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Goodnight, Phoenix

NASA’s Pheonix lander, which touched down on Mars in late May, has stopped responding: If you are reading this, then my mission is probably over. This final entry is one that I asked be posted after my mission team announces they’ve lost contact with me. Today is that day and I must say good-bye, but I do it in triumph and not in grief. In its five months it photographed water-ice on the surface of Mars, took pictures at close to atomic-level detail, and detected, three kilometres above, the first extra-terresterial snowfall. It was a cool little machine. It’s hoped Phoenix ... Read More »

View satellites in Google Earth

A new Google Earth plugin lets you view all the orbiting satellites currently tracked by the US military. Doesn’t sound very exciting, right? It’s more interesting than you’d think – mainly because the sheer number is almost unbelievable. It’s like a Cylon armada. Clicking on them displays their use and status, and lots are inactive. You can track their orbits, too. If nothing appears, it’s geostationary1, but most have far more complex tracks than you’d think – particularly those further out. Astronomy Cast explaned the reasons behind the strange paths in ‘Getting around the solar system‘, although I’ve apparently forgotten most of it ... Read More »


Water-ice on Mars is cool, but not new – anyone with a telescope can spot the seasonal ice caps. You know what’s more exciting? Water on Mercury (well, in its atmosphere). Also volcanoes (not in the atmosphere). Via BA. Read More »

Keeping up with the cosmologists

If I could alter my brain and adapt to one particular profession, high on my list would be a cosmologist. It’s just such a cool time to be alive, in terms of space probes confirming or disproving theories, and the universe throwing curve balls at every step. Unfortunately the maths is way beyond my capability1, but I’ve been roughly following the field for years and years. I find that it’s important to actually keep up with developments, as things are rapidly changing. For example, the last couple of years have seen large changes in the understanding of dark matter and ... Read More »

Google Sky

Google today released an update to Google Earth which adds the night sky, complete with images of galaxies and nebulae, as well as planetary motion, wikipedia links and constellations. A cheezeball video on the GE website introduces the basics (update: much much much better video here). This sounded most exciting, so I downloaded the update. It is, initially, underwhelming. The positions of the objects base themselves around your location in Google Earth, so I set it to my address and hit the ‘sky’ button. I saw black, with lines and coloured dots. Not as beautiful as I was hoping. There ... Read More »

Three-and-a-bit Interesting Thursday Things

Via BA, a scale image of all known planetary bodies with a diameter of over 200 miles. It’s fascinating. I knew there were moons larger than Mercury, but Ganymede’s not all that much smaller than Mars. I’d be annoyed if I were that big and still called a moon. In 1986, in a remote area of Cameroon, 1800 people in a circle of 12-mile radius abruptly fell over and died. Scientists investigated, and after a year’s research realised measures were needed to prevent it happening again. Neatorama has the full story. And, why eBooks are better than, er, Books, when ... Read More »

Happy Birthday to Opportunity

Happy Birthday to Opportunity, the Mars rover which landed safely three years ago today. I was sitting in a York car park when I heard the news, and had to cheer. Despite the design aim of 90 sols (Mars days), it’s still going 1000 sols later, and has travelled 6.1 miles. Brilliant. Far from becoming decrepid in its old age, it’s actually getting smarter due to software upgrades. Is there anything cooler than space probes? Read More »

Liquid water flowing on Mars

Generally, if somebody describes planetary activity as ‘recent’ they mean on geological timescales: a few hundred thousand years or so. So the BBC headline announcing ‘recent’ water flow on Mars perhaps sounds less impressive than when you discover it means in the last seven years. Although not conclusive, comparisons of two photographs taken seven years apart strongly suggest water flow in the intervening period. The team leader called the possibility of liquid water ‘high, but not extremely high’, although some are apparently calling it ‘a squirting gun’. It seems increasingly likely that there’s water not far under the surface, and ... Read More »

The problem of scale

Learning anything about physics always involves grappling with the problem of scale. Whether incredibly small or ridiculously large, the human brain hasn’t evolved to cope with the kind of extreme number necessary for investigation into nature’s workings. Science writers do their best to think up real-world analogies, but the nature of the number makes this extremely difficult to do. If you created a scale model of the solar system in which the sun was a metre wide, Earth would be just under 1cm across, 100m away; Jupiter would be 10cm across, 560m away; Pluto would be just over 1.6mm across, ... Read More »

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