Could We Make Artificial Gravity?

It’s a staple of scifi, and a requirement if we’re going to travel long-term in space. Will we ever develop artificial gravity?

It’s safe to say we’ve spent a significant amount of our lives consuming science fiction.

Berks, videos, movies and games.

Science fiction is great for the imagination, it’s rich in iron and calcium, and takes us to places we could never visit. It also helps us understand and predict what might happen in the future: tablet computers, cloning, telecommunication satellites, Skype, magic slidey doors, and razors with 5 blades.

These are just some of the predictions science fiction has made which have come true.

Then there are a whole bunch of predictions that have yet to happen, but still might, Fun things like the climate change apocalypse, regular robot apocalypse, the giant robot apocalypse, the alien invasion apocalypse, the apocalypse apocalypse, comet apocalypse, and the great Brawndo famine of 2506.
Continue reading “Could We Make Artificial Gravity?”

Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus?

When it comes to understanding our place in the universe, few scientists have had more of an impact than Nicolaus Copernicus. The creator of the Copernican Model of the universe (aka. heliocentrism), his discovery that the Earth and other planets revolved the Sun triggered an intellectual revolution that would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to playing a major part in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, his ideas changed the way people looked at the heavens, the planets, and would have a profound influence over men like Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton and many others. In short, the “Copernican Revolution” helped to usher in the era of modern science.

Copernicus’ Early Life:

Copernicus was born on February 19th, 1473 in the city of Torun (Thorn) in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The youngest of four children to a well-to-do merchant family, Copernicus and his siblings were raised in the Catholic faith and had many strong ties to the Church.

His older brother Andreas would go on to become an Augustinian canon, while his sister, Barbara, became a Benedictine nun and (in her final years) the prioress of a convent. Only his sister Katharina ever married and had children, which Copernicus looked after until the day he died. Copernicus himself never married or had any children of his own.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit:
Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit:

Born in a predominately Germanic city and province, Copernicus acquired fluency in both German and Polish at a young age, and would go on to learn Greek and Italian during the course of his education. Given that it was the language of academia in his time, as well as the Catholic Church and the Polish royal court, Copernicus also became fluent in Latin, which the majority of his surviving works are written in.

Copernicus’ Education:

In 1483, Copernicus’ father (whom he was named after) died, whereupon his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, began to oversee his education and career. Given the connections he maintained with Poland’s leading intellectual figures, Watzenrode would ensure that Copernicus had  great deal of exposure to some of the intellectual figures of his time.

Although little information on his early childhood is available, Copernicus’ biographers believe that his uncle sent him to St. John’ School in Torun, where he himself had been a master. Later, it is believed that he attended the Cathedral School at Wloclawek (located 60 km south-east Torun on the Vistula River), which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Krakow – Watzenrode’s own Alma mater.

In 1491, Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts at the University of Krakow. However, he quickly became fascinated by astronomy, thanks to his exposure to many contemporary philosophers who taught or were associated with the Krakow School of Mathematics and Astrology, which was in its heyday at the time.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit:
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit:

Copernicus’ studies provided him with a thorough grounding in mathematical-astronomical knowledge, as well as the philosophy and natural-science writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and various humanist writers. It was while at Krakow that Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy, and where he began his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy.

These models – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – were both geocentric in nature. Consistent with classical astronomy and physics, they espoused that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that the Sun, the Moon, the other planets, and the stars all revolved around it.

Before earning a degree, Copernicus left Krakow (ca. 1495) to travel to the court of his uncle Watzenrode in Warmia, a province in northern Poland. Having been elevated to the position of Prince-Bishop of Warmia in 1489, his uncle sought to place Copernicus in the Warmia canonry. However, Copernicus’ installation was delayed, which prompted his uncle to send him and his brother to study in Italy to further their ecclesiastic careers.

In 1497, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and began studying at the Bologna University of Jurists’. While there, he studied canon law, but devoted himself primarily to the study of the humanities and astronomy. It was also while at Bologna that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit:

Over time, Copernicus’ began to feel a growing sense of doubt towards the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe. These included the problematic explanations arising from the inconsistent motion of the planets (i.e. retrograde motion, equants, deferents and epicycles), and the fact that Mars and Jupiter appeared to be larger in the night sky at certain times than at others.

