Category Archives: Beary Scientist

Quiz Night

Ever wondered if you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut?

With four rounds, this quiz is a combination of various NASA aptitude tests. It will examine your knowledge of physics, test your logic, and then ask you how you’d react when faced with various life or death scenarios. There’s also a NASA general knowledge round at the end.

Give it a go and see if you could make it as an astronaut, or if you should keep your feet firmly planted on planet Earth.

Round one: physics!

If an object is in motion, what kind of energy does it possess?

What does the “C” stand for in this famous equation E = mc2 ?
Speed of light!

What cannot happen to energy?
It cannot be destroyed!

What is a nebula?
A cloud of dust and gas!

Isabelle, that’s not how a quiz works! You don’t ask the questions and then answer them yourself.

But I know all the answers!

Look, you can have dessert first!


Ok bearyone, round two: logic.

Planet : Mars  –  Fabric : ?

  • Flexible
  • Denim
  • Trousers

Infancy is to nursery, as adolescence is to?

  • Youth
  • High school
  • Teenager

Threatening : Growl  –  ? : Rainbow

  • Weather
  • Omnious
  • Colourful

Medicine : Illness

  • Law : Anarchy
  • Hunger : Thirst
  • Love: Treason

Round three: psychological screening.

You discover a fire on board the space station. What’s the FIRST thing that you do?

  • Grab your oxygen mask
  • Call Mission Control
  • Try to extinguish the fire
  • Sound the alarm and leave

You’re trapped in a lift with 10 strangers. People are starting to get panicked. What should you do?

  • See if you can work out a logical way to get everyone out the lift
  • Close your eyes and stay calm – help is coming
  • Attempt to calm down the people who are most distressed
  • Start screaming. Loud.

During a mission to the Moon, you and your crew crash land 200 miles away from the mother ship. You have to walk there. Apart from your oxygen tank, what’s the MOST IMPORTANT thing to take with you?

  • A box of matches
  • Signal flares
  • 20 litres of water
  • First-aid kit

You’ve discovered alien life on Mars, and brought a sample back to the ship. What should you do next?

  • Send it back down to Earth so it can be tested in a laboratory
  • Isolate it, ensuring it has no contact with the crew
  • Immediately begin tests
  • Call Mission Control

Round four: NASA general knowledge.

Which NASA space shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all the astronauts on board?

  • Explorer
  • Challenger
  • Galileo
  • Saturn V

Which was the first Apollo mission to successfully land on the Moon?

  • Apollo 10
  • Apollo 11
  • Apollo 12
  • Apollo 13

What is NASA’s motto?

  • For tomorrow’s future
  • To infinity and beyond
  • For the benefit of all
  • Onwards and upwards

How many astronauts can live on the International Space Station at once?

  • 6
  • 10
  • 15
  • 20

I’ll just finish this 🙂

Looks like pizza and no dessert, bearyone…

How did you go? Are you joining the bears and Buzz on the ISS? 🙂

Buzz Lightyear on the ISS

Answers: Denim; High School; Colourful; Law : Anarchy; Sound the alarm and leave; Attempt to calm down the people who are most distressed; 20 litres of water; Isolate it, ensuring it has no contact with the crew; Challenger; Apollo 11; For the benefit of all; 6.

One in a Trillion

Every single speck of sky visible from Earth contains a galaxy. So take a look at the night sky tonight and know that although you can’t see them, no matter where you look, the sky is packed with galaxies.

The number of galaxies scattered throughout the universe is beyond imagination. An analysis of images from the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that there are roughly two trillion galaxies populating space — ten times previous estimates.

Hubble’s eXtreme Deep Field Image (NASA)

The analysis uses mathematical models to estimate the number of both visible and hidden galaxies in snapshots like Hubble’s famous Deep Field image. The models suggest that only about ten percent of galaxies in the universe are observable from Earth. That means our current technology misses about 90 percent of what’s out there, including trillions of galaxies, each with tens or hundreds of billions of stars.

This does not mean that the universe is ten times bigger than we thought or that there are tens times the amount of stars. It means those stars are divvied up into many more galaxies than we previously believed.

Researchers have also found that about 13 billion years ago, when the universe began, galaxies were both smaller and roughly ten times more dense than just a few billion years later. This means that over time, galaxies merged with one another creating larger and more complex systems, confirmation of something known as the top-down formation of the universe.

Our own Milky Way galaxy is on schedule to collide with Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years. While the collision of two galaxies might conjure up images of mass devastation, the event will be largely imperceptible to our descendants, if any are still around. (They will have had to find another home: By that time, the increasing luminosity of our sun will have rendered Earth uninhabitable.) Galaxies are mostly empty space, so almost no stars or planets will actually collide. Nonetheless, the Milky Way as we know it will cease to exist. Initially, the two galaxies will slide past each other and draw apart until gravity hits the brakes and pulls them back together. As Andromeda and the Milky Way merge, both will lose their disk-like structure, forming a single elliptical galaxy that some astronomers have dubbed “Milkomeda”.

Our nearest large neighbor galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy. (Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Andromeda has already eaten up M32p. Andromeda, the Milky Way and M32p, three spiral galaxies in the Local Group, a family of about 50 galaxies in a region of space about 10 light-years across, swirled away near each other, sucking up matter and other smaller galaxies. But one day, Andromeda got so hungry that she crashed into M32p, gobbling her up and ripping her to shreds, leaving a trail of cosmic guts behind. As Andromeda and the Milky Way are roughly the same size, the Milky Way will have a fighting chance at coming out on top when galaxy spirals finally tangle.

The oldest galaxy ever spotted by Hubble is GN-z11, located 13.4 billion light years away. That means that the galaxy existed just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is astonishingly old, but it’s exciting for another reason: its brightness. Scientists didn’t realize that such large, starry galaxies existed so far in the past. They hope to keep studying similar galaxies both with Hubble and with the super-powered James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2021. According to NASA, while Hubble is able to see “toddler galaxies” the Webb’s infrared will allow it to see “baby galaxies”.

GN-z11, the “newest” old galaxy discovered by Hubble. (NASA/ESA)

Scientists calculated the distance to GN-z11 by measuring its redshift. As objects get farther and farther away, the visible light they emit stretches out and shifts more toward the red side of the spectrum. Researchers use these changes in the light’s wavelength relative to what the light would be for a stationary source to figure out how far away the galaxy is — all based on Edwin Hubble’s theory that the universe is expanding at a constant rate.

A 2015 image from the Hubble space telescope, highlighting some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. (ESA/NASA)
Galaxy SPT0615-JD is 13.3 billion years old (NASA/ESA/STScI/B. Salmon)

To peer through a telescope is to look back in time. The light reaching the lens has taken millions or even billions of years to travel through the vastness of space, which means every image is a snapshot of the distant past. And NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is a glorious time traveler, spotting galaxies over 13 billion years old that formed around when the universe began.

An Astronomer’s Paradise

The Milky Way and moon illuminate a lone tree in the Atacama Desert, Chile. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Chile is an astronomer’s paradise. The country is justly famous for its lush valleys and snowcapped volcanoes, but its most striking scenery may be overhead. It is home to some of the finest places on Earth to enjoy the beauty of the starry sky. If there’s one country in the world that really deserves stellar status, it’s Chile.

If you live in a city, you probably don’t notice the night sky at all. Yes, the moon is visible at times, and maybe you can see a bright planet like Venus every now and then, but that’s about it. Most people are hard-pressed to recognize even the most familiar constellations, and they’ve never seen the Milky Way.

Not so in Chile. A narrow strip of land, 4,300 kilometers long and 350 kilometers at its widest point, Chile is tucked between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. It stretches from the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the stark granite formations of the Torres del Paine National Park in the south. Large parts of Chile are sparsely populated, and light pollution from cities is hardly a problem. Moreover, the northern part of the country, because of its dry desert atmosphere, experiences more than 200 cloudless nights each year. Even more important to stargazers, Chile provides a clear view of the spectacular southern sky, which is largely invisible from countries north of the Equator.

A lagoon reflects the Milky Way in Atacama, Chile. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Long before European astronomers first charted the unknown constellations below the Equator, just over 400 years ago, the indigenous people of Latin America knew the southern sky by heart. Sometimes their buildings and villages were aligned with the heavens, and they used the motions of the sun, the moon and the stars to keep track of time. Their night sky was so brilliant that they even could recognize “dark constellations” — pitch-black, sinuous dust clouds silhouetted against the silvery glow of the Milky Way.

It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Western astronomers were drawn to Chile, in a quest for the best possible sites to build Southern Hemisphere observatories. Americans and Europeans alike explored the mountainous regions east of the port of La Serena, a few hundred kilometers north of the country’s capital, Santiago. Horseback expeditions lasting for many days — back then, there were no roads in this remote part of the world — took them to the summits of mountains like Cerro Tololo, Cerro La Silla and Cerro Las Campanas, where they set up their equipment to monitor humidity (or lack thereof), sky brightness and atmospheric transparency.

Before long, astronomers from American institutions and from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) erected observatories in the middle of nowhere. These outposts experienced their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but many of the telescopes are still up and running. European astronomers use the 3.6-meter telescope at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory to search for planets orbiting stars other than the sun. A dedicated 570-megapixel camera attached to the four-meter Blanco Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory is charting dark matter and dark energy—two mysterious components of the universe that no one really understands.

The European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile, just after sunset (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile (© Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

If you’re star trekking in Chile, it’s good to know that most professional observatories are open for tourists one day each week, usually on Saturdays. Check out their schedules in advance to prevent disappointment — the drive from La Serena to La Silla may take almost two hours, and the curvy mountain roads can be treacherous. Also, dress warm (it can be extremely windy on the summits), wear sunglasses and apply loads of sunblock.

Most professional observatories are open to visitors only during daytime hours. If you’re after a nighttime experience, the region east of La Serena — especially Valle de Elqui — is also home to a growing number of tourist observatories. The oldest is Mamalluca Observatory, some ten kilometers northwest of the town of Vicuña, which opened in 1998. Here amateur astronomers give tours and introductory lectures, and guides point out the constellations and let visitors gaze at stars and planets through a number of small telescopes. Everyone can marvel at the view of star clusters and nebulae through the observatory’s 30-centimeter telescope.

Mamalluca Observatory in La Serena, Chile (© Barbara Boensch/imageBROKER/Corbis)
The Antennae Galaxies are seen in this image made from the parabolic antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array) project at the El Llano de Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert, October 2011. ALMA is the world’s largest and highest—at 5,000 meters—ground-based astronomical observatory. (© HO/Reuters/Corbis)

You can look through a 63 centimeter telescope at Pangue Observatory, located fifteen kilometers south of Vicuña. At Pangue, astronomy aficionados and astrophotographers can set up their own equipment or lease the observatory’s instruments. Farther south, near the town of Andacollo, is Collowara Observatory, one of the newest tourist facilities in the region. And south of La Serena, on the Combarbalá plain, is Cruz del Sur Observatory, equipped with a number of powerful modern telescopes. Most observatories offer return trips to hotels in Pisco Elqui, Vicuña or Ovalle. Tours can be booked online or through travel agents in town.

The Collowara Observatory in Andacollo, Chile, is a tourist observatory. (© Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis)

The night sky displays the glorious constellations of Scorpio and the Southern Cross, the star-studded Milky Way with its many star clusters and nebulae, and of course the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (two companion galaxies to our own Milky Way). Using today’s digital equipment, all of this can be captured on camera. Little wonder that professional astrophotographers have fallen in love with Chile. Some of them have the privilege of being designated photo ambassadors by ESO: They get nighttime access to observatories, and their work is promoted on the ESO website. Hmmm….

The exterior of the telescope dome at the Las Campanas Observatory in La Serena, Chile, as night falls. Its 250 centimeter telescope is visible inside. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
The Milky Way hangs in the sky over the Chilean Death Valley in the Atacama Desert. (© Nicholas Buer/Corbis)

Every traveler to Chile interested in what’s beyond our home planet should visit — and photograph — the country’s Norte Grande region. It’s a surrealistic world of arid deserts, endless salt flats, colorful lagoons, geothermal activity and imposing volcanoes. East of the harbor town of Antofagasta, the Atacama Desert looks like a Martian landscape. In fact, this is where planetary scientists tested the early prototypes of their Mars rovers. The alien quality of the terrain makes you feel as if you’re hiking on a forbidding yet magnificent planet orbiting a distant star.

Atacama Desert

Other than the poles, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. Deserts are sometimes defined as environments that receive less than an average of 250mm of rain in a year – the Atacama receives less than 1mm each year. As a result it is almost entirely without greenery, shade, cities or pollution.

Atacama is one of the world’s foremost stargazing centres, with three major international observatories taking advantage of its clean air and huge night skies.

At 2,635 meters above the sea level, at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), one of the foremost professional astronomical observatories in the world, astronomers enjoy the serene spectacle of sunset above the Pacific Ocean before they switch on the four huge 8.2-meter Unit Telescopes, which are equipped with high-tech cameras and spectrographs that help them unravel the mysteries of the universe. And yes, even this temple of ground-based astronomy is open to visitors only on Saturdays.

ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) is the latest addition to Chile’s professional astronomical facilities. It’s one of the highest (altitude: 5000 meters) and largest ground-based observatories in the world, with 66 antennas, most of them 12 meters across. The actual observatory, at the Llano de Chajnantor, some 50 kilometers southeast of San Pedro, is not open to tourists, but on weekends, trips are organized to ALMA’s Operations Support Facility (OSF), where you can visit the control room and take a look at antennas that have been brought down for maintenance. On clear days the OSF offers stunning views of nearby volcanoes and over the Salar de Atacama salt flat.

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile

For professional astronomers, Chile will remain the window to the universe for many years to come. On Cerro Las Campanas, plans are in place to build the Giant Magellan Telescope (planned completion 2025), featuring six 8.4-meter mirrors on a single mount. Meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory has chosen Cerro Armazonas, close to Paranal, as the site for the future Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) (planned completion 2024). This monster instrument — which would be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope ever built — will have a 39-meter mirror consisting of hundreds of individual hexagonal segments. It is expected to revolutionize astronomy, and it may be able to detect oxygen and methane — signs of potential life — in the atmospheres of Earthlike planets orbiting nearby stars.

Ian Shelton stands by a telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory. Shelton discovered Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (immediately to the right of the telescope) with this telescope. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)

Little bears are off to pack…

The Milky Way

Our Sun and all the planets around it are part of the Milky Way Galaxy. A galaxy is a large group of stars, gas, and dust bound together by gravity. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Milky Way is a large barred spiral galaxy. All the stars we see in the night sky are in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Our galaxy is called the Milky Way because it appears as a milky band of light in the sky when you see it in a really dark area.

The band of the Milky Way galaxy can be seen at night in areas with dark skies. Here it is seen with several Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Arra (ALMA) antenna. (Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi)

It is very difficult to count the number of stars in the Milky Way from our position inside the galaxy. Our best estimates tell us that the Milky Way is made up of approximately 100 billion stars. These stars form a large disk whose diameter is about 100,000 light years. Our Solar System is about 25,000 light years away from the center of our galaxy – we live in the suburbs of our galaxy. Just as the Earth goes around the Sun, the Sun goes around the center of the Milky Way. It takes 250 million years for our Sun and the solar system to go all the way around the center of the Milky Way.

We can only take pictures of the Milky Way from inside the galaxy, which means we don’t have an image of the Milky Way as a whole. Why do we think it is a barred spiral galaxy, then? There are several clues.

The first clue to the shape of the Milky Way comes from the bright band of stars that stretches across the sky. This band of stars can be seen with the naked eye in places with dark night skies. That band comes from seeing the disk of stars that forms the Milky Way from inside the disk, and tells us that our galaxy is basically flat.

The Milky Way above the Pinnacles Desert

Several different telescopes, both on the ground and in space, have taken images of the disk of the Milky Way by taking a series of pictures in different directions – a bit like taking a panoramic picture with your camera or phone. The concentration of stars in a band adds to the evidence that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy. If we lived in an elliptical galaxy, we would see the stars of our galaxy spread out all around the sky, not in a single band.

An all-sky image shows the flat plane of the Milky Way galaxy. (Credit: E. L. Wright/UCLA, The COBE Project, DIRBE, NASA)

Another clue comes when astronomers map young, bright stars and clouds of ionized hydrogen in the Milky Way’s disk. These clouds, called HII regions, are ionized by young, hot stars and are basically free protons and electrons. These are both important marker of spiral arms in other spiral galaxies we see, so mapping them in our own galaxy can give a clue about the spiral nature of the Milky Way. There are bright enough that we can see them through the disk of our galaxy, except where the region at the center of our galaxy gets in the way.

There has been some debate over the years as to whether the Milky Way has two spiral arms or four. The latest data shows that it has four arms, as shown in the artist’s illustration below.

Since we can’t get outside the Milky Way, we have to rely on markers of spiral arms like young, massive stars and ionized clouds. This artist’s conception of the Milky Way’s spiral structure is based on the measured distances of young, hot stars (shown in red) and ionized clouds of hydrogen gas (shown in blue).

Milky Way data model
Credit: Urquhart JS, et al.; Robert Hurt, the Spitzer Science Center; Robert Benjamin

Additional clues to the spiral nature of the Milky Way come from a variety of other properties. Astronomers measure the amount of dust in the Milky Way and the dominant colors of the light we see, and they match those we find in other typical spiral galaxies. All of this adds up to give us a picture of the Milky Way, even though we can’t get outside to see the whole thing.

There are billions of other galaxies in the Universe. Only three galaxies outside our own Milky Way Galaxy can be seen without a telescope, and appear as fuzzy patches in the sky with the naked eye. The closest galaxies that we can see without a telescope are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These satellite galaxies of the Milky Way can be seen from the southern hemisphere. Even they are about 160,000 light years from us.

The two satellite galaxies of the Milky Way: the Small Magellanic Cloud (left) and the Large Magellanic Cloud (right).
(Credit: Akira Fujii)

The Andromeda Galaxy is a larger galaxy that can be seen from the northern hemisphere (with good eyesight and a very dark sky). It is about 2.5 million light years away from us, but it’s getting closer, and researchers predict that in about 4 billion years it will collide with the Milky Way. The other galaxies are even further away from us and can only be seen through telescopes.

Our nearest large neighbor galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy. (Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Milky Way moves in the sky following Earth’s rotation as the stars move. For photography, this means there will be different compositions at different times of the night. In the Southern Hemisphere, the core of the Milky Way (the galactic centre) is visible from February to October, with most visibility in June and July.

A stretch of the Milky Way visible from the Southern Hemisphere. At center is the Southern Cross in the constellation Crux. The bright yellow-white star at far left is Alpha Centauri, which is actually a three-star system. The Carina Nebula (NGC 3372) glows in red at the right of the image.
(Credit: Akira Fujii)
The Milky Way above the Pinnacles Desert

Mission to Minerva B

Little bears are at the cinema to watch Living Universe, an interstellar adventure searching for life on another planet, narrated by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki.

Described as not science fiction, but science faction, the documentary blends expert interviews, dramatic space-scapes and an imagined starship journey in its exploration of the quest for interstellar travel.

The film follows the journey of a starship to an imaginary planet Minerva B; set 150 years in the future and piloted by artificial intelligence Captain Artemis, voiced by astrophysicist Professor Tamara Davis.

The Minerva vessel leaves Earth’s orbit. Photo: ARTE France

Trekking the globe to talk to the greatest minds in astrophysics, the Living Universe producers are interested in three simple questions: Where are we going? What will it take to get there? When will we be ready to leave?

So, where are we going? We want to go to Earth2.

Gentry Lee, chief engineer for the Planetary Flight Systems Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA (and the most excited person in astrophysics, and the most fertile – he has 8 children!), explains that the reason Earth can support life is because it lies in the Goldilocks Zone – positioned the perfect distance away from the star around which it orbits, so it is not too hot and not too cold. Therefore any Earth2 planet we hope to travel to must also orbit around a star at this perfect distance.

