(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘NASA

“By preventing dangerous asteroid strikes, we can save millions of people, or even our entire species”*…

The probability of an major asteroid strike on earth at any given moment is low, but the consequences could be catastrophic… and the odds of it happening at some point grow frighteningly large. Happily, the B612 Foundation and Asteroid Institute has developed a way of identifying potentially dangerous asteroids so that they can be deflected by NASA…

Protecting the planet: The Asteroid Institute, @b612foundation.

* Rusty Schweickart, astronaut and co-founder of B612


As we dodge disaster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1957 that the space age– and the space race– began in earnest: Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviet Union into earth orbit.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 4, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Space is to place as eternity is to time”*…

Josh Worth (@misterjworth), with a mesmerizing interactive reminder that space is vast: “If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.”

Joseph Joubert


As we scrutinize scale, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that NASA, undaunted by distance, launched the Space Shuttle Discovery (which had been out of service for three years), marking America’s return to manned space flight following the Challenger disaster. By its last mission in 2011, Discovery had flown 149 million miles in 39 missions, completed 5,830 orbits, and spent 365 days in orbit over 27 years.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 29, 2022 at 1:00 am

“It is unnatural in a large field to have only one shaft of wheat, and in the infinite Universe only one living world”*…

One indication of advanced alien life could be industrial pollution. Therefore, the presence of gases such as nitrogen dioxide might serve as a technosignature that we could detect on exoplanets. (Courtesy: NASA/Jay Freidlander) [source]

NASA’s top scientists have a provocative message for the scientific community: that they need a plan in place for if — or when — we find evidence of extraterrestrial life…

James Green, the agency’s chief scientist, coauthored a new article, published in the journal Nature, urging researchers to create a framework for reporting evidence of aliens. In it, the authors stressed the importance of clearly communicating any findings of extraterrestrial life, as well as establishing clear expectations for the public for when it occurs and accurately expressing ambiguity in early evidence.

“As life-detection objectives become increasingly prominent in space sciences, it is essential to open a community dialogue about how to convey information in a subject matter that is diverse, complicated and has a high potential to be sensationalized,” read the paper.

Green and his co-authors propose a confidence of life detection (CoLD) scale to help evaluate any evidence that might be discovered. The scale itself contains seven different levels like a staircase. Each level is a benchmark that must be met before we can proceed to the next step. 

For example, level one would be discovering life signatures such as biological molecules. The second level would be ruling out that the sign of life is the result of contamination from Earth. Eventually, the CoLD scale ends with the final step: scientists declaring that they’ve confidently discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life. 

“Having a scale like this will help us understand where we are in terms of the search for life in particular locations, and in terms of the capabilities of missions and technologies that help us in that quest,” Green said in a NASA news release

The paper’s authors stress that the scale is merely a starting point for a larger conversation with scientists and science communicators about the best ways to proceed if and when we discover evidence of alien life. 

It also comes in the context of the upcoming launch of the powerful James Webb telescope, along with the Perseverance Mars rover searching for life on the Red Planet, meaning that such a finding might become a reality sooner rather than later. 

“The search for life beyond Earth requires broad participation from the scientific community and many kinds of observations and experiments,” Mary Voltek, co-author of the study and head of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, said in the release. “Together, we can be stronger in our efforts to look for hints that we are not alone.”

NASA Says We Need a Plan for When We Discover Alien Life,” from @futurism.

As to what we’ll do with that knowledge, a complicating factor: “94% of the universe’s galaxies are permanently beyond our reach” (if the speed of light remains an upper limit on travel).

Metrodorus of Chios


As we search far and wide, we might send enduring birthday greetings to Sir Hermann Bondi; he was born on this date in 1919. A mathematician and cosmologist, he is best remembered for developing the steady state model of the universe with Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold as an alternative to the Big Bang theory. In an attempt to explain the paradox: how can the stars continually recede, yet without disappearing, they audaciously proposed an unproven hypothesis: that the universe has an eternal existence, with no beginning and without an end. Further, they argued, the universe is continuously expanding, maintaining a constant density by continually creating new matter from energy. Their model was rendered obsolete when, in 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected a background microwave radiation from all directions in space, as predicted by the “Big Bang” theory of creation that is now accepted. [See here for more on Penzias’ and Wilson’s discovery.)

Bondi also contributed to the theory of general relativity; was the first to analyze the inertial and gravitational interaction of negative mass; and the first to explicate correctly the nature of gravitational waves.


“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…'”*…

It’s that time again: the IgNobel Prizes for 2021 have been awarded!

An experiment that hung rhinoceroses upside down to see what effect it had on the animals has been awarded one of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

Other recipients included teams that studied the bacteria in chewing gum stuck to pavements, and how to control cockroaches on submarines.

