Archive for May, 2008


Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Earlier this month a volcanic eruption in Chile wowed the world, and produced one of the most magnificent natural images ever.

The eruption actually came from a volcanic caldera, Chaitén. The eruption forced the evacuation of nearby towns, merged two massive craters, and increased the possibility of even more activity. You can watch video (in Spanish) of the disaster here.

But beyond YouTube recaps of eruptions, you can discover images of the volcanoes, active and dormant, around the world. The Italian Government has publicly accessible webcams of volcanoes. And this site has mapped, photographed, and documented every volcano in the world (including Chaitén). Pretty amazing.

Satellites are keeping tabs too. This site has satellite images of some of the world’s largest volcanoes, including some very close to home.

But, of course, Volcanoes are not limited to Earth. Jupiter has some of the our galaxy’s more active volcanic activity:

Before the Voyager probes visited Jupiter, if you had described Io to a literary critic it would have been declared overwrought science fiction. Jupiter’s strange moon is literally bursting with volcanoes. Dozens of active vents pepper the landscape with volcanic rings the size of California. The volcanoes themselves are the hottest spots in the solar system with temperatures exceeding 1800 K (1527 C) about 1/3 the temperature of the surface of the Sun. The plumes which rise as much as 500 kilometers into space are so large they can be seen from Earth by the Hubble Space Telescope. Confounding common sense, these high-rising ejecta seem to be made up of, not blisteringly hot lava, but frozen sulfur dioxide. For a world dominated by fiery volcanoes, it’s curious that Io is also very, very cold. The ground just around the volcanic vents is literally sizzling, but most of Io’s surface is 150 degrees or more below 0 C.

What powers the tremendous volcanic activity? Tides! But the tides on Io are not like ocean tides we’re familiar with on Earth. The gravitational fields of Jupiter and its large moons Europa and Ganymede cause tidal bulges in the solid crust of Io that are as high as 100 meters (330 feet). As Io orbits the giant planet, the bulge moves, flexes the crust, and heats Io’s interior like a paper clip bent rapidly back and forth. Infrared observations have shown that the thermal energy released by Io’s hot spots is on the order of 125 trillion watts which is about 2.5 W/m2. By contrast the moon’s outward heat flow is 0.02 W/m2 and the Earth’s average heat flow is 0.06 W/m2.

A year ago, NASA’s New Horizons probe captured a number of amazing images, showing massive plumes of ash, believed to be a result of Volcanic activity.

Yves Rossy: Fusion Man

Monday, May 19th, 2008

"I feel fantastically happy." 

That’s what Yves Rossy said after his flight. We remember Jet ManSpiegel Online writes he set a new personal flight record:

…he jumped out of a plane above the Swiss town of Bex and took flight using a jetpack he created.

The five-minute flight was the first public demonstration of Rossy’s one-of-a-kind device, which took him five years to create.

The inventor brings years of more conventional experience to his death-defying feats. He is a former Swiss military pilot and has been a co-pilot and captain for Switzerland’s two national airlines, Swissair and Swiss.

Dressed in a white flight suit, wearing a white helmet and strapped to his black device, Rossy was dropped from an airplane 2,348 meters above the Earth. He first unfolded the rigid, eight-foot wings strapped to his back, then fired up four tiny jet engines originally intended to power model aircraft.

A helicopter flew nearby to document his five minutes of glory, and an airplane followed to measure his speed. Rossy reached speeds of 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour).

"The flight was excellent," Rossy told reporters gathered at the airfield where he touched down. Rossy wears a heavy, heat-resistant flying suit, similar to those worn by race car drivers and firefighters, to protect himself from the jet engines’ exhaust.

The report from the Today Show:


Here’s a cool video edit:


Beetle Juice

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Yeah, beetle juice. Turns out that the spray of the Bombardier Beetle’s toxic fluid may hold the key to new fuel-injection jet engines. I didn’t expect that.

A beetle’s chemical warfare against marauding ants, birds and frogs has provided the inspiration for a European effort to design more efficient fire extinguishers, reliable pharmaceutical sprays and fuel-injection engines.

