@Astroengine Got CNN’d (and other epic things)


I’ve been pondering a word that could describe today.

I drew a blank.

It’s a very hard day to sum up in one word. In fact, this entire week has been something of a unique one. From a space point of view, it’s been busy, largely due to the endless supply of space science research spewing from the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Puerto Rico.

However, last night (and early this morning) is what topped it all off. The NASA LCROSS mission slammed into the lunar south pole at 4:31am (PDT) and I was there tweeting away, keeping abreast of all the juicy LCROSS news. That was until Time Warner Cable decided to pull the plug on my internet connection 10 minutes before the main event (I’m certain they did it deliberately, it’s the only explanation). Panic-stricken — and really peeved that I’d spent the whole night excited to see the glorious end to this Moon mission, only to be foiled by my ISP — I checked the TV, and it was working, plus a local channel was covering the event. Phew.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to see. Oh well.

Anyway, on waking up this morning, I was shocked to find my inbox was stuffed full of Twitter follow messages and notes of congratulations from my team at Discovery News. CNN had picked me, with four heavy-hitters on Twitter as their #FollowFriday. But it wasn’t an ordinary #FollowFriday, the guys at CNN Technology posted this #FollowFriday on their site!

Editor’s note: In this new weekly feature, we highlight five recommended Twitter feeds about a hot topic in the news. Today’s list focuses on space-related tweets and NASA’s plan to crash two spacecraft on the moon Friday in a search for water in lunar soil.CNN Tech

So despite my internet woes, CNN had chosen me (@astroengine) with @BadAstronomer, @Astro_Mike, @LCROSS_NASA and @NASA_AMES. So I was in the company of an entire NASA facility (Ames), a NASA mission that had just hours before slammed into the Moon (LCROSS), the first astronaut to tweet from space (Mike Massimino) and the one, and only, Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait.


They also added this very flattering description of @astroengine:

4. astroengine — Astroengine is the Twitter name of Ian O’Neill, a British-born physicist with a long resume and a healthy sense of humor. It’s also the name of his blog, which gathers articles and posts on such light-reading topics as quantum mechanics, solar physics, relativity, cosmology, space flight science and “some of the more bizarre theories that drive our universe.”

Number of followers: more than 1,700

Sample tweet: “Europa, Jupiter’s Moon, Could Support Complex Life http://bit.ly/3n6iKL (I, for one, welcome our alien Jellyfish Overlords)”

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to say “hello” to my hundreds of new followers!

And did I think of a word that describes today? Actually, I think I just did:


C.A.T. Scans of the Solar Wind

Guest article by Dr. Mario M. Bisi (Research Focus)

A cut in the ecliptic plane through a 3D reconstruction on 08 November 2004 at 0000 UT using white-light data from SMEI. The view is from directly North of the ecliptic; the Sun is at the centre marked by a +, the Earth is on the right marked with a ⊕ along with its orbit as a black near-circular line around the Sun (the Earth orbits anti-clockwise around the Sun from this point of view). The darker the colour, the greater the density of material in the ecliptic.  (©Dr. Mario M. Bisi)
A cut in the ecliptic plane through a 3D reconstruction on 08 November 2004 at 0000 UT using white-light data from SMEI. The view is from directly North of the ecliptic; the Sun is at the centre marked by a +, the Earth is on the right marked with a ⊕ along with its orbit as a black near-circular line around the Sun (the Earth orbits anti-clockwise around the Sun from this point of view). The darker the colour, the greater the density of material in the ecliptic. (©Dr. Mario M. Bisi)

The Computer Assisted Tomography (C.A.T.) technique has been used for many years now and is well known for use on people where certain health conditions need more thorough, detailed, and deeper scans into the human body and the need for three-dimensional (3D) reconstructed imaging. However, similar such scans can also be used on the solar wind to discover the shapes and sizes of structures near Earth and throughout the inner heliosphere in three dimensions. These scans have been carried out for some time, pioneered in the most part by those at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS), University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla, CA, U.S.A. in close-collaboration with the Solar-Terrestrial Environment Laboratory (STELab), Nagoya University, Toyokawa, Japan…
Continue reading “C.A.T. Scans of the Solar Wind”

NASA’s Continuing Foray Into Pop Culture

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)


Oh what havoc faux-conservative pundit Stephen Colbert wrought on NASA and the ISS! To think that a little publicity stunt would actually put the U.S. space agency in a jam and incite grudging grumbles from Firefly fans who were sure that Node 3 would be called Serenity. Even a few Congressmen who found time away from dealing with a painful and deep recession that’s put the entire economy in turmoil, are now involved in sorting out this little mess.

But there’s actually an interesting question in this seeming non-story. Should NASA embrace the will of the masses and give nods to pop culture in how it officially names its spacecraft? There are stories of informal call signs for capsules and modules taken from the Peanuts comic strip, but there’s never been an official designation that reflects what’s popular here on Earth at the time of the mission. What would benefit NASA more? Giving in to the power of the fad or staying resolute with timeless names?

Continue reading “NASA’s Continuing Foray Into Pop Culture”

Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?

DNA and amino acids. Not just a terrestrial thing?
DNA and amino acids. Not just a terrestrial thing? (©CG4TV)

This is probably one of the biggest questions that hang over science fiction story lines: Will extraterrestrials have any resemblance to Life As We Know It™? To be honest, to toy with the thought of anything other than carbon-based life is pure conjecture, just because there might be some other form of life (such as silicon-based creatures), doesn’t mean there is (doesn’t mean there isn’t, either). So, here we are with the only form of life we know and understand, carbon-based life that was somehow spawned via a crazy mix of amino acids and some astronomical or terrestrial event that sparked the formation of prokaryotes (a.k.a. the simplest single-celled speck of life) some 4 billion years ago.

So we have an understanding of what formed life on Earth, perhaps if we look for the traces of evidence that evolved into Life As We Know It™ we can gauge whether extraterrestrial life has-formed/is-forming/will-form elsewhere in the observable Universe. From simulations of Earth evolution, scientists have predicted that 10 types of amino acids should form with the planet. These 10 amino acids are found inside the proteins of all living things on Earth. The same 10 amino acids have been found inside meteorites. Therefore, we already have a connection with the amino acids we find here on Earth and amino acids found in chunks of rock from elsewhere in the Solar System.

Now, a group of Canadian researchers have found that the same 10 amino acids are readily available elsewhere in the cosmos. Does this mean the components for life are common, not only on Earth, in the Solar System, but also in the Milky Way (and beyond)? It looks like it
Continue reading “Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?”

The Carnival of Space Week 96

Hello and welcome to the 96th Carnival of Space on Astroengine.com!


Before we begin, I want to wish the Universe Today a Happy 10th Birthday! Fraser Cain started the website way back on March 23rd, 1999 (have a look to see what it used to look like) and he hasn’t looked back since. I am proud to be writing for the premium space news blog on the web that pulls in two million visitors per month. I love working with Fraser, Nancy, Tammy, Nick, Mark, and now our newest addition to our ace team, Anne. Here’s to the next decade!

So, for this week’s Carnival, as there were so many quality entries, I decided to pose a question for each entry. You can take a look at the questions below, and before you click on the link, try to guess the answer. Otherwise, just scroll down and read through the entire list. (Many of the answers may not be too obvious.) Failing that, you can listen into Astroengine Live on Wednesday April 1st for the first ever “live” Carnival of Space!

Thank you Fraser for allowing me to host this week’s Carnival, it really has grown since the last time I played host way back on the Carnival of Space #51 in April 2008! I hope to do it justice. If your entry isn’t here, be sure to drop me a comment below and I’ll get you online ASAP. Cheers!

Ready? Let’s roll….

The Questions

Continue reading “The Carnival of Space Week 96”

Listening Out for the Magnetospheres of Habitable Exoplanets

Searching for Earth-like exoplanets (© Mark Garlick)
Searching for Earth-like exoplanets (© Mark Garlick*)

Is there a new way to hunt for habitable Earth-like exoplanets? According to a US Naval Research Laboratory researcher there is an obvious, yet ingenious, way of listening for these worlds. Like most Earth-like exoplanet searches, we are looking for characteristics of our own planet. So what do we need to survive on Earth? Obviously we need water and the correct mix of oxygen with other atmospheric gases, but what about the magnetic bubble we live in? The Earth’s magnetosphere protects us from the worst the Sun can throw at us, preventing the atmosphere from being eroded into space and deflecting life-hindering radiation.

Although we have yet to develop sensitive enough radio telescopes, it may be possible in the future to detect the radio waves generated as charged particles in stellar winds interact with Earth-like exoplanetary magnetospheres. If there’s a magnetosphere, there may be a protected atmosphere. If there’s an atmosphere, perhaps there’s life being nurtured below

*This image is copyright Mark A. Garlick and has been used with permission. Please do not use this image in any way whatsoever without first contacting the artist.
Continue reading “Listening Out for the Magnetospheres of Habitable Exoplanets”

The Brian Bat Foundation


“Remembering the voluntary and accidental endeavours of animals in human spaceflight”BrianTheBat.org

Just in case you haven’t heard, one little free-tailed bat from Florida caused quite a stir this week. Brian the Bat, who hitched a ride with Space Shuttle Discovery, captured the hearts and minds of the Twitter and blogging community, eventually spilling into the international stage. Although it was widely reported that “a bat” had been involved in the STS-119 launch, it seemed that the world reacted even more strongly to the fact I had personalized him by naming the little fella.

First, a major Norwegian publication referred to “Brian the Bat” (in wonderful articles written by Geir Barstein), followed swiftly by the UK’s Sun (reported by the excellent Paul Sutherland) and the Daily Mail.

So what was leant from the sad loss of Brian? The world has an appreciation/concern for the endeavours of animals in spaceflight. Therefore, today I have launched the Brian Bat Foundation (BrianTheBat.org), a section of Astroengine.com set up to keep track and celebrate the endeavours of animals in space flight. I have covered articles about mosquitoes, monkeys, dogs, spiders, butterflies and even tardigrades involved in space experiments, but there should also be an awareness that other animals are impacted by our spaceflight activities too. I hope The Brian Bat Foundation will do this, reporting on the funny, interesting and often tragic world of animals in space…

Visit BrianTheBat.org for more information »


Know of a worthy space animal that needs a mention? Leave your suggestions in the comment box below and I’ll do some research, hopefully ending up with an article about the space pioneer.

Space Exploration Isn’t an Economic Stimulus. It’s a Humanity Stimulus

A scene from X3: Terran Conflict (©Egosoft)
A scene from X3: Terran Conflict (©Egosoft)

When I said this on Twitter today, it struck up a lot of support. It actually came out as a throwaway comment in Wednesday’s Astroengine Live when I was having a rant about the misconception that space exploration is a luxury and not a necessity. If I was debating this now, I’d probably be somewhere between “necessity” and “luxury”. On the one hand it would be nice to have a very wealthy space agency, carrying out unimaginable science throughout the Solar System, colonies on the Moon and Mars, mining asteroids and setting up an interplanetary transportation system. On the other hand, none of these things will be possible unless there is huge (global) public support and political will…
Continue reading “Space Exploration Isn’t an Economic Stimulus. It’s a Humanity Stimulus”

No Bucks for NASA Without Buck Rogers

Guest article by Nina Lincoff

An interview with Jeff Foust, Kathryn Thornton and Ian O’Neill.

SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)
SpaceX Falcon 9 on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)

On Feb. 24, 2009, a quarter of a billion dollars fell into the Antarctic Ocean.

NASA’s recently completed Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), failed 12 and a half minutes into flight when its upper rocket stage didn’t separate.

The $270 million satellite never made it into space. It did make quite a splash though, filmed for the world to see.

In today’s economic climate, NASA does not need failures like OCO. On Feb. 26, the Obama administration allocated $18.7 billion to NASA in the 2010 budget. “Although that is only half a percent of the total U.S. budget,” says aerospace analyst and founder of the blog spacepolitics.com Dr. Jeff Foust, “to a person like you or me, it’s a lot of money to spend on an agency with problems.”
Continue reading “No Bucks for NASA Without Buck Rogers”

Reality, Virtual

Computer technology is reaching new levels of sophistication, limited only by our imagination (and that pesky Moore’s Law). As we develop faster and more powerful processors, an exponential increase in the number of calculations can be done per second, providing advanced software with the capability to deliver complex applications to the user. In fact, some computer operations are becoming hard to distinguish from basic human interactions (neural networks hold particular promise).

Naturally, this continuing advance in technology has stimulated the Internet, allowing users worldwide to interact at great speed, where virtual worlds have been created, and people can project themselves as an avatar (a virtual ambassador for their real-world personalities). These virtual worlds have become so immense that millions of users can interact, and the boundary of the universe is only limited by how many networked computers you have running the show. These virtual universes are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), and NASA hopes to release their universe (Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond) some time next year.

User interfaces are advancing too. Gone are the days of simple gaming feedback features (such as a rumbling joypad when your 3D animated cartoon character suffers a blow on your 2D TV screen), virtual reality is starting to live up to its name, where the virtual world is overlapping with our real world. Now a 5-sense virtual reality system is undergoing tests, and its implications for NASA’s MMORPG and future space exploration could be huge…

When does virtual reality become… reality?