Hoping to resolve this, Copernicus used his time at the university to study Greek and Latin authors (i.e. Pythagoras, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Heraclides and Plato) as well as the fragments of historic information the university had on ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems – which included other (predominantly Greek and Arab) heliocentric theories.

In 1501, Copernicus moved to Padua, ostensibly to study medicine as part of his ecclesiastical career. Just as he had done at Bologna, Copernicus carried out his appointed studies, but remained committed to his own astronomical research. Between 1501 and 1503, he continued to study ancient Greek texts; and it is believed that it was at this time that his ideas for a new system of astronomy – whereby the Earth itself moved – finally crystallized.

The Copernican Model (aka. Heliocentrism):

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. By 1514, he began making his Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”) available for his friends to read. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles.

These seven principles stated that: Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point; the center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe; the distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars; the stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth; Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; Earth has more than one motion; and Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.

Heliocentric Model
Andreas Cellarius’s illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708). Credit: Public Domain

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Copernicus’ Death:

Towards the end of 1542, Copernicus suffered from a brain hemorrhage or stroke which left him paralyzed. On May 24th, 1543, he died at the age of 70 and was reportedly buried in the Frombork Cathedral in Frombork, Poland. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book, which he smiled upon before passing away.

In 2005, an archaeological team conducted a scan of the floor of Frombork Cathedral, declaring that they had found Copernicus’ remains. Afterwards, a forensic expert from the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the unearthed skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled Copernicus’ features. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70 – Copernicus’ age at the time of his death.

These findings were backed up in 2008 when a comparative DNA analysis was made from both the remains and two hairs found in a book Copernicus was known to have owned (Calendarium Romanum Magnum, by Johannes Stoeffler). The DNA results were a match, proving that Copernicus’ body had indeed been found.

Copernicus' 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as the father of heiocentirsm.Credit:
Copernicus’ 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as a church canon and the father of heliocentricism. Credit: Wikipedia/Holger Weinandt

On May 22nd, 2010, Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus’ remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral, and a black granite tombstone (shown above) now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus’ model of the solar system – a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

Copernicus’ Legacy:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of his theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model, using a combination of Biblical canon, Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astronomy, and then-accepted notions of physics to discredit the idea that the Earth itself would be capable of motion.

However, within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime. These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen at the time as flaws in the heliocentric model.

These included the relative changes in the appearances of Mars and Jupiter when they are in opposition vs. conjunction to the Earth. Whereas they appear larger to the naked eye than Copernicus’ model suggested they should, Galileo proved that this is an illusion caused by the behavior of light at a distance, and can be resolved with a telescope.

1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George
1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George

Through the use of the telescope, Galileo also discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface, all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Today, Copernicus is honored (along with Johannes Kepler) by the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) with a feast day on May 23rd. In 2009, the discoverers of chemical element 112 (which had previously been named ununbium) proposed that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry rename it copernicum (Cn) – which they did in 2011.

Crater Copernicus on the Moon. Mosaic of photos by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO
Mosaic image of the Copernicus Crater on the Moon, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO

In 1973, on the 500th anniversary of his birthday, the Federal Republic of Germany (aka. West Germany) issued a 5 Mark silver coin (shown above) that bore Copernicus’ name and a representation of the heliocentric universe on one side.

In August of 1972, the Copernicus – an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory created by NASA and the UK’s Science Research Council – was launched to conduct space-based observations. Originally designated OAO-3, the satellite was renamed in 1973 in time for the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Operating until February of 1981, Copernicus proved to be the most successful of the OAO missions, providing extensive X-ray and ultraviolet information on stars and discovering several long-period pulsars.

Two craters, one located on the Moon, the other on Mars, are named in Copernicus’ honor. The European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently conducting the Copernicus Program. Formerly known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), this program aims at achieving an autonomous, multi-level operational Earth observatory.

On February 19th, 2013, the world celebrated the 540th anniversary of Copernicus’ birthday. Even now, almost five and a half centuries later, he is considered one of the greatest astronomers and scientific minds that ever lived. In addition to revolutionizing the fields of physics, astronomy, and our very concept of the laws of motion, the tradition of modern science itself owes a great debt to this noble scholar who placed the truth above all else.

