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Science Friday: Battlefield Phaser, Martian Blobs, See-through Metal, NASA Madness + more

It’s Friday and you know what that means! Time to put your thinking caps on and dive into another exciting week in science news. This week, take a look at up and coming real-life phasers, debate the state of blobs on Mars, take a never before seen look inside a glacier, make like Scotty with transparent metals, and try your hand at NASA’s Mission Madness. All this and more plus our gadget of the week: Terrafugia Transition flying car!


Real-Life Phasers Coming Soon to a Battlefield Near You
It looks like science has advanced to the point where our soldiers will be heading out onto the battlefield with real phasers, or at least something approaching that. In recent test-blasts, Pentagon-researchers at Northrop Grumman managed to get its 105 kilowatts of power out of their laser — past the 100kW threshold that has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for ‘weapons grade’ power levels for high-energy lasers. The Army recently gave Boeing a $36 million contract to build a laser-equipped truck, and a laser-fitted tactical aircraft is in the works as well. The next step, though, is to test the laser outside of the lab. The Army is planning to move the device to its High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. Testing is supposed to begin by this time, next year.


As long as someone gets me a freaking shark with a laser beam

Blobs on Phoenix Lander Cause Debate: Are they water?
Several photographs taken by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander show what appear as small white blobs which resemble water droplets on the spacecraft’s landing struts. Scientists have been debating whether or not these could in fact be liquid water drops, or ice. The northern plains of Mars never got above minus 15° Fahrenheit during Phoenix’s operations last year. Liquid water usually turns to its solid state at 32°F , but some scientists are asserting that the perchlorate salts discovered in the soil by Phoenix could lower the freezing point of water to around minus 90°. Other scientists argue that this assertion is flat out wrong, and that the blobs are nothing more than frost. The core facts are not in dispute. There were blobs on the strut. The blobs changed and moved over time before disappearing later in the mission. What do you think? Water or ice?


What do you think? Water or ice?

Extreme Ice, a Time-Lapse View of Climate Change
Nature photographer James Balog has ventured into ice-bound regions with 26 time-lapse cameras, which he programmed to shoot a frame every daylight hour for three years. The resulting images — which make up Balog’s “Extreme Ice Survey” project — show ice sheets and glaciers breaking apart and disappearing. Balog calls the melting of glaciers “the most visible, tangible manifestations of climate change on the planet today.” A documentary film crew accompanied Balog, and their footage along with Balog’s work will be featured in the Mar. 24 NOVA and National Geographic special Extreme Ice. Balog’s photographs are also on display in his new book Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report. Check out the promo video below, and for air times check your local listings.

Transparent Metals Discovered at High Pressures
An international team of scientists have discovered a transparent form of the element sodium (Na). Now, I know what you’re all thinking: transparent aluminum! Well, I really can’t see any practical applications for windows which need to be at pressures as high as 2 million atmospheres. That’s what it takes to get this stuff to go see-through. It is well known that at high pressures normal materials turn metallic. We’ve seen this in metallization of hydrogen at high pressures inside planets like Jupiter and Saturn. What was unexpected was that sodium — a metal at standard temperature and pressure — would become black, and then transparent.


Metallic Na (left) to black (middle) to transparent (right)

These results are important in understanding properties of highly compressed matter, particularly within stars and giant planets.

NASA Mission Madness
Countdown to the greatest mission of all time with NASA’s Mission Madness game going on right now at nasa.gov/missionmadness. NASA is taking a page from the NCAA this March by pitting its missions head to head and letting the public decide who wins. You can vote on your favorite mission in each game for each round on the Mission Madness bracket. The winners will advance to the next round of voting. Finally, it will come down to the championship game, the winner of which will be announced April 8th. To play, click on a mission and click on “info” to learn more about it. If you want that mission to win, click on the blue arrow. When you’ve made all of your mission winner selections, click the basketball to submit. And, don’t forget to check back for the next round!

Pic of the Week: Mauna Kea Milky Way Panorama
The dramatic panoramic view of the picture below looks out from the 4,200 meter volcanic summit of Mauna Kea, Hawai’i, across a layer of clouds toward a starry night sky and the rising Milky Way. Anchoring the scene on the far left is the dome of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), with north star Polaris shining beyond the Gemini North dome on the far right.


Click on the image for the full panorama

Gadget of the Week: Terrafugia Transition Flying Car
The Terrafugia Transition has been in the works for some time now, but recently the inventors have literally gotten the thing off the ground during its successful first flight. The vehicle is designed to transition from plane to car (or visa versa) in 30 seconds flat, and it will be available commercially. It’s even small enough to fit in your garage, and stylish enough to park on the front lawn of your mansion (see below video). The company hasn’t confirmed their recently hopeful end-of-2009 ship date, so don’t get your hopes up. But, this thing is for real, and will be available for around $194,000.00. If you have an extra few hundred thousand lying around, I’d say more power to you. But, does the world really need a carplane? I just can’t rationalize the concept.


This will look great in between my Porsche and my Ferrari

 

Science Quickies
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a look.





Sort by:   newest | oldest
Selor
March 20, 2009 1:34 pm

Phaser… Water on Mars… Transparent Aluminum… Flying Cars… Future is great!

Harry Seldom
March 20, 2009 1:41 pm

Flying car or suborbital flight? Tough call.

– Harry

Rat Boy
March 20, 2009 1:49 pm

Uh, that’s the NCAA, not the NBA, that does March Madness.

Jordan
March 20, 2009 1:50 pm

I thought the Phoenix lander was kaput when winter hit?

March 20, 2009 1:51 pm

Wow, that Mauna Kea pano is fantastic…
Too bad that we can never see the galaxy that way in the metropolitan areas with all the light smog…

Capt Mike Of The Terran Empire
March 20, 2009 1:55 pm

Hmmm. Phasers for our troops. Kool. Flying cars. Grandpa would be proud. Water on Mars. I could use a Mars Drink tp go with the Mars Bar. Looks like Scottys invention is finaly seeing the light of day. .

BaronByng
March 20, 2009 2:00 pm

Interesting about sodium going transparent at high pressure — does something force the atoms into a crystal lattice structure? If materials can be ‘force-crystallized’ that way, it has implications for a range of applications, not least of which are room-temperature superconductors…

with those, we could revamp the national electric grid with much smaller inputs (meaning less greenhouse gases / waste), and make individual electric devices smaller, lighter, and more efficient as well.

steve2
March 20, 2009 2:06 pm

Did anyone notice that the transparent part of the sodium looked like a grilled cheese Jesus face??

steve2
March 20, 2009 2:07 pm

Oh, and the blobs are The Blobs.

boborci
March 20, 2009 2:07 pm

What is the consensus on whether or not the U.S. has a secret space program separate from NASA?

Capt Mike Of The Terran Empire
March 20, 2009 2:17 pm

Well. Bob. I say probly about a 75% chance that they do have one. Remember this is the U.S military. They do things in seceret to keep us safe. Do not believe me. Then ask Holloywood.

Enc
March 20, 2009 2:28 pm

10

u mean outside the miliatrys program
what aliens, secret lunar stations, Stargate ?

Cobalt 1365
March 20, 2009 2:35 pm

I don’t really get the flying car thing, it just looks like a folding-wing personal aircraft. So it’s got turn signals and a license plate, who would ever actually drive that thing on the road? The wings block the driver’s side view horribly. For that price I’d buy a car AND an airplane, and maybe a motorcycle too.

In other news, I dig that Mauna Kea

Harry Ballz
March 20, 2009 2:38 pm

#10

You mean like building starships in Iowa, or something? ;>)

March 20, 2009 2:46 pm

bob

there are always possibilities.

-t

Enc
March 20, 2009 2:48 pm

14
funny :)

no. I remember mag articles about military blimps and drop ships.
and rumors say that area 51 moved their secret programs to a new secert location.

we already get updates (from time to time) about anti missle lasers on 747 mod, lazer propulsion experiments, satilite rail launch systems etc.

nscates
March 20, 2009 2:51 pm

@ 10.

I’m with Capt Mike: I believe the odds are in favor of some form of clandestine space program. The size and scope of such a program is anybody’s guess, of course, and therefore open to debate. I know there are military satellites whose capabilities and mission are classified, plus there are probably other technologies that no one has heard about. I doubt, however, that there is an ability to place personnel in LEO independent of NASA. I think it would be hard to hide that level of spending – after all, it costs nearly a billion dollars to launch a shuttle. Of course, I could be wrong :)

March 20, 2009 2:54 pm

@10 The Stargate program is totally real.

I am not Herbert
March 20, 2009 2:56 pm

10. boborci: “What is the consensus on whether or not the U.S. has a secret space program separate from NASA?”

Well, I believe we do. You mean reverse-engineering captured UFO’s, right?

Daoud
March 20, 2009 2:59 pm

#10

Sounds like a good movie project for ya. Sort of like War Games in scope, Capricorn One in execution, but indeed Stargate in “wow” factor.

IN real world, there are too many amateur astronomers with high grade scopes tracking anything that can be seen. All around the world. A list of observatories (mostly amateurs) as seen at the IAU site will give you a sense of “scope” of what I mean:

http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/iau/lists/ObsCodesF.html

It would be damn nigh impossible to launch anything that wouldn’t get seen by someone. Unless…. it were like Wonder Woman’s plane ;)

Cloaking device, anyone? :) The Japanese scientists are *almost* there.

Enc
March 20, 2009 3:10 pm

20

they could always lie, tell us its a replacement or new secert sat but be a manned mission to the moon.
yes it could be hard to hide it in lower Earth orbits with it all being tracked right now and the near miss on the space station recently. I guess they could make it harder to see. no lights. nuclear reactor for power instead of large visible from the ground solor panels. i just looks like a tin can. for all we know its a spent stage of some old lift vehicle.

I Liked Him Better Before He Died!
March 20, 2009 3:10 pm

Doubtful, Bob. We can’t even fix the economy much less get fusion or antimatter reactors off the drawing board. Even if there was a secret space program, what would be the point? The United States already has a clear advantage in the space race compared to other nations, even though we are just barely off the porch, so to speak.

What I want to know is, what happens when Kepler finds a suitable “Class M” planet, say, around Epsilon Eridani? 10.5 light years away, the star’s relatively young, but its shrouded in dust, so who knows? Do we send a probe, or sit on our hands and say, “that’s nice”. Probably the latter, but i’m pessimistic. At least we would have a clear goal for some mission 300 years in the future.

March 20, 2009 3:12 pm

@10…

Yes, absolutely!

March 20, 2009 3:12 pm

@20. They always seem to be *almost* there, don’t they? I keep seeing the same old news stories about the possibility of future cloaking devices poking up from time to time, but there’s never anything new to report.

Surely, as soon as there is something, you’ll read it here first! (unless that news comes out on a Monday, then you’ll just have to wait)

I Liked Him Better Before He Died!
March 20, 2009 3:15 pm

Or here’s another brain teaser!

Say if we did find a habitable, earthlike planet within 10 light years, would it be more feasible to send an interstellar expedition, or terraform one of our own planets to earthlike status??

It would be interesting to see what ppl think, especially on here. We like Star Trek, we’re dreamers.

nscates
March 20, 2009 3:15 pm

@24 – By the time such an announcement is made I suspect it will be old news to the military.

March 20, 2009 3:15 pm

@22 The US is not necessarily the front runner by a long shot in the space race as we used to be. Funding for NASA is TINY… each taxpayer contributes less than one penny per year to fun our nation’s space program. ESA, Russia, China, just to name a few are doing a lot in space now…

Plus, we will have no vehicle to take people into space pretty soon. We are retiring the shuttle, and have no replacement until the CEV is launched, which is a window of several years.

Hopefully the new administration can help to stir up public enthusiasm for space like we had in the late 60’s.

John from Cincinnati
March 20, 2009 3:49 pm

Water or Ice, it’s still water right?

Spockanella
March 20, 2009 3:51 pm

10. But of course.

I Liked Him Better Before He Died!
March 20, 2009 3:54 pm

# 27:

“Hopefully the new administration can help to stir up public enthusiasm for space like we had in the late 60’s.”

I hope so too, Kayla (great article, btw), but it looks like the current administration is going to have its hands full fixing ours and the world’s economy in the foreseeable future. NASA is probably going to take a back seat, again.

“Plus, we will have no vehicle to take people into space pretty soon. We are retiring the shuttle, and have no replacement until the CEV is launched, which is a window of several years.”

The space shuttle program is only a part of what NASA does, which i’m sure you know. I believe in some cases unmanned projects advance our knowledge of the solar system better than just ferrying people to the ISS. When the CEV goes online it will be a big boost for NASA, you are right. I also feel that one of the main reasons NASA is a front runner is due to their ability to work with other nations to advance humanity’s knowledge of space.

RTC
March 20, 2009 4:13 pm

#10 boborci …. Of course there is! And they keep it secret by following the bestseller, ’50 Ways To Keep a Secret’ by JJ Abrams. Works great! :-)

CMX54
March 20, 2009 4:13 pm

#10: It’s nothing but a tinfoil hat theory suited to the Art Bell show crowd.

I am not Herbert
March 20, 2009 4:25 pm

28. John from Cincinnati: “Water or Ice, it’s still water right?”

As Spock would say: Non sequitur. Inconclusive.

