Monthly Archives: March 2013

Star Master Weekend Recap- Dr. Richard Obousy

So, I know I’m really late on this, but I wanted to give a very warm thank you to Dr. Richard Obousy for agreeing to come down to Primland last week, and talk about his company Icarus Interstellar. Here are a few notes I took during his presentation.

Part 1- Background On Dr. Obousy, and the Icarus Project

Richard Obousy, president of Icarus International.

Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar.

Dr. Obousy has had a longstanding interest in space travel and physics. He holds a Ph.D in theoretical physics, and worked for the UK Defense Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) as a radar physicist from 1999-2002. He currently works as president of Icarus Interstellar, and Founder and Manager of CitizenShipper LLC. Dr. Obousy has written for over 15 peer-reviewed publications, and appeared on such television and radio programs as the History Channel series “The Universe,”
Icarus Intersellar is nonprofit, 70 volunteer group with the goal of creating spacecraft that can fly beyond our solar system, and reach closest stars by the year 2100. The team comes from all over the world, pooling research over the internet. The group was started in 2009, as an outgrowth of Project Daedalus, a project begun in 1973 by the British Interplanetary Society.

The project is split into 20 modules designed to plan out every stage of development, propulsion, and communication within the 100 year time span. On the project’s website, readers can download a complete report on the project, and learn about updates.

What’s wrong with our current spacecraft technology?

The underside of a space shuttle rocket.

The underside of a space shuttle rocket.

According to Dr. Obousy, the space shuttle can go 6 km per second, which means it could reach Pluto in 23 years, but would take thousands of years to go to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. This is simply not fast enough to get past our solar system, and begin to actually touch the cosmos. Dr. Obousy, (and the crew at Icarus Interstellar) then touched on some of the potential benefits of superior space travel, such as mining for natural resources, and finding life on Mars, or Jupiter’s moon Europa. He cited the fact that data from the Curiosity and Viking spacecraft about life on these worlds is actually inconclusive! There might actually still be life in our solar system for us to still discover.

Although SETI (the Search For Extra-terrestial Intelligence) is currently scanning the skies for ET, Dr. Obousy feels that the “fleeting epoch of radio telescopes,” is no guarantee of success. Based on the findings from the Kepler Space Telescope, there may be over 400 billion planets in Milky Way, of those there might be as many as 100 billion Earth-like worlds. Dr. Obousy asserts that just because it is very difficult to locate extra-terrestrials, does not mean that they aren’t there.

How Project Icarus is Different From Current Spaceships.

Most of Project Icarus is devoted to using fusion power, rather than chemical energy, which, (if the project can perfect the process), could yield more than 10 million times more energy than the current design.

Why Did they Choose the Name “Icarus”?

"The Fall Of Icarus," 17th Century engraving by  Musée Antoine Vivenel.

“The Fall Of Icarus,” 17th Century engraving by Musée Antoine Vivenel.

For those of you who don’t know Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of the great engineer Daedalus, who created a pair of wax wings to give himself and his son the ability to fly. Unfortunately, the boy was so excited by this new power, and flew too close to the Sun, melting his wings, and sending the boy plummeting to his death. Understandably, this tragic story might seem like an odd source for the name of a company that designs space ships, but Dr. Obousy explains that, despite the outcome, Icarus, “pushed technology to its limits to discover hidden flaws,” which is how the story becomes one of the mantras to inspire the team.

Icarus is hopeful that they may some day create new technology that would allow us to travel at light speed, by dilebrerately warping space and time to travel through space at speeds that are unimaginable right now. Dr. Obousy cited many physicists that back up the idea that space time is not limited by light speed, and that there are natural sources of power such as dark energy and solar photons, that could be harnessed to propel spacecraft, (though at present, the energy required would be considerable to say the least). In the video above, you can get a glimpse of how Dr. Obousy suggested using such phenomena as the Casimir effect, and its ability to control dark energy as a sort of warp drive, using real scientific principles.

