Monday, September 29, 2008

Hubble problems?

Nothing official on the HST website at STScI at the moment (7pm EDT, 09/29/08), but MSNBC is reporting that NASA is delaying the Hubble Servicing mission because Hubble's command and data handling systems failed over the weekend.

[Hat tip: Jim Herald]

[Update: Bad Astronomy had a detailed post 35 minutes ago. Hubble in safe mode. See it for the details.]

Chinese Astronauts return after spacewalk, get lawn chairs

"Hey! I risked my life in space and all I got was this camping chair" is what Chinese
astronaut Zhai Zhigang appears to be saying after the crew of three emerged from their re-entry capsule on Sunday.

Actually what he said was “It was a glorious mission, full of challenges, but the result is perfect.”

Those old-school spherical re-entry capsules certainly have a lot of retro-chic.

Presentations from "Suzaku Science After Three Years"

PDFs of the powerpoint/keynote presentations made at the "Suzaku Science After Three Years" workshop held at Johns Hopkins on September 10 2008, and organized by Tahir Yaqoob and Kendrah Murphy are available online at the HEASARC Suzaku Guest Observer Facility.

Suzaku (formerly known as Astro-E2 prior to launch) is a joint Japanese/NASA space mission dedicated to X-ray astronomy. Although a smaller mission in terms of cost than the current heavy-weights of X-ray astronomy, Chandra and XMM-Newton, Suzaku has some unique capabilities and is producing some very interesting results.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sharp Astrophysics Professors?

While innocently watching Mythbusters on the DVR over the w/e I ended up seeing two very weird adverts by Sharp - one on LCD TVs and one on solar panels, both hosted by a white-haired guy introduced in a note at the bottom of the screen as "Gerard Fasel - Professor of Astrophysics."

"No way, never heard of him...", I thought, this is just like those "Real Customer - Not an Actor" things they put on adverts all the time. You can watch parts of the Sharp/Fasel solar panel advert here, its a little weird if you ask me.

Anway, I was wrong. Gerard Fasel is actually a Visiting Professor at Pepperdine, although more involved in teaching than current research. He also happens to be a part time actor (IMDB), his next role being "Albino Security Guard" in the Truth About Angels, which is probably related to how he got the Sharp advert gig.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Seats on Soyuz save us from the Shuttle?

I only just noticed this article on Thursday September 25th's NYT by John Schwartz ("Spending Bill Would Resolve a Pressing NASA Concern") regarding a spending provision in the House continuing funding resolution to allow NASA to continue to buy space on Russian Soyuz flights to the International Space Station until 2016 - under current law such authorization would run out in 2011.

The Soyuz seats are critical to the space program because NASA plans to wind down the space shuttle program in 2010. The next generation of spacecraft will not be ready until 2015, at the earliest, under current plans. In order to continue reaching the International Space Station during the gap between the end of the old program and the beginning of the new, NASA plans to fly with the Russian space program.
The subtext here is probably related to the Shuttle/ISS problem. Do we need to keep the Shuttle fleet going? If we don't there will be a gap in the US's ability to to get to the ISS as the Shuttle replacement won't be ready on time. BUT keeping the Shuttle's going will cost a lot, and that money will have to come from other NASA programs (e.g. doing science) which are already stretched close to breaking point.

So it might be cheaper to use Soyuz and get rid of the Shuttle on time, hence this provision.

NASA chief Mike Griffin is almost certainly right to say the Shuttle program and the International Space Station (itself created more by congressional feat) was a big mistake.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Old and older

O'Neil et al (2008) have found what appear to be the Earth's oldest unmodified rocks. Using samarium/neodynium isotopic analysis they found rocks in the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone (on the eastern edge of Hudson Bay) that are 4.28 +/- 0.05 billion years old. These beats the previous record holder from the Acasta gneiss (also Canadian) of 4.03 billion years old.

Read the commentary in Science, Nature or on the BBC.

Guo and White (submitted) report on nature and fate of different populations of high redshift galaxies using theoretical models. They find that the redshift z~3 Lyman Break Galaxies (LBGs), the redshift z~2 optically selected star forming galaxies (BXs) and the z~2 Distant Red Galaxies (DRGs) are predominantly disk-like galaxies at those epochs (~11.5 billion years ago and 10.3 billion years ago, or ~2.2 and ~3.3 billion years after the Big Bang), but the LBGs and DRGs will predominantly end up as present day elliptical galaxies - consistent with prior expectations based on clustering.

More interesting from my perspective they find that (a) about half of the z~3 LBGs would be observed as z~2 BXs, and (b) the current z~0 descendent's of these galaxies grow in stellar mass by roughly and order of magnitude by a mixture of star formation and galaxy merging.

O'Neil, J., Carlson, R. W., Francis, D. & Stevenson, R. K. Science 321, 1828–1831 (2008).
Guo, Q & White S.D.M, MNRAS, submitted (arXiv:0809.4259v2).

Monday, September 08, 2008

The JASONs got climate change right

I knew that in the later 1970's the National Academy of Sciences commissioned a report on possible future climate change due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide emission at the request of President Carter's science adviser. The resulting Charney report basically said climate change is happening and gave a reasonably accurate (by today's standards) estimate of what the effects would be.

I didn't know that the NAS report was preceded by a (then secret) report by the JASONs, who had essentially independently come to the same conclusions. A fascinating article on the times online by Naomi Oreskes and Jonathan Renouf spells out the JASON's conclusions:

Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it’s expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that’s smack in the middle of today’s predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true – last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.

Nor were the Jasons frightened of drawing the obvious conclusions for civilisation: the cause for concern was clear when one noted “the fragility of the world’s crop-producing capacity, particularly in those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity”.

Note that the JASONs are not being "alarmist" - they merely highlight that GCC will almost certainly cause widespread economic, social and political disruption, in particular in those countries too poor to mitigate its effects. Such unrest is almost certainly not in the best interests of the United States.

Had the Carter administration's moves toward energy independence and alternative energy sources been followed the world would have had 30 years head start on combating Global Climate Change.

I also didn't know that the Charney report was followed by another report commissioned by the Reagan administration that was elected in 1980. They knew how to deal with reports whose conclusions they didn't like: commission another report and put someone to your liking in charge of it.
Nierenberg’s report was unusual in that individual chapters were written by different authors. Many of these chapters recorded mainstream scientific thinking similar to the Charney and Jason reports. But the key chapter was Nierenberg’s synthesis – which chose largely to ignore the scientific consensus.

Overall, the synopsis emphasised the positive effects of climate change over the negative, the uncertainty surrounding predictions of future change rather than the emerging consensus and the low end of harmful impact estimates rather than the high end. Faced with this rather benign scenario, adaptation was the key.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Similar arguments have been used by global warming sceptics ever since Nierenberg first formulated them in 1983. Global warming was duly kicked into the political long grass – a distant problem for another day. At a political level, Nierenberg had won.

But this was only the beginning of his involvement in what eventually became a movement of global warming sceptics. A year after his report came out he became a co-founder of the George C Marshall Institute, one of the leading think tanks that would go on to challenge almost every aspect of the scientific consensus on climate change. Nierenberg hardened his position. He began to argue not just that global warming wasn’t a problem, but also that it wasn’t happening at all. There was no systematic warming trend, the climate was simply going through its normal, natural fluctuations.

The creed that Nierenberg originated all those years ago still has its dwindling band of followers. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, recently responded to a question about global warming by saying: “I’m not one who would attribute it to being man-made.”

Because doing so would mean that its would be in the United State's best long-term interests to take actions that would be bad financially for certain polluting mega-corporations.