August 7, 2012 at 8:10 am | 1 Comment
I was talking to my friend Alan Stern the other day. We both worked at the same lab at the University of Colorado and had the same advisor when we were in grad school. If you don’t know about Alan, Google him sometime. He’s packed a lot of experience into his life, and is probably one of the most energetic and forward-thinking people I know. Even talking quietly over his mobile phone so he wouldn’t wake up the rest of his family, Alan radiated energy.
So, what’s got Alan excited these days? One word: Uwingu. It’s the Swahili word for “the sky”, and the name of a new project called the Uwingu Fund that he and a group of friends started. What the team wants to do is crowd-source space exploration and science research that is deserving of funding, but isn’t getting it in these days of austere budgets. “We want this to be a “gate fund” for space,” he said. ”There’s nothing else like it. We’re selling something of broad interest around the world and the dollars will go toward space exploration. We’re hoping to do something transformational.”
Uwingu Fund lets people donate money in exchange for “perks”. The funds they share will be used in as a “private sector” funding mechanism that could bring millions or tens of millions of dollars annually for space projects of all kinds. For example, it will provide grants to people who propose meritorious projects in space exploration, space research, or space education. As Alan puts it some of the money will be used to fund people as projects. “It’s a very different way to fund research from the past. It’s a very 21st-century model,” he said. “It will be peer-reviewed, just as other science grant proposals are. We’ll have review panels to help select the deserving projects.”
The idea was seeded by Alan’s experiences at NASA, his involvement with the New Horizons mission (which will reach Pluto in three years), and, more recently, by a series of “bake-sale” and “car wash” and “shoe shining” type fundraisers he spurred. ”People would come up to me at those events and ask me, ‘what can I do to help?’,” Alan mused.
He pointed out what many of us have known for years but somehow gets missed by the media and the political elites: that many, many people across all walks of life ARE interested in space exploration and science, and they want to be a part of it. Maybe they don’t all get to be astronauts, but they get to know that something they contributed to is making science good. For example, many folks have their names embedded on a microchip that went to Mars onboard on the Curiosity rover. I sent MY name in, and it gives me a little frisson of wonder each time I think about it. And, as I pointed out in another entry here, it only cost me $7.00 in taxes for that whole mission. Not a bad return on investment, and a heck of a lot healthier (mentally and physically) than a deep-fried meal at a fast-food joint.
I like Alan’s idea and I’ll be getting involved. As I mentioned above, Uwingu Fund is offering perks, just as other crowd-sourcing sites do. And, I’ll happily take a perk. But, for me, the biggest perk will be seeing some worthwhile science get funded that would have otherwise been ignored in the science-unfriendly political environment we face today. We need science to move forward, both as individuals and as a species. And Uwingu Fund is a way to help that happen. It’s is new, it’s just getting started, but I do think that the group behind it will achieve great things and help others to do the same. So, check it out and get in on moving us forward.
February 19, 2011 at 13:00 pm | 6 Comments
Welcome to this week’s Carnival of Space
And, welcome to my humble blog. This week, my science-writer colleagues and I have multiple servings of tasty cosmic carnival fare for your delectation and intellectual curiosity. So, grab a brass ring, a refreshing beverage (more on that in a minute), and let’s get started down the space midway!
First into the center ring is Astropixie, with an a look at Determining Redshifts, a quick peek at how astronomers figure out just how far away things are in the universe. Amanda Bauer takes you step-by-step through the ways that astronomers determine distances in the cosmos.
Next, the folks at Cheap Astronomy from Canberra, Australia, weigh in with a pair of podcasts about alien biology The first talks about the role that water plays in the formation and sustenance of life. The second makes the case for carbon as the basis for life, particularly on our planet. If you’ve ever wondered about the chemical basis for life on Earth, these make a good introductory listen.
Parallel Spirals explores the publication of information about the recent Chandrayaan water discovery mission idea a bit more in Hubble Supports Chandrayaan Water Discovery. The formal science paper about how Hubble Space Telescope confirmed the presence of water on the Moon while looking at the LCROSS impact site will be published very soon.
Over at Steve’s Astro Corner, in On the Horizon What is the Next Big Thing? Steve Tilford brings you a look the technologies for exploration outlined in the Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics. If it all gets built and funded, we’ll be studying everything from dark energy to the warm, dusty universe that will seen by the James Webb Space Telescope.
The future is also the subject of an essay called Population Limits of the earth and the solar system factoring in improved technology over at Next Big Future. It’s about how the modern issues of how much population Earth can support (reasonably) and the growth of technological power and knowledge. Can we put these two together to optimize our chances for the human population of space? Head over and find out!
Materials science and understanding the effect of vacuum and thermal friction on rotating particles may be very relevant to astronomers as they seek to understand cosmic nanoparticles such as interstellar dust and the optical spectra of rotating molecules. This is the subject of a short blog entry called Vacuum has friction from an effect similar to the casimir effect, also available at Next Big Future.
If the past is present, then it’s important that we understand the history of space exploration. At Vintage Space, you can read an historical flash from the past in an article called Landings, NASA, and the Soviet Space Program, that explores the Soviet methods of getting astronauts safely back to Earth.
This week’s flashy news story (that turned out to be all mainstream-media handwaving, smoke and mirrors) about a Jupiter-like planet in the outer recesses of our solar system is Weirdwarp’s subject of discussion in Jupiter-like Planet Lurking Just Outside our Solar System is Extremely Unlikely. Guest poster Andrei (from ZMEScience) is a more sane and rational look at what the stories REALLY should have been about.
Next Big Future also presents a reasoned look at the outer solar system planet story in Tyche Planet X is still just a theory. Find out about the scientific paper by two respected scientists who posit the reasons why some long-period comet trajectories seem to have their comets coming from the wrong direction. Here’s your chance to go “behind the scenes” of a story that the MSM didn’t quite get right.
Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today talks with astronomer and planet hunter Mike Brown about that hypothetical giant planet lurking at the edge of the solar system to get his take on Tyche in About That Giant Planet Possibly Hiding in the Outer Solar System.
This week’s OTHER flashy news story, which covers events closer to Earth, turned out to be quite fascinating. It was the news about the Stardust-NExT mission to Comet Tempel-1. I talk about the mission in a pair of back-to-back entries called Waiting for Tempel-1, written on “flyby night” and The Face of a Comet, posted the next day after some of the first images had been made public.
At the center of our solar system, the Sun just keeps pumping out energy. Over at Vega 0.0, Francisco Sevilla writes about how coronagraphs enable astronomers to study the outer structures of the Sun’s superhot atmosphere. (Note the page is in Spanish, but you can translate using Google toolbar.)
Note: due to a software glitch, Astroblog’s entry didn’t make it in by the time I posted this. So, here is Ian Musgrave’s entry called The Kepler Bonanza: Making Sense of over 1,200 Extrasolar Worlds. Enjoy!
Finally, I mentioned a tasty beverage at the top of this entry. In that spirit, let’s raise a toast to National Geographic’s Breaking Orbit blog for its entry Space Beer Ready for Tasting. It’s about Australia’s 4 Pines Brewing Company and its human experiment involving tasting beer that is meant for drinking on commercial space flights. Find out why some beers you may like here on the ground wouldn’t be so great in space.
That’s it for this week’s Carnival of Space. As you can see, there are many and talented writers who blog each day about astronomy, space science, and all the topics related to these. If you like what you see, visit their blogs and let the authors know what you think!
Thanks for dropping by and keep looking up!
January 7, 2011 at 14:40 pm | Leave a Comment
Bird Deaths, Redux
I was looking at the Twitter stream recently and saw a few tweets about the sudden bird deaths in Sweden and Arkansas in the past week or so. It would seem that it’s a mystery that birds fall out of the sky and die. And, being human beings, we can’t resist mysteries. And, some human beings can’t resist piling even MORE mysteries on top in an effort to explain.
Ultimately, there are logical, scientific explanations for this sudden die-off of birds. But, I’m afraid they aren’t going to be NEARLY as sexy as the UFOs, Klingon battle cruisers, mysterious radar installations, magical laser tests, cloaked angels, and Julian Assange, all of which have been invoked–without any evidence, mind you–by people ignorant of physics and bird biology as reasons why these guys died.
It turns out that the Swedish media has already uncovered a fairly logical and straightforward explanation for their bird die-offs: birds were sitting in the street eating salt and not moving when cars bore down on them. It’s pretty cold up there, and birds are just like the rest of us–not willing to move away from food or a warm spot, even in the face of danger. Their injuries are consistent with blunt-force trauma of the kind that occurs when a living being is hit by a car or truck.
Interestingly enough, the Arkansas die-offs also appear to have a reasonable explanation that fits reality: they seem to be tied to the custom of setting off fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The birds were found dead on New Year’s Day. According to one wildlife specialist (you know, a scientist who actually studies and understands birds), the loud noises of the firecrackers likely caused birds to fly at lower than normal heights or were flushed from their roosts in panic. Low-flying birds hit buildings (I’ve experienced this at my house, actually).
