Space Flight & Fortune Cookies


When I was a young girl Six Flags was the big event once a year. The gringa was a country girl from a small town. I attended a tiny, rural school where the same 20 or so classmates I had were together every year from childhood through our teen years. A single building housed the classrooms for every grade, kindergarten through 12th grade. Once kids entered the 6th grade, officially “Junior High”, you felt as if you had hit the big time. That was the year you got included on the annual school trip to Six Flags, the biggest theme park in our state. It was about a 2 hour drive away to the big city.

My first year to go  was the grand opening of the big, new, rollercoaster attraction, the Shockwave. Two loop-de-loops of spine tingling action. The gringa was too young and naïve to realize that all the boys interested in going on the Spelunker ride with the girls only wanted to steal a kiss in the cool, dark passages. That was the second time in the gringa’s life that she socked a boy in the nose. But I learned quickly and didn’t fall for that trick a second time.

Now what has happened for the gringa to be reminiscing back to rollercoasters and clocking school boys? China. It’s all China’s fault. They have gone and done it this time. The gringa is counting her pennies and wondering just how fast she can afford to go to China. The gringa doesn’t plan on rollercoasters, though. No, now that I’m middle aged and epilepsy has had its toll on certain aspects, rollercoasters are out unless the gringa’s got paramedics lined up and waiting at the end of the ride. For the more sedate lifestyle I live now, the gringa still seeks adventure but with a smoother ride. Hence, China.

Remember when the gringa told you about Virgin Galactic and how you could hitch a ride to the highest heavens for a cool, couple hundred grand? Well, the gringa is certain that China can do it better and cheaper. In fact, considering that China is marketing their new ride as a feature at a theme park, surely tickets prices will be family friendly.

The plan is envisioned by KuangChi Science. The ride will be a balloon launch that will take passengers 15 miles into the atmosphere (24 kilometers).  The projected $1.5 billion project will encapsulate passengers in an airtight cabin beneath the balloon. Dubbed Shenzhou V after China’s first manned space mission in 2003,  the cabin is designed to block dangerous cosmic rays yet provide the comfort of a limousine-style ride. Once reaching top altitude, passengers will enjoy a peaceful cruise lasting a few hours before descent begins.  Although the ticket price hasn’t been announced, the gringa has got her fingers crossed that it may be in the $50 dollar range and include complimentary fortune cookies. Am I expecting too much?

Source: www.kuangchiscience.com

Image Credit: l.yimg.com

 

Salute Our Space Heroes


Traveling in outer space sounds fun. Being an astronaut seems to be an exciting career. Until the gringa is reminded about space radiation. Those heavy duty marshmallow looking suits astronauts wear are not just to keep them warm, properly pressurized and surrounded by oxygen. They also protect against dangerous space radiation. But is it enough? Are spacecrafts and the International Space Station adequately protected or are our astronauts slowly being radiated to death?

Radiation is an invisible energy form of high-speed particles and electromagnetics. It surrounds humans in everyday artificial light, sunlight, and electronics that produce radio-, television-, and micro- waves. Radiation comes in two forms:

  • Ionized: This is the worst in the form of gamma rays, protons and neutrons. Exposure to ionized radiation results in exposed atoms becoming unstable by an energy powerful enough to remove electrons from their orbit around the atom’s nucleus.
  • Non-ionized: Not powerful enough to destabilize atoms, this is the kind of common radiation produced by microwaves, radio waves and light.

The radiation in space is, unfortunately, comprised of ionized radiation. There are three things that typically create dangerous space radiation:

  • Trapped radiation: The Earth’s core creates a magnetic field that surrounds our planet up to several thousand kilometers from our planet’s surface. Solar wind carries charged particles that slam into our magnetic shield. Some particles manage to pass through. Those that don’t create a shockwave that deflects from Earth’s magnetic field. This creates layers of cavities called the “magnetosphere” that act as shock absorbers to protect Earth further from charged particle bombardment. But some particles get trapped in these cavities and they become radioactive belts surrounding Earth. Astronauts have to pass through these dangerous belts before they reach deeper space.
  • Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR): Outside our solar system ionized atoms traveling at almost light speed pass through space matter, including humans and man-made objects unless they are properly shielded.
  • Solar Particle Events (SPE): Sometimes the Sun flares and ejects copious amounts of highly charged radioactive particles into space. These particles travel so fast they are capable of reaching Earth within ten minutes of a solar or coronal flare event. These are dramatic happenings that temporarily drastically increase radiation exposure.

