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.


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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.


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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!


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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!


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A One Way Ticket To Tomorrow – Time Travel

Ever really screwed things up and wanted a do-over? Yeah, the gringa does that all the time. That’s what makes time travel so appealing. But is it possible? Theoretically, sure it’s possible, but only if you want to see the future. To start the day all over again in order to get it right the second time around means travelling faster than light and that, theoretically, is impossible. But, actually, that’s good news. That means a spiteful ex can’t travel back in time and take out your grandfather, thus wiping out your future existence. It also means that adventurers who travel to the future have to stay there (maybe). For a trip to tomorrow, it’s actually relatively easy, according to scientific formulas (although no one’s actually done it yet, I think).

You see, if a person hopped on board their spaceship and zipped away into the cosmos at even a fraction of lightspeed, for a journey of say a year or two, they would return to an Earth that had aged perhaps by decades. So, technically, the galactic pioneers traveled to the future. But Einstein offered another option to travel to the future in the blink of an eye, wormholes.

A wormhole is a time tunnel that connects different parts of the universe. By using the wormhole as a direct route across the universe, rather than taking the long route of flying through the curved mass of space, a person would emerge, within moments, in a completely different time zone, perhaps an entire era altogether, hundreds of years in the future. The furthest a person could then go back in time would be to simply use the wormhole to return to the point they started from. However, a Caltech physicist by the name of Kip Thorne believes that quantum theory suggests that once a person traveled through a wormhole it would collapse behind them. A wormhole to the future might be a one way ticket to tomorrow.

So, if you want to have a time traveling adventure, you just have to find a wormhole. Or go to China. Yep. That’s what the gringa said. Go to China. Interesting reports have been in the news for a few years now about a time travel tunnel in China. Located in Guizhou Province, time travelers can break all the rules and travel back in time. You don’t even need a spaceship. You can use the ancient technology of cars.

It only takes, technically, about five minutes to travel the 400 meter length of the tunnel. However, when drivers emerge on the other side of the tunnel their electronic devices indicate that they have traveled back in time about one hour. However, time is a jealous mistress. It seems to not appreciate being lost and chases down evaders like a jilted lover turned crazed stalker. Once people travel some distance from the tunnel their lost hour catches up with them.

What the heck is happening here? It’s a mystery. One that is absolutely adored by science fiction fans, conspiracy theorists and alien abduction proponents. However, China is not a fan of wacky explanations. They have offered a few boring theories as to why this is happening:

  • A transmitter in the tunnel is resetting everyone’s electronic clocks which reset once again when they receive new GPS signals from a different transmitter after emerging from the tunnel.
  • A localized magnetic anomaly messing about with electronic devices

The gringa doesn’t really care why. It seems harmless and loads of fun. The gringa would like to go back and forth several times, perhaps hundreds of times, maybe thousands just to see what might happen. Maybe I’ll lose a wrinkle or two.




HoHoHo – Earth’s Playful Companion

Some astronomy, space and science enthusiasts are claiming that NASA has reported the discovery of a second moon for Earth. Before the gringa’s dear readers get all jittery with excitement and embarrass yourself at a social occasion by repeating this bit of  information that is actually a sensationalized truth, let me set the record straight.

First of all, the cosmic object we are talking about is an asteroid called 2016 HO3 . The gringa affectionately refers to this asteroid as HoHoHo. Although it does, indeed, circle our planet while traveling it’s orbit, it lacks certain criteria that would actually define it as a satellite, or, moon. Consider the official definitions for a natural satellite, quasi-satellite, asteroid and moon:

Asteroid:  A small, rocky body that orbits the sun.

Moon:  (where the Earth is concerned) – the natural satellite of the Earth.

Natural Satellite:  An object that revolves around a planet.

Quasi-Satellite:  A celestial object that seems to revolve around a planet but really doesn’t or only partially revolves around the planet.

The common thread between the three definitions is orbiting a planet or the Sun. HoHoHo only seems to circle the Earth so it is really a quasi-satellite and not a second moon. It’s a planetary companion, a cosmic friend, a galactic fellow traveler who passes by periodically. Earth and HoHoHo both orbit the Sun and HoHoHo has been our planet’s reliable companion for nearly a century.