So, those are plausible and logical reasons for the birds to die.
I know, I know. Those reasons are not as exciting and tingly as others that non-scientists can dream up, so it’s understandable if you don’t want to believe them. But this isn’t an issue of “belief.” It’s an issue of looking at the facts and the evidence and figuring what reasons BEST fit the facts and evidence IN HAND.
You know, often the prosaic IS what happens in life. And, in these cases, there’s just no evidence for any other “mysterious” reasons–and science and logical thinking is all about the evidence.
Any of you who watch the CSI television shows already know their motto: follow the evidence. And, in all the cases of the dead birds, the evidence points to very understandable physical reasons like fireworks, cold snaps, birds in the roadway getting hit by cars, and so on.
Still, it’s been wryly amusing to read the wild-eyed speculation that is sucking in satellite radio jocks, bloggers, and Twitter-twatters. One tweeter noted that an installation called HAARP caused the die-off. It sounds weird and mysterious and people who don’t know much about physics or bird biology are using it tie into bird migrations, bird hearing and a factor called echolocation. And, in fact I noticed it mentioned on a loony-tune website that frequently brings up all kinds of mysterious “death rays” and other fantasies.
Of course, when you examine these in the light of reality, their theories don’t hang together, but hey, put them all together and they sound (but aren’t) plausible. To paraphrase the late George Carlin, “Take three or four things that aren’t related and tie them together and some idiot will buy them as an explanation for an otherwise easily explained phenomenon.”
Well, let’s do a little CSI-style investigation here.
First, as you know if you watch these shows, you want to look for several things in an incident, among them are means, motive and opportunity. In this case, our two best trails to follow are means and opportunity. The “means” is suggested by some people to be HAARP. So, we’ll look at what that is and what it does, first. However, if you want to know what HAARP does, you have to know what it studies. So, we’ll look at THAT, too.
HAARP stands for “High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program“–a completely NON-classified installation in Alaska that studies the ionosphere–the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere that is created each day by solar radiation and partially (but not completely) destroyed each night.
Here’s how the ionosphere works–you need the Sun (as mentioned) and an atmosphere (which we do). A tiny part of the sun’s output is made up of extreme ultraviolet photons–like the ones that give you a sunburn, but more energetic. These photons get stopped when they collide with the atmosphere and they have enough energy to make some of the neutral (not charged) atmospheric gas into ions and electrons. This creates a charged gas layer–the ionosphere.
This has been occurring since the Earth formed and is something that must happen any time a planet with an atmosphere encounters the Sun’s continual pumping of energy out to the solar system. Scientists have been studying this charged gas layer for decades now. It has a lot of variations that are driven by changes in the solar output, but also by other naturally occurring “space weather” effects involving the solar wind (a magnetized stream of charged particles) interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. All this is the subject of atmospheric science–the study of our atmosphere and the processes, particularly the solar wind, that affect it.
Now, from a more practical perspective the ionosphere has some interesting properties that affect communications. It acts as a kind of “bouncing surface”, and radio signals can reflect off that surface and over to other parts of theplanet. Every radio-frequency technology that transmits information over long distances is influenced by the ionosphere. So, it makes sense that people–particularly the ones who bounce signals around the planet (telecommunications, broadcast, GPS, etc.)–want to know more about the ionosphere and how it influences radio signals. This is where HAARP comes in.
Atmospheric scientists study the charged part of our atmosphere from the ground. They have to, since, last time I checked, Alaska is not hovering tens to hundreds of kilometers above the surface. This ground-based study of the ionosphere is what HAARP does. It sends signals upwards to bounce off the charged upper part of our atmosphere. It then studies what happens to those signals. I won’t go into a lot of details because I don’t want to scrape their site–especially when you can simply go there and read it (see link above)–and you should. It’s fascinating reading. But, suffice to say, the signals are similar to those from just about every other radar-based installation that studies the ionosphere–and we’ve been studying the ionosphere for decades.
For those of you who are technically oriented, the signals that are transmitted are in the 2.8 to 10 MegaHertz (2.8 to 10 million oscillations per second) frequency range. This is above the AM band on your radio, but below the FM band. At these frequencies and the powers at which they are transmitted, the signals have much lower energy than those ultraviolet photons already coming from the Sun that I mentioned earlier.
HAARP has a big antenna and it is focused pointing upwards, toward the ionosphere. If you stood next to it, you would experience signal levels that are comparable to or weaker than those of a commercial AM broadcast station (which is designed to transmit its energy more evenly towards the ground, since not many Talk Radio callers live in space). The key here is that you have to stand close to the transmitter.
If you were a bird and were to fly through the signals from HAARP directly (and I should note that birds have been doing that through the much stronger signals from the antennas of commercial transmitters ever since radio was invented) you wouldn’t suddenly drop dead out of the sky. Furthermore, as you get farther away from the place where the signals are created, the power drops off in a scientifically well-understood way called the Power Law. The farther away you get, the MUCH lower the signal you would experience.
Let me put this another way: to be affected by the transmitted signals, you (or a bird) would have to be really, really close to the transmitting station.
The other half of the “means” equation is the bird. Supposedly, in the “theory” that I read about suggesting that HAARP was zapping birds out of the sky, the birds’ sense of hearing or direction was somehow messed up by mysterious radar signals, suggested to be from HAARP. And, since some bird migrations are influenced by the avian ability to detect Earth’s magnetic field, and magnetic fields are part of that whole electricity and magnetism thing that also results in radar and radio signals, there’s a perfectly plausible-sounding reason to blame mysterious radar waves for messing up birds.
Yeah, well probably not. Here’s why. Look at ALL the factors in bird migrations, which also include the location of the Sun, andlandmark recognition. Neither of THESE have anything to do with HAARP and everything to do with a bird’s ability to find its way over long distances.
But, let’s look at the frequencies that birds DO do sense. If you go and read the HAARP pages (see link above), you’ll see where I got the information that HAARP operates between 2.8 to 10 MegaHertz (2.8 to 10 million oscillations per second). Birds are sensitive to a range between 100 Hertz to 29000 Hertz (29 kiloHertz), or 100 to 29,000 oscillations per second. Compare that to the HAARP frequencies. See the difference?
Yep, the two ranges aren’t close, so it’s tough to see how a radar frequency would mess up a bird’s sense of direction or cause it to fall out of the sky.
That leaves echolocation. A few bird species can navigate using something called “echolocation”, which means that they emit high-pitched sounds and then listen for the echoes of those sounds to bounce off of nearby objects. But they are tuned to their own emissions, not somebody else’s.
Interestingly, it does not appear that the birds that died actually have this ability. They also don’t live in the kinds of environments that require echolocation. The ones that do use that ability live in in environments that require them to echolocate, such as cave-dwelling birds. Nor, does it look like the frequencies that birds CAN sense are the same as the HAARP radar frequencies. So, if they don’t do echolocation, or live in those environments, or sense the same frequencies as HAARP, then the theory fails based on actual evidence of what birds actually DO.
Okay, so the means may not work out, but just to be complete, let’s look at opportunity–that is, the likelihood that a given radar station could have caused all these particular birds to die.
Let’s postulate that somehow the birds were affected by HAARP signals, even though they don’t sense the same frequencies. For that to happen, they would have had to have been flying very, very darn close to the transmitting station in Alaska, and then somehow made it all the way to Sweden or Arkansas in time to die. Last time I looked, Alaska and Sweden are pretty far apart. Same for Alaska and Arkansas. Thousands of kilometers, actually. And an affected bird is supposed to make it all that way? I think not.
Now, there is an ionospheric scatter radar study facility in Tromsø, Norway, way up at the top of the country. But, to be complete in our investigation, we’d want to check the operating logs at Tromsø to see if and what it was transmitting around the time the birds died. And, again, it’s not close enough to where the birds died to have the desired effect. And, I point out that, it, too has been using radar signals for decades as very weak probes of the upper atmosphere (although at different frequencies), and they haven’t seen any problems. So, I doubt that this station was a factor either, particularly for the Arkansas die-offs.
The HAARP (and other similar) signals propagating around the world are fairly weak, particularly when compared to such things as the natural effects from the Sun’s output, and I suggest, certainly not strong enough to cause 5,000 birds to fall out of the sky in one area not very close to the transmitter. Physics tells us this and–we can measure it.
Let me reiterate: such weak radar testing signals have been used for decades. By all rights, if they were causing birds to fall out of the sky, we should have been seeing massive die-offs every time a signal was propagated. We don’t see that.
So, that leaves us with a bunch of dead birds to investigate. Just by easily understood physics and NO mysterious handwaving, it doesn’t seem that HAARP had anything to do with this. Just too far away and not in the same frequency range.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we look for other means and opportunity that are tied more locally to where the birds lived and where found. It might be useful to look at the time of year these die-offs have happened; also look at such things as local temperatures, proximity to airports (both military and civilian), and all the other factors that could cause birds to be found dead on the ground. Those would be in the HONEST approach to take.
