Holographic Universe: Fermilab to Probe Smallest Space-Time Scales

Conceptual design of the Fermilab holometer (Fermilab)

Conceptual design of the Fermilab holometer (Fermilab)

During the hunt for the predicted ripples in space-time — known as gravitational waves — physicists stumbled across a rather puzzling phenomenon. Last year, I reported about the findings of scientists using the GEO600 experiment in Germany. Although the hi-tech piece of kit hadn’t turned up evidence for the gravitational waves it was seeking, it did turn up a lot of noise.

Before we can understand what this “noise” is, we need to understand how equipment designed to look for the space-time ripples caused by collisions between black holes and supernova explosions.

Gravitational wave detectors are incredibly sensitive to the tiniest change in distance. For example, the GEO600 experiment can detect a fluctuation of an atomic radius over a distance from the Earth to the Sun. This is achieved by firing a laser down a 600 meter long tube where it is split, reflected and directed into an interferometer. The interferometer can detect the tiny phase shifts in the two beams of light predicted to occur should a gravitational wave pass through our local volume of space. This wave is theorized to slightly change the distance between physical objects. Should GEO600 detect a phase change, it could be indicative of a slight change in distance, thus the passage of a gravitational wave.

While looking out for a gravitational wave signal, scientists at GEO600 noticed something bizarre. There was inexplicable static in the results they were gathering. After canceling out all artificial sources of the noise, they called in the help of Fermilab’s Craig Hogan to see if his expertise of the quantum world help shed light on this anomalous noise. His response was as baffling as it was mind-blowing. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” Hogan said.

Come again?

The signal being detected by GEO600 isn’t a noise source that’s been overlooked, Hogan believes GEO600 is seeing quantum fluctuations in the fabric of space-time itself. This is where things start to get a little freaky.

According to Einstein’s view on the universe, space-time should be smooth and continuous. However, this view may need to be modified as space-time may be composed of quantum “points” if Hogan’s theory is correct. At its finest scale, we should be able to probe down the “Planck length” which measures 10-35 meters. But the GEO600 experiment detected noise at scales of less than 10-15 meters.

As it turns out, Hogan thinks that noise at these scales are caused by a holographic projection from the horizon of our universe. A good analogy is to think about how an image becomes more and more blurry or pixelated the more you zoom in on it. The projection starts off at Planck scale lengths at the Universe’s event horizon, but its projection becomes blurry in our local space-time. This hypothesis comes out of black hole research where the information that falls into a black hole is “encoded” in the black hole’s event horizon. For the holographic universe to hold true, information must be encoded in the outermost reaches of the Universe and it is projected into our 3 dimensional world.

But how can this hypothesis be tested? We need to boost the resolution of a gravitational wave detector-type of kit. Enter the “Holometer.”

Currently under construction in Fermilab, the Holometer (meaning holographic interferometer) will delve deep into this quantum realm at smaller scales than the GEO600 experiment. If Hogan’s idea is correct, the Holometer should detect this quantum noise in the fabric of space-time, throwing our whole perception of the Universe into a spin.

For more on this intriguing experiment, read the Symmety Magazine article “Hogan’s holometer: Testing the hypothesis of a holographic universe.”

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Ingredients for Life on Gliese 581g?

Credit: Lynette Cook

Just in case you haven’t heard, astronomers have released news about an “Earth-like” exoplanet orbiting within the “Goldilocks zone” of a star some 20 light-years away. This is awesome, but does it mean Gliese 581g is habitable? Does it mean life is already slithering across its surface?

Judging by an exuberant claim by Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, one would think we now know there’s life on this strangely familiar world.

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Vogt told Discovery News when the announcement broke on Wednesday.

100%?

Why did he say that his personal view was that the chances for life on Gliese 581g are 100%? At first glance, it is easy to see where he’s coming from.

Goldilocks Zone

Firstly, the exoplanet orbits close to a small red dwarf star (called Gliese 581), with a fast-paced orbit of 37 days. This is important as the energy output of a red dwarf is tiny when compared to our Sun (which is a yellow dwarf star, in case you were wondering) — to receive an equivalent amount of heating as the Earth, Gliese 581g needs to be much closer to its star.