The bombardier beetle’s toxic blasts of boiling-hot poison could even provide the impetus for mini rocket boosters to keep a spacecraft on the right trajectory, according to Andy McIntosh, a professor of thermodynamics and combustion theory at University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Science Daily explains the biology:

Quantities of hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide gases build up in the beetle’s abdomen but, when necessary for defence, get mixed together in a connected ‘combustion chamber’ to produce toxic benzoquinone. This hot fluid is then fired off at force in the face of enemy predators.

The key to the beetle’s powerful defensive trick is in its combustion chamber’s inlet (or entry) and exit valves. The inlet valve opens to receive the chemicals, which begin to boil as soon as they meet, and closes when a sufficient amount of gas has been received.

As the gases react together, they generate heat and increase the pressure in the closed chamber. When the pressure reaches a critical point, the end of the exit valve is forced open and the hot fluid is ejected as a powerful burst of toxic steam in a process known as “flash evaporation”.

Once the gas is released, the exit valve closes, the inlet valve opens and the chamber fills again, preparing for the next venomous ejection.

Check out pictures of the process here.

The mechanism has been replicated by a research team at the School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering at Leeds University. They were able to spray distances of up to four meters and precisely control the size of the droplets.

In the short term, the technology appears to have the most promise for fire extinguishers and drug delivery tools (like inhalers). But more efficient fuel-injection car engines and, even, precise jet engines are possible in the future.

A species of beetle, that squirts its predators with a high-pressure spray of boiling liquid, could provide the key to significant improvements in aircraft engine design.

The bombardier beetle’s unique natural combustion technique is being studied to see if it can be copied for use in the aircraft industry.

Scientists studying the bombardier beetle’s jet-based defence mechanism hope it will help to solve a problem that can occasionally occur at high altitude – re-igniting a gas turbine aircraft engine which has cut out, when the outside air temperature is as low as minus 50 degrees Centigrade!

Due to start early next year, this innovative 3-year project at the University of Leeds is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The little bug has got my respect.

Matching all of the beetle’s natural talents could still be a mean feat. “If we can think of a mechanism, nature has already done it, and better,” Eisner said. He’s found, for example, that the beetle can discharge its toxic bursts more than 20 times in a row before depleting its glands. Not that such repeated blasts are usually necessary. “After firing once, he can walk through a crowd of ants, and they just literally part and let him pass,” he said.

DIY Friday: Build Your Own Multitouch Interface

Friday, May 16th, 2008


At Maker Faire earlier this month, the $500 Open-Source Multi-Touch Table was deemed by Popular Mechanics as one of "5 Garage Inventions That Might Outperform Their Big-Name Predecessors … at Half the Cost:"

We’ve followed the next generation of hands-on computer interfaces all the way from the labs to Jeff Han’s wall-mounted display for CNN and the CIA, from the hype surrounding Microsoft’s Surface to the reality of the touchscreen table arriving in AT&T stores. And while we were disappointed that Eyebeam’s much-ballyhooed, open-source Cubit device didn’t end up making it to Maker Faire, this “happy accident” from four geek colleagues more than made up for it. In about three combined day’s worth of tinkering after work at a computer-graphics firm in the movie industry, DeRose teamed with his son and software engineers Josh Minor, Brendan Donohoe and Rudro Samanta to turn an Instructables project into a laptop-powered version of Surface—for 500 bucks (including $100 in maple for the table itself, plus the computer and a projector). “It’s a cool little recipe,” DeRose says of the DIY hardware, which uses cheap LEDs for basic functionality ranging from a music sequencer to Pong—though not much else. 

The potential for multitouch surface interfaces is huge. Microsoft is pouring money into development of its version, while Apple is planning on expanding its iPhone interface to a broader range of its product offerings. 

But why wait when you can make your own DIY mini MTI?

Also check out other MTIs at the NUI Group website, which includes alternate instructions on how to make a cheap (but effective) MTI

A Billion More Satellite Internet Users

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Q: How do you connect 1 billion more Africans to the Internet by 2012?

A: By Satellite, of course.


According to a story by Efem Nkanga in This Day (Nigeria), that will call for launching 20 satellites to do the job:

One billion Africans located in under-served rural and urban areas across the continent are set to benefit from an initiative powered by a non profit association of the international satellite industry called Global VSAT Forum to double the number of earth station terminals operating in Africa by 2012.

The worldwide Global body of firms involved in the business of delivering advanced digital fixed satellite unveiled these plans to newsmen at the ongoing Telecoms Africa forum in Cairo. Mr. Jeremy Rose, Chairman, International Development Initiatives, Global VSAT Forum,  who disclosed this initiative said that more than 20 satellites will be brought into service to connect Africa during the next five years to support this initiative. Rose added that to facilitate the industry’s offering, complimentary capacity building will be delivered to governments in Africa by the GVF. These initiatives according to him are being unveiled to support ongoing plans by the International Telecoms Federation to meet Africa’s  connectivity goals set during Connect Africa Summit held in Kigali, Rwanda in October, 2007.

The GSM Association had announced that its industry members planned to invest $50 billion between 2008 and 2012 in networks in Africa, covering 90 per cent of the population.

The Association announced today that the number of mobile connections in Africa has risen 70 million in the past 12 months to 282 million.

Mobile operators have ramped up investment in the region, extending GSM coverage to reach an additional 550,000 square kilometers occupied by 46 million people.

This broadening  coverage along with the falling cost of mobile communications has enabled millions of Africans to get connected.He added that the company’s goal was to provide enhanced opportunities in connecting the next billion people.Earlier, stakeholders had made calls for Africa to have Broadband connectivity at affordable prices that would drive growth in the continent.One of the ways of driving this uptake of broadband was the call for optic fiber deployment across the length and breadth of the continent.A highlight of the formal opening was the Press launch of ITU’s regional report, "African Telecommunication/ICT Indicators 2008: At a Crossroads". Following booming growth in the mobile telephony sector – which saw 65 million new subscribers in 2007- and an encouraging investment climate spurring economic development in the region, Africa is a continent on the move: the theme for ITU TELECOM AFRICA 2008.

That’s quite a challenge from the GVF. If I’m still around in 2012, I’ll do a follow-up post.

Look, I remember a forecast in June of 2001, by a market research company, that an addtional 500 geosynchronous satellites will be needed to satisfy demand.  Nearly 7 years later, I don’t see expansion of that magnitude.

Mars Madness is Building

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Mars Madness is on the rise in Tucson, the Arizona Daily Star reports. That’s because on May 25th, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander is scheduled to touch down on the red planet. The event is significant in Tucson because the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Lab team is leading the mission’s science and built some of the instruments.

But the fever is spreading well beyond Arizona for this risky mission:

Fewer than half of attempts to land on Mars have succeeded, but planetary scientists leading the Phoenix Mars mission are cautiously optimistic. So far, all looks good, they say.
Public events to celebrate the landing are planned for at least 110 sites around the world, including London and Paris. There’s even a virtual landing bash planned, in Second Life, which is a virtual social world on the Internet.

Just how risky and difficult is it to put a lander on the surface of Mars? To answer that question, check out this excellent video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory. (NASA has done a fantastic job promoting the mission and landing in the style of a summer movie blockbuster):

The Phoenix Mars Mission website provides additional detail:

At 125 km (78 miles) above the surface, Phoenix will enter the thin martian atmosphere. It will slow itself down by using friction. A heat shield will protect the lander from the extreme temperatures generated during entry. Antennas located on the back of the shell which encases the lander will be used to communicate with one of three spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. These orbiters will then relay signals and landing info to Earth.

After the lander has decelerated to Mach 1.7 (1.7 times the speed of sound), the parachute is deployed. Shortly after the parachute is deployed, the heat shield is jettisoned, the landing radar is activated, and the lander legs are extended. The lander continues through the Martian atmosphere until it comes within 1 km (.6 miles) of the Martian surface. At this point, the lander separates itself from the parachute. It then throttles up its landing thrusters and decelerates.

When Phoenix is either at an altitude of 12 m (39 ft) or traveling at 2.4 m/s (7.9 ft/s), the spacecraft begins traveling at a constant velocity. The landing engines are turned off when sensors located on the footpads of the lander detect touchdown.

As we’ve mentioned, only half of all international attempts to land on Mars have succeeded. Back in 1999, the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) went missing as it entered Mars’s atmosphere, and its fate has been a mystery ever since. But now there is a chance for a member of the public to locate the missing spacecraft and help work out what went wrong, thanks to a new "Spot the Spacecraft" challenge

The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has a raft of images of the MPL’s projected landing area, but scans of the huge images came up blank.

So now, the HiRISE team’s blog has published 18 images, and has challenged the public to find the lost lander.

Can you find the MPL? The images can be viewed here

We’ll report more on the landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander after the 25th. 


Youngest Supernova Found

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Very cool announcement from NASA this afternoon, uncovering the most recent supernova from 140 years ago:

"We can see some supernova explosions with optical telescopes across half of the universe, but when they’re in this murk we can miss them in our own cosmic backyard," said Stephen Reynolds of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who led the Chandra study. "Fortunately, the expanding gas cloud from the explosion shines brightly in radio waves and X-rays for thousands of years. X-ray and radio telescopes can see through all that obscuration and show us what we’ve been missing."

Astronomers regularly observe supernovae in other galaxies like ours. Based on those observations, researchers estimate about three explode every century in the Milky Way.

"If the supernova rate estimates are correct, there should be the remnants of about 10 supernova explosions that are younger than Cassiopeia A," said David Green of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who led the Very Large Array study. "It’s great to finally track one of them down."

The tracking of this object began in 1985, when astronomers, led by Green, used the Very Large Array to identify the remnant of a supernova explosion near the center of our galaxy. Based on its small size, it was thought to have resulted from a supernova that exploded about 400 to 1000 years ago.

Twenty-two years later, Chandra observations revealed the remnant had expanded by a surprisingly large amount, about 16 percent, since 1985. This indicates the supernova remnant is much younger than previously thought.

That young age was confirmed in recent weeks when the Very Large Array made new radio observations. This comparison of data pinpoints the age of the remnant at 140 years – possibly less if it has been slowing down – making it the youngest on record in the Milky Way.

Besides being the record holder for youngest supernova, the object is of considerable interest for other reasons. The high expansion velocities and extreme particle energies that have been generated are unprecedented and should stimulate deeper studies of the object with Chandra and the Very Large Array.

"No other object in the galaxy has properties like this," Reynolds said. "This find is extremely important for learning more about how some stars explode and what happens in the aftermath."

More images here.

Here’s an animation from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory:


In order to determine the age of G1.9+0.3, astronomers needed to track how quickly it is expanding. By comparing a radio image from 1985 to a Chandra image taken in 2007, scientists see the ring of debris expand. The expansion rate was confirmed with another radio observation with the VLA in 2008. The difference in size between these images gives clear evidence for expansion, allowing the age of the remnant and the time since the original supernova explosion (about 140 years) to be estimated.


Space Shuttle Tires

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008


Appears NASA is ready to loan out used tires from the Space Shuttle’s landing gear:

NASA is seeking outside organizations interested in a unique outreach opportunity using main landing gear tires from space shuttle missions. The long-term loan of these tires may be used to educate, inspire or inform the public about NASA’s scientific and technological achievements through art, sculpture, furniture, building structures, exhibits or other innovative uses of the artifacts. These items may not be used for the promotion of any organization or entity, or for commercial purposes.

Given the limited number of these tires and the estimated response, NASA is requesting that interested organizations submit proposals for their use, allowing the agency to choose those that best meet NASA’s education and outreach objectives.

We currently have in inventory approximately 30 flown space shuttle main landing gear tires for this opportunity. In addition, we have a number of non-flown space shuttle tires (submitters should state their preference in proposal). Data on specific flights for each tire are available in Attachment I. Tires flown on specific missions or on a certain orbiter may be requested, although NASA cannot guarantee that all requests will be fulfilled.

