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Dark Energy, Dark Universe

11 Dec

Last week, I was delighted to visit one of my favorite places in NYC, the American Museum of Natural History. Over a decade ago, I served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, and it stands out as one of the best ‘jobs’ I’ve had. You cannot run out of things to do and I love how there’s always something new to discover. A highlight of the day was the new space show, Dark Universe, written by Timothy Ferris and narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Every experience I’ve had at the Hayden Planetarium has been memorable, but Dark Universe raises the bar. From the comfort of my seat, I marveled at images of cosmic phenomena in deep space. Dark energy fascinates me, but my expertise is well outside of astrophysics and I’ve always found the concept rather enigmatic. This show does a very good job of taking this extremely complex topic and explaining it in a way that’s accessible to general audiences. Through spectacular visualizations, I was able to get a sense of the way it’s kind of like our cosmic architecture. I learned that invisible dark matter and dark energy accounts for at least 95% of the universe’s total energy and mass!

Dark Universe is a must-see for anyone interested in science and space visiting Manhattan. Further, it makes me confident that Neil Degrasse Tyson’s 2014 Cosmos will certainly be worth watching…

This post originally appeared at Scientific American’s ‘Plugged In’ on December 11, 2013.

NASA-NOAA Satellite Reveals New Views of Earth at Night

11 Dec

This new global view and animation of Earth’s city lights is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data was acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands. This new data was then mapped over existing Blue Marble imagery of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC
High-resolution download

Breathtaking: NASA’s Pursuit of Light

7 May

Simply beautiful. Watch in full-screen.

NASA dreams big science. In this awesome new short, NASA presents the Earth, the planets, the Sun, and the endless universe beyond. Come for the cool, stay for the music, take away a sense of wonder to share. It’s six minutes from Earth to forever, and you can see it here!

You can download this spectacular video here.

Is There an Edge to the Heavens?

25 Apr

A required 20 minute break today thanks to the brilliant team at Radiolab:

Edward Dolnick tells an escape story involving God, humanity, and a huge rewrite of cosmic laws. It began in 1665. A plague hit Cambridge University. All of the students were sent home. One of them is a twenty-something Isaac Newton, who spent his forced summer vacation solving “the problem of the moon” and explaining why that heavenly rock will never be free.

Sucks for the moon. But Newton’s mental leap ultimately lead to humanity leaving the confines of planet Earth. And as producer Lynn Levy explains, we’re about to reach yet another new frontier. The Voyager probe (which we talked about in our Space episode) is about to become the first human-made object to leave the solar system. And the information it’s been sending us along the way has upended what we thought we knew about our little corner of the universe. Merav Opher is an astronomy professor at BU and a Voyager guest investigator. Ann Druyan is one of the creators of the 1977 Golden Album traveling on the Voyager probe. Together they describe how Voyager continues to surprise us.

Billions And Billions…

29 Feb

Watch in full screen, speakers on, wait for the music, and be mesmerized:

Astronomer’s Paradise by Christoph Malin.

[H/T Phil]

The Search For Alien Life On This Planet

8 Feb

Untouched by light for over 20 million years, Lake Vostok–Antarctica’s biggest subglacial lake–has sparked my interest since it was discovered in the 1990s. Now after two decades of drilling down through more than two miles of ice, Russian scientists say they have entered.

This is one of the current research projects I’m extremely excited about. Lake Vostok is part of a network of over 300 subglacial lakes in Antarctica. Despite their depth, they remain liquid due to geothermal heat and pressure. And since microbes have been found in icy and snowy conditions throughout the continent (including deep in the Vostok borehole), everyone involved is hopeful for what researchers may find in down there.

The trouble is, exploring Vostok is not that simple. We know it has high concentrations of oxygen and nitrogen so there is the potential of explosively “de-gassing” the lake. There’s also concern over contamination due to bacteria and drilling fluids on the way in.

But the big news: Today according to the BBC, the scientists are reporting success in reaching Vostok.

This work is the culmination of over 50 years of research in in the harshest conditions in the world. And that’s why things get even more interesting… Conditions in these Antarctic lakes may be comparable to liquid water bodies anticipated to be under the surfaces of icy moons in the outer Solar System such as Europa and Enceladus. So life in Vostok may hint at the possibility of life off of this planet.

I’ll be following this story closely..

From A Distance

6 Feb

Rémi Boucher and Guillaume Poulin at ASTROLab in southern Quebec put together this extraordinary time lapse using photographs from the International Space Station:

Vol nocturne de la station spatiale internationale au-dessus de la côte Est de l’Amérique. from ASTROLab on Vimeo.

