There’s a Fractal in My Brazilian Rainforest

Lago Erepecu and Rio Trombetas, Brazil (NASA)

Lago Erepecu and Rio Trombetas, Brazil (NASA)

The shapes of fractals appear in nature all the time, but when I saw this Earth Observatory image from the International Space Station, I thought I was looking at a zoomed-in portion of the famous Mandelbrot set graphic. This picture wasn’t formed by the calculations of a computer, however. This is what nature does when chaos comes out to play.

Imaged from orbit on August 25, 2009, an astronaut was able to get the timing just right with his/her Nikon D2Xs digital camera (plus 180 mm lens) so that sunlight was reflecting off Brazil’s Lago (Lake) Erepecu and Rio (River) Trombetas. Usually, water masses in the Brazilian Rainforest are too dark to be picked out in any detail, so this sunglint was very useful to pick out the fine detail of the waterways.

Source: Earth Observatory Program

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The Fear of God Could Reverse Global Warming. Oh Yes

The Flying Speghetti Monster. I wonder if this is what Lord May had in mind? (Church of the FSM)

The Flying Speghetti Monster. I wonder if this is what Lord May had in mind? (Church of the FSM)

This one comes direct from the UK’s Department for Wacky Ex-Chief Science Advisors, and I’m not too sure which I’m more shocked with; the fact that Lord May actually suggested that religion (i.e. fear of the All Mighty) could save the world from a climate meltdown or that the Telegraph reported May’s views so candidly.

Ex-government officials certainly are not afraid to share their views with the world, and that’s fine, but sometimes they sound a little crazy in doing so. Take last year’s discussion between Prof. Brian Cox and Sir David King.

King, Chief Science Advisor for the UK government from 2000-2007, came out with the astonishing statement that the Large Hadron Collider was “more navel searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind.” He made this astounding point during a discussion on the BBC’s Newsnight, on the day the LHC was switched on. Buzz kill. Fortunately, Cox offloaded a round of common sense in the direction of Sir King, proving that it probably should have been a practising scientist, not a guy with a knighthood, advising the Prime Minister about UK science between the years of 2000 and 2007.

Unfortunately, a Lord might not be up to the task either, judging by this most recent statement by the UK Chief Science Advisor who reigned from 1995-2000.

Given that punishment is a useful mechanism, how much more effective it would be if you invested that power not in an individual you don’t like, but an all-seeing, all powerful deity that controls the world,” he said

It makes for rigid, doctrinaire societies, but it makes for co-operation.”

And how would this supernatural being help modern society? We’ll all be so scared to avoid getting struck down by “God” that the whole planet will band together, human cultures would stabilize and cooperate to find a quick solution to carbon emissions and climate change.

Yeah, ‘cuz that’s how religion works: scare the crap out of the commoners! Tell them that if they don’t recycle, or use public transportation, they’ll piss off God so much that he’ll fry them with a thunderbolt from heaven. That will solve all our climate woes!

The odd thing is that May is apparently an Atheist, so I’m even more confused as to where his faith in religion comes from. Sure, religion is integrated into society, and yes, it’s provided a structure to people’s lives for thousands of years. But this is not a solution for the international community to suddenly become best of friends. I’m not even sure how May thinks believing in a “supernatural punisher” will change a thing. Who’s going to evangelize this God? How do you drive the fear into the hearts of billions in an effort to save the planet? He does point out that fundamentalism isn’t good either, and that he’s not a big fan of the Pope.

This sounds more like a description of some conspiracy-driven New World Order than an answer to rising carbon emissions.

No, don’t confuse the world’s inability to coordinate an effective plan to slow (or reverse) the effects of greenhouse gases with a world without a “supernatural punisher.” Besides, shouldn’t Lord May be promoting good science rather than thinking religion might save us all? As, let’s face it, religion isn’t the best catalyst for world collaboration (no matter how moderate it is).

My belief is that science is our best bet at finding a solution. Unfortunately it’s international politics that often lets us down, not a world that doesn’t have the fear for a divine being.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

Wildfire? Volcano? Warzone? Hell? All of the above?

wildfires

I think this timelapse video pretty much puts the Station Fire into perspective. The fire has so far destroyed over 120,000 acres of land, gutted dozens of homes and taken the lives of two fire fighters. Although it would appear fire crews are slowly getting a handle on the blaze (it was around 20% contained at time of writing), should there be a change in weather, the fires could flare up once more, but there are hopes that humidity should continue to rise through the night.

Also, it would appear the earlier fires spotted on the summit of Mount Wilson were primarily controlled backfires (i.e. small fires started deliberately by the fire service to burn off brush, thereby removing fuel for an uncontrolled fire). Now, an airborne assault has begun, water and fire retardant being dropped to slow the advance of the Station Fire around the mountain leading to the observatory. And now, the word is that fire crews seem to be winning the fight to save the Mount Wilson Observatory (thank you @palomarskies for the update!).

So, for now, I’ll leave you with this phenomenal HD timelapse video of the Station Fire created by willieworks. The view is of the mountains to the north of LA, from Mulholland Drive, above Universal Studios. It’s a scene that really does belong in the movies. What a sight.

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times

Opportunity Investigates Possible Martian Meteorite

opportunity_meteorite2

On its epic journey to Endeavour Crater, Mars Expedition Rover (MER) Opportunity passed a suspect looking boulder on July 18th. Dubbed “Block Island” by MER controllers, this dark rock looks very different from its surroundings, so Opportunity has been ordered to go off its planned route by 250 meters and have closer look.

Measuring approximately 0.6 meters across, the jagged specimen could be a meteorite, giving the rover a chance to carry out an in-situ analysis of its composition, determining whether or not this is indeed of extra-martian origin.

The odd-shaped and dark rock sits atop the regolith, and Opportunity will use its APXS instrument to determine its composition (NASA)

The odd-shaped and dark rock sits atop the regolith, and Opportunity will use its APXS instrument to determine its composition (NASA)

The next step is for the rover to extend its robotic arm, pressing the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) up against the rock’s surface. The spectrometer will basically give the sample a blast of radiation, consisting of alpha particles and X-rays. The analysis of scattered alpha particles (after they have bounced off the material) will reveal the mass of the elements they collide with and the emission of X-rays will also reveal a lot about the material.

So could this be a meteorite? We’ll have to wait until the little robot has carried out its experiment… she may be getting old, but Opportunity is still carrying out some awesome science.

Source: NASA

Mare Vaporware: The Lunar Advertising Joke

offer

When choosing a good April Fools joke, it must have several key attributes. But the priority is that it needs to be revealed on April 1st (obvious, right?). It is for this single reason why I suspect this isn’t a joke; the news was released in July.

Before I get stuck into this article, let’s revisit a real April Fools joke I wrote for the Universe Today back in 2008, in which I talk about a fictional NASA press release that details the space agency’s plans to etch corporate logos into the Martian regolith (BTW this is a joke, just so there’s no confusion):

My pretend Doritos logo photoshopped next to a Mars crater (NASA/PepsiCo, Inc.)

My pretend Doritos logo photoshopped next to a Mars crater (NASA/PepsiCo, Inc.)

Today, the space agency has announced an offbeat plan of their own: to burn sponsor logos into the surface of Mars. It’s not quite as reckless as it sounds, but existing technology on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will be used to etch sponsor logos into the top layers of the Martian regolith. The stunt is expected to have minimal effect on the planet, as winds and dust storms will erase the ads within a couple of sols (Martian days).Universe Today, April 1st, 2008.

In this April 1st article, I went into some detail about cash-strapped NASA reaching out to companies to invest in advertising campaigns. Advertising revenue from this could then be ploughed back into NASA science. It’s a win-win scenario, and what’s even better, the laser etched regolith (not an ability the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter possesses, by the way) would be weathered away in a matter of sols (appeasing any Mars conversationalists). However, laser etching wasn’t the only idea I came up with. What about the Mars Expedition Rovers? Their tire tracks can be seen from space, why can’t they be used to sketch corporate logos in the red dirt?

Mars rover Opportunity's tiretracks as viewed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)

Mars rover Opportunity's tiretracks as viewed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)

I had a lot of fun writing this, and I think it was convincing enough to be called a “good” space April Fools joke. Let’s put it this way, I had to think up an even more nefarious idea for the 2009 April Fools, but settled with the Brian Bat – NASA lawsuit story (which pissed a lot more people off than I thought possible. Score!).

So, right at the peak of the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing celebrations, a company that was founded in 2008 (apparently) called Moon Publicity unveiled its plans to sell advertising space on the Earth-facing side of the lunar surface, with this mouth-watering offer:

Exclusive transferable licensing is being made available for 44 regions of the visible side of the Moon. Bidding begins on July 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of man’s first step on the Moon. Bidding will run for three months, closing on October 20, 2009. The winning bids will be announced in early November, 2009. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Minimum bids start as low as $46,000 (USD).

$46,000? Holy crapcakes! That’s not the half of it, if you want your ad to be placed in the dead-centre of the lunar disk (Mare Vaporum), be prepared write a $602,000 cheque.

Right… so how does Moon Publicity hope to succeed in this “once in a lifetime” marketing ploy? They are going to use their amazing “Shadow Shaping” technology (patent pending, obviously), otherwise known as ‘a moon rover with grooved grass rollers for wheels.’ Have a look:

As can be seen from the promo video, it certainly looks believable, but investing in a nice-looking bit of computer graphics is great if you consider there might be a minimum 5-figure return from an investor without a clue.

UPDATE: Just a thought. Since when was the lunar surface as flawless as a carefully smoothed golf sand trap? The ‘Shadow Shapers’ design obviously doesn’t cater for any obstacles (like, I don’t know… rocks) and is more accustomed to smoothing out the golden sands of Santa Monica beach. The lunar surface is covered in rocks of all sizes, ensuring the ad-making rovers will have a tough obstacle course at best. Most likely, these cumbersome rollers will get stuck, jammed or break down before they travel a couple of meters. What a great investment opportunity!

But what about the technical issues with this first-class money-making scheme? Actually, the company addresses quite a few on their “Shadow Shaping Challenges” page, that reads like a high school paper titled “Why Space Travel Is Really Hard” and describes every reason why there will be no investors in this project. Some of the best challenges are as follows:

  • Gravity – It currently costs thousands of dollars per pound to move payloads from the Earth to the moon. Most of this is spent overcoming the Earth’s gravity.” Yep, right on, that’s rocket science 101. Call SpaceX, you’ll need them.
  • As the moon is so far away, the ads will need to be very big. “…images would need to be millions of square kilometers in size.” Yikes! “…a fleet of Shadow Shaping robots would be needed…” A big fleet, with at least a gazillion robots I reckon!
  • Fire and Ice – Temperatures on the Moon range from 107°C during the day to -153°C at night…” Sure. “During the lunar nights, the Shadow Shaping robots can put themselves in hibernation mode to protect themselves from the cold. But during the days the robots need to be fully operational.” Sounds like standard phantom ad-making robot operating procedures to me.
  • The wheels will also need to be hard so they do not wear out.” That sure would be useful.
  • [Shadow Shaping] “has no impact to the lunar environment, and it only creates images during partial lunar phases, leaving the full Moon unchanged.” I’m pretty sure the lunar aliens wouldn’t agree with you on this point.

So, apart from their patent pending we’re-going-to-dig-grooves-in-the-moon-using-our-make-believe-fleet-of-super-duper-roving-robots technique, I can’t see any real plan that this fanciful idea will ever see the light of day. And just in case you don’t believe me, Moon Publicity agrees, in a round-about way, in the disclaimer (I’ll emphasise the funniest bit):

Disclaimer: Investing involves risk. Licensing Shadow Shaping technology is no different. There are a number of identified challenges as well as unknown risks. Consult with professional advisers before registering to bid. The licensing offer is only available to accredited investors where permitted by law. Information provided is for educational purposes and is not guaranteed for accuracy or applicability. No warranties or guarantees, neither written nor oral, are provided with this offer. –Moon Publicity, LLC

To add insult to injury, in their blog, Moon Publicity says that they’re not really doing this for the money, they’re doing it for the sake of humanity.

