The Rosetta Space Mission

rosetta

This week I am muscling in on Christopher’s space series with a guest post about comet exploration.

In a couple of weeks (on November 12th to be precise), scientists will try to put a lander on a comet for the first time ever. The mission blasted off 10 years ago, made its rendezvous and began orbiting in August of this year, and is currently being prepared to touch down.

The mission is called Rosetta, and it is operated by the European Space Agency. It is a risky mission though and there are no guarantees that the lander will be able to plant itself safely on the comet. But if all goes well, the lander will stay operational as the comet flies closer and closer to the sun in its elliptical orbit, so that it can study how proximity to the sun changes the elements that make up the comet. The orbiter will follow, and should stay with comet until the end of next year, while the lander will operate until the spring when it will then get too hot to function.

Comets are some of the oldest structures in the solar system, so learning what they are made of and how they undergo change is seen as the closest thing to going back to the formation of the system currently possible. Scientists hope to gather evidence about water and carbon content, to see if the Earth could have got its first water and elements that are needed for the development of life from such bodies.

The Europeans Space agency has an interactive graphic so you can see how Rosetta arrived at its destination, and it is well worth a look. You really get an idea of the task of getting to something that is just a few KM across and traveling at 55 000 Kilometres per hour.

This article in the online journal Science gives lots more information, and there are some great photos here.

The European Space Agency are also running a competition to name the area where the craft is due to touch down. They want the public to propose names and reasons to use them, so that someone has the chance to enter the history books as their name will be immortalized. Why not give it a go, read more here.

Bluetooth Gloves

bluetooth gloves

Life in the Netherlands involves biking. Biking involves getting cold hands in the winter. Getting cold hands in the winter means difficulty operating your mobile phone.

It is typical, you are riding down the cycle-path, it is raining, your hands are cold, you might be wearing gloves. The phone rings. You stumble to the side of the path, take your gloves off if you are wearing them because otherwise you can’t get into the pockets of your jeans, through the waterproof trousers and take out your phone. By this time at the last second the person decides that you are not going to answer and bang… missed call with a withheld number. What was it? You will never know.

And your hands are now even colder, the touch screen does not register and in a nervous moment you drop the phone trying to put it back into your pocket with wet hands. You get off the bike, put the stand down, go to retrieve your phone (the back has come off so you have to reset various things) and the bike falls over because of the weight in the panniers.

This every-day occurrence could become a thing of the past though, thanks to a fine invention. Bluetooth gloves. Yes ladies and gentlemen, gloves that use bluetooth to operate your phone. You just press the answer button on the glove, make the phone with your fingers as you do when you are pretending to make a call or playing with the kids, and speak. The sound comes out of the thumb, and the pinky has a microphone.

Available in black or grey, mens or women’s sizes, but unfortunately only with the phone fitted in the left hand, the gloves can even be worn while operating a touchscreen. They are dry cleanable and charge with a USB.

I know what is going on my list for Santa.

The Size of Space

I’m starting with a fact today; two actually.

FACT

According to astronomer Dr Peter Edwards, if our solar system was a grain of sand, then The Milky Way (our Galaxy) would be 1,000 times the size of Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral from the South

Durham Cathedral

FACT

According to NASA there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.

Need a more visual representation of that? Well luckily for you, the American Museum of Natural History have spent quite a long time developing a digital universe.

Somewhat mind boggling, isn’t it. Dr Edwards doesn’t think the human mind is really built to understand the enormity of the universe. I think I probably agree with him.

In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on a seemingly empty area of space. This area of space could be covered up with just a single grain of sand if you were looking at it from Earth. Astronomers didn’t think they would discover much, but if you have a super duper space telescope, why not see what it can find?

This is what that seemingly empty bit of space actually looked like when Hubble zoomed in.

A Hubble Space Telescope picture of millions of galaxy clustersEvery single speck of light you can see is a galaxy. Yes the 100 or so huge ones in the foreground, but also the millions in the background.

Each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Yes many of them look insignificantly small, but they are very very far away. So the well used fact that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth is actually true. In fact there are many billions more stars in space than their are grains of sand on the Earth.

The title of this article suggests that I will try to qualification the size of space. This isn’t really possible, so all we can currently do is describe its size, relative to other things. If I had to use one word to describe space, I think it would have to be enormous.

A key question surrounding space is: is it infinite?

That is an existential question which I doubt we will ever know the answer to, but never the less it is still an interesting question, which is worth considering.

