Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Twelve Days of Christmas

As the solstice passes (today at 18:38 ET) the Christmas rush is well upon us, judging by the parking lots in the malls. Here is a summary of the consequences of sending the gifts from the Twelve Days of Christmas:

This Morning's Lunar Eclipse

Here is a time-lapse video of the eclipse, taken from Gainesville, Florida.

Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Winter Solstice 2010

Tuesday, 2010 December 21 is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. After Tuesday, the days start getting slowly longer again.

This year, the solstice is marked by a total lunar eclipse which will occur on Tuesday morning. The last time a lunar eclipse and the winter solstice were on the same day was the year 1638. The next occurrence won't be until 2094 -- I have ambitions to watch it, but that is predicated on either the technological singularity occurring, or on sufficient medical advances to keep me from total decrepitude.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dark Matter Ring

This question came up in a family discussion recently: if dark matter is, well, dark and current theory says it doesn't interact with normal matter, then how can it actually be detected? And the answer is that the dark matter isn't detected -- it is inferred from other obser- vations. This photo [Credit: NASA/ESA, M. J. Jee & H. Ford et al. (Johns Hopkins University)] of the galaxy cluster CL0024+17 in the constellation Pisces shows, in addition to galaxies that are part of the cluster, a series of repeated images of background galaxies that were created by gravitational lensing.

This lensing effect is caused by light being bent by travelling through a region where there is strong gravity before reaching us. Some analogies can be set up using everyday objects, such as looking at distant streetlights through a wine glass.

In the case of the cluster in the photograph, the lensing does not occur immediately around the edge of the cluster itself, as one might expect, but in a ring some distance away from the centre of the cluster itself. The lensing (bending of light) is being done by the gravitation associated with unseen mass. Based on the amount of lensing, a computer model was developed to determine the location of the unseen mass, which has been coloured blue in the photograph.

Here is a video which explains further, including some discussion on the origin of the ring (which at 2.5 million light years across is comparable to the distance from the Milky Way to Andromeda):

Flight of the Dragon: Animation

The first flight of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft was an unmanned test vehicle last week on December 8. However, the ultimate goal is a human rated spacecraft. Here is a SpaceX animation showing the mission profile of a Dragon vehicle carrying a crew to the ISS:

Here is another version with a techno soundtrack:

In watching these videoe, I can't help but be struck by how similar this mission profile is to the first manned missions into space 50 years -- half a century -- earlier: launch, ascent, drop booster stages, conduct mission, drop service module, re-enter, splashdown, recover by helicopter. This technology is unsustainable even if this does happen to be the most inexpensive launcher/spacecraft combination ever built -- too much of the launcher (upper stage) and spacecraft (service module) are thrown away. Haven't we learned anything in 50 years of doing this?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics

A post today on the science blog Pharyngula introduced me to Dr. Jim Kakalios and his Youtube video series The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics. These are promotional videos which are intended to complement the book of the same title, which is subtitled "A Math-Free Exploration of the Science that Made Our World". Kakalios uses comic book and SF pulp magazine imagery to illustrate concepts of quantum physics.

Lesson 1 - The World of Tomorrow

Lesson 4 - It's All Done With Magnets (incomplete)

Lesson 6 - The Laser, Death Rays, and DVDs

My Google-Fu is inadequate to the task of locating episodes 2, 3, and 5, or a complete Lesson 4. Perhaps they don't exist? But based on the videos, it appears to be a great book, especially for a younger readership.

The Queen's Christmas Message 2010

Caution -- not for the humour impaired. The words "bollocks" and "wankers" appear in this video*.

The presence of this video on this blog should not be construed to mean that the author is in any way frustrated with the political leadership of Canada.

* From the Operation Maple website.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Interview with Michael Skeet on EDGE blog

An interview with our friend Michael Skeet is featured on the EDGE publishing blog. Michael comments on his story in EVOLVE: Vampire Stories of the New Undead in a blog post that is part of EDGE's 2010 Countdown to Christmas series. {Note - probably available from Bakka!]

In addition to the interview with Michael, there are also interviews with Nancy Kilpatrick, (editor) and EVOLVE authors Kevin Cockle and Ronald Hore.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Dragon Touches The Sky

Earlier this week, NASA announced that the last two shuttle missions, to be flown on Discovery and Endeavour, have been delayed until next year. But in the meantime, a historic first has occurred: a private company -- Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. or SpaceX -- has built, launched, and recovered a spacecraft from Earth orbit. The first Dragon spacecraft was placed into low Earth orbit yesterday by a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

The first stage of the Falcon launcher was recovered from the Atlantic, and the Dragon spacecraft made several orbits before it re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down safely in the Pacific.

Previously, spacecraft development and launch were only within reach of national or supra-national entities -- Russia, the United States, China, Japan, India, and the European Union. Now SpaceX has joined this exclusive club, the first corporation to do so.

Initial plans are to use the Dragon vehicle in cargo-carrier configuration to ferry supplies to the International Space Station to fulfill the terms of the resupply contract that NASA has awarded to SpaceX. But cargo resupply is a stepping stone -- the ultimate goal is to build a human-rated version of Dragon which will carry up to seven astronauts.

With the uncertainty in the Constellation program and in the development of the Orion crew vehicle, it is likely that Dragon will be the de facto next generation spacecraft.

Although Dragon's stated purpose is to carry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station, other missions for which the Orion was being considered may be possible with Dragon -- lunar orbit, lunar landing (with a lander to be developed), asteroid rendezvous, and others as needs are identified.

A movie showing a simulated rendezvous and docking with the ISS provides a window into the current thinking of SpaceX in terms of the bread-and-butter of being a service provider. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some variant of the Heinleinian vision of The Man Who Sold The Moon may still come true.


It was thirty years ago yesterday -- 1980 December 8.

Knocking on doors

Like the man in this video, I too am a tolerant guy. But let's be clear -- in any conflict between missionaries and natives, my sympathies are always with the natives. So when I get missionaries of whatever stripe at my door, I always feel compelled to strike a figurative blow for all those who encountered missionaries and were less fortunate than me. This may be why we have experienced such a steep fall-off of strangers come to share their faiths...

Door To Door Atheists Bother Mormons - Watch more Funny Videos