Science Friday: Friday The 13th Edition

It is Friday the 13th and human beings have a robot digging up stuff on Mars…will it find a haunted ancient burial ground? Probably not but it is finding good science. We also have the final word of the status of what the heck to call Pluto. Plus there is planetary weather, the launch of a new satellite, an early holodeck and NASA is planning a mission to the sun…perhaps they will go at night (rimshot).

Phoenix Updates: Scooping soil, Baking Baby Bear, and the Snow Queen
The Mars Phoenix Lander seemed to have a tough time getting started with Martian soil analysis. But, after an initial setback, the scoop and the thermal soil analyzer seem to be in good health. Earlier this week, scientists weren’t receiving confirmation of the soil’s deliverance into the analyzer, but NASA now reports that “delivery of scooped-up soil for inspection by the lander’s Optical Microscope marks the second success for getting samples delivered to laboratory instruments on Phoenix’s deck”, so it appears that the problem has been resolved.

The lander performs a “sprinkle test”

Once all this soil is scooped, it is to be analyzed by the Phoenix “oven”. The Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer instrument, or TEGA, has eight separate tiny ovens to bake and sniff the soil to assess its volatile ingredients, such as water. The lander’s Robotic Arm delivered a partial scoopful of clumpy soil from a trench informally called “Baby Bear”, seen below, to the number 4 oven on TEGA last Friday, June 6.

The Martian trench known as “Baby Bear”

There is even more exciting news for ice at the Phoenix landing site, as predicted by scientists when they saw a “light-colored substrate” under the lander in some of the early photos sent back to Earth. Further images have this substrate looking more and more like ice. In fact, the patch of unknown substance has been deemed the Snow Queen by Phoenix scientists. This is a very exciting prospect, as it would me that Phoenix will have the chance to deliver loads of new data from the Red Planet once that substrate is sampled.

A shiny feature dubbed the Snow Queen


Pluto the Plutoid
The International Astronomical Union has decided on the term “plutoid” as a name for dwarf planets like Pluto. This decision comes almost two years after the IAU stripped Pluto of its planethood and introduced the term “dwarf planets” for Pluto and other small round objects that often travel highly elliptical paths around the sun in the far reaches of the solar system. The two currently known and named plutoids are Pluto and Eris.

Pluto and Eris, the two Plutoids

GLAST off for NASA’s newest telescope
From Earth, the night sky can look peaceful and unchanging, but the universe as seen in gamma-rays is a place of sudden and chaotic violence. Using gamma-ray telescopes, astronomers witness short but tremendously intense explosions called gamma-ray bursts, and there is nothing more powerful. Last Wednesday, NASA’s Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) left Earth onboard a Delta II rocket. GLAST will explore the most extreme environments in the universe, searching for signs of new laws of physics, investigating the nature of dark matter, and much more.

Artist’s conception of a gamma ray burst

Space weather interfering with GPS
You can’t always trust your GPS gadget. As scientists have long known, perplexing electrical activity in the upper atmospheric zone called the ionosphere can tamper with signals from GPS satellites. Now, new research and monitoring systems are clarifying what happens to disruptive clouds of electrons and other electrically charged particles, known as ions, in the ionosphere. The work may lead to regional predictions of reduced GPS reliability and accuracy.

The Aurora Australis as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery

Gadget of the Week: HoloVizio aka Holodeck 1.0?
Star Trek’s holodeck is a famous science fiction concept, but last year researchers took the first, confident steps towards its realisation with the Coherent project. This EU-funded research project, developed a commercial, true 3-D display that could one day be called Holodeck version 1.0. It is called HoloVizio, a 3-D screen that will allow designers to visualise true 3-D models of cars, engines or components. Better yet, gesture recognition means that observers can manipulate the models by waving their hands in front of the screen. [Thanks Judy & Gar!]

Seeing is believing in this video, but I’d bet it’s even more impressive in real life

Science Quickies
Here’s a warp-speed look at science tid-bits that didn’t quite make the cut, but nonetheless merit mention.

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A Plutoid sounds like a growth you’d want to have removed at the earliest opportunity.

The Holovizio seems more like the viewscreens than the holodeck. Weren’t the viewscreens in TNG at least 3D? When they changed the camera angle, the angle on the screen changed. Also, the viewscreen on the Enterprise-E was actually holographic too.

Pretty cool though.

So basically, the HoloVizio is like an early version of the viewscreens on TNG and later, like the big one on the bridge?

Very cool.


I hear they have a new Plutoid Cream…it will fix you right up.

i’m sure the holovizio is impressive in real life….but it doesnt seem that special watching it on video.

#4: LOL, and Happy Friday.

A buddy of mine from college at Florida State was the second cousin of Clyde Tombaugh, they guy who discovered Pluto. My friend wasn’t happy back then about this “controversy” and I’m sure he’s not happy about it now.

2. Eric Cheung – I think I’m right in thinking that GR always intended that the “viewscreens” in all Trek were holographic by default, I think he logically expected that by then it would be a standard technology such as colour and flat/thin screens have become today. I always thought that Spock’s scanner viewer were some sort of huge resolution holographic viewer that would normally need a huge surface area were it to be on a wall, much more convenient and space saving to use the viewing device (and of course VFX budget saving). As he turns the control, maybe that tracks through the ‘Z’ axis in 3d space?

Are social events awkward? Do you worry at every checkup? Want to shrink those unsightly Plutoidal growths?

well the cure is here:


Pluto those growths down from planets to dwarfs in hours! Satisfaction or your money back, guaranteed!