Universe Today has many interesting articles on ancient astronomy, such as What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models of the Solar System.

For more information, you should check out Nicolaus Copernicus, the biography of Nicolaus Copernicus, and Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Episode 338: Copernicus.


How Does a Rocket Work?

Rockets are the perfect way to get around in space. But how do they work?

Space travel and rockets, it’s like ice cream and apple pie, or ice cream and apple pie and my face. They just go together. They belong together.

But what if I’m allergic to rockets, or have some kind of cylindrical intolerance, or flaming column sensitivity that makes me hive out? Why can’t I fly to space in balloons or airplanes or helicopters? Why do we need these pointy cubist eggplant flame tubes?

The space age followed the development of powerful V2 rockets in WW II. They could hit targets 320 km away and reach an altitude of 200 km. They were a new kind of war machine, a terrifying weapon that could hurl payloads of destruction from the skies. But this terrifying development is what brought us our modern rockets as their propulsion system can work up where there’s no air, in the vacuum of space.

How do they actually work? It all comes down to that “every action, equal and opposite reaction” thing that Newton was always going on about.

If you take a balloon, fill it with air, and then let it go. All that air rushing out propels the balloon around. This kind of balloon rocket would work perfectly well in space too although it might be a little too fragile and unpredictable to want to strap yourself to.

If we take that idea and scale it up, add some fuel tanks and fins, attitude control and optionally: astronauts. We’ve got ourselves a rocket. It works by pushing “stuff” out one end of a tube at the highest possible velocity. The faster you can blow stuff out the end, the faster the tube itself is going to go.

This means rocket science is really all about how to get the exhaust gases hurling out the backside of the rocket as quickly and forcefully as possible. The fuel can be solid, like the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. Or the fuel can be liquid, like the shuttle’s main fuel tank filled with liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

Liquid Fuel
Liquid-Propellant Rocket

This fuel is ignited and completely converted into exhaust gases which blast out of the rocket’s nozzles at high velocity. Really, really high velocity.

The scary part for passengers is that modern rockets are mostly made of fuel. In fact, the weight of the space shuttle’s fuel was 20 times more than the weight of the shuttle itself. Which I believe really puts a fine point on the bravery of any astronaut. Think of a rocket as a beer can, filled with explosives, that you strap yourself to the outside of. To make a rocket go faster and shorten the travel time, you want to kick material out at a higher velocity.

NASA has experimented with ion drives for some of its missions. These highly efficient engines use electric fields to accelerate particles of xenon at much higher velocities. Even though they use a fraction of the amount of fuel, ion engines can reach much higher speeds because of the high exhaust velocity.

The Vasimir experiment (Ad Astra Rocket Corporation)
The Vasimir experiment (Ad Astra Rocket Corporation)

And even higher velocity rockets have been tabled, such as the VASIMIR engine and even antimatter engines. So how do rockets work? Just like deflating balloons, only bigger. Much much bigger. And full of explosives and modeled on a horrible and terrifying weapon from the second world war. Really, not much like a balloon at all…

Have you ever made a rocket? What’s your favorite rocketry experiment. Tell us in the comments below.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Is Titan Hiding an Ocean?



Saturn’s moon Titan just keeps throwing surprises at us. A multi-layered atmosphere thicker than our own? Check. A hydrologic cycle that relies on methane as the operating liquid? Check. Rivers, streams and lakes filled with this same liquid? Check, check and check. And now, scientists are suspecting that Titan may have yet another surprise: a subsurface ocean.

Observations of Titan’s rotation and orbit, carried out by researchers at the Royal Observatory of Belgium using Cassini data, point at an unusual rotational inertia; that is, its resistance to changes in its motion, also known as moment of inertia or angular mass. Basically Titan moves in a way that is not indicative of a solid body of its previously assumed density and mass. Rather, its motion – both around its own axis and in its tidally-locked orbit around Saturn – are more in line with an object that isn’t uniformly solid.

Titan's thick clouds hide its surface well. NASA / JPL / SSI / J.Major

According to the math, Titan may very well be filled with liquid!

