Telescope aims to head off asteroids' impact on Earth
The nonprofit B612 Foundation announced plans to raise money to build an infrared space telescope that would orbit the sun.
June 29th, 2012
10:56 AM ET

Telescope aims to head off asteroids' impact on Earth

With the space shuttle program over and private companies launching their own spaceships, it’s clear that nongovernment organizations are making a stir in America’s space race.

Now the private sector is getting into the space telescope business, too. The first official entrant into this arena wants humanity to locate and avoid asteroids, helping us dodge the fate of the dinosaurs.

The nonprofit B612 Foundation announced Thursday plans to raise money to build an infrared space telescope that would go around the sun, with an orbit similar to that of Venus. It would be about 170 million miles from Earth at its farthest.

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Filed under: Hardware in Orbit • News
Tau Day: Why you should eat twice the pie
June 28th, 2012
07:30 AM ET

Tau Day: Why you should eat twice the pie

Editor's note: Michael Hartl is the founder of Tau Day and author of The Tau Manifesto. He is also the author of the Ruby on Rails Tutorial, the leading introduction to web development with Ruby on Rails. Previously, he taught theoretical and computational physics at the California Institute of Technology, where he received the Caltech Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Michael Hartl

Earlier this year, the admissions office of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology related an odd tale of a conflict over, of all things, a number.

They described "two warring peoples: the people of Pi, and the people of Tau," and proposed a compromise between the supporters of pi (the number 3.14…) and tau (the number 6.28…). As in previous years, MIT would announce its admissions decisions on 3/14, or "Pi Day," but this year they would also acknowledge adherents of tau by sending out their decisions at 6:28, or "Tau Time."

It was a noble attempt to broker a peace - and yet, the two tribes fight on. The truth is it's mostly my fault. Here's how it all happened.

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Filed under: Math • On Earth
June 26th, 2012
09:24 AM ET

Weather balloon mystery: What went wrong?

Editor's note: Today's Light Years guest blogger, Mark Sudduth of hurricanetrack.com, joined a CNN project to launch a video-equipped weather balloon aimed at reaching the upper atmosphere and the edge of space. As it turned out, the mission posed many challenges. Here's Sudduth's account of what went right - and what went wrong.

The idea is simple: Put a payload in to the very edge of space via helium balloon, track it with advanced GPS technology and recover the payload after the balloon bursts at its prescribed altitude. Sounds like an exciting idea, right? Trust me, it is.

I should know because my team at HurricaneTrack.com has been working on developing just such a payload to deploy via weather balloon in to the eye of a hurricane.

How would we even get to the eye of a hurricane, you ask? That's our job.

I lead a small group of people who work hard to study the effects of hurricanes at landfall. We send back live video, pictures, data and tweets during the worst hurricanes that nature can dish out. We've been in more than 20 of them since 1995. We know hurricanes at landfall and thought it would be really cool to see the inside of one via weather balloon. All we needed to do was add a few GoPro HD cameras, the right GPS tracking equipment and then wait patiently for the right hurricane to come along.

We tested our payload with a 1,200-gram weather balloon May 24 from a private landing strip near Buffalo, Texas.

The payload was made out of a $2.28 Styrofoam cooler. It provided the safety for the GPS tracking equipment, which included a G1 Android phone and a SPOT locator, which is used by mountain climbers to help rescuers find them during emergencies.

We utilized lightweight aluminum cross beams that pierced the cooler to mount the four GoPro cams to, each facing a different direction. The finished product looked pretty cool.

It would be hoisted to the high atmosphere by the giant weather balloon filled with more than 200 cubic feet of helium.

Everything went about as well as could be expected. Despite high winds and a failed initial launch because of an insufficient amount of helium, we pulled it off.

The payload, named HURR-B, went up at an average of 1,100 feet per minute. It reached an estimated 94,000 feet before bursting because of the extreme low pressure of the upper atmosphere. It then fell back to earth with its parachute slowing the descent to around 15 to 20 mph. We located it using the G1 phone and the SPOT locator and retrieved everything within two hours after touchdown. Success was the word of the day. The footage was great, the GPS loggers were perfect, and we were just about ready to launch it for real inside the eye of America's next land falling hurricane.