Astronauts traveling through space radiation or living in the ISS have to be protected from space radiation. Radiation exposure causes damage to human cells. There is a scientific formula used to calculate how much radiation exposure an astronaut can expect when working on the ISS. It’s a bit too complicated for the gringa to understand. These calculations are the reason ISS missions have a maximum six month cycle and spacewalks are limited. Exposure is increased during a spacewalk to perform repairs and maintenance.

Shielding is preferred to be constructed of materials like polyethylene because it has a high hydrogen content. This kind of material is more effective than metals at reducing the ability of particles to pass through and enter the modules. Astronauts also wear monitors called “dosimeters” that constantly measure the level of radiation damage to the chromosomes in their blood cells.

Every single astronaut is a hero. No matter what the duration of their mission. No matter what the nature of their mission. No matter what it is they did, whether it seemed glamorous or insignificant, these men and women are heroes of science. They are risking their lives every moment they are off the surface of the Earth. Even if they return safely, they have still sacrificed much. From musculo-skeletal issues to organ damage and higher cancer risks, every single astronaut will experience the effects of radiation exposure for a lifetime despite the measures taken to protect them. If you ever meet an astronaut thank them for their invaluable sacrifice and service performing critical scientific endeavors that are helping us understand our origins, learn about climate change conditions and create solutions to save our homeworld.

Sources:

jsc.nasa.gov

spaceflight.nasa.gov

Image source:  antarcticglaciers.org

 

August Astronomy


Space fans should get their binoculars and telescopes dusted off for August. There will be lots to see with the aid of machine or the trusty naked eye. The gringa will share a cosmic calendar for the month ahead so everyone schedule their dinners and bedtimes accordingly if you want to enjoy some breathtaking galactic events rather than hunker down for digital entertainment indoors.

August 2 – New Moon:  Without the interference of moonlight this is the perfect night to explore other galaxies and nearby star clusters who will be shining in all their glory with no competition from our little satellite.

August 11,12 – Perseids Meteor Shower: At its peak, this little baby (pictured above) has the potential to create up to 60 meteors per hour (gives a whole new meaning to MPH). We can all thank comet Swift-Tuttle for this fantastic light show. Discovered in 1862. it has consistently provided entertainment for Earthlings through July and August. The event will peak on these two days in August. The best time to watch is right after the moon sets around midnight. Or, for those early to bed and early to rise, a pre-dawn show is also prime time for Perseids observation.

August 16 – Mercury:  This is the best time to view Mercury as it reaches it greatest eastern elongation from the Sun. Look for it in the evening sky at the highest point of the horizon or at a low point in the western sky just after sunset.

August 18 – Full Moon:  This is the best time to get a great look at our pockmarked neighbor. Full illumination will occur between 9-10pm  UTC. A bit of full Moon trivia: some Native American tribes call the full Moon a Full Sturgeon Moon because these nights are the best times to catch this type of fish that populates the Great Lakes. Other tribes also called the full Moon the Green Corn Moon or the Grain Moon.

August 27 – Venus & Jupiter:  These two planets are going to join together in close proximity for a spectacular opportunity to see them both. Look for them in the western sky soon after sunset.  They will be shining very brightly and close together.

Source: www.seasky.org

Image Credit: nasa.gov

 

The Truth About Tabby


UFO and alien conspiracy theory buffs are going to enjoy this post by the gringa, or not. I guess it depends on if you enjoy a healthy dose of conspiracy debunking or truth. You see, dear readers, there has been a bit of hubbub about an interesting space object that is orbiting a nearby star and was detected by the Kepler telescope late last year.

The SETI Institute (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) calls KIC 8462852 “mysterious”. NASA believes the mystery is resolved with the theory that the strange signals are the result of cosmic dust, probably from multiple impacts of a comet swarm, and causes the star’s light to flicker erratically. Vanderbilt University researchers, who affectionately call the star Tabby, debunk theories by those who believe it to be home of aliens who are very, very busy. The astrophysicist contributors to the respectable Astrophysical Journal agree with Vanderbilt’s point of view while at the same time agreeing with theories from other scientists who propose an extraterrestrial origin theory. So, who’s got it right? Who’s got it wrong? Just what the heck is the truth about Tabby?

Who Is Tabby

Tabby is officially designated star KIC 8462852 and shines brighter than our own Sun about 1400 light years from Earth in the Cygnus constellation. It is a subject of study by NASA’s Kepler space telescope which reveals that from time to time it dims about twenty percent in brightness.

SETI’s Conclusion

The cause of the dimming light could possibly be because of material or objects orbiting the star. SETI researchers believe they have evidence to determine that these objects are not planets. SETI considers the possibility that Tabby could be home to a technologically sophisticated society that has constructed a swarm of solar panels that orbit the star which would account for the light fluctuations.

SETI uses its own Allen Telescope Array to study radio signals that originate from that part of outer space. They attest that these radio signals are of artificial origin, calling them “non-natural”. They search for narrow-band signals and broadband that might possibly be produced by a large and powerful spacecraft. They also search for evidence of laser pulses. SETI’s Panamanian partner, Boquete Optical SETI Observatory, performs the laser pulse research.

Research such as this takes a long time so the gringa will have to practice patience for SETI to conclude their studies and publish their final results. They admit that, historically, cases like this usually result in finding a natural cause for the anomalies but they still must investigate the possibility of it originating from extraterrestrial intelligence. That is, after all, their mission.

NASA’s Conclusion

During four years of observation, the Kepler mission recorded strange happenings in 2011 and 2013 when interesting and dramatic light fluctuations occurred. To help determine what happened, NASA also trained the eye of the Spitzer Space Telescope in Tabby’s direction. Kepler observed the visible light. Spitzer could delve deeper into the invisible infrared light signals and patterns. In November of last year Spitzer paid off with a recording of another light fluctuation.

Although NASA’s theory is that clouds of space dust were formed from a swarm of comets that orbit the star in erratic patterns, Spitzer did not discover evidence to support this theory. This caused NASA to switch to a cold comet theory. One lead comet would be followed by a swarm of smaller comets. If this is true, even if the comets were already out of the telescope’s view as they traveled around Tabby, they should still leave behind a detectable infrared signature. However, this was not the case.

Researchers admit that more observations need to be recorded to determine just exactly what is going on. NASA admits that Tabby is strange, indeed. However, they believe that a natural cause is more likely than “little green men”.

Vanderbilt University’s Conclusion

Vanderbilt studies focused on the 100 day period when the most significant light fluctuations occurred. The manner in which they occurred suggested that a large number of “irregularly shaped objects” passed in front of the star causing its light to be blocked temporarily. Working off a report from an astronomer at Louisiana State University who concluded that the star had diminished in brightness by 20 percent over the past century, Vanderbilt finds a natural cause unlikely as an explanation for this. This has become fodder for the theory that a megastructure has been constructed that is absorbing the star’s energy, the solar panel array theory. This is a theory that was reviewed, accepted and published by the Astrophysical Journal.

Vanderbilt, however, did not stop there. They soldiered on. Partnering with amateur German astronomer, Michael Hippke and NASA scientist Daniel Angerhausen, the team began comparing the 20 percent drop in intensity to other stars. They discovered that this is not an unusual phenomenon. In fact, it’s not a star phenomenon at all. It is simply the result of technological changes and advances of human manufactured instrumentation for observance.

The Gringa’s Conclusion

These are all interesting theories but not yet solid answers. So, the gringa will wait and see if, ten or twenty years down the road, we all find out what the actual, final answer is:

  • Comet Swarms

or

  • Extraterrestrial Solar Array

Until then, Tabby will be the most interesting and mysterious star in our night sky.

Sources:

www.seti.org

www.nasa.gov

vanderbilt.edu

Image Credit:  www.centauri-dreams.org

 

Guests & Gods


The gringa was recently requested by a fellow blogger for permission to re-post some of my material. I was flattered at the interest and apparent seal of approval. In appreciative reciprocation I also wanted to re-post an item of this blogger’s choosing. The gringa’s “guest” blogger, Octavian D. Curpas, YouTube video blogger from Arizona, forwarded a transcript of a German Christian singer he recently interviewed, Florence Joy Enns. Lacking a URL link to a video of this interview, the best the gringa can do is provide a link to his YouTube channel, Octavian D. Curpas and a link to the video that inspired the interview, Florence performing “Mein Ziel”. From a Christian perspective, Octavian advocates for reunification of Norwegian children separated from their families through Norway’s version of the U.S.’s Child Protective Services. The gringa will not even attempt to delve into those delicate waters and stick to what she knows. But, dear reader, expect this post to be a bit more personal.

So, returning to his interview of Florence, the gringa then wonders how she can get the subject of a German Christian singer to relate to anything science or fantastical. The intrigue begins with the first quote Octavian cites from Florence, “God answered my prayer when I was 5 years old.” Florence prayed for a baby brother and, despite her parents’ intentions to have no more children, Florence’s prayers were answered and she got a baby brother.

