Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Curiosity prepares to drill for Life on Mars

This is a great image of what could be a game changer in how we understand our place in the universe. The world holds it's breath: is there life on Mars?

Curiosity's Drill in Place for Load Testing Before Drilling

The percussion drill in the turret of tools at the end of the robotic arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has been positioned in contact with the rock surface in this image from the rover's front Hazard-Avoidance Camera (Hazcam). 

The drill was positioned for pre-load testing, and the Hazcam recorded this image during the 170th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Jan. 27, 2013). Other tests with the drill are planned before the first drilling into a rock on Mars to collect a sample of rock material for analysis. n this view, the drill is positioned on a target on a patch of flat, veined rock called "John Klein." The site is within the "Yellowknife Bay" area of Gale Crater. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space: Mangled Milky Way, why we are doomed!

Photonics Space
Thanks very much Andromeda!

The Andromeda Galaxy (credit NASA)
Our large Galaxy, the Milky Way is on a collision course with destiny! The end of its existence as a spiral galaxy will come in about 4 billion years when it smashes into another galaxy, the similarly sized,"nearby" spiral, Andromeda (M31). Spiral galaxies are elegant, glittering, star-splattered pinwheels whirling around in Space. Andromeda is currently a very safe 2 million light-years away--at least for the time being. Alas, the relentless lure of gravitation is pulling Andromeda towards our doomed Milky Way at, approximately, 100 kilometers per second. One light-year is the distance that light can travel in a vacuum in one year--which is about 5,878,625 million miles.
Both the Milky Way and Andromeda are the two largest denizens of the so-called Local Group of galaxies, which also hosts about 20 smaller galaxies. The Local Group is a few million light-years across. However, this is small when compared to entire galaxy clusters. Immense clusters of galaxies dwell in our Universe, and some of them contain hundreds of constituent galaxies. Our Local Group resides close to the outer limits of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, whose core is 50 million light-years away from us. The many groups of galaxies and clusters of galaxies are themselves smaller denizens of unimaginably enormous web-like filaments and thin, broad expanses. For example, the so-called Great Wall of galaxies is a sheet-like group of galaxies residing roughly 200 million light-years away from us, and a similar gigantic structure is termed the Great Attractor. The Great Attractor is pulling mercilessly, with its mighty gravitational grip, on the entire Virgo Cluster of galaxies. We go along for the ride, of course, together with the rest of the Local Group, at about several hundred kilometers per second.
When the great smash-up between our Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy occurs in the distant future, the merged galaxies will undergo a sea change.
Into Something Rich And Strange
Researchers announced on May 31, 2012 that the collision between our Galaxy and Andromeda will create an entirely new Galaxy, one likely sporting an elliptical (football) shape instead of the elegant and lovely spirals of the two doomed galactic wanderers. This strange, new Galaxy, has been named the "Milkomeda" Galaxy by playful astronomers, in honor of the two former spirals that will collide and merge to give rise to it.
"We do know of other galaxies in the local Universe around us that are in the process of colliding and merging. However, what makes the future merger of the Andromeda galaxy and Milky Way so special is that it will happen to us," Dr. Roeland van der Marel commented to the press on May 31, 2012. Dr. van der Marel is at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are currently galloping towards each other at a breathtaking 250,000 miles per hour. Astronomers have long suspected that the two large galaxies are doomed to splat into each other mercilessly, and sloppily, some billions of years from now. However, such dire predictions were highly speculative, because astronomers had not yet managed to measure Andromeda's sideways motion through Space--a necessary measurement in order for scientists to calculate that galaxy's path through the Universe.
However, Dr. van der Marel and his team used NASA's venerable Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to carefully observe certain regions of Andromeda over a seven-year span of time. They were able to successfully calculate Andromeda's sideways (tangential) course through Space, and they discovered that Andromeda and our Milky Way will suffer a gigantic head-on collision in about 4 billion years!
