Failed Russian Mars Spacecraft Phobos-Grunt Crashes Into The Pacific Ocean

The Phobos-Grunt Mars Moon spacecraft has hit water! According to Russian defense ministry reports, the re-entering satellite fragmented and fell into the Pacific Ocean about 1,250 km west of Wellington Island, an island to the west of the Patagonian Ice Field, Chile. The crash took place at 18:45 CET, say several sources.

More details from our previous report:

The craft…

There was initial panic and both Roskosmos and NASA played crucial roles in assuring the public that the fears were unfounded. The fears of a toxic nuclear fuel spill were allayed by statements by NASA on their website.

Initial reports indicate that no spill has taken place. There have also been no reports of any debris falling on habited areas.

… And the dreams surrounding it.

The spacecraft was supposed to land on Mars’ moon, Phobos, in order to study the satellite. It was supposed to collect soil samples and return to Earth. Unfortunately for the $170 billion craft, it failed right during the launch and was stuck in orbit for a long time. It had even gone off the radar. After several unsuccessful attempts at locating and communicating with the craft, it was finally found. Several attempts were made by both Russian and American scientists to bring the craft safely back to Earth or to steer it to its original mission. All efforts failed. Left with no options and a potentially dangerous craft hanging mid-air, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, along with NASA, decided to send the craft to a watery grave.

Russian Mars Moon Probe Phobos-Grunt To Crash Into Atlantic Ocean Tomorrow Amid Widespread Concerns

It’s just at the stage of concern at the moment, but the time when it’ll suddenly change to panic is not far away. The doomed Russian Mars spacecraft Phobos-Grunt, is scheduled to plunge into the water tomorrow. The problem is that no one knows where it’ll hit.

Estimated location: South of Buenos Aires, in the Atlantic Ocean near Falkland Islands.

Estimated time of impact: 8:22 PM GMT


What could have been! Artist's impression of the craft on Phobos, a moon of Mars. (Courtesy:

The craft had been launched on November 9th, but got stuck in orbit soon afterwards. There were several attempts made to get it working, but nothing came of those. Now, the Russian space agency wants to bring it down permanently.

Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, added to this atmosphere of confusion with a wrong prediction. They had initially said that it would fall somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but later retracted that statement and said that it would hit somewhere in the Atlantic. Its official statement, as told to Interfax:

Phobos-Grunt will enter the atmosphere over Argentina and have its fragments splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The latest estimate by Roscosmos showed that the craft will descend somewhere south of Buenos Aires, but that puts the Falkland Islands in some danger of being hit. The time of the crash was supposedly Sunday afternoon, but Roscosmos modified that to late evening, with the new time being 1622 GMT.

Serious Concerns

The concerns arise from two main sources.

Large Size

Firstly, the craft is quite big. It is dwarfed only by the Mir Space Station when it comes to objects that have been pulled down from orbit and plunged into the ocean. The craft is big enough to allow about 20-30 pieces of debris, each weighing more than 200 kg, to survive the fall and hit earth.

Nuclear spill

Secondly, the big fear is that of a toxic nuclear spill. The craft was packed with enough nuclear fuel to take it to Mars. Obviously, in just 2 months only a fraction has been burnt up. NASA has, however, played down the fears saying that the fuels batteries are made of aluminum instead of titanium. Aluminum will rupture and allow the fuel to be burnt during freefall. NASA reported on its official website:

According to Mr. Johnson, aluminum has a lower melting point than titanium and that significantly reduces the chances of the propellant reaching the surface of the Earth.

(Mr. Johnson refers to Nicholas Johnson, one of NASA’s chief scientists).

Roscosmos has promised to keep all concerned nations and the United Nations posted on developments about the craft.

An embarrassing setback

The Phobos-Grunt mission represents a serious setback for the Russian space agency, which is well past its peak. The mission was quite ambitious, and success would’ve been glorious, especially in the backdrop of the retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet. However, the Russians seem quite ill-equipped to seize this golden moment provided by History.

The craft might end tomorrow, but the embarrassment will live on for quite some time.

Size Of A Byte : Less Than 100 Atoms, Courtesy IBM!

Data storage units, as thin as a few strands of hair, may soon be on the cards. IBM and the German Center for Free-Electron Laser Science (CFEL) have come up with a new size of the byte and it’s the world’s smallest data storage unit. The storage unit – one bit – comprises just 12 atoms! The byte – or 8 bits – thus comprises just 96 atoms, far less than the 500 million atoms that normal hard drives of today take!

A bit! Two arrays of anti-ferromagnetic ordered iron atoms, as seen by spin-polarized imaging techniques using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (Courtesy: DESY/ Helmholtz Research Association)


This amazing fabrication comes from the IBM Almaden research Center in San Jose, California. They made up two rows of iron atoms, each row being six atoms long. Each atom was placed carefully on the substrate using a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM). This formed one byte. The team then made 8 such structures. Each byte covers just 4 nm x 16 nm area (nm = nanometer; 1 nm = One billionths of a meter).

Using Spin States

The storage is done using the spin states of the ferromagnetic iron atoms. The two states – 0 and 1 – representing on and off respectively, are simulated by the spin being either parallel or anti-parallel to a certain direction. The state can be changed using the STM, employing a tiny electric pulse. Thus data can be written into and also read out of these tiny atomic magnetic units. The electric pulse, only a few nano amperes strong, can only be stable at very low temperatures like 5 Kelvin or minus 268 degrees Celsius.

The revolutionary idea, as compared to the conventional storage devices, is the use of anti-ferromagnetic order of the adjacent iron atoms. This means that two neighboring toms will have two different states of spin – one will be ‘up’ and the other ‘down’. This will make the bulk material non-magnetic.

Building bottoms-up starting from single atoms is by no mean task! Only a very few research facilities in the world have been able to master the wizardry. But, why 12 atoms? Sebastian Loth, who migrated from IBM to CFEL and is the lead of the study explains it:

Beneath this threshold quantum effects blur the stored information.

There is a long way to go for these atomic devices to be made available for public use.

The paper highlighting this new fabrication appeared on Science (link) on 13th January, 2012.

Info obtained from:

LSU Professor Discovers World’s Smallest Vertebrate

Louisiana State University’s Dr. Christopher C. Austin made an itsy-bitsy, yet monumental discovery. His team found two new species of frogs, one of which is the tiniest vertebrate known to man. The previous record had been held by a small Indonesian fish. The tiny discovery was made during a three month long excursion to the tropical island of Papua New Guinea. Though the discovery was made in 2009, the findings were recently published in the Journal PLoS One.

When I say itsy-bitsy I mean tiny enough to fit on the tip of your finger. The frogs belong to the genus Paedophryne, which sports the smallest frogs in the world. The smallest of the two they named Amauensis after Amau Village in the Central Province of New Guinea. The tiny polliwog has an average measurement of 7 millimeters long. You can see this little guy pictured below, sitting on a dime.

Paedophryne Amauensis sitting on a dime (Courtesy of PLoS One)

The second of the two newly discovered species they named Swiftorum after the Swift family who funded the Kamiali Biological Station where the species was found. It is only slightly larger than its record-breaking cousin with an average size of 8.5 millimeters. You can see Swiftorum pictured below, in his natural habitat.

Swiftorum sitting in the wild. (Courtesy PLoS One)

Locating the frogs was not an easy task. Dr. Austin and graduate student Eric Rittmeyer, were intrigued by high pitched calls they were hearing on the forest floor. After several attempts to pinpoint the location of the sound, they decided to scoop up a bunch of leaf litter and bag it up. They then proceeded to search through the litter leaf by leaf until the tiny frog revealed itself. They were caught a little by surprise as they expected it to be an insect. Leaf litter on the forest floor provides essential moisture for these little guys to survive. It seems mini frogs have a tendency to dry out easily. According to the PLoS One publication, “this may explain the absence of diminutive frogs from temperate forests and tropical dry-forests, where the leaf litter is seasonally dry”.

This is a significant find because until recently, extreme sizes in nature were thought to be mostly supported in aquatic environments. For instance, the smallest known vertebrate before this discovery was a fish and the largest known is the blue whale. This led scientists to believe that extreme sizes were a result of buoyancy. Neither of these frogs live in water so this discovery challenges that notion.

