Category: Space & Physics

When Earth Became a ‘Mote of Dust’

By Shannon Stirone | February 14, 2017 12:28 pm
pale-blue-dot

Earth, seen as the faint dot in a sunbeam, is 4 billion miles away in this image from Voyager 1. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

We glimpsed Earth’s curvature in 1946, via a repurposed German V-2 rocket that flew 65 miles above the surface. Year-by-year, we climbed a little higher, engineering a means to comprehend the magnitude of our home.

In 1968, Apollo 8 lunar module pilot William Anders captured the iconic Earthrise photo. We contemplated the beauty of our home. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Has Dogma Derailed the Search for Dark Matter?

By Pavel Kroupa, University of Bonn | February 6, 2017 12:56 pm
dark-matter

A Hubble composite image shows a ring of ‘dark matter’ in the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17. Courtesy NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University)

According to mainstream researchers, the vast majority of the matter in the Universe is invisible: it consists of dark-matter particles that do not interact with radiation and cannot be seen through any telescope. The case for dark matter is regarded as so overwhelming that its existence is often reported as fact. Lately, though, cracks of doubt have started to appear. In July, the LUX experiment in South Dakota came up empty in its search for dark particles – the latest failure in a planet-wide, decades-long effort to find them. Some cosmic surveys also suggest that dark particles cannot be there, which is especially confounding since astronomical observations were the original impetus for the dark-matter hypothesis. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: dark matter

Real-Life Rogue One: How the Soviets Stole NASA’s Shuttle Plans

By Eric Betz | December 14, 2016 11:54 am
buran

An artist’s illustration of the Buran shuttle. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the decrepit ruins of a Cold War-era Kazakhstani hangar, buried beneath decades of detritus, there’s a spaceship that was once the last hope of the Soviet space empire.

And you’d be forgiven for confusing the Buran shuttles (Russian for “snowstorm”) with say, America’s iconic Space Shuttle Enterprise, which is proudly displayed in a Manhattan museum. Their shapes, sizes and technology are almost identical, apart from the sickle and hammer. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Could a Corpse Seed Life on Another Planet?

By William Herkewitz | October 25, 2016 10:40 am
an astronaut drifts through space

(Credit: Shutterstock)

One day, it’s bound to happen. An astronaut dies in space.

Maybe the death occurred en route to Mars. Maybe she was interstellar, on board solo spacecraft. Or maybe the body was thrust out an airlock, a burial at space.

That corpse (or the corpse’s spacecraft) could spend anywhere from decades to millions of years adrift. It would coast listlessly in the void, until the creeping tendrils of gravity eventually pulled it into a final touchdown. Likely this corpse will burn up in a star.

But lets say it lands on a planet. Could our corpse, like a seed on the wind, bring life to a new world? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

The Arrow of Time? It’s All in Our Heads

By Robert Lanza, Wake Forest University | September 26, 2016 9:45 am
time-arrow

(lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

Have you ever wondered why we age and grow old?

In the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Brad Pitt springs into being as an elderly man and ages in reverse. 

To the bafflement of scientists, the fundamental laws of physics have no preference for a direction in time, and work just as well for events going forward or going backward in time.  Yet, in the real world, coffee cools and cars break down. No matter how many times you look in the mirror, you’ll never see yourself grow younger. But if the laws of physics are symmetric with respect to time, then why do we experience reality with the arrow of time strictly directed from the past to the future?

A new paper just published in Annalen der Physik — which published Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity — Dmitry Podolsky, a theoretical physicist now working on aging at Harvard University, and I explain how the arrow of time ‒ indeed time itself ‒ is directly related to the nature of the observer (that is, us).

Our paper shows that time doesn’t just exist “out there” ticking away from past to future, but rather is an emergent property that depends on the observer’s ability to preserve information about experienced events. Read More

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‘It’s Just Too Perfect’: Inside the First Gravitational Wave Detection

By Carl Engelking | September 14, 2016 1:18 pm
gravitational-waves

(Credit: National Science Foundation)

A year ago today, a select group of scientists became the first people on the planet to learn that, after a century of theory and experiments, Albert Einstein was right all along.

Researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana had, at last, detected a gravitational wave. The ripple in space-time — a “chirp in the data — emanated from the merger of two black holes that collided some 1.3 billion years ago. This ripple in the fabric of the universe sent the science world abuzz when the findings were announced several months later in February. Read More

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What’s Bad for SpaceX Is Good for Russia

By Carl Engelking | September 1, 2016 3:34 pm

spaxex

An exploding Falcon 9 could send ripples through space-timelines.

By now, you’ve probably heard about SpaceX’s Thursday morning “anomaly” at its Cape Canaveral launch pad. In fact, you can already watch video of it. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the AMOS-6 satellite payload, which would have brought Internet access to sub-Saharan Africa, was lost.

But an audit published, coincidentally, Thursday by the NASA Office of Inspector General, is reason to believe the SpaceX accident should sting a little more. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Earth Proxima: Is Our New Neighbor the Most Promising Exoplanet Yet?

By Eric Betz | August 24, 2016 12:00 pm
This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the solar system. (Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

A pale red dot not far from our sun may be orbited by a pale blue dot much different than Earth.

In a shocking find, astronomers Wednesday announced their discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light-years away. This warm world, cataloged as Proxima b, sits smack in the middle of its habitable zone — the sweetest of sweet spots — where liquid surface water could exist.

But Proxima Centauri is not like our sun. It’s a cool, low-mass star known as a red dwarf. So the planet only qualifies as potentially habitable because it circles its sun in an orbit tighter than Mercury’s. Read More

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How Humans Could Go Interstellar, Without Warp Drive

By David Warmflash | August 10, 2016 1:06 pm
alpha-beta

Alpha, Beta and Proxima Centauri (circled). (Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0)

The field equations of Einstein’s General Relativity theory say that faster-than-light (FTL) travel is possible, so a handful of researchers are working to see whether a Star Trek-style warp drive, or perhaps a kind of artificial wormhole, could be created through our technology.