"The Andromeda galaxy is heading straight in our direction. The galaxies will collide, and they will merge together to form one new Galaxy," Dr. van der Marel told the press in May 2012. The terrible crash will be over in about 6 billion years.
Galactic Train Wrecks
To understand what the future holds for our Galaxy, astronomers have compiled a photo database of sundry colliding galaxies in various stages of their hapless crash-ups.
"We've assembled an atlas of galactic 'train wrecks' from start to finish. This atlas is the first step in reading the story of how galaxies form, grow and evolve," commented Dr. Lauranne Lanz in the August 16, 2011 Space.com. Dr. Lanz is at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She presented a study on the research at a 2011 conference.
To observe distant galactic smash-ups, the astronomers used images from NASA's infrared eye in the sky, the Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), which has ultraviolet vision. The differing wavelength bands enabled the astronomers to attain more important details about the collisions than would be possible using one type of light alone.
Galactic train-wrecks are not as violent as sometimes supposed. Although galaxies do crash into one another, it's improbable that any two stars will actually splat together creating a big stellar mess. This is because the Space between stars that dwell within galaxies is usually quite vast. However, the floating clouds of gas and dust, that roam around within galaxies, will probably merge in a smash-up--and that sort of thing can result in Cosmic violence. This is because such an event will set off a writhing, churning atmosphere where new baby stars can be born in a dramatic, furious starburst.
Galactic smash-ups occur over millions to billions of years, and are not quickly over for the suffering parties. This is why the atlas is such a valuable tool for astronomers--it can capture galaxy systems at sundry stages of collision in order to put together a more complete picture of the long, drawn-out, merciless process.
Such a dramatic smash-up has never before occurred in our very old Galaxy's entire history. The Milky Way probably started taking shape 13.5 billion years ago, "shortly" (by cosmological standards) after the Big Bang birth of the Universe itself about 13.75 billion years ago! "The Milky Way has had, probably, quite a lot of small, minor mergers. But this major merger will be unprecedented," explained Dr. Rosemary Wyse to the press in May 2012. Dr. Wyse is at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. She was not part of the study.
A Terrible Beauty Is Born
The coming collision will utterly change our night sky. If human beings are still around 3.75 billion years from now (an unlikely prospect), they will look up to see Andromeda fill the entire sky as it relentlessly approaches our Galaxy. For the next few billion years, what is possibly left of humanity, will gaze in shock at the merger, which will set off violent episodes of dazzling star-birth.
In about 7 billion years, the glowing core of the newborn elliptical Milkomeda Galaxy, now our own, will dominate the entire night sky. The prospect of human beings actually viewing this sight, however, is quite remote because the Sun will probably grow into a huge red giant star 5 or 6 billion years from now, and will likely cannibalize the inner planets--Mercury, Venus, and our own Earth.
Both the Milky Way and Andromeda are about the same age. Although the two sister galaxies are considered to be virtual twins, it is a little difficult to predict which one of the galaxies will suffer the most when the end comes. Dr. van der Marel told the press on May 31, 2012 that "This is pretty violent as things go in the Universe. It's like a bad car crash in galaxy-land."
I am a writer and astronomer whose articles have been published since 1981 in various magazines, newspapers, and journals. Although I have written on a variety of topics, I particularly love writing about astronomy because it gives me the opportunity to communicate to others the many wonders of my field. My first book, "Wisps, Ashes, and Smoke" will be published soon.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/7381090


The immense Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 or simply M31, is captured in full in this new image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The mosaic covers an area equivalent to more than 100 full moons, or five degrees across the sky. WISE used all four of its infrared detectors to capture this picture (3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red). Blue highlights mature stars, while yellow and red show dust heated by newborn, massive stars.