This takes the gringa back to when her eldest son was only three-years-old. We were driving over a bridge and a little dog was running through traffic, perilously close to becoming flattened road kill. Zachary began praying very loudly for God to send a rescuer to the dog. Within moments traffic stopped behind us, a car opened its door and the dog jumped in. My son became a believer.

Now, my son’s independent action of unprompted prayer came as a surprise. The gringa is Jewish. The caveman is Catholic. We are both non-practicers of our respective religions where ritual and temple attendance is concerned. We believe our faiths are based on love and compassion and that is the lifestyle we live, following the easy rule of thumb delivered by Jesus to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It seems simple enough. As a homeschooling mom, the gringa did include religious studies as part of my son’s curriculum, but it included instruction and history on every major religion in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, and much more. So, although we have never forced any formal religious training upon our children, they have all grown up and adopted their own religious beliefs and lifestyles. They learned the best way, by our example and explanations for their questions.

A few years after our eldest son’s first prayer was answered, he asked me how he would know that God is real. The gringa adopted, of course, a Jewish perspective for such a question. I explained to him that in the religious texts I rely on for wisdom an example is given in which the person asks God for a demonstration. There is nothing wrong with such a thing. I told him that Jews call it “asking God for a sign”. I told him the story of Gideon who asked God to give him a sign by “putting out the fleece”. God responded. That night, before Zachary went to bed, he looked upward and said, “God, if you’re real there will be a cat at the front door tomorrow.” Now, the gringa chuckled to herself then tucked her precocious six-year-old boy into bed and thought nothing more of it. The next morning, while preparing breakfast, I saw my little boy tear through the apartment and open the door, immediately screaming, “YES!” Low and behold there was a darn cat sitting on our welcome mat. I thought I might faint. How strong the faith of the child. How pure the heart that asks for a sign. How kind and benevolent for a god to respond.

The reality is that such stories are not uncommon. They cannot be explained. Regardless of whether a person believes in God as creative cosmic energy or a divine old man with a beard, there are simply things that happen in which science can only shrug, hold up its hands and say, “Hey, we don’t have a clue.” The gringa adores science and all its fascinations. I also believe that there is a kernel of truth to all of the world’s diverse religions. They all share commonalities where kindness, compassion and forgiveness are concerned. I try to not sweat the details that are controversial points of doctrine and stick to those key elements that maintain a single thread throughout them. I don’t believe religious faith and belief in science are mutually exclusive. I believe they are inextricably linked together. I believe that science will eventually reveal what exactly the greatest architect, scientist and artist the world has ever known is. So, in a way, science is also my religion.

Image Source: 3.bp.blogspot.com

 

The Hi’s & Lo’s of JAXA


Back in February space agencies around the world were cheering on the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) as it launched a new space observation satellite that was going to get us all some darn answers about black holes. This joint effort between JAXA and NASA caused a bit of confusion among outsiders because the satellite went by different names depending on if you were an Eastern space enthusiast (Hitomi for you) or a Western space enthusiast (ASTRO-H for you).

The gringa prefers the moniker Hitomi. This Japanese word has several meanings, all of which the gringa likes much better than the anacronym ASTRO-H. Hitomi literally means the “pupil of the eye”. However, when you break the word down into its phonetical language parts “hito” and “mi” it becomes “beautiful history”. As I look into the vastness of space and the stars that are kazillions of years old, the cosmos most certainly is the most beautiful history I have ever beheld.

Unfortunately, however, Hitomi’s story is not so pretty. Launched back in February, space fans everywhere were so excited that soon the satellite would be orbiting about 300 miles above us and collect data on X-rays emitted by black holes as well as galaxy clusters. Scientists have been eager for any means to gather more information since the detection of gravitational waves were announced which are directly related to black holes.

After a successful launch the evening of February 16, JAXA and NASA announced that Hitomi’s solar arrays were operating properly and began anticipating the arrival of data and images. Japan’s sixth satellite for the research of X-ray astronomy, the science community waited with bated breath for what they were certain was going to be groundbreaking information from the latest state of the art space satellite technology.

By March 26, contact with Hitomi was lost. By April the announcement came that finally, all hope was lost as well. Bye-bye Hitomi.

Once Hitomi reached its orbit things began to go wrong. Scientists reported that communication was lost within days and that their only conclusion was that the satellite had most likely disintegrated. A quarter of a billion dollars converted to space junk in a matter of weeks. How terribly disappointing. The director general of JAXA, Saku Tsuneta, officially announced the abandonment of the project with his deepest regrets.

