Tag Archive: Space


'Cherry tree from space' mystery baffles Japan

A cosmic mystery is uniting monks and scientists in Japan after a cherry tree grown from a seed that orbited the earth for eight months bloomed years earlier than expected — and with very surprising flowers. 

The four-year-old sapling — grown from a cherry stone that spent time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — burst into blossom on April 1, possibly a full six years ahead of Mother Nature’s normal schedule. 

Its early blooming baffled Buddhist brothers at the ancient temple in central Japan where the tree is growing. 

“We are amazed to see how fast it has grown,” Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji temple in Gifu, told AFP by telephone. 

“A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old.” 

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The public’s fascination with outer space travel has just beamed up a notch in what some might call a morbid manner.

A new startup company called Elysium Space is taking orders to send your cremated remains (or those of any dearly departed) into Earth orbit for just under $2,000. Reservations are currently accepted for next summer’s first “memorial spaceflight” launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

According to its website, “Elysium Space offers awe-inspring celestial services to honor and celebrate the life of someone you love.”

A spacecraft containing capsulated cremated ashes will be launched into Earth orbit for several months. Family and friends of the former loved ones can follow the orbital journey via a special mobile app, which will show the spacecraft’s current location. Finally, the spacecraft will reenter Earth’s atmosphere with the brightness of a shooting star.

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Meteor Shower Time Lapse

Racing high over the Sahara at 5 miles per second, protected from the desert’s parched endlessness and soaking in its sere beauty, I saw Khartoum, the city where the White and Blue Nile rivers meet. I turned my head left and followed the river downstream to Cairo and the Mediterranean. Twisting weightlessly back to my right, I could pick out sunlight glinting off the waters of Lake Tana and Lake Victoria, the Nile’s headwaters. Explorers from the early Greeks to Queen Victoria’s David Livingstone had toiled and failed to find what I could see at a glance. Impressive on its own—even more so since I had been over Winnipeg, on the edge of the Canadian prairies, just 20 minutes earlier.

Circling Earth so fast makes you think. When you look out the window of a space­ship, you see entire countries, vast swaths of continents. One turn of the head covers what once took thousands of years to traverse at ground level. Historians and archaeologists estimate that human beings started migrating from Africa to Asia about 70,000 years ago, and to Australia 20,000 years after that. We went to the New World of the Americas about 30,000 years ago. All told, from the first dissatisfied teenager’s steps away from home, it took about 50,000 years to walk to the far corners of the planet.

Technology helped us pick up the pace. By the 1870s, new railways across the US and India and the opening of the Suez Canal made it seem completely plau­sible that the fictional Phileas Fogg and his valet could circle the world in 80 days. In 1911, Roald Amundsen reached the farthest end of Earth and stood atop the South Pole; 50 years later, the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin around that same world in a ­little more than 80 minutes. And since November 2000, astronauts on the International Space Station have circled our planet 16 times a day—that’s about 75,000 times around and counting.

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Why send jellyfish to space? Well, because it’s awesome which is true of anything involving space. But mostly because of little crystals that they keep in their bodies, and what these crystals can tell us about long-term human space travel.

When a jellyfish grows, it forms calcium sulfate crystals at the margin of its body (termed a bell). These crystals are surrounded by a little cell pocket, coated in specialised hairs, which are equally spaced around the bell. When jellyfish turn, the crystals roll down with gravity to the bottom of the pocket, moving the cell hairs, which in turn send signals to nerve cells. In this way, jellyfish are able to sense their way up and down. All they need for this to happen is gravity.

Humans have gravity sensing structures too, and therein lies the crux: in space with no gravity, will these structures grow normally? If humans ever want to colonise places in deep space, then we may need to have kids in zero gravity. Will these kids develop normal gravity sensing, even after growing up without it?

For jellyfish, at least, things aren’t so good. After developing in space, these astronaut jellyfish have a hard life back on Earth. While development of the sensory pockets appears normal, many more jellies had trouble getting around once on the planet, including pulsing and movement abnormalities, compared to their Earth-bound counterparts.

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We all know that as the seasons change on Earth, temperatures rise and fall, plants grow or die, ice forms or melts away. Perhaps nobody is more aware of this than NASA’s Visible Earth team who provide a vast catalog of images of our home planet as seen from space. Last month designer, cartographer, and dataviz expert John Nelson download a sequence of twelve cloud-free satellite imagery mosaics of Earth, one from each month, and then created a number of vivid animated gifs showing the seasonal changes in vegetation and land ice around the world.

Despite having encountered numerous seasonal timelapse videos shot here on Earth, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this visualized on such a large scale from space. It really looks like a heartbeat or the action of breathing.