The Icarus Program is still fraught with challenges- monetary, resources, time, and of course the seemingly impossible difficulties creating real life interstellar vehicles, but Dr. Obousey and his team from Icarus Interstellar remain hopeful that “If we throw down the gauntlet, (i.e. challenging the members of his group), we will rise to the challenge like we did in the Apollo program,” which would allow us to take another great step in the field of science, and ultimately the human race.

Once again, I have to thank Dr. Obousy for his inspiring talk, and hope that he will visit Primland again soon!

Happy Stargazing!

The Higgs Boson- Angel, or Demon?

If you’ve ever read the book “Angels And Demons” or saw the movie, you might have noticed the irony that, just like in the film, the discovery of the so-called God Particle happened to co-incide with the investment of a new Pope. In the book and film, these two events herald a new conflict betwene science and religion, but so far no such event has taken place. However, the real discovery of a God Particlle, the Higgs- Boson, has quite a bit of controversy and drama surrounding it. Today I’ll be reporting about this discovery, what it means, and how it could be a belssing or a curse to all mankind.
 standard model infographic
Source:LiveScience
What is a boson? A boson is the very smallest constituent of matter, that work with other forces like gravity and electromagnetism. The Higgs Boson, ( initially theorized by physicist Peter Higgs), are the particles that give all matter mass, allowing for gravity to do its job, and the laws of physics to govern what we call reality. It’s not always helpful to think of boson as a particle like a proton, which already has mass. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you could think of the Higgs field as like The Force, an energy field that binds all matter togethar and gives it the ability to have mass. The next step for scientists is to figure out why some particles have mass like protons, while others like light, don’t.

Do we know this is really the Higgs? Higgs research has been going on since the 1960s, but only today, scientists at the CERN Very Large Hadron Collider confirm with 99% assurance that this is a genuine Higgs Boson. In order to find the Higgs, researchers smashed matter together at nearly light speeds, in a particle accelerator 27 kilometers long!

Benefits to finding the Higgs

A recent article from Live Science.com lists the potential benefits for finding the elusive Higgs Boson. Most of all, scientists are excited in discovering the particles taht give everything we can touch and feel mass, as well as the potential for understanding some of the laws of nature. However, there is one other interesting and totally unexpected side effect to this new research:

…The Higgs can sing!

What you are hearing is the Higgs particle’s random fluctuations, turned into musical notes. Some physicists theorize that all particles vibrate at differetn frequenceies so maybe there is some kind of cosmic sub-atomic music out there just waiting to be written.

…..Or Spell Our DOOM!

Apparently a scientist at the Fermi Institute has been using the science of Higgs Bosons as a way of figuring out how the universe will end. One of the basic principles of quantum physics is that nothing is really set in stone, so maybe research into the Higgs will actually reveal how long before the fundamental bonds of our universe break down, and we all dissolve into chaos once again. Like “Angels and Demons”, it’s interesting to speculate how they interact with our lives and whether their presence can give us grief or joy. In any case, this discovery could herald a new dawn into our understanding of just about everything, from the stars in the sky, to the very smallest particles imaginable.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this report on the discovery of the Higgs Boson. As a special treat, here’s a video about the science of “Angels and Demons.” It’s a recording of a conference by scientists that work at the Large Hadron Collider, discussing the concept of antimatter, the Hadron Collider, and the Higgs Boson.

Sources:

http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/03/14/6-implications-finding-higgs-boson-particle/

http://www.livescience.com/13613-strange-quarks-muons-nature-tiniest-particles-dissected.html

http://www.livescience.com/17433-implications-higgs-boson-discovery-lhc.html

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/higgs-boson-the-socalled-god-particle-could-spell-trouble-for-universe/1079386/0
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57470466/hear-the-higgs-boson-god-particle-set-to-music/

Star Master Weekend, Get your tickets NOW!

Today In Space History: Special Report- Dr. Richard Obousey

Richard Obousy, president of Icarus International.

Richard Obousy, president of Icarus International.

Friday March 15th and Saturday 16th form Primland Resort’s Starmaster Weekend. On these weekends, the astronomy program. invite professional astronomers and scientists to come down and talk about their work with our guests. Our guest is Dr. Richard Obousey, president of Icarus Interstellar. Named after the son of the mythical Greek craftsman who invented special wings to make his boy fly, Icarus International is a private company, committed to developing new spacecraft, capable of traveling to other star systems. The current goal is to create the first interstellar spacecraft within 100 years. What follows is a brief overview of the work Icarus International does, and a little bit about the problems of interstellar space travel, so you’ll know a little about his program, and his work with Icarus Interstellar.

 

 

Design for the original Daedalus Project ship from the 1970s.
Design for the original Daedalus Project ship from the 1970s.

If you go to the Icarus Interstellar website, you can see artists’ design for all kinds of new propulsion systems, including fusion spacecraft, lasers, and even warp drives straight out of science fiction. Icarus is an outgrowth of the Daedalus Project from 50 years ago, and since 2011, with the help of NASA, Icarus has created five interstellar spacecraft projects, mainly focused on fusion propulsion.

Project Hyperion; Launched in December 2011, designed to provide an assessment of the feasibility of manned interstellar flight using current and near-future technoloigies. It also aims to guide future research and technology development plans as well as reasssess the Fermi Paradox. Finally it aims to inform the public about the prospects of manned interstellar flight.

Project Forward; Analyzes and assesses the concept of using laser light and interstellar star sails.

  • Project Persephone; Experiment to create possible livable habitats in space.
  • Project Bifrost; Launched in December 2011, by Tabitha Smith, The Icarus Interstellar Nuclear Space Technology (NST) and Propulsion Development Program will operate with long-term goals of tangible deliverables in mind, such as (1) Partnership with the US Government and other vital members of the NST community, (2) The Creation of Nuclear Engines (Thermal (NTR) and/or Electric) and (3) Proof of concept for NTR and building the foundation for evolving nuclear propulsion.
  • Project Helius; Launched in August 2011 by Richard Osborne and Kelvin Long, Project Helius has the purpose of building prototype pulsed propulsion demonstrators to test elements of the Daedalus (or other) architecture. The main areas of study are currently focussed on the tracking of pellets and the timing of laser devices.
  • 100 Year Starship – Funded by DARPA / NASA, a one year project announced in January 2012.

In this video, Dr. Obousey talks about the goals and some of the challenges of Project Icarus. As you can see near the end, Dr. Obousey mentions that one of the major problems with getting to space is monetary- NASA is currently looking for ways to commercialize space in a number of ways. You probably saw the incredibly popular STRATOS YouTube video, which was designed to test spacesuits in the event of a high-altitude ejection. In addition, NASA also gets support from corporations in return for research. They are even lending their research to NASCAR! Sometimes NASA gets funding from unexpected sources, such as Dennis Tito, the multimillionaire who is funding a project to send a married couple to Mars in a privately owned spaceship.

Of course, there are also the incredible technical challenges of traveling from Earth to even it’s closest stars, (the closest of which is still over 12 trillion miles away). Most of Icarus’ efforts have been directed in harnessing the power of nuclear fusion to create more powerful engines that have the energy potential of the Sun itself.

History of Space Exploration

Artist's rendering of the Orion Spacecraft, which will send humans to the Moon, (and hopefully Mars) by 2017
Artist’s rendering of the Orion Spacecraft, which will send humans to the Moon, (and hopefully Mars) by 2017

As you might have read from my previous post about animals in space, NASA began sending people into space since the Mercury Project in 1961, and continued through the Gemini and Apollo mission, which sent men to the Moon from 1969-1972. NASA is trying to develop a new manned mission called Orion, set to go to the Moon in 2017. This mission will take humans back to the Moon, and then hopefully to Mars.

Some worry that even if NASA and Icarus develop the technology to get humans to other planets, that the demands of weightlessness on the human body, and the sheer length of the trip places create physical and psychological burdens on the human body. However, as Mary Roach points out in “Packing For Mars,” virtually every space mission has spawned numerous nervous medical theories, (some true and some false). One thing I’m sure Dr. Obousey will agree with me on, is that the prospect of manned spaceflight has been a Holy Grail of space exploration ever since man has first stared up at the stars. It united all of the country, and in a way the whole human race back when Neil Armstrong took that small step on the Moon, and hopefully the same thing can happen again with the help of NASA, Orion, and Icarus.

