Australia Witnesses a Bright And Slow ‘Meteor'; It’s Just Space Junk

A bright object lit up the Australian night sky earlier today evening. It’s widely believed to be nothing more than space junk, and not an actual meteor.

Cropped frame grab from a YouTube video.
Cropped frame grab from a YouTube video.

At about 10 PM local time, on the 10th of July, there were widespread reports of a bright object streaking across the sky over southeastern Australia. It was initially thought to be a naturally occurring rock which had invaded the Earth’s atmosphere. However, it moved very slowly. Experts later confirmed that the flaming object was a piece of the Soyuz 2-1B rocket which was launched a couple of days back, in order to put a meteorological satellite called, ironically, Meteor M2 in orbit. The witnessed object is just the upper stage of the Soyuz rocket.

It is highly unlikely that anyone would be hit by such space debris, but the sight did cause a massive sensation. There were even occasional fragmentation as one would expect from such an object making reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the aspect which caught most Australians off-guard was the very slow speed. Here is a video which is being circulated. It was shot using a mobile phone camera:

So, it’s just space debris making a lively reentry.

High-Def Video Captures A Comet As It Plunges Into The Sun

NASA’s SOHO telescope has just captured the last few moments of a comet as it smashed into the Sun. The Comet SWAN, presently officially known as C/2012 E2 (SWAN), can be clearly seen plunging into the Sun. SOHO’s LASCO C2 and C3 camera took the photos, which were then stitched up to form a High-Definition video.

The point to note is that SWAN did not actually crash into the Sun. There was no contact – it vaporized much before that. The nearest distance calculated turns out to be 350,000 km away from the Solar surface, but probably, the comet was gone much before that.

Here is a stunning photo snapped by the LASCO C2 camera, which clearly shows the SWAN comet before its demise.

Comet Swan can be clearly seen on the bottom left quarter (Courtesy: NASA, SOHO)

SWAN was a bright comet. Comet scientists were quite enthusiastic about it. Its doom was predicted by many and so SOHO knew exactly what to look for – and found it. Take a look at this spectacular video, all in 1080p goodness!

Please note that the ensuing solar flare seen in the video occurring diametrically opposite to the SWAN comet’s trajectory is just a coincidence. The two events occur hours apart and the solar flare is completely uncorrelated to the cometary demise. No comet is big enough to cause that big a disturbance on the Sun’s surface.

Enjoy the carnage.

Huge Solar Flare Headed Directly For Earth; To Strike In A Few Hours

A huge Solar Flare is heading towards Earth and is expected to collide in a few hours. On the 4th of March, night time in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Sun released a huge amount of charged particles travelling at large speeds in what was a X1.1 class Solar Flare. These particles are going to collide with the Earth’s atmosphere and generate spectacular auroral shows near the poles, and may even cause problems in communication in certain places.


Direct Aim

The bad news is that this solar flare, or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME’s), ejected from the active sunspot AR1429, is aimed directly at Earth. This falls in a series of very big solar flares from the Sun over the last year or so, leading up to the maximum of the 11-year Solar Cycle in 2013. The only difference between this present one and the previous ones is that the earlier ones were not directly straight at us.

You may expect significant disturbances in satellite communications, may be even partial blackouts for a few hours. Power grids are also expected to be hit. NASA is also tracking the exact trajectory of the CME, fearing for the astronauts on the International Space Station.

The expected arrival time is about 2300 EST on 6th March, but it could be early morning on 7th March.

What To Expect

The bottomline is this: Watch out for Auroras if you are in the higher latitudes, whether in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. In addition to that, do not be surprised if you are rendered without mobile network or even power for a few hours, especially if you reside in the higher latitudes. Do make light preparations for that.

NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Detects Oxygen Gas On Saturn’s Moon

It’s not quite breathable, but Saturn’s moon Dione still has a bit of molecular oxygen within its very thin atmosphere. The oxygen atoms are very sparse, only about one molecule of oxygen per 11cubic centimeters (cc) of space. The fact was reported by NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft.

An artist's impression of the Cassini spacecraft flying past Saturn.

But how did it get there?

The interesting bit about the oxygen is how it comes to be! The oxygen is not made by biological organisms, unlike here on Earth, but by physical processes like dissociation of molecules in the atmosphere due to the bombardment by highly energetic photons. They can also come from geological activity. How the tiny Dione holds on to this thin layer of gases is, however, not understood. Saturn’s biggest moon Titan, possibly the biggest in the Solar System, has a thick atmosphere, but then it’s much bigger than Dione. Dione’s atmospheric problem compounds the problem astronomers have of explaining the atmosphere around Rhea, another small satellite of Saturn.

Not that big a surprise

The detection of molecular oxygen was done using ion and neutral mass spectrometers. Earlier, Hubble had picked up the signature of ozone, so molecular oxygen was always on the cards, since ozone is just the oxygen molecule with one more oxygen atom.

It is not clear whether there are rarer gases in Dione’s atmosphere and, if present, what their composition is.

The conclusion comes from analysis of the data taken on the Cassini flyby on Dec 12, 2011.

Faster-Than-Light Results Debunked by Computer Glitch? Hold On, Not So Fast!

The neutrino story is still not an open and shut case. You’ve probably read about the supposed computer glitch by now. If you haven’t, we have it right here. However, as more details pour in, more surprises tumble out! It turns out that there wasn’t just one computer error, there were, in fact, two!! And this complicates matters

Twin Glitches

Error #1

New York Times reports that one source of error is the GPS measurement system, or more precisely, the optical cable connecting the GPS receiver to the detector. This is a five mile long cable and the faulty wiring could’ve easily put the measurements back by 60 nanoseconds, which was the exact amount of time by which the neutrinos beat the speed of light. This is the story we reported earlier.

Error #2

However, it seems that there was yet another unaccounted systematic error! There is a piece of equipment that marks the exact time for the GPS measurements, taking into account all sorts of relativistic corrections.

However, this would speed up the neutrinos even more, making the case for the violation of relativity even stronger.

The first error has been corrected, but the second error is yet to be taken care of.

Add and subtract the errors? No? What’s wrong?

As any student of physics would know, errors like these cannot simply be added or subtracted. For extreme precision experiments, like the OPERA  experiment, one cannot tweak the experimental data in order to do take into account all technical glitches. The only way to resolve this would be to fix the systematics and run the experiment again!

The experiment would definitely need an independent test to be refuted, now more than ever, since these unexpected question marks have been put up against it.

Discovered: Solid Buckyballs In Space!

They were popularized by being compared to nanoscale footballs, made up of a large number of carbon atoms. However, no one thought that they were as ubiquitous as the latest Spitzer results suggest them to be. They are called Buckminsterfullerene, or more commonly, buckyballs, after the architect, Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic designs resemble these natural structures.

A C-60 buckminsterfullerene

Spitzer discovers buckyballs

Enter Spitzer, the premier infrared satellite in the world right now. It roams around in space in an orbit around the Earth, since the atmosphere would block most of the infrared radiation. It has recently caught buckyballs around the double star system XX Ophiuchi. What’s more, the buckyballs are in solid form, and this can be easily figured out since the diffuse gaseous form gives a different absorptions spectrum compared to the solid one.

This is the first detection of solid buckyballs in space. Incidentally, the relatively wide presence of buckyballs in space was established by Spitzer itself in 2010.

Buckyballs are quite useful here on earth. They are extremely resistant to heat, pressure and chemical action. They have been thought to be shrink wraps, with the buckyballs acting as ‘cages’. Furthermore, their high tensile strength can be utilized in things like armour.

Buckyballs in space. An artist's impression (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)

More carbon, better it is!

Buckyballs being found in outer space means that there is much more carbon in space than previously thought. Scientist think that this allotrope of carbon might indicate that more common allotropes like graphite might be present.

Mike Werner, NASA’s Spitzer telescope project scientist currently at JPL, Pasadena, California, says:

This exciting result suggests that buckyballs are even more widespread in space than the earlier Spitzer results showed. They may be an important form of carbon, an essential building block for life, throughout the cosmos.

The story appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Just before you leave us to do more mundane terrestrial stuff here’s a nice video, courtesy

Swiss-Made Satellite To Clean Up Space

Space is filling up with junk and the Swiss are not very happy about it. They would like to make space look like the bedroom your mother always wanted you to maintain. To achieve this, they are launching a satellite to clean up space junk. The satellite has been christened CleanSpace One.

An artist's impression of CleanSpace One (Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images)

The Swiss space center at Ecole Polytechnique (EPFL) at Lausanne wants to make this ‘janitor satellite’ to clear space of all the dead rocket bits, the different booster stages and pieces of old satellites. There are more than a million shreds of junk out there, orbiting at 18,000 mph, each posing threats ranging from mild to severe.

The satellite will be launched in another 5 years and is expected to cost SFr 10 million (SFr = Swiss Franc) or $11 million.

A Big Problem!

To give you a sense of how serious the problem of junk is, we need consider the US satellite Iridium-33. It exploded when the obsolete and abandoned Cosmos-2251, a Russian satellite, hit it in Feb, 2009. This in turn created more fragments of junk, which may turn out to be just as disastrous in future.

CleanSpace One will pursue junk pieces and then grab them with a robotic hand. After it has cleaned up most of what it intended, it will just drop down through the atmosphere, burning up much before it reaches Earth, incinerating the junk along with itself.

Just the beginning…

And this is just the first step, says EPFL. Says Volker Gass, director at the space center, on the EPFL website:

We want to offer and sell a whole family of readymade systems, designed as sustainably as possible, that are able to de-orbit several different kinds of satellites.

Watch out space junk, here come the Swiss!

NASA Captures Europe Reeling In Severe Winter; Spectacular Space Image Reveals Bleak Situation

Entire Europe is reeling under an intense cold spell. This is the worst that Europe has seen since February 1991. NASA’s Terra satellite reveals this with a photograph. Most of the area is blue, indicating a temperature much below the normal. The data stretches from January 25th to February 1st. The “normal temperatures” are estimated from data ranging from January 25th to February 1st over the years 2001 to 2011. And this is just the land temperature. Oceans and lakes appear in gray. This was NASA’s photo of the day today.

The image that NASA's Terra satellite took of the entire landmass of Europe. The scale (below) shows how further below the normal the temperatures across Europe are. (Courtesy: NASA)

This year’s tremendous cold throughout the Northern Hemisphere is a not a sign of global warming, but of erratic climate conditions, which might be indirectly linked to global warming.
Jeff Masters explains it as being due to the Jet streams, or rather their anomalous flow patterns. Jet streams are wide streams of air in the atmosphere and, like ocean currents in the sea, they separate different pockets or regions of air from one another. One of them blows from the west to the east along the middle latitudes, separating cold air from the north from the warmer air packets to the south. This year the Jet stream pattern has been very convoluted and the usual stream is now flowing further south. This means that the cold air front has descended southwards, covering much of Europe and leading to this spell of intense cold.

News from the Himalayas

In related news, a different perspective tab on global weather provides both relief and astonishment. While climatologists have already given their prediction of fast melting of glaciers in the Himalayan regions, it seems that the glaciers have not melted much in the last year or so.
Prof. Jonathan Bamber, glaciologist at Bristol Glaciology Center, University of Bristol, says that this is extremely unusual that the ice mass loss is “not significantly different from zero”. However, the results of the climate scientists fall bang on for the mass loss experienced by Antarctica, Arctic, Greenland and the Alaskan permafrost. The data anomaly for Himalayan regions might indicate some region-specific variation that is difficult to incorporate into models.

Climate denial

This should be music to the ears of climate deniers and provide some much needed ammo in their depleted armory. They have always viewed the conclusions as being falsely alarmist and have called them a fraud. However, outright denial is something to be guarded against. Simon Cook warns:

All too often in the past, media reports have presented a ‘black and white’ view of glacier response to climate change. The reasons for this complex global picture are not clear: some places warm more than others, some places experience more precipitation and, hence, snowfall to maintain glaciers is in positive or neutral balance. What is clear is that more research is required to evaluate the response of glaciers to climate change.

