Tag Archives: Science

The shit they can do, I swear

This does not adequately answer the request to get my butt back in gear, but it’s a start:

“Finding a second Earth could happen any time now.”

It’s not quite what that sentence makes it out to be — it’s not like we’re going to find E.T. and his family, tending to alien crops and still faithfully maintaining that early ’80s Huffy bike without proper parts. But the way they go about detecting planets around distant, distant (how many repetitions means “bazillion light years”?) stars is incredible:

COROT is the COnvection ROtation and planetary Transit satellite, scanning thousands of stars to see the tiny dips in brightness caused by planets.  HARPS is the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, a super-sensitive spectrograph installed on a Chilean telescope to accurately identify how fast a wavelength source moves.  Between them, they were able to identify the location of the planet and work out it’s orbital radius and speed, thereby working out the mass and size.

At first all they could find was Jupiter-like planets: Giant, gaseous ones that, like Jupiter, dwarf mother Gaia in size and are completely inhospitable to any form of life we can conceive of. But now they’re getting even more sensitive, to the point where they’ll be able to detect tiny little rock-based planets like ours.

And how. I mean, the shit they can do, I swear: They’re coordinating hyper-sensitive telescopes to detect tiny blips in the light reaching us from stars millions of light years away. (We lay people think of telescopes and “light” as what you can see and magnify for our eyes, but really the visible realm is just a fraction of the whole spectrum of detectable wavelengths, so the best stuff telescopes can detect is often stuff we couldn’t “see” anyway, such as with X-ray telescopes.

(This entire paragraph is a very amateurish, totally unverified way of explaining it, by the way. But still: Look at a faint star, then imagine there’s an even fainter star in the blackness next to it — because there always is — and scientists are detecting it and the blips in light to determine the size of a planet orbiting it, even though planets are just a teency fraction of the size of the stars they orbit. ‘Mmkay, that was amateurish, too.)

So I’ll stop the amateur hour here and just quote the two parts that are right up my alley in terms of how I view this place I’m renting for my lifetime:

The great thing about outer space? It’s absolutely full of fantastic stuff just waiting for us to be able to see it:  every time we improve our observations, either the equipment or analysis, something new and brilliant jumps out of the universe saying “Here I am!”  Now fans of interplanetary ideas have been rewarded with the very first rocky planet outside the Solar System.

[snip] … It’s awesome stuff for scientists.  Yet another example of how we’ll never be bored, how the universe is simply stuffed with things waiting for us to detect them.

Hell yes.

By the way, that Daily Galaxy is a cool site. Lot’s of mindblowing stuff, if you’re worried about your ancestors several million years from now.

Like foam, we’re imperfect

This was another older link I wanted to note for some reason. It’s an explanation of why foam falls off space shuttle fuel tanks during liftoff, even though they know it’s a potentially catastrophic problem.

I don’t remember whatever theory was in my head about it now, but I still know why I love it:

Because it stays on only when it’s been perfectly applied. If NASA engineers leave any air pockets or bits of dirt in the foam, or miss a tiny spot, then the extreme conditions of liftoff can knock it right off. As the shuttle accelerates to more than 3,000 mph in two minutes, the foam needs to withstand violent vibrations, air friction, and sudden changes in temperature and pressure.

They explain further that while a machine can apply most of the foam (and we all know machines are perfect, don’t we?), there are difficult areas that humans have to apply. It’s the whole “We can put a man on the Moon…” problem. More precisely: “We can put a man on the Moon, but sometimes shit happens.” In fact, shit nearly happened to prevent the Moon landing itself, which would have made that 20th-century saying a little different.

[Tangent: And how weird would that have been? We’d be walking around with our heads down, all emo-like, going: “I don’t know why my Internet is down again. But I mean, we can’t even put a fucking man on the Moon, so…”]

But the human/machine/tool problem gets even better:

Unfortunately, the workers applying the foam can’t always see very well because they wear protective suits and masks. There’s also no way to test for cracks before launch; the only inspection tool is the naked eye.

I love it! Without getting into the argument about whether manned space travel is still necessary nor the merits of the shuttle program to begin with, I take from these lessons this:

For every challenge, an imperfect solution. So sometimes shit happens. That’s just the way life is.