July 26, 2005

Pluto's moon eclipses faint star

Charon blocked the light of the relatively faint star C313.2, casting a shadow that was roughly the same size as the moon itself -- around 630 miles wide. A previous occultation by Charon of a different background star was observed in 1980, but only one telescope -- with limited precision -- managed to observe that event.
What I find amazing is that the a body 40 billion km away casts a shadow on Earth. Granted it's not one that the human eye can see but still amazing that instruments can pick it up.

July 23, 2005

Shuttle resumes launch countdown

As of noon today, launch of the space shuttle is again underway. The countdown is at at the Return to Flight page at NASA's website. However, don't get your hopes up:
Due to concerns about the early development of showers and cumulus clouds, the chance of Kennedy weather prohibiting launch is 40 percent, according to Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters. There are also concerns about crosswinds at all three Trans-Atlantic Landing sites, located in Spain and France.
The previous launch attempt was scrubbed due to fuel tank sensors giving inaccurate readings. This was due to issues with grounding wires. It's amusing what sounds like a trivial problem becomes more complicated sounding by calling it an "issue".

Though it's a graphically-intensive site, Space.com has more information in their article:
“Discovery is in excellent shape,” said NASA test director Pete Nickolenko during a pre-launch status briefing here at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). “We are all very confident that all of the engine cut-off sensors will work as they’re designed to in this next launch attempt.”

Global Warming

Though it's not new, I found a great gem from Business Week Online. Though you'd think that science has nothing to do with business, BW Online seems to carry a lot of articles that touch on aspects of computers, even Linux, for instance. It's a long article but is well worth the read:
The idea that the human species could alter something as huge and complex as the earth's climate was once the subject of an esoteric scientific debate. But now even attorneys general more used to battling corporate malfeasance are taking up the cause. On July 21, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and lawyers from seven other states sued the nation's largest utility companies, demanding that they reduce emissions of the gases thought to be warming the earth. Warns Spitzer: "Global warming threatens our health, our economy, our natural resources, and our children's future. It is clear we must act."

The maneuvers of eight mostly Democratic AGs could be seen as a political attack. But their suit is only one tiny trumpet note in a growing bipartisan call to arms. "The facts are there," says Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). "We have to educate our fellow citizens about climate change and the danger it poses to the world." In January, the European Union will impose mandatory caps on carbon dioxide and other gases that act like a greenhouse over the earth, and will begin a market-based system for buying and selling the right to emit carbon. By the end of the year, Russia may ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which makes CO2 reductions mandatory among the 124 countries that have already accepted the accord. Some countries are leaping even further ahead. Britain has vowed to slash emissions by 60% by 2050. Climate change is a greater threat to the world than terrorism, argues Sir David King, chief science adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Delaying action for a decade, or even just years, is not a serious option."
Indeed, since the article was posted, the EU and Russia have officially signed on to Kyoto as has Canada and Japan. The US, as usual, is the holdout.

Ontario is also considering whether to join in the lawsuit against the power utilities.

What's interesting is despite the Bush administration's refusal to sign onto Kyoto or even acknowledging human-caused global warming, states are individually moving forward:
Warning of flooded coasts and crippled industries, Massachusetts unveiled a plan in May to cut emissions by 10% by 2020. In June, California proposed 30% cuts in car emissions by 2015. Many other states are weighing similar actions.
And power companies are also accepting in some cases even taking forward-looking measures to develop technologies that contribute less to global warming. And surprise, surprise, they're discovering that in doing so they're saving money!

The article also discusses carbon-trading which works like this:
The basic idea: mandatory reductions or taxes on carbon emissions, combined with a worldwide emissions-trading program. Here's how it could work: Imagine that each company in a particular sector is required to cut emissions by 20%. The company could meet the target on its own by becoming more energy efficient or by switching from fossil fuels to alternatives. But it could also simply buy the needed reductions on the open market from others who have already cut emissions more than required, and who thus have excess emissions to sell. Under a sophisticated worldwide carbon-trading system, governments and companies could also get sellable credits for planting trees to soak up carbon or for investing in, say, energy efficient and low-carbon technologies in the developing world. As a result, there is a powerful incentive for everyone to find the lowest-cost and most effective cuts -- and to move to lower-carbon technologies.
Those companies that still pollute more can do so but not without a cost, buying carbon credits. Thus, the environment is helped by the best system of regulation that works in a business environment, capitalism.

For those that are worried about the fight against global warming damaging the economy, I found this quite enlightening:
A British government panel, for instance, concluded that the cost of its share of the task of limiting the level of CO2 to 550 ppm would be about 1% of Britain's gross domestic product.

Compare that, says Sir David King, with the cost of a single flood breaking through the barrier in the Thames River -- some 30 billion pounds, or 2% of current GDP. "Common sense says that it's time to purchase some low-cost insurance now," says economist Paul R. Portney, president of Resources for the Future.

July 15, 2005

Sunspot exploding

Received this email from Spaceweather:
Solar activity has suddenly increased with a series of strong explosions from sunspot 786, including an X-category flare this morning. Because the sunspot is near the sun's western limb, none of the blasts was squarely Earth-directed. Nevertheless, coronal mass ejections hurled into space by these explosions could deliver glancing blows to Earth's magnetic field as early as tonight (July 14-15) and continuing through the weekend, possibly sparking geomagnetic storms and auroras. Check spaceweather.com for movies of the explosions, more information and updates.
You can subscribe for email alerts on their website.

What don't we know?

Science magazine put together a list of the 125 top questions in science to which we don't have answers. The top 25 are listed on their website (click on the heading). Some of the questions include "What is the universe made of?", "What is the biological basis of conciousness?" and "How hot will the Greenhouse World be?".

Which questions would you most like answered?

July 11, 2005

On this shuttle, safety is an obsession

A good writeup on the extra safety measures being taken for Wednesday's launch date from Christian Science Monitor. Here's a sample:
This is something new - even for the agency that landed astronauts on the moon. There will be more than 100 cameras on the ground, in the air, and on the shuttle itself - all ready to image any errant ice chip, and promising so much data that it might take a week to sift through them. There is the new laser-tipped boom to inspect the shuttle's brittle undercarriage, the new white-knuckle maneuvers to let the space station crew inspect the vehicle - and the new emergency plans in case they find something.
For more details about the specific measures on the shuttle itself, the CTV site has more details.

July 03, 2005

Deep Impact to collide with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4

For the last five billion years of our planet's violent history, Earth has been walloped by comets. These small bodies and their asteroid cousins whacked Earth often in its early years, knocking the stuffing out of our young world. As the solar system matured, impacts happened less often—but they have never ceased. Earth bears its scars in the form of weathered craters and extinct species.

This 4th of July is payback time. For the first time in history, Earth gets to strike back.

I don't have a telescope but it doesn't matter as the collision won't be seen from Central Canada anyway. If you have one and are in Hawaii, Southwestern US or Mexico, observation tips can be found at The Amateur Observers Program and Sky & Telescope magazine.

July 02, 2005

New light on birth of a solar system

SPECTACULAR images showing the birth of a new solar system have given scientists an insight into how our own solar system would have looked billions of years ago.

A glowing ring of dust, captured by Nasa's Hubble space telescope, is shown orbiting around the bright star, Fomalhaut, 25 light years from the sun.

The star is only 200 million years old, practically a newborn! It's like looking into the early history of our own solar system. It's a shame that NASA has plans to scuttle the Hubble space telescope that is still discovering such fascinating systems.