Hey, you never know where they’ll end up. Maybe on the program "American Chopper" — you may recall the Teutels visited Johnson Space Center in 2005 when they were preparing to build the "Shuttle Bike" (delivered that August). Buy it on Amazon: it ran in season 5, episodes 5 and 6. Watch video clips here.


Texting Hubble

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008


Really difficult to send a text from up here with these gloves on…..

Here’s an interesting tidbit from England:

 Text messaging is almost five times more expensive than receiving information from the Hubble Space Telescope, research has indicated.

A typical text costs 5p so if you send one megabyte of data by text – equivalent to 7,490 messages – it will cost around £375.

However, a researcher found that if you send one megabyte of data from the Hubble telescope, which is 370 miles into space, it costs a relatively cheap £85.

If you divide £85 by the number of messages in a megabyte, the equivalent cost of sending a text from the space telescope is just over 1p.

Scientist Dr Nigel Bannister, of Leicester University, worked out the figures and said they showed mobile phone users were paying far too much to text….

He said: "The bottom line is texting is at least four times more expensive than transmitting data from Hubble – and is likely to be substantially more than that."

Our first reaction to Dr. Bannister’s (personal webpage here; University of Leicester here) research was one of profound skepticism. Maybe it wasn’t quite apples to apples to compare data transmissions from Hubble with SMS messages. And surely, we thought, he neglected to include the astronomical (no pun intended) costs of Hubble’s Control Center, for example, which runs four rotating flight teams from Space Telescope Operations Control Center (STOCC) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Nope, says Dr. Bannister:

He said the mobile phone prices looked even more "astronomical" when you considered that he had added all the costs of staff and processing to the price of the Hubble data transmission.

Without those extra costs, the amount of data in a text could cost as little as 0.1p.

We’re still not convinced, but the low cost of texts may explain why Hubble keeps poking us so freely on Facebook.

(More info on Hubble can be found here.)

Your Name in Space

Monday, May 12th, 2008

So you’ve bought your little corner of the universe through the International Star Registry, but you want more to give yourself a chance at immortality.

After all, in 5 billion years, when our sun is in its last throes, the name of your star won’t be worth the paper its printed on, because the paper itself will be incinerated.

What you want is a record for someone else — or something else — to find, an intergalactic message in a bottle that says, I was here.

Now, thanks to NASA and the Kepler mission, you can have just that:

Finally, the chance for your name to be carried into space has come.

When the Kepler Mission rockets away from Earth, a DVD containing perhaps millions of human names will be on board.

"This mission will provide our first knowledge of Earth-like planets beyond our solar system," said Kepler Mission principal investigator William Borucki.

The Kepler Mission is scheduled for launch in February 2009 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There is no limit to the number of names that can be submitted, officials said.

At the end of this year – in November – the Name in Space DVD will be mounted on the exterior of the spacecraft. A video of the DVD being mounted on the spacecraft will be taken and posted on the Kepler Mission Web site before the spacecraft is shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in December.

"It’s a way for the public to participate in our space program," said David Koch, deputy principal investigator for the Kepler Mission. "We’re looking for several million names. … The only limitation is people’s interest."

A copy of the DVD with all of the names and messages will also be given to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

You can submit your name for free on the Kepler Mission website, where you can also learn more about the spacecraft and the mission:

The Kepler photometer is a simple single purpose instrument. It is basically a Schmidt telescope design with a 0.95-meter aperture and a 105 deg2 (about 12 degree diameter) field-of-view (FOV). It is pointed at and records data from just a single group of stars for the four year duration of the mission. …

An Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit with a period of 372.5 days provides the optimum approach to meeting of the combined Sun-Earth-Moon avoidance criteria within the Boeing D2925-10 (Delta-II) launch vehicle capability (launch videos). In this orbit the spacecraft slowly drifts away from the Earth and is at a distance of 0.5 AU (worst case) at the end of four years.  Telecommunications and navigation for the mission are provided by NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN).

And for a better understanding of the craft your name will eternally be sailing (or at least drifting) upon, check out the video above from YouTube.