Imagine: You’ve just completed your expedition inside the Hellas impact basin on the surface of Mars. You can smell the new plastic inside your spacesuit and hear the hiss of your air supply in the back of your bulbous helmet. Looking out over the crater bottom, the 9 km high wall of Martian rock restricts your view of the planet; there’s a feeling that you are closed into a huge hole dug out by an unimaginably large shovel. Looking down, you survey the scattered rocks and rusty regolith. Although your suit isn’t as bulky as what is needed on the Moon or during an EVA, it still restricts your movement as you bend over to collect more fist-sized rocks for your research. Surprisingly, the ground is very frosted and you spot small collections of water ice. It hasn’t sublimed into the air.

As you are so deep, the air pressure is nearly twice as high as the atmospheric average. According to orbital measurements, it may even get warm enough for liquid water to exist on the surface. This is why you’re here, to seek out signs of seasonal weathering on the samples, and to look for signs of large quantities of water to be used in your habitat. Looking around, this isn’t just a gentle winter frosting, water is here, and there’s lots of it…

As we may not be sending man to Mars for a long time yet, the above scenario could be just as well played out in virtual reality as in real life. As there is little political incentive for a NASA-led manned mission to the Red Planet any time soon (and no, an Apollo 2.0 to Mars to save the ailing US economy isn’t the incentive we are looking for), could a virtual Mars be constructed for training and exploration purposes?

As it turns out, NASA is currently working with a group of software companies to release “Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond” (reminds me of the awesome 1999 “X: Beyond the Frontier” first-person space adventure game). The scheduled rollout date is sometime in 2010, but it looks like the MMORPG is already a long way down the road of development. This new NASA universe will be based in a near-future reality where online subscribers can play the role of explorer, doing “mundane” astronaut tasks in low-Earth orbit, to setting up colonies on the Moon and Mars. Although I doubt the NASA universe will be able to compete with online fantasies such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, it may invigorate space science outreach to the largest audience available. A worthy project in my view, Astroengine will be watching developments very closely.

Then, yesterday, GearCrave posted an article about the development of a “5-sense virtual reality system”. We all remember those cumbersome head boxes that promised to be the “dawn of a new age” in computer visualization back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Unfortunately, little had changed as the hardware simply wasn’t there to display anything close to a “virtual reality” (giving the user a bout of nausea and unrealistic graphics). Also, the user feedback was very one-dimensional. However, as time has moved on, and the gaming industry has driven graphic hardware into a new era, we suddenly have a suite of user feedback systems (such as a rumbling joypad or the sense of touch through a special glove). Now there is the desire to move from the 2D TV screen, immersing the user inside a more realistic “virtual reality”. In fact, this new development provides user feedback via several senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and feelings.

Researchers from York and Warwick universities are developing the ultimate virtual reality headset, that won’t directly manipulate the brain (via electrode-induced agony) but manipulate the senses to induce an emotional response. This will be achieved through the use of hi-tech smell and taste sprayers. Also, the visual element will be stunning. The screen will naturally be in high definition, with far greater light and dark limits. To say the view will be crisp is an understatement.

So, we now have the ability to create our own virtual universes. We are fast approaching the point where fully-immersive virtual reality may be a possibility (although the brain can be tough to trick at times, the VR would have to be VERY good to fool us wily humans). Computer systems are becoming so advanced that “graphics” may be a bad description of the world you are participating in looks like you are in a real world. Also, the spin-off technology from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could effectively make the Internet transparent (the only limit on speed would be the speed of light when uploading/downloading files, imagine that).

Personally, I cannot imagine a future where mankind is stuck on Earth, just sending probes to do the exploration of space for us, but say if these robotic missions could do something a little more than basic reconnaissance missions? What if the unmanned rovers, landers and satellites become so advanced that they can collect all the data we’ll ever need from the planets in the Solar System? This data could be used in a sufficiently advanced distributed network on Earth, allowing Internet users to collaborate (in the spirit of existing online projects such as Galaxy Zoo, but powered by a fully immersive MMORPG system), exploring a virtual reality universe based primarily on real data, but with intelligent algorithms that fill in the details and known physical/biological processes. However, in this virtual reality, users will be able to see, smell, hear, taste and feel, with physical feedback mechanisms.

This kind of project would have a vast array of practical applications; from doing science with real data, to training astronauts/settlers ahead of a real mission to Mars. However, there are two mind-bending philosophical questions that are attached to this eventuality: