Speaking Engagement: Nanaimo Astronomy Society, September 22nd

Speaking Engagement: Nanaimo Astronomy Society, September 22nd

An interesting development happened once I got back from Europe. Apparently, there are people on the island that are very interested in astronomy, people who were surprised to learn that I also lived here. They are the Nanaimo Astronomy Society, a group of amateur astronomers and stargazers located in the town of Nanaimo – which is in the central Vancouver Island area, about a two hours drive from where I live.

As they explained to me, they have been following my writing at Universe Today for awhile, but didn’t realize I lived locally. Once they realized that, they asked if I would be willing to speak at their upcoming meeting.  Needless to say I was flattered, especially when you consider that most of the UT team lives on Vancouver Island. I could only assume they didn’t know about the others. I mean, when you’re a chapter of the Beatles Fan Club, and the band lives in the same region, you don’t exactly invite Ringo to come talk, right?

Anyway, the topic will be “Colonizing Mars”, which will address all the current plans by federal space agencies, private corporations, and crowdfunded organizations to explore, settle and transform the Red Planet. Naturally, I want to throw in a bit about terraforming, since that’s kind of my thing these days!

Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

News from Space: Jupiter’s Eye Disappearing

jupiterJupiter’s Red Eye, that trademark spot on the gas giant’s surface that is its most recognizable feature, appears to be shrinking faster than ever. Earlier this year, amateur astronomers had observed and photographed the Eye and noted that it had grown smaller. Shorlty thereafter, astronomers observed it using the Hubble Space Telescope and came to the same conclusion. Based on their calculations, they estimate that Jupiter’s Eye, a giant long-lasting storm, is narrowing by more than 900 kilometres a year, much faster than before.

At this rate, they claim, it will be gone by 2031 – just 17 years from now. Using historic sketches and photos from the late 1800s, astronomers determined the spot’s diameter then at 41,000 km (25,475 miles) across. Now, it is turned from a giant ovoid into a discrete circle that is a mere 16,500 kilometres (10,252 miles) across. Many who’ve attempted to see Jupiter’s signature feature have been frustrated in recent years not only because the spot’s pale color makes it hard to see  against adjacent cloud features, but because it’s physically getting smaller.

Jupiter-GRS-Hubble-shrink-panel-580x399As to what causing the drastic downsizing, there are no firm answers yet. However, NASA has a theory, which was shared by Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA:

In our new observations it is apparent that very small eddies are feeding into the storm. We hypothesized that these may be responsible for the accelerated change by altering the internal dynamics of the Great Red Spot.

Michael Wong, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, seems to be in agreement. He stated that one theory is the spot eats smaller storms, and that it is consuming fewer of them. But for the time being, scientists can’t be sure why its getting smaller, why the eye is red in the first place, or what will happen once it is completely gone.

Jupiters_EyeThe Great Red Spot has been a trademark of the planet for at least 400 years – a giant hurricane-like storm whirling in the planet’s upper cloud tops with a period of 6 days. But as it’s shrunk, its period has likewise grown shorter and now clocks in at about 4 days. The storm appears to be conserving angular momentum by spinning faster and wind speeds are increasing as well, making one wonder whether they’ll ultimately shrink the spot further or bring about its rejuvenation.

In short, the eye could become a thing of the past, the sort of thing children many years from now will only read about or see in pictures to give them some idea of how the Solar System once looked. Or, its possible that it could blow up again and become as it once was, a massive red Eye observable from millions of kilometres away. Who knows? In the meantime, check out this video by NASAJuno, explaining what little we know about Jupiter’s most prominent feature (while it lasts):

News from SETI: We’re Going to Find Aliens This Century

aliens“We are going to find life in space in this century.” This was the bold prediction made by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at this year’s European Commission Innovation Convention. As part of the European Union’s strategy to create an innovation-friendly environment, the ECIC brings together the best scientific minds from around the world to discuss what the future holds and how we can make it happen.

And this year, Dr. Shostak and other representatives from SETI were quite emphatic about what they saw as humanity’s greatest discovery, and when it would be taking place. Sometime this century, they claim, the people of Earth will finally find the answer to the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Like many eminent scientists from around the world, Dr. Shostak believes its not a question of if, but when.

ECIC_2014As he went on to explain, given the sheer size of the universe and the statistical probabilities, the odds that humanity is far more unlikely than the reverse:

There are 150 billion galaxies other than our own, each with a few tens of billions of earth-like planets. If this is the only place in the universe where anything interesting happening then this is a miracle. And 500 years of astronomy has taught us that whenever you believe in a miracle, you’re probably wrong.

As for how we’ll find that life, Dr Shostak sees it as a ‘three-horse race’ which will probably be won over the next 25 years. Either we will find it nearby, in microbial form, on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter; or we’ll find evidence for gases produced by living processes (for example photosynthesis) in the atmospheres of planets around other stars; or Dr Shostak and his team at SETI will pick up signals from intelligent life via huge antennas.

exoplanet_searchDr. Suzanne Aigrain – a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford University and who studies exoplanets – represents horse number two in the race. Dr. Aigrain and her research group have been using electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) as their primary tool to look for planets around other stars. The life ‘biomarkers’ that she and her colleagues look for are trace gases in the atmospheres of the exoplanets that they think can only be there if they are being produced by a biological source like photosynthesis.

Speaking at the Convention, Dr Aigrain noted that, based on her studies, she would also bet that we are not alone:

We are very close to being able to say with a good degree of certainty that planets like the Earth, what we call habitable planets, are quite common [in the universe] … That’s why when asked if I believe there’s life on other planets, I raise my hand and I do so as a scientist because the balance of probability is overwhelmingly high.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16Dr. Shostak and SETI, meanwhile, seek evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology. If his team does discover radio transmissions from space, Dr. Shostak is quite certain that they will be coming from a civilization more advanced than our own. This is part and parcel of searching for life that is capable of sending out transmissions, and assures that they will have a level of technology that is at least comparable to our own.

At the same time, it is entirely possible that an advanced species will have existed longer than our own. As the Kardashev Scale shows, the level of a race’s technical development can be measured in terms of the energy they utilize. Beginning with Type 0’s, which draw their energy, information, raw-materials from crude organic-based sources, the scale goes on to include levels of development that draw energy of fusion and anti-matter to our host star, or even stellar clusters and even galaxies.

halosphereConsidering that size of the universe, the realm of possibility – and the fact humanity itself is still making the transitions from Type 0 to Type I – the odds of us meeting an extra-terrestrial that is more advanced than us are quite good. As Shostak put it:

Why do I insist that if we find ET, he/she/it will be more advanced than we are? The answer is that you’re not going to hear the Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Klingons are not building radio transmitters that will allow you to get in touch.

“Neanderthal Klingons”… now that’s something I’d like to see! Of course, scientists have there reasons for making such bold predictions, namely that they have a vested interest in seeing their theories proven correct. But not surprisingly, they are hardly alone in holding up the numbers and insisting that its a numbers game, and that the numbers are stacked. Another such person is William Shatner, who in a recent interview with the Daily Mail offered his thoughts on the possibility of alien life.

william_shatnerAs he explained it, it all comes down to numbers, and the sheer amount of discoveries made in such a short space of time:

I don’t think there is any doubt there is life in the universe, yes. I don’t think there is any question. The mathematics involved — what have they just discovered, 730,000 new planets the other day? — mathematically it has to be.

He was a bit off on the number of planets, but he does have a point. Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 new exoplanets thanks to a new statistical technique known as “verification by multiplicity”. By observing hundreds of stars and applying this basic technique, the Kepler space probe was able to discover more planets so far this year than in the past few combined. In fact, this one batch of discovered increased the total number of exoplanet candidates from 1000 to over 1700.

alien-worldAnd while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst those 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each new discovery potentially represents hundreds more. And given how little of our galaxy we have mapped so far, and the fact that we’ve really only begun to explore deep space, we can expect that list to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades.

