All posts by Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Discovered: A Planet Orbiting Two Suns – A Real-Life Tatooine

It’ a great planet to get a tan on, except for the minor detail that you may not make it back. A real-life Tatooine planet, orbiting two stars, has been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This strange world is 200 light years away.

Tatooine is the name of the fictional planet of the Star Wars saga, where much of the story is based.

An artist's conception of the two-star planet - a real life Tatooine. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A Real-Life Tatooine

The discovery is stunning, since this is the first time such an object is being discovered. The planet is a giant one, slightly larger than Saturn, but made up of heavy elements. It orbits a binary star system. This marvellous system is named the Kepler-16 system, according to the Kepler Telescope’s cataloguing scheme.

This settles once and for all the question as to whether planets can really orbit binary star systems. The planet, Kepler 16b, is absolute proof that such a thing can happen.

The Star Wars team is thrilled. Visual effects supervisor at the Industrial Light and Magic firm, the company behind the Star Wars effects, John Knoll, says:

It’s possible that there’s a real Tatooine out there. Kepler 16b is unambiguous and dramatic proof that planets really do form around binaries.

How it was discovered

The planet was discovered by the so-called Transit Method. The exoplanet was discovered by noting the dimming of the stars light as the planet went in front of it. One of the stars is dimmer than the other and this too causes dimming of the brighter star’s light. Using these two effects and also knowing the radial velocity of the stars, the mass of the stars and the planet can be calculated. It is found that Kepler-16b is denser than Saturn, containing many heavy elements. It completes one orbit in 229 days. The masses of the stars, Kepler-16A and Kepler-16B, are 69% and 20% the solar mass, respectively. They orbit each other in 41 days. The three objects lie on the same plane, suggesting that they were created from the same cloud of gas and that Kepler-16b is not a captured planet.

The report came out in the journal Science’ today.

Hubble Successor: U.S. Senate Decision Pulls The James Webb Telescope Out of Deep Trouble

Some great news is coming in from Washington! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may just have got a new lease of life.

The mirror of the James Webb Telescope

Money and relief

We reported that the JWST was cancelled (here) due to fund cuts by the US Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee. Yesterday (14th September), the US Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss the details of the FY2012 (Financial Year 2012) bill and, surprise and glee, the JWST was sanctioned $530 million in 2012. This is a big improvement over the $374 million it was sanctioned in the last year.

This will be music to many ears, both intimately associated with the JWST project and other space enthusiasts. Hubble has been as much a darling for the public as for professional astronomers, and it would just be a shame if it had no successor. Losing the joy of watching deep space in high resolution, never knowing what one will find is a joy unparalleled! No one wants that to end.

Save JWST Page:
The US Cuts Science Funds Due to War Cost: JWST suffers –

The continuing construction of a wonder

Recently the James Webb Space Telescope completed a crucial phase in the construction of its mirrors. It has 21 mirrors, made up of 18 segments, forming one giant 21 foot mirror. The mirrors are the best in the world. They are made up of beryllium, so that they can withstand the near absolute zero temperature of space. They are also coated with a thin film of gold so that they are good reflectors of infra-red radiation. All of this goes into making JWST at least a 100x better than Hubble ever was.

The 21 foot mirror!

Please note that JWST is not out of the woods yet! This is merely the money granted for 2012. The project will last till 2018 and there are still many hurdles ahead, especially for a project of this magnitude where the costs tend to swell up abruptly.

Apart from this grant to the JWST, NASA got a grant of $17.9 billion for the coming year. Although this is a $500 million reduction from the promised grant, it is still a hefty amount.

The champagnes must be flowing in the JWST camps.

A New Color Of Love: Blue Roses Are Coming To A Market Near You

Feeling Blue’ might be the new term for describing that warm romantic feeling! For the first time, blue roses have been synthesized for the public, all thanks to modern genetic engineering. It even has a name Applause’,  which almost commands the standing ovation that it deserves.


The Rose and its Colors

Blue roses have long been a fascination for humans, symbolizing the quest for the unattainable. They have even achieved mythic proportions. This feat was achieved by injecting the pigment delphindin, taken from the petunia flower. The pigment provides the blue colour. Depending on the amount of expression of the pigment in the cells of the petals, the shade of the flower is determined.

While red, pink and white roses have come to symbolize passion, love and peace respectively, blue roses represent the journey for the impossible, the basic human desire to do something outside the natural order of things. It also symbolizes unattainable love, a common source of heartbreak for many. Unfortunately, blue roses have been linked to more racist notions too. Blue roses have been linked to royal blood or blue blood’, especially in medieval English literature.

Blue Rose

Blooming Blue

While the only way to create blue roses till now, outside the lab, was to dye white roses, this is the first time blue roses can actually be cultivated and sold in public markets. Roses of other tints have also been created, like the mauve rose made using cyanidin pigment.

Who needs violets? Roses are red, roses are blue; Science brings strange beauty, made just for you.

NASA’s Leap Into Deep Space: Newly Announced Rocket Really Packs A Punch!

NASA’s new generation rocket will be the biggest and baddest rocket ever built. It is the next generation rocket meant for carrying very heavy loads of cargo into space, thanks to a giant booster. It will eventually carry astronauts into space, but that is still a long way away. It is a first step towards NASA’s endeavor for Deep Space Missions.

This announcement by NASA was made yesterday (14th September, 2011).

The Space Launch System, as conceived of by an artist (Courtesy: NASA)

The Space Launch System

The new rocket is called the Space Launch System (SLS) and it will use liquid hydrogen in liquid oxygen as fuel to get the thrust that it intends to achieve.

The entire SLS program is worth at $18 billion, with the rocket alone costing $10 billion. This works out to $3 billion per year for NASA. The rocket will take some time coming, though. The first test flights are expected in faraway 2017.

SLS will use the still use the solid rocket boosters on either side of the SLS core main rocket. The carrying capacity is slated to be 70 metric tons initially, which will eventually touch 130 metric tons with upgrades. As for the amount of thrust, the SLS will deliver about 20 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rockets, which powered the Apollo missions. It will also be taller, at 403 feet, a clear 40 feet taller than the Saturn rockets.

Future bright, present controversial

This is the first concrete announcement of the future plan of progress for NASA after its 30 year Space Shuttle Program ended a couple of months back. In this time, NASA will be using private built rockets to journey to and from the International Space Station and, maybe, even have manned flights.

As with any big project, the SLS was recently embroiled in controversy after the Wall Street Journal published the news that NASA’s estimates for the SLS was nearly $63 billion! The source of this news was found to be a leaked memo and based on hypotheses, rather than facts. The actual costs are of the tune of $20 billion.

The rockets get bigger and bigger, trying to keep up with human ambitions in space.

Cosmic Spectacle: Stunning Pic of Earth Eclipsing the Sun, As Seen By NASA Satellite from Outer Space

For the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a Solar Eclipse is no big deal it sees two each year. Now it returns a photo of what it sees and it is stunning. But don’t trust us, take a look at it yourself! Here it is!

The Solar Eclipse as taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. (Courtesy: SDO/NASA)

The Solar Dynamics Observatory

The SDO is a satellite, which observes the Sun and monitors its activities. It is on a five-year mission. Part of the Living with a Star (LWS) Program, the goal of SDO is to study how the Sun influences the Earth. Of primary importance is the study of how the magnetic storms from the Sun influences the Earth’s atmosphere and the various communication devices that depend crucially on the ionosphere layer of the atmosphere. It also measures the seismic activity of the Sun (i.e. Sun quakes). This is a very rich field of study as the Sun, being a ball of plasma, experiences violent quakes quite frequently. The absence of solid rock on the Sun prevents attenuation of the seismic waves and the whole Sun thus moves with basically one frequency and higher harmonics during a violent Solar Quake. This can be roughly understood by the model of a balloon completely filled with water. Whole of the bulbous balloon can be set into vibration of one frequency. These form of vibrations involving just one frequency and higher harmonics are called normal modes. Monitoring these normal modes for the Sun, the SDO can give vital details about the solar density.

Eclipse Season and another photo

The present eclipse will last till 4th October, having commenced on the 11th of September. The Sun is already showing signs of violence as it builds up to the predicted peak in its activity in 2013. The last few months have seen violent solar storms, which have even knocked out communication. These will only increase and SDO’s job of monitoring these is crucial.

Just before ending, we wish to share another photo with you, taken from the Space Station. This one shows the bright Sun, blue Earth and black space. Enjoy.

The bright Sun and the blue Earth (Courtesy: NASA/ISS)

The Sun is a thing of immense beauty and fearful fury. We perceive it as an object which has given us life, but it’s really indifferent. We shall forever be in its awe.

‘Jeopardy’ Champion Supercomputer Watson Set To Tackle Medical Problems

After Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson is ready to face challenges from the real world. It is all set to fulfil its intended destiny.

Watson clobbering other participants on Jeopardy

No More Playing Games

Watson is best known for walloping human Jeopardy champions at their own game. However, this is just the tip of the Iceberg, as far as Watson is concerned. Originally conceived to serve as a fool-proof database for medicine and healthcare, Watson has been picked up by WellPoint Inc. to serve as an invaluable source for patient information, medical history, known treatments, operational procedures and much more. Watson will be able to delve into its deep memory bank, which will be fed with a huge library of medical books and journals, to come up with a solution in seconds.

The computing behemoth

Though it is obvious what great help this can be, Dr, Sam Nussbaum, Wellpoint’s chief medical officer puts it nicely:

Imagine having the ability within three seconds to look through all of that information, to have it be up to date, scientifically presented to you, and based on that patient’s medical needs at the moment you’re caring for that patient.

No, Watson is not here to replace human doctors, but it can support them really well. Watson’s great computing speed will also be of great help to cancer research and ontological operational procedures.

The amount for which Watson’s services are being availed for is unknown. Watson’s $1 million, won in Jeopardy, was given to charity.

This is the beginning of the road for Watson, says IBM. Watson will then be able to take up challenges from other human sectors, like finances, public works and security.

Of Glow-In-The-Dark Cats And A Cure For AIDS

Whether it be as a pet or a way to test for AIDS resistance, glowing cats are always handy to have around the lab. Fluorescent cats are now being used to study the resistance of the species to the AIDS virus.

The Feline Version of AIDS

Cats, just like humans, are infected by AIDS and have no resistance against the virus. Scientists decided to study the resistance of a few genetically modified cats to the action of the Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus (FIV), the feline equivalent of the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV). However, the rhesus macaque, a member of the monkey genus, is capable to resisting the AIDS virus. The idea was to inject the restriction factors’ (a set of genes) into the cats and see how the newer generations adapt to this genetic change. In order to track the passage of these antiviral genes throughout the cat’s body, scientists used fluorescent protein extracted from jelly fish. The unimaginatively named Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) acts as a perfect marker and makes the cat, no prizes for guessing, glow with a green fluorescence.

Bright and green! Not to mention, cute.

Immunity As Bright As A Glowing Cat

While it may seem amusing to some, and even macabre to others, GFP is a common way of chromatically tagging cells or tissues in the biotech lab. It is easily available and  gives intense colours around 395 nm (green) wavelength. It is used as a biosensor’, to test whether some inserted genes can be expressed in a particular cell or not.

The antiviral gene and the GFP were both injected into the egg of a female cat. The next generation of cats developed the characteristic glow. Cells taken from these cats were then tested for resistance against FIV and, lo behold, they were indeed found to be resistant.

This is a vital step and might hold the key to finding a cure for the AIDS virus for humans too. The next step in research would be to introduce full-grown injected cats to the AIDS virus and see whether the immunity is multi-cellular or not.

Cats are promising to shed new light on an old menace, in more ways than one.

Discovered ‘Super-Earth’ Could Harbor Life: Is This Our Cosmic Neighbor?

According to a huge announcement by the European Southern Observatory, more than 50 alien planets discovered by its telescope could harbour life. Out of these 50, 16 are so-called super Earths’, or planets that are similar to our own, but bigger.

The Goldilocks Zone

Earth is unique in the sense that it is a rocky planet, contains water in liquid form and is at an optimum distance from the host star. This allows the temperature to be within habitable range, as well as supports diverse weather conditions. These are the signs that astronomers were looking for while scouring the sky with the exo-planet hunting telescope. Sixteen of the potentially habitable 50 were declared to be Earth-like.

An Artist's Impression of the Alien Planet (Courtesy: ESO)

Amongst these 16, one of the planets caught the astronomers’ attention. This Super-Earth, called HD 85512b, orbits its star within the habitable region a narrow region around the star where conditions could be optimal to support known forms of life.

Finding an Alien Planet

The ESO’s instrument of pride is the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) telescope. The HARPS telescope is more a spectroscope than a conventional telescope. It measures changes in the spectral signature of a planet-star system. This simply means that the light intensity and wavelength both change and tracking these gives hints of a planet orbiting a star. Accurate measurements can give the mass of the planet, and sometimes, even the composition.

Planets tug on stars due to gravity and this makes the star wobble slightly. These radial velocity signals’ can be easily picked up by HARPS. The enormous resolution of HARPS ensures that it can even detect the slightest of wobbles.

HD 85512b is located pretty close by too. It is only 35 light-years away and is estimated to be 3.6 times more massive than the Earth. Orbiting in the habitable region’, the super-Earth could possibly support liquid water.

Only further studies will reveal whether this super-Earth is indeed inhabited by beings as complex as those found on Earth. Have we just found the home of our intergalactic neighbour?

In Aerial And Space Photos: Remembering 9-11 With A Humble Tribute

As the towers collapsed, the seeds of change in the world were sown. It was a day when the imagination of the human brain reached its ultimate destructive extreme. It was a day when planes would turn into missiles and the fragile respect’ or truce between the Western world and the Islamic world would shatter into uncountable fragments. The fragments that might never be put back together again.

In this article we aim to present a humble tribute to the victims of that day and to all the people who lost their loved ones. A mirror placed in front of civilization would reveal the truth there are many people who would happily kill themselves just to kill others in the worst way possible, due to some ill-placed notions about an all-powerful creator of the universe.

It also starkly showed the helplessness of technology. Hijackers, having only knives and box-cutters with them and a single-minded motive to cause as much destruction as possible, overcame the huge web of technologically well-equipped security on that dark day. An overdose of confusion in the American command ranks helped their cause to no end.

Here we present a brief timeline and a series of photos taken either from space or from some aerial vantage point. First, a brief time-line.


Pre-8:30: Flight 11, 175 and 93 are off in the air. All of them are Boeing-767 passenger jets.

8:30 AM: First indication that Flight 11 might have been hijacked. No serious alarm is raised. Officers think that this is a routine hijack procedure and get ready to negotiate with hijackers.

8:33 AM: Flight 11 banks sharply to the south south-east towards New York.

8: 35 AM: Authorities still not sure whether Flight 11 is hijacked or not. Confirmation comes in around this time that the flight has actually been hijacked. Boston Center realizes’ threat and calls for New York City military to scramble fighter aircraft. Nothing comes of that request.

8:40 8:43 AM: Flight 11 loses altitude drastically. Air Traffic Control thinks it will make an emergency landing. However, it is moving too fast!

8:46 AM: The First Plane Hits the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

8:50 8:52 AM: Flight 175 is suspected to be hijacked. The transponder code is changed twice and this is the first hint of trouble.

While all of this is happening, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is undergoing a routine counter-terrorism drill. It was establish to handle the threat of something like 9/11, but is saddled with lack of information. The nearby Otis Air Base has F-16 fighters ready to engage any hostile or intruder aircraft, but the NORAD North Eastern Air Defense (NEADS) Radar picks up nothing and it has to constantly get information from the FAA about the movements of Flight 11. NEADS picks up Flight 11, only to see the blip on the radar suddenly vanish the plane had just crashed into the WTC tower.

8: 50 AM: White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleisher, riding in President Bush’s motorcade remarks Oh My God! I don’t believe it. A plane has just hit the World Trade Center. People are still thinking that this was an accident, even though a gruesome one. Flight 175 is suddenly discovered off-course.

8:57 8:59 AM: People in the South Tower are assured that nothing is the matter. An isolated fire in the North Tower is no great cause of concern for South Tower workers. They are given an open option of leaving or staying. It’s okay’. Most people leave despite the assurance.

9:03 AM: Flight 175 Hits The South Tower Of the World Trade Center.

The Second Plane Hits the South Tower of the World Trade Center

Millions watch it live around the world.

 A Photo Tribute

Manhattan After the attack, as seen from Space
When the North Tower Collapsed
Aerial Photo of Manhattan, after the North Tower Fell
Sunlight seems to remind everyone where the Twin Towers stood at Ground Zero.
Light filters through the rubble, as the Sun rises the day after. The Towers are no more.

NASA recently paid tribute to the victims of the horrific incident by sending American flag chains to outer space. It has recovered small metal fragments from Ground Zero and sent them to Mars along with the Lunar Rovers. Both Spirit and Opportunity have motors containing these metal fragments along with an American flag. Astronauts have sent their condolences from space.

Light beams indicate where the Twin Towers once stood. Photo from 9/11/2009.

Ten years down the line, the world bears the scars of that horrible day, which have only been deepened by time. However, it is what we don’t see that is the starkest reminded of the outcome of absolute fanatical madness the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Enjoy the Latest NASA’s GRAIL Twin Spacecrafts Launch Pics

After numerous attempts, the GRAIL spacecrafts are finally on their way to the moon aboard the Delta-II rockets. Here we bring you the freshest photos from the launch.

The Delta II rockets were finally launched during the second window on 10th September at 09:08:52 AM EST. The first window opportunity was not availed because of upper atmospheric conditions. The launch was absolutely successful!  

Our GRAIL coverage:

The GRAIL launch buildup:

The GRAIL NASA Tweetup:

NASA’s Awesome Moon Pics Two Days Before GRAIL Launch:

GRAIL Scrubbed and Moon’s North Pole Pic:


Both the First and Second Stage Delta II rockets were ignited perfectly. GRAIL-A, one of the twin spacecrafts, separated from the module at 10:29 AM EST. GRAIL-B separated out at 10:39 AM EST.

Enjoy the GRAIL launch photos below!

Delta II rockets on the launch pad
Still on the pad. T-30 second till launch
Launch!! GRAIL is on its way to the moon


T-10 seconds into flight
The first stage rocket separation.
The Second Stage of the Delta-II Rocket Separation. Showing GRAIL-A breaking off from the Delta Module. It is now flying solo. Taken by the Separation Cam on the Delta rocket nose. The rectangular falling payload is the GRAIL-A spacecraft.
Earth as seen by the Delta rocket after the GRAIL-A separation (Courtesy: NASA TV)

We wish GRAIL the very best for the mission. The Moon’s secrets shall be known!

Courtesy: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ NASA-TV

Our GRAIL coverage:

The GRAIL launch buildup:

The GRAIL NASA Tweetup:

NASA’s Awesome Moon Pics Two Days Before GRAIL Launch:

GRAIL Scrubbed and Moon’s North Pole Pic: