Roundup and Opinion

It’s been a while since I last posted as I’ve been flying from the US to the UK and have only just gotten my office up and running. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. On the Universe Today, I’ve posted quite a few articles ranging from quite an elaborate April Fools story (but not quite as elaborate as Virgin and Google’s Virgle prank), to a black hole hiding in the middle of Omega Centauri, to rocks rolling around on Mars… here’s a round up of the most interesting…

Not willing to be left out of the April Fools excitement, I came up with quite a topical story based around the current funding crises facing the UK and NASA. To fund continued robotic missions into space, NASA is going to burn tattoos of corporate sponsors into the surface of Mars. This came from the recent story about the UK’s STFC funding problems and the closure of the Jodrell Bank Telescope. The solution here was to a) raise awareness about the troubles, and b) to raise some corporate sponsorship. The result? Beam adverts into space, Doritos ads. So that was the spark, advertising in space = logos on Mars.

There is a serious undercurrent to this April Fools gag. There is a strange and problematic issue facing international space efforts. First we hear about the highly publicised UK pullout of the Gemini Observatory project, then Jodrell Bank closes. Then in the US, it is announced that one of the Mars rovers will have to be turned off for a few weeks to save $4 million, only for NASA to retract the decision the following day. And today, news that “thousands” of NASA employees working with the Space Shuttle will be made redundant when the shuttle is retired in 2010. So what is going on? Through all these amazing feats of technological ingenuity and space exploration, the financial rug seems to be gradually pulled from under the biggest space research facilities in the world. Could it possibly be that the world-wide “credit crunch” has invaded our ability to function in space too? Possibly.

The biggest issues facing government funded research projects are that the money is highly political. If a government decides to withdraw funding, there’s not a lot that can be done. In the case of the UK funding crisis, many responses to my articles pointed the finger at involvement in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with some highlighting the UK government’s injection of billions of pounds to prop up the ailing Northern Rock bank. So perhaps the cash has been redirected from research spending and saved to help out in the current financial climate. Perhaps it is the credit crunch after all…

In more positive items, I reported on some recent findings coming from the Hubble Space Telescope. Peering into the Omega Centauri, 17,000 light years from our galaxy, German researchers believe they have seen indirect evidence for the presence of an intermediate-sized black hole, right in the galactic core. This is a valuable find. Never before has an intermediate black hole been found in the centre of a galaxy. This goes in some way to explain the link between small, stellar black holes and the supermassive black holes sitting in the middle of larger galaxies (such as the Milky Way). An Intermediate black hole could conceivably “seed” a much larger, supermassive one.

From the very large, to the very small. The HiRISE instrument on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has observed tracks from rocks that have rolled down crater slopes. This may sound unremarkable, but I can assure you, it isn’t. Ever since the Mars avalanches were observed in March, there has been a buzz on the Internet to see more terrestrial-like geological events on the Martian surface. Seeing the avalanche really gave us pause to realize that the Red Planet is still geologically active, it is by no means still. Observing rocks down to 4 metres in diameter, plus the tracks they’ve made in the regolith is actually very impressive.

More recent articles of interest:

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