Andromeda is the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, and is located 2.5 million light-years from our sun. It is close enough for telescopes to spy the details of its ringed arms of new stars and hazy blue backbone of older stars. Also seen in the mosaic are two satellite galaxies, known as M32, located just a bit above Andromeda to the left of center, and the fuzzy blue M110, located below the center of the great spiral arms. These satellites are the largest of several that are gravitationally bound to Andromeda.

The Andromeda galaxy is larger than our Milky Way and contains more stars, but the Milky Way is thought to perhaps have more mass due to its larger proportion of a mysterious substance called dark matter. Both galaxies belong to our so-called Local Group, a collection of more than 50 galaxies, most of which are tiny dwarf systems. In its quest to map the whole sky, WISE will capture the entire Local Group.

credit NASA

Progress: making bionic man a welcome reality

Photonic Progress

The prospect for those previously considered disabled continues to improve thanks to the march of technological innovation. Here is a thoughtful blog that first appeared recently in Scientific American and written by Gary Stix. It's a question of mind over matter that few would think answerable a generation ago.

Action Plan: Making Brain-Controlled Prosthetics That Can Open a Clothespin

Brain-controlled prosthetic
Last year a group of researchers at Brown and Harvard universities reported on a study called Braingate, in which a paralyzed woman picked up a container of coffee with a robotic arm and drank from it through a straw, an action directed by electrical signals from her motor cortex.
Brain-controlled interfaces have advanced dramatically during the past decade. But more work needs to be done before this technology begins to approximate the natural movements of a fully functioning arm or hand. An attempt to replicate the full range of movement—and the cognitive chain of events from thought to action—has now begun as a research collaboration among the California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the University of Southern California and Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. These institutions are seeking a few recruits to be fitted with a $500,000 robotic limb.
The current project—part of the DARPA-sponsored Revolutionizing Prosthetics—attempts to make a robot limb more like the the real thing. Implants of electrodes will go into the posterior parietal cortex—one set of electrodes to control the hand’s grasping and the other a reaching motion. The implants differ from those in Braingate, which placed electrodes in the motor cortex, from where a signal went directly to the spine and then to the limb. The parietal cortex is a center of higher-level cognition where the initial intention to grasp or reach begins. An implant in this area, located toward the back of the brain, will allow the goal of an action to be conveyed directly to the robotic limb, reducing the number of neural signals needed to control its movement. The Caltech researchers are also working on technology that will supplement this system with sensory feedback piped from the limb itself to the somatosensory  cortex, providing feedback that simulates a sense of touch, an essential requirement to make the fine-level adjustments of the robotic hand for proper positioning and movement.
The basic research on the parietal cortex signaling, all performed at Caltech, will be implemented by using perhaps the most sophisticated robotic arm to date, a 22-degree-of-freedom limb developed at the Applied Physics Laboratory—degrees of freedom being engineer-speak for a robot that, in this instance, can use tools, open a clothespin, make the peace sign or play rock, paper, scissors. “The limb can pick up clothespins and put them on a pole,” says Richard Andersen, the neuroscientist who leads the project at Caltech. “It can pretty much can do everything a human can do.”
About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

