SOS: Save Our Science!

As a Economics and Public Policy double major here at Vanderbilt, I’ve really paid attention to how much budgetary constraints can affect the amount of astronomical research that takes place. I decided to browse the SETI.org website, and I came across this page that talks about “saving our science.”

The page discusses the incredible scientific discoveries that NASA and its planetary exploration program have made…as well as the proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget that cut the Planetary Science division by 20% in addition to large cuts in Education and Public Outreach. Missions to Mars and Europa, two places that are key to searching for life beyond Earth, have been cancelled. This means that for the time being, we can no longer continue our search to answer the question of whether or not there is life elsewhere.

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Therefore, SETI.org has created the Save our Science! campaign. They believe that Congress needs to hear from both scientists and the general public. The site includes resources on how you, if you’re interested, can help fight back against the budget cuts. 

It’s a tough subject, though, because (like I’ve said in previous posts) there are just so many things here on Earth that need our government’s money, too. Poverty, inequality, and injustice are prevalent all around us; and it may be difficult to justify space missions like the ones mentioned here. But what do you all think? 

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Europe OKs Funding for Mars Mission

Just last month, the European Space Agency (ESA) voted to continue funding a “Mars telecommunications orbiter and atmospheric gas analyzer mission.” The plan is for it to be launched in the year 2016. This decision allows the ExoMars industrial team to move forward with its work on the project. This is interesting timing, considering that NASA decided to withdraw from the ExoMars project earlier this year.

There is also a second mission planned for 2018, which will include an ESA-built Mars rover and a second entry, descent, and landing module (built 80% by Russia and 20% by ESA). Russia’s participation has actually saved the mission.

The governments that support ESA have approved a spending limit of $1.3 billion in U.S. dollars, though not all of that money has been secured yet. And with NASA out of the picture, ExoMars becomes even more expensive. ESA is currently exploring other funding options: they are even considering asking NASA to return to the program to contribute a small part to the 2018 part of the mission.

I thought this article was particularly interesting because we discussed in class how expensive these projects (and how insufficient the funds) can be. At a time when many nations are deep in debt, and people are suffering from unemployment and poverty, government officials find it difficult to justify funding space exploration projects like this one.

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‘Oozing’ Exoplanet?

Earlier this year, Discovery posted an article about the exoplanet 55 Cancri e, which orbits a star located 40 light years from Earth. It was first discovered in 2004, but the last few years have greatly furthered scientists’ understanding of the planet.

A size comparison of Earth and 55 Cancri e.

Though 55 Cancri e was originally thought to be a hot, barren world, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has now provided evidence that’s not the case. A fifth of the planet’s mass must be made of light compounds, including water (but a substance unlike the water we know and experience here on Earth). Any liquids on or near the surface must be in a supercritical fluid state because of the high pressure.

So, although the surface temperature of 55 Cancri e is probably 1000 degrees Celsius or greater, supercritical solvents are literally oozing from the rocks on its surface. This produces a hot and steamy atmosphere that even we, 40 light years away, can detect and observe.

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Volcanic Moon Creates Glowing Aurora Spots on Jupiter

We talked briefly in class about the aurorae that exist on other planets besides Earth. I was researching the aurorae on Jupiter and came across this National Geographic article, which includes information regarding spots on Jupiter’s poles that might explain the “hyper-aurorae” we observe on the planet.

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According to the National Geographic article, aurorae on Jupiter are hundreds of times more powerful than those on Earth. Scientists now believe that Jupiter and Io, its volcanic moon, are working together to create these beautiful light shows. Io creates a footprint, which is “a bright spot followed by smaller spots that are downstream of the flow of charged particles around Jupiter.” Now they see that it also causes a faint spot upstream, which no previous theory had predicted.

Aurorae are powered by the interaction between this moon and parent planet. Jupiter’s magnetic field strips charged particles, created by volcanism, from Io. The theory is confusing, but basically the discovery of this upstream spot has changed the way that scientists view the interaction between these two bodies and Jupiter’s magnetosphere. This is significant because detecting aurorae on exoplanets outside of our solar system is good news for potential life: it means that a planet has an atmosphere and magnetic field.

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Saturn’s Hexagon

In class a few weeks ago, we briefly discussed Saturn’s strange and mysterious North Pole hexagon (pictured below), first observed in the 1980s. Scientists didn’t know what to make of it, since such regular polygons were not usually seen in space. However, this Discovery News article takes a deeper look at the marvel and tries to explain what is going on.

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Physicists at the University of Oxford have recreated the hexagon in their laboratory and have found that it is, in fact, a natural phenomenon. They slowly spun a cylinder of water, representing Saturn’s atmosphere, and quickly spun a small ring that represented a jet stream. The result? A hexagon. By playing with the speed of the ring that they made, they could make all sorts of shapes. The greater the difference in speed, the fewer the sides of the observed polygon. Shapes like these are common in fluid dynamics and can be seen in hurricanes, too.

Looks like scientists are one step closer to understanding this mysterious universe of ours!

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NASA’s Jet Stream Study

About 60-65 miles above Earth’s surface, winds traveling up to 200-300 miles per hour provide the perfect place for a science experiment called the sounding rocket. Sounding rockets, which are 35-40 feet long, travel through the sky for 8-10 minutes and allow scientists to take a better look at different layers of the atmosphere.

This Tuesday March 27, NASA is launching 5 of these sounding rockets from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. According to NASA, the experiment is designed to “gain a better understanding of the high-altitude winds and help scientists better model the electromagnetic regions of space that can damage man-made satellites and disrupt communications systems. The experiment will also help explain how the effects of atmospheric disturbances in one part of the globe can be transported to other parts of the globe in a mere day or two.”

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These rockets will form milky white plumes that should be visible from Earth, along the coast of the United States between South Carolina and New Jersey.

I thought this article was of particular interest, since we just finished our discussion of the atmospheres of terrestrial planets. It amazes me that with all we’ve learned about other planets, solar systems, and wonders of the universe, we still have so much we don’t know about our own planet and own atmosphere!

 

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Geoengineering Volcanic Eruptions to Fight Global Climate Change?

In my Public Policy class, we discussed climate change as a result of human activity. One currently suggested strategy to combat global climate change is the geoengineering of volcanic eruptions. I decided to research it a little further and watched this video, an excerpt from a lecture by Jane C.S. Long.

We know that stratospheric sulfur, naturally produced by volcanic eruptions, can produce rapid cooling. Therefore, it is suggested that if we injected the stratosphere with sulfuric acid, it would mimic the effects of these eruptions and have a cooling effect on Earth.

We know that this technology is possible, as there are vehicles capable of reaching altitudes where they can inject a substance into the stratosphere. We also know that it is very inexpensive, because just a few grams of sulfur can offset TONS and TONS of carbon dioxide.

However, there are also some issues with this method. It is NOT, contrary to belief, a way to return to the ‘natural’ state of Earth or ‘the way things were.’ It is also a very new technology, and so there could be negative effects associated with it that we have not yet discovered. The uncertainty of the method seems to be Jane C.S. Long’s biggest concern.

What do you think? Is this something that should be explored further, or does it sound like a bad idea? Why?

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Satellites: “Not Just for Spotting Clouds!”

The Weather Channel posted a really cool collection of images from satellites orbiting Earth. There are many interesting features of our planet that can be seen and captured by satellites in space. These include dust, icebergs, snow, plankton in the ocean, wildfire smoke, volcanic ash, flooding, tornado damage, and even fog! Check it out!

Satellites can be categorized into nine different types. One type is the weather satellite, and the astronomy satellite is another.

Astronomy satellites are typically really big telescopes in orbit above Earth. Because they are above the atmosphere, they can “see” up to 10 times better than comparable satellites located on Earth’s surface. They are used for a variety of purposes, which include producing star maps, taking pictures of planets, and studying space’s most mysterious phenomenon – black holes.

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Orbital Eccentricity vs. Semi-Major Axis

Orbital Eccentricity vs. Semi-Major Axis

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Orbital Inclination vs. Semi-Major Axis

Orbital Inclination vs. Semi-Major Axis

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