Welcome to a late edition of this week’s Science
Friday Saturday. This week, join NASA as they explore strange new words with a whole host of seemingly Star Trek-inspired missions, discover Atlantis with Google Earth, pretend you are an astronaut in an upcoming MMO, and find alien life here on Earth. All this and more plus our gadget of the week: JetBike!
Plenty of Star Trek-like Voyages Planned for NASA
It seems that “to explore strange new worlds” might just be NASA’s new mission statement with a flurry of new missions with Trek-like goals in mind. Mission controllers have compared the Dawn mission with those from Star Trek. Dawn project system engineer Marc Rayman says, “Dawn is like the first real interplanetary spaceship! Many spacecraft have gathered data at multiple bodies, but Dawn will be the first to go somewhere, go into orbit, and be able to linger there, and then travel to another body and do the same thing.” To do this, Dawn is powered by an ion plasma propulsion engine. The probe will depend on venting plasma to reach its targets. On February 17 at about 7:28 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, the spacecraft Dawn received a speed boost and a change of direction in the form of a gravity-assist from Mars. Now, the probe is right on target to its first destination: Vesta.
Another Trek-like voyage will launch on March 5th, weather permitting, when NASA sends up Kepler – truly a mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. The spacecraft, carrying a powerful telescope and one of the most sensitive cameras ever launched into space, will seek out terrestrial-size “exoplanets” whose orbits lie in what astronomers call the “habitable zones” of their distant solar systems. “We hope to find hundreds of such planets,” said the science team lead, “If we don’t find any, it will mean that a planet like Earth, with its life, must be very rare indeed, and so there will be no ‘Star Trek.’ ”
Kepler is scheduled to launch March 5th
Did Google Earth Find Atlantis? Um, no.
While Google’s mapping program is turning up many formerly hidden objects, a lost city under the sea isn’t one of them. Earlier this month, TrekMovie’s Science Friday reported on the newest editions to Google Earth, including the newly mapped imagery of Earth’s ocean floor. Well, it looks like people have used that new feature to discover what looks like the lost city of Atlantis at 31°15’15.53" N, 24°15’30.53" W. “It’s true that many amazing discoveries have been made in Google Earth, including a pristine forest in Mozambique that is home to previously unknown species and the remains of an ancient Roman villa,” a statement from Google read. “In this case, however, what users are seeing is an artifact of the data collection process. Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor. The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data.” Not everyone is buying Google’s explanation: Debates are raging on sites such as Digg and Facebook over the true identity of the watery discovery.
The lost city of Atlantis? Perhaps not.
NASA MMO — Astronaut: Moon, Mars, and Beyond
Next year, we will see NASA roll out with its first massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond will be a ‘first-person-exploration’ game that will also include traditional role-playing game (RPG) elements for both single-player and team-based space exploration, but with a realistic twist. Everything in the game will be crafted based on real NASA technology, as well as on prototypes from esteemed academic institutions for the next generation of robotics, spacecraft, spacesuits and space habitation. NASA feels that the game could serve as a useful education tool.
The power of games as educational tools is rapidly gaining recognition. NASA is in a position to develop an online game that functions as a persistent, synthetic environment supporting education as a laboratory, a massive visualization tools and collaborative workspace while simultaneously drawing users into a challenging, game-play immersion.
The ultimate goal of his team is to inspire generations of future space explorers…and encourage game players to pursue careers on science, math and engineering careers. “Whether players are youngsters, college students or adults, people who play this game are going to actually learn about space exploration science and have a lot of fun while doing it.” More info…
Astronaut: Moon, Mars, and Beyond
Alien Life May Exist Among Us
We may be a ways off from finding life on another planet, but new studies show that “alien” life may be right here on Earth. Our planet may harbor forms of “weird life” unrelated to life as we know it, according to Prof. Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State Univ. This “shadow life” may be hidden in toxic arsenic lakes or in boiling deep sea hydrothermal vents. Davies has called on scientists to launch a “mission to Earth” by trawling hostile environments for signs of bio-activity. “We don’t quite know how weird life would look. It’s as wide as the imagination and that’s why it’s really hard to look for.” If it exists, weird life could be based on DNA and RNA – but with a slightly different genetic code or different amino acids. “Maybe one of the elements life uses – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus – could be replaced by something else,” said Professor Davies. “When I say that, everyone immediately thinks of silicon life – because of Star Trek. But I’m not talking about anything that drastic. “For example, most of the jobs that can be done by phosphorus can be done by arsenic.” Arsenic may be poisonous to humans, but it has chemical properties which might make it ideal in a microbe’s machinery.
It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it
Pic of the Week: Quadruple Saturn Transit Preview
On Feb. 24th, there’s going to be a quadruple transit of Saturn’s moons. Titan, Mimas, Dione and Enceladus will pass directly in front of Saturn and we’ll see their silhouettes crossing Saturn’s cloud tops—all four at the same time. This is something so rare and spectacular that even Hubble will stop to take a look. But, amateur astronomers will be able to see it, too. The timing favors observers along the Pacific coast of North America, Alaska, Hawaii, Australia and east Asia. On Feb. 8th, astrophotographer Christopher Go of the Philippines got a preview when Titan transited Saturn all by itself. He recorded this movie using an 11-inch telescope.
A preview of next weeks sky show
Gadget of the Week: JetBike
You know, a lot of concept designs pretend like they’re based in some kind of reality, using plausible-sounding technology to make them seem practical when in fact they’re based purely in fantasy. That’s why I like the JetBike concept: it doesn’t even try to pretend to be realistic. It’s a JetBike! As the designer says, he’s “Envisioning a jet powered flying bike powered by an alternative method of propulsion!” You sure are, Norio Fujikawa. This seems to remind me of a particular vision of future robotic motorcycle cops.
Here’s a warp-speed look at science tid-bits that didn’t quite make the cut, but nonetheless merit mention.
- Record setting Gamma Ray Burst detected
- Reminder: don’t miss the green comet flyby
- NASA is holding a naming contest for Node 3 of ISS (we suggest "Roddenberry")