A Shocking Volcanic Plume

volcano_shock

When I first saw this image, I didn’t think too much of it. After all, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a volcanic plume racing through the atmosphere. However, this picture is awesome on so many levels.

First, as part of NASA’s Earth Observatory program, an astronaut in the International Space Station was fortunate to get the timing just right to witness Russia’s Sarychev Peak volcano in the Kuril Islands explode, blasting a huge plume of ash and smoke high into the atmosphere. Second, the conditions on the ground must have been very still, allowing such a huge vertical structure to reach so high. And thirdly, the image captures two amazing features: a condensing cloud of vapour at its peak (the white, smooth cloud) and a shock wave that pushed all the surrounding cloud away from the eruption.

Wow.

For more on this stunning event, check out Michael Reilly’s great article over at Discovery’s Earth Pub.

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Thunder Cloud vs. Volcanic Plume; Light Show Ensues

stephen-omeara1

I know I only recently posted a lightning picture, but when I saw this shot, I had to post it. During an eruption of Rabaul volcano in Papua, New Guinea, Stephen O’Meara saw a stunning display in the angry skies.

“A storm cloud approached the volcano’s 2 km plume, and lightning began to arc between the two,” O’Meara said in the SpaceWeather.com article.

These events aren’t uncommon in the air surrounding hot, rising plumes of gas and ash, but some of the recent photography of such events are astounding.

A Lightning Bolt Hits Water, So Close You Can See Its Streamers

A bolt of lightning, 40 metres away (©Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger)

A bolt of lightning, 40 metres away (©Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger)

It’s pictures like these that make me a) want to do more photography, b) feel more in awe of nature than I already am, and c) wonder how the photographer didn’t pack up his gear and run away screaming. But thank goodness the talented storm chasers didn’t run away, they actually witnessed a very rare event, up close.

This astounding image was shot by photographers Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger when they were chasing a thunderstorm along a beach in Vlissingen, the Netherlands. Chasing a storm along a beach. The best bit of the SpaceWeather.com article comes right at the end, where it says that Schaefers and Burger took a series of shots from “underneath a balcony where they figured the lightning wouldn’t reach.”

Let me emphasise that last bit: underneath a balcony.

Balls of steel comes to mind. For me, nothing less than a reinforced bunker surrounded by lightning rods will do.

Related Lightning Articles:

Anyway, back to why this image is so fantastic. When lightning strikes the ground, if you are able to get the timing perfect, you might be able to capture ‘upward streamers’ rising from the ground to meet the leading edge of the bolt, as NASA lightning expert Richard Blakeslee explains:

Streamers reach upward from the water.

Streamers reach upward from the water.

In a typical cloud-to-ground lightning strike, as the leader approaches the ground, the large electric field at the leader tip induces these upward propagating streamers. The first one that connects to the downward propagating leader initiates the bright return stroke that we see with our eye. Upward streamers are often observed on photographs of lightning hitting the ground.”

It’s hard to imagine if this streamer phenomenon has been observed to reach out from water before, but this Dutch example must be very rare. It’s hard enough to photograph lightning streamers on solid ground, let alone on the surface of a body of water.

In case you weren’t already amazed, check out this shot. It’s called The Cruise You Don’t Want to Take for very obvious reasons:

The storm, plus cruise, ship off the coast of Vlissingen, the Netherlands (©Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger)

The storm, plus cruise, ship off the coast of Vlissingen, the Netherlands (©Francis Schaefers and Daniel Burger)

Source: SpaceWeather.com

Laboratory Ice Links Comets with Life On Earth

Artist impression of the nucleus of Comet Tempel (NASA)

It is an established theory that comets may have, in some way, seeded life on Earth. Some extreme ideas support the panspermia concept (where bacterial organisms hitched a ride on comets, asteroids or some other planetary debris, spreading life throughout the Solar System), while others suggest comets may have contributed the chemical building blocks essential for life to form 4 billion years ago. We know these icy bodies are also awash with organic compounds, so it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to think comets may have donated life-making material to the early Earth.

In an effort to study cometary material and its possible influence for nurturing early life on Earth, Prof. Akiva Bar-Nun of the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences at Tel Aviv University has been creating his own comets in the laboratory. By doing this, Bar-Nun is hoping to gain a better perspective on how comets acquired their composition of the noble gases Argon, Krypton and Xenon.

The proportion of these elements are found in the Earth’s atmosphere, but are not thought to have originated from the rocky material our planet consists of. By understanding the proportions of these elements that formed in the icy laboratory environment, if the proportions match that of what we’ve measured on Earth, it goes to some way in explaining how comets formed in space and how they delivered organic compounds to the surface.