And as Steve Squyres, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and interplanetary explorer, explains, any planet where life can be sustained must contain water in liquid form. Steve Squyres is best known for his pioneering work in the robotic exploration of Mars. As the principal investigator on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, Squyres oversaw the scientific development of two robot-geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, and assembled the team of scientists whose long-term objective has been to determine how liquid water shaped the Martian surface, and whether the environments that existed when water was present were conducive to life.

In search of Earth2, in March 2009, NASA launched the Kepler Space Telescope, an observatory in space dedicated to finding planets outside our solar system, particularly exoplanets that are around the same size as Earth in the “habitable” (‘Goldie Locks Zone’) regions of their parent star. In March 2018, NASA announced that Kepler is running low on fuel and is expected to cease operations within several months.

Natalie Batalha, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, is the project scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission. Batalha was the scientist who refined the point in the sky — tucked under the wing of Cygnus, the swan — where Kepler would aim as it trailed the Earth. She selected the stars it would observe: 200,000 of them over the course of four years.

Since the launch of Kepler, astronomers have discovered thousands of extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, in the constellation Cygnus through this telescope alone. Most of them are planets that are ranging between the size of Earth and Neptune (which itself is four times the size of Earth).

As of March 2018, Kepler had found 2,342 confirmed planets; add potential planets, and its find of exoworlds stands at 4,587. The mission continues to operate well beyond its scheduled end date, although problems with pointing in 2013 forced mission managers to create a K2 mission in which Kepler swings its view to different spots of the sky.

December 2017 – Over 3,500 exoplanets have been confirmed, with more than 2,500 of those found in the Kepler data. These planets range in size from larger than Jupiter to smaller than Earth. In just a couple of decades, thanks largely to Kepler, we have gone from suspecting exoplanets existed to knowing that there are more exoplanets than stars in our galaxy.

In the early years of exoplanet hunting, astronomers were best able to find huge gas giants — Jupiter’s size and larger — that were lurking close to their parent star. The addition of Kepler (as well as more sophisticated planet-hunting from the ground) means that more “super-Earths” have been found, or planets that are just slightly larger than Earth but have a rocky surface. Kepler’s finds also allow astronomers to begin grouping exoplanets into types, which helps with understanding their origins.

Kepler detected exoplanets through watching for stars dimming as planets pass in front of them. Because star dimming can also take place through other means (for example, another star slightly grazing the surface), in the early days these planets were confirmed through other telescopes, generally by measuring the gravitational “wobble” the planet has on the star.

In February 2014, however, astronomers pioneered a new technique called “verification by multiplicity”, which works in multiple-planet systems. A star with multiple planets around it is gravitationally stable, according to the theory, while a star that is part of a close-knit system of stars would have a more unstable system because of each star’s massive gravity. Through this technique, the team unveiled 715 confirmed planets in one release, which was then the largest single announcement.

Kepler operated far beyond its original mission length and was operating well until May 2013, when a second of its four reaction wheels or gyroscopes failed. The telescope needs at least three of these devices to stay pointed in the right direction. At the time, NASA said the telescope was still in perfect health otherwise, and investigated alternate mission ideas for the hardware.

Within a few months, the agency came up with a mission that it dubbed “K2”. The mission would essentially use the sun’s solar wind to stabilize the telescope’s pointing for several months at a time. Then, about four times a year, the telescope, which is about 4.7 meters long and 2.7 meters in diameter, would move to a different field of view when the sun got too close to its sensors.

While the pace of planetary discovery was less with the new mission, new finds continued to be announced. By January 2016, more than 100 new planets were discovered with the K2 method. More Earth-sized planets were found in the TRAPPIST-1 system, observed by Kepler between December 2016 and March 2017.

Google wasted no time designing a doodle to acknowledge NASA’s discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a single star in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone, ie the distance from the star it orbits where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

In February 2018, NASA put out another release of Kepler data with 95 new planets that were found during the K2 mission. One of those planets was orbiting a bright star, making it an easy candidate for follow-up by a ground observatory, like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the largest ground-based observatory in the world.

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile
This conception illustration depicts how solar pressure can be used to balance NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, keeping the telescope stable enough to continue searching for transiting planets around distant stars.
Credit: NASA Ames/W Stenzel

Kepler’s major achievement is showing the sheer variety of planetary systems that are available. Planet systems can exist in compact arrangements within the confines of the equivalent of Mercury’s orbit. They can orbit around two stars, much like Tatooine in the Star Wars universe. And in an exciting find for those seeking life beyond Earth, the telescope has revealed that small, rocky planets similar to Earth are more common than larger gas giants such as Jupiter.

Artist’s conception of Kepler-22B

Kepler’s ability to look at the changing brightness of stars was exploited for the Pleiades, a well-known cluster of stars that is only 400 light-years away and visible to the naked eye. Kepler’s observations provided the best tracking of their variability yet; the telescope also found no new exoplanets in the region.

