This Week in Space: Warp Speed, Mr. Sulu

In case you’ve decided that this world no longer holds any charms for you, good news! This week’s space updates include a lot of promising research into getting you off this rock. Space ahead!

Things that go BOOM!

NASA’s Heliophysics program – which monitors the sun, get it? “Helio?” – has an amazing compilation of videos of what they call a “prominence,” or a blast of solar radiation. The videos compile several different distances, bands of energy and even two completely different sides of the same explosion.


Meanwhile, we have also recorded and are studying the largest star explosion ever recorded.

Come to the Off-World Colonies

The first and most basic problem we have as a species in visiting other worlds. Sure, provided that we stay within our own solar system, travel is not that far. Visiting any of Jupiter’s moons, for example. But if we’re to really break the bonds of our home system, it requires light speed travel.

New research puts light speed travel within at least hypothetical reach, though. Close enough in reach, in fact, that NASA actually has some basic testing in the works. The concept put forth decades ago as a “warp bubble,” which compresses space time ahead of it while expanding space-time behind it, might be possible for both sub- and superluminal (slower and faster than the speed of light, respectively) travel.

Now for the bad news: the nearest star and potentially-inhabitable exoplanet to the Earth is Alpha Centauri Bb at a whopping 4.25 lightyears away. So at light speed, assuming it can be achieved, we’re still looking at 51 months of crappy spaceline food and kids kicking the backs of our seats before we get to our destination.

As for our next stop, humanity’s original spacefarers have ideas of their own. Buzz Aldrin was quoted this week as saying that humanity’s future lies on the surface of Mars

Buzz Aldrin: Humanity’s Future Is on Mars:

Aldrin’s plan calls for NASA and the United States to focus technology development efforts for a manned Mars mission while still remaining a global leader in human spaceflight. The plan does not completely forgo a return of astronauts to the moon, but does state that NASA should not send astronauts there. Instead, his plan states, other countries like China, India and Russia can focus on exploration of the lunar surface while NASA fine-tunes the tech needed for Mars trips from stable Lagrange points near the moon.

Meanwhile, as the debate continues about the feasibility of travel both in and out of the Solar System, others continue to explore exoplanets in ways both innovative and old-school. One method for understanding the makeup of expolanets is to borrow slightly from the world of star analysis and use spectometry to see the signatures of elements. In this case, rather than putting the light of stars through a prism to determine the elements being burned off, the light of the stars as it passes through exoplanets as the occlude our view of the star is being analyzed for the same data about the possible atmospheres and planetary make up of our new long-distance BFFs.

Odds and Ends

If you’re looking for a way to contribute to deeper space exploration, why not try NASA’s call to search for “Space Warp” galaxies? No, these are not galaxies traveling at the speed of light. These are galaxies who by their nature create telephoto lenses into even deeper space. NASA hopes to be able to use these galaxies to peer deeper than ever before into the cosmos, and with much greater detail.

And finally, it turns out that the Milky Way’s own resident black hole has a surprising taste for gasses. Whereas scientists expected to find the crushed remnants of stars at the center of our galaxy – being dragged inevitably towards the deadly embrace of a super-massive black hole that keeps time in the Milky Way – they have instead discovered a collection of gasses equivalent to the size of our own Earth about to be gobbled up within the year.

That’s it for this week, space fans!

Space Weather

How Coronal Mass Ejections affect life here on Earth

As meteorologists continue their fight against Mother Nature in hopes to produce the ”perfect” forecast, they may encounter some unusual problems outside of our atmosphere. Although outer space does not have an immediate or direct impact on the weather on Earth, space phenomena do have the ability to influence or disrupt the way meteorologists or the general public goes about their daily lives.

According to Earthsky blog writer, Christopher Crockett, Coronal Mass Ejections or CME’s are essentially “sun burps with the power of 20 million nuclear bombs”. Although these burps or hiccups are not totally understood, astronomers believe they are caused by twists or “kinks” in the Sun’s magnetic field, much like a phone cord or toy slinky. “These kinks snap the magnetic field and can potentially drive vast amounts of plasma into space” (Crockett). When the plasma is ejected into space it travels at a million miles per hour, that speed could get you from Boston to London in less than 30 minutes!

Since these explosions are angled at all different directions, they don’t always reach the Earth. However when they do come into contact with the Earth, a geomagnetic storm occurs. This means that the Earth’s magnetic field is temporarily altered as the day side of the magnetic field is compressed and the night side is stretched out. When this happens, the aurora lights can drift towards the mid-latitudes and display a magnificent natural light show.

The effects of CME’s are not always positive though; they can cause widespread power outages and sometimes even become deadly. Cosmic rays, which are very-high energy particles, can infiltrate the earth’s atmosphere and expose people to these deadly levels of radiation. This risk is elevated for those further away from the Earth’s surface such as astronauts or people in planes. For example, during a solar storm in 1989, astronauts aboard the Mir space station received their yearly radiation dose in just a few hours.

Lastly, the flurry of magnetic activity and induced electric currents can disrupt radio transmissions and cause damage to satellites and electrical transmission line facilities. This can severely disrupt power grids and communication networks, leaving millions of people without power.

Just like the weather on Earth, there is nothing we can do to prevent CME’s other than forecast and prepare for these events. In fact, NASA is predicting that we could see a very large CME this year, however they are urging people not to freak out and go on with their daily lives.

Science VIDEO

Epic filament eruption on the sun, caught by the NASA SDO!

There have been plenty of other solar events in the last few years that the SDO has observed. Some of which have even had their effects felt here on Earth. But I’m not certain we’ve ever seen what appears to be quite so much energy leaving the sun all at one time. Here, courtesy of the SDO YouTube channel, is video including several filters of that massive eruption:

Science Space Porn

[VIDEO] Huge sun spot three times the size of Earth causes solar flare

News from @NASA that the largest sun spot seen in years, dubbed AR1339 by scientists there, is actually three times larger than the Earth itself. And last night, that same sun spot caused two different solar events: a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection (CME). The solar flare actually winged the planet Earth and disrupted radio transmissions starting around 4:45PM EST. The CME headed in the direction of Venus.

You can see the brief video of the CME here.

Scientists will continue to monitor the sun spot and more radio or other communications disruptions are possible. Basically, the thing spins and wherever its pointed when the flare goes off is where it goes.

via NASA – A 360 Degree View of an X-class Flare and A CME.