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[LINK] “China wants the Moon. But first, it has to spend a month in space”

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Emma Grey Ellis’ Wired article takes a look at how China’s space program is progressing.

On Monday, at a launch center in the middle of the Gobi desert, two taikonauts boarded a spacecraft and rocketed into space. Yesterday their ship, Shenzou-11, docked with China’s experimental space lab, Tiangong-2. For the next 30 days—China’s longest crewed space mission—they will conduct experiments, test equipment, practice repairs, try to grow plants, and keep track of how the space environment affects their bodies. Sound familiar, space fans?

It should. Tiangong-2 is like a baby International Space Station. Sure, it doesn’t have the ISS’s scale, technological sophistication, or multi-national backing. But it’s the technical testing ground for the grown up space station China plans to launch in the next couple of years. Which will more permanent, and about the size of Mir, the Soviet Union’s space station in the 80s and 90s. But mostly, Tiangong-2 an important part of China’s long term plan to build a Moon base. And from there, it’ll be hard to deny China a seat at the space superpower table.

Like everything China does, people consistently underestimate the nation’s space program. Common snubs include: It’s miles behind the curve; their gear is all Russian knockoffs; their launch schedules are hopelessly slapdash. Yeah, those have all been true at one point, but not an honest assessment of the program as it currently stand.

China did not launch its first satellite until the 1970s, and didn’t really invest heavily in their space program until the early ’90s (the Cultural Revolution was a bigger priority) but they’ve been gaining ground on the US and Europe ever since. Early on, the nation’s program relied on Russia, both for components and training for their would-be taikonauts.

And the Shenzhou spacecraft do resemble Soviet (now Russian) Soyuz. But don’t hate: “The Shenzhou is the same idea, but not a copy,” says Jonathan McDowel, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “In its present form, it’s very much a Chinese vehicle.” The Chinese spacecraft is bigger, more powerful, and its forward habitation module has solar panels that can provide power for a separate mission—even after the astronauts climb aboard Tiangong-2.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 19, 2016 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Politics, Science

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[BLOG] Some Sunday links

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  • blogTO notes the growing concentration of chain stores on lower Ossington.
  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly describes her luck in interviewing a New York City firefighter.
  • Citizen Science Salon reports on a citizen science game intended to fight against Alzheimer’s.
  • Language Hat starts from a report about unsold Welsh-language Scrabble games to talk about the wider position of the Welsh language.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money shares the astounding news leaked about Donald Trump’s billion-dollar losses.
  • Marginal Revolution links to a psychology paper examining the perception of atheists as narcissistic.
  • Towleroad reports on the informative reality television series of the United States’ gay ambassador to Denmark.
  • Window on Eurasia notes how Russia’s war in Aleppo echoes past conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and examines the position of Russia’s border regions.

[LINK] “Ontario group to showcase importance of Great Lakes”

I like this idea. The Toronto Star‘s Allan Woods reports.

For some they mean the beach. For others they mean work. They can be a draw for tourists, but are often just a backdrop for locals.

If you are an environmentalist, you might see them as a living, breathing thing in need of protection, but ask the average high school student and they’ll roll their eyes like they would for any five-point answer on a geography test.

On their own, they are Ontario, Superior, Huron, Erie and Michigan. Together they are the Great Lakes.

You can see them from space, but now a group of prominent Ontarians, helped along by the province’s lieutenant-governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, is looking to put them on the map — so to speak — with a campaign to brand the importance of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem onto peoples’ hearts and minds.

“Why not? The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of the planet. Why can’t the Great Lakes be the heart and arteries of North America, or something like that?” said Douglas Wright, who is leading the initiative that will be unveiled next month at the Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto.

It has been dubbed “Greatness — The Great Lakes Project” and the idea is deceptively simple: create a marketing campaign to embed the lake system deeper into the public consciousness. To get people thinking not only about the environmental threats and challenges, but also about the potential lapping at the shores of communities as diverse as Toronto, Thunder Bay, Toledo and Tobermory.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 19, 2016 at 10:59 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • At Apostrophen, ‘Nathan Smith describes his experience at the CAN•CON conference in Ottawa.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper speculating about the consequences of observing a large extraterrestrial civilization.
  • Far Outliers notes how Chinese soldiers in 1937 Shanghai did not want to take prisoners.
  • The Frailest Thing’s Michael Sacasas considers the idea of distraction in relationship to high technology.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money considers the overlooked food workers who were victims of 9/11.
  • Savage Minds links to a variety of anthropologically-themed links.
  • Seriously Science notes that houses in rich neighbourhoods contain more diverse insect populations than houses in poor neighbourhoods.
  • Strange Maps looks at Proxima Centauri b and considers the idea of an “eyeball Earth”.
  • Transit Toronto notes plans for construction at Queen and Dufferin.

[NEWS] Some more links about Proxima Centauri b

The European Southern Observatory provided this artist’s impression of the surface of Proxima b. “The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface.”


Proxima Centauri b has continued to excite over the weekend. The MacLean’s article “Why everyone is excited about an exoplanet named Proxima b”, by Amanda Shendrake, points out the apparent import for a layman’s audience.

Just because an exoplanet is in a star’s habitable zone, however, does not mean it can host life. It simply means that if the exoplanet featured a similar atmosphere and surface pressure as the Earth, the planet could sustain liquid water. Unfortunately, we know nothing about Proxima b’s atmosphere.

For an exoplanet to be potentially habitable, scientists consider more than just whether or not it can host water. The star around which the exoplanet orbits needs to be of a particular type—one that burns long enough to allow life a chance to evolve, and emits appropriate amounts of ultraviolet radiation.

Additionally, the exoplanet must have significant similarities to Earth. The Earth Similarity Index (ESI) is a way to measure this likeness, and it places objects on a scale of zero to one, where one is Earth itself. The closer to 1.0, the more similar the exoplanet is to our home. The measurement takes into account radius, density, escape velocity, and surface temperature.

No other planets in our solar system are Earth-like; however, in addition to being the nearest of the 44 potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve found, Proxima b also has the highest ESI.

(Nice infographics, too.)

At Scientific American, Elizabeth Tasker’s blog post “Yes, We’ve Discovered a Planet Orbiting the Nearest Star but…” notes the many, many caveats around identifying Proxima Centauri b as Earth-like. Sarah Scoles’ Wired article “Y’all Need to Chill About Proxima Centauri b” explores the same territory, and makes an argument as to the underlying motivation for this identification of worlds as potentially Earth-like.

[I]t’s not an Earth twin, no matter what the headlines say, and neither are any other planets scientists have found. Hot Jupiters may be cool; planets that rain glass may be a hit at parties; “Super-Earth” may be fun to say. And getting the full census of exoplanets is valuable. But most scientists, Messeri has found, really just want to find another Earth. Research priorities reflect that. The Kepler Space Telescope, which has discovered more planets than any other enterprise, was “specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone,” according to NASA.

The search for an “Earth Twin” is the quest for a platonic ideal, says Messeri. “It allows us to imagine Earth at its best, Earth as we want to imagine it, Earth that isn’t hampered by climate change or war or disease,” she says.

In other words, Earth as we’ve never known it and never will. If scientists found a twin planet, Pure Earth would become, in our minds, a real place that still exists, somewhere out there.

But we haven’t discovered that place. And we might not ever. On a quest for the perfect partner, you usually find someone who’s pretty cool but yells at you when they’re hungry, or hates your mom. After you sign on to the perfect job, you discover that you’re supposed to wash everyone’s coffee mugs. In that way, finding Proxima Centauri b while searching for Pure Earth is just like every human quest for perfection.

“What we’ve actually found is something more real,” says Messeri, “and less ideal.”

Joseph Dussault at the Christian Science Monitor notes in “Do we need to change the way we talk about potentially habitable planets?” that the language used to describe these worlds may need to be altered, for lay audiences at least. Universe Today’s Matt Williams notes that Earth-like means something that is not a duplicate of Tahiti.

[F]inding a planet that is greater in size and mass than Earth, but significantly less than that of a gas giant, does not mean it is terrestrial. In fact, some scientists have recommended that the term “mini-Neptune” be used to describe planets that are more massive than Earth, but not necessarily composed of silicate minerals and metals.

