The Invasion of “Teapots From Space!”

With a combination of alien invasion and British invasion, a new video series provides an amusing way to learn about different aspects of astronomy and space. “Teapots from Space” was created by UK astronomers Edward Gomez, Jon Yardley and Olivia Gomez, and these vodcasts convey lots of science in a short and entertaining package.

“The aim of the series to make astronomy a bit more light hearted but still give a good representation of the science,” said Edward Gomez, from Cardiff University. “I took a lot of inspiration from Douglas Adams when I wrote the episodes, and so the Teapots are like a cross between a sci-fi B-movie and Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.'”

The Teapots come to learn about Earth and the humans that inhabit it. They abduct human scientists who explain all the questions the Teapots have about astronomy, technology and space. But before sending them back to Earth, the scientists’ minds are wiped so they don’t remember the abduction. Sometimes, disembodied robot astronomers provide the answers. Don’t worry, though: no astronomers were harmed in the making of these “potcasts.”

“There are lots of vodcasts available in the world of science but I wanted to make some which were fun and accessible but did not turn down the volume on the science,” Gomez said. “The idea of the Teapots from Space came into being as a vehicle for telling different scientific stories. Nothing is taken too seriously, but the science is all correct.”

Currently there are four episodes available, and another should be released soon. The first episode is about space junk while #2 is about the Herschel and Planck spacecraft; episode 3 is about how to spot (and abduct) astronomers, and the newest episode is about supernovae.

So, settle in on a comfy chair for some afternoon tea and tasty biscuits to watch Teapots From Space.

Deep, Fiery Undersea Volcano Captured on Video

Ever seen fire and smoke under water before? Oceanographers using a remotely operated underwater vehicle discovered and recorded the first video and still images of the deepest underwater volcano actively erupting molten lava on the seafloor. The ROV Jason vehicle captured the powerful event nearly 1.2 km (4,000 feet) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, in the “Ring of Fire” region, near Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. “It was very exciting. We’ve never seen anything like that on the ocean floor,” said Bob Embley, a marine geologist with NOAA, who described the event an underwater Fourth of July. “When we started to see red flashes of light, everyone was extremely excited. Then we had to get down to the work of actually understanding of what we were seeing.”

The scientists presented their findings, along with HD video at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meetings in San Fransciso. The video was taken in May of 2009, and the science team said the undersea volcano is likely to still be erupting, and may have started activity in late 2008.

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Embly said the eruption couldn’t be seen above the water, but there were “water column anomlies which indicated an eruption going on. We knew within a few hundred feet where the eruption was taking place.”

There were actually two erupting regions, but the video shows the most dramatic one. Visible in the video is magma – sometimes fiery, red hot at 1,371 C (2,500 degrees F) – bursting up through the seawater, with fragments of rock being propelled and magma flowing down the slope of the volcano. Hot sulfer “smoke” plumes can also be seen.

The volcano is spewing a type of lava known as Boninite, which until now had only been seen in extinct volcanoes more than a million years old.

A underwater “hydrophone” recorded the sound, and it was synched with the video.

The ROV Jason is designed and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for the National Deep Submergence Facility.

Samples collected near the volcano showed the seawater to be highly acidic, similar to battery or stomach acid, the researchers said. Despite the harsh conditions, scientists found and photographed a species of shrimp apparently thriving near the volcanic vents.

“Nobody would have predicted that things would have survived long enough in water that acidic. It seems like it’s too harsh a condition,” said University of Washington chemical oceanographer Joseph Resing.

They hope to go back in a few months and see all the other creatures that have taken up residence there.

Sources: WHOI, NOAA, NSF, AGU press conference

Half a Million Galaxies, Yours to Explore

Move over, Hubble Deep Field.  The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope has released a new deep-field image of as many as 500,000 galaxies out to a distance of 7 billion light years.  And you can surf the entire image at high resolution with an interactive zoom feature at the CFHT website.

This new image is the result of the accumulation of several hundreds of hours of light integration over five years (2003-2008) with the CFHT using the 340 megapixel camera called MegaCam. This field and three more like it from other parts of the sky were systematically observed every three nights to detect faint supernovae going off in distant galaxies to study the effect of the mysterious dark energy responsible for the observed accelerating expansion of the universe.

Stacking these individual MegaCam images reveals a dense wallpaper of distant galaxies.  An observing technique called “dithering” allows coverage of a larger field of view than that of the camera itself, leading to a sky coverage over 370 megapixels. Approximately half a million galaxies can be counted on the entire image.

As it covers a full square degree of sky (about 5 times greater than the size of the full moon), the entire image is impressive enough.  But the ultra-high resolution of the image, along with a nifty interactive tool on the CFHT website, allows you to zoom in on tiny subsets of the image to see an astonishing assortment of galaxies out to a distance of 7 billion light years, about half-way to the edge of the observable universe.  A few foreground stars of our own galaxy are visible.  But almost everything else you see in this image is a distant galaxy.

You can access the image and the interactive viewer at the CFHT website.

Source: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

Butterflynauts Emerge from Cocoons on ISS

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Four “butterflynauts” have emerged on the International Space Station. They are part of a suitcase sized educational experiment that was rocketed to space on Nov. 16 on space shuttle Atlantis as part of the STS-129 mission. Students of all ages and the public are invited to follow the tiny crew’s development from larvae to adult butterflies in the microgravity of space.

In over 100 classrooms across the U.S., students have set up habitats and are replicating the space experiment. Their objective is to compare the growth and behavior of ground-based butterfly larvae and adult butterflies with those living in the microgravity environment of space. New pictures and videos and Powerpoint slides are available almost daily.

A free Butterflies in Space teacher’s guide can be downloaded from BioEd Online at the Butterflies in Space website here. The project is sponsored by National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

Initial results show that there appears to be no difference in the development rates of these butterflies in a microgravity environment as compared to Earth’s gravity, which is a fairly significant finding. While microgravity environment has obvious impacts on human health and physiology, relatively little is known about how microgravity whould effect human growth and development. While there are major differences between humans and butterflies, basic cellular divisions in follow similar processes. Therefore, the success of the butterfly experiment in space indicates that a human embryo could potentially survive and develop normally in space even in the absence of gravity.

Explore the Universe with [email protected]

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If you’re looking for some superb space and astronomy vodcasts, ESA has produced a series of informative video podcasts that explore our Universe as seen through the “eyes” of ESA’s fleet of science spacecraft. “The [email protected] podcast series was started as part of an education and public outreach project for the International Year of Astronomy,” said Dr. Salim Ansari, from ESA’s Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration, “but it will continue on past IYA, continuing to cover more missions and discoveries.”

The series is a high quality video podcast with HD graphics and stunning visuals. Ansari said the production all done in house.

“One of my favorites is actually the first podcast that shows how with our eyes we see just a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Ansari said. “But we demonstrate how the different spacecraft can provide insight across the whole spectrum.”
ESA podcast screenshot.
Other podcasts delve into specifics of the electromagnetic spectrum that will be explored by the new Planck (microwave) and Herschel (infrared) spacecraft, to learning about the Gaia galaxy mapper mission that will determine the position of a billion stars.

A new 7th podcast will be released next week that introduces the solar system as seen by the Venus Express, Mars Express, Rosetta, Cassini-Huygens, SoHO and Cluster.

See the [email protected] page for a complete list of podcasts.

First Collisions for the LHC

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Two beams circulated simultaneously inside the Large Hadron Collider for the first time today, allowing for the first proton-proton collisions to take place. “It’s a great achievement to have come this far in so short a time,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “But we need to keep a sense of perspective – there’s still much to do before we can start the LHC physics program.”

The beams crossed at points where various detectors are stationed. The beams were made to cross at point 1, where the ATLAS all purpose detector is located, then at point five at the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector. Later, beams crossed at points 2 and 8, where the ALICE (heavy ion detector) and the LHCb (looking for heavy particles containing a bottom quark) are positioned.

The first collisions are allowing operators to test the synchronization of the beams.

“This is great news, the start of a fantastic era of physics and hopefully discoveries after 20 years’ work by the international community to build a machine and detectors of unprecedented complexity and performance,” said ATLAS spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti at a press conference today.

“The events so far mark the start of the second half of this incredible voyage of discovery of the secrets of nature,” said CMS spokesperson Tejinder Virdee.

“It was standing room only in the ALICE control room and cheers erupted with the first collisions” said ALICE spokesperson Jurgen Schukraft. “This is simply tremendous.”

“The tracks we’re seeing are beautiful,” said LHCb spokesperson Andrei Golutvin, “we’re all ready for serious data taking in a few days time.”

The first collisions come just three days after the LHC restart. Since the start-up this weekend, the operators have been circulating beams around the ring alternately in one direction and then the other at the injection energy of 450 GeV (gigaelectron volts). The beam lifetime has gradually been increased to 10 hours, and today beams have been circulating simultaneously in both directions, still at the injection energy.

Next on the schedule is an intense commissioning phase aimed at increasing the beam intensity and accelerating the beams. If everything goes as planned, everyone at CERN hopes to obtain good quantities of collision data for all the experiments’ calibrations by Christmas, when the LHC should reach 1.2 TeV (terraelectron volts) per beam.

Source: CERN

Large Hadron Collider Could Re-Start This Weekend

Particle Collider

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) could be re-started on this Saturday morning CERN officials said. Engineers are preparing to send a beam of sub-atomic particles around the 27km-long circular tunnel, which has been shut down since an accident in September 2008. Scientists hope to create conditions similar to those present moments after the Big Bang in search of the elusive Higgs particle to shed light on fundamental questions about the universe.

The massive “Big Bang Machine” as it’s been called is located on the French-Swiss border and is operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)

Watch an animated movie from CERN that explains how the LHC works.

1,200 superconducting magnets arranged end-to-end in the underground tunnel bend proton beams in opposite directions around the main “ring” at close to the speed of light.

At allotted points around the tunnel, the proton beams cross paths, smashing into one another. Physicists hope to see new sub-atomic particles in the debris of these collisions.

The LHC had only recently been turned when on Sept. 19, 2008 a magnet problem called a “quench” caused a ton of liquid helium to leak into the tunnel.

Liquid helium is used to cool the LHC to an operating temperature of 1.9 kelvin (-271C; -456F).

Low-energy collisions are expected a week or two after full beam. High energy collisions will take place starting in early 2010.

Source: BBC

Good News for Science News

Here’s some refreshing news! In an era when mainstream media is cutting back on their science departments and science reporting, the Discovery Channel has just made an investment to step-up their science news with the re-launch of their new and improved news website, Discovery News. In the middle of it all is our very own Ian O’Neill, who is also the producer for Discovery News Space. The “new” part of Discovery News is that Ian’s work on the space side is now integrated into a higher profile, redesigned news site. Ian and I had a chance to talk today about this good news for science news.

“Discovery News was always the Discovery Channel website’s news source. It has been around for about 11 years,” Ian told me, “and people started coming to the Discovery Channel website specifically to read Discovery News, so it was always like a little news agency bubbling around in the background.”

About 18 months ago Discovery News put together three different “hubs” to focus on space, Earth and technology. Those three headings are now given top billing on the new site, integrating news and blogs together.

Ian and I talked about how Universe Today wears both hats as both a news site and a blog, and Discovery News is doing that as well, but in a bigger way with over 20 correspondents, producers and editors.