In the absence of an alternative to Earth, we ought to do our bit to prevent the ruin of this planet. And we can start off by taking scientists a bit more seriously.

Kepler Receives First Images; Looks To Be From An Alien Civilization, But Isn’t

The 100-m Green Bank Telescope in Virginia has just picked up a strange radio signal, originating from KOI 817 (with KOI standing for Kepler Object of Interest) that looks as if an alien civilization is transmitting to us. SETI is excited as this is the type of radio signal it would expect from an alien civilization.

The signal that Green Bank picked up.

Not from an alien world

However, before the excitement can get too wild, SETI says that this signal is definitely terrestrial, rather than extraterrestrial. The signals have “terrestrial radio frequency interference” or RFI. Right now, the signals are a great source for SETI astronomers to study radio-frequencies, should they encounter a radio-emitting alien civilization.

The radio signals are narrow in frequency range (photo above), much narrower than anything that would be produced by an astrophysical radio source. The frequency of the signals is also perfect! Even the Doppler shift is just right, with the frequency decreasing at the precise rate expected from the relative motion of the transmitter and the receiver. A team from UC Berkeley has this to say:

These signals look similar to what we think might be produced from an extraterrestrial technology. They are narrow in frequency, much narrower than would be produced by any known astrophysical phenomena, and they drift in frequency with time, as we would expect because of the Doppler effect imposed by the relative motion of the transmitter and the receiving radio telescope

The Kepler satellite

Kepler has been remarkably successful in detecting exoplanets. It has achieved much success by looking at ‘transits’, or the passage of planets in front of their suns. Kepler needs four transits to confirm the existence of an alien planet. This takes around 3.5 years.

So, tantalizing it might seem, but it’s just not true. Kepler has not yet found alien life, leave alone intelligent alien life. But the search continues…

Reference and more info here:
Berkeley link:

Night Photo Reveals Reality About North Korea

The ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, died yesterday and there have been hysterical reactions from the ‘subjects’. They have been wailing at the passing away of a great leader. Similar scenes were observed, when Kim Il Sung, the previous premier of N.Korea, died in 1994. Unfortunately for the North Koreans, the thin curtain of make belief doesn’t last too long, especially when aerial technology is so very advanced these days. The sentiments of the public are undoubtedly genuine, but the facts presented to them are invariably not. N. Korea is a dying republic, the country’s media has been hijacked and personal freedom is an alien concept. The South, along with the US, is not as great an enemy of the North Koreans as the leaders ruling the thin strip of land.

Crisis. Untold.

One of the most defining images that has caught this sentiment is the distribution of power throughout N.Korea at night. Here is the dramatic image that was snapped from a satellite and it should speak volumes without me having to spell out anything at all! The lone bright spot is Pyongyang, the capital.

A look at the distribution of lights in the Korean Peninsula at night. The only bright spot in the northern half is Pyongyang.

Now, with the passing away of their leader, N.Korea is suddenly again in the political eye of the world. The grossly misnamed ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (DMZ), lying between the two Koreas has been religiously maintained by both the countries. It is one of the most heavily militarized stretches of land on Earth, wrote Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, part of, probably, the most definitive journalistic essay on North Korea. Across the waist of the Korean Peninsula lies a wasteland, roughly following the 38th Parallel, and packed with a titanic concentration of potential violence. Unfortunately, for N.Korea, this means sucking out every bit of resource from every other part of the governance, just to keep itself at the brink of war with its much advanced and US-backed southern counterpart. The DMZ has been a constant source of conflict and tension between the two countries and, with China tacitly supporting the North and the US openly supporting the South, it is a tinderbox.


Here is a second image, similar to the one before. This was taken by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite.

A similar image of the two Koreas. Taken by the DMSP.

This is both sad and dangerous; sad because of the obvious reasons and dangerous because the citizens of this unfortunate country have been brainwashed into seeing beyond this most obvious misery.

As a human being, I find it abhorrent to wish for the death of some other fellow human, but on this occasion, I hope that the death of the leader of a forsaken country will be an opportunity, albeit a slight one.

Best Wishes!