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The hemispheric view of Venus, as revealed by more than a decade of radar investigations culminating in the 1990-1994 Magellan mission, is centered at 180 degrees east longitude. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS.

Here are some interesting facts about our solar system:

  • The Sun contains 99.86% of the mass in the solar system. It is 73% hydrogen and the rest is a mixture of helium, oxygen and carbon.

 

  • If Jupiter — the largest planet in our solar system with a mass that is 318 times that of Earth’s — had any more mass, it would actually become smaller in size. Additional mass would make the planet denser and so it would start pulling in on itself.

 

  • Venus rotates in a clockwise direction — opposite to that of all the other planets in the solar system. Hence on Venus, the sun rises in the west.

 

  •  Saturn — one of the gas giants and the second largest planet in the solar system — is

    Orbiter Cassini captured a series of images that have been composed into this large global natural color view of Saturn and its rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

    less dense than water, which would make it float on it. If you could find that big a body of water, that is.

 

  • The rusty, red planet Mars has the tallest mountain in the solar system. This mountain, known as Olympus Mons, is a volcano. It is 15 miles high, which is three times the height of Mt. Everest.

 

  • It takes Neptune 165 years to complete one revolution around the sun. This planet has yet to finish a full orbit since its discovery in 1846.

 

  • Saturn is famous for the bright and colorful rings around it, which are comprised of gas, dust, possibly chunks of ice and particles of dust. But did you know that there are rings around all the other gas giants (Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune) in the solar system, too?

 

  • Mercury and Venus are the only two planets that have no satellites, or moons, revolving around them. In comparison, Jupiter is known to have around 63 of them.

 

  • Pluto, the “dwarf planet”, is comprised of half rock and half ice, and if it were any closer to the sun, it would be a comet.

 

  • Mercury rotates slowly on its axis. It completes one rotation every 59 Earth days. As a result of the planet’s slow rotation on its axis and rapid movement around the sun, a day on Mercury — that is, the interval between one sunrise and the next — lasts about 180 Earth days.

Aren’t you glad you are part of this amazing system, even if only in the capacity of a very small spectator?

Water-ice clouds, polar ice, polar regions and geological features can be seen in this full-disk image of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL.

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Scientists are said to believe that there are likely to be around 100 million planets in the Milky Way that harbor exactly the right conditions for life. *

Are you going: “What sci-fi book is this from?”

It is not fiction. It is a fact!

Let me begin at the beginning…

Have you heard about NASA’s Kepler Mission, NASA Discovery Mission # 10?

The Kepler Spacecraft was launched into space in March of last year, on a three-and-a-half year mission to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy for signs of Earth-like planets.

Among other things, the mission’s aim is to discover planets that are Earth-size or smaller in or near the habitable zone.

Artist’s rendering of Kepler’s target region in the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/Jon Lomberg

So far we’ve only known for sure that there are many planets outside of the solar system that are either gas or ice giants.

Now, we have new information.

Kepler mission has discovered the first confirmed planetary system (outside of our own) with two distinct planets orbiting the same star.

Early results from Kepler mission also suggest the likelihood of the existence of more than hundred planets similar in size to Earth in our galaxy. Scientists also believe that there are likely to be around 100 million planets in the Milky Way that harbor exactly the right conditions for life.

This means the chances of life outside of Earth also increase sharply!

Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a scientist on the Kepler Mission said:

The figures suggest our galaxy, the Milky Way [which has more than 100 billion stars] will contain 100 million habitable planets, and soon we will be identifying the first of them. There is a lot more work we need to do with this, but the statistical result is loud and clear, and it is that planets like our own Earth are out there.**

Now, isn’t that astounding news?

It is one of those findings that is bound to change the way we look at life and the space around us.

Suddenly sightings of flying saucers and other UFOs don’t seem so daft, do they?

We’ll probably be a little less skeptical about stories of people who claim to have been beamed up into a mother ship and transported to another planet.

Wouldn’t it be phenomenal if there were to be some solid proof, within our lifetime, that life (similar to human-life or not) does exist on other planets in the galaxy?

I’m getting goose bumps just writing this.

If you were to come across news like that, what would your very first reaction be to it?

* – Daily Mail

** – News.com.au

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Did you know that even though 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water (including that frozen in the polar ice caps and buried underneath the Earth’s surface), a mere 3% of it is fresh water, and hence suitable for drinking?

Also, have you ever heard this? The puddle of water you splashed through as a kid, the rain showers that nurture your garden, and the glass of water you fill at your faucet to drink may be the same water that a Tyrannosaurus Rex might have tasted when it was alive.

You don’t think so? Hear me out.

There are several theories (some scientific, some not so much) in existence about how old the water on Earth is really.

