Incredible Photograph of Phoenix landing on Mars

Phoenix, a NASA robotic probe, landed successfully on Mars on May 25. It landed in the north polar region of Mars, at around the equivalent latitude of northern Alaska, and it will study Mars’ soil to look for clues of past water patterns and if it was ever hospitable to life.

Incredibly, as it parachuted down towards the surface, its picture was taken by a satellite orbiting Mars, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)! From an amazing  distance of 750 kilometers (470 miles), it snapped this photograph of Phoenix parachuting towards Mars. This is the first time one probe has photographed another landing on a planet.

MRO photograph of Phoenix parachuting to Mars
See full-sized version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

To see how this fits in to the landing, take a look at this cool animation of Phoenix landing, produced by MAAS Digital and NASA.


Celestial Self-portrait

Astronaut Clay Anderson (see below)
Source: Credit: NASA.

I came across this on; apparently the photographer and subject is astronaut Clay Anderson. It’s a beautiful picture—he is facing Earth and taking a photograph of himself, so the Earth is reflected in his visor. Sadly, I was unable to find this on NASA’s web site; they have a couple pictures of visor reflections but none as beautiful as this, in my opinion.

Interactive Timeline of the Universe: The Big Bang, Formation of Earth, and Evolution of Life

Some time ago I came across a very nicely done Flash animation showing how the universe and Earth have developed to this point:

screenshot of'evolution — what next?'
evolution — what next?.

The site features a timeline with a slider you can drag. It starts at the big bang, an estimated 13.7 billion years ago. Once the solar system forms some five billion years ago, it focuses on Earth. Since the most interesting things, from a human perspective, have happened recently, there are a series of supplemental sliders to focus on the most recent portion of each timeline. With simple animations, it’s a nice, easy way to visualize the history of our planet, and see just where our little story fits in.

The (Revised) History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less

From astronomer and science humorist Eric Schulman comes this amusing, 200-word history of the universe. You may have come across it before; it has enjoyed wide popularity and has been updated from its original version. Its concision appeals to me.

Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Matter domination. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Large-scale structure formation. Violent relaxation. Virialization. Galaxy formation. Turbulent fragmentation. Contraction. Ionization. Massive star formation. Deuterium ignition. Hydrogen fusion. Hydrogen depletion. Core contraction. Envelope expansion. Helium fusion. Carbon, oxygen, and silicon fusion. Iron production. Implosion. Supernova explosion. Metals injection. Star formation. Universal acceleration. Supernova explosions. Star formation. Planetesimal accretion. Planetary differentiation. Crust solidification. Volatile gas expulsion. Water condensation. Carbon dioxide solution. Water photodissociation. Escaping hydrogen. Ozone production. Ultraviolet absorption. Polymerization. Coacervate formation. Molecular reproduction. Protein construction. Fermentation. Photosynthetic unicellular organisms! Oxidation. Mutation. Evolution. Cell differentiation. Respiration. Sexual reproduction. Multicellular organisms. Evolutionary diversification. Fossilization. Trilobite domination. Land exploration. Comet collision. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Homo sapiens manifestation. Language acquisition. Glaciation. Innovation. Religion. Animal domestication. Fermentation. Food surplus production. Inscription. Civilization! Exploration. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. Expansion. Scientific explanation. Colonization. Revolution. Constitution. Vaccination. Industrialization. Emancipation. Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Migration. World conflagration. Suffrage extension. Penicillin. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. Computerization. United Nations. Space exploration. Population explosion. Environmental degradation. Superpower confrontation. Liberation. Terrorism. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Inflation. Internet expansion. Globalization. Reunification. Dissolution. Union. World Wide Web creation. Composition. Terrorism. Invasion. Extrapolation?

Queen Guitarist to Receive Astrophysics Doctorate

Just a quick post, since I want to get up early to watch the total lunar eclipse

I’m always pleased to see celebrities promoting science or education or pursuing higher education themselves. (I previously discussed actor Terrence Howard’s interest in obtaining a physics doctorate.) Brian May (wp), lead guitarist for the popular rock band Queen (wp), recently submitted his doctoral thesis in astrophysics. Title “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” and 48,000 words long, it should earn him his Ph.D. in May. See‘s article for more.

Google Earth Adds…the Universe!

I already thought the free Google Earth program was one of the coolest programs out there. Sort of a “digital globe”, you can zoom from looking at the entire Earth right up to your house or favorite location, change viewing angles, and fly to other places. That alone can occupy me to no end, but there is so much more you can do with the program. I think a good side benefit of Google Earth—and I’ve remarked on this before—is that to some degree, I feel it helps promote interest in geography. As one goes about exploring places, it’s difficult not to appreciate their geographical relationships, and eventually one starts exploring other parts of the world, as well.

But now Google’s taken this a step further. In their newest version, they’ve added the ability to explore the sky as well. Complete with Hubble imagery and loads of astronomical tidbits, this is a great new feature and one I hope will stimulate interest in astronomy.

Below is a video demonstration Google has created. There has also been a significant amount of media coverage—see, for instance, articles in New Scientist,, PC World, or other media.

I should note that the astronomical view is displayed as one might see it from Earth—sort of on the inside of a dome, not unlike a planetarium view. You cannot travel out into space. For that, I strongly recommend the excellent, free, and easy-to-use Celestia (wp). It’s beautiful, has an elegant interface, and is quite powerful. Google Earth plays a rather different role, and both programs complement each other nicely. I strongly urge everyone to download and explore both!

Update: Scientific American has a nice article, as well.

Aliens as DNA-shaped Dust

In some ways, our biologists are hampered by having only one “scheme” to study. Since all extant life on Earth descended from the same primordial unicellular organism (perhaps 3.5 billion years ago), we all share a remarkably similar biochemistry, even in details. It is difficult to imagine what other systems would be possible, and how fundamentally different they might be. This also means that as we search space for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, we tend to concentrate on organisms like us. For the most part, we assume that they, too, will be carbon-based, and use water as a solvent for organic chemistry. Silicon and ammonia have been proposed as alternatives, though the available chemistry doesn’t appear as rich. (See Wikipedia’s article on alternative biochemistry for more information.) Then, too, organisms with this alternative biochemistry still would be rather similar to Earth-based life. What other possibilities could there be? Scientists and science-fiction writers have tackled this question for generations.

Scientists in Germany speculate about life in spirals of dust in outer space. Electrically charged dust immersed in plasma (ionized gas) can produce crystals and spirals. According to a New Scientist article, a simulation suggests double-helices could form as well. In addition, two stable states suggests that information could be “encoded” in these structures. If these structures exist, are stable, and can replicate (perhaps by inducing the surround dust to adopt the same pattern), a self-replicating system that could give rise to life would exist—indeed, many would argue that such a self-replicating system were alive. The researchers speculate that the rings of Saturn or Uranus might be regions to find such spirals.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, but I find it fascinating, nonetheless.

Hinode Reveals Sun’s Surface Activity

NASA just released some great images and video clips taken by Hinode, a Japanese space telescope studying the sun. As described by New Scientist,

The restless bubbling and frothing of the Sun’s chaotic surface is astonishing astronomers who have been treated to detailed new images from a Japanese space telescope called Hinode.

The observatory will have as dramatic an impact on our understanding of the Sun as the Hubble Space Telescope has had on our view of the universe beyond, scientists told a NASA press conference in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday.

(continue reading at New Scientist)

Sun's surface
Image credit: Hinode JAXA/NASA

They’ve released several images, including the one I’ve featured here (see the high-resolution version). The caption states

Taken by Hinode’s Solar Optical Telescope on Nov. 11, 2006, this image reveals the fine scale structure in the chromosphere that extends outward above the top of the convection cells, or granulation, of the photosphere. The structure results from the interaction of hot ionized gas with the magnetic field.

The video clip below really shows off the sun’s surface activity. You can see a higher-resolution version at NASA’s web site, along with other video clips from Hinode.

This incredible activity is taking place along the entire surface of the sun, all the time. It’s amazing: the sun appears unchanging and placid from Earth, yet its surface (and interior) are alive with activity.

Hinode (formerly known as SOLAR-B), is a satellite with three instruments: the Solar Optical Telescope, X-ray Telescope, and Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer. Its purpose is to study the sun. It is primarily run by JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, in collaboration with the space agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Read more at NASA’s page.

Comet McNaught Video

The fine folks at NASA recently released a very cool video of Comet McNaught. Taken by the STEREO-A spacecraft, this video was assembled from photographs taken on 17 January 2007. The camera is extremely sensitive, and even Venus (lower left) and Mercury (upper right) are bright enough to cause “desaturation streaks.” The head of the comet is quite bright and produces a large amount of desaturation, but once it passes out of the field of view, one can see the beautiful tail.

I really hesitated to upload and post this video. Of course, as a work of NASA, a division of the federal government, it is in the public domain. But the lower resolution really doesn’t do the comet justice. I post this lower-resolution version because I want to make it more accessible, but please, if you are at all interested in this, view one of the higher-resolution versions available at the STEREO web site (or download the highest-quality version, in the Quicktime format). The fine detail in the tail can’t be seen in the version below.

Still, it is amazing, no?

Lunar Eclipse

As you may have known, there was a total lunar eclipse several hours ago. The moon was already totally eclipsed by the time it rose over the United States, but was still a beautiful sight. There will be plenty of high-quality photographs available online, I’m sure, so let me share with you some rather bad photographs I took. I was not planning to take any pictures, but it was such a beautiful occurrence that I felt compelled to try. It is not easy to photograph a partly glowing object at night, let me tell you. In the first photograph, perhaps a quarter of the moon is illuminated. (The glow makes it appear more illuminated in the photograph.)

partial eclipse of the moon Lunar eclipse. Credit: Darmok.

In the second photograph, the moon is minutes away from emerging from Earth’s shadow. There is only a small “bite” missing. Again, the glow overwhelmed my camera.

lunar eclipse Lunar eclipse, almost over. Credit: Darmok.

Phases of the moon Phases of the moon. Source: Wikipedia.

The moon orbits Earth once every 29.5 days—hence the origin of the word month. Of course, half of it is lit and half is in darkness at any time, just like Earth, but we see different parts of the moon as it orbits us. When it’s between Earth and the sun, the dark side faces us and we call it a new moon. As it orbits, we see more of the lit side, until when it is on the side of Earth opposite the sun, we see the fully lit side and it is a full moon. Incidentally, this also means that specific phases correlate with specific times on Earth. For instance, since the full moon just mentioned is on the opposite side of Earth from the sun, that means it is over Earth’s night side, and is the highest at midnight. It is not visible at all to the day side of Earth. (See this Wikipedia illustration for more.)

So how do eclipses fit in? When the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, it casts a shadow on Earth, and the part of Earth in the shadow sees the moon pass in front of the sun and cause a (solar) eclipse. Similarly, when Earth is between the sun and the moon, as it was for this event, the moon passes through Earth’s shadow and we see a lunar eclipse.

You might think that there should be two eclipses every month—every new moon should cause a solar eclipse and every full moon should cause a lunar eclipse. But the moon’s orbit is inclined very slightly (around 5°) relative to our orbit around the sun. As a result, the moon usually passes just above or just below the sun. Only occasionally will an alignment occur and an eclipse be possible. Therefore, solar eclipses will always occur during new moons, and lunar eclipses, as this one was, will occur during full moons; however, the converse is not necessarily true.

Update: New Scientist has an article on the eclipse, including some photographs.