China’s Unmanned Moon Probe Returns!

If you weren’t aware, new countries have entered the next space race.  India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) named ‘Mangalyaan’ was successfully launched on November 1st, 2013, and has been orbiting Mars since its arrival on September 21st of this year.  China has been in the mix since 2007, and have been working to gradually increase their capabilities.

Their latest mission, called ‘Chang’e 5-T1,’ was launched on October 23rd, and spent 8 days travelling to the Moon, performing a flyby, and returning safely.  This is the test mission before they send Chang’e 5 in 2017, a mission that will land on the Moon, capture 2 Kg of samples, and return safely to Earth.

Credit: CASC

An Impressive feat, no doubt.

The Halloween-Themed Universe

I did a short presentation last night for a group of families at a Halloween event.  My job was to talk space but make it as spooky as possible and use some Halloween themes for the kids.  There really is a fine line between teaching Science and being entertaining, but here’s some of the things I did.

Lets start with the following image….What does this look like to you?

Yes it's a nebula

Yes it’s a nebula

Did you say the head of a witch? Then yes you are right! This is known as the Witch Head Nebula. A nebula is a place where gas and dust in the Galaxy get dense enough to form stars.  Once these stars form their light shines on the gas, heating it up, and causing it to reflect starlight or emit light in infrared.  We end up seeing shapes light the one above here on Earth.  Add in our natural knack for pattern recognition, and BAM, you’ve got a Witch’s Head.  In the case of the Witch Head Nebula, it is believed to be a supernova remnant 900 light years awayin the constellation Eridanus, illuminated by the star Rigel in Orion.

Our next spooky space curiosity is a picture released by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).  What does this one look like?

Credit: NASA/SDO

Credit: NASA/SDO

If you said its the Sun, then Bravo, you have figured out the easy part of the question.  The hard part is that the active regions on the Sun at the particular time this image was taken makes it look like….


A Jack-O-Lantern!

The Sun is a turbulent place.  If you look back about a week to my article on the Sun’s activity, you’ll know that Sunspots vary in intensity and number on an 11-year cycle.  At the time and angle this photo was taken, the Sunspots gave us just the right features to trigger our brain’s pattern recognition pattern, telling us that yes this looks like a carved pumpkin.

The last object of curiosity is the following….What are we looking at?

That’s no moon…. Credit: Science@NASA

Every time I see a picture of Saturn’s moon Mimas, I hear the empire’s theme from Star Wars.  That’s because of the joke that’s been running through Astronomy since the Star Wars movies came out (Mimas was discovered in 1789, so the moon came first).

Which one is the moon?

Yes Mimas resembles the Death Star.  It is known to have a very distinct temperature pattern.

Credit: Science@NASA

If this is not evidence that Mimas contains a Space Station, then I will be very surprised……

Happy Halloween!


Galaxy’s Ring of Star formation shines face on

I’ve seen a lot of lovely images from  the Spitzer Space Telescope.  It takes infrared images and can see the fine structure of galaxies, where stars are forming and where they are not forming.  The photos paint a picture of the history and evolution of a galaxy.  The latest image released last week shows some amazing features.

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Cyan light in the image is a combination of blue and green coloured light representing infrared wavelengths of light at 3.4 and 4.5 microns.  This wavelength shows the stellar population in the galaxy.  The red light is representing dust features that glow brightly in a wavelength of 8 microns.

3.4 and 4.5 micron light only. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The most amazing and peculiar feature visible in the images is the giant dusty ring on the outer edges of the galaxy.  This dusty ring is a result of newly formed stars that are heating up their surroundings, causing them to glow in infrared light. Without any dust closer to the bulge of the galaxy, no new stars are forming near the centre.

The Galaxy, NGC 1291, is 12 Billion years old and is located 33 Million light years away in the constellation Eridanus.  The galaxy is classed as a barred spiral, due to the bar across its central bulge, visible as an ‘S’ shape in the infrared images.

The Galaxy looks pretty amazing in visible light too! Credit: Damian Peach

As a galaxy ages, the star formation moves from the gas-rich central bulge to the outskirts of the galaxy and becomes driven by resonances of spiral density waves originating from the bulge.  This galaxy is a textbook example of that, showing massive star formation in the outskirts and relatively little activity nearer to the centre.

Looking at galaxies in many different wavelengths gives us an idea of their history, whether they’ve collided with other galaxies, and how they will evolve in the future.  Seeing spiral galaxies face on gives us a full picture of the galaxy and allows us to gather more information about its evolution.  Studying the lives of galaxies gives us an idea of how our own Milky Way Galaxy, and the universe at large, has evolved and how it will continue to change in the future.

The Antares Rocket Exploded last night! Oh the Humanity….

I was blown away to hear this news just a few hours after the launch.  The Antares rocket exploded on the launchpad just six seconds after launch. Yesterday’s post discussed how the Antares-Cygnus resupply launch was delayed by a lone man in a boat who had no clue he was in the blast zone.

Yes this is a real explosion of a NASA Rocket. Credit: NASA

First of all, it’s important to note that no one was hurt, including all personnel on site and in the control room.  This was an unmanned rocket, so the major loss was the resupply capsule and its cargo, not to mention the loss of the $250 Million dollar hardware.  The astronauts on the International Space Station will be fine as well and will not be short of supplies, as there are two more supply missions in the next few weeks, including a SpaceX Dragon launch.

During the launch, it appeared that something was wrong with the first rocket stage, as there was a fire.  The rocket engines of the first stage then exploded in mid air, and the rocket was sent falling back to Earth where it triggered a massive explosion on the launchpad.  You can watch the video below:

NASA’s Official statement regarding the incident was released a few hours later from William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate:

“While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences’ third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today’s mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies.

“Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”

Still, with a $1.9 Billion contract from NASA, Orbital Sciences has got to be reeling from this mishap.  Their official statement is as follows:

“It  is  far  too  early  to  know  the  details  of  what  happened,”  said  Mr.  Frank  Culbertson,  Orbital’s  Executive  Vice  President  and  General  Manager  of  its  Advanced  Programs  Group.    “As  we  begin  to  gather  information,  our  primary  concern  lies  with  the  ongoing  safety  and  security  of  those  involved  in  our  response  and  recovery  operations.    We  will  conduct  a  thorough  investigation  immediately  to  determine  the  cause  of  this  failure  and  what  steps  can  be  taken  to  avoid  a  repeat  of  this  incident.    As  soon  as  we  understand  the  cause  we  will  begin  the  necessary  work  to  return  to  flight  to  support  our  customers  and  the  nation’s  space  program.”

Here’s a bit of background information on the Antares rockets and the entire Orbital Sciences mission contract.

You can take a look at the cargo manifest from the mission to see what was actually lost.  To give you an idea,  in these missions, aside from supplies, there are always experiments from small organizations.  For example, from the list, “One investigation by students from Duchesne
Academy of the Sacred Heart in Houston tests the performance of pea shoot growth in space.”  Not exactly Nobel prize work to be sure, but those kids were probably watching this launch with anticipation, and now their projects are gone.  It’s hard to see this kind of thing because a lot of the experiments going up are from small and medium-sized organizations who are getting their big break after years of work to prepare such a project.

With all that’s happened Its not like a rocket has never exploded on the launchpad before, in fact here’s a 30 minute compilation of rocket failures from NASA and other worldwide space organizations.  This is how we learn to make rockets work.  Its experimental science in its purest form. Its sad that there were so many losses of great science experiments, but luckily there was no loss of life and in the coming weeks we will hopefully learn what went wrong.

I’m sure NASA will be glad to give the kids another opportunity to send up some pea plants, and finally get their change to experience space flight.


How last night’s Antares Rocket Launch was delayed by a guy in a boat

One of the funnier parts of the scientific method, at least during work in the field, is that nature is a cruel prankster.  The smallest things can derail the greatest of experiments.

More often than not this results in catastrophe, yet some of the greatest leaps in Science have come from something that seemingly went wrong.

Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when he noticed that a bacterial culture had been contaminated with mold, but the bacteria did not spread anywhere near the mold.

Penzias and Wilson discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation when they were trying to detect faint radio waves bouncing off a balloon satellite.  They kept trying to eliminate interference from their detections by doing everything from cooling the detectors to cleaning pigeon poop off of the antennae, but the strange hum remained.  It came from every direction and was nearly the same over the entire sky.  Luckily they realized what they had discovered.