“We know we have to have both strong traditional reported items as well as opinion based pieces, and we now have a nice relationship between the two,” Ian said. “Blogging has become a major news source for a lot of people, as a lot of the blogs are now written by science professionals. There doesn’t seem to be that big distinction or chasm anymore between a reported item and what is opinion, and often the two fade in between.”

All the Discovery News contributors have professional backgrounds in their fields, and it’s great to see a “big” company investing in science-based journalism.

“They have created the opportunity for Discovery News to relaunch, and given us the resources to perhaps be a one-of-a kind science news site,” Ian said.

Check out Discovery News.

Ig Nobel Prizes Awarded for 2009

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Ahh, the wonders of science! But some science is just a little more wonderful than others. For the really great and wonderful science there are the Nobel Prizes. For the off-the-beaten-path and unusual science, Harvard University’s Annals of Improbable Research magazine awards the “Ig Nobel” Prizes, touted as “research that makes people laugh and then think.” Prizes were doled out Oct. 1, but if you are in the Massachusetts area, you might want to attend a free lecture given by the winners on Oct. 3 at 1:00 pm EDT. Here are the 2009 winners:

Veterinary medicine: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson for showing that cows with names give more milk than unnamed cows.

Peace: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl for investigating whether it is better to be struck over the head with a full beer bottle or with an empty beer bottle.

Economics: Executives of four Icelandic banks for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.

Chemistry: Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor Castaño for creating diamonds out of tequila.

Medicine: Donald Unger for cracking just the knuckles on his left hand for 60 years to see whether knuckle-cracking contributes to arthritis.

Physics: Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for figuring out why pregnant women don’t tip over.

Literature: The Irish national police for issuing 50 tickets to one Prawo Jazdy, which in Polish means “driver’s license.”

Public health: Elena Bodnar, Raphael Lee and Sandra Marijan for inventing a brassiere than can be converted into a pair of gas masks.

Mathematics: Gideon Gono and the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank for printing bank notes in denominations from 1 cent to $100 trillion.

Biology: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei for demonstrating that bacteria in panda poop can help reduce kitchen waste by 90%.

Source: Annals of Improbable Research.

UFOs This Weekend? No, Just an Experiment


Reports of UFOs skyrocketed last weekend along the east coast of the US after a NASA launched an experiment to study an unusual phenomenon called noctilucent clouds, or ‘night shining’ clouds. The Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE) was conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense Space Test Program, created artificial noctilucent cloud using the exhaust particles of the rocket’s fourth stage at about 173 miles altitude. It created a bright object with a fan-shaped tail, prompting calls of concern from residents in Virginia and Massachusetts to local authorities. But this object was definitely identified.

The experiment used a Black Brant XII Sounding Rocket launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on September 19, 2009 at 7:46 p.m. EDT (2346 GMT).
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Scientists aren’t sure what causes noctilucent clouds. Some think they’re seeded by space dust. Others suspect they’re a telltale sign of global warming.

See our previous post with pictures about noctilucent clouds.

Data collected during the experiment will provide insight into the formation, evolution, and properties of noctilucent clouds, which are typically observed naturally at high latitudes. In addition to the understanding of noctilucent clouds, scientists will use the experiment to validate and develop simulation models that predict the distribution of dust particles from rocket motors in the upper atmosphere.

Natural noctilucent clouds, also known as polar mesospheric clouds, are found in the upper atmosphere as spectacular displays that are most easily seen just after sunset. The clouds are the highest clouds in Earth’s atmosphere, located in the mesosphere around 50 miles altitude.

They are normally too faint to be seen with the naked eye and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon while the Earth’s surface is in darkness.

A team from government agencies and universities, led by the Naval Research Laboratory, is conducting the experiment. In addition to the Naval Research Laboratory, participants include the DoD STP, NASA, University of Michigan, Air Force Research Laboratory, Clemson University, Stanford University, University of Colorado, Penn State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Haystack Observatory.

Source: NASA