Busy New Year

PHEW! It’s been a very busy new year for me, and it’s only been what? 26 days!!

So, to anticipate the large number of new articles that I will have to be posting on here in the coming weeks and months, I will mention an article I did a while ago for FQXi about getting kids interested in science and physics.

For the article, I got to speak with Brian Greene about his latest book, which is a kids book. It’s a very pretty book, and I enjoyed reading it. My daughter (2) was sort of lukewarm to it, but maybe I better try it again in a few months.

Also, I had two articles I wrote a while ago for Popular Science Magazine finally hit the newsstands. The first was about three very cool laser projects in the December issue, and the other was about using old newspapers to extract gold and other precious metals from old cell phone batteries in the January issue. Both were pretty cool if I do say so myself.

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New Ways of Doing Science

Science is an ever changing field. Every clear night possible I go out and look at the stars with my telescope, a device that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe about 400 years ago. I also write on a MacBook Pro, and I can’t even count all the ways computers have changed science.

I have also been able to write about some pretty cool new pieces of equipment or experiments that are shaking up our understanding of how to do science.

Take for instance my recent article on small satellites (about the size of a refrigerator to a softball) for National Geographic News. Small satellites are cheaper and quicker to build, but do science that is every bit as good as the bigger space satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope.

In the past they were thought of as good tools to teach aerospace engineering or get students interested in space, but now there are some really cool space missions using small missions. My favorite is the ill-fated NanoSail-D, which failed to get into space a couple weeks ago because of a rocket failure. The approximately $2 million satellite was supposed to test a new solar sail, and it still might. They built two flight-ready satellites, and the backup could be soaring high within a year.

Try and get NASA to approve making a duplicate of a $1 billion space satellite!

Another article that was recently published by the Foundational Questions Institute focuses on trying to see if quantum mechanics works on ever larger scales. We’re not talking cat-sized objects, but we are talking big enough that with a little help from microscopes you could see them with your own eyes.

Previous attempts to see quantum effects have never worked on a scale this big. I mean they are nearly 10 billion times more massive than anything before. That’s a lot bigger.

And, if they can establish where quantum mechanics breaks down and classical mechanics starts that could open up a whole new suite of technologies that make use of the quantum world’s wacky physics.

Finally, I am looking forward to a conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics that will focus on Science in the 21st Century. A lot of the talks seem to be focusing on how the internet, blogs, and even open access to research data are changing the face of science.

I think one of the most interesting talks will be by Katy Borner, a researcher at Indiana University, who will be talking about mapping science. I’ve heard the term “scientific roadmap” or “roadmap for the future” a million times in policy announcements before, but all you have to do is look at some of the incredible images tracking scientific discoveries, funding, and public interest to see that she is talking about something very different and very cool.

And, now the Weather on Mars

So, at last the wait is over, and Innovation Canada’s cool new website is online. You gotta check it out for an example of a news media really trying to use all the tools of the internet to best effect.

And, of course, you’ve gotta check it out to read my article on the weather experiments aboard Mars Phoenix. Developed for the Canadian Arctic, the LIDAR and other instruments are now receiving data from the very cold Martian surface.

If you want to see what the weather is like on Mars, you can check out NASA’s excellent Phoenix website. I’ve been dazzled by how open and transparent NASA is being with this mission. It seems as though as soon as the images and data get back to Earth, they are hitting the web. Perhaps the opportunity is there for some smart people online to make some discoveries before NASA.

TiVo for Astronomers

Supernova are some of the most unpredictable, exciting, and short-lived events in space. But, now some researchers are using a pretty cool technique to rewind the explosion and play it back.

It’s called light echoes, and the group I mention in my National Geographic News article used the technique to find out what kind of supernova Cassiopeia A was.

I first learned about the technique a few years ago from Doug Welch at an astronomy conference. His group at McMaster University in Hamilton has also just had a paper approved for publication where they discuss finding the light echoes of Cassiopeia A and Tycho Brahe’s 1572 supernova.

Mars Phoenix Hopes to Avoid Fiery Landing

In less than two hours (just before 8pm), NASA’s next Mars space mission will land on the rust colored planet.