Photonic Progress

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Setting the Dark on Fire

Photonic Space News
Another great photo from ESO

A new image from the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile shows a beautiful view of clouds of cosmic dust in the region of Orion. While these dense interstellar clouds seem dark and obscured in visible-light observations, APEX’s LABOCA camera can detect the heat glow of the dust and reveal the hiding places where new stars are being formed. But one of these dark clouds is not what it seems.
In space, dense clouds of cosmic gas and dust are the birthplaces of new stars. In visible light, this dust is dark and obscuring, hiding the stars behind it. So much so that, when astronomer William Herschel observed one such cloud in the constellation of Scorpius in 1774, he thought it was a region empty of stars and is said to have exclaimed, "Truly there is a hole in the sky here![1]
In order to better understand star formation, astronomers need telescopes that can observe at longer wavelengths, such as the submillimetre range, in which the dark dust grains shine rather than absorb light. APEX, on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes, is the largest single-dish submillimetre-wavelength telescope operating in the southern hemisphere, and is ideal for astronomers studying the birth of stars in this way.
Located in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter), 1500 light-years away from Earth, the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth, and contains a treasury of bright nebulae, dark clouds and young stars. The new image shows just part of this vast complex in visible light, with the APEX observations overlaid in brilliant orange tones that seem to set the dark clouds on fire. Often, the glowing knots from APEX correspond to darker patches in visible light — the tell-tale sign of a dense cloud of dust that absorbs visible light, but glows at submillimetre wavelengths, and possibly a site of star formation.
The bright patch below of the centre of the image is the nebula NGC 1999. This region — when seen in visible light — is what astronomers call a reflection nebula, where the pale blue glow of background starlight is reflected from clouds of dust. The nebula is mainly illuminated by the energetic radiation from the young star V380 Orionis [2] lurking at its heart. In the centre of the nebula is a dark patch, which can be seen even more clearly in a well-known image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
Normally, a dark patch such as this would indicate a dense cloud of cosmic dust, obscuring the stars and nebula behind it. However, in this image we can see that the patch remains strikingly dark, even when the APEX observations are included. Thanks to these APEX observations, combined with infrared observations from other telescopes, astronomers believe that the patch is in fact a hole or cavity in the nebula, excavated by material flowing out of the star V380 Orionis. For once, it truly is a hole in the sky!
The region in this image is located about two degrees south of the large and well-known Orion Nebula (Messier 42), which can be seen at the top edge of the wider view in visible light from the Digitized Sky Survey.
The APEX observations used in this image were led by Thomas Stanke (ESO), Tom Megeath (University of Toledo, USA), and Amy Stutz (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany). APEX is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. Operation of APEX at Chajnantor is entrusted to ESO.


[1] In German, "Hier ist wahrhaftig ein Loch im Himmel!"
[2] V380 Orionis has a high surface temperature of about 10 000 Kelvin (about the same in degrees Celsius), nearly twice that of our own Sun. Its mass is estimated to be 3.5 times that of the Sun. 

More information

The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


  • The research into the dark patch in NGC 1999 discussed above is described in a paper by T. Stanke et al., A&A 518, L94 (2010), also available as a preprint.


Thomas Stanke
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6116
Email: tstanke@eso.org
Douglas Pierce-Price
ESO ALMA/APEX Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6759
Email: dpiercep@eso.org
Photonic Space

Progress: More Les Miserables & Eco

Yesterday I mentioned seeing the film Les Miserables.

It's another day. One further point and I'll move on. The Innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers, in the musical are quite comical. However in the book quite the opposite, in fact very sinister callous characters. They seemed in the book almost unaware and certainly indifferent to the suffering their extortion was causing  the doomed Fantine and her daughter Cosette.

I also recently read another novel this time from the modern Italian author, Umberto Eco (English version again I'm afraid) that featured another virtually complety immoral character from the same period of French history. In this case the utterly immoral spy, Simone Simonini, who also helped undermine the Paris Commune

Umberto Eco is perhaps best remembered for the book of the film starring  Sean Connery, 'The Name of the Rose'.

On the whole I have found Umberto Echo novels easy to read (except the parts in The Rose that were in Latin!) but they do involve plots, sub-plots and caprices. Sometimes you feel he is having fun with you as the reader, but all generally becomes clear and falls into place in the end. The books involve complex plots and individuals while the books elucidate an underlying philosophical message. Foucault's Pendulum and The Prague Cemetery deal with an important way in which information is misused, the former dealing with spiritualism and devil worship whilst the latter the International Jewish Conspiracy (the 19th century myths that lead ultimately to the holocaust). 

The quite important message is that if someone makes up something and enough people keep repeating it, it becomes regarded as true. Papers are written that quote other papers that cite others that refer only to the first. It has become a very vicious circle of smoke and mirrors. 