A humanoid robot designed to alleviate the isolation of astronauts by having conversations has been deployed to the International Space Station (ISS).

The world’s first talking robot to be sent into space has been dispatched on his mission to the ISS by Japanese space agency JAXA over the weekend. Kirobo, modelled on Astro Boy, is expected to arrive on the station on 9 August, where he will join future ISS commander Kochi Wakata as a friendly robotic companion.

The aim of the 34-centimetre, 1-kilogram robot is to study whether machines can lend emotional support to humans in isolated conditions. Its name, which is derived from the Japanese words for “hope” and “robot”, is reflective of this idea. “Hope of the Japanese technology,” the website says. “Hope for tomorrow’s children. It carries hope on its small shoulders. Hope for the future of humans living together with robots.”

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Bacteria grown in a dish of fake urine in space behaves in ways never-before-seen in Earth microorganisms, scientists say.

A team of scientists sent samples of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa into orbit aboard NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis to see how they grew in comparison to their Earth-dwelling counterparts.

The 3D communities of microorganisms (called biofilms) grown aboard the space shuttle had more live cells, were thicker and had more biomass than the bacterial colonies grown in normal gravity on Earth as controls. The space bacteria also grew in a “column-and-canopy” structure that has never been observed in bacterial colonies on Earth, according to NASA scientists.

“Biofilms were rampant on the Mir space station and continue to be a challenge on the [International Space Station], but we still don’t really know what role gravity plays in their growth and development,” NASA’s study leader Cynthia Collins, an assistant professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said in a statement. “Our study offers the first evidence that spaceflight affects community-level behaviors of bacteria, and highlights the importance of understanding how both harmful and beneficial human-microbe interactions may be altered during spaceflight.”

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The Overview Effect

Planetary Collective presents a short film documenting astronauts’ life-changing stories of seeing the Earth from the outside – a perspective-altering experience often described as the Overview Effect.

Researchers exploit the strange properties of a liquid metamaterial to watch Minkowski spacetimes leap in out and of existence.

Metamaterials are synthetic substances with nanoscale structures that manipulate light. This ability to steer photons makes them the enabling technology behind invisibility cloaks and has generated intense interest from researchers.

The ability to guide light has more profound consequences, however. Various theoreticians have pointed out that there is a formal mathematical analogy between the way certain metamaterials bend light and the way spacetime does the same thing in general relativity. In fact, it ought to be possible to make metamaterials that mimic the behaviour of not only our own spacetime but also many others that cosmologist merely dream about.

Indeed, a couple of years ago we looked at a suggestion by Igor Smolyaninov at the University of Maryland in College Park that it ought to be possible to use metamaterials to create a multiverse in which different regions of the material corresponded to universes with different properties.

Today, Smolyaninov and a couple of buddies announce the extraordinary news that they have done exactly this. They’ve created a metamaterial containing many “universes” that are mathematically analogous to our own, albeit in the three dimensions rather than four.

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Alpha,_Beta_and_Proxima_Centauri.jpg

When, a few weeks ago, astronomers announced that an Earth-sized planet had been detected orbiting a Alpha Centauri B, a star in the closest system of stars to our own, and that this planet might, just might, mean that there is another planet, maybe another Earth-sized one, maybe, just maybe, in that magical distance from a sun that could give rise to life, and that all this was taking place right there in our galactic backyard, the next thought was inevitable: What if there is life there?

What if we, the people of the early 21st century, could be among the generation — the first and only of all the generations ever — that would be first to know that we were not alone?

But then there is the inevitable letdown: Even if we did find a planet in one of those nearby stars’ habitable zone and even, even, if we could detect an atmosphere that could harbor life, then what? Alpha Centauri may be the closest star system to Earth, but it’s still four light years away. Voyager 1, our farthest-traveled probe is moving at *38,000 miles per hour*, and after 35 years, it’s still in our solar system (barely). Moving at Voyager’s speed, it would take 700 *centuries* for a missionto reach Alpha Centauri. With speeds like that, we stand to become the first generation to know life is out there, and to not be able to know much more than that. The prospect is maddening.

Of course, our only hope would be to travel at much, much greater speeds. As MIT astronomer Sara Seager explained here at The Atlantic to Ross Andersen:

There are a lot of people who think we have the capabilities to get to a tenth of the speed of light. People are using that number as a benchmark of what they think is attainable, whether it’s with a solar sail or nuclear pulse propulsion. If we could achieve that speed, then we could get to Alpha Centauri in just over 40 years.

Whenever I give a talk to a public audience I explain the hazards of living on a spacecraft for 40 years, the fact that life could be extremely tedious, and could possibly even include some kind of induced hibernation. But then I always ask if anyone in the audience would volunteer for a 40+ year journey, and every single time I get a show of hands. And then I say “oh I forgot to mention, it’s a one way trip,” and even then I get the same show of hands. This tells me that our drive to explore is so great that if and when engineers succeed at traveling at least 10 percent of the speed of light, there will be people willing to make the journey. It’s just a matter of time.

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Plants Grow Fine Without Gravity

An astronaut services a plant experiment.

When researchers sent plants to the International Space Station in 2010, the flora wasn’t meant to be decorative. Instead, the seeds of these small, white flowers—called Arabidopsis thaliana—were the subject of an experiment to study how plant roots developed in a weightless environment.

Gravity is an important influence on root growth, but the scientists found that their space plants didn’t need it to flourish. The research team from the University of Florida in Gainesville thinks this ability is related to a plant’s inherent ability to orient itself as it grows. Seeds germinated on the International Space Station sprouted roots that behaved like they would on Earth—growing away from the seed to seek nutrients and water in exactly the same pattern observed with gravity.

Since the flowers were orbiting some 220 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth at the time, the NASA-funded experiment suggests that plants still retain an earthy instinct when they don’t have gravity as a guide.

“The role of gravity in plant growth and development in terrestrial environments is well understood,” said plant geneticist and study co-author Anna-Lisa Paul, with the University of Florida in Gainesville. “What is less well understood is how plants respond when you remove gravity.”

The new study revealed that “features of plant growth we thought were a result of gravity acting on plant cells and organs do not actually require gravity,” she added.

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Dark Matter Milky Way

Are there dark doings near the center of the Milky Way? That may be so when it comes to the collision of dark matter particles. Although such particles are invisible, we could still theoretically see the mess they make when they collide. It’s this idea that leads physicists to scour the galaxy for some glimmer of dark matter collisions. Spot a line produced by a pair of gamma-rays emanating from just the right spot and you may have found coveted clues to the dark matter mystery.

Now a collaboration of scientists using the Fermi Gamma-Ray Spacecraft’s Large Area Telescope instrument (Fermi–LAT) has confirmed seeing an unusual gamma-ray line near the galactic center. If the finding stands up to further scrutiny, it’s possible this line comes from the annihilation of dark matter.

In April theoretical physicist Christoph Weniger, now at the GRAPPA Institute in Amsterdam, analyzed Fermi–LAT’s publicly available data and spotted a strange gamma-ray line near the galactic center. There’s no known astrophysical event that can tidily explain this line—but the collision of dark matter particles might. If that were the case, it would be a major discovery: Once physicists spot the products of such an annihilation, they could begin to understand the particles that collided.

But there was a catch: Weniger is not a member of the Fermi-LAT collaboration and therefore cannot be able to account for the quirks of their instrument. What was needed was a weigh-in from Fermi-LAT collaboration physicists; they know the data best and would be able to confirm any hint of dark matter.

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Scientists at the UA and in California have completed the most challenging large astronomical mirror ever made. The mirror will be part of the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope, which will explore planets around other stars and the formation of stars, galaxies and black holes in the early universe.

The Giant Magellan Telescope, against the southern Milky Way, as it will appear when it's completed. (Image: Todd Mason/Mason Productions and GMTO Inc.)

Scientists at the University of Arizona and in California have completed the most challenging large astronomical mirror ever made.

For the past several years, a group of optical scientists and engineers working at the UA Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory underneath the UA’s football stadium have been polishing an 8.4-meter (27 ½ feet) diameter mirror with an unusual, highly asymmetric shape.

By the standards used by optical scientists, the “degree of difficulty” for this mirror is 10 times that of any previous large telescope mirror. The mirror surface matches the desired prescription to a precision of 19 nanometers – so smooth that if it were the size of the continental U.S., the highest mountains would be little more than a half-inch high.

This mirror, and six more like it, will form the heart of the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope, providing more than 380 square meters, or 4,000 square feet, of light-collecting area. The Giant Magellan Telescope will lead a next generation of giant telescopes that will explore planets around other stars and the formation of stars, galaxies and black holes in the early universe.

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British scientists are to mimic black holes in the laboratory as part of a £2.35 million project looking at how matter and energy interact.

The team from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh will produce laser pulses whose energy is measured in trillions of watts.

They will be used to simulate conditions found around a black hole, a place where gravity is so strong that light cannot escape and the normal laws of physics break down.

Lead scientist Daniele Faccio said: “What we are creating is the same space-time structure which characterises a black hole. But we’re doing this with a light pulse, so we don’t actually have the mass which is associated with black holes.

“Gravitational black holes are generated by a collapsing star. We don’t actually have this collapsing star, so there’s no danger of being sucked into the black holes we’re generating here.”

The university has been awarded a three million euro (£2.35 million) grant by the European Research Council to investigate new areas of quantum physics.

Another study will look at how single photons and electrons interact with each other in computer chips.

Artist concept of the gas halo surrounding the Milky Way galaxy

Astronomers have used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to find evidence our Milky Way Galaxy is embedded in an enormous halo of hot gas that extends for hundreds of thousands of light years. The estimated mass of the halo is comparable to the mass of all the stars in the galaxy.

If the size and mass of this gas halo is confirmed, it also could be an explanation for what is known as the “missing baryon” problem for the galaxy.

Baryons are particles, such as protons and neutrons, that make up more than 99.9 percent of the mass of atoms found in the cosmos. Measurements of extremely distant gas halos and galaxies indicate the baryonic matter present when the universe was only a few billion years old represented about one-sixth the mass and density of the existing unobservable, or dark, matter. In the current epoch, about 10 billion years later, a census of the baryons present in stars and gas in our galaxy and nearby galaxies shows at least half the baryons are unaccounted for.

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Hubble Space Telescope image - dubbed eXtreme Deep Field - of the universe. In the image are 5,000 galaxies. The image took 2,000 exposures lasting a total of 500 hours.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has produced one of its most extraordinary views of the Universe to date.

Called the eXtreme Deep Field, the picture captures a mass of galaxies stretching back almost to the time when the first stars began to shine.

But this was no simple point and snap – some of the objects in this image are too distant and too faint for that.

Rather, this view required Hubble to stare at a tiny patch of sky for more than 500 hours to detect all the light.

“It’s a really spectacular image,” said Dr Michele Trenti, a science team member from the University of Cambridge, UK.

“We stared at this patch of sky for about 22 days, and have obtained a very deep view of the distant Universe, and therefore we see how galaxies were looking in its infancy.”

The XDF will become a tool for astronomy. The objects embedded in it can be followed up by other telescopes. It should keep scientists busy for years, enabling them to study the full history of galaxy formation and evolution.

The new vista is actually an updating of a previous HST product – the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

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This is the Earth’s song, pinging out contended chirrups into deep space.

The haunting sounds have been captured by Nasa’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) satellite, which launched on August 30 this year.

The satellites captured the chirping and whistling radio waves emitted by Earth’s magnetosphere on September 5.

The sound is known as ‘Earth’s chorus’ and can be heard by human ears – that is, assuming you could take your helmet off while floating in space.

Craig Kletzing, from the University of Iowa, is the principal investigator of the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS) instruments on-board the satellites.

The sounds of Earth: As charged solar particles hit the inner and outer radiation belts around our planet, they get caught and whipped around, emitting the sounds which you can hear below

He said: ‘People have known about chorus for decades.

‘Radio receivers are used to pick it up, and it sounds a lot like birds chirping.

‘It was often more easily picked up in the mornings, which along with the chirping sound is why it’s sometimes referred to as “dawn chorus”.’

The radio waves are at frequencies which can be heard from the human ear, but sadly you might need to be in space and without a helmet – which is not medically advisable.

You might also encounter the tricky problem of sound not travelling through the vacuum.

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Hubble has spotted an ancient galaxy that shouldn't exist

This galaxy is so large, so fully-formed, astronomers say it shouldn’t exist at all. It’s called a “grand-design” spiral galaxy, and unlike most galaxies of its kind, this one is old. Like, really, really old. According to a new study conducted by researchers using NASA’s Hubble Telescope, it dates back roughly 10.7-billion years — and that makes it the most ancient spiral galaxy we’ve ever discovered.

“The vast majority of old galaxies look like train wrecks,” said UCLA astrophysicist Alice Shapley in a press release. “Our first thought was, why is this one so different, and so beautiful?”

Shapley is co-author of the paper describing the discovery, which is published in the latest issue of Nature. She and her colleagues had been using Hubble to investigate some of our Universe’s most distant cosmic entities, but the discovery of BX442 — which is what they’ve dubbed the newfound galaxy — came as a huge surprise.

“The fact that this galaxy exists is astounding,” said University of Toronto’s David Law, lead author of the study. “Current wisdom holds that such ‘grand-design’ spiral galaxies simply didn’t exist at such an early time in the history of the universe.”

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Most distant image of Earth, taken by Voyager 1. Today, on its 35th birthday, remember we're all on this dot together.

Thirty-five years ago today, the Voyager 1 launched into space in a quest to explore the outer Solar System.

Enjoy this animation by Adam Winnik.

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