Or, at least, have a liquid layer of considerable depth beneath its surface. How far below the surface, how deep and exactly what kind of liquid are all speculative at this point…it’s suggested that it may be a subsurface ocean of yet more methane. This would help answer the question of where Titan gets all of its methane in the first place; methane, – a.k.a. natural gas – is a compound that breaks down quickly in sunlight. In fact, the high-level haze that surrounds the moon like a wispy blue shell is made up of this broken-down methane. So if this stuff is raining down onto the surface in giant, frigid drops and filling streams and lakes, but is still being broken down by ultraviolet light from the Sun to enshroud the entire moon (Titan is BIG, remember…at 5,150 km – 3,200 miles – wide, it’s over a third the size of Earth!) then there has to be somewhere that this methane is coming from.

If these calculations are right, it may be coming from underground.

We propose a new Cassini state model for Titan in which we assume the presence of a liquid water ocean beneath an ice shell… with the new model, we find a closer agreement between the moment of inertia and the rotation state than for the solid case, strengthening the possibility that Titan has a subsurface ocean.

– Rose-Marie Baland et al.

Of course in order for this hypothesis to be proven many more numbers are going to have to be crunched and more data reviewed. And more possibilities considered, too; Titan’s orbital irregularities may in fact be the result of external forces, such as a close pass by a comet or other large body. Still, there’s something to be investigated here and you can bet there’ll be no shortage of attention on a problem as intriguing as this!

Titan may soon be joining the short list of moons speculated to possess subsurface oceans, alongside Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede and sister Saturnian satellite Enceladus…and who knows how many others?

Read the article on MIT’s Physics arXiv Blog, or you can download the full report here.

Top image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI. (Edited by J. Major.)

Law of Inertia

Law of Inertia

[/caption]In the world of physics, there are few people who have been more influential than Sir Isaac Newton. In addition to his contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and empirical philosophy, he is also the man who pioneered classical physics with his laws of motion. Of these, the first, otherwise known as the Law of Inertia, is the most famous and arguably the most important. In the language of science, this law states that: Every body remains in a state of constant velocity unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force. This means that in the absence of a non-zero net force, the center of mass of a body either remains at rest, or moves at a constant velocity. Put simply, it states that a body will remain at rest or in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.

Prior to Aristotle’s theories on inertia, the most generally accepted theory of motion was based on Aristotelian philosophy. This ancient theory stated that, in the absence of an external motivating power, all objects on Earth would come to rest and that moving objects only continue to move so long as long there is a power inducing them to do so. In a void, no motion would be possible since Aristotle’s theory claimed that the motion of objects was dependent on the surrounding medium, that it was responsible for moving the object forward in some way. By the Renaissance, however, this theory was coming to be rejected as scientists began to postulate that both air resistance and the weight of an object would play a role in arresting the motion of that object.

Further advances in astronomy were another nail in this coffin. The Aristotelian division of motion into “mundane” and “celestial” became increasingly problematic in the face of Copernicus’ model in the 16th century, who argued that the earth (and everything on it) was in fact never “at rest”, but was actually in constant motion around the sun.Galileo, in his further development of the Copernican model, recognized these problems and would later go on to conclude that based on this initial premise of inertia, it is impossible to tell the difference between a moving object and a stationary one without some outside point of comparison.

Thus, though Newton was not the first to express the concept of inertia, he would later refine and codify them as the first law of motion in his seminal work PhilosophiaeNaturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy) in 1687, in which he stated that: unless acted upon by a net unbalanced force, an object will maintain a constant velocity. Interestingly enough, the term “interia” was not used in the study. It was in fact JohanneKepler who first used it in his Epitome AstronomiaeCopernicanae (Epitome of Copernican Astronomy) published from 1618–1621. Nevertheless, the term would later come to be used and Newton recognized as being the man most directly responsible for its articulation as a theory.

We have written many articles about the law of inertia for Universe Today. Here’s an article about Newton’s Laws of Motion, and here’s an article about Newton’s first law.

If you’d like more info on the law of inertia, check out these articles from How Stuff Works and NASA.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Gravity. Listen here, Episode 102: Gravity.