“Station Fire” Could Damage Mount Wilson Observatory [Update]

The Mount Wilson Observatory webcam, looking west. City lights to the left is the approximate location of Burbank (©UCLA)
The Mount Wilson Observatory webcam, looking west. City lights to the left is the approximate location of Burbank (image corrected for contrast. ©UCLA)

August 29th: As the fires rage in Southern California, the “Station Fire” continues to burn unnervingly close to the famous Mount Wilson Observatory, about 50 miles east from my location. The above image was captured at 8:29pm (PST) tonight from the observatory’s 150-foot Solar Tower webcam (called the “Towercam”), and it’s pretty obvious how close the fire is.

Mount Wilson at sunset earlier today (©UCLA)
Mount Wilson at sunset earlier today (©UCLA)

Mount Wilson isn’t just important for the observatory, it is also home to telecommunication masts that are a lifeline for emergency services.

If Mount Wilson goes out, this news conference is done, because we won’t have any telecommunications,” Deputy Los Angeles County Fire Chief Jim Powers said in a press conference this morning.

Update (August 30th, 19:40 PST): Things are looking a little grim for Mt. Wilson. A couple of hours ago, the LA Times reported that the Station Fire was expected to reach the summit of Mt. Wilson in 2-4 hours. The worst news is, that due to a lack of escape routes at the observatory, fire crews will have to abandon the site should the fire get too close.

It’s a serious situation,” said Bob Shindelar, operations branch director of California Incident Management Team 5. “Is the observatory going to make it? We’re doing everything in our power. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it is impacted by fire today or tomorrow.”

The view from Mt. Wilson, facing west at 19:52 PST (Aug. 30th)
The view from Mt. Wilson, facing west at 19:52 PST (Aug. 30th)

At 17:42 PST, the fire was within 2 miles of the summit and closing. Fire crews have been working on removing brush from the observatory buildings, structures that cover many acres.

I was driving through Woodland Hills today, and the view from here was ominous. The smoke is thick, and a huge cumulus cloud was rising high in the atmosphere. At one point, the scene looked like a volcano from a distance.

Reports from the observatory itself however remain a little more upbeat than the LA Times with this update on their website:

The LA Times has released this article in the last hour. Our reports on site are not presently so dire, but the “fog of war” certainly exists in a situation like this. Every preparation is being made for this scenario, and it may indeed yet happen. I remain optimistic for now.

Lets hope the spreading fire slows before it reaches the observatory and telecommunication masts…

Updates pending…

Thanks to Mike Brown (@plutokiller) for the link to the Towercam.

Lost In Space: India’s Chandrayaan-1 Moon Mission Goes Silent

A miniature replica of the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft (V. Ganesan/The Hindu)

Just as one mission begins (Discovery’s STS-128), another ends. Unfortunately, only 10 months after launch, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar satellite Chandrayaan-1 has mysteriously ceased communication with mission control. ISRO officials have declared that the mission has ended, 14 months earlier than planned.

On Saturday, at 1:30am local time, the ISRO lost communications, and according to a spokesman, the agency is no longer in control of the spacecraft. Chandrayaan-1 data was being received by a monitoring unit in the southern city of Bangalore. There is currently no explanation for the failure.

The mission had completed 3,400 orbits of the Moon and everything seemed to be operational for the next few thousand orbits. The ambitious mission was launched by the fledgling space agency to allow India to stake a claim over lunar exploration with the future hope of exploiting the Moon’s natural resources (such as the abundance of uranium). This mission put India into a very exclusive club of only five international space agencies that had sent missions to the Moon before (NASA, JAXA, ESA, ROSCOSMOS and the CNSA).

This isn’t the first problem the satellite had suffered, however. In May, the probe lost a critical instrument called a star sensor, and then in July, the craft overheated. Fortunately, further damage to the rest of the satellite was averted by ground controllers.