So, hope you come down to see Dr. Obousey next week. Click here if you want to make a reservation!

Happy Stargazing!

Week of the Comet!

EXCITING NEWS! On March 10th, Comet Panstarrs will reach its closest point to the Sun, and be visible at last for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere! The comet has been visible in the skies below the equator since early February, but at last those of you who join us at Primland can see it!

First ever photo of Panstarrs, 2011

First ever photo of Panstarrs, 2011

Comet Pannstarrs was discovered in 2011 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Panstarrs) in Maui, Hawaii. It is a non-periodic comet, which means that it very rarely passes within this solar system. In fact, once the comet leaves the solar system, it might not be back for over 100,000 years!

At first, the comet was barely visible with a telescope, but since its re-appearance in February, it has become bright enough to see with the naked eye. As it reaches its closest place to the Sun on the 10th, it grows steadily brighter and brighter. Predictions are already afoot that after it reaches parahelion ( the closest distance from the Sun), Comet Panstarrs will shine as bright as the planet Venus, the brightest planet in the sky!

 

Photo of comets Lemon and Panstarrs taken March 3rd, 2013 at Las Campanas observatory, Chile. Photo courtesy Juri Beletsky (public domain).

Photo of comets Lemon and Panstarrs taken March 3rd, 2013 at Las Campanas observatory, Chile. Photo courtesy Juri Beletsky (public domain).

When to Look- Starting March 10th, the comet will be visible in the western sky, in the constellation Pisces. Over the next few days, it will move North, until it will pass the North Star on March 29th. For more info on where to look and where to look for teh comet, visit Astronomy.com’s guide.

Chart of the ideal times to see Pannstarrs, courtesy of the Griffith Observatory

Chart of the ideal times to see Pannstarrs, courtesy of the Griffith Observatory

How to Look: The Griffith Observatory has a whole guide on the best way to view the comet from where you are, click here.

For some tasty photos and videos of the comet from earlier this year, click here:

Rest assured, if you come down to Primland, we will be on the watch every night looking for the comet, and hopefully snapping a shot! If you sign up for a Tour Of the Universe, you might even be able to see the comet pass overhead!

Till then,

Happy Stargazing!

Everything You Wanted To Know About Asteroids

 With the recent asteroid pass over Earth, and the Russian meteor that exploded last week, I thought this would be a perfect time to have a bit of a discussion about asteroids.

Asteroid DA 14, which passed the Earth at a distance of about 17,000 miles February 15th.

Asteroid DA 14, which passed the Earth February 15th.

What are Asteroids?- An asteroid is basically a rock that floats in space.  They do not have any atmosphere, and are too small to be considered plaents. Most asteroids are part of a vast belt between Mars and Jupiter nearly 60 miles wide. According to Space.com, the belt has over 750,000 asteroids floating within.  Asteroids are generally made of rock, but they often contain gasses like Nitrogen and Hydrogen at their cores. NASA has 3 different classifications of asteroids- Class C, (which are mostly made of Carbon), are the most common, and appear gray, like DA14 and the Russian meteor.

The biggest asteroid ever seen is technically also a dwarf planet named Ceres, discovered in 1801. It is nearly 600 miles across and orbits around Mars and Jupiter.

A view of the Orion Nebula in the constellation of Orion. Those three streaks are meteors that I captured as they came shooting across the screen.

A view of the Orion Nebula in the constellation of Orion. Those three streaks are meteors that I captured as they came shooting across the screen.

Difference between Asteroid and Meteors. An asteroid is an asteroid, asl long as it does not pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, then we re-name the object a meteor, commonly known as a “shooting star.” Like fireworks, meteors burn with a variety of different colors, depending on the chemical composition of the metals of which they are made.

Once the meteor finally hits the Earth’s surface, it is re-classified again as a meteorite. Over 10 tons of meteors hit the Earth every day, but by the time they get through the mile-long journey through the Earth’s atmosphere, the meteors are reduced to dusty grains no bigger than the sand you find on the beach.

