Phobos-bound Tardigrades Portrayed

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Stacy L. Mason is an Aard regular and a talented artist. Check out his awesome interpretation of the Swedish tardigrades that are going to Phobos!


In other news, I have issues with the lyrics of the Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas podcast‘s theme song, a fine ska tune by 7 Seconds of Love.

I’m gonna flip out like a ninja
‘Cause that’s what ninjas do
I’m gonna flip out like a ninja
And you should flip out too

The thing that throws me here is the word “because”. When deciding on important matters such as whether or not to flip out, Dear Reader, I feel that a person should have a stronger justification than just referring to the habits of ninjas.

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First Interplanetary Travellers Will Be Little Swedes

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Phobos-Grunt (“soil”) is a planned Russian sample return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. It may launch in less than two months. On board will among other things be the L.I.F.E. experiment, a small canister full of hardy micro organisms, designed by the US Planetary Society. If all goes well, those microdaddies will go to Phobos and back, and then biologists will be able to compare them to their stay-at-home buddies to learn what the environment out there in interplanetary space really does to an Earth creature. Or to a creature from another planet who might once have been thrown into space by an asteroid impact, perchance to land later on Earth.

Only one of the microbe species in the canister is a multicellular animal: tardigrades, water bears, Sw. björndjur. They have been provided by Ingemar Jönsson of Kristianstad University College, Sweden. So the first multicellular travellers from Earth in interplanetary space will be little Swedes!

Bizarrely, the canister also contains a soil sample from the Negev desert. OK, so desert critters might be unusually well suited to surviving the harsh environment out there. But is it really a coincidence that they’re sending soil from the Holy Land?

Don’t Miss the Perseids

Did you notice something funny about the Google logo yesterday? It was full of falling stars. This marked the maximum of this year’s Perseid meteor shower. Every year about this time, Earth moves through the exhaust cloud left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. When gravel and sand from the comet enters our atmosphere the grains burn brightly, looking like shooting stars. The meteor shower, that has been known for over 2000 years, looks like it originates in the constellation named for the Greek hero Perseus. But Swift-Tuttle itself wasn’t observed until 1862!

Last night before bed time me and my wife lay down flat on our backs on a blanket in the yard and looked up for a while. Because of cloud cover and ground light we saw only a few bright stars and no Perseids. But tonight is going to be another good one for falling stars. Check them out!

Update 14 August: Saw one! And a surprising number of artificial satellites, little moving dots. And an air plane.

Mars Rovers Still Working After Five Years

Dear Reader, remember the remote-controlled Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity? How long is it since the last time you thought of them? Spirit landed on Mars five Earth years ago today, Opportunity on 25 January — and both are still going strong! These machines were originally meant to work for three months, yet they continue to trundle around that cold, distant planet, taking pictures and analysing rocks. Check out the project’s web site for news!

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Astronomy Nerds In Love

Two of my favourite song writers have revealed themselves as astronomy nerds in love songs.

Frank Black in “Sir Rockaby” (1994):

How many stars girl
Can you both count
And then classify?
I’m standing here in this big swirl
Singing this lullaby

Robert Schneider of the Apples in Stereo in “7 Stars” (2007):

Seven stars in the sky
You’re feeling sociable
Silver stars in your eyes
You feel emotional
And you don’t even know my name
And I know every constellation

Jeff Had Some Good Last Days

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Jeff Medkeff’s friend, co-blogging under the pen-name Iatros Polygenos (“mongrel doctor” if my Greek serves me), offers a detailed account of our friend’s last days. Turns out that Jeff died during a trip to England where he was having a blast, visiting Darwin’s home, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and other great sites! I’m very grateful to learn that Jeff died swiftly in the middle of having fun, not after weeks of wasting away in bed.

Shermer and the Drake Equation

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To how many technological civilisations is our galaxy home at this moment? It would be nice to know, so we could estimate our chances of ever coming into contact with somebody out there. In 1961, astronomer Francis Drake suggested a number of parameters relevant to this issue, and summarised them in an equation that bears his name to this day. One of the parameters is the mean life-span of a technological civilisation.

In issue 2008:2 of Skeptic Magazine that reached me today, Michael Shermer has an interesting paper where he states that of Drake’s parameters, the mean life-span is actually one of the few that can be given an estimate from empirical evidence. Shermer calculates the mean length of historical civilisations on Earth and arrives at a figure of 420.5 years. This is in my opinion all backward. Shermer has mixed up the uses of the word “civilisation”. Says he:

“… I compiled the lengths of 60 civilisations (the number of years from inception to demise), including: Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the eight dynasties of Egypt, the six civilisations of Greece, the Roman Republic and Empire, and others in the ancient world, plus various civilisations since the fall of Rome, including the nine dynasties (and two Republics) of China, four in Africa, three in India, two in Japan, six in Central and South America, and six modern states of Europe and America.”

What Shermer has collected is the lengths of political blocks in the chronologies of areas with continuous complex societies. As he starts his list, “Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia”, he is simply dealing with phases in an unbroken sequence of civilisation that continues to this day in Mesopotamia. Likewise with the dynasties of Egypt and China. They weren’t independent new starts from a repeatedly cleaned slate, they were simply phases in the lives of cultures that are still with us today. (Strangely, Shermer quotes Thomas R. McDonough of the Planetary Society on this very point in an endnote, but makes no mention of it in his text.)

Extraterrestrials working on the Drake equation won’t be interested in the political details of small parts of Earth’s surface over time. They want to know the likelihood of being able to catch a transmission from somewhere in our solar system. So in fact, Earth’s world history offers us only a single data point to judge what Drake’s mean life-span might be like. If by “civilisation” we mean an agricultural society with cities, then we’re at about 11,000 years and counting. If instead, and more reasonably, we mean a society with radio broadcast technology, then we’re less than 107 years into our window of interstellar visibility, counting from the first trans-Atlantic transmission.

Anyway, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by means of radio astronomy appears quixotic to me. Let’s say somebody in a far-off solar system is transmitting in our direction. Would we even be able to separate such a little ghost of a whisper from the roar of that person’s sun?

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Junior Meets the Astronaut

Me and Junior just got home from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. First we were shown the portrait collection and the main meeting room where a lot of Nobel prizes have been decided. Then, under the joint auspices of the Academy and the Swedish Skeptics Society, we heard an hour’s lecture by one of the Society’s long-time members: astronaut Christer Fuglesang.

It was a good talk in plain Swedish, ranging from abstruse physics to everyday practicalities of life in space. (If you lose something small inside a space station, just wait a day or two and then look for it near the intake of the air circulation system.) Fuglesang argued that we shouldn’t choose between manned and unmanned spaceflight: we should use each where most appropriate. He did concede without prompting that many of the situations where you need an astronaut arise because of this very astronaut’s needs. But he feels, in a touchingly non-cynical and enthusiastic way, that human space travel is a valid goal in itself. Junior liked the talk a lot, and was proud that he understood almost all of it. He does feel now that he probably needs some training in physics.

Afterwards, we went up to Fuglesang and said hi to him, and he signed Junior’s book. “Hey, I’ve got this book too”, he said. It’s a used 80s paperback that I ordered recently for my kid. He’s read a few chapters and he loves it. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein.