away from the Sun, it seems to have a profound effect though! The Cantaloupe terrain itself is thought to have formed by a process called diapirism, similar to how a lava lamp works.

  • Taurus-Littrow Valley, The Moon

Orange soil on the Moon!

Back to the Moon now and the landing site of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the Moon. This makes it in here because of something very interesting Jack Schmitt found (the only scientist to have been to the Moon). We all think of the Moon as a fairly mundane place. It’s just grey and boring…or so it seems. During Apollo 17, the astronauts came across not grey, but orange soil! This orange soil is made up from volcanic glass beads that erupted and solidified in fire fountains during the areas early formation about 4 billion years ago.

  • Valles Marineris, Mars

Topographic image of Valles Marineris

Another of Mars’ unique landscapes. This is one of the greatest valleys in the solar system. You could fit the Grand Canyon into one of the Valles Marineris’ tributaries! It’s 4,000km long, 200km wide and reaching down to 7km deep! It’s thought that this great valley was created by what’s known as rift faulting – that’s responsible for the rift valley too. Erosion by water in Mars’ earlier days may also have helped too.

  • Cassini Regio, Iapetus – Saturnian Moon

The two halves of Iapetus

And last but not least is Iapetus. This is a moon of two deeply contrasting halves. One side is dark and the other a bright white. There’s also has a strange ridge that runs half way around its equator. The dark part of the moon, known as Cassini Regio, is a thin covering of material, only about 10cm thick, that it thought to come not from Iapetus elsewhere. It’s thought that there is also some residue making it up too that has been left behind by the evaporation of surface ice. The ridge is a great complication as it’s not known how it formed, or why it formed nearly exactly around the equator. What we do know though is that it contains some of the tallest mountains in the solar system!

I’d really like to know some of your favourite places, especially if I haven’t mentioned them. Leave them as a comment below along with a brief reason as to why it’s your favourite. 

Science off the Sphere

My favourite astronaut is back in space. That’s right, the legendary Don Pettit (@astro_Pettit) is up on the International Space Station on Expedition 30. He previously was one of the engineers on Expedition 6 in 2002/03.

Don Pettit is a pretty incredible guy, he has so much enthusiasm for science, more than Brian Cox! It’s what he does in his spare time on the station though that’s most impressive. As can be seen in videos, he’s constantly pondering experiments and things to test in the zero-g of space. In the short amount of time off the astronauts have he films videos showing and explaining amazing scientific phenomena. Back on Expedition 6 he did ‘Science Friday’s‘, and now on Expedition 30 he’s doing ‘Science off the Sphere‘.

It’s truly is amazing the things we’re missing out on down here. In his first video of this expedition he demonstrates some interesting facts about knittin’ needles and water. And what’s best, he gets you involved too. He leaves a question to be answered at the end and you get to contact him with your answer.

Not many astronauts have done anything similar to Don, which is a shame, because it’s really important. It gets not only interesting facts across but gets younger people interested in science, gets them asking themselves questions and so on. This is something that should be continually encouraged.

I’ll leave you with two of his latest videos. First, the knittin’ needle experiment (watch it just to hear how he says knittin’ needle, it’s amazing!) and then his latest video on how astronauts can drink from cups (something previously not possible, it had to all be done through straws). Enjoy.

What do we mean by Earth 2.0?

Over the past few years we’ve started to make some truly remarkable discoveries. Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope we’re starting to discover the first Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars in the galaxy. We must tread forward carefully though, calling some of these planets Earth’s twin is dangerous, and we’re at risk of not realising the importance when we find the real thing.

The problems started last year with the announcement of the first Earth-like planet, Gliese 581g. The unfortunate thing is is that this planet probably doesn’t exist. More recently Kepler has discovered Kepler-22b, a super-Earth orbiting a slightly smaller star than our own in the habitable zone, the area where liquid water can exist. We don’t yet know though, given this planets larger size, whether it’s rocky or gaseous like Neptune. Yet the media hype this up and only make a small reference to the uncertainties. Just the other day NASA announced the discovery of the Kepler-20 system. Two of these planets are the same size as the Earth, does this qualify them to be our twin?

Kepler-22b – Rocky or Gaseous? We don’t know yet!

Venus is about the same size as the Earth but yet most scientists would avoid calling it our twin. Firstly there’s no water, then there’s the crushing atmosphere, runaway greenhouse effect creating temperatures of 460°C, it rains sulphuric acid. Twin? I think not.

When we do find a real Earth-twin though what do we really mean? A planet the same size as ours in the habitable zone? No, I think we need to go further, much further. An Earth-twin should also have a similar mass to ours. Too much mass and plate tectonics may not operate on the hypothetical world, meaning the surface doesn’t get recycled and there probably won’t be any life. We need to analyse the atmosphere. The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to provide this when she launches, hopefully in 2018. The gases in the atmosphere should be in a similar abundance to ours. We don’t want another Venus! Does it have a Moon? The Moon stabilises the Earth’s axis so it doesn’t wildly fluctuate that would cause catastrophic climatic changes (new evidence suggests a moon may not be necessary however). Only when these criterion have been met can we even start to think of announcing the discovery of Earths-twin.

Space agencies really should define what we really mean by an ‘Earth-twin’. We must be careful with upcoming reports of new planets, there are going to be hundreds more from Kepler over the next few years. We don’t want to become normalised to these discoveries because we’ll miss the significance when we do find a truly habitable Earth 2.0. That day will be one of the greatest days for science in history, let’s make sure we realise it.