Dont Worry Pluto i am not a planet either :( . anyway i still love you Pluto !

8. Was GR behind the interface in Earth: Final Conflict too? Because the screen above also reminded me of a cross between that and John King’s wall on CNN.

And it seemed improbable but the IAU actually diminished Pluto even further with such a silly name! I’m glad I’m not Pluto.

Agreed that the video doesn’t quite convey the Sheer Awesome of the HoloVizio– I went to their website and there are a couple more videos at the bottom that got the idea across more clearly. I believe they can project images in front of the screen to some extent as well.

Still seems, to me, closer to the holographic interfaces we’ve seen in the Iron Man movie or on the show Bones– but it’s a step in the right direction :)

I personally have no doubt Phoenix will find proof of water on Mars – I think all the previous pictures of what look like dry riverbeds are exactly that. However, the pic featured The Snow Queen could also be a rock formation of crystalline compostion, could it not Kayla?

Another interesting and informative Science Friday. Thanks, Kayla!

I was super impressed with the Holovizio monitor! I’m looking forward to seeing one in person. The practical future is still a long way off for these babies, though. I work in TV and I’m here to tell you that the vast majority of production facilities have no 3d production or editing capability – most are still struggling to shoulder the cost of upgrading all of their equipment to HD.

I’d have posted earlier, but I was waiting for the Preparation-P to kick in. Much better now.

Landing on the Sun? “That’s one small step for a man… one giant — ow! Christ that’s hot! Dammit! Ow! S**t! Ow!”

and from BBC News:
“The first man to walk on the moon is to be given an honorary degree by Edinburgh University.
The former astronaut, Neil Armstrong, is being given the award at a ceremony in Washington DC on Friday. ”

Thanks Kayla. Let me know if you’re hovering Atlanta way.

(Yes, that’s an old old old joke. I would credit The Unknown Comic — but, how can I?)

Thanks for the info Kayla.

Sheesh… dat explains why me Garmin has led me astray… GPS navigation gone all bommy boo. Whilst I haven’t reached me proper port, at least I’m not stranded on Mars scratchin’ fur water. I find meself on a lovely little lake.

I’ll go and ask tha’ goalie over thar’ where I be….

::: Hey, you! Can ya’ stop sawin’ up horny teenies long enough ta’ tell me where I be? :::

Arrrr… he don’t say much… should I call a copper?

Its incredible to know ,that within our lifetime, we will more than likely know the answer to one of mans most oldest questions,

Could life be on another planet.

I’m still waiting for conclusive evidence of intelligent life on this planet.

“Mr. Sulu try to steer AROUND the Plutoids. Chekov dented the deflector dish last night.”

I’m glad Pluto gets its own classification. It didn’t seem right to me to call Pluto a dwarf planet.

@13 For sure it is possible that this is not ice, mineral formations COULD look like this, but I am still holding out hope. Also, it is possible that it is not specifically water ice. Images are a great source of information, but much of this is really speculation until we can sample the stuff. That will be so interesting!

Well, I for one think it’s nice that Pluto gets to bestow his name on a whole class of celestial bodies. Way to go, Pluto!

So what about Sedna and Quaoar? Are they not plutoids? Is Pluto’s moon Charon (NOT the one with the belligerent races of half-black and half-white people) also a plutoid?

Scott B. out.

#23 — I was wondering the same thing about Sedna and Quaoar myself today, so I looked them up on Wikipedia, and the issue is that it is yet to be conclusively determined whether their surfaces have been pulled into an essentially spherical shape through “hydrostatic equilibrium” as a result of the force of their own gravity… or something like that. Planetary scientists are pretty sure that this is the case, but they need more direct evidence for it. In fact, it is expected that a great many objects will qualify as “plutoids” over time.

I, for one, am still not satisfied with the “dwarf planet” (but not a “planet”) distinction — it is piss-poor from the point of view of logical categories and grammar — but I think the “plutoid” category has merit.

Save Pluto because Uranus is next!

(Sorry, couldn’t resist)

#23 — Oh, and as to Charon, it is still considered a moon, therefore neither a dwarf planet nor a plutoid.

“HeadOn…Apply directly to the Plutoid…”

Re: 24 – Thanks, 4, for the info on Sedna, Quaoar and Charon.

I sympathize with the astronomical community’s need to reclassify Pluto as something other than a full-fledged planet. With all the other similar objects out in the Kuiper Belt, they need a separate classification. Dwarf planet is sort of clunky and mean sounding, but letting Pluto be the king of the lot of them seems like a good way to go. I heartily endorse “plutoid.”

Scott B. out.

Dwarf planets, eh?

“Astrometrics please locate Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy and Doc.”

The GLAST will surely help clear up some issues about the actual cause of Gamma Ray Bursts.

One current theory — that they are directional outburst beams created by an unknown class of supernovae — seems difficult to swallow. For so many such “beams” to be pointed in our direction, there should be countless more facing every which way.

An absurd notion of endless, countless supernova events, would enough of a stretch. But for them all to result from a completely mysterious process? Try swallowing a brick, instead…

More likely, imo, we are seeing collisions between matter and antihydrogen clouds…and some of that matter is raw methane.

So what results when a methane-rich planet encounters a cloud of antihydrogen? Who knows?

But there also still exists no adequate explanation for the creation of amino acids…or even the source of life itself…