The theory that the universe is a sphere – like the Earth – is a popular one, and I can understand the logic in this, if you keep going, eventually the universe will loop you back around to where you started. But then my problem with this theory is we can go beyond the Earth. We can travel around the Earth, but space travel prove that we can move in 3 dimensions, straight and sideways on Earth and then upwards into space. If you got to the very edge of the universe, what would happen if you went upwards? If there isn’t an upwards, what is there?

New Scientist states that from all current data, it seems that the known universe has a diameter of about 93 billion light years. That’s pretty big, but by no means infinite. So if this estimate is correct – which is ridiculously unlikely – what comes after that? A big wall with a no entry sign? Just empty space? Another universe? Who knows…

That’s Your Lot

See you next week for the next in the series.

Car Trouble

car loans

Last week the New York Times ran an interesting article about cars fitted with the so-called starter interrupt device.

Many might know that some cars have an engine cut off switch that can be remotely operated. If someone steals your car you might be able to track it and turn the engine off if you have forward thinkingly fitted one. But they are becoming more commonly used today on cars that are sold with lease or debt payment.

And it is extremely simple, I sell you the car and as long as you repay the debt or lease charges the vehicle is yours to do what you will, and drive where you like. But if you miss a payment, I can remotely track your movement and at the moment I see fit I can block the car.

So one morning, you have not made the payment on Friday because you are on holiday, you go out to take your child to school, or the dentist, or the hospital because she is sick, and the car won’t start.

Now I would agree that if you want a car you should pay for it, and that if you don’t keep up payments you may lose it, but there are other knock on effects to using such technology in this way. Of course there is the problem that you might block a car that would be used in an emergency situation, like the one suggested above. But the effect of having such a ready resource in reclaiming the car may lead you to sell it to someone who might have difficulty repaying the loan. If you knew that you might have to first find the car, send a car transporter out to recover it and incur some time and financial interference, you might think twice about selling it to someone with a bad credit rating and precarious situation.

If you know you can just track the car, block it when it is in a good place for you to collect, and always know where it is, then who cares? Give them the car and get it back later.

These devices are currently fitted on about 2 million cars, and the article states that their use is helping to push the use of sub-prime auto loans. I am no financial guru but I have heard a lot of talk and read a lot about sub-prime mortgages, and they don’t get good press.

So even if we put aside the issue of privacy, as the lender can see your every move (I put it aside because if you carry a mobile phone you are in the same boat), there is the problem of physical security in case of malfunction, data protection and of course dragging people into high rate loans and all the associated black market dealings that go with debt. But we should not forget that this technology also means that people who would not be able to buy a car can get hold of one, and people might accept the device if the choice is that of car with device, or no car.

High rate loans are justified because they are high risk, so I might argue that if you take the risk out of the loan then the rate should drop, this does not however seem to be the case (surprisingly).

Read more on the argument through the link to the New York Times above, and let me know in the comments section if you have any experience.

Space – A Series

Space. It’s a big old space.

Insert awesome picture of space to keep people interested. Check.

The Carina Nebula - Space

The Carina Nebula – Picture taken by The European Southern Observatory (ESO).

What happens here on Earth is insignificant in the universe. That doesn’t mean things that happen here are unimportant – far from it – but in reality, we are tiny. Nothing we have done or can do has much of an impact on the universe. Nothing that happens here on Earth affects the marvellous enormity, complexity and vastness of space.

Our lives, this entire planet, our solar system and even galaxy are tiny. Nobody really knows how tiny – relatively – because nobody knows how big the universe is. Or at least how big it is it a specific point in time – given its changing and expanding nature.

I really enjoy learning about space, so I have decided to write a series about space.

In this series I plan to cover some of space’s big topics; including:

  • How big (or indeed small) are we really?
  • Information on the International Space Station
  • Will humans ever live on other planets?
  • Black holes
  • The future of space exploration
  • How has our knowledge of space changed things on Earth?

Key Terms

There are a few terms I will be using a lot during the course of this series. To help keep us all on the same page, here is how I am going to define them.

Space
Everything everywhere! Anything that exists, exists in space. Space can be a completely empty vacuum or it can be full of matter, or waves such as light and sound. If there is something, or the potential for something to be there, it is space.

Matter
Stuff. Things made of atoms. Tangible objects. Not including electromagnetic waves; like light.

The Universe
The zone of activity in space which contains all known matter.

A Galaxy
A collection of billions of solar systems.

A Solar System
A collection of matter, orbiting a star. That matter includes planets and smaller structures like asteroids.

A Planet
A large body which orbits a star.

Next Week

I have already written next weeks post, so I can tell you with all certainty that I will be exploring the size of the universe. See you then.