They are blobs that LOOK LIKE water or ice.

I Liked Him Better Before He Died!
March 20, 2009 4:30 pm

28. Its unobtainium, duh!!!!

March 20, 2009 4:31 pm

Bob.

I believe that Massive Dynamics is actually currently reverse engineering technology left behind by the many visits and time incursions from the future from the Xindi, the Ferengi, the Vulcans, and even the USS Enterprise. This is being done in secret, but in order to create a plausibly deniable cover, their Agent 47 (aka ‘Gene Roddenberry’) created a show called Star Trek, based on the logs and history being built up, starting when some big eared aliens visited Area 51 in the 50s. Eventually one of the other world powers will find out about this and that will spark World War III in a few decades.

I am not Herbert
March 20, 2009 4:36 pm

Anthony, WOW! Nice theory! =D

I Liked Him Better Before He Died!
March 20, 2009 4:40 pm

35.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden got his hands on some nifty genetic engineering equipment from the Raelians and is currently creating the perfect superhuman for his Jihad.

Code-named: Khan Noonien Singh

I am not Herbert
March 20, 2009 4:43 pm

32. CMX54: “It’s nothing but a tinfoil hat theory suited to the Art Bell show crowd.”

Yeah, our government would never lie to us, or keep secrets from us, would they?

March 20, 2009 5:18 pm

As always, this is by far my favorite part of this website. This is in fact if Statisticians are checking just about the only feature I visit from week to week.

Did you know that TrekMovie now has a Twitter site? http://twitter.com/TrekMovie and by the way I’m there too at http://www.twitter.com/StrasiumProd where I post things of interst to me, such as my video of Sunday’s Discovery launch … just click on the link there.

Notice to Editors and Underwriters … if this movie comes and goes with or without fanfare … please find an important place on the web for THIS weekly feature, because it deserves its own home by stature and importance with or without the connection to the Franchise.

March 20, 2009 5:19 pm

okay … I should have said http://twitter.com/StrasiumProd – Twitter is not part of the world wide web – perhaps it is part of something else – I don’t know.

March 20, 2009 5:26 pm

And Twitter is an amazing thing for speed-readers like myself, becuase with Discovery in the air and mated to the space station, here is an official NASA Twitter (ISS Station Commander) Mike F. is a huge Star Trek fan – read more here: http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/features/Astros_on_StarTrek.html

March 20, 2009 5:33 pm

… AND TO all of you who think that the government is keeping UFO information from us by a government cover-up of disclosure … I have to ask you this … if State Department and DoD traitorous employees can’t even keep the run-of-the-mill Top Secret SCI stuff from hitting the front pages of the New York Times, don’t you think you’re going a little overboard by expecting ALL of the humans that would be involved with the “need to know” from spilling the beans out of political or patriotic reasons if there would be proof of aliens involved with revealing themselves to us? Truth is, it’s a nice fantasy but it has no bearing on the real world. Are there aliens up there? Yes – as many alien races and species as there are stars in the night sky. Have they been here? Who knows. Insufficient data. What is is what is. It would be psychotic to assume that aliens must have been here once one investigates the evidence of reality, while it would be equally as psychotic to assume that given the number of stars in the night sky there aren’t aliens on distant planets wondering the same thing about us.

March 20, 2009 5:44 pm
… and to boborci … your question about the “clandestine” space program is a little unfair. DoD has long had the US Space Command and the component service elements. Even as we speak, once the DoD has disconnected itself from NASA once it was realized that payloads could not be loaded on the Shuttle given lack of polar orbit or higher priority national missions as defined by NASA, the old John Glenn and Alan Shephard launch platforms came alive with a new interest in unmanned disposable rockets, and that’s why you hear words like Delta IV and Atlas V bandied about these days. Most interesting to me is the X-37B. This was an overt NASA reusable spaceplane originally envisioned by NASA yet cancelled due to budget constraints. The Air Force picked it up and even as we speak Boeing’s X-40A follow-on with great success under NASA development is not with NASA at all, yet the Air Force plans to launch the X-37B atop an Atlas 5 from Cape Caneveral this summer – a mission that will fly around the Earth a few times, re-enter the atmosphere Shuttle style, and land on a runway like any other spaceplane would. Is it really clandestine if no one in the public is paying attention? I’ve long been paying attention to the X-40/X-37 program and must answer your question by asking you to disquality the voters who haven’t been paying attention, because once the X-37B – now 100% owned by the Air Force launches,… Read more »
The TOS Purist aka The Purolator
March 20, 2009 5:48 pm

Those feeble lasers aren’t phasers…if you’re THAT desperate to make a Trek connection, then compare them to Captain Pike’s laser pistols. :)

As for the super-strong transparent metals – wouldn’t that mean that bigger windows could be installed in spacecraft? As it is, the biggest spacecraft window we’ve been able to achieve is barely a foot across (if I remember correctly).