Kepler has paved the way for NASA’s latest planet-finding mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, launched in April 2018. TESS will spend two years studying 200,000 relatively nearby stars, and it’s expected to uncover evidence of a few dozen rocky planets close to our planet, and many other planets of all types. It will monitor stars that are closer to Earth, providing more opportunities for ground observatories to follow up on the data collected. If it detects Earth-like planets close to home, the James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope), scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2019, will then analyze their atmospheres, looking for what Batalha calls the “chemical fingerprints” of life, such as oxygen and methane

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will hunt for exoplanets orbiting the brightest stars just outside our solar system.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Since its launch in April, TESS has been undergoing a series of commissioning tests before it officially began science operations on July 25. TESS is expected to transmit its first series of science data back to Earth in August, and thereafter periodically every 13.5 days, once per orbit, as the spacecraft makes it closest approach to Earth. The TESS Science Team will begin searching the data for new planets immediately after the first series arrives.

Before NASA’s TESS started science operations on July 25, the planet hunter sent back a stunning sequence of serendipitous images showing the motion of a comet. Taken over the course of 17 hours on July 25, these TESS images helped demonstrate the satellite’s ability to collect a prolonged set of stable periodic images covering a broad region of the sky — all critical factors in finding transiting planets orbiting nearby stars.

Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT, whose main research goal is to find and identify another Earth, is determined to do so in her lifetime.

Avi Loeb, professor of astronomy at Harvard University. believes both primitive and intelligent forms of life exist away from Earth and we should search them without prejudice.

What will it take to get there? A whole lot of engineering that hasn’t happened yet. Gentry Lee believes that necessity and desire, the mother of invention, will make it happen.

Fueling a trip to an exoplanet would be one of humankind’s greatest challenges to date. There are loads of hurdles that have to be resolved before we ever have the chance to visit an exoplanet: the massive doses of radiation that would be absorbed by would-be astronauts, the potential damage caused by interstellar dust and gas to a craft moving at extremely high speeds, and the fact that traveling to even the nearest habitable exoplanet would take almost 12 years in a spacecraft traveling at the speed of light.

The biggest problem, though, might be the enormous amount of energy such a craft would require. How do you fuel a spacecraft for a journey more than 750,000 times farther than the distance between the Earth and the Sun?

Conventional rockets, like Saturn V, create thrust by burning a chemical propellant stored inside, either a solid or liquid fuel. The energy released as a result of this combustion lifts a craft out of Earth’s gravitational field and into space. Rocket technology is well-established and well-understood. It got us to the moon and in terms of distance, its greatest achievement thus far is carrying the Voyager 1 space probe to the outer edge of the solar system.

However, Voyager 1 is projected to run out of fuel around the year 2040, an indication of how limited in range conventional rockets and thrusters can carry a spacecraft. Moreover, even if we could fit a sufficient amount of rocket fuel onto a spacecraft to carry it all the way to another star, the staggering fact is that we likely don’t even have enough fuel on our entire planet to do so!

Ion engines work somewhat like conventional rockets, except instead of expelling the products of chemical combustion to generate thrust, they shoot out streams of electrically-charged atoms (ions). These engines produce much less thrust and initial speed than a conventional rocket — so they can’t be used to escape the Earth’s atmosphere — but once carried into space by conventional rockets, they can run continuously for much longer periods (because they use a denser fuel more efficiently), allowing a craft to gradually build up speed and surpass the velocity of one propelled by a conventional rocket. Though faster and more efficient than conventional rockets, using an ion drive to travel to even the nearest star would still take an overwhelmingly long time — at least 19,000 years, by some estimates, which means that somewhere on the order of 600 to 2700 generations of humans would be needed to see it through!

Many space exploration enthusiasts have advocated for the use of nuclear reaction-powered rockets to cover vast distances of interstellar space. Nuclear rockets would theoretically be powered by a series of controlled nuclear explosions, perhaps using pure deuterium or tritium as fuel. But nuclear-powered rockets are, at present, entirely hypothetical. In the short-term, they’ll probably stay that way, because the detonation of any nuclear device (whether intended as a weapon or not) in outer space would violate the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which permits such explosions in exactly one location: underground. Even if legally permitted, there are enormous safety concerns regarding the launch of a nuclear device into space atop a conventional rocket: An unexpected error could cause radioactive material to rain across the planet.

Antimatter rockets would use the products of a matter-antimatter annihilation reaction (either gamma rays or highly charged subatomic particles called pions) to propel a craft through space. Using antimatter to power a rocket would theoretically be the most efficient fuel possible, as nearly all of the mass of the matter and antimatter are converted to energy when they annihilate each other. In theory, if we were able to work out the details and produce enough antimatter, we could build a spacecraft that travels at speeds nearly as fast as that of light — the highest velocity possible for any object.

We don’t yet have a way to generate enough antimatter for a space journey — estimates are that a month-long trip to Mars would require about 10 grams of antimatter. To date, we’ve only been able to create small numbers of atoms of antimatter, and doing so has consumed a large amount of fuel, making the idea of an antimatter rocket prohibitively expensive as well. Storing the antimatter would be another issue; proposed schemes involve the use of frozen pellets of antihydrogen, but these too are a far way off.