There are lessons here for those of us who repeat what we read on Twitter of blog sites and don't check the facts. Science is about verifiable facts, everything else may well be smoke and mirrors.

Its been quite a good week for going to the cinema. Last night I saw Zero Dark Thirty, about the capture of Bin Laden; a long grim film but I thought another Oscar contender.

Photonic Progress

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Photonic Space: Alaskan Moon Dogs Image

This is great image I wanted to feature from Sebastian Saarloos

Alaskan Moondogs 
Image Credit & Copyright: Sebastian Saarloos

Moonlight illuminates a snowy scene in this night land and skyscape made on January 17 from Lower Miller Creek, Alaska, USA. Overexposed near the mountainous western horizon is the first quarter Moon itself, surrounded by an icy halo and flanked left and right by moondogs. Sometimes called mock moons, a more scientific name for the luminous apparations is paraselenae (plural). Analogous to a sundog or parhelion, a paraselene is produced by moonlight refracted through thin, hexagonal, plate-shaped ice crystals in high cirrus clouds. As determined by the crystal geometry, paraselenae are seen at an angle of 22 degrees or more from the Moon. Compared to the bright lunar disk, paraselenae are faint and easier to spot when the Moon is low.

featured by NASA 

Photonics Space

Photonics Space Lighting up the Stars: Novae studied.

nova  is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion in a white dwarf star. It is caused by the accretion of hydrogen on to the surface of the star, which ignites and starts nuclear fusion in a runaway manner. Novae are not to be confused with supernovae or luminous red novae.

Some of the nuclear physics of the explosive events known as novae is beginning to be understood. Explosive nuclear processes make previously unobserved stars visible for a short period of time.  An international  team of scientists carefully measured the nuclear structure of the radioactive neon produced in the explosion. As a result there is much less uncertainty in how quickly one of the key nuclear reactions occur and the final abundance of radioactive isotopes produced

Two images of Nova Cygni 1992 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Credit: F. Paresce, R. Jedrzejewski (STScI), NASA/ESA}

Led by the University of York, UK, and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and the Institut d'Estudis Espacials de Catalunya, Spain, their findings have been reported in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Dr Alison Laird, from the University of York's Department of Physics, said: "The explosion is fundamentally driven by nuclear processes. The radiation related to the decay of isotopes -- in particular that from an isotope of fluorine -- is actively being sought by current and future gamma ray observing satellite missions as it provides direct insight into the explosion.
"However, to be interpreted correctly, the nuclear reaction rates involved in the production of the fluorine isotope must be known. We have demonstrated that previous assumptions about key nuclear properties are incorrect and have improved."

Photonic Space

Friday, 25 January 2013

Progress: Les Miserables

Photonic: Editors Blog

Last night I went to the Cineworld Cinema in Crawley (Sussex) to see the motion picture, Les Miserables. As expected this was a moving experience. When I saw a film was being planned late last year, I though it a good idea to read the Kindle version of the novel (in English translation I'm afraid). This is in three volumes. Being a slowish reader and by way of an excuse busy with other things,  I have only got as far as the second volume, which has taken me about to the time of Jean Valjean's ... (I won't say, which might be a spoiler!). A book obviously can build and explain the characters better than a musical, but I like both in their way. The songs are better in the musical.

To come to my point, both the film and the book vividly portray the poverty and injustice of the 19th century. While progress since then may not have been constant (more like 3 steps forward, 2 back) and certainly not shared equally, I have little doubt the world  has progressed socially. Does anyone disagree? Surely few would wish to return to the horrors of Paris behind the barricades. There is still much to be done towards liberty, fraternity and equality. But the French revolution put things in motion, just as Hugo believed it would.

To quote Charles Dickens

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” 

Tale of Two Cities


By the way,  I think Argo is a great film as well, I don't know which will win the Oscar.

Photonic Progress