But even if shown feasible tomorrow, it’s possible that designs for an FTL system could be as far ahead of a functional starship as Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century drawings of flying machines were ahead of the Wright Flyer of 1903. But this need not be a showstopper against human interstellar flight in the next century or two. Short of FTL travel, there are technologies in the works that could enable human expeditions to planets orbiting some of the nearest stars. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Can Virtual Reality Help Astronauts Keep Their Cool?

By Shannon Stirone | August 4, 2016 1:58 pm
virtual-reality

Scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

While astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year on the International Space Station, he expressed frustration with the ho-hum accommodations inside the ISS — it’s dullsville.

The temperature remains exactly the same day in and day out. The décor is a sterile mix of machines and wires. Astronauts are isolated, confined to small spaces and under a considerable amount of stress. While the vistas outside their window are no doubt spectacular, humans need a hint of nature’s greens and blues to stay happy.

columbus-laboratory

The interior of the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. You get a sense of the sterile surroundings. (Credit: NASA)

The monotony of space can fray the nerves of even the most seasoned astronaut, and psychological stress is a serious side effect of living in a habitat of connected tubes orbiting Earth. So scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel, and reduce psychological stress that astronauts experience on long duration missions.

“Things can go badly if the psychosocial elements aren’t managed properly. When you talk about longer and longer missions with a small crew it becomes really critical to have that social aspect right,” he says.

Floating in a Virtual World

Jay Buckey — a former space shuttle astronaut — is now a professor of space medicine and physiology at Dartmouth. Each space shuttle mission runs around three weeks, so Buckey’s not experienced the same monotony as Scott Kelly. Despite his pleasant trip to space, he still felt called to help. Buckey and his colleagues are using calming imagery to see if virtual scenes reduce stress levels.

“I wanted to focus on many of the issues that would serve as a barrier to long duration spaceflight,” says Buckey. “The psychosocial adaptation element is crucial to a good mission.”

His theory is that exposure to bucolic landscapes — even virtual ones — can reduce stress. To do this, Buckey and his team created two types of “escapes” for the subjects to try. The test subjects were either given a trip to the lush green hills of Ireland, or a serene beach landscape in Australia. As a control, test subjects sat in a classroom and researchers measured their heart rate and skin conductance.

“We are assuming that natural scenes will be preferred,” explains Buckey. “But, people in an isolated and confined environment might want an urban scene.”

To quantify the stress relief, Buckey’s team will measure the electrodermal activity in the skin of their test subjects to track fluctuations of psychological arousal and stress, providing insights into who is responding best to a given scene.

Buckey is also adding another twist to his experiments: shining a heat lamp on subjects viewing a beach scene to enhance their virtual experience.

“VR is an immersive world and we would like to optimize the scenes to find out what it is about these that people find the most compelling. As the tech improves and you get higher definition video you can really immerse somebody in a nature scene,” says Buckey. “Would people rather have a vista, or animals, and what other kinds of sensations would people like?”

Currently astronauts on the International Space Station use a tool called the Virtual Space Station — essentially a virtual therapy session. This VR software doesn’t provide stress reduction in the way that Buckey is exploring, but it has tools for conflict resolution, and training on how to handle interpersonal disagreements if and when they arise.

Back to Nature

Buckey’s experiments are still ongoing, so his results aren’t finalized. However, the notion that nature is good for our brain is nothing new — dozens of scientific studies back this up. In a more recent study, researchers from South Korea used fMRI to measure subjects’ brain activity when they looked at nature scenes versus urban scenes. Urban scenes activated the amygdala, which is linked to heightened anxiety and increased stress. On the other hand, nature scenes caused more blood to flow to regions in the brain associated with empathy and altruistic behavior.

VR lounge chair lamp

A study subject enjoys a scene augmented with a heat lamp. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

At the University of Verona in Italy, researchers showed that “being in” a natural setting improved cognitive functioning, and participants completed tasks more efficiently with less mental fatigue. Nature can also lower our blood pressure and heighten our mood.

The data from the Dartmouth lab won’t be published for several more months, but the team hopes its experiment will move one step closer to helping future astronauts, and other people who work in isolation, cope with stress.

If it turns out that the data from Buckey’s experiments show a reduction in stress, future astronauts could perhaps work a regimen of VR medicine into their weekly routine. So far, Buckey thinks the preliminary results are encouraging, but “these are highly individualized responses, and is very subjective.”

“It depends on the outcome of what we have. We haven’t really proven that it works that well yet so I think its important for us to show that there’s a tangible benefit to having this.”

Lessons from the Past

In 1980 a group of scientists ventured off into the cold and isolated region of Antarctica as part of the International Biomedical Expedition. The IBEA was designed to understand how the human body would acclimate to extremely cold environments, isolation and the psychological responses to this type of stress. It dramatically highlighted the need for stress reduction for team members.

As the expedition continued, crewmembers grew homesick, isolation wore them down and they grew more and more irritable. Several scientists on the team simply walked out of the experiment before it was completed, due to these stressors.

In the 1980s, psychological stress drove a rift between cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev and his commander Anatoly Berezovoy while they were living aboard the Russian Space Station Salyut 7.

Lebedev wrote a book called Diary of a Cosmonaut where he shared stories of conflicts so severe that they sometimes went weeks without speaking to each other. In space, and especially on a longer mission to Mars, communication is key. Conflicts of this scale aren’t an option. In other words, keeping stress levels low is key to planning a successful mission.

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