However, consider the big picture. What is the biggest problem in the world? Is it hunger? Is it illness? Is it war? No. The largest problem is the inevitable extinction of the human species. The other problems don’t matter in a universe without people. Any number of global catastrophes could and eventually will end live on Earth. It could be a collision with an asteroid, a deadly virus, a nuclear war, a supervolcano, a hypernova explosion or our own sun eventually swallowing the Earth [...] Creating images on the Moon provides a commercial incentive for turbo charging space travel technology. Shadows are only the beginning. These advancements will eventually place robots on other worlds building space stations and planting crops.

The Apollo 14 landing site as viewed from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The astronaut footprints have remained for 40 years, imagine what that could do for advertising! (NASA)

The Apollo 14 landing site as viewed from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The astronaut footprints have remained for 40 years, imagine what that could do for advertising! (NASA)

Apparently, the largest problem is the inevitable extinction of the human species. No shit Sherlock! I’ll tell you what, throw in some 2012 rubbish and you’ll start to sound like one of the nutjobs with a doomsday book to sell.

It turns out Moon Publicity is a humanitarian operation too, jumping on the coattails of legitimate commercial spaceflight ideals in an attempt to profit from an idea that will never materialize. There’s also the argument that even if you did make the investment, and this company had the ability to etch ads in the dirt, would they even be allowed to? After all, who would have rights over the land they were etching?

I really do hope this is a poorly-timed joke, because it reads like one. If it’s not, it’s a rather stupid attempt at making a fast buck, using the 40th lunar landing anniversary as an opportunity to gain some publicity.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the Moon Publicity founder is a reader of the Universe Today, if so, I might start claiming I came up with the idea over a year ago

Thanks to @DrLucyRogers for pointing me in the direction of Nancy Atkinson’s Universe Today article “Company Looks to Etch Advertising on the Moon.”

Would You Like a Slice of Moon with that Solar Observation?

The Hinode view of the eclipse (JPL/NASA).

The Hinode view of the eclipse (JPL/NASA).

On July 22nd, Asia witnessed the longest solar eclipse of the century. I saw the pictures, it looked like fun. I’ve only seen a partial solar eclipse in the past, so when I heard about last week’s eclipse lasting nearly 7 minutes, I was more than a little envious.

So another eclipse, another momentous event if you could witness it, but if you couldn’t, at least you had some nice pictures to look at. However, there seems to be one forgotten spectator who had the best seat in the house to watch the moon pass in front of our Sun: the Hinode solar observatory.

Hinode (meaning “Sunrise”) is a space-based observatory launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA in 2006, and since then it has changed our perception of the inner dynamics of the solar corona. It can image the fine-scale magnetic structure of coronal loops and track plasma features with astounding precision.

On Wednesday however, Hinode caught an entirely different feature in its lens.

Actually, I’m a little surprised there’s not much of a fuss about the eclipse from space. Admittedly, the lunar transit across the solar disk didn’t attain totality, but it sure looks amazing!

For more of the Hinode eclipse, have a look at the Flickr gallery

Whoopi Goldberg, Lunar Hoaxes and Stupidity

whoopi

I never thought Hollywood celebs were particularly bright when it comes to promoting science (look at the mess that is Jenny McCarthy), but a rather unlikely voice has emerged as a prominent moon hoax believer… Whoopi Goldberg. Yep, Whoopi went live on the air, today (you know, the day of the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing) on The View, saying, “I am a fan of the movie Capricorn One…”

You know what’s coming.

There are a couple of questions I have from time to time. Who shot the footage? ‘Cuz you see the two astronauts, you never see the [third astronaut behind the camera] [...] you’d think he would have turned around [in front of the camera] and gone like this so we’d know it was him,” she said while pretending to wave at the camera. The audience laughed.

Yes, very funny. It’s funny because there is an astonishing amount of stupidity in the debate that followed. Barbara Walters does her best to even the playing field, saying in astonishment, “You don’t really doubt men landed on the moon?

To which Whoopi drones on (hands flying around) about the moon conspiracy is one of the better conspiracy theories because of questions like, “…why is the flag rippling when there’s no air?

Please. How can anyone have any doubt about these hoax claims after the continuing debunking battles of scientists, skeptics and people with a brain? The hoax has even been publicly humiliated by the Mythbusters team. Personally, I can’t believe anyone would support such a crazed conspiracy (even in jest), considering all the evidence to the contrary.