  • The amount of water on Earth is limited. Hence, the water that makes up a third of the Earth today had been around when dinosaurs were alive. However, it may not be true that we are drinking the same water, because what they drank, by virtue of constant water cycles, might be at the bottom of an ocean by now or deep underground.

 

  • Due to water cycle, water molecules evaporate, which means that they are  converted into the individual molecules of oxygen and hydrogen. Hence, when the water molecules reform during condensation, it can be argued that they are not the same water molecules anymore.

 

  • It may be safe to say that at least some percentage of water molecules that were around when dinosaurs existed could be lingering in the water we see now. (I won’t go to the technical specifics of the proof for this one.)

Which theory do I second? Irrespective of the scientific reasoning behind it, I’d like to believe in either theory #1 or #3.

Why?

Because they are so much more fascinating and intriguing, that’s why! They provide such scope for imagination.

Which one would you prefer to believe? Or do you have another theory that you’d like to add to the list above? If so, please share it with us!

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Hubble floats above Earth

April 24th of this year marked the twentieth anniversary of Hubble, the telescope that orbits Earth. It is one of NASA’s most successful and long-lasting science missions.

Why did NASA put the telescope in space? So its view would not be compromised by the Earth’s atmosphere, which distorts and blocks the light reaching our planet. This is one of the biggest disadvantages from which ground-based telescopes trained at the outer space suffer.

Hubble’s discoveries have helped in the advancement of scientists’ understanding of the universe enormously. The telescope’s unique position gives it the best seat to view the universe around it and record it. The information Hubble has gathered over the years has helped scientists look at the universe in a whole new light.

Here are some fascinating facts about The Hubble Space Telescope (gathered from its official site):  

  • It was launched into space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990.
  • It sweeps around the Earth once every 97 minutes.
  • It has revealed the age of the universe to be about 13 to 14 billion years, much more accurate than the old range of anywhere from 10 to 20 billion years.
  • It has played a key role in the discovery of dark energy, a mysterious force that causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
  • It is kept up to date and on target by periodic servicing missions from astronauts high above the atmosphere.
  • It has a ‘ground crew’ that tells it what to do.
  • It’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is currently in the works. It is scheduled to launch in 2014.
  • It is expected that Hubble’s components will slowly, over the years, degrade to the point at which it will stop working. When that happens, Hubble will continue to orbit Earth until its orbit decays, allowing it to spiral toward Earth.

Messages for Hubble:

NASA has many things planned for celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the telescope. Among them is its invitation for Hubble’s fans to leave a message in Hubble archives, and hence for posterity.

Never is the adage a picture speaks volumes more appropriate than in this context. So, without further ado, I bow out and leave you with some more astounding pictures (courtesy: http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album) from Hubble’s album that has been created over the past two decades.

For further information and many more mind-blowing pictures, visit: http://hubblesite.org.

Spiral Galaxy M100

 

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Newton’s Apple Tree Headed to Space *

Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree to Experience Zero Gravity – in Space **

Newton’s Apple Tree Bound for Gravity-Free Orbit ***

Have you come across enthusiastic headlines and captions like the ones above, for the past week or so, in dailies, weeklies, blogs et al?

No? Well then, allow me to be the bearer of some exciting and interesting tidings.

Remember the illustrious apple tree underneath which young (twenty-three year old) Isaac Newton, physicist and mathematician, sat one afternoon, mulling over all the concepts, ideas and notions vying for attention inside his head?

And then the aforementioned tree deemed it the right moment to plop an apple next to him. If it were any other mere mortal, I think s/he would have picked up the apple, dusted the dirt off, taken a crunchy bite out of it and gone on with their musings.

Not so our man of the moment, Sir Isaac Newton. The wheels of his mind began to turn faster: Now, why did that apple fall straight to the ground? Why did it not travel sideways a bit before it fell? Or, why did it not just fly upwards?

A light bulb went off inside his head: Of course! It is because earth pulls things towards it.

And from thence was born: The Universal Law of Gravitation.

Are you going, at this point, “Hmm… Hema’s nattering on as if she has been sitting right next to Newton when the apple fell, and heard him think these questions out loud. What baloney!”

No, of course, I wasn’t there myself, but here’s what William Stukeley, one of the first biographers of Sir Isaac Newton, said as told to him by the subject of his biography himself:*

It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself … Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earth’s center? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter.

Where does the apple tree in space enter into the picture? I’m coming to just that.

British-born NASA astronaut Piers Sellers carried with him a 4-inch sliver of the apple tree, beneath which Newton sat those 350 years ago, aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final mission. (The shuttle is currently on a 12-day mission that began on the afternoon of Friday, the 14th of May, at 2:20 P.M. EDT, to deliver some hardware to the International Space Station.) 

Sellers is flying the piece of wood for the Royal Society of London, of which Newton was a former president. It seems that this piece of tree has written on it, in 18th century lettering, the words:

            I-S-dot-Newton

Fourth generation scion of the tree from Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton’s childhood home

Now, isn’t that exciting? What do you think Newton would have said if he were around? He definitely would have approved.

The piece of the tree will be returned to the Royal Society following the Atlantis’s return to earth from the twelve-day flight.

Now, here’s my question for the day, dear readers:

            If you were given the chance to pick one thing that would be made part of a time capsule to be buried (don’t know how that would be done, but let’s just leave it at that for now) in space for extra terrestrials to find, what would you choose?

My answer: A bottle of water from the Pacific Ocean. Why? Because some of the earliest forms of life on earth are believed to have originated inside the ocean.

There’s also another aspect to water on earth that intrigues me no end. What exactly is it? That’s a whole another post for another day! :)

* – CBS News

** –  The Guardian

*** – NPR

NASA’s Mission Page – Has videos of the lift-off of the shuttle and in-depth information about the mission.

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April 22nd is celebrated every year as Earth Day. Do we, the human race, really have the right to celebrate this day?      

Nobody worth his salt has managed to not hear about the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupting and spewing thousands of tons of ash – it began on April 14th – thus effectively arresting air traffic all over Europe (and disrupting it all over the rest of the world, too).       

  

Eyjafjallajokul on April 17, 2010. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

 

After more than a week, by Thursday the 22nd of April, it is said that the eruption has grown weaker, and the cloud of ash is growing smaller. Does that mean the biggest danger from the volcano is past?      

The study of volcanic phenomenon, Volcanology, is an imprecise science. Scientists, busy collecting data from this eruption and studying it in an effort to predict how the volcano will behave further, are not ready to say anything definitively.      

Their answer? We will just have to wait and see what it will do.      

Did you see pictures and videos of the volcano erupting (accompanied by monstrous grumbling) and throwing up all that ash? At the height of its intensity, it threw up chunks of magma and ice as big as helicopters.       

Here are some amazing pictures taken at various stages of the eruption, over days. They depict nature at its ferocious and awe-inspiring best. http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/04/more_from_eyjafjallajokull.html      

The big question plaguing scientists now is:      

  • Will this cooling of Eyjafjallajökull set off a more powerful eruption (which has a potential to be 10 times stronger) of Mt. Katla, which is a volcano at a distance of 8 miles from Eyjafjallajökull?

  

Past events point at the possibility that it very well may. Eyjafjallajökull has erupted three times so far in time; Mt. Katla has done so as well, each of those times.      

Now, I get to the crux of today’s post.      

  • Did the change in climatic conditions on Earth cause this volcanic eruption? The unanimous answer to that seems a resounding NO. Good!

However, a percentage of the scientific community strongly believes that melting of glaciers and ice caps, set off by global warming, could cause more volcanic action in the future in Iceland and an increase in earthquakes in Alaska.      

Their theory:      

  • The melting ice caps in the coming decades, a reaction to the climatic change on Earth, take a vast weight off the top of the volcanoes in the region of Iceland. This in turn frees magma from below ground causing more eruptions**.

       

  • Similarly, when glaciers melt, they lighten up the load on the tectonic plates on Earth’s crust. The result? The plates, now free of load, may move against each other, causing friction, which in turn manifests itself as earthquakes.**

Is this all true? I, for one, believe in these theories, though some people are laughing them away as skewed and unreasonable. Whichever side you tend to take, let me say this:      

If it takes the fear of natural calamities, of this proportion, to bring to everyone’s attention the dire need to pitch in to protect our own backyard, then so be it!        

  

  

My rendition of mankind crushing a grayed Earth

 

There are hundreds of big and small things each person can do that will make a difference in the long run to keep Earth as it should be: clean and green.      

I have seen some people who refuse to put their share into keeping their own environment clean, let alone others’. Their excuse? “Just my doing a little here and a little there isn’t going to help.” Really?      

If each of the six billion people on Earth exhibits this kind of negative and escapist tendencies, then who does Earth turn to?      

Some of the pictures taken during the Icelandic volcanic eruption show the resilient side of humanity. It’s a heartening sight, amid the chaos created by an angry nature.  

If only everyone can show the same kind of persistence and  ingenuity in protecting Earth, too!    

  • Nature at times behaves like a loving, but irascible, mother who snaps at her child who is refusing to take hints not to bother her too much.

        

  •  Is this why we are seeing more and more natural disasters every year?

        

  •  Could this be nature’s way of warning us not to push it?

So, what are you doing to keep your patch of Earth clean, green and happy?      