Naturally, there are some fundamental questions that arise out of these predictions. For example, if we do find life on other planets or intercept a radio signal, what are the consequences? Finding a microbe that isn’t an earthly microbe will tell us a lot about biology, but there will also be huge philosophical consequences. Even more so if we are to meet a species that has developed advanced technology, space flight, and the means to come find us, rather than us finding them.

In Dr Shostak’s words, ‘It literally changes everything’. But that is the nature of

Sources: dvice.com, news.cnet.com, cordis.europa.eu

News from Mars: Updates on Panspermia Theory

PanspermiaFor centuries now, scientists have been toying with the idea that the origins of life may owe a great deal to space borne debris. And with ongoing research in the past few years, the link between Earth and Mars have become increasingly convincing. And a new bit of research out of the University of Hawaii has provided yet another piece of the puzzle by suggesting solar wind plays a major role.

Solar wind – the stream of charged particles consisting mostly of naked protons called H+ ions – permeate our Solar System because they are periodically ejected from the sun. The University paper shows that in an airless environment, typical space rocks will react with impacting protons to create tiny vesicles of water, thus allowing water and organic molecules to travel through space in tandem.

asteroid_earthInterestingly, the paper comes soon after NASA released evidence that Mars once sported a fair amount of water in the past, and that this water is sometimes found in unexpected places. The finding that water can be generated within dry space rocks, coupled with the fact that space rocks are known to deliver organic compounds to the surface of the Earth, is yet another indication that Earth and Mars might be linked.

Other recent papers have suggested that life’s important molecules arrived intact from Mars – a primitive version of RNA is one major proposed molecular stow-away – but these researchers claim only that “complex organic molecules” came from somewhere else in space. Complex organic compounds and liquid water, in conjunction, could theoretically provide the potential for non-living material to come alive.

Comet1One important aspect of this idea is that it focuses on small particles of material, rather than comets. Prior research has looked to such large bodies as the carriers of life and the drivers of the chemistry that created it, due to their energetic impacts. It’s been suggested that the earliest living things were cobbled together from high-energy molecules that couldn’t exist unless their synthesis was driven by massive astronomical impacts.

This more passive, dust-based explanation seems to fit well with the known history of the Earth, which predicts there was a high level of dust flux in the period before life began to flourish. In addition, the theory could help explain how in the predominantly shadowy areas of the Moon – another airless silicate body – unexpectedly high levels of water have been detected.

resolve_roverNASA has plans to launch RESOLVE (Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen & Lunar Volatile Extraction) in 2018 to collect and analyze ice samples and use them to look back into just that sort of astronomical history. Large quantities of water are thought to have arrived on the Moon via impacting comets, but this research suggests that at least some of it could have been created on the Moon itself.

All of this is of extreme importance to discovering how life began on Earth, mainly because scientists are still unsure of what makes the process complete. For instance, evolutionary theory can adequately explain how a bacterium becomes a protist that becomes an animal, but it cannot explain how a pile of non-living molecules ever became a living cell.

panspermia2Evidence seems to be mounting that, whether it was seeded with dust or fused into existence by huge asteroid impacts, life on Earth needed a kickstart in its earliest days. Interestingly, Earth’s atmosphere and the abundance of messy lifeforms on its surface could mean that Earth is the single worst place to search for such evidence.

The Moon or Mars, by contrast, are perfect environments for preserving evidence of the past given their dry and airless nature. And with ongoing research into both planets and our scientific knowledge of them expanding apace, whatever role they may have played in kickstarting life on Earth may finally be learned. This could come in handy if ever we need to do a little kickstarting of our own…

Source: extremetech.com

News from Space: Full Model of Exoplanet Created

gliese_581gEver since the Kepler space probe began finding hard evidence of the existence of exoplanets – i.e. planets orbiting suns outside of our Solar System – scientists have been working hard to determine what conditions on these worlds must be like. For instance, it is known that planets that orbit closely to their red dwarf parent suns are tidally locked – meaning they do not rotate on their axis.