Now if we look at these elements in the atmosphere of the Earth and in meteorites, we see that neither is identical to the ratio in the sun’s composition,” said Bar-Nun. “Moreover, the ratios in the atmosphere are vastly different than the ratios in meteorites which make up the bulk of the Earth.”

So we need another source of noble gases which, when added to these meteorites or asteroid influx, could change the ratio. And this came from comets.”

Prof. Bar-Nun and his team carried out the research using a comet-making machine unique to Tel Aviv University, and although the original press release is light on the details, it is assumed the chemical composition of the early Solar System was recreated and then deep-frozen.

Comets bombarded the Earth 4 billion years ago. Organic chemicals were therefore deposited, possibly kick-starting life (NASA)

Comets bombarded the Earth 4 billion years ago. Organic chemicals were therefore deposited, possibly kick-starting life (NASA)

Comets formed some distance from the Sun (and a vast number of them populate the Oort Cloud), water vapour would have condensed and frozen, in temperatures as low as -250°C, trapping a primordial collection of chemicals inside their dusty, icy interiors. Some time after, these comets may have fallen into the inner Solar System, many impacting the Earth. Amino acids may have been introduced to the surface and oceans, or vital chemical components from the comets combined with chemicals already on Earth and life was sparked. When this happened, these comets would have left a chemical fingerprint.

Bar-Nun’s team were successful in creating their own synthetic comet, freezing water vapour, creating a natural ratio between the three elements. Then a link could be made, from the laboratory comet, with the very definite noble gas proportions, and the proportions of these gases found in the atmosphere.

The pattern of trapping of noble gases in the ice gives a certain ratio of Argon to Krypton to Xenon, and this ratio — together with the ratio of gases that come from rocky bodies — gives us the ratio that we observe in the atmosphere of the Earth,” added Bar-Nun.

Judging by the information available (the paper is published in the journal Icarus), Bar-Nun’s research has provided evidence that comets left a unique ratio of stable noble gases in the atmosphere, a ratio of necessary materials for life to eventually form.

Source: Tel Aviv University, EurekAlert via @Avinio

A Hole In Arizona

©Stan Gaz

This picture was posted by Phil Plait and I was mesmerized. Stan Gaz, the photographer of Meteor Crater in Arizona, will be laying on an exhibition in New York from April 30th to June 6th. If this is anything to go by, it’s an event you can’t afford to miss out on… if you’re in or near New York that is. As I am quite literally on the other side of the country, I’ll miss it, but here’s more info if you are more fortunate.

Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?

DNA and amino acids. Not just a terrestrial thing?

DNA and amino acids. Not just a terrestrial thing? (©CG4TV)

This is probably one of the biggest questions that hang over science fiction story lines: Will extraterrestrials have any resemblance to Life As We Know It™? To be honest, to toy with the thought of anything other than carbon-based life is pure conjecture, just because there might be some other form of life (such as silicon-based creatures), doesn’t mean there is (doesn’t mean there isn’t, either). So, here we are with the only form of life we know and understand, carbon-based life that was somehow spawned via a crazy mix of amino acids and some astronomical or terrestrial event that sparked the formation of prokaryotes (a.k.a. the simplest single-celled speck of life) some 4 billion years ago.

So we have an understanding of what formed life on Earth, perhaps if we look for the traces of evidence that evolved into Life As We Know It™ we can gauge whether extraterrestrial life has-formed/is-forming/will-form elsewhere in the observable Universe. From simulations of Earth evolution, scientists have predicted that 10 types of amino acids should form with the planet. These 10 amino acids are found inside the proteins of all living things on Earth. The same 10 amino acids have been found inside meteorites. Therefore, we already have a connection with the amino acids we find here on Earth and amino acids found in chunks of rock from elsewhere in the Solar System.

Now, a group of Canadian researchers have found that the same 10 amino acids are readily available elsewhere in the cosmos. Does this mean the components for life are common, not only on Earth, in the Solar System, but also in the Milky Way (and beyond)? It looks like it
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A Subtle Reminder: Earth Hour, Tonight, 8:30pm

©Jason Zuckerman

©Jason Zuckerman

To raise awareness about global climate change, at 8:30pm local time wherever you are in the world (I realise as I post this, half of the world has already passed this time, sorry), switch your lights off for one hour. Communities the world over are doing this to save energy, but primarily to bring awareness to the damage we are causing to the environment by our insatiable desire to use unnecessary lighting and electrical hardware.

For more information about Earth Hour, check out Mang’s Bat Cave »

For more artwork by Jason Zuckerman, check out Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day »

I can think of many thrilling things you could be doing during this hour of darkness, if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment box below… keep it clean… or not, it’s up to you.

Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)

The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly, in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)

The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)

In the early hours of this morning at 1:55am PST, a carbon dioxide monitoring mission was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was being carried into a 700 km polar orbit by a Taurus XL rocket. Unfortunately, 12 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, the rocket upper stage suffered an anomaly, and the fairing failed to separate. Although it appears the rocket attained the desired altitude The vehicle did not attain the desired altitude and the $270 million satellite was doomed, trapped inside the the nose cone. The upper stage fairing was protecting the OCO as it ascended through the atmosphere; once in space it should have separated, peeled off and dropped away. That didn’t happen.
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Satellite Imagery of Lake Eerie Ice Floe Break

MODIS images of Lake Eerie on Feb. 6th (left) and Feb. 8th (right). Thinning and breakage of ice floe is evident (MODIS/NASA)

MODIS images of Lake Eerie on Feb. 6th (left) and Feb. 8th (right). Arrow indicates the area of Crane Creek State Park, where the rescue was mounted. Thinning and breakage of ice floe is evident (MODIS/NASA)

On Saturday (February 7th), more than 130 fishermen were stranded off the Lake Eerie shoreline. Eerie is the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes, sandwiched between the Canadian province of Ontario and by the US States of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. It is a freshwater lake, a very popular fishing destination. During winter, large areas of the lake freeze over, tempting fishermen to venture further from the coastline onto the ice floe.

However, over the weekend, tragedy struck when a large chunk of ice thinned and drifted from the Ohio coastline (along Crane Creek State Park‎). The ice floe broke away, carrying 135 fishermen into the lake. One 65 year old man fell into the freezing waters and died of a heart attack. The remaining 134 men had to be airlifted from the ice by the emergency services, some were stranded for several hours. For the full details of the rescue, read the Associated Press article.

A satellite image of Lake Eerie during summer (Google)

A satellite image of Lake Eerie during summer (Google)

Local officials warned fishermen of the risks with venturing too far into the frozen lake, but it would appear the temptation was too great to find the best fishing spot. According to news sources, the ice was up to 2 feet thick, giving the illusion of safety. However, temperatures were rising and an offshore wind of 35 mph cracked the ice, isolating the fishermen.

Having just explored the MODIS website for satellite imagery of the UK snow cover, I was contacted by David Gamey (at Mang’s Bat Page) wondering whether I had found any satellite imagery of the event. After a short investigation, sure enough the MODIS archives were up to date, showing the frozen Lake Eerie clearly.

Comparing two images (top), one from February 6th (the day before the ice floe breakage) and one from February 8th (the day after), it is clear there is significant thinning of the ice. In the Feb. 6th image, it is hard to see the lake at all, the ice blends very well with the surrounding land. On Feb. 8th, the blue of the lake water is highlighted signifying ice thinning and breakage.

It is striking how illustrative the MODIS photos are, providing valuable information about everything from snow cover to forest fires. This one example how a comparison between two dates of lake ice cover can be so valuable. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this Earth observing mission

Sources: MODIS/NASA, ABC News via David Gamey (at Mang’s Bat Page)

Satellite View of UK Snow Storms

Snow cover over east England up to the Scottish border on February 4th (Terra MODIS/NASA)

Snow cover over east England up to the Scottish border on February 4th. Left: A visible light view. Right: Visible/infrared wavelengths, the snow cover is in red (Terra MODIS/NASA)

UPDATE: This post is from the snowstorm in February 2009, for the satellite view of the UK in the grips of record low temperatures in January 2010 go to “UK Snow: Where Did My Hometown Go?

In case you were wondering what the recent snow storms in the UK looked like from space, NASA has released imagery from their Terra satellite for our viewing pleasure. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument captured images down to a resolution of 250 metres/pixel, showing the detail in the snow cover and urban areas.

The MODIS on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this view of snow in England on February 4, 2009. The snow stretches from the English Channel north under a bank of clouds near the Scottish border. The winter storm that brought the snow in the first days of February blanketed southeast England with the heaviest snow the region had seen in 18 years, said BBC News. As much as 20 centimeters (8 inches) of snow fell on London. The poor weather closed transportation, schools, and businesses throughout southeastern England, reported BBC News.MODIS website

I know for a fact this huge amount of snow caused all sorts of inconvenience for the entire country, but I would have liked to have been in my hometown of Bristol (in the south-west–bottom-left–of the image above, under all that cloud cover) to experience a good old fashioned British winter. According to my mum, her street wasn’t lined in snow men, it was filled with snow giants, an entire town of them! Oh well, I’ll just have to admire the scene from space…

Source: MODIS/NASA