The ceremony couldn’t take place at its usual home of Harvard University in the US because of Covid restrictions. All the fun occurred online instead.

The science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, says its Ig Nobel awards should first make you laugh but then make you think.

And the rhino study, which this year wins the award for transportation research, does exactly this. What could seem more daft than hanging 12 rhinos upside down for 10 minutes?

But wildlife veterinarian Robin Radcliffe, from Cornell University, and colleagues did exactly this in Namibia because they wanted to know if the health of the animals might be compromised when slung by their legs beneath a helicopter. It’s an activity that increasingly has been used in African conservation work to shift rhinos between areas of fragmented habitat.

However, no-one had done the basic investigation to check that the tranquillised animals’ heart and lung function coped with upside-down flying, said Robin. He told BBC News: “Namibia was the first country to take a step back and say, ‘hey, let’s study this and figure out, you know, is this a safe thing to do for rhinos?”

As has become customary with the Ig Nobels, the prizes on the night were handed out by real Nobel laureates, including Frances Arnold (chemistry, 2018), Carl Weiman (physics, 2001), and Eric Maskin (economics, 2007).

The winners got a trophy they had to assemble themselves from a PDF print-out and a cash prize in the form of a counterfeit 10 trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote…

For more on the very real importance of the rhino research, and a complete list of other winners, e.g.,

Biology Prize: Susanne Schötz, for analysing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat-human communication.

… see “Upside-down rhino research wins Ig Nobel Prize.

* Isaac Asimov


As we take our knowledge where we find it, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that president John F. Kennedy gave what has become known as the “space speech.” Officially titled “the Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort,” it characterized space as a new frontier, in an attempt to win support for the Apollo program, the national effort to land a man on the Moon.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

The full text of his speech (and video clips) are here.

Kennedy speaking at Rice


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Maps codify the miracle of existence”*…

… and almost always, something more…

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps”, says the seafaring raconteur Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.'” Of course, these “blank spaces” were anything but. The no-man’s-lands that colonial explorers like Marlow found most inviting (the Congo River basin, Tasmania, the Andaman Islands) were, in fact, richly populated, and faced devastating consequences in the name of imperial expansion.

In the same troublesome vein as Marlow, Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas painted cartographic knowledge as a candle coruscating against the void of ignorance, represented in his unique vision by a broiling mass of black cloud. Each map represents the bounds of geographical learning at a particular point in history, from a specific civilizational perspective, beginning with Eden, circa “B.C. 2348”. In the next map titled “B.C. 1491. The Exodus of the Israelites”, Armenia, Assyria, Arabia, Aram, and Egypt form an island of light, pushing back the black clouds of unknowing. As history progresses — through various Roman dynasties, the reign of Charlemagne, and the Crusades — the foul weather retreats further. In the map titled “A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America”, the transatlantic exploits of the so-called Age of Discovery force Quin to employ a shift in scale — the luminescence of his globe now extends to include Africa and most of Asia, but North America hides behind cumulus clouds, with its “unnamed” eastern shores peeking out from beneath a storm of oblivion. In the Atlas‘ last map, we find a world without darkness, not a trace of cloud. Instead, unexplored territories stretch out in the pale brown of vellum parchment, demarcating “barbarous and uncivilized countries”, as if the hinterlands of Africa and Canada are awaiting colonial inscription. 

Looking back from a contemporary vantage, the Historical Atlas remains memorable for what is not shown. Quin’s cartography inadvertently visualizes the ideology of empire: a geographic chauvinism that had little respect for the knowledge of those beyond imperial borders. And aside from depicting the reach of Kublai Khan, his focus remains narrowly European and Judeo-Christian. While Quin strives for accuracy, he admits to programmatic omission. “The colours we have used being generally meant to point out and distinguish one state or empire from another. . . were obviously inapplicable to deserts peopled by tribes having no settled form of government, or political existence, or known territorial limits”. Instead of representing these groups, Quin, like his clouds, has erased them from view.

Clouds of Unknowing: Edward Quin’s (1830) Historical Atlas. From the David Rumsey Map Collection (via the Internet Archive), where you can view it all. Via the invaluable Public Domain Review (@PublicDomainRev).

* Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet


As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that an epic mapping expedition began: NASA launched the Mariner 9 space probe, the first space craft to orbit Mars (or any other planet). Mariner 9 was designed to continue the atmospheric studies begun by Mariner 6 and 7, and to map over 70% of the Martian surface from the lowest altitude (930 mi) and at the highest resolutions (from 1,100 to 110 yards per pixel) of any Mars mission up to that point. After a spate of dust storms on the planet for several months following its arrival, the orbiter managed to send back clear pictures of the surface. Mariner 9 successfully returned 7,329 images over the course of its mission, which concluded in October 1972.


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