CryoSat-2, a Satellite that Looks Like a Shed, Doing Science in the Freezer

Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would design (ESA)
Cryosat-2. Resembles something Da Vinci would have designed (ESA)

ESA Cryosat-2 is set for launch in 2009 and it is the second attempt at getting the technology into orbit. Back in 2005, the original CryoSat was lost after a rocket malfunction caused it to fall short of the desired orbit, but much like the Phoenix Mars Lander story (i.e. it rose from the ashes of the lost Mars Polar Lander mission, recycled spare parts and reassembled the robot), Cryosat will fly once more. So what makes this mission so important? Well, it will carry out an essential three-year survey, measuring the thickness of global ice sheets.

But why am I really mentioning it? Like many ESA missions, the designs of their satellites and robots are so cool, and Cryosat-2 is no different. From some angles it looks like a sturdy intergalactic battleship, from others it looks like it was painstakingly designed by Da Vinci. Sometimes it even looks like a flying shed. In my books, that’s one interesting satellite. The science isn’t bad either…
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GOCE Will be the Coolest Satellite to Orbit Earth, Ever

Solar panels have never looked so good. GOCE is the Porsche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)
Solar panels have never looked so good. GOCE is the Porsche of orbital engineering (GOCE/ESA)

The European Space Agency is set to launch the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) Star Destroyer satellite on September 10th. This advanced mission will be the most sophisticated piece of kit ever to orbit the Earth, investigating the Earth’s gravitational field. It will perform a highly accurate mapping campaign, producing a high resolution reference shape of the geoid (i.e. the shape of our planet). The mission will be unprecedented, but that’s not the reason why I’m drawing attention to it…

Only last week I remarked on the coolness of the 2013 Mars rover mission in the shape of the dazzling Pasteur Rover (set to drill two-metres into Mars), and today with the announcement of the launch GOCE, it looks like ESA has done it again. They’ve encased their state-of-the-art instrumentation inside something that belongs in a science fiction movie, more reminiscent of the Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars than a tin box satellite…
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Auroral Substorm: THEMIS Pinpoints Location of Magnetic Reconnection in Magnetotail

The THEMIS satellites lined up inside the Earth's magnetotail. A reconnection event occurred between the 4th and 5th satellites (NASA)
The THEMIS satellites lined up inside the Earth's magnetotail. A reconnection event occurred between the 4th and 5th satellites (NASA)

Although magnetic reconnection is one of the bedrock theories within the field of space plasma physics, it has been very difficult to observe. We know that magnetic instabilities and electric currents operate within the plasma environment, but the triggering mechanism is difficult to understand. Reconnection occurs near the surface of the Sun and it occurs where the solar wind interacts with the sunward geomagnetic field. It also happens in the magnetotail (i.e. in the shadow of the Earth, where the magnetosphere is swept behind our planet by the pressure of the solar wind) and is most commonly linked with a terrestrial phenomenon: the aurora. Now, for the first time, scientists have located the point at which the magnetic field lines snap, blasting a huge amount of energy right at the Earth…
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A Fractal Representation of Pi… In a Crop Circle

The 150 metre diameter crop circle in Wiltshire, UK (© Apex)

In the south of the UK, crop circles are a common event. These strange, flattened patterns appear suddenly and without explanation in farmland throughout the county of Wiltshire. Skeptics will argue that these patterns have been made by pranksters or by enthusiasts wanting to create large-scale crop graffiti. Others will argue it is an attempt by extraterrestrial beings to communicate with us by stamping their presence into a field. I’m keeping an open mind as to the source of these features, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with either “skeptic” or “believer”. And this is the reason why. The UK’s most complex crop circle appeared in a field earlier this month, and it took an astrophysicist to decipher what it meant…
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Goonhilly: Shutdown of the Worlds Largest Satellite Earth Station

The Lizard Peninsula and the location of Goonhilly Earth Station (images from Google Earth, editing by me)

Goonhilly is an area of the Lizard Peninsula in the British county of Cornwall. This region has been the destination of countless family holidays in my lifetime, and even today the Cornish landscape provides plenty of surprises for me. One landmark in particular has been the focus of my interest for as long as I can remember. Driving from the town of Helston, past RNAS Culdrose (an active Royal Naval Air Service site), and then on toward the most southerly point of mainland United Kingdom, a strange, yet familiar sight greets me. Every time I see the silhouette of those satellite dishes on the horizon of the Goonhilly Downs, I’m full of curiosity and excitement. But this year, the station is cutting back its operations to be moved to another site. The sad end of an era…
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Planet X Does Not Exist

Planet X really doesn't exist...
Planet X really doesn’t exist…

(Update: “2012: No Planet X” hit the front page of this morning. It doesn’t appear to have the accelerated popularity of the first “No Doomsday in 2012”, but the response is still fantastic. Thanks to everybody for your support. Join the fun over at Digg!)