While the design of an interstellar craft, launch vehicle, and propulsion system all remain unknowns, it hasn’t stopped NASA from beginning work on this 🙂

A small group at NASA’s JPL is working on early concepts of an interstellar probe. The mission, with a proposed launch date in 2069 (the centenary anniversary of the moon landing), would send a probe several light years away to the Centauri system. The Centauri system is the obvious choice for a target as it’s the closest to Earth. A distance of four light years isn’t far on a galactic scale, but it’s a huge distance for any current method of propulsion. Even the New Horizons probe, the fastest deep space mission ever launched at more than 58,000 kilometers per hour, would take around 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. (The New Horizons probe would take around 20,000 years to travel one light-year.) The NASA team has set the goal of reaching 10 percent the speed of light — 107 million kilometers per hour.

JPL researchers are considering a number of propulsion technologies that have been on the drawing board for years including tiny probes with giant laser-propelled sails and matter-antimatter engines. Some of these ideas have the potential to reach as much as a quarter the speed of light. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is another idea for hitting up to 20% the speed of light using ultra-tiny vehicles.

Even at these unfathomable speeds, it would take decades to reach another star, and the entire mission needs to be automated. Earth is too distant to control the mission (it takes years for a signal to reach Proxima Centauri), so the probe needs to know how to respond to every eventuality on its own.

The fictional starship on route to imaginary planet Minerva B in Living Universe travels at 20 percent the speed of light, which would make interstellar travel achievable within a lifetime. The starship took just over 23 years to reach Minerva B.

When will we be ready to leave? Not this century, and not even the next century! Even the fictional starship in Living Universe, 150 years into the future, is a fully automated unmanned starship, fitted with lots of bots for planet exploration.

The speculative voyage in Living Universe is presented alongside interviews with the world’s top scientific visionaries, drawing from their expertise to offer insights into our collective future exploring deep space.

Using plausible science, engineering, and the latest advances in astrophysics, the quest for answering the most important question of our times – ‘Are we alone?’ – is well underway. Living Universe celebrates Artemis’ interstellar journey as not only possible, but promised in humanity’s not too distant future.

This film is for anyone who has ever wondered as they look up at the stars: what’s really out there?

Mission to Mars

It’s Science Week! Yay! Little bears are celebrating with their favourite science movie, The Martian 🙂

Spellbound 🙂

Mark Watney is still alive!


Lucky he’s a botanist …

… and can grow food!

Martian potatoes

Little bears are not so sure about the Martian potatoes yet, so they are snacking on sweet potatoes 🙂

But it’s all about the science 🙂

Hee, hee, he said the ‘s’ word! Science!


Next, mission to Minerva!

Batman and Superman

When do you think Lego will make a Superman movie? We had fun at the movies with Lego Batman 🙂

Puffles and Honey at IMAX in Melbourne to see the Lego Batman movie

Little bears are debating Batman vs Superman. The science, not the movie. The movie isn’t much to write home about 😦 Although we warmed up to Ben Affleck’s Batman in Justice League. He was positively teary eyed when they brought back Superman!

Superman has the ability to fly, he has super strength, x-ray vision, invulnerability, super speed, heat vision, freeze breath and super senses. As Lex Luthor described him, he is a “living God on Earth”. Superman gets his powers from Earth’s yellow Sun, basically making him a large solar powered battery. Meaning when he is here on Earth he has the potential to wipe out all of humanity.

Batman is very cynical and as he puts it, “he’s had a bad experience with freaks dressed like clowns”, so even though we know Superman is really a good guy, The Dark Knight isn’t convinced and wants to take him down. But Batman wasn’t born with any genealogical advantage, he doesn’t have mutated cells which makes him a capable crime fighter, he just uses his brain.

Batman’s ability stems from science and engineering and with his family fortune he is able to bankroll some of the most advanced pieces of technology the world has ever seen.

Bruce Wayne / Batman and Barry Allen / Flash in Justice League

Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics back in 1939 and he was more of a super sleuth then a hero, using his wits and lock picks to help solve crimes. However as he moved into the 1940s his gadgetry became more advanced when he started using infrared goggles that enabled him to see in the dark. Infrared light isn’t visible to the naked eye but everything above absolute zero temperature gives off infrared radiation in the form of heat. So Batman would be able to use this technology, not just to see in the dark, but to also target people as they would stand out against the colder background. Night vision goggles were first developed by the US in the early 1940s to assist with the war efforts, however German armies were using a form of night vision even earlier, which they used as a short range search light on board their Panther Tanks.

Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). Cover art by Bob Kane.

As Batman moved into the 1950s he seemed to shift slightly into science fiction. This was to keep up with the trends of the times and would often involve him firing ray guns at enemies or even flying into outer space. In Batman issue 109, he used a heat-ray to detonate explosives underwater, three years before optical lasers were invented. This may seem a little far-fetched but the military have been working on this for quite some time. They have built a non-lethal weapon called the Active Denial System, which directs high frequency microwaves over 500 meters. It’s about as hot as a lightbulb and is able to neutralise people without causing them serious harm. Similar to a microwave it excites the water and fat molecules in the skin and instantly heats them. This system was launched in 2010 during the war in Afghanistan but was never used. The military have developed other equipment that uses microwaves in a way that can destroy electrical equipment or even disrupt missiles guiding systems when launched at planes.