       

** – See the following sites for more information:      

     

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The universe – stars, planets, nebulae, the Milky Way, black holes – in its entirety and infiniteness has always fascinated me. Hence, the Big Bang Theory that explains how the universe came into existence has been close to my heart for a long time.

I would like to share some really exciting latest developments related to this interest of mine with you, my friends, with your permission today.

Headlines with names like Search for Higgs boson and Massive Hunt for the God Particle have splashed across newspapers, the net, and TV lately.

So, what is Higgs boson, also popularly referred to as the God Particle?

Simply put, it is a subatomic particle, which is the fundamental building block of matter.

Why is the search for it making news so suddenly?

Actually, the biggest and most ambitious science experiment undertaken to discover the elusive Higgs boson is not at all new. Scientists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland have been working on it tirelessly for a few years now.

How is it done?

Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – also known as the “atom smasher” and the “super collider” – is basically a particle accelerator; this is the gigantic scientific instrument that is used in this search. It spans the border between Switzerland and France, near Geneva, about 100 m deep beneath the Alpine meadows.

This instrument will be used to smash atom against atom at speeds approaching that of light, in order to shake out the Higgs boson from inside the nucleus of the atom.

The detectors inside the machine are four huge underground instruments, some as big as a gothic cathedral, which will act as microscopes to identify a Higgs particle in a fraction of the split second it takes to make an appearance before it disappears once more.

What will this experiment, and the subsequent discovery of Higgs boson, prove?

It may:

  • Revolutionize our understanding, from atomic level all the way up to the vastness of the universe. Hence, it may help answer the fundamental questions about why Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is at odds with quantum mechanics. (The former deals with world on a large scale, whereas the latter deals with matter too small to see.)
  • Help discover new properties of nature.
  • Discover the possibility that there are hidden dimensions to the universe.
  • Explain why objects have mass, while some phenomenon, such as light, do not.

Basically, if facts were to follow theory, this trial will help answer some of the questions that are at the heart of our understanding of the creation of the universe, and the end of time.

Has it been smooth sailing all along?

No. Many problems plagued the super collider until very recently – problems that ranged all the way from a bird dropping a bit of a baguette into the accelerator, making the machine shut down, up to faulty joints and connect magnets coming loose.

No wonder some maintain that the devil is in the details.

While scientists have been working at getting the super collider to work, several myths and protests have been making rounds regarding the whole attempt.

  • It is not right to play with forces that have only existed in theory before.
  • It will create an uncontrollable big bang.
  • The immense energy involved in the experiment may generate mini black holes.
  • These black holes could somehow merge to form a larger, destructive entity that could swallow up the entire earth or chunks of the universe.
  • The experiment is infringing on the territory of the almighty, and hence may cause a major catastrophe.

What are the latest developments?

Finally after months of hard work and preparation – including some major and minor hiccups up to the very last minute – on Tuesday March 30th, the LHC successfully began to make subatomic collisions.

And the myths surrounding the experiment have proved to be just that. The super collider did succeed in smashing atoms and nothing unusual has happened: the earth continues to rotate and revolve as usual, and we all go about our lives, most of us unaware that we were supposedly standing at the brink of possible extinction just over a week ago.

What now?

The scientists will have to pore through the reams of data, collected by the super collider, for the next however many years, before they can say what it is that the collider has helped us discover.

Are we on the verge of the biggest breakthrough of science?

No one can say definitively.

Not all important (or fundamental, for that matter) discoveries are accompanied by a big bang. How about Newton and the proverbial apple falling on his head leading him to discover, eventually, the force of gravity? Could any discovery, of such epic proportions, have been less dramatic?

Also, most times, the majority of humanity are not even aware that something life-altering has occurred until after a few years or decades have gone by. Case in point: the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei proving (with the use of the first-ever astronomical telescope) Copernicus’s theory that earth revolved around the sun – a theory that was in direct opposition to the then existing belief that earth was at the center of the universe.

Ergo, we all just have to wait and see what the results from this latest attempt at attaining deeper insights into the beginning of time mean to the future of humanity.

What does the possible discovery of Higgs boson, and an eventual definitive theory about the origin of universe, mean to you?

  • Do you believe, in the first place, that this experiment will lead to a revolutionary view of the universe?
  • Will it possibly change the way you look at science?
  • Will it force you to look at religion differently?
  • Is it even likely to have an effect on you in any way?

I would dearly love to know what you all think…

If you’d like more details about this extraordinary journey, here are some good sites to begin with:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/in-search-of-the-god-particle-805757.html – Whence it all began: An interesting article about Prof. Higgs, and the sheer magnitude of LHC.

http://www.cern.ch/

http://public.web.cern.ch/public/en/LHC/LHC-en.html

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