The Mars Phoenix mission emerged out of the ashes of the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander Mission, but scientists are confident that the mistakes that doomed the previous lander will not be repeated.

And, to clarify, there is no cool rover in this mission. Instead, scientists have given up breadth for depth. The lander will stay in one spot but has a digging arm and a bunch of chemistry experiments to see if there is any water or organic molecules on Mars.

The Viking missions did similar experiments in the 1970s, but we’ve learned a few things about Mars since then and hope to get better results by asking smarter questions.

Another key element of the Phoenix mission will be a suite of weather instruments made in Canada. Among them is a LIDAR, basically a laser that shoots up into the clouds to see what kind of light bounces back into its telescope. LIDAR is commonly used in the Arctic and Australia, but the team of Canada scientists that built it say this is the first time LIDAR has been used on another planet.

I profiled the Canadian weather instrument package and LIDAR for an article for Innovation Canada, but website overhauls might prevent it from hitting the web in time for the landing.

Personally, I will be on the edge of my seat until we get the first data back from Mars (there’s a 15 minutes lag time, so expect it around 8:10PM EDT). Mars was what got me inspired in science and science writing back in 1997 with Pathfinder and its little rover Sojourner. In 1999, I was very excited to be seeing Mars again and was sorely disappointed with the loss.

I hope we have learned from 1999, and get it right this time. It would be a great early birthday present (my birthday is May 29th).

Probably Not Cow Farts

methaneplanetswain_image2.jpg

So, I just wrote a story for Cosmos Magazine in Australia about the first discovery of methane gas on a planet in another solar system. Turns out the discovery also confirmed water vapour in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the star is so close to its sun that it bakes at a blazing hot 1000K, making life as we know it impossible.

One of the things I find most fascinating about the discovery besides the “WHOA! COOL!” factor is that the technique being used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the methane wasn’t thought possible when the Hubble originally blasted off into space. That offers a lot of potential for future telescopes like the Spitzer, Kepler, or James Webb. As Sarah Seager, an exoplanet astronomer at MIT commented in the press teleconference, “Spitzer or Webb will definitely suprass expections, and they could absolutely suprirse us [with what they are capable of].”

There is one drawback to the new space telescopes being built though. “[The new space telescopes are] being built to see the faintest objects in universe,” said Seager. “If earths are everywhere, for instance if there were an earth orbiting Alpha Centauri B, that star is so incredibly bright we couldn’t observe it. It’s too bright for the James Webb space telescope.”

Maybe we need a telescope that doesn’t have such great optics to look for Earths in our own backyard.

Space Tourism at the University of Waterloo

The following article was created by three grade 11 students participating in the University of Waterloo’s Unlimited program, where students spend a week learning about interdisciplinary research areas such as science journalism (the session I taught), textile history, nanotechnology, and more.

“Space isn’t a program, it’s a place.”

Until now, space has been a government program, believes Michael Belfiore, author of the “The Rocketeers”. But, now we are in the midst of a revolution that could allow the everyday citizen into space.

Instead of just going to Hawaii or other exotic places, those willing to spend great amounts of money will soon find a new vacation destination in outer space. Within the next decade, private space flights will enable eager space enthusiasts to live their dream and experience the life of an astronaut.

Currently, the projected cost of the first privatized space flight will be $200,000, but it is expected to decrease rapidly in the near future. And, for a few million dollars you can spend weeks in an outer space hotel. You will enjoy many of the same comforts of an earth-based hotel, like food, water and air.

The preparation before departure is minimal, but important. It consists of two to three days of training to acclimatize you to space life. This would allow you to fully enjoy your stay in space without having to waste time getting used to zero gravity. You will also have to undergo a medical exam to make sure underlying issues do not arise on the trip.

Everyone’s childhood dream of living amongst the stars could become a reality. The final frontier is a little closer.

By Stacey, Peter, and Joel.

You can find another article created by four other students in the science journalism session at Michael Belfiore’s Blog “Dispatches from the Final Frontier.”