The prep

About two weeks ago I got a call from a CNN producer Chris Erickson asking me to advise his team on how to do something similar for a project he had with CNN International Newsource. Little did I know, this project would not go as smoothly as the previous one.

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Filed under: News • Science Education
What Obama’s and Romney’s hands can tell us about the future of our country
June 25th, 2012
05:15 PM ET

What Obama’s and Romney’s hands can tell us about the future of our country

Editor’s Note: Dario Maestripieri is professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, neurobiology, and psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. He is the author of "Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships."

What can biology tell us about human behavior? This question can be answered in many different ways depending on what we mean by biology and what aspect of human behavior we are interested in. For example, in my recent book "Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships," I discuss how our evolutionary history, our genes and our close relatedness to other species of primates can explain the way we behave in our social relationships with our relatives and friends, with business and romantic partners, and even with a stranger we’ve just met in an elevator.

On April 3, the day of the Republican primaries in Wisconsin and Maryland, I was interviewed on a radio show in Chicago and asked what biology can tell us about the behavior of the candidates for the next presidential elections. The theme of the show was “trust,” always an important issue in politics. When politicians run for office, they make promises to people about what they will do when they are elected. The problem for us, the people, is to try to predict whether the politicians will actually do what they say they will do. Trust is about trying to predict the future, and that’s not a trivial problem. Are politicians truthful when they make promises in a campaign speech, or do they lie? How can we tell?

It’s been suggested that when people lie, their anxiety and fear of getting caught makes their lies “leak” through their nonverbal behavior. For example, when people are lying to someone, they might avoid direct eye contact with this person or show signs of nervousness, such as scratching their heads or playing with their keychain. People who are highly trained to give verbal performances in front of audiences, such as actors or politicians, however, have learned to make eye contact with others and to suppress any fidgeting. So, if they lie, they don’t give it away with these signs. But, as I told the host of the radio show, even the bodies of the best liars give away some clues as to what their minds are actually thinking.
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June 23rd, 2012
11:27 AM ET

Indian science: Why you should care

The world snapped to attention two months ago when India announced the successful test of its long-range missile, Agni V.

The BBC declared India had joined the “elite nuclear club.” It was a major historic moment that was telling of India’s technological prowess. But for those aware of advancements made by Indian science, Agni V was not totally out of the blue. India has been making innovations in the fields of space research, nuclear power and neglected diseases.

Indian science has consistently had major political backing. This was apparent earlier this month when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became president of a professional science body. He announced plans to formulate a new science and technology policy at his inauguration ceremony at the 100th session of the Indian Science Congress Association.

“The journey of our development is marked by glittering scientific achievements whether in the field of atomic energy, space, agriculture or information technology,” he said at the ceremony. “The burden on science in the future will only increase. Our problems are overwhelming and need scientific solutions.”

This fervent belief in and respect for science and the push to reap its societal benefits has always been part and parcel of the Indian psyche. It is one of the topics explored in “Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World,” (out now in the United States) by British science journalist Angela Saini.

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Filed under: In Space • News • Politics and Policy
Planetary odd couple discovered
An artist's redndering of a view of an unusual planet orbiting Kepler-36.
June 21st, 2012
05:24 PM ET

Planetary odd couple discovered

The discovery of a planetary "odd couple" is broadening the way scientists think about planetary migration.

Scientists at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and University of Washington discovered two planets of very different sizes and makeups orbiting Kepler-36, a sun-like star under nearly continuous surveillance by the Kepler spacecraft.

"This is kind of an extreme system in that the planets are relatively closely spaced in their orbits but their compositions are quite disparate," said Josh Carter, Hubble Fellow at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who discovered the smaller planet.

"They're quite the odd couple."

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space • Kepler
CNN launches balloon mission to 'near space'
CNN's video-equipped weather balloon shoots skyward on Saturday from its liftoff point in Peachtree City, Georgia.
June 21st, 2012
03:56 PM ET

CNN launches balloon mission to 'near space'

  • Saturday, June 23, 9:49 a.m.ET update: CNN's ground crew is tracking the "Yeager" video-equipped weather balloon across Georgia. You can track it too by clicking here and entering this code into the search window: AE5JY-8
  • Saturday, June 23, 9 a.m.ET update: Our video-equipped weather balloon nicknamed "Yeager" is on its way toward the edge of near space!