Despite the obviously upsetting news about the loss of the $80 million piece of ISRO hardware, officials are surprisingly upbeat about the whole thing.

The mission is definitely over. We have lost contact with the spacecraft,” Project Director M. Annadurai said. “It [Chandrayaan-1] has done its job technically… 100 per cent. Scientifically also, it has done almost 90-95 percent of its job.”

Personally, I think the ISRO did a superb job at developing Chandrayaan-1 mission, and simply getting the thing into lunar orbit is an incredible feat. Another aspect I was impressed with was the ground controllers’ ability to deal with problems in-flight and fix them accordingly. This can only help to strengthen India’s ability when launching future missions to the Moon.

Sources: The Hindu, New York Times

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

Cassini Discovers a New Moonlet in Saturn’s Rings

The ~400 meter moonlet casts a 25 mile shadow across Saturn's B-ring (NASA)
The ~400 meter moonlet casts a 25 mile shadow across Saturn's B-ring (NASA)

As Saturn approaches its August 11th equinox (during which the Sun will be directly above the gas giant’s equator at noon for 27 months), the Cassini Equinox Mission can do some moonlet spotting. During this time, sunlight will cast long shadows of any object protruding from the 10 metre-thick rings.

In this case, hidden inside Saturn’s B-ring, a moonlet with a diameter of approximately 400 metres becomes obvious when sunlight hits the rings edge-on. The result is a very obvious 25 mile-long shadow. This discovery wouldn’t have been possible during any other time, as Cassini can only see the small rock because of its shadow. If the Sun was above or below the rings, no shadow would be cast, and therefore no moonlet would be visible.

Saturn experiences an equinox twice every Saturnian year (once every 15 terrestrial years), and NASA planned the Cassini mission to coincide with this interesting period to economise on the position of the Sun, spotting small objects like this little satellite…

Source: Wired, thanks to Helen Middleton (@herroyalmaj).

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

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

Confirmed! Jupiter Was Hit By Something (Update)

Image captured by Anthony Wesley on 19th July 2009 at 1554UTC from Murrumbateman Australia.
Image captured by Anthony Wesley on 19th July 2009 at 1554UTC from Murrumbateman Australia.

On Sunday, SpaceWeather.com reported that an amateur astronomer from Australia had noticed a dark spot rotate into view on the Jovian surface:

The jet-black mark is near Jupiter’s south pole (south is up in the image). I have imagery of that same location from two nights earlier without the impact mark, so this is a very recent event. The material has already begun to spread out in a fan shape on one side, and should be rapidly pulled apart by the fast jetstream winds.” — Anthony Wesley

Although this was all very exciting, and conjured up memories from the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Jupiter impact in 1994 (as documented by Hubble), I think the majority of blogs and news websites were initially reluctant to proclaim that this new dark spot was the site of an impact by a comet or asteroid. Why? Well, these events aren’t supposed to happen very often. That’s why the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact was termed “a once in a lifetime” event.

But, 15 years later (a dog’s lifetime, perhaps), it’s been confirmed by JPL (pending an official release) that the dark patch is in fact an impact site, and not some crazy weather system:

Glenn Orton from JPL has imaged this site using the NASA Infrared Telescope on Hawaii and confirms that it is an impact site and not a localised weather event.Update by Anthony Wesley

UPDATE (14:00 PST): Sky & Telescope Magazine is tracking developments, and reports that Leigh Fletcher, a scientist at the InfraRed Telescope Facility in Hawaii, is tweeting his findings from analysis of the Jupiter impact site. From the high infrared emissions in reflected sunlight off the dark spot, it is almost conclusive that the spot was caused by an impact by a comet or asteroid.

This has all the hallmarks of SL-9 in 1994 (15 years to the day!). High altitude particulates, looks nothing like weather phenom.” —@LeighFletcher

The most astounding thing for me is that this impact was initially observed by an amateur astronomer, and not a space agency. We await further word from Glenn Orton at JPL and Leigh Fletcher at Hawaii, but all indications suggest this black patch IS another impact crater…

A later image of the Jupiter impact (Anthony Wesley)
A later image of the Jupiter impact (Anthony Wesley)

More news to follow

Source: Anthony Wesley’s site

British Astronauts? Yey! British Astronauts!

Our last astronauts were these guys (from a Cambridge University project).
Our last astronauts were these guys (from a Cambridge University project).

For an island of explorers, you may be confused by the fact there’s never been a British astronaut. Poppycock! What about that Michael Foale bloke? He’s British, and he spent a hell of a lot of time in space for a guy who shouldn’t be up there! Actually, Foale wasn’t a ‘British astronaut,’ he was a ‘British-born astronaut’ who is dual-nationality, lives in the US and works for NASA; being from the UK wasn’t a factor. Other British-born astronauts have either changed nationality or had to take the private route into space. The UK didn’t invest any money in their aspirations for rocketry.

And that’s what it came down to in 1986 when UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher decreed that there would be no British astronauts. We were ‘banned’ from space. Bummer. Basically, the expense of supporting a British manned space effort was sidelined, thereby removing the UK from any involvement in any manned space program. This included the International Space Station (just in case you haven’t noticed, there’s no British flag on the ISS, and there’s no 30-minute tea breaks or roast dinners served on Sundays in low-Earth orbit).

However, in a bloody fantastic turn of events, it’s been announced (right at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing) by Lord Drayson, UK Science Minister, that British astronauts will feature in the future of the UK’s space ambitions.

Britain should be playing a full role in space exploration. There was a special fund for training astronauts and we did not contribute, but that is now changed. There are important benefits that come from manned space-flight and we have dropped our opposition. We have an astronaut entering training soon and I hope he will be the first of many. —Lord Drayson

Lucky sod: Major Tim Peake, training British astronaut (BNSC)
Lucky sod: Major Tim Peake, training British astronaut (BNSC)

This news comes after the European Space Agency (ESA) selected lucky Tim Peake for their astronaut training program. Up until now, the annal £180 million ($290 million) the UK pays ESA could only be invested in robotic space exploration programs. Therefore, Peake can now be supported by the UK government, making him the first British astronaut to train in Europe.

I hope Tim Peake will be the first of many Britons selected to train as European astronauts,” Lord Drayson added.

This increased interest in British manned spaceflight could have some serious ramifications for the future of the nation, but the first thing that will need an upgrade is the British National Space Centre (yes, we really do have one) which is currently run by a part-time crew of civil servants pulled from other government departments, two research councils and the Met Office.

I can’t begin to put into words of how many shades of awesomeness this is, but I’m very excited that the United Kingdom will once again be involved with manned spaceflight… rather than just being known for making small craters with unfortunate Mars robots…

Special thanks to the ever-vigilant Dr Lucy Rogers

Source: Times

BREAKING: Greg “Weird Things” Fish Gets Assimilated

The Blorg

There he was, happily blogging on his kick-ass World of Weird Things website when *BLAM* something happened. Looking out the window to see if there had been a car crash, Greg saw nothing. But as he sat back down, he realized it wasn’t a noise that he’d heard… it was more of a feeling.

Was this what Creationists would consider to be a “sign”? Was this a ghostly apparition? Could it be that Greg had just witnessed the Second Coming? Oh no, had he slipped down a wormhole, appeared in 2012, and he was experiencing, first hand, how the planet will be blended into a particularly creamy doomsday smoothy? (“Those Mayans! Why did I annoy them so?” he cried.)

But no, this is far worse, he could feel it in his divining rods, there was a force upsetting his chi, an oscillation in his aura, a one-part-per-billion-ths-ish too much salt in his homoeopathic remedy… this was big, and it was coming straight for him… he was about to be assimilated by the Blog Borg (a.k.a. The Blorg)*…

*Thank you to @2012Hoax for that gem of a name… “Blorg” – love it!


As you might have figured out, something big is happening to my friend and co-author Greg Fish. He’s been noticed by the awesome blogging network True/Slant and now he’s moving World of Weird Things over there.

There’s going to be no break in service, in fact, knowing Greg, he will attack this new opportunity with his skeptical barrels fully loaded and scientific nunchucks at the ready.

I’ve been following Greg’s writing religiously (or should that be skeptically) ever since he started up less than a year ago, and he’s probably one of the most talented young writers I have ever come across. He approaches every topic (of which none seem to be out of bounds) with a huge amount of understanding, and he has created one of the most active and powerful skepticism blogs out there.

The move to True/Slant means he gets to widen his audience even more and mix with many more talented writers. I for one can’t wait to follow Weird Things when he’s set up and ready to go.

Congratulations Greg!

Artificial Quake: North Korea Tests Another Nuke

Not a meteorite crater, this was caused by an underground test in Nevada (NDEP).
Not a meteorite crater, this was caused by an underground test in Nevada (NDEP).

At 09:54 local time this morning, a magnitude 4.7 earthquake hit a region of North Korea 200 miles north-east of Pyongyang.

So what? I’ve experienced a 5.0 sitting in my back garden, and it was a curious experience. All I remember thinking was “oooh my first quake!” and “I’ll have to tweet about this!“. Then I quickly forgot about it. Apart from the possibility of making that crack in my bedroom ceiling a bit wider, a 5.0 is memorable, but not particularly damaging. I’m sure that if an unsafe structure is hit by a quake of that size, there might be a little more damage than a few cracks in plaster, but in LA, it was fairly unremarkable. But it is entertaining.

North Korea: Zero natural quakes since 1990 (USGS)
North Korea: Zero natural quakes since 1990 (USGS)

So why is there all this fuss about a 4.7 quake deep within the secret nation of North Korea? Well, this is the interesting bit.

The location where the earthquake struck doesn’t get earthquakes. As in, seismic activity has been pretty much non-existent for the last 30 years. Compare that with the California shimmies: we have a stonking huge fault (the San Andreas) running right through the middle of our state. That’s not including all the smaller faults that zig-zag the West Coast of the US. I live atop one of the most seismically active regions on the planet (earthquakes and wildfires? Good move Ian!); we get small quakes all the time. North Korea, not so much.

So, when the USGS saw this 4.7 blip on their seismographs, coffee might have been spilled on some keyboards. It was caused by an underground nuclear test. North Korea has detonated a bomb 6.2 miles under the crust of their country which kick-started this artificial earthquake. Sure enough, a state-run North Korean news agency confirmed how insane their government is by releasing this statement:

“[North Korea] successfully conducted another underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of its measures aimed at strengthening its self-defense nuclear deterrent in every way.” —Korean Central News Agency

Deterrent? Are you sure? What are they deterring?

Judging by the frakked-up satellite-submarine launch in April, the nation’s nuclear missile fleet probably isn’t the best in the world, and there’s not many warheads in the armory. So globally, North Korea isn’t fooling anyone.

However, this new test will cause grave concern for the region if the NK dictatorship starts sipping too much of the Kool-Aid. The nightmare scenario would be a nuclear-tipped ICBM dropping into South Korea or Japan. Unfortunately, when you have a crazy person living in a military state, cut off from the rest of the world, all bets are off when they are in charge of the Red Button.

Needless to say, the political fallout will be huge, which is kinda the point. They like propaganda. Especially when a nuclear test’s effects are more than just seismic, it looks as if the economic markets are shaking too. Also, big changes are afoot in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il appears to be in the process of handing over power to his brother-in-law, so who knows what’s going to happen next… expect a few more artificial quakes in the future

The anatomy of an underground nuclear test (BBC)
The anatomy of an underground nuclear test (BBC)