Comet set Egypt alight millions of years ago

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The mind reels when speculating how creationists and other Old Testament literalists might spin this one. For the rest of us, it’s just fascinating scientific detective work: geo-astronomers have confirmed a healthy sized comet lit Egypt on fire millions of years ago. If they’re right it would have made the 1908 Tungaska Event look like a shoe-bomb: [Read more...]

Supernova evidence found in terrestrial bacteria

 

Not long ago, a rare form of iron was found in oceanic crust worldwide dating to about 3.5 million years ago. Astronomers at the time noted that would be consistent with a relatively nearby supernova explosion. Now, another groups of scientists have the same substances incorporated into bacteria dating to the same time:

Columbus Dispatch — Dust from supernovae contains a radioactive isotope of iron called Fe-60, which could settle on Earth and be taken up by certain types of bacteria called magnetotactic. These single-cell organisms take up small bits of iron, producing nanometer-size grains of an iron-oxygen compound called magnetite, which they presumably use for navigation.The recent news from the American Physical Society meeting is that Fe-60 was detected in these bacterial fossils using clever technology developed for particle accelerators. Fe-60 does not occur naturally on Earth and is produced almost exclusively in supernova explosions.

These measured amounts of Fe-60 are small, but they are well within the detection limits of modern technology. In fact, two previous measurements by a different group using the same accelerator technology found Fe-60 in other ocean-floor sediments of about the same age — about 2.5 million years ago. The newly reported results are different in that the Fe-60 is now linked to fossils of magnetotactic bacteria.

And what is the most likely candidate for that supernova? The Scorpius–Centaurus Association, which our system drifted by beginning about three millions years ago and which includes, among other massive stars, the mighty Antares. Better known as the ruby red heart of Scorpio.

The flying pet store of death returns

Russians recovered a furry crew that spent a month in microgravity this week, only to confirm most arrived back on earth dead. Sad, but not as bad as it sounds:

Arstechnica — A Russian spacecraft containing 45 mice, 8 gerbils, and 15 newts returned to Earth on Sunday. The spacecraft, a modified Bion-M life sciences satellite, was launched in April 2013 and was intended to study the biological effects of long-term weightlessness. However, due to a combination of equipment failure and what scientists referred to as “the stresses of space,” fewer than half the mice (and none of the gerbils) remained alive after their month in space. The newts were fine, though.

That most organisms, including humans, undergo physical changes in prolonged microgravity is already well-understood; the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) have been conducting long-duration manned space flights as far back as the early 1960s, and there is a plethora of data on the subject. However, conducting detailed experiments on the biological deficits incurred through long exposure to microgravity—including skeletal and muscular deterioration—is ethically difficult because at least some amount of the damage could be irreversible.

Would someone please think of the whiskey?

600px-A_Glass_of_Whiskey_on_the_Rocks

 

Both gloves have fingers and thumb, a right-hand will fit only one

Both gloves have fingers and thumb, a right-hand will fit only one

Space has a lot of resources, technically it has all the resources. Some of them are obvious, some serendipitous. Aside from the mountains of platinum group metals or nickel-iron and oxygen floating around free for the taking, in addition to the nearly inexhaustible energy sources, micro-gravity is a new and to date poorly utilized resource in itself. Back in the 90s, research into drug production helped inform our friends in molecular biology about making pure isomers. Today similar experiments may yield kickass space whiskey. There are many other examples but there’s one big international obstacle, the Russkis. If politics makes strange bedfellows, and we can strain that metaphor to the breaking point, this deal has the GOP rolling in the hay with some strange denizens indeed. [Read more...]

Siberia takes another big hit from space, shock waves hit nearby towns

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Second Update 7 PM Cdentral: This is now looks completely unrelated to the larger NEO. But interestingly, there are conspiracy theories now popping up, mostly in Russia, that this was an attack or test attack of some sort from an unfriendly nation and the Russian government is covering that up for political reasons. Or variations on that. I’ve only seen it so far on some weird sites, that I had to badly translate, so I’m gonna have to dig around to get some details and better links. Anybody heard anything about this?

Update: Video now emerging, see below, more to come. One researcher told me it’s possible an NEO making a close pass today may have calved off some small chunks. Unconfirmed, reputable sources say unlikely at this time.

It wasn’t in the same class as the 1908 Tungaska Event, but Siberia got clobbered good with at least a ten ton space rock. Astronomers are scouring the region already for clues to its exact size, composition, and origin: [Read more...]

Updated: Comet ISON orbit and viewing possibilities

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Comet ISON will pass within 40 million mile of earth on Christmas of this year and be in decent position for viewing by eye or small scope throughout the fall of 2013. Predicting the brightness of a comet is real dicey, it depends on what the comet is made of and how many times it has been close enough to the sun to vaporize some of those volatile substances. But the scant evidence we have is that ISON could be relatively new to the inner solar system and may be made off the traditional ices found in many comets.

Astronomers believe comets are lumps of exotic and water ices, some with rocky or metal compound inclusions left over from the formation of the solar system. They are, typically between several meters and several hundred kilometers in diameter. The average really big comet we see during a normal lifetime is in the five to 20 mile diameter range.. Periodic comets like Halleys observed up close also show a thin layer of black, tarry coating, possibly produced by repeated solar encounters acting on organic ices over time.

ISON was imaged by NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft a few weeks ago producing the video above, and already indicated a faint tail 40,000 miles long. It’s still as far away as the planet Jupiter, beyond what solar astronomers call the frost line, where water and carbon dioxide are solid rocks, even methane is at least a slushy liquid. But other frozen gases, nitrogen and oxygen for example, are now well within their respective melting and boiling ranges and if those low boiling point substances exist in enough quantity on the surface to produce a faint tail at that distance in those frigid reaches of deep space, it bodes well for viewing later this year. It suggests this particular object may have never visited the inner system since its creation almost 5 billion years ago, or that it has visited only a few times over millennia.

That would mean the tiny nucleus could be chock full of pristine CO2, water, methane, and ammonia. If so, ISON could develop an enormous tail over a million miles long or longer as it passes Mars on the way to earth’s orbit, making it a once in a lifetime celestial sight!

While it won’t come real close to earth by some standards, it should be in a fair position relative to earth and sun for several months, meaning we’ll have a good long look at the full length of any tail that develops. It will be moving toward the sun when the earth is about 60 to 70 millions away and will appear high in the night sky during the course of a clear November evening later this year. ISON is a sun grazing comet, it will be heated to many hundreds of degrees Celsius for several days as it whips around Sol, enough that it might calve into smaller bodies or disintegrate. But if it survives, ISON will then swing back, tail leading the way, making its closest approach to earth on December 26, 2013, when it will be about 39 million miles away as shown by the blue portion of the cometary orbit above.

There is zero chance ISON or any sizable fragments of it will strike earth. But in the event an object similar in size and composition does hit us one day the results will be catastrophic. I made modest assumptions, assuming you were 1000 miles way from the impact site, that the object is mostly low density ice, that long period comets like ISON hit at a leisurely 20 miles per second. The fireball as it streaked over head and struck the earth would be so bright it would instantly blind anyone unfortunate enough to see it. The final crater would be almost a 100 miles wide and 20 miles deep.

The seismic wave would arrive within a few minutes, magnitude 10.2, greater than any recorded earthquake in recorded history. Even 1000 miles away ejecta would rain down like artillery for hours at near super sonic speeds. An hour and a half after impact the atmospheric shockwave would arrive to the tune of 400 mph windblasts. In short, it would be as devastating as the K-T impact, the world would catch on fire, followed by a nuclear winter and massive climatic shifts that would permanently alter weather patterns.

The good news is that won;t happen. The somewhat bad news is we have lousy experience with comets living up to their potential over the last 50 years. But after the letdown of Comet Kohoutek in 1974, and Halley’s Comet being in just about the least favorable position for viewing on record in 1986, it seems like we’re about due for a beauty. Regardless, with all the scopes on earth, in space, and space craft like Deep Impact trainined on ISON, this will be the most studied and well photographed comet in history.

Radio wavelengths bring dim nebula into exquisite high resolution

Manatee1

Not long ago this object didn’t even have a name. It was just a dim hazy splotch in most telescopes, if they could see it at all. After being imaged by a high res wide radio telescope array in New Mexico, the one made famous in the movie Contact, it was christened the manatee nebula for its resemblance to the gentle and endangered marine mammals. More here. [Read more...]