Monthly Archives: October 2008

From Nuclear Power to SETI

In 1951 in a small town in Idaho, the first usable electricity was generated from a nuclear fission reactor. Today the same laboratory in Idaho, now known as the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), announced the successful implementation of a technique known as laser desorption mass spectroscopy. Utilizing a laser beam focused “on a spot less than one-hundredth the width of a pencil point” INL scientists demonstrated how fragments of the material on a rock could be vaporized and chemically characterized by using the difference in the mass of the produced ions (electrically charged elements) and determining the amount of the different elements discovered. This technique has promise in the analysis of rock samples from other planets, such as Mars, and determining the presence of organic material to a much higher sensitivity than previously accomplished. To learn more about this technique go to

NASA Seeks to Address Latest Hubble Space Telescope Woes

NASA concluded a press conference today shortly after 1PM, regarding the status of the Hubble Space Telescope.  On 27 September 2008 the Hubble Space Telescope main flight computer detected an error from the data handling computer, said Art Whipple manager HST Systems Management Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  John Morris, Astrophysics Division Director of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters said that NASA engineers have developed a process for switching over from the failed unit to a backup unit.  Interestingly, the backup unit has never been tested since launch in 1990, nonetheless it is expected to perform flawlessly.  Later in the news conference Whipple alluded to the fact that NASA’s view is that once a system is functional you leave it be.  This will also be the case if all goes well and the so-called “B” side works and science data begins to flow again on Friday as scheduled.  That is, even when the astronauts visit the Hubble Space Telescope for the service repair mission, they will leave the “B” unit in control of the science data handling.  So keep alert for the progress reports as NASA engineers “will be working 24/7″ between tomorrow morning at about 6AM and Thursday evening, when they are scheduled to determine the status of the backup unit for the science data handling computer.

Another Tourist in Space

Texas millionaire Richard Garriott was launched into space aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft yesterday.  Richard Garriott is himself the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott. In the same Soyuz spacecraft with Garriott is NASA astronaut Michael Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov.  They are due to dock with the space station tomorrow morning.  You can learn more about the adventure online at Richard Garriott’s own webpage I wonder how many of you would take the trip if you had the millions of dollars to do so.

Cassini Reveals More of Enceladus

Earlier today, the Cassini Mission released images of the Cassini flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.  Enceladus is about the diameter of the state of Arizona.  Although small in size, Enceladus surprised scientists when earlier this year it exhibited signs of geyser-like plumes.  In this pass of Enceladus, the spacecraft passed through one of these plumes. You can checkout the raw images at

New Images of the Planet Mercury

Earlier this week, NASA released the latest images from the MESSENGER mission to the planet Mercury.  MESSENGER stands for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging. You can see the latest images and current status of the mission at
The last time we received images from a spacecraft at Mercury was in 1974.  Images from Mariner 10 are still utilized in astronomy classes today.  You can compare the Mariner 10 images to the latest MESSENGER images by examining the Mariner 10 images archived by NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and available online at
If all goes well, the MESSENGER spacecraft will become the first spacecraft to actually orbit the planet Mercury beginning on March 18, 2011.

Using Galaxies as Magnifiers to Study More Distant Galaxies

Yesterday, scientists from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech)  announced that they had successfully measured the rotation rate of a very  distant galaxy.  They utilized a technique predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, called the gravitational lens effect.  This is when the space around a very massive object, like a giant elliptical galaxy, warps space like a rubber sheet, and can give the effect just like a lens bending light between the observer and the more distant object, in this case an even more distant galaxy. By utilizing the gravitational lens effect like a magnifying glass, a galaxy about 6 billion light years distant was able to be used to view a galaxy about 11 billion light years distant.  The detail was so fine as to allow the detection of the more distant galaxy’s rotation rate, utilizing what is known as the Doppler Effect (just like when you are standing at a train platform and notice the change in pitch of the sound coming from a train that approaches the station and then passes you by) applied to spectral lines from the more distant galaxy. The rotation of a galaxy aids astronomers in their study of how galaxies change in form over time.
Read more about this at
Learn about the gravitational lens effect at and get a feel for rotation curves at
You can also learn about the Doppler Effect at

2008 Nobel Prize in Physics Announced

Yesterday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The winners were Yoichiro Nambu, Makoto Kobayashi, and Toshihide Maskawa. Nambu won “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics.” Kobayashi and Maskawa won “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.” The question of broken symmetry goes to the nature of the universe shortly after its formation, and helps explain why we live in a universe where matter dominates over anti-matter. To read the announcement you can go to If you wish to learn more about this, you should look at what the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences prepared for the general public at If you are interested in reading more about the standard model of the atom, I recommend a paperback book by a colleague at George Mason University, Dr. Robert Oerter, titled “The Theory of Almost Everything”, available on or your local bookstore.

Astrobiology Book for Youths

Recently I was asked to review a book called “Life on Earth and Beyond: An Astrobiologist’s Quest” by Pamela Turner.  My review was not accepted for publication, perhaps because I was seen as being too harsh in my critique, so I offer it here.  It’s hard to say whether this book is a biography of a scientist, Chris McKay or a science book about astrobiology.  Anyhow, the layout of this book is similar to modern textbooks with numerous sidebars which may be a bit too distracting for the ten to twelve year old target audience.  Most of the chapters are akin to a travel log, following Chris traipsing around the globe, looking for extremophiles from Antarctica, to Chile, to Russia, to northern Africa, returning again to Antarctica.  In some cases participating scientists remain nameless, while in others, even the graduate research assistant is named.  There are some scientific theories offered which appear to be solely one man’s view and no one else, but one wonders if this is the case.  Some of the beautiful color images are misplaced in the middle of unrelated text.  For example, there’s an image of the infamous meteorite ALH84001, which did play a major role in McKay’s life, but nothing about it is mentioned in neither the chapter nor anywhere else for that matter. There is also a depiction of Jupiter and its moons, but it is in a chapter focused on Mars.  The author also improperly states towards the end of the volume that the universe is infinite in size.  I guess lots of folks throw around the “infinite” term, but in science and mathematics it does have meaning.  Finally, it should be noted that the writing style is like that of a storyteller, an age appropriate easy read, which does make you think about the science behind the around-the-world adventures of one scientist.

Astrocast.TV Episode 7

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Now on Astrocast.TV

October 1, 2008 – Episode 7 – Will India became a member of the Lunar Club. Join us as we explore Chandrayaan-1 India’s Lunar orbiter spacecraft.More on NASA’s extended Mars Phoenix Mission and the ,scheduled to land on a comet in 2014.

-Astrocast.TV welcomes a new co-host. Dr. Lori Feaga joins the Astrocast.TV team. See Oct 1st Press Release.

- Katie Moore from the U.S. National Air and Space Museum tells us all about the World Wide Star Count.

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October 2008
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