Also, it isn’t orbiting too close. It is within the habitable zone (or the “Goldilocks zone,” i.e., a zone that’s not too hot or too cold) of the system. Therefore there’s a high probability that if water is present on its surface, it’s likely to be in liquid form. The presence of liquid water would be exciting as Earth Brand™ life likes liquid water.

Secondly, Gliese 581g is small for an exoplanet discovered thus far. Weighing in at a minimum mass of 3x that of the Earth, it could certainly have some Earth-like qualities. This has another implication; the world has enough gravitational oomph to hold onto an atmosphere — another ingredient that life seems to like (assuming it’s not of the bone-crushing, lead-boiling, Venus-type atmosphere).

It’s Complicated

But there’s a few complications. To be within the habitable zone of its parent star, Gliese 581g will be “tidally locked.” This means that one side of the exoplanet will always be facing the star. On the far side (or, indeed, the “dark side”) it will be cold whilst the near side will always be hot. Having one perpetual day doesn’t sound very Earth-like to me. But there is an upside to this strange orbit.

“This planet doesn’t have days and nights. Wherever you are on this planet, the sun is in the same position all the time. You have very stable zones where the ecosystem stays the same temperature… basically forever,” Vogt said. “If life can evolve, it’s going to have billions and billions of years to adapt to the surface.”

So a tidally-locked planet could have a stable atmosphere and perhaps life could evolve as a result. What could be considered to be a negative has just become a positive.

With all this good news, why wouldn’t life be thriving on this world?

Unknowns and Assumptions

There’s still a lot of unknowns and assumptions being made. For a start, the presence of Gliese 581g was detected by measuring the “wobble” of the star as the exoplanet orbits (its gravity tugs on the star as it circles). Therefore its mass and orbital radius can be derived. But we have no information about its atmosphere; the world doesn’t pass in front (or “transit”) the star from our perspective, so we can’t get a peek into its atmosphere.

Therefore we have zero clue as to whether it even has an atmosphere. It might not have an atmosphere, but then again it could have a very thick atmosphere — two extremes that would would put a stop to any Earth Brand™ life evolving. Also, we have zero clue if there’s any water there, it’s just guesswork that suggests there might be. There’s also the huge unknown as to whether life is ubiquitous in the cosmos or not.

Bread in the Oven

It’s a bit like baking a loaf of bread when you have all the necessary ingredients to make bread, but you have no clue about what quantities to use. Gliese 581g appears to have most of the ingredients for life (and with a few assumptions, it has all the ingredients for life), but we only have a general idea as to what quantities these ingredients come in.

If you threw flour, water and yeast straight into the breadmaker in random quantities, would you get a loaf of bread? What if you forgot to add the yeast?

Gliese 581g is that breadmaker. Unfortunately we have no clue if it can make bread.

For more on this incredible discovery, read Irene Klotz’s Discovery News article: “Earth-Like Planet Can Sustain Life

“Shades of Ignorance” by CraftLass (Interview)

In this very special Astroengine.com (and long overdue) post, I had the great fortune to catch up with singer/song writer CraftLass who wrote a very cool song about science, ignorance and the general state of society. I am particularly honored as CraftLass was inspired by my blog (amongst others) when she wrote this wonderfully catchy tune. As you can tell by the link below, she has a huge talent — follow her (yep, she’s one of my favorite tweeps) and hopefully you’ll get the chance to see her perform live. I’m hoping I’ll make it to New York soon so I can do just that.

“Shades of Ignorance” by CraftLass (streaming audio)

“Shades” is just one of many songs CraftLass has written and performed, so be sure to listen to all her work and buy her album, you won’t be disappointed (I’m a big fan).

Q: Mainly, what was your inspiration behind writing the song?

A: There were a few involved in this one, all inspired by reading. The main thrust of the song came from reading your blog as well as a few others like Bad Astronomy and marveling at the comments from people who truly believe in everything that has little to no evidence while refusing to believe what can actually be proven or at least has plenty of evidence that anyone is free to look at.

I think some people are convinced that the job of scientists, no matter the field, is to hide truth when it’s exactly the opposite. This annoys me to no end, especially when it actually hurts people, as in the case of people who hurt innocent children educationally by wanting creationism taught in the science classroom, or physically by refusing to immunize them because other people with a lack of credentials just happen to be effective communicators.

I guess I’d like to try to level the playing field on that one, communicate truths in a format that most people can understand and enjoy, since the other side tends to have “cool” celebrities popularizing their ideas. As much as I hate the sway pop culture has, it’s important to fight fire with fire.

The other big inspiration was the way people in America embraced politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, I’m very politically aware and very independent (not a Democrat), these two and a few others make me sick because they are poster children of smart people who CHOOSE ignorance, willfully.

Leaders should be elected for having the brains and open-mindedness to make real decisions for themselves based on actual facts and Bush, in particular, was elected for being stubborn to the point of harm for not only this nation but the whole world. Elected for the exact quality that is worst in a leader. I’ve been trying to convey my feelings on that for many years and it just seemed to fit into the theme as I was working on this song. “Stubborn is not the same as strong,” is a line I’m particularly proud of since so many people seem to confuse the two.

Q: How has it been received (particularly when performing at a live venue)?

A: I’m astounded at the reception! It’s consistently one of the first songs that people come up to talk to me about. I’m lucky that I live in a pretty highly educated part of the country (the NYC metro area) and quite a few people have said it’s a message they hadn’t been able to put into words, which is extremely gratifying.

It also makes people dance, and I think that when people dance and start singing along the message sinks deeper, so I’m hoping it might somehow reach further into the public to the very people it’s about, perhaps inspire them to question blind beliefs. At some point I would like to record a full-band version to increase that effect!

The other cool thing has been the number of closet science geeks it’s brought out, people who come up to me and say it’s great to see someone wear her love for the subject proudly, makes them feel like it’s okay to love it, too. If more people were honest with themselves (including me) we would probably have a lot less of the brain drain effect in STEM. (It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a cute and social chick with a guitar, not exactly the old stereotype of science geek. LOL.)

Q: What are your thoughts on science communication in general (i.e. is it handled well by the media)?

A: Well, there are so many levels of media right now, we’re pretty lucky. Mass media has been pretty terrible at science communication for most of my life, at least, they tend to prefer stories of failure than anything that goes right, so many areas of science end up looking rather useless (this is particularly true when it comes to NASA and CERN for some reason) and you’ll never hear about the coolest things in traditional media other than the NY Times science section (which has now been gutted, anyway).

On the other hand, the fact that Discovery now has many channels and even created the Science Channel to air more science shows and competitors keeps springing up proves that people have been hungry to learn more than what the networks are willing to give them. These companies are filling the void pretty nicely with good introductions to many areas.

I get most of my science news from the internet, though, as it is the only place to find up-to-the-minute news and deeper information. The problem there is you really have to wade through a lot of garbage to find the good nuggets and read a lot of too-dry-for-non-scientists pieces to find ones that can engage and help someone self-educated like I am. There are quite a few modern-day Carl Sagans out there, though, who can communicate science beautifully, and it’s a very good thing they can publish whether or not they have backing from a major organization. The next thing we need is more clearly defined resources to match the audience with the scientist or writer.

Q: Are you a regular reader of science blogs?

A: Yes, well, when I have the time. Ironically, singing and writing about science has been tearing me away more than I’d like! I try to read at least a few articles every day over coffee, and every so often I’ll just devour everything I’ve missed on a site. I also research what I’m writing, so I’ll search the blogosphere for interesting facts and tidbits on whatever subject I’m working on (right now my obsession is Spirit as I have a song about her half-done, so I’m reading every post I can find).

A couple of lines for “Bake Sale for NASA” were inspired directly by a post by Wayne Hale (one of my favorite blog writers) about NASA satellites saving the American wheat crop, a story I had never known and found absolutely brilliant. My most consistent blogs include NASA blogs, Discovery News, Bad Astronomy, World of Weird Things, Noisy Astronomer, the Skylogs at Astronomy.FM, and, of course, Astroengine.

Q: What surprises you most about some of the comments you read on science blogs?

A: The way that so many people apparently seek out these blogs simply to rant against them. I like to read opposing viewpoints but I don’t understand the amount of time and energy people put into pure hatred. If you are so annoyed by what you are reading why don’t you read other websites? There are millions!

