Rosetta Flyby By Asteroid Lutetia

The ESA spacecraft Rosetta is about 200,000km away from the asteroid Lutetia right now. In a few hours, it will be flying past at a distance of just 3,000km at an amazing 54,000km per hour - that's 15km every second. Already the powerful OSIRIS cameras are starting to make out surface features of the 100km wide asteroid, and both Orbiter and Lander are busy taking lots of science measurements.

Watch the ESA stream live, talking about this great event below...
Watch live streaming video from eurospaceagency at

Aurora Borealis

It's been a very busy time since my last post, both in my personal life and in the space industry - the Japanese have been having some particularly exciting successes I've been meaning to write about, and the launch of SpaceX's Falcon has quite amazing implications, but I haven't gotten around to any writing about any of this.

Even so, I didn't want to let this picture pass by without doing my little bit to share it around. The Aurora Borealis, or "Northern Lights", is an entirely natural phenomenon and yet photographs of it could hardly seem more alien if they tried. Of course, there must be a million photos out there by now, it's not exactly a new thing - but this is the first photo I've seen of the phenomena taken from the opposite perspective: looking down from space.

Image: NASA
I've always felt that knowing the physics behind a rainbow has somehow reduced my appreciation for them, yet strangely knowing the physics behind the Aurora Borealis seems to make it even more impressive in my mind. For me, the AB (I'm getting lazy) highlights our human fragility, and the way our lives depend on the protection of the planet in a way we rarely, if ever, appreciate.

There is also something a little bit Sci-Fi about it. The AB is as close as we are likely to experience within our lifetimes, to being on a spacecraft with "deflector shields" being attacked by another vessel. When geomagnetic storms cause the Sun to unleash its fury in our direction, it's the AB that tells us the Earth's shield is holding up against the onslaught and we can go on about our lives, flying along on spaceship Earth happily oblivious to the raw energy being hurled in our direction.

Not so the astronauts on board the ISS, who took this photo, or our satellites which can be damaged by severe storms. Happily the Sun is in a strangely quiet mood, and we're not entirely sure why. But that's a post for another day.

Comets, comets, everywhere

Comets have been known to man since ancient times (at least since Aristotle, around 350BC) and we are currently aware of the existence of some three and a half thousand of them, yet they remain the most elusive and least understood bodies in our solar system.

Almost half of the comets we know about today are what we call Kreutz Sungrazers believed to be fragments of one large comet that broke up at least 2000 years ago. As of Friday last week, (March 12th, 2010) there was one less as the NASA spacecraft SOHO watched a newly-discovered sungrazer get just a little too close to the Sun. You can see the final moments of this ill-fated comet at the SOHO movie theater - I recommend selecting image type "LASCO C3" with the start date 2010-03-12 ... you can see the comet move from the bottom left of the image, getting increasingly brighter and more elongated as it approaches the Sun for probably the last time.

As far as I can tell, though I confess I haven't done much research on the subject, the comet didn't impact the Sun it might at first appear. There were certainly no Hollywood-style explosions on impact. As the comet got too close, the energy from the Sun will have vapourized it. According to "several of these fragments pass by the sun and disintegrate every day. Most are too small to see but occasionally a big fragment--like this one--attracts attention."

This year seems to turning out to be a very good one for astronomers interested in comets.

In January this year, an object (named P/2010 A2) was discovered which was initially believed to be a rare asteroid-comet hybrid known as a main belt comet - and by rare, I mean super-rare. There are some 3,600 known comets, and there are an estimated 1.2 million asteroids 1km across or larger in the main belt, but there are just 4 known main belt comets. But as astroengine explained nicely it could also have been something even more exciting - the first ever sighting of a collision between two main belt asteroids.

The main asteroid belt is not what you might expect after watching SciFi like Star Trek, where the crew have to navigate between densely packed asteroids regularly bumping off one another. Despite the missions of asteroids in the belt, the average distance between them is still immense, and collisions between main belt bodies with a mean radius of 10 km are expected to occur just once every 10 million years.

Hubble Space Telescope of comet-like asteroid P/2010 A2
Credit: Reuters/Handout

When impacts do occur, the relative speeds of the asteroids can be quite significantly different. In the case of P/2010 A2 it's possible that a hypervelocity impact occured - that is to say one in which the relative speeds are different by many km per second, which leads to some very interesting effects on the structures involved.

After photographs were taken with Hubble (see right), this assessment was revised and is indeed now considered to be the first sighting of a collision between two main belt asteroids.

Hubble's lead scientist David Jewitt said "The thing that we want to understand is how the asteroids smash into each other and destroy each other. It might help us understand even how to destroy an asteroid and prevent one from hitting us."

And some time today, the ESA Rosetta spacecraft will be taking photographs of P/2010 A2 with its OSIRIS cameras. While OSIRIS is not as powerful as Hubble, Rosetta is currently on its way towards the main belt where it will perform a flyby of the asteroid Lutetia on July 10th later this year, before continuing further out and ultimately rendezvousing with the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. Rosetta has just passed the orbit of Mars, and is about 150 million km away from P/2010 A2 right now - a very long distance, the same distance as the Sun is from the Earth, but also much closer than the Earth (and Hubble) - 80 million km closer, to be precise. In fact, this distance is some 6 million km less than the closest distance the Earth and P/2010 A2 will ever be. Combining this relative closeness with the benefits of being able to take images from a different angle, should hopefully make these images extremely useful to scientists in putting together the pieces of this fascinating event (sorry, bad pun).
Stewie victory

The Heavenly Palace

I confess I had somehow completely overlooked the name given to the intended future Chinese space station: "Tiangong" translates as "The Heavenly Palace" and to my mind it's the best name given to anything launched by man. I hope it goes well, though I wish they'd be a little bit less secretive about it all.