Batman has always managed to stay one step ahead of his mortal enemies, but he’s never taken on anyone quite like Superman. For starters, Superman has the ability to fly. Lex Luthor once theorised that this was because he must have come from a gigantic planet with enormous gravity, so his race had to develop natural anti-gravity organs in order to function. On Earth this would mean he would be able to control his own gravimetric field allowing him to fly.

Batman doesn’t have the ability to fly, but he does fall with style. His cape is made of ‘memory cloth’ which, when charged, has the ability to realign the molecules and become rigid, letting him use it to glide. Material, just like this, is actually in the works. One method of creating this effect is using magnetorheological fluid. This is usually a type of oil, which contains lots of little particles that when subjected to a magnetic field, becomes rigid thus increasing its viscosity. So incorporating this into a kind of fabric could potentially turn Batman’s cape into a reality. However there are people who glide similarly to Batman without the use of magnetorheological fluid.

Gliding using a wingsuit

They use wing suits. Wing suits adds surface area to the body and enables a significant increase in lift. There are slits on the arms which allows the suit to fill up with air, which permits them to glide. By manipulating their body as they free fall through the air they are able to gain great distances as they plummet towards the ground.

In the original comics Batman’s costume was made of cloth, but this became problematic as it was constantly being torn. So he developed his suit, not only to stop it tearing, but to also stop bullets.

Molecular structure of Kevlar: bold represents a monomer unit, dashed lines indicate hydrogen bonds.

Kevlar is a para-aramid synthetic fibre that’s five times stronger than steel making it perfect for Batman. It’s able to be woven into a material and when worn, the fibres are able to stretch meaning it’s capable of stopping both bullets and knives. Although in the recent films, we notice he hasn’t got as much dexterity when it comes to hand to hand combat. In fact, he hasn’t got enough dexterity to cross a busy road. The kevlar made his neck increasingly stiff making it hard for him to react quickly when being attacked. Batman upgraded his suit to Kevlar plates placed on top of titanium dipped tri-weaved fibres. Just as strong but it gives him more flexibility. This design parallels ceramic armour. Ceramic armour is 70% lighter than Kevlar and uses boron carbide, a black crystalline powder, that when heated can be turned into ceramic plating that’s as strong as diamonds. The military use ceramic plates on tanks and even inserts them into soft ballistic vests making them wearable, protecting their soldiers from enemy fire.

Batman’s suit is also coated with Nomex, which is a flame resistant material. When exposed to intense heat, the fibres carbonise and thicken, creating a barrier between the skin and the fire. The material doesn’t melt and it doesn’t burn which makes it perfect for firefighters to use. In Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman has again upgraded his suit to a hefty suit of armour designed to withstand the blows of super strong extra-terrestrials. Plus a few other nifty features as well.

Despite the impressive nature of Batman’s suit, the most essential item of clothing he wears is his utility belt. It is packed with everything a vigilante needs. Thermite bombs to get through doors, a re-breather to breathe under water and the most famous of all his gadgets, the Batarang. Ben Affleck got to keep a Batarang from the movie!

Image from Batman: The Movie (1966). Adam West’s Batman using Shark Repellent Bat Spray

In Batman: The movie (1966), Adam West’s Batman even uses shark repellent bat spray to get rid of a shark that’s munching on his leg as he dangles from a helicopter. This may sound ludicrous but shark repellent spray does exist and it was specially designed to protect sailors who got stranded in open water. When it was being developed, scientists found that the thing to drive away a shark is the odour of a dead shark. Dissecting what it is exactly that sends them swimming, it was found that certain copper compounds, such as copper sulphate and copper acetate, in combination with other ingredients could replicate the smell of dead shark. It’s actually purchasable online at a very reasonable price, so be like Batman, always prepared, and carry shark repellent in your belt just in case of a freak shark attack.

Another helpful tool is Batman’s grappling gun. He uses an air gun to shoot a grappling hook to the top of tall buildings, and he pulls up at a fairly quick speed. In order to lift the Dark Knight quickly, the grabbling gun would need a powerful motorised mechanism. A standard lightbulb uses roughly 60 watts, this motor would need at least 5000 watts to work but it is doable. Atlas Devices is a global provider of innovative solutions for security and defence. They have the capability to use such grabbling motors for rescue and extraction missions. They have been specially designed so they can lift two people at a fast pace increasing their chances of success during rescue missions.

Two of the founding members of Atlas Devices demonstrating their Atlas Powered Ascender (APA)

It is impossible to grow up to become Superman, but it is technically possible to grow up to become Batman. And it’s definitely possible to become best friends, like little bears 🙂

We might give Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice another go, but for now it’s time to watch Wonder Woman. Again 🙂

Original story on Science Made Simple, heavily biased towards Batman, on account that in the battle between brains and brawn, brains win all the time. If only! That’s the wishful thinking of a scientist 🙂