Yesterday the NASA launch of the Antares rocket was ruined because a man in a boat happened to stray into the restricted waters South-East of the launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia.  NASA officially delayed the mission due to ‘public safety.’

Antares Rocket with Cygnus Capsule. Credit: Orbital Sciences

The funniest part of it is that Millions had come out to watch the first ever night launch of the rocket, and during the 10 minute launch window, conditions were perfectly calm and clear.  This had all the signs of a perfect, straightforward launch.

Visibility of the launch Credit: Science@NASA

The Antares rocket is the result of a NASA contracted corporation called Orbital Sciences. This is the third launch of the Antares, which is propelling the Cygnus spacecraft filled with 5,000 lbs of cargo heading to the International Space Station for Resupply.

The launch is rescheduled for today at 6:22pm EDT, and you can watch it here.

Imagine how the boater must have felt when he was approached by federal agents and police boats.  Poor guy probably just wanted to fish.

Motivation Monday: Take action to be a success!

Are you a planner? Someone who frequently makes lists, has big ideas, and comes up with a plan to execute them? Maybe you do this mostly in the morning, get up bright and early before work, have a cup of coffee and a good breakfast, and then sit down and get to it before heading to work for the day.

Maybe you dream about having them done, about the day all this stuff is accomplished, and how amazing your life will be.  How all your problems will be fixed and you’ll finally have the life you’ve always wanted, full of freedom and happiness.

But then you get home from work, and you’re tired.  By the time you have dinner and feed the pets its 8pm and you just want to relax and watch some TV.  So you say ‘I’ll do it all tomorrow.’

This is how I’ve been my entire life.


Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing.  I love the way I am and you should too! Whatever personality we are dealt takes work to master.  Writing lists is a great way to get things off of your mind and minimize anxiety.  I’ve spent a substantial chunk of time struggling with motivation and work ethic.  And even though I’ve figured out how to make the most of it, there are still times when it gets the best of me.  Realizing that you will always be in a battle between the ideal you and the worst you helps you stay on track.

But there is one better method for defeating anxiety, for obtaining the ideal you and accomplishing all of your dreams: Action.

Dale Carnegie said “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

If you look at the most successful people you know.  The ones who are happy, healthy, and seem to have it all together, you may notice a commonality.  They all Produce.

They get things done! Lots of things, every day! They are the ones you see working on a dozen projects at once, keeping their entire life in order and still having time to rest and relax.  Some of them plan, yes, but as soon as they are done planning they start, and they accomplish.  They don’t often say ‘I’ll do it later.’

Now I’m not saying anyone should go out and work 14 hours a day, but if you want to learn to take action and really move forward in life, here are 5 great tips:

1. Schedule your day during that burst of motivation.  If you spend one hour a day working on a project, you’ll be able to accomplish more than you could imagine.  If you precisely schedule that time and then tell yourself you can relax afterwards, it will be much easier to stick to it later when you are tired.  Small steps lead to great displacement!

2. Start Small and Build Habits.  In the movies, people change overnight ALL THE TIME.  But real life doesn’t work like that.  Humans are hard wired to build routines, and those routines become the path of least resistance in our brains.  We will revert to them simply because we have built the thought process over months and years.  If you make small changes at first and keep them consistent, you can make more changes as you move forward.  This is also a good way to start working out.  Many people fail because they try to do too much too quickly.

3. Make a checklist or chart that lets you track progress. How do you know how far you’ve come unless you can see it? At the end of the day I write down everything I’ve accomplished, and it helps me feel motivated to continue tomorrow.  You can make a chart, calendar, list, anything, but take 5 minutes to do it and you will see the progress!

4. Things we don’t want to do are much more difficult in our heads. I hate doing dishes, but I also have limited counter space, so if I want to cook dinner I have to do them.  I’ve spent hours finding ways to ignore doing the dishes, but once I finally do them, I realize they only really take about 10 minutes, and then I feel good after doing them.  Its amazing how much we can accomplish in very little time.  Time yourself the next time you do a task you’ve been avoiding, then measure the time you’ve spent avoiding it.  You’ll end up with an interesting result.

5. Earn the time off. The key word here is ‘Earn.’ If you come home after that long day at work and have dinner and feed the pets and its 8pm and you’re tired, but you scheduled in an hour of work on that big personal project and made it to 9pm, take that last hour to watch TV before bed, and feel good about it because you’ve earned it.  You won’t feel anxiety about what’s left to do.  You will truly relax.

Take action and you will be amazed at what you can do.  And remember: What is easiest is not always the best thing for us, even though that’s what we always go to first.

Get to it!



The Sun has been going Insane lately!

The sun is definitely hitting its usual ‘rebellious’ phase on its 11 year sunspot cycle, where it flares up at literally everything.

The biggest sunspot observed in 24 years has been releasing huge amounts of energy, in the form of X-class solar flares. In the past week this sunspot, designated AR 12192, has released 3 X-class flares, including a huge X-3.1 on Friday.  NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has been watching the light show.

Sunspot AR 12192 – Credit: NASA/SDO

Okay so the Sun is blowing up, what does all this mean?

Let’s start with Sunspots.  A sunspot is a place on the sun where there is a huge amount of magnetic activity.  This activity can slow down convection currents in the solar photosphere and cool down a region of the sun.  Now when I say cooling I’m still talking like 3000-4000 Kelvin, but that’s definitely less than the usual 5500 K. This cooling  causes the region to appear dark and spotty.  Hence the name sunspot.

Sunspots appear in Black on the surface of the sun

A solar flare is a huge release of energy from a sunspot, similar to Trillions of Atomic Bombs going off at once.  They are measured on a logarithmic scale based on their peak flux (Power per unit area) seen at Earth, and are characterized from weakest to strongest with the letters A, B, C, M, and X.  After the letters, the classes are subdivided with numbers 1 to 9, with X2 being twice the power of X1, X3 is three times as powerful as X1, and so on.  They also release a torrent of charged particles called a Coronal Mass Ejection, or CME.  These particles reach Earth in under 36 hours and can do all sorts of damage to electronics in Space, and sometimes on the ground.

So you can imagine, three X class flares in a week in substantial.  Still, the strongest one of the year was in February, where we saw a massive X4.9 flare.

Buy why have we seen so many powerful flares lately?

Answer: the 11 year Sunspot cycle.  Every 11 years the sun hits a maximum level of activity, producing more sunspots and releasing more flares.  Since roughly the year 1750 we’ve recorded the sun’s activity, and the cycle has come through like clockwork.

Solar Cycle. Credit: Solen and SIDC

If you were wondering, the largest recorded solar flare of all time was in 1859, called the Carrington Event.  This one was classed as an X40.

So why doesn’t all this release of energy and Coronal mass cause us to fry? The Earth’s magnetic field protects us, by funnelling the radiation to the poles, where it ionizes gas in the upper atmosphere, producing flashes of light that we lovingly call ‘Aurorae.’ Yup, the Northern (or Southern) lights.

So next time you see the Northern Lights, just think ‘Wow, that’s a huge explosion from the sun that would kill us all, except that the Earth’s magnetic field protects us and gives us a kickass light show instead’.


The Highest Skydive Record is Broken Again!

I’m sure a lot of us remember the stratospheric skydive of Felix Baumgartner two years ago (I know, I can’t believe it’s been two years either).  It gathered a lot of media attention and the live webcast put on by Red Bull made it an amazing event.  He jumped from a height of 39km, accelerating to a speed of 1,357 km/hr, breaking the sound barrier and a world record in the process.

Felix Baumgartner about to jump from the edge of space.

Well they say nothing lasts forever, and this record only lasted about two years, because on Friday, Alan Eustace jumped from 7000 ft higher, an altitude of 41.4 km, to break the Stratospheric jump record.  His speed of 1,322 km/hr was slightly slower than Baumgartner’s, though he still broke the sound barrier so I don’t think anyone was worried.

Take a look at Felix Baumgartner:


This dude looks like a daredevil base-jumping adrenaline junkie.

Now let’s see Alan Eustace, who is the Google VP of Search (A very high-up job at Google):

Credit: Rico Shen

How did this 57 year old guy, who certainly looks like an executive, with no history of daredevil activities (Though he does fly a Sesna…) end up breaking the world record on a stratospheric stunt jump that only 3 other people have ever attempted?

Just goes to show, looks aren’t everything.  Still, you always wonder about Google being behind all this.  Earlier this year they acquired Skybox, a microsatellite launcher.  Its clear that google wants to explore space.  Is this stunt by a senior executive another step in Google’s eventual leap into the corporate space race?


Post Eclipse breakdown – Quickest DIY Pinhole Camera ever

Yesterday’s post had me discuss the partial Solar Eclipse that occurred around sunset for most of North America.  The one thing I neglected to mention was regarding safe viewing of it.

In reality if you saw the sun with your bare eyes during a partial eclipse, it looks like the sun any other time of day – its bright. Don’t damage your eyes.

I found a bit of time in the afternoon to build a pinhole camera, which basically consists of a tube or box with a pinhole in one end and a film or ‘viewing area’ at the other end.  Here is a good breakdown of how one works and how to build it.  Mine was not this nice.  I used a box for the chamber, and taped a paper plate onto the open side of the box.  I punched a small hole on the plate using scissors, and cut a small hole in the box so I could view the image.  Total time ~ 3 mins.

The pinhole camera worked, but the image was far too small as the box wasn’t big enough to give a good focal length.

2014-10-23 18.19.28

The tiny orange sun being eclipsed

See that tiny orange dot? Yup that’s the Sun.  I could still see the eclipse happen, but man did I have to focus…live and learn.

On the plus side, I met another person viewing the eclipse from on high where I was, and her camera was ale to catch the eclipse using this weird property where you see multiple images of the sun with decreasing brightness through the lens.  I think its due to multiple reflections within the camera optics.

This is not a direct image of the sun, but it actually a crop of the reflection effect.  The actual Sun was much closer to the horizon.  Cool Technique, here’s what it looked like from my perspective:

2014-10-23 18.17.08

So all in all it was a pretty decent experience for like 15 minutes.  I learned how to NOT make a pinhole camera.  I learned that I should buy a real camera.  And I learned that I should make more time to prepare for the August 2017 eclipse – maybe a day or two….

Partial Solar Eclipse Today!

Tonight, right around sunset, there will be a partial eclipse of the sun, visible from most of North America.  As the sun sets, skywatchers will get to see the moon gradually cover about half of the sun, before it disappears below the horizon.

A map of the viewing area shows that the best spot to see it will be all the way up in the Canadian arctic.

Solar eclipse visibility map – October 23rd, 2014 Credit: Science@NASA

If you don’t live in the Arctic circle, you can certainly see the eclipse in the South-West near the horizon as it sets.  The moon will start to cover the sun around 5:45 EDT, and the event will last until sunset at 6:20pm (in Toronto).


What is a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon is perfectly aligned between the Earth and the Sun.  The Moon casts a shadow on the Earth, which is seen by Earthbound observers as a ‘darkening’ of the sun as the Moon covers it.

The sun and Moon are the same size in the sky, about the size of a Nickel (a Canadian 5 cent piece) held at arm’s length.  This is because the Moon is 400x closer to the Earth then the Sun, while also having a diameter 400x smaller than the Sun.  So when the Moon covers the Sun during a total eclipse, the Corona of the Sun, which translates to ‘crown,’ becomes visible as a halo of light shooting out in all directions.

Orientation of the Sun, Moon, and Earth during a solar Eclipse.

Totality, the Moon completely covers the Sun. Credit: NASA

It can be difficult to see the ‘Totality’ as in the above image, because the Moon’s shadow is so small.  Unless you are in the precise path of the Moon’s shadow on Earth, you won’t see the Total Eclipse.  Instead you would see part of the Sun covered by the Moon,  a ‘crescent’ Sun.

Total Solar Eclipse of the Sun – August 21st, 2017

The closest thing North American observers will get is the August 21st, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.  Better book your hotel soon, tons of travellers will be making the trip to catch this one.

So if you miss the partial eclipse this evening, you can hold out for 2017, though you should take every opportunity, it could be cloudy in 2017!