Let The Planet Seeding Begin! Comets Have Amino Acids Too…


Yesterday, NASA announced exciting news about a discovery made by a NASA mission that did a cosmic dance with comet Wild 2 back in 2004. The Stardust mission managed to scoop an amino acid called glycine from the comets dusty tail, thereby proving it’s not just asteroids that contain this critical ingredient for life.

It’s not a particularly unexpected discovery that glycine is in a comet — we’ve found amino acids in meteorites before — but it does show that comets are another way that amino acids could have come to Earth,” lead researcher Jamie Elsila, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told Irene Klotz from Discovery News.

Elsila and colleagues are responsible for developing a technique to extract and study the deposits of glycine from the aluminium foil that lined the probe’s collection plates. They confirmed the glycine was in fact of extraterrestrial origin (rather than contamination here on Earth), as the carbon atoms in the glycine molecules had an extra neutron in the nucleus. This means the glycine was formed in space.

We see in this comet that amino acids were forming at the earliest time in our solar system,” Mike Zolensky, a comet dust researcher from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said.

Zolensky suspects that heat from the radioactive decay of short-lived particles melted a piece of comet ice laced with organic compounds and water. This may have allowed the cosmic amino acid to form.

Now that an amino acid has been scraped off the collection plate of the Stardust mission, it would appear the building blocks for life are widely available throughout the Solar System (assuming comet Wild 2 isn’t a special case). Asteroids contain amino acids, as do meteorites, now it looks as if comets carry the building blocks for life too. This means early-Earth certainly had plenty of opportunities to acquire extra-terrestrial sources of amino acids…

Source: Irene Klotz, Discovery News Space Correspondent

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Deconstructing Doomsday

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

The funny thing about being involved in a doomsday documentary is trying to find a suitable balance between entertainment and science. This is the conclusion I reached after the interview I did for KPI productions in New York for the upcoming 2012 documentary on the Discovery Channel last week (just in case you were wondering why Astroengine.com was being a little quiet these last few days).

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Naturally, the production team was angling for what it might be like to be hit by a “killer” solar flare, what kinds of terror and destruction a brown dwarf could do to Earth and what would happen if our planet’s magnetic poles decided to do a 180°. It’s always fun to speculate after all. However, I wasn’t there to promote half-baked theories of 2012 doom, I was there to bring some reality to the nonsensical doomsday claims. But with real science comes some unexpected concerns for the safety of our planet — not in 2012, but sometime in the future.

An added bonus to my NYC trip was meeting the awesome Alex Young, a solar physicist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Alex was asked to New York for the same reasons I was, but he has a current and comprehensive understanding of solar dynamics (whereas my solar physics research is so 2006). He actually works with SOHO data, a mission I have massive respect for.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

My interview was carried out on Wednesday morning, and Alex’s was in the afternoon. The KPI guys were great, a joy to be involved in such a professional project. The documentary producer, Jonathan, asked me the questions in a great location, a huge Brooklyn building that was undergoing renovation. Very dusty with a post-apocalyptic twist. If I was going to shoot a movie about the end of the world, this building would be it.

The KPI documentary will certainly be very different from the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode I was involved with, but it was just as much fun, if not more so (it was like a day-long science fest).

Of particular note was Alex’s sobering words about the woeful lack of funds in solar physics (i.e. Earth-damaging solar flares and CMEs). I hope his closing statement about NOAA space weather prediction funding makes the final cut; it was nothing less than chilling.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Although we both hammered home the point that the fabled Earth-killing solar flare wont happen in 2012 (let’s face it, our Sun is still going through an epic depression, why should solar maximum be anything spectacular?), it is probably the one theory that holds the most scientific merit. In fact, as both Alex and I agreed, for a civilization that depends on sensitive technology in space and on the ground, we really need to prepare for and understand solar storms far better than we do at present.

I won’t go into any more details, but the documentary will be on the Discovery Channel in November, so I’ll give plenty of warning to fire up those DVRs.

Thank you Sarah, Jonathan and the rest of the crew from KPI for making the New York visit so memorable…

Feline Physics


I thought this was funny, so I thought I’d share and in the process prove to the intertoobs that Astroengine is still alive and well. Just returned from an uber-cool trip to New York, so I’ll be writing a blog post about that later.

But for now, beware the glowing kittens, a couple of neutrons here or there and more than just fur will fly…

Source: ICanHasCheezburger.com

The Naked Singularity Recipe: Spin a Black Hole, Add Mass


The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return. If anything, even light, strays within the bounds of this gravitational trap, it will never escape. The event horizon is what makes a black hole black.

But say if there was a way to remove the event horizon, leaving just the black hole’s singularity to be “seen” by the rest of the universe? What if there is a special condition that would allow this infinitely small, yet massive point to become naked?

Generally physicists agree that this is a physical impossibility, but the mathematics says otherwise; a naked singularity could be possible.