I’m also stunned that people can read the same things I read and just dismiss them. Learning is a lifelong experience and discoveries are constantly made that change what we know, why be so stubborn in clinging to old information and ways of thinking? Living in a time where there is so much exploration and so many ways to disseminate what is learned means we need to stop believing in belief itself and open up our minds to endless possibilities. That should be a cause for celebration rather than anger, and far too many people are in the latter category.

Compex Magnetic Eruption Witnessed by Solar Observatories

Solar Dynamics Observatory view of the solar disk shortly after eruption (NASA).

This morning, at 08:55 UT, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) detected a C3-class flare erupt inside a sunspot cluster. 100,000 kilometers away, deep within the solar atmosphere (the corona), an extended magnetic field filled with cool plasma forming a dark ribbon across the face of the sun (a feature known as a “filament”) erupted at the exact same time.

It seems very likely that both events were connected after a powerful shock wave produced by the flare destabilized the filament, causing the eruption.

A second solar observatory, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), then spotted a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) blast into space, straight in the direction of Earth. Solar physicists have calculated that this magnetic bubble filled with energetic particles should hit Earth on August 3, so look out for some intense aurorae, a solar storm is on its way…

For more on this impressive solar eruption, read my Discovery News article, “Incoming! The Sun Unleashes CME at Earth

Military “Black Ops” on Mars. Really?

The Aram Chaos region of Mars, as seen by the HiRISE camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)

There’s a military operation on Mars!

How do we know this? Psychics — or “military grade remote viewers” as they like to be called — “saw” it, and their vision corroborated a Mars satellite photo that shows “man-made domes,” “pipelines” and a “huge nozzle shooting liquid spray.”

That’s according to the guy that runs the Farsight Institute anyway.

Before we get bogged down with the details, let’s get one thing straight: remote viewing is not a scientific tool and has never been proven to work. It is pseudoscience. Sure, the U.S. military became interested in investigating remote viewing as a spying weapon (unsurprisingly, the superpowers were pretty keen on investigating every avenue to spy on the enemy during the Cold War), but funding was withdrawn in the 90’s as it was proven remote sensing was ineffective and any positive results could not be replicated.

Most recently, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence carried out a suite of experiments on a group of remote viewers to see how their brains reacted during the viewing phase. There appeared to be no measurable change in brain activity, and besides, none of the psychics tested could access the desired targets anyway, rendering the whole thing pointless.

But these facts don’t seem to dissuade Dr. Courtney Brown from trying to justify a scientific basis for his “Evidence for Artificiality on Mars” presentation. Not surprisingly, one of the Examiner’s “Exopolitics” writers is very exited about this non-research, saying, “An apparent active industrial site on the surface of Mars with a “large nozzle shooting a liquid spray” onto an apparent industrial waste area has been successfully located and explored in a remote viewing study conducted by the Farsight Institute in March 2010 using nine highly trained remote viewers and methodologies developed by the U.S. military.”

Here’s the region of Mars we’re talking about, helpfully labeled to show the targets for the remote viewers. These targets are obviously highly suspicious, they look nothing like the rest of the Aram Chaos region of Mars (*squints*):

Take a look at the original Mars Global Surveyor images of the site. It might take a couple of minutes to find the area of interest, which isn’t surprising as it looks like the rest of Mars.

But no, there is something of vast interest in this particular photo. It’s an industrial complex! On Mars! Not inhabited by those pesky aliens we’ve seen hanging out on the Martian surface, but by humans!

Now the remote viewers have their targets, the Farsight Institute carried out some kind of experiment and Dr. Brown — a guy with a book to sell (where have we seen that before?) — discusses the astonishing results. In case you think I’ve eaten a funny-looking mushroom or been lobotomized by a trained hamster, this “evidence” for remote viewing is listed on the Farsight Institute’s webpages. I’m not making this up.

In the Mars orbiter photo (above), a spraying fountain of some “liquid” (target 1a) can be seen. In fact, this is the whole reason why Brown has taken an interest in this region. “We wouldn’t be interested in these domes if it wasn’t for the spray,” he said, “but the spray really caught our attention.” This spray is being ejected by a mountain-shaped dome (target 1b) via a horizontal “pipe.” There is a shadow under the spray indicating it is being ejected at some height. There is also another “highly reflective” dome below the other dome (target 1c). “It looks like it’s made out of some kind of resin material,” Brown remarks.

So, using their psychic powers, the military-grade remote viewers managed to access some fascinating details about the site — they even drew some vague scribbles of their visions.

These are my favorite conclusions from this fascinating experiment:

The artificial structures on Mars were originally built by ancient builders and the current occupants do not understand its technology. They need spare parts, but don’t have any. The mystery technology in operation generates power and there are intense flashing lights at the site. The occupants on site — of which there are more men than women — are despondent (because there are more men than women? Because no one knows they’re there? There’s no good coffee in the canteen? Just guessing). The occupants, assumed to be human, are in a lot of hardship and they aren’t allowed to return home.

Apart from sounding like a sweat house scene ripped straight from an 18th Century Jane Austin novel, the very idea the U.S. military has some kind of black operation on the Red Planet is hilarious. But to single out one tiny region of the planet by pure chance (because Brown thinks he sees a pipe gushing water over the landscape) and creating a fantasy world using zero logical thought is amazing to me.

The “gushing fluid” feature could be any one of a huge number of geological features. To me, it looks like a landslide; lighter material that has been dislodged, causing rubble to tumble down the slope. It could even be ice mixed in with regolith after an avalanche, ice crystals falling from the top of the mesa (a hill; not what Brown describes as anything man-made) scattering over the darker colored material further down the slope.

The shadow Brown points to is not caused by this “spraying liquid” feature, it’s simply darker-colored material in the Martian soil. There goes that theory. As for the other suggestions of man-made structures… well, that’s just Brown’s vivid imagination. I’m finding it hard to see any man-made domes. They’re just hills.

This crazy theory could be picked at for hours, but I’m still in amazement that people like Brown can discuss a subject like this with such conviction. There is overwhelming evidence that easily debunks the idea that there is an industrial complex on Aram Chaos. Unfortunately, for people peddling their pseudo-scientific ideas, common sense and logical thought seem to be concepts they have trouble grasping.

via Universe Today and SciGuy

Earth is no Longer ‘One of a Kind’

For this special little planet, today has been a very big day.

Although we’ve speculated that planets the size of Earth must exist elsewhere in the cosmos, it wasn’t until one of the co-investigators working with the Kepler Space Telescope said he had statistical evidence that worlds of the approximate size of Earth appear to dominate our Milky Way.

We now know Earth isn’t unique.

Alas, this historic news didn’t come without controversy. It was unofficially broken at a TED conference in Oxford earlier this month and only after a recording of a presentation given by Dimitar Sasselov was posted online did the news get out. What’s more, the announcement only became clear when Sasselov referred to a presentation slide depicting a bar chart with the different sizes of exoplanets discovered by Kepler:

A slide from Dimitar Sasselov's TED presentation.

This slide shows the number of exoplanets discovered up until this month, binned by size. We have Jupiter-like exoplanets, Saturn-like exoplanets and Neptune-like exoplanets, all compared with Earth’s radius.

The heart-stopping moment comes when looking at the bar that represents Earth-like exoplanets (i.e. worlds with a radius of below 2 Earth radii, or “<2 Re"). According to Sasselov, Kepler has detected a lot of Earth-like worlds, so many in fact that they dominate the picture. From what we have here, it would appear that around 140 exoplanets are considered to be like Earth.

“The statistical result is loud and clear,” said Sasselov. “And the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there. Our Milky Way galaxy is rich in these kinds of planets.”

But why the controversy? Isn’t this good news?

It would appear that the Kepler co-investigator chose not to wait until the official press release from NASA. He publicized these groundbreaking results in the U.K. at an event where you had to buy tickets to attend. This isn’t usually the stage you’d expect this kind of discovery to be announced — a move that will undoubtedly upset many.

“What is really annoying is that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements,” Keith Cowing, of NASAWatch.com, wrote in a SpaceRef article today. “And then the project’s Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience – offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.”

This sentiment is understandable. Only last month there was some frustration vented at the Kepler team for holding back data on 400 exoplanet candidates. While this might be standard practice — the discovering team should be allowed some time to publish work on any discoveries they have uncovered — telling the world’s scientists they will have to wait until February 2011 before they can get their hands on this invaluable data was a bridge too far.

In light of this, for a Kepler scientist to then jump the gun and disclose a groundbreaking discovery at an international conference without the backing of an official NASA release seems a little hypocritical.

But there is another argument to put out there: Why should anyone sit on such a profound discovery? Perhaps NASA and the Kepler team should have issued an earlier press release announcing to the world that 140 candidate Earth-like worlds have been detected and that further work will need to be done to confirm.

Ultimately, this controversy is just background noise when compared to what we have learned today. Official confirmation or not, Dimitar Sasselov’s message is clear. Although these detections need to be confirmed (hence why these worlds are referred to as “candidates”), it would appear there is an overwhelming preponderance of exoplanets measuring 2 Earth radii or less.

For me, that fact alone is astonishing — the first scientific evidence that worlds of Earth dimensions are not rare.

Earth is no longer unique.

For more, read my Discovery News article, “Kepler Scientist: ‘Galaxy is Rich in Earth-Like Planets‘”

Did the Cosmos Deliver a Googly? ‘Meteorite’ Lands on Cricket Pitch

While enjoying a cricket county match, two spectators were apparently treated to one of the rarest of cosmic events: a meteorite falling from the sky, landing right in front of them. The “dark” rock, measuring 5 inches wide, broke in two on impact. Amazingly, a piece hit one of the witnesses.

“One piece bounced up and hit me in the chest and the other ended up against the boundary board,” said Jan Marszel. “It came across at quite a speed – if it had hit me full on it could have been very interesting.”

It’s not clear from the Telegraph‘s minimally skeptical article when this happened (I’m assuming it was during the recent Middlesex vs. Sussex game in Uxbridge, northwest London, using the tidbits of information from the text) and the only expert opinion cited is that of Dr. Matthew Genge, a meteorite expert at Imperial College, who hasn’t handled the evidence yet.

“If this turns out to be a meteorite it’s very exciting and would be the first fall in the UK since 1992,” Genge points out.

(That last statement isn’t very accurate. I’m certain that there have been many meteorites falling onto the UK since 1992. If proven true, this would be the first witnessed fall in the UK since 1992.)

UPDATE (July 27, 10:22 am PT): With thanks to Philip Stobbart, who also commented on the Uxbridge object, some clarification of Genge’s quote has been provided, I stand corrected:

Ian O’Neill does a good job of debunking this, with one minor error. A ‘fall’ to a meteor expert is one of two categories of meteorites, falls and finds, referring to when they were seen – falling, or found later – not to meteorites actually physically falling. The papers made the same error, although they accepted the idea of this being the first fallen meteorite since 1992…

Original post continues:

Thank goodness the eyewitness account didn’t include a description about smoke bellowing from an incendiary-like pebble (i.e. the recent Israel spoof/weapon), but there are some huge question marks hanging over the validity of the Uxbridge object.

The first red flag is that one of the witnesses said: “…out of a blue sky, we saw this small dark object hurtling towards us.” I might be wrong, but spotting a 5-inch wide object flying through the air, at speed, ain’t easy. I would have thought the only time they were alerted of the ‘meteorite’ would have been when it hit the ground. Or when it hit Marszel in the thorax.

Secondly, was the ‘meteorite’ really 5 inches wide? After a quick search, I found a photograph of the offending object:

5 inches? Are you sure? I know us guys are known for overcompensating, but this is ridiculous. Granted, it’s probably just shoddy reporting, but that piece of rock is barely an inch wide.

Also, when a meteoroid blasts through the Earth’s atmosphere, a huge amount of heat is generated around it, creating a ‘fusion crust.’ This crust should be very obvious surrounding recently fallen meteorites. Looking at this picture, no fusion crust is visible. It could be that we are looking at the interior of the broken ‘meteorite,’ and the black fusion crust is on the other side, but there’s no indication in the photo that this is a bona fide space rock.

If I were to place a bet, I’d say that this is not a meteorite. However, it will be interesting to see what the experts think once they are able to study the sample.

Special thanks to Twitter buddy Madge Leebman for the tip!

Strasbourg July Lightning

A bolt of lightning strikes over Strasbourg, France (Ian O'Neill)

A bolt of lightning strikes over Strasbourg, France (Ian O'Neill)

As you may have noticed, things have been rather quiet on Astroengine of late. This is partly due to my pan-European trek and my work on Discovery News, but mainly due to my horrid affliction of procrastination. Hence why I’m late in posting this pretty awesome picture of a lightning bolt blasting across the French skies.

What was I doing in France? Well, I was asked to do a lecture all about asteroid mining and space commercialization at this year’s Space Studies Program 2010 (SSP10) at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg earlier this month.

It was an incredible experience and I got to meet some incredible people. Hoping to get a blog post up about the whole thing some time over the coming days, but for now, I’ll leave you with this picture of the storm that hit Strasbourg while I was there. For the full set, check out my Posterous gallery.

Hayabusa Returns to Earth with a Flash

Hayabusa re-enters over the Australian Outback, generating a bright fireball (screen grabs from the JAXA video feed)

Staring hard at the live streaming video of the black Australian skies, I was hoping to see a faint streak of light glide across the camera’s field of view.

But no, it wasn’t that subtle.

Shortly after 9:51 am EDT on Sunday morning (or, for me, a far more civilized 2:51 pm GMT), the Japanese space agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa’s mission officially came to an end, burning up in the atmosphere. However, a few hours before, the spacecraft released a 40 cm-wide capsule, sending it ahead of the main spacecraft. This sample return capsule would have a very different re-entry than its mothership.

As I watched the small dot of light on the horizon of the streaming video getting brighter and brighter — feverishly hitting the PRTSC button and using some rapid cut&paste-fu in Photoshop — suddenly it erupted, shedding light on the distant clouds that had been invisible in the night.

Far from the re-entry being a faint or dull event, it was dazzling (as seen in the screen grabs to the right).

So, after seven dramatic years in space, the Hayabusa mission has come to an end.

For the full story about how Hayabusa got hit by the largest solar flare in history, limped to visit an asteroid called Itokawa and how its sample-collecting kit malfunctioned, have a read of my main article on Discovery News: Hayabusa Generates Re-Entry Fireball Over Australia

Note: Thanks to everyone who re-tweeted the sequence of re-entry pics. As of this moment it has received over 30,000 views on Twitpic!

Jupiter Got Smacked, Again

Quite frankly, I’m stunned.

An Australian amateur astronomer has just observed his second ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event: an impact in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Phil Plait was very quick to get the news out, describing it as a “major coincidence,” and he ain’t wrong!

Anthony Wesley’s first event was the famous July 2009 observation of what was thought to have been the immediate aftermath of a comet impact in the Jovian atmosphere. His second happened on Thursday at 20:31 UTC when he was observing Jupiter when something hit the atmosphere, generating a huge fireball.

It is not known whether this event was caused by a comet or asteroid, but in a bizarre case of serendipity, earlier on Thursday Hubble released more information on his original impact event. The July 2009 “bruise” in the gas giant’s atmosphere is now thought to have been caused by an asteroid, and not a comet.

The Hubble press release included details on how researchers deduced that it was actually more likely that a 500 meter-wide asteroid hit Jupiter in 2009. One clue was that newly installed cameras on the space telescope detected little dust in the halo surrounding the impact site — a characteristic that was detected after the impact of the shards of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994. Also, the calculated trajectory of the 2009 event indicated the object didn’t have an orbit commonly associated with comets. If the 2009 event was an asteroid, that means Wesley saw something never seen before: the site of a recent asteroid impact on a celestial body.

And now, less than a year after being the first to see that impact aftermath, Wesley has done it again. Another amateur astronomer, Christopher Go, was quick to confirm Thursday’s fireball with a video of the 2 second flash in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

These impact events serve as a reminder about Jupiter’s fortuitous role in our Solar System. As the gas giant is so massive, its gravitational pull has a huge influence over the outer planets, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids. Acting like an interplanetary ‘vacuum cleaner’ Jupiter can block potentially disastrous chunks of stuff from taking a dive into the inner Solar System. It is thought that this distant planet has helped Earth become the thriving world it is today, preventing many asteroids and comets from ruining our evolution.

Thank you Jupiter!