After some questions about the specific theories surrounding the end of the Earth in 2012, I decided to investigate the strange and mysterious “Planet X” (or “Nibiru”) in todays posting on the Universe Today. Primarily this was out of curiosity, after all, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of websites devoted to the coming of this massive planet in, you guessed it, 2012. What is it with this date? It seems that every doomsday theory has come together for a huge party in four years time. So, you can probably guess from my tone, I’m a little skeptical. To cut a long story short, I am sick and tired with seeing unfounded “scientific” (borderline psudoscientific) theories of a planet that doesn’t exist, purely to scare people into buying an aspiring best selling novel about “How to Survive the Planet X Flypast”. My argument differs quite a lot to the Planet X supporter’s argument; I back my points up with scientific evidence.

Check out “2012: No Planet X” over at the Universe Today and see what you think…

The Eden Project and Mars Settlement

The Eden Project, nr. St Austell (©Ian O'Neill)

On our travels last week, we decided to stop off at the Eden Project down near St. Austell in Cornwall for a few hours. It’s been one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, especially since my involvement with the Mars Foundation. Well known in the UK for its “Biomes” – huge geodesic domes composed of hexagonal cushions of flexible but durable plastic – the project supports a huge number of plants and animals from around the globe. So, apart from looking pretty cool, why have I decided to mention it on astroengine? Well, Eden hasn’t only inspired environmentalists, it could aid the future design and implementation of structures beyond Earth…
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Chile Chaiten Volcano Erupts Generating a Spectacular Lightning Storm

Chaiten Volcano, southern Chile, erupts generating an intense electrical storm (UPI)
Chaiten Volcano, southern Chile, erupts generating an intense electrical storm (UPI)

This is quite possibly the most stunning photograph I have seen for a long, long time. In Chile, a volcano has erupted, blasting huge quantities of ash and gas into the atmosphere. As the plume of ejected material rose through the cooler atmosphere, electric charge was built up through electron exchange between plume and surrounding air. The resulting electrical storm produced some terrifyingly beautiful images. Thank goodness I spotted the lead on this story, from a tabloid newspaper in Bristol’s city centre…

It’s one of those iconic media images, something so unworldly and terrifying that it takes some time to understand the scale of what you’re seeing. Sitting outside a pub in glorious (and rare) UK sunlight, flicking through the Daily Mail, I stumbled across page 20 of the tabloid (dated May 7th). A double-page spread of a scene that was more reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. My first thought was that it was some sort of nuclear explosion, but then, on reading the text I realized it was in fact a huge plume of ash and smoke being blasted from the Chilean volcano that had erupted last Friday. But something was strange about the image. A vast quantity of electrical discharge could be seen, lightning strikes threading through the plume and more lightning bolts being emitted by the surrounding cloud cover. I knew this was something special, so I checked to see if the newspaper ran a story online too.

Fortunately they did, and no one else seemed to be following it out of the mainstream UK media. I’ve actually been trying to find a way of including the Chaiten Volcano event in the Universe Today for the last few days, but apart from doing a minor story of an International Space Station snapshot from orbit, I couldn’t find much bulk for the report. The Daily Mail ran some stunning images of the event, but it was the volcano triggered lightning that got me interested. Have a look at the story I ran on the Universe Today (it’s proving to be pretty popular…).

As far as I can see, the violent lightning storm would have been caused by the rapid updraught of hot ash. Friction between the hot cloud and cool surrounding atmosphere would have created a vast charge generator, sparking to life as electrical discharge.

Chaiten Volcano, lightning strikes from atmospheric cloud cover (UPI)
Chaiten Volcano, lightning strikes from atmospheric cloud cover (UPI)

Source: Daily Mail newspaper