Monday, November 23, 2009

LHC Back Online

Scientists at CERN turned the Large Hadron Collider back on and injected protons into the particle stream on Friday, resuming operations for the first time in a year.

Last year, shortly after it became operational for the first time, the LHC experienced a failure in one of the containment magnets that keeps the particles within their track and going around in circles. Because of the tremendous forces required, these magnets are extremely powerful, and if they become misaligned by even a tiny amount, they can fail catastrophically, destroying themselves.

That's what happened last year, and resulted in repairs and replacement of the magnet. It took a while to complete the repairs because the LHC is kept at a brisk -271°C and had to be warmed up slowly, repaired, and cooled back down slowly, but the work is finally done and science is once again underway at the world's most powerful particle collider.

And, in case you hadn't noticed, it still hasn't destroyed the world.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Be a Martian

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) know that I'm a big fan of things that people like you and me can do to help advance science and technology. Well, now thanks to Microsoft and NASA, there's another opportunity, and this one is very cool.

Microsoft and NASA have teamed together to create Be a Martian, a new website where you can help contribute to our understanding of Mars. By participating in the site—which largely consists of combing through the vast quantity of Mars images and classifying them, as well as participating in surveys and discussions—you can earn badges and "Reputation Points". But more importantly, you can help our understanding of our red neighbor... the knowledge you help provide may give some indication of where to look for microbial life, past or present. It may help find suitable locations for manned missions or even long-term colonies.

I haven't had a chance to do much other than view a few videos so far, but it looks very interesting, and I've bookmarked it so I can return this weekend and spend some time contributing to the future of science and technology.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Masten Space Qualifies for Lunar Lander Challenge X-Prize

NOTE: Cross-posted to the Blog at Getting There From Here.

Congratulations to Masten Space Systems on successfully completing their qualifying flight for the $1 million prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge X-Prize. They join Armadillo Aerospace in qualifying for this prize.

To qualify, both companies had to demonstrate control of their vehicle by flying to an altitude of more than 50 meters, flying laterally for 100 meters, and landing on a simulated lunar surface complete with craters and boulders. After doing so, they vehicle had to take off from the simulated lunar surface and return to its starting point (with the option of refueling the vehicle between flights). And, oh yeah, they had to complete all of this (including any necessary refueling) in less than two-and-a-half hours.

Another team, Unreasonable Rocket, will attempt to complete their qualification tomorrow. BonNovA had intended to compete but had to withdraw.

We at Getting There From Here are huge fans of these types of competitions, as they allow a small amount of money to go a long, long way. In this case, the $2 million total prize money for the Lunar Lander Challenge has generated more than $20 million in research on rockets and helped at least a couple of small, entrepreneurial rocket companies to literally get off the ground. Kudos to the X Prize Foundation and Northrop Grumman for organizing and funding such a great contest.

If you want to read the Master press release about the successful flight, it is here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Moon Landing Anniversary

Forty years ago today, three American men—Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins—were floating in a tiny spacecraft above the surface of the Moon getting ready for two of them to make history: tomorrow will be the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

If Neil, Buzz, and Mike could have looked ahead 40 years from that point, where would they have thought we'd be right now? The reality is that we haven't been back to the moon in decades, and our space program has languished by trying to do too much (space shuttles, space stations, earth science, planetary science, astronomy, robotic exploration, etc.) with too little funding. And here we are, finally talking about going back to the moon. But we're going to be doing so with basically the same level of technology that those three brave explorers had at their disposal.

That's not to say that we haven't learned anything in that time. We know far, far more about the effects of weightlessness on the body, about how the radiation of space will affect the next wave of explorers we send beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), and the avionics that control the spacecraft will be vastly more advanced than the mostly analog and mechanical components that powered Apollo 11 and the Eagle landing craft to the Moon.

But we have numerous challenges to overcome before routine flights to space stations and beyond are within the grasp of mere mortals like you and me: the cost of just getting to LEO are unimaginably high (they say that once you've gotten to LEO, you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System); we still don't have a good way to protect the intrepid explorers aboard the space craft in the event of a solar radiation storm; we still don't have the ability to survive once we get where we're going without sending replacement supplied from Earth at great expense.

Decades before the U.S. space program was even conceived, science fiction writers painted a picture of a future with flying cars, asteroid mining, people travelling the stars in highly advanced spacecraft, extrasolar colonies, and more. And for the most part, they thought we'd be there by now. What went wrong?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Science at the Creation Museum

What happens when a group of scientists—attendees at the North American Paleontological Convention—take a trip to the Creation Museum? Science and religion clash, that's what.

The New York Times has an article this week about that very occurrence, with interviews with both the scientists and the staff at the Museum. There are some scary things in what the creationists have to say. Apparently the Great Flood was the cause of everything that turned the world into what it is today, including creating the layers of soil and rock that paleontologists dig through, as well as separating the continents and putting them where they are (all in a matter of a few days, not over the course of billions of years). One wonders what happened to all of the lava that would have welled up if you had ripped apart a massive land mass that quickly.

One also must wonder if the Great Flood changed the rate at which carbon-14 decays, since that's how scientists determine how old the various layers of soil and rock are. Did carbon-14 decay more quickly before the flood? Did God change the laws of nature on us, just to confuse us? Was He trying to deceive us into thinking that the world is billions of years old?

Or is it more likely that the Bible was written by people, not by God, people who are by their very nature flawed? The earliest stories in the Bible happened long before the Hebrews had a written language, so they were told verbally from one generation to the next. Isn't it possible—even likely—that some of the stories may have changed a little bit with the telling over tens or hundreds or thousands of generations? Not to mention the fact that there are numerous versions of the Bible, some of which have had translational errors over the years. So why do people insist on ignoring scientific evidence and believing that the Bible, as written, is the Word of God?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

2009: International Year of Astronomy

2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations General Assembly. And I'm not sure they could have picked a better year for the designation.

During 2009, a space shuttle mission will be launched to make repairs and upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest scientific and technical feats we've achieved. Not only will these upgrades replace some failed systems, but newer and better instruments will be added to the orbiting observatory, meaning that over the next several years (until it is de-orbited in a fiery mass) Hubble will be more powerful than it has ever been before. And we've all seen what it could do before!

Not only that, but the Kepler mission will finally launch this year and, while it is unlikely to find many planets its first year, its discoveries will excite the imaginations of a great many people.

And the year has started off with some great night skies showing the moon and Venus, Jupiter, and the vastness of stars in the Milky Way. CNN also has a collection of great astronomy photos in their Space Spotlight.

Go out when you get a chance, preferably with a telescope, and take a good look at the sky. Consider the vastness of it all, and wonder why it's there, if not so we can go see it, explore it, touch it.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Things are changing. That's no surprise; our universe is not a static place. Just in the course of my life, we've seen the creation of the commercial Internet, Space Shuttles, Mars rovers, the sequencing of the human genome, personal genomes on-demand, a vaccine that can prevent some forms of cancer, and much, much more. The future holds even greater promise.

Not only that, but people are living longer (that's one more thing science has done). I will likely live longer than my parents (though not by much). My son, though, his generation will likely live to be 120-150 years old, and they'll live most of their lives healthy, if groups like the Methuselah Foundation have anything to say about it.

So what changes might I see in my lifetime? What changes will you see in yours? What changes will my son see in his?

That's the question that the Edge's World Question Center wants to know: What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?

They asked that question of a sizeable number of eminent thinkers in a variety of fields and, naturally, they got a variety of answers. Interestingly, in addition to such luminaries as Gregory Benford, Robert Shapiro, Laurence Krauss, and Aubrey de Grey, they also have input from the likes of Alan Alda and Brian Eno.

Some of the posts are really insightful; some less so. But it got me wondering. What if more than one of their suggestions are correct? It's one thing to talk about advanced artificial general intelligences, or molecular-scale manufacturing, or synthetic biology. But what if we're talking about all of those things, at roughly the same time? It seems unlikely (barring the AI causing a Singularity and creating the other advances). But what kind of world might we live in if advanced AIs could create anything they wanted, including living organisms, at the molecular level?

There's a lot of promise, but also a lot of risk and questions. Read the answers on the Edge's site, but while you're doing so, keep in mind the risks of some of these predictions coming true. And, if it scares you a little bit, take a trip over to the Lifeboat Foundation website.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Do It Yourself

I've always said that you don't have to be a professional working in a sterile lab in order to contribute to the advancement of science and technology, and it looks like others are starting to catch on. The Associated Press ran an article a few days ago about amateurs using relatively inexpensive equipment, working out of their homes or garages, to genetically engineer new life forms.

The best quote in the article is from computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson, who is working to alter the bacteria that create yogurt to glow in the presence of melamine, who said, "People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process." And that's exactly the point: making a contribution, yes, but also learning something.

It sounds interesting, but the biological sciences are not really an area that I've had any training (other than what I've taught myself and what I learned in biology class in 9th grade). I have been thinking, though, about picking up some equipment for a little physics experimentation out in my garage.

The point is that you can do something. Maybe you can work on genetic engineering, or maybe you can experiment with radioactive decay in your garage. Maybe you can write computer software for scientific simulations, or maybe you could just run the BOINC software (and, by the way, the organization responsible for BOINC is looking for help with programming, translating, testing, and documenting their software, if you have any of those skills). But do something.