And estimates of size and mass are not exactly metrics for determining whether or not a planet is “habitable”. This term is especially sticky when it comes to exoplanets. When scientists attach this word to extra-solar planets like Proxima b, Gliese 667 Cc, Kepler-452b, they are generally referring to the fact that the planet exists within its parent star’s “habitable zone” (aka. Goldilocks zone).

This term describes the region around a star where a planet will experience average surface temperatures that allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. For those planets that orbit too close to their star, they will experience intense heat that transforms surface waster into hydrogen and oxygen – the former escaping into space, the latter combining with carbon to form CO².

This is what scientists believe happened to Venus, where thick clouds of CO² and water vapor triggered a runaway greenhouse effect. This turned Venus from a world that once had oceans into the hellish environment we know today, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, atmospheric density if off the charts, and sulfuric acid rains from its thick clouds.

For planets that orbit beyond a star’s habitable zone, water ice will become frozen solid, and the only liquid water will likely be found in underground reservoirs (this is the case on Mars). As such, finding planets that are just right in terms of average surface temperature is intrinsic to the “low-hanging fruit” approach of searching for life in our Universe.

Even so, the optimism expressed by Bloomberg View’s Faye Flam in “What the New Planet Says About Life in the Universe” is something I would like to cling to. Proxima b’s ideal, or at least worlds like this ideal, might be perfectly suited for life.

Studying this planet could reveal something important about the timeline of life in the universe, and whether we earthlings are early to the party. That’s because stars like Proxima Centauri are the future of the universe. Called red dwarfs, these make up the majority of stars in the galaxy, and they live about 1,000 times as long as our sun.

In a paper made public last month, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb looked at the cosmic implications of life surrounding red dwarfs. Loeb calculated that if life is just as likely to form around these stars as sun-like ones, then the vast majority of life in the universe has yet to be born, and we earthlings are not just early, he said, but “premature.”

That’s because scientists believe eventually, all the raw materials for star formation will be used up and all the stars will die, leaving a dark universe of dust and black holes. For most of the trillions of years stretching between now and cosmic darkness, red dwarfs will be the only game in town.

The papers at arXiV at least allow for hope. Why not encourage it?

Written by Randy McDonald

August 28, 2016 at 10:29 pm

[ISL] “Last mammoths on Alaska island likely died of thirst”

CBC reported on the grim findings of the researchers who determined why the mammoths of Alaska’s Saint Paul Island, last of their kind, died out.

St. Paul Island’s mammoths were a vulnerable population that probably never numbered more than 30, [one researcher] estimates. Pinpointing the cause of their extinction “just sort of underscores the precariousness of small island populations to what seems like fairly subtle environmental change.”

Even today, the crater lake that the researchers studied is only a metre deep. The researchers drilled through the ice in winter, into the layers of sediment deposited on the bottom of the lake over thousands of years.

There they found mammoth DNA, spores of fungi that can only live in the fresh dung of large mammals like mammoths, and the remains of aquatic insects that contain chemical information about water levels over the lake’s history.

Together, the data pinpoint the time of extinction at 5,600 years ago — about 900 years after the date of the youngest mammoth remains ever dug up on the island — and chronicle the deterioration of the lake during the last days of the mammoths.

The result doesn’t just solve a longstanding mystery about a puzzling extinction.

It may also be a warning about the seriousness of a problem that has never been linked to extinctions in the past, but is relevant for human communities in our own age of rapid climate change, rising seas and a coastal flooding[.]

Written by Randy McDonald

August 28, 2016 at 7:15 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • Dead Things looks at the health issues of a hadrosaur.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes close binary systems may not support planets very well.
  • Joe. My. God. notes Trump’s reaction to Obama’s statement that he was unfit.
  • The Map Room Blog notes Russia’s issues with Google over the non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation.
  • Marginal Revolution notes that driverless taxis are coming to Singapore.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer disproves arguments claiming that Pennsylvania is uniquely suited for Trump.
  • Peter Rukavina shares his schedule for the Island Fringe.
  • Spacing Toronto notes the problem of distracted cycling.
  • Window on Eurasia looks at language death in the North Caucasus.