This, in turn, has led to the proposal that any watery worlds in the vicinity could form what’s called an “Eyeball Earth.” Being directly under the local star, with one side perpetually facing towards it, the light would be intense enough to melt a circular patch of water, while the rest of the planet would remain locked in a deep freeze. In short, not an ideal situation for supporting life.

eyeball_earthHowever, a new three-dimensional model has been created, thanks to the efforts of two researchers at Peking University. In their research paper, they suggest that ice and oceans on these planets would be dynamic, which is both good and bad. Basically, it means an Eyeball Earth has a narrower habitable zone, but that more of the surface has the potential to support life. It also means that the “eyeball” looks more like a lobster!

This paper represents the next step in scientific analysis of exoplanets. Initially, estimates of habitability – i.e. temperatures that could allow liquid water on the planet surface – were based on a single analysis of the planet’s atmosphere to see how much light reaches the surface. But, in the real world, atmospheres form clouds, distribute heat through winds and convection, and exhibit other sorts of complex behavior.

eyeball_earthThese are the sorts of things that are handled in the full, three-dimensional climate models built to study the Earth. Hence, the Peking research team adapted these same models to handle exoplanets that differed significantly from Earth. But these models didn’t capture a critical part of the distribution of heat on the Earth: the ocean circulation. Instead, it treated the entire ocean as a two-dimensional slab.

The new study corrects for that by using a coupled ocean-atmosphere climate model, the Community Climate System Model version 3. For their study, they used Gliese 581 g, a potentially Earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of an red dwarf star 20 light years away. This planet, coincidentally, is ranked by NASA as being the most Earth-like exoplanet yet seen in the known universe.

Gliese_581_-_2010Critically for the model, it’s close enough to its host star to receive 866 Watts/square meter at the top of its atmosphere (whereas the Earth receives 1,366). Since it is not yet known what Gliese 581 g’s atmosphere looks like, the authors assumed an Earth-like composition, but varied the amount of CO2 to change the intensity of the greenhouse effect. From all this, the planet was assumed to be covered in a deep ocean.

After giving the model 1,100 years to come to equilibrium, the authors sampled a century of its climate. With carbon dioxide concentrations similar to the Earth’s (330 parts per million in the model), the “eyeball” vanished. That’s because ocean currents formed along the equator and brought in ice from the west that split the eyeball into two lobes that flanked the equator – which resemble the claws of the lobster.

eyeball_earth1The currents then transferred heat to the eastern portion of the planet, which melted the ice to form the lobster’s tail. In addition to the ocean current that altered ice distribution, an underwater circulation (similar to the one on Earth) formed, which sent warmer water toward the poles. In the atmosphere, a jet stream also formed over the equator, which also distributed some heat to the unlit side of the planet.

Ultimately, the new model suggests the habitable zone of watery planets near red dwarfs is a bit more narrow than previous studies had suggested. The good news is that, in this model, the ice never got more than 3m thick on the dayside of the planet. That’s thin enough to allow light to reach the water underneath, meaning photosynthesis is a possibility over the entire dayside of the planet.

OceanPlanetAlthough this model is a major improvement, it still lacks a key feature that’s likely to exist on planets – namely continents, or at least features on the seafloor that differ greatly in height. These will radically alter the currents on the planet, and thus radically alter the distribution of heat within the ocean. Unfortunately, this information is even harder to come by at present than atmospheric conditions.

So for the time being, all we really know about Gliese 581 g and other similar exoplanets is that their surfaces are icy, but habitable – not unlike the Jovian moon Europa. However, that is not to say that we won’t have more information in the near future. With Kepler still in operation and the Gaia space observatory now in space, we might be able to construct more detailed models of nearby exoplanets in the near future.

Also a coincidence, Gliese 581 g just happens to be the setting of my writers group’s upcoming anthology, known as Yuva. And with this latest bit of info under our belts (basically, that the entire planet is a big, watery ball), I imagine we’ll have to adjust our stories somewhat!

Source: arstechnica.com

News From Space: Birth of Black Hole Witnessed

big bang_blackholeWhen it comes to observational astronomy, scientists and cosmologists have been facing a sort of crisis of late. With so many instruments aimed at the heavens, recording what little information makes it all the way to Earth, simply observing distant stars has been providing diminishing returns. In order to keep moving forward, we must observe the most unusual and, in many cases, violent cosmic events so we can see some truly novel data.

This presents a bit of a challenge, since the the space industry can’t possibly set up enough telescopes to look at every part of the night sky all at once. With so much depth through which to zoom, it would seem a lost cause to try to capture unexpected, short-lived events. And yet, one such event, one that is truly cosmic in nature (no pun!), was captured just recently.

NASA's_Fermi,_Swift_See_'Shockingly_Bright'_Burst_(before_and_after_labels)It took place back in late November, when an “armada of instruments” from all over the world saw a massive gamma-ray burst originating from a point in space known as GRB 130427A. This burst was more powerful than what many researchers believed was theoretically possible, and is now thought to be the collapse of a giant star and the birth of a black hole.

The event has been described as a “Rosetta stone moment” by astronomers for a number of reasons. In addition to being a truly rare and awesome sight, this burst has also sent out information that astronomers will be studying for many years to come. And while it’s too soon to draw any real conclusions, there is already widespread excitement about the sheer newness of it.

blackhole_birthAnd yet, GRB 130427A only lasted about 80 seconds at observable intensities, so the fact that it was observed, letalone documented so thoroughly was truly surprising! This was all thanks to the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, where six robotic cameras – collectively referred to as RAPTOR, or RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response – were able to respond in time to catch the event unfold.

The RAPTOR telescopes are networked together and all obey a central computer “brain”. Between their dedicated computing hardware and robotic swivel-mounts, they can turn to view any point in the sky in less than three seconds. As the world’s fastest “optical response” devices, RAPTOR’s telescopes are designed to make sure we don’t miss astronomical events when they happens, because in astronomy there are no second chances.

gamma-ray-burst The RAPTOR telescopes to ensure things aren’t missed by performing extremely diffuse, wide-angle sweeps of the sky to pick up hints at about where and when a major event is taking place. When one of the telescopes sees a hint of something good, it and the others quickly reorient and zoom to capture it in full detail. And with all six telescopes capturing the same event, the wealth of information gleamed is quite impressive.

The telescopes have different specializations as well. For example, the RAPTOR-T views all events through four aligned lenses with four different color filters. By looking at the differences in color distribution in the sample, RAPTOR-T can provide info about the distance to an event (by measuring Red Shift and Blue Shift) or about some elements of its environment.

grb130427aThis gamma ray burst is thought to be the brightest in decades, perhaps in a century. And if astronomers had missed it, it’s likely that nobody would have gotten the chance to capture one again. Luckily, the event was also seen by a number of other gamma ray detectors and x-ray telescopes. These included NASA’s Fermi, NuSTAR, and Swift satellites, all of which managed to see some portion of the event as it unfolded.

However, most telescopes joined in to view the event’s so-called afterglow, an incredibly violent occurrence where the newly-born black hole threw out debris and damage over a wide radius. For several hours, this radius glowed and astronomers watched as it faded. The intensity of high-energy gamma rays in that afterglow faded in tandem with its conventional light emissions.

This is one of the first useful bits of information provided by this event – the link between gamma rays and optical phenomena. But this is just one way that it could be astronomy’s latest Rosetta Stone observation. In the next few months, we can all look forward to a slew of exciting updates as astronomers sort through the implications of having witnessed the birth of an unprecedented singularity.

And in the meantime, check out this video of the gamma-ray burst, as observed by the RAPTOR All-Sky Monitor:


Source:
extremetech.com