For more information about Dr. Austin’s research, visit his laboratory page at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.

Enjoy Mars As Seen Through 20,000 High-Resolution Images And Even In 3D!

You may have known Mars, but you’ve never seen it like this! It’s really a scientific tool, but the non-Mars specialists are free to have some fun with it! The Hi-resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). It is an awesomely cool science project involving imaging every square inch of Mars, with a resolution of 25 cm per pixel! The camera is built by the University of Arizona and mounted aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Over the last five and half years, it has returned over 20,620 images till date.  We give you the link below.
Dunes on Mars! No that's not shimmering water.

Addictive Mars!

Make sure you have time when you start browsing through these! It’s extremely addictive and I found myself trying to look at the dunes, then the craters, then the frosted plains, then the translucent ice on domes, then… The list is virtually endless. Go to any of the images and you’ll get numerous download options. Don’t try JP2 formats – it’s for people who want to work with the images and thus they are extremely big (a photo can measure 300 MB in size!). Try the jpeg format, which provides a compressed form of the image. RGB worked best for me. There is a ‘Science Theme’, which links it under a particular tab. Click that and you’ll be provided information on that particular theme, which you’re welcome to either relish or gobble up. You might even notice the ‘stereo pair’ reference, and I’ll explain what they are in a moment.

Downloads and a whole new dimension!

You can download a chunk of the most high resolution images by clicking ‘Updates’ right at the top of the screen. On the right, you should see download options in various resolutions. A click is all you need to take possession of masterpieces!

If you unintentionally click on the ‘Anaglyphs’ tag at the top of the screen, you’ve just discovered something awesome! You’ll see two images, which form ‘stereo pairs’. Combined and with the help of a 3D glass, you can see the images in 3D!! Yes, you read it right – the Martian topography in 3D in the comfort of your own room!

An example of dunes on Mars, which will appear in 3D!

Just one word of advice while using this database: make sure you have fun! Afterall, it’s Mars!

Inferred: 160 Billion Alien Worlds Out There!

No, we haven’t found life outside Earth as yet, but we have definitely improved our prospects. A growing number of telescopes has fuelled a burgeoning number of exoplanet discoveries, led primarily by the Kepler Space Telescope, which has detected 2330 long-period planets (planets having a period of more than a few days) till date. It has performed really well as compared to ground based telescopes, but there are plans to either upgrade it or replace it with a better model. According to Kepler, the count in the Milky Way now turns out to be 1.6 planets per star, and there being 100 billion stars, the count is 160 billion planets just within our galaxy!

An exoplanet (artist's impression). There are 160 billion of them, at least!

Kepler Space Telescope

Kepler works using a very simple principle. It monitors the light coming from certain stars over a period of a number of months. The data is then sent to ground based command centers, which analyse the data and look for the presence of any periodic dimming and brightening events. Any such periodic changes in the brightness of a star suggests that there is another body circling it, which periodically eclipses the star just a bit during its transit. This method also helps the telescope pick up periodic wobbles of the parent star. Observing the wiggles this causes in the spectral lines of the star, scientists can infer not only the presence of an alien planet, but also pinpoint its mass and orbital period.

Earth-like objects

Very recent observations by Kepler show a marked rise in the number of Earth-like rocky planets being discovered. These might not be of the same size of the Earth, or they might not orbit their stars at the optimal ‘Goldilocks’ distance, but they are not gas giants. This is important, since gas giants are not presumed to hold liquid water or harbor any kind of life form.

The study leading to this estimate of the number of exoplanets was led by Arnaud Cassan from the Paris Institute of Astrophysics and their work appeared in the January 12th issue of Nature.

Contact  may not have been such a far-fetched movie after all!

Hubble Pinpoints Farthest Protocluster of Galaxies Ever Seen

NASA announced in a press release yesterday, that astronomers using Hubble’s wide field camera discovered a cluster of galaxies at the beginning stages of development. This is the farthest away that a cluster such as this has ever been observed in the early Universe.  Michele Trenti, of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, presented the results to the American Astronomical Society.

5 Galaxies
This composite image shows 5 bright galaxies clustered together nearly 13 billion light years away. (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

Early Cosmic Get-Together

Hubble was used to do a random sky survey when it came across these five small, but bright, galaxies clustered together in the farthest reaches of space. It is estimated that these galaxies were formed just 600 million years after the big bang. Clusters are the largest objects observed in our universe. They are usually comprised of hundreds of thousands of galaxies that are bound to each other by gravity. It’s sort of like a cosmic game of Pac-Man. These galaxies collide and swallow each other up to form larger galaxies. The galaxies observed in the image above are smaller than our own; however, they match ours in brightness.

“These galaxies formed during the earliest stages of galaxy assembly, when galaxies had just started to cluster together,” said  Trenti.  “The result confirms our theoretical understanding of the buildup of galaxy clusters. And, Hubble is just powerful enough to find the first examples of them at this distance.”

Long Distance Challenge

One of the biggest challenges is finding clusters bright enough to be seen 13 billion light-years away. Finding galaxy clusters this far back is challenging because they are so dim and scattered across the sky.  Trenti expressed the need to examine many different areas as she said, “the search is hit and miss. Typically, a region has nothing, but if we hit the right spot, we can find multiple galaxies.”

Because the systems were so dim, the astronomers honed in on the brightest galaxies. The brighter the galaxy, the more mass it has which, in turn, marks a spot where cluster construction is most likely to occur. Astronomers use computer simulations to determine the way that these clusters likely formed. It is likely that there are many other galaxies in the same region that are just too dim to see.  Based on the simulations, astronomers suspect that these bright galaxies form the central core of the cluster and will eventually form an elliptical giant similar to a closer cluster nearby, Virgo Cluster’s M87.

There is still some work to be done. The distances were measured based on color and the team will soon use spectroscopic observations, which measure the expansion of space. This will help astronomers precisely calculate the cluster’s distance and the velocity of the galaxies, which will show whether they are gravitationally bound to each other.


Chandra, Spitzer and VLT Find Large Galaxy Cluster From Very Early Universe

A composite image reveals a thing of utter beauty! The Chandra X-Ray Telescope, the Spitzer and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have stitched together an image of a large Galaxy cluster that dates back right to the Early Universe, when galaxy formation was just starting to happen. The composite image is given below.

Image 1: The El Gordo Galaxy - the composite image. Blue represents the X-Rays, while the red and orange represent infrared and optical. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/JPL/ESO)

Enter the Fat Man

Named El Gordo, Spanish for ‘fat man’, this structure appears bloated in X-Ray and infrared images. The most interesting structure is the core, which is extremely bright in X-Rays. Chandra has mapped the central part and has come up with two distinct tail-like structures, indicating that two previously large structures have merged to form the El Gordo.

The object is located in the constellation Pheonix, but this is a very difficult constellation to spot, being both very faint and extremely southerly. El Gordo is located 7.17 billion light years from Earth, which is way further than the well-known Bullet Cluster that lies about 4 billion light years away.

Stitching together to form an image

The following two images are the ones obtained by Spitzer and VLT (Image 2) and by Chandra (Image 3).

Image 2: The El Gordo in Optical and Infrared frequencies. The data has been obtained from Spitzer (IR) and VLT (Optical). (Courtesy: Optical - ESO/VLT; IR - NASA/JPL)
Image 3: The El Gordo in X-Ray. Data obtained by the Chandra X-Ray Telescope. Notice the two distinct tails and the very X-Ray hot core. (Courtesy: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Hughes et al)

The composite image (Image 1) is made by combining data from the Chandra X-Ray Telescope, which gives the X-Ray data, the Spitzer telescope, which provides the infra-red (i.e. thermal) data and the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which maps the optical frequencies. The infrared and X-Rays are false coloured, with the X-Rays being represented by blue and the infrared by orange and red. The El Gordo’s central region is blue in the X-Ray, indicating that some violent X-Ray generating processes are afoot.

Dark Matter ripping out hot gases

El Gordo also shows signatures of gas which have been dispersed by dark matter, not unlike the Bullet cluster. Dark matter has not been stopped by collision, due to feeble interactions with the mass outside, but the hot gas has been. Dark matter has then ripped apart the hot gas and this forms the halo, which is incandescent in both Optical and X-ray frequencies, and presumably even in Radio. In fact, the X-Ray emitting hot gas, forming the halo-like structure around El Gordo, account for more than 90% of the visible mass of the galaxy cluster as compared to just about 1-3% contribution from actual stars. The number of stars is, however, massive – there are about 4 quadrillion (a million billion) of them!

World’s Most Extreme Deep-Sea Vents Found

A team led by the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and the University of Southampton have discovered the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents boiling in the Cayman Trough, an undersea trench south of the Cayman Islands. The expedition uncovered a new species of  shrimp and may suggest that deep-sea vents are more widespread around the world than previously thought.

Black Smoker
Black Smoker at the BFV 5 Km Deep (Courtesy of

Dr. Jon Copley of the University of Southampton and Dr. Doug Connelly at the National Oceanography Centre used the National Oceanography Centre’s robot submarine, called Autosub6000 and a deep-diving vehicle, HyBIS, to reach the boiling depths of the Cayman Trough nearly 5 Kilometers below the surface. What they found were hydrothermal vents nearly a Kilometer deeper than anywhere else in the world. The vents may be hotter than 450 °C and are shooting a concoction of minerals more than a Kilometre into the ocean above. The team named the vent field the Beebe Vent Field (BVF) after the first scientist to venture into the deep ocean.

The researchers discovered a new species of shrimp which they named Rimicaris hybisae, after the deep-sea vessel they used to collect them. The shrimp are related to shrimp found at other vent sites along the Mid-Atlantic ridge. They are unique as they don’t have eyes, but rather a light-sensing organ on their backs to help them navigate around the vents. Pictured below, you can see a tightly woven bunch of shrimp surrounding a volcanic vent.

New Shrimp
A New Species of Shrimp Congregates on Volcanic Vent (Courtesy

Even more surprising was the discovery of black smokers on the nearby Mount Dent. ““Finding black smoker vents on Mount Dent was a complete surprise,” says Connelly. “Hot and acidic vents have never been seen in an area like this before, and usually we don’t even look for vents in places like this.” Discovering these vents in this location could mean that volcanic vents are more prolific than once thought.

Relatively speaking, we haven’t known about hydrothermal vents very long. Since their discovery, more than 500 new species have been revealed and we have barely scratched the surface of the amount of vents waiting to be explored. This research gives us a much better understanding of the dispersal of fauna throughout the vent system and the evolution of the ocean.

For more information about this expedition see the following links:

You may also enjoy the following Techie Buzz article:

Caught on Film: Mimic Octopus Gets Mimicked by Jawfish

Charles Caleb Colton once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Some people like to mimic for entertainment, but animals do it for survival! The Mimic Octopus has long been known for its ability to transform its looks to protect itself from predators. However, Godehard Kopp, of the University of Gottingen in Germany, caught on film an unlikely partnership between a Mimic Octopus and a Black-Marble Jawfish. It appears that the Jawfish actually mimicked the Octopus as it changed colors.

Jawfish Mimics Octopus Banding (Courtesy Journal Coral Reefs)

The footage was taken on a dive in Indonesia. While it is not unusual to see the Mimic Octopus venture out under the guise of its own camouflage, seeing the Jawfish venture out was quite unusual. They are not very good swimmers and typically don’t venture out of the burrows they make in the sand. It appears that this one used “opportunistic mimicry” to transform its own colors to match that of the Octopus. This allowed the little guy to venture out, presumably to forage for food away from the confines of its burrow.

In the image below, notice how the Black-Marbled Jawfish makes itself appear to be a tentacle streaming from the Mimic Octopus. This is a great camouflage job because the Octopus is mimicking a deadly Lionfish pattern so that no predators will want to come its way.

Jawfish Mimic
Notice how the Jawfish looks like a tentacle.

Check out the video of the encounter below.

The ability that this Jawfish shows is unique and is not seen in its Japanese counterparts. For this reason, scientists believe this is opportunistic rather than obligate mimicry. A discovery like this shows how unique and diverse life can be in these coral reefs. Hopefully more can be done to protect this treasure.

For more information about this discovery, the original publication can be seen here.