Earth once had another friend like HoHoHo but that relationship broke up more than a decade ago. Asteroid 2003 YN107 (I call it Whiney), followed us around for a few years but Earth did not have a strong enough influence. I suppose Whiney was a bit strong-willed and broke free from Earth, going its own way.

However, HoHoHo may find Earth irresistible because, not only has it remained a faithful cosmic friend for over a century, astronomers expect the relationship to continue for hundreds of more years. HoHoHo enjoys a good bit of “me” time, though, spending about half of its time closer to the Sun than Earth. HoHoHo also gets a bit unsteady on its feet, bobbing up and down in its orbit path. This happens because, as it lags behind Earth when it gets closer to the Sun, Earth’s gravitational affect on the asteroid changes. This causes HoHoHo to seem to have a playful personality. When astronomers plot the asteroid’s orbit path, speed changes, tilts and bobs, it looks as if it is playing leapfrog with Earth.

HoHoHo was first spotted by stargazers April 27, 2016 by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii. Astronomers estimate that HoHoHo’s size is between 120-300 feet (40-100 meters). Amateur stargazers can visit NASA’s online near-earth-object (NEO) resource, the Center for NEO Studies,  to find a list of dates and times to anticipate an approach by HoHoHo, as well as other cosmic passersby, to plan your own sighting if you have access to a telescope. Backyard astronomers can also stay up-to-date with cosmic objects to watch by following  Asteroid Watch  on Twitter.

So, even though the thought of a second moon is titillating, the real story is just as interesting. Keep looking to the stars. Who knows what might show up next?!


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That’s shorthand for “Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation for the Milky Way Galaxy”.  Scientists believe that if our galaxy is not already dead it is probably drawing its last gasps. Kevin Schawinski, a Swiss scientist from Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology explains that this happens when a galaxy no longer forms new stars. His research claims that we are all living in a zombie galaxy that has been a billion years long since dead.

Schawinski has a color code system for  galaxies:

  • Blue Cloud – Galaxies that are still forming stars from gases
  • Red Sequence – Galaxies that are evolving passively
  • Green valley – This is a galaxy that is at the crossroads of evolution, between blue cloud stage and red sequence stage. (An interesting tidbit… the term “green valley” came about after an Arizona University student, attending a lecture on the evolution of galaxies, responded to the speaker’s description of the death phase of a galaxy by yelling, “Green Valley! Where galaxies go to die!” referring to a local retirement community, Green Valley, Arizona.)

Green valley galaxies are at an intermediate state. Stars are still forming but the gas reservoir is running low. However, space time is not like real time on Earth. By the time researchers can get the data that a reservoir is empty, meaning a galaxy is no longer capable of creating stars, that galaxy may have already been dead for billions of years.

Andromeda galaxy, our neighbor, is also a zombie galaxy. It began dying eons ago but still produces stars. That means it’s gas reservoir is empty but the stars that began the creation process billions of years ago are still forming. Kind of like when the gringa’s car runs out of gas but I manage to coast off the freeway with just enough momentum to reach the gas pump at the station on the side of the road.

So, even though the data collected about our own Milky Way galaxy is not complete, what scientists do have indicates that it may be on the precipice of falling into the green valley. Once the zombie period is over and a galaxy actually begins to show signs that it is truly dead, it may take billions of years for a complete death mask to be detectable. The clearest indicator is that they stop expanding. Galaxies grow by making stars so when no new growth is possible, when galactic expansion ceases, the galaxy is dead.

The funny thing about this is that stars are the by-product of a build-up of certain gases. It’s as if a galaxy grows by recycling its waste. If mankind could somehow imitate that model just imagine what that would mean for our pollution problems!

So, if star-making gases are the waste product of galaxies, what is their “food”? Dark matter, that invisible stuff thought to be the fibers that hold galaxies together, provide the hydrogen gas that feeds galaxies so they can make stars and grow larger. When hydrogen gas cools it becomes trapped in the dark matter that forms halos around cosmic objects like planets. As it cools, this disk of gas eventually breaks up to later form stars. Where does the hydrogen come from? From dying stars. So, really, a star is just a cosmic object that is recycled, reborn or reincarnated, depending on the perspective you prefer.

What does that mean for humans living in the Milky Way galaxy? It means that if our Sun ever goes kaput, that’s it for civilization. We will never get a new Sun.


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