H/T Phil

Dangerous Beauty

28 Jan

A Supercell Thunderstorm Cloud Over Glasgow, Montana

Credit: Sean R. Heavey Details about the storm here. (H/T Carl)

Getting the ISS National Research Laboratory In The News

4 Jan

This is a guest post by Paul O. Wieland.

“What have we learned from the research performed on the International Space Station?” “Why don’t we hear about the ISS research and other space missions in the news?” These are among the questions that I’m asked when I give talks around the country on the current status of space activities and how space development could more directly address the challenges we’re facing today. People want to know what we’re doing in space, and considering that we are in the midst of what has been called The Year of the Solar System – the period from October 2010 through August 2012 (that’s a Martian year, in case you are wondering) – when more missions will be launched or will reach their destinations than during any previous comparable period, the scarcity of news coverage is frustrating, especially for space enthusiasts.

Occasionally there are news items about SpaceX or Virgin Galactic or the final Space Shuttle mission or the discovery of possible Earth-like planets around other stars, but, in general, space activities receive little notice by the media, unless there is a failure, such as the recent launch of the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission. Part of the explanation is that there are other newsworthy events such as the recession, congressional deadlocks, and the Occupy movement. Another part of the explanation, particularly regarding ISS research, is that it is difficult to find current information on the results of the research being performed, which leaves the impression that not much scientific research is actually occurring on-board the ISS. This situation needs to change, and there is hope that it soon will.

I believe there are two primary, and related, reasons why ISS research hasn’t been clearly reported, and recognizing these factors can lead to improved reporting. Following completion of the Apollo, Skylab, and Spacelab missions, comprehensive mission reports were released [such as the Spacelab 3 Mission Science Review]. The limited durations of these missions provided clear end-points conducive to such reports. In comparison, the ISS mission and research is ongoing, with no clearly defined end-point for the mission. While allowing for more in-depth research, this is not conducive to comprehensive reports.

In addition to not having a clear end-point, the ongoing operation of the ISS also allows for long-term and more complex experiments, phased experiments, and the opportunity to make adjustments while performing an experiment, possibly extending its duration. This leads to experiments being completed at different times. So, experiments are typically reported on individually (or the results may not even be publicly available), but those reports just don’t have the weight of a comprehensive report and don’t receive as much attention. How can this situation be addressed so that the results of the ISS research are clearly reported and widely available?

The ISS has similarities with established research labs that previous space research missions did not have and, in 2005, the U.S. segment of the ISS was designated as a National Laboratory, similar to Argonne, Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Pacific Northwest, and all the others. These labs perform a variety of on-going research activities and most of them also publicize their research in a number of ways, including through journals, annual comprehensive reports, and conferences. The methods used by these labs could serve as models for reporting ISS research.

Research on-board the ISS has been managed by NASA as part of overall ISS management, but, in July 2011, a new non-profit organization, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), was awarded the responsibility of managing the ISS U.S National Laboratory. Since then, CASIS has set up a website and is co-sponsoring, with the American Astronautical Society, the 1st Annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference, set for June 26-28, 2012 in Denver, CO. They are seeking presentations on topics related to science and technology activities (past, present, planned, and proposed) performed on the ISS.  Topics of interest include Biology and Biotechnology, Earth and Space Science, Educational Activities, Human Research, Physical Sciences, and Technology. (If you are interested in presenting, the deadline for abstracts is January 15, 2012. See

This conference will, hopefully, jump-start a more robust effort to disseminate the results of ISS research, including publishing the conference proceedings and initiating a periodical journal of the ISS research activities. The reports should include status updates of research in progress as well as the results of completed research experiments.

As CASIS takes on more of the responsibility from NASA of operating the ISS National Lab, I’m also hoping that CASIS will post on their website up-to-date information on research results and other activities being performed on-board the ISS. The public needs to know what is being done in order to make informed decisions and having one primary website with that information would help. Also, it would sure make it easier for me to answer those questions that I’m asked about the ISS. And maybe those questions wouldn’t even need to be asked, because the answers would already be in the news.

Paul O. Wieland is a professional engineer who worked for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center for over 20 years, on programs including SpaceLab3, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle Challenger accident investigation, and, primarily, on developing the life support system for the International Space Station. He was also the fire protection engineer for several ISS payloads including the Materials Science Research Rack (MSRR-1).  He authored Designing For Human Presence in Space: An Introduction to Environmental Control and Life Support Systems, published in 1994 as NASA Reference Publication RP-1324. Since retiring from NASA in 2005 he wrote Crossing the Threshold: Advancing into Space to Benefit the Earth, which was awarded a gold medal in May 2011 by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. See for more information and join the facebook page.

Who’s Looking Back?

28 Dec

This image of the expanding Tarantula Nebula inspires me to wonder about that. At its center, there are about 2,400 massive stars.

Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L. Townsley et al.; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L. Townsley et al.