I'm very used to being able to read about the US, Russian, European, Japanese and Indian agencies' plans for their future space missions, but the Chinese are quite exceptionally secretive. I can understand it though, and it makes me very sad: it's all about military superiority.

"If you control space you can also control the land and the sea" is probably one of the most simple truths in modern military planning, but to hear it spoken by the head of the Chinese Air Force still feels a little ominous for me. It just saddens me to think that at a time when I'm living and working in a country that originally developed rockets for use against my parents' homes nearly 70 years ago, with colleagues from countries that were developing rockets for use against my home just 30 years ago, with all the open communication and co-operation that we have today there is still one major power out there which is determined to set itself at odds with the rest of the world, that can still be considered "the enemy".

(musings prompted by this article from the NYT and this one from spacedaily)

With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a lunchtime dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious website of lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a rapping,
As of someone gently tapping, tapping at my keyboard.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tweeting at my last post -
Only this, and nothing more.'

UK National Poetry Day

Ok, ok, I know it's rubbish. I challenge you to do better.
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Affairs of Scientists

Ig Nobel Prizes

I'm a bit confused with the Ig Nobel prizes, I thought their whole purpose was to highlight valuable research which seems a bit silly at first thought. For example, this year's Biology winner demonstrated that "kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the faeces of giant pandas" which strikes me as being a potentially very useful discovery, and is only amusing if you want to laugh at panda poo (which, of course, is a natural first reaction).

According to their website; "The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

And yet despite this, some of the prizes seem to be nothing more than jokes at the expense of people who screwed up, notably the Irish police (I'm sure the entire UK population will be laughing at that one) and the Icelandic banks:

Literature: Ireland's police service (An Garda Siochana), for writing and presenting more than fifty traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country — Prawo Jazdy — whose name in Polish means "Driving License".

Economics: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.

I'm hoping this year is just a one-off disappointment, and that next year will be a return to form.

What the hell happened in 1990?

When my last laptop died from sudden HD failure, I found myself regretting thinking that owning a big stack of CD's was just as good as a backup of my collection. Basically, I was just being lazy.

Anyhoo, I've been spending a lot of today ripping CD's onto my new machine so that I can play them without constantly swapping stuff discs around, and it's been proving strangely interesting to look at the dates on the albums that I own. It reads like a catalogue of how happy I was in any particular year, peaking in about 98 and crashing quite drastically in 2001. There is a very conspicuous absense of music which was released since I moved to Germany, which I think is a bad sign of my lack of social life over here :-/

I'm up to about 80 hours of music so far, primarily my rock/metal stuff (I haven't even touched the jazz yet). Bizarrely, although I have a fairly constant 1-2 hrs of music from each year throughout the 80's (my oldest album is a "best of Aerosmith" from '80) and a big peak of 5 yrs in 91 including some of my all time favourites, I don't have a single minute of music that was released in 1990.

I'm intrigued by this, so ... what are the good albums from 1990, and why don't I own any of them? (answers on a postcard to...)
Affairs of Scientists

The folding (British) Plug

Shamelessly yoinked from rmarsden because if anything deserves to go viral, this does.

For somebody who travels around with as many chargers etc as me, this would be a godsend. Many is the time I've been packing and rued the bulkiness of the UK chargers (or Euro-UK converters) compared to the European equivalents, and this would solidly reverse the situation.

It's not often I see a new design for a piece of domestic equipment and say "fantastic!" ... in fact, this might be the first time ever... but I did. And it is. So watch the vid and let's hope we get to see it in stores soon.
Not amused


I have just turned thirty, and decided to mark the occasion by spending a week in Prague accompanied by some of the urchins I've come to refer to as friends over the past 3 decades. Apparently, my timing sucks.

The weather here in Germany was quite superb, and I had rather assumed (stupidly without checking) that the weather in Prague would be comparable. So seeing the weather forecast just before packing (rain, rain, rain and some more rain with occasional burst of heavier rain) was a bit of a slap in the face. Still, with good company a bit of water can't ruin a good trip so in went the heavier clothing and all was ready.

I'd never been to Prague before, though it had been somewhat hyped up for me by a lot of people telling me it was "my kind of city" and for a jazz fan with a love of castles it did indeed look quite an idyllic destination. The first couple of days were spent just walking around the city looking at things, generally chilling and soaking up the atmosphere. It was a bit disappointing that the city centre looks almost exactly the same as anywhere else in Western Europe, with the same shops selling the same things, and people looking like they could as easily be walking around Germany as the former Eastern Bloc. That's progress, I suppose.

Once the others had assembled, we headed to the Prague beer festival on the Saturday, hoping to sample some very fine Czech beers and commiserate the onset of age in true British fashion. Sadly, this was not to be, as by lunchtime I was suffering from evil voodoo spell which cramped up my lower abdomen, expelled everything in my stomach and sent me to the hotel bed... for the next day and a half. I emerged on Sunday evening, having missed all the fun, still quite unable to eat or drink anything beyond a few mouthfuls of water.

On the up-side, veriditan tells me the party was good, arioch666 didn't get lost, and I am now a couple of Kg lighter. It's not a dieting technique I'd recommend though!

The Monday was a bank holiday in Germany, so we'd said goodbye to the Brits (one of whom missed his plane by being a bit blonde) but there was still 4 of us. Rather than spend another day in the city, we opted for a trip out to some of the surrounding villages - a very good decision! We found some lovely places, including a couple of castles (which are closed on Mondays! grr) and very pleasant eateries. Much less touristy and more of a genuine "Czech" feel to it, too. All in all, it could've been a lot worse... but it certainly wasn't the trip I had been expecting!