Just about anybody nowadays can reach the fringes of space - if they have the "right stuff."

In this case, the right stuff might include a weather balloon, a GPS unit and a video camera. Destination: the region where air and "near space" meet. Now CNN is going to give this a try.

We're gonna [hopefully] launch a weather balloon and video camera on Saturday, June 23, at 7 a.m ET.

And you can follow our mission on Twitter at @CNNLightYears.

The goal: capture some cool video up there in the rare air.

The camera [hopefully] will return by parachute safely back to Earth. Then we'll post the video here on Light Years.

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Filed under: News
Moon may have frozen water in south pole crater, study says
This split image of Shackleton crater shows the structure of the crater in false color on the left. The image on the right shows the elevation of the crater (in color) and shaded relief (in greyscale).
June 20th, 2012
04:37 PM ET

Moon may have frozen water in south pole crater, study says

If humanity ever colonizes the moon, we'll need the help of local resources, like water and solar power. The lunar poles, which contain regions of constant sunlight, as well as constant darkness, could be ideal locations for finding both.

Scientists have exciting new insights about the south pole in particular: A study released in Nature today suggests that there is frozen water within a massive, well-preserved crater there.

The Shackleton crater is more than 12 miles in diameter and about two miles deep, and exists in permanent shadow. While the evidence for ice in the crater has been inconsistent, this new study, conducted by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, finds evidence for ice on the floor of the crater.

The research team, led by Maria Zuber of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, used an instrument called a laser altimeter aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to create a highly detailed topographical map of Shackleton crater. The laser basically lit up the area, allowing the team to measure the natural reflectivity (albedo) of the crater's interior, which Zuber describes as "extremely rugged."

Those measurements revealed that the crater's floor is much brighter than the floor of other nearby craters, which is consistent with ice in the area. Ice may make up 22% of the first micron-thick layer of the crater's floor, which Zuber says is about 100 gallons - not too much. However, these measurements aren't at all indicative of what ice may be beneath the surface.

The researchers also observed that the crater's walls were brighter than the floor - a surprise, given that the thinking was that if ice present were inside Shackleton, it'd be on the floor, since there's even less sunlight reaching the bottom of the crater than its walls.

Zuber and her team explain the brighter walls by theorizing that occasional "moonquakes" might cause older, darker soil on Shackleton's walls to slide off, revealing brighter soil underneath.

LRO orbits the moon from pole to pole, which allows the laser altimeter to map a different slice of the moon with each orbit. Each slice contains data from both lunar poles. Zuber and her team ultimately used over 5 million measurements of Shackleton crater to create their map, which is unprecedented in its level of detail and helpful for studying crater formation and other lunar processes. Detailed maps like these are also useful for planning future robotic or human missions.

One of those future missions is NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft, also in orbit around the Moon. "We'll be attempting to detect evidence for subsurface ice this fall," says Zuber.

For more, check out this video from MIT:

More science news from CNN Light Years

Follow @CNNLightYears on Twitter

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Filed under: Discoveries • In Space • News • the Moon
June 20th, 2012
10:24 AM ET

Mickey Mouse spotted on Mercury?

Does this photo from Mercury remind you of a famous Disney character? CNN's Jeanne Moos reports on an out-of-this-world sighting - check out the video.


Filed under: In Space
When animals light up: Bioluminescence
This is a model of an anglerfish, called that because of the modified spine sticking out of its forehead.
June 19th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

When animals light up: Bioluminescence

I can see them hovering in my Brooklyn yard: tiny balls of yellow light that flicker on and off in the dusk like lighters at a rock concert.

Fireflies are quite a common sight, although for how long we don't know. There have been widespread reports that firefly numbers are dwindling. The reports are all anecdotal, but they were enough of a concern for entomologists and biologists to hold a symposium in Thailand in 2008 entitled, "Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies." If fireflies are under threat, it's a terrible state of affairs.

Fireflies belong to a very exclusive group of land creatures that exhibit a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

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