I Liked Him Better Before He Died!
March 20, 2009 6:45 pm

#43

That’s pretty cool they are picking the X-37 back up. Remember hearing about it in the late 90’s, back then it was VentureStar, right? Hope it comes to fruition.

March 20, 2009 7:36 pm
The Venture Star was the X-33 … but you’re very close! The X-40A was “the Shuttle we would have designed in the 1990’s if we could,” instead of the Shuttle designed in the 1970’s that is. The X-33 VentureStar was contracted to Lockheed Martin, and it had every promise of a “single stage to orbit” using technology very close to the Star Trek Impulse Engine concept called “Linear Aerospike.” As a matter of fact, NASA borrowed a few Air Force SR-71’s to prove the concept, and the concept was proved. But then there was the single stage to orbit problem, and the fatal flaw in the design was in the limitations of the fuel tank which was made of composites that would crack once the super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen was put into them. For the VentureStar, there were no boosters, or even an external tank. Everything was internal to the Orbiter. I wish it would have worked. Perhaps in a few years, it will. The Orbital Spaceplane (OSP) was Boeing’s design alternative which lost to McDonnell Douglas (that had its own proven design made famous first for its flight in New Mexico and then for its crash in New Mexico) and to the Lockheed Martin X-33. The Boeing OSP capitalized on the addition of stubby wings and a V-Tail not unlike the Beechcraft Bonanza (any Google search for X-37B Orbital Spaceplane will lead you to a picture), yet the logical shape continuation of the Shuttle design. Even more interesting… Read more »
Scott B. here.
March 20, 2009 8:43 pm

Re: #10 – Bob Orci – As a 20+ year subscriber to both Discover and Smithsonian Air & Space magazines (my full scientific credentials), and a rational person, I’d say “no.” It would be too hard to hide; too many ways for it to become public. Do I think the U.S. government does secret stuff? Sure. But if by “secret space program” you mean something related to space travel/exploration on an order of magnitude similar to, say, hiding a giant alien robot inside a big dam … then no.

As for the flying car: it sure didn’t make for a very good car, and it sure didn’t fly, so no cigar.

However, “laser-fitted tactical aircraft” — now that just sounds cool, y’all. Scary cool.

Scott B. out.

cpelc
March 20, 2009 9:09 pm

#10 Bob

Did you hear about the Sonic Booms that have sprung up all over the United States during the night recently?

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=strange+sonic+booms&aq=f&oq=

I actually heard one a few years back at night. Sounded like a jet was making a 30 foot pass right outside my window. Some have speculated it’s related to project aurora. I actually live near a fighter wing base and saw a strange set of lights in the sky over my house one night as well. Two greenish-blue lights like at the end of wings moving slowly across the sky. Nothing but stars and night sky between them but way too big to flying high.

Maybe you should write something like this into Fringe. Stealth aircraft science. Perhaps the famed project Aurora.

NaradaAlpha
March 20, 2009 9:35 pm

#35—FRAKKIN BRILLIANT, DUDE! and thus will be explanation of how Star Trek exists in the internal-to-Star Trek universe, should it ever come up as a plot point in a future film… but you forgot one link in the chain…pre-Roddenberry a man named Benny Russell created a story about a space station called Deep Space Nine… shhh…Benny Russell was also a Massive Dynamics agent…LOL…

sidenote: at some point post-2009, someone at Massive Dynamics secretly steals samples of all Star Trek actors’ DNA, and for the deceased ones, time travel to an earlier point in history involving the Dharma Initiative to collect said DNA from deceased Trek actors…and then said DNA is stored and eventually used in the future to secretly, illegally, genetically engineer the characters of the stories…LOL

#37. I Liked Him Better Before He Died!–yes, and he utilizes the DNA of the late Ricardo Montalban to create Khan… :D

ALSO ANTHONY: added aspect to your theory.., Gene=not Agent 47… Gene: temporal agent; colleague of Daniels as part of temporal cold war, sent back in time to take on role of Agent 47 in Massive Dynamics…LOL…also…Rick Berman: Silik in disguise xD

CMX54
March 21, 2009 12:37 am

#38: I just don’t put my faith in groundless conspiracy theories. Sorry! :)

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