Now, I’d like to point out that to Whoopi’s credit, she did state that she likes conspiracies (who doesn’t?) and she was just pointing out the parallels with the 1978 sci-fi romp starring OJ Simpson where a futuristic Mars landing is faked by the US space agency. Unfortunately her airing of her moon hoax opinion has just made her the most prominent celebrity to go on record, supporting the ludicrous claims of a few vocal conspiracy nuts. (And by nuts, I mean these guys.) Not only that, she’s used a very popular TV show to air her flawed opinions.

Yes, The View is an opinion talk show, where the hosts have had their fair share of criticism for saying idiotic stuff (especially during the US Presidential election), but to attempt to plant a seed of doubt in anyone’s mind that the most heroic event in human history was faked on the day of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 is not only irresponsible, it is totally disrespectful.

Fortunately, Walters had the last word by saying that there will always be conspiracy theories, but today, she’d much rather give the Apollo astronauts the credit they deserve.

Source: Associated Content

The Guardian Tackles the Moon Landing Hoax… Badly

apollo

I despise the so called Moon landing hoax with every fibre of my being, this is probably the reason why I don’t write about it much. Besides, other bloggers do a great job of slamming the conspiracy theorist claims, so there’s little point in me weighing in to pick at the left-overs. Every hoax claim has been debunked to the point that there really can be no doubt that 40 years ago, we landed on the Moon. In fact, we did it six times.

Hoax rehash

As we fast approach the 40 year anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on July 20th, there’s bound to be articles posted about the hoax, but I find that rather frustrating. Here we are, preparing to celebrate mankind’s biggest accomplishment, and there’s that annoying background static of conspiracy theorists trying to divert attention to their small minded idiocy. Oh well, that’s life.

Unfortunately it’s another day, and another occasion where the UK media lets us down. Sure, I get the fact that we’re nearing the lunar landing anniversary, I also get the fact that everyone loves a good conspiracy, I even get the fact that the media wants to exploit this opportunity to get more traffic, but this Guardian.co.uk slideshow seems very… uncomfortable.

The worst thing about it is that they’ve switched the goal posts. They call the conspiracy theorists “skeptics” and the logically-minded, “believers.” I might be nit-picking, but that is a terrible way to look at it.

We went to the Moon

In 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins went to the Moon. Neil and Buzz had a wander around on the lunar surface, checked it out, gave the Apollo Program their seal of approval and we then saw another five Apollo launches until 1972. These are all facts. This is history. Granted, we haven’t been back in 40 years, but the point is, we’ve done it.

There has never been one NASA employee that has shouted “conspiracy,” which seems surprising considering the sheer number of NASA staff that would have had to fake the landings to make them happen. No, judging by the scale of such a scam, it would be easier to send man to the Moon instead! So, did we go to the Moon in 1969? YES!

Skeptical believers? Believable skeptics? What?

Going back to the Guardian slideshow, it might be a good summary of the conspiracy theorist claims, but it’s a tired, re-hashing of all the old bunkum even the Mythbusters ground into the lunar dust a long time ago. Plus, it puts way too much weight behind the conspiracy theory itself; the text causes confusion as to what a “skeptic” is and what a “believer” is.

A skeptic is a person who uses skeptical thought to look at the evidence rationally to arrive at a logical conclusion. All the evidence points to the fact we’ve been to the Moon. Therefore, no Moon landing hoax. We went to the Moon, simple.

A believer is a person who depends on faith, not evidence, to arrive at a conclusion. The “believers” in this case should be the ones who believe there was a hoax, and not vice versa.

Sorry, but the Guardian got it ass-backwards this time.

Source: Guardian.co.uk

Russian Saraychev Peak Eruption Video Glory

Wow! I thought the single image of the volcanic eruption (plus shock wave) was cool, but after seeing the complete series of images put together in this animation, I’m literally blown away. Thank you Richard Drumm for sharing the video on Twitter — now this is one YouTube video that needs to be shown off.

The 29 photos in this animation were taken by space station astronauts as they passed over Russia’s Sarychev Peak volcano in the Kuril Islands.

For more information, check out my previous Astroengine post