 A Meteor Shower occurs when lots of tiny pieces of rock go through the Earth’s atmosphere at once and burn up in bright streaks. These streaks are often the debris from a comet and occur at regular intervals throughout the year. The next one to occur in 2013 is the Lyrid Meteor Shower, the debris from Comet Thatcher; the shower is scheduled to appear on April 22nd.
Meteor Crater Arizona, site of a meteor impact over 500 million years ago!

Meteor Crater Arizona, site of a meteor impact over 500 million years ago!

Meteors have crashed into the Earth, Moon, and other planets since the beginning of time. Over three billion years ago, asteroids containing the carbon and oxygen like outer-space care packages, hit the Earth, causing the planet’s atmosphere to slowly change from mostly methane gas, to its breathable state that supports living beings. On the Moon, asteroid collisions formed the craters that we see when we look at the Moon through telescopes. Some even speculate that the Moon might have been formed with an asteroid crashed into the Earth, sending molten rock into space that eventually cooled down to form the current Moon. As you can see in the picture on the left, meteors do still occasionally hit the Earth, although most of them burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere

Have there been any recent close calls with asteroids besides the Russian meteor? You may know that the same night as the Russian meteor, a much larger asteroid called DA 14 flew harmlessly by the Earth. Last year some speculated that DA14 would be eventually strike the Earth, and bring about the fabled 2012 Mayan apocalypse. However, these are only the most famous recent close calls. According to the International Astronomy Union (IAU), over 900 Near Earth Asteroids have been observed since 2011. A NEA is defined as an asteroid that passes within 1.3 Astronomical Units, or the distance between the Earth and the Sun. One of the most frightening examples occurred over the Mediterranean Sea. Space and Defense agencies warned that a sea impact could actually be worse than a land impact, as it could create massive tidal waves that could drown the whole country. Fortunately the meteor disintegrated before hitting the planet. General Simon Worden delivered a speech where he expressed relief that the asteroid didn’t impact, or even worse, be mistaken by mediterranean countries as hostile fire, and therefore an act of war:

The event of this June caused little or no notice as far as we can tell. But had it occurred at the same latitude, but a few hours earlier, the result on human affairs might have been much worse. Imagine that the bright flash accompanied by a damaging shock wave had occurred over Delhi, India or Islamabad, Pakistan? Neither of those nations have the sophisticated sensors we do that can determine the difference between a natural NEO impact and a nuclear detonation. The resulting panic in the nuclear-armed and hair-trigger militaries there could have been the spark that would have ignited the nuclear horror we’d avoided for over a half-century. This situation alone should be sufficient to get the world to take notice of the threat of asteroid impact- Gen. Worden, quoted in SpaceRef.com.

How are scientists studying these asteroids? Scientists all over the globe are keeping close watch for Near Earth Asteroids with ground based telescopes and space probes. In fact, the Canadian Space Agency just launched a new satellite early last week designed to track asteroids and other Near Earth Objects: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/satellites/neossat/default.asp

Not to be outdone, NASA is also developing the NEAR program, and Russia has the Planetary Defense League. Plans are also underway for a new system of telescopes designed to give everyone on Earth a week’s head’s up for an imminent asteroid impact called the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) to be ready in 2015.

Why didn’t scientists predict the Russian meteor? Simply put, the meteor, (which has been described by NASA as a “little asteroid”), was too small for the space agencies to detect.

Could an asteroid destroy the Earth? To be honest- yes. Although the planet Jupiter, with its massive size helps considerably in deflecting asteroids, an asteroid could impact the Earth at any moment. If the asteroid is of sufficient size, its impact could send dust into the atmosphere, blotting out the Sun. This would effectively kill all life on Earth. We know this is true because it’s exactly what killed the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. This is why studying asteroids is so important.

How to prepare for an asteroid apocalypse– Discovery Magazine.com has provided a list of 10 ways to stop an asteroid for fun, which I have linked to here. My personal favorite is the plan to paint the asteroid with light-deflecting paint, to hopefully use solar radiation to push it away.

Well, hope that satisfies your craving for outer-space knowledge. As you know, although asteroids and meteors are fairly common, they only rarely hit the Earth. With any luck, our planet will be safe from a catastrophe for a long, long time.

Happy Stargazing!

Paul