I haven’t seen clear, definitive answers to why these birds died off — although I’m sure that wildlife biologists will do their usual good jobs and find those answers. But, from the simple physics, I think that Occam’s Razor rules out the radar waves from transmitting stations.
This is a good object lesson in how science works, folks. It works by examining the available evidence and using the most logical explanations (and laws of physics, etc.) to understand phenomena. It doesn’t work by constructing a narrative based on fear, misunderstanding, ignorance, political or religious ideology, or any other nonscientific non-data points, and then trying to fit the facts around the pre-approved narrative. That ways lies madness, ignorance, and pseudoscience.
In the case of the bird deaths, it seems that more prosaic factors are at work–like bird behavior, biology, cold weather and fireworks. To invoke anything beyond that requires a LOT more explanation and coincidences just to make a WAG-based story hang together. But, hey, who doesn’t like a good, juicy conspiracy theory, eh? it’s a heck of a lot easier than using our brains and a little common sense to explain the phenomena we witness on our planet.
August 17, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Leave a Comment
Finding Pulsars with Your Home Computer
Last week the news hit the stands about a pulsar discovered in data being crunched by home computers. This little bit of serendipitous astronomy research was done using a distributed-computing progject program called Einstein@Home. It’s a distributed data-crunching project that lets people devote duty cycles on their home computers to science research. The data came from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (the one that keeps getting threatened with closure because some folks consider it unimportant to radio astronomy).
The pulsar, which lies in the direction of the constellation Vulpecula, is about 17,000 light-years away. This spinning husk of a dying star was discovered in data that was crunched by three people — two in Iowa and one in Germany. That had to pretty exciting to know that one’s computer helped find one of nature’s oddball objects.
Einstein@Home isn’t the only distributed computing project out there. The grand-daddy of ‘em all is SETI@Home, which crunches through signals from several sources to find any possible messages from intelligent life that might be out there messaging us from the cosmos. But, there are others — and if you’re looking for something to occupy your computer when you’re not busy with it, check ‘em out here. There are projects in astronomy, biology, medicine — you name it, there’s a distributed computer project for you.
I spent several years with a computer dedicated to such a distributed project and it felt pretty good to know that my unused duty cycles were going for a good scientific cause. You might get the same good feeling, too — and who knows? You might help discover something really big!
February 3, 2010 at 13:55 pm | Leave a Comment
The Microcosmos Shows Us the Very Small
A Miniature Universe Under a Scanning Electron Microscope
We as astronomers are always looking out to space, to see the latest and greatest among the planets, stars, and galaxies. But, what’s out there isn’t the sum total of the cosmos. There’s a lot right here to study, too — and it takes an understanding of biology, chemistry, physics, and geology to appreciate the whole cosmos — even the planet we inhabit.
Have you ever wondered what happens when we turn our fantastic technology inward, to look at the universe of the very small? Say, what a rock looks like if you break it up into its component elements? Or, whether that piece of rock you found is a meteorite or an Earth rock? Or, what your hair or skin cells look like, up close and personal? Of course, we know about atoms and molecules that make up all of the matter we can detect (the so-called “baryonic matter”). But, what do they look like when combined, say, if we could look at a rock under a scanning electron microscope?
The results often look as otherworldly as scenes from Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter. That micro-universe, the miniature cosmos, is what a number of scientists (like geologists and biologists and physicists) study at a level that is too small for our eyes to detect. And the images they produce using high-resolution microscopes and scanning devices are amazing!
Have you ever wondered what common, everyday objects look like under a scanning electron microscope? Well, you have a chance to find out. Here’s how: I got an email about my image of Mars and Moon posted a few days ago from a reader who works for a ASPEX, a company that makes this kind of equipment for use in research. He alerted me to a cool project his company is doing with scanning electron microscopes called Send us Your Sample, and it does just what you think the name suggests — scans a sample of whatever you send in. There are instructions on the page linked above that tell you what to send and how to submit it. So, if you’ve ever wanted to know what a piece of dirt or candy or a dust bunny or whatever — looks like at high magnification, go to their website and put in an entry.
I understand the project is going on for another month and it seems like it would be a very cool way for schoolkids (for example) to learn more about the structure of things we see every day. It’s a part of science that you need to know and understand if you’re going to know and understand the cosmos. Check it out!
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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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