Previously on Astroengine, one “special condition” was investigated when an extreme black hole collision was simulated by a Caltech researcher. In this case, the black hole pair was smashed together, head-on, at a velocity close to the speed of light. The gravitational waves travelling away from the collision were then modelled and characterized. It turns out that after this insanely energetic impact, 14% of the total mass was converted into gravitational wave energy and both black holes merged as one.

While this might not be very realistic, it proved to be a very useful diagnostic tool to understand the conditions after the collision of two black holes. As an interesting observation, the Caltech researchers found that although the collision was extreme, and there was a huge amount of mass-energy conversion going on (plus, I’d imagine, a rather big explosion), neither black hole lost their event horizons.

Case closed, wouldn’t you think?

Actually, another theory as to how a black hole could be stripped naked has been knocking around for some time; what if you added mass to a black hole spinning at its maximum possible rate? Could the black hole be disrupted enough to shed its event horizon?

It turns out there’s a natural braking system that prevents this from happening. As soon as mass is dropped into the black hole, it is flung out of the event horizon by the black hole’s huge centrifugal force, preventing it from coming close to the singularity.

However, Ted Jacobson and Thomas Sotiriou at the University of Maryland at College Park have now improved upon this idea, sending mass in the same direction as the spinning black hole. Only this time, the black hole isn’t spinning at its fastest possible rate, the simulation lets the orbiting matter fall into the event horizon, speeding up its spin. The result? It appears to disrupt the black hole enough to strip away the event horizon, exposing the singularity.

The most interesting thing to come of this research is that swirling matter is falling into black holes all over the universe, speeding up their spin. Jacobson and Sotiriou may have stumbled on a viable mechanism that actually allows naked singularities in the cosmos. Unless nature has found another way to prevent the cosmic censorship hypothesis from being violated that is…

Source: New Scientist

U.S. Navy Intercepts Missile 100 Miles Over the Pacific


When you stop to think about it, this bit of news kinda makes last year’s surface-to-satellite shoot-down sound a little… pedestrian. It’s been announced that the U.S. Navy successfully intercepted a short-range ballistic missile 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

A ship basically destroyed a missile, in space.

At an altitude of 100 miles.


Details are a little sketchy, but the event took place on July 30th and the Navy weapon of choice was a Standard Missile-3 block 1A missile — a similar missile was used during the February 2008 satellite intercept — fired from the USS Hopper. The dummy target ballistic missile was fired from the Hawaiian island of Kauai and it was tracked by the Hopper and USS O’Kane (both destroyers) and consequently shot down.

This marks the 19th successful intercept (out of 23) of high-altitude targets (including the Feb. 2008 spy satellite shoot-down) for the U.S. military’s Aegis Missile Defense system.

To be honest, I was totally floored when I heard the U.S. military had the capability to shoot down a satellite at an altitude of about 130 miles, but to pick out an even smaller target at a comparable altitude is amazing (although the satellite, travelling at 17,000 mph, might have been going faster than a speeding ballistic missile… I might be wrong).

So it looks like the U.S. military is pretty good at taking out ballistic threats after all…

North Korea? Come on, what’s the point?

Source: Space.com

xkcd: Probably Not The Best Way To Deal With An Asteroid


I hope we never see this day in the future, when the newscaster calmly informs us that an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth.

In any case, if this scenario did unfold, I’d like to think we’ll have the in-space technological capability to deal with the threat — but if we didn’t, I’m sure we’d work on it pretty damn quickly (given enough warning… if not… well, I’m out of ideas).

But please… don’t go strapping a nuclear warhead to the rock… it might not end quite so well.

Source: xkcd

Opportunity Investigates Possible Martian Meteorite


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

“Science Knows It Doesn’t Know Everything… Otherwise It Would Stop.”

I love this video.

Dara O’Brian, Irish comedian, says it the way it is, and as Phil Plait said, “I sometimes think that comedians wield more skeptical leverage than bloggers.” This is true, but it’s up to us bloggers to post cool snippets from skeptical comedian sets and have a good giggle. So here’s the hilarious O’Brian, slamming crackpots across the board (beware the NSFW language):

Source: Bad Astronomy

Mare Vaporware: The Lunar Advertising Joke


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.”

From Messier 80 to Messier 45 in 13.111 Seconds


PussyMagnet 6009 from Mato Atom on Vimeo.

On my travels across the space blogosphere, I came across a rather nifty video called “Docking” posted on the Cosmic Variance blog. The impressive CGI was done by a guy called Mato Atom on the video site Vimeo, and it’s certainly not subtle (a reminder that sex in space will, quite literally, be a docking procedure).

Having a look at Mato Atom’s other videos, I found another creation that took my breath away. A computer generated flying saucer called the PussyMagnet 6009, animated to Bach’s Air (on a G-string). Once again, the title of the video suggests you might want to use this hi-tech flying saucer for something more than warping space-time, but this mock-advertisement is certainly in the style of an expensive BMW, Audi or Mercedes ad.

So, come the year 6009, you might see an ad like this on your TV screen (or whatever ‘screen’ we might use in 4000 years time), where the looks of space vehicles are just as important as their function. Some things don’t change

“Because fossil fuels are so 2009.”