Researchers believe that the solar panels that control the instruments may have broken away from the satellite. This would have basically transformed the satellite into a rudderless ship adrift in space. It will be about twelve more years before anything matching Hitomi’s capabilities will launch when the European Space Agency (ESA) completes a similar project.

On a side note, the gringa is surprised that conspiracy theorists haven’t jumped all over this story. When communication was first lost with the satellite, hope was revived when JAXA detected three signals they believed originated from Hitomi. However, after more scrutiny, it was discovered that the signals were not from the spacecraft. Hmmm. The gringa wonders just where, or whom, those signals came from. Could it have been some very clever and covert space aliens who captured human technology? Only time will tell!

Sources:

www.japantimes.co

www.nasa.gov

phys.org

www.bbc.com

Image Source: i.dailymail.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Were Ancient Martians Vegetable Farmers?


If a petrified cauliflower garden was discovered on Mars would that indicate that ancient Martians were vegetable farmers? Again, images transmitted by Mars rover Spirit have ancient alien conspiracy theorists reveling in the possibility. Unfortunately, unless ancient Martians enjoyed a crisp, tasty salad of silica, no, they were not vegetable farmers.

Near what NASA has dubbed “Home Plate”, Spirit took some pictures of interesting mineral formations that looked like cauliflower. Now, just because something looks like something doesn’t mean that it is that something. Think of all the little fishies in the sea that believe they are about to snag a little morsel for dinner only to realize, much too late, it was actually a bio-lure attached to the head of a deep sea angler fish who is about to be enjoying some dinner of his own. See, although that glowing tidbit looked like food, it was actually a dangerous decoy and not at all what it seemed. So, no, the gringa does not believe that these cauliflower looking formations are actually petrified cauliflower. But, still, is there any exciting news attached to their existence?

According to researchers from Arizona State University, although the mineral formations are no indicator of ancient Martian farmers, they could still very well have been created by alien life. Just not the kind of alien life that walks about, flies in spaceships and probes your brain. We are talking about microscopic alien life in the form of microbes. Which, I guess, technically speaking, under the right conditions could get inside a human brain for a “brain probe”, technically speaking, of course.

Now these silica protrusions were first reported to Earthlings by Spirit in 2008. Why has it taken eight years for the media to find something interesting? Well, science takes its own sweet time in research and drawing the right conclusions. Part of this research involves studying similar mineral formations here on Earth to get some local answers. One place to do that is in the high altitude Andean Atacama Desert of Chile which has some shapes that look like a mirror image of what was found on Mars. Could the microbes that created the Martian formations have traveled to Earth and duplicated their work here? Is that a sign of a cosmic connection between our two planets or is it common for microbes to create silica based cauliflower everywhere? Are conditions simply present in lots of places remote from one another for this to happen?

Scientists Steven Ruff and Jack Farmer, who penned an article published by Smithsonian Magazine, believe that the Martian petrified cauliflower may be proof that at one time, way back when, Mars was teeming with the kind of life commonly found in the vicinity of geysers, even living within the geysers themselves. After their investigation of Chile’s cauliflower, the work of artistic microbes who have a penchant for sculptures resembling vegetables, they linked the microbes responsible to some ancient microbes found in New Zealand that were definitely from out of this world. More silica cauliflower cousins have also been found in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.

So maybe, just maybe, some space traveling microbes made their way here from Mars aeons ago. And the message they have left behind to get our attention are rock formations that look like cauliflower. Does that sound crazy or what? How would ancient microscopic Martians have ever known humans would ever develop the habit of even eating cauliflower and decide that would be their key way of making first contact or leaving behind a letter of introduction? The gringa appreciates the zeal of scientists but methinks this is all just an accident. Mars probably got slammed by an enormous asteroid, comet or meteor which sent chunks of Mars shooting out into space and one of these chunks happened to make its way to Earth and, bing, bang, boom, a kazillion years later we have cauliflower rocks just like Mars.

If that’s the case, there’s no telling what other bits of Mars may have made their way here and be right under our very noses. It makes rock collecting take on a whole new meaning. That little bit of quartz or gypsum you collect and stuff in a cubby hole or box today may prove to be of galactic origins tomorrow.

More interesting to the gringa than the thought of beings similar to us living on Mars long ago is the implication of space scraps making their way hither and yon from the vast reaches of space to finally land upon Earth. Who knows?! Maybe NOTHING organic on Earth actually originated here. Maybe our planet is a virtual junkyard of the Universe, with little bits from here and there surviving and growing up into what we have today. Hey, stranger things have happened!

Sources:  www.nasa.gov

www.yahoo.news

www.smithsonianmag.com

Image source:  www.americaspace.com