Sorry for the lack of posts – normal service to resume soon – but in the meantime no, no, no, no, no and no.
Full post to follow, but saw this on my trip there yesterday…
Very appropriate on a day when the news from Mars is a little more cheerful.
I’ve mentioned before just how difficult it is to find extrasolar planets. I’ve also made little secret of the fact that I’m a huge fan of the SuperWASP experiment which adds lenses to professional standard CCD cameras, essentially getting rid of the telescope in order to monitor a huge area of sky for faint dips in the light coming from a star which might indicate the passage of a planet in front of it. The technique works well – one of the leading teams announced the discovery of the largest known planet this way yesterday. (Largest – not most massive. That had me confused for a bit).
I know have a new appreciation for quite how difficult this is. Scrolling through the list of new papers, I saw that Clarkson et al. had published the first tranche of superWASP data, and the numbers in the abstract made me stop dead. They had worked hard to obtain 141,895 lightcurves (each of them tracing the brightness of a single star over time). Buried within this set were 2688 – that’s less than 2% – which have transit-like features. They then looked at those few thousand light curves by eye, and end up with 44 (0.03% of the original sample) which were worth following up further.
What next? Job done? Nope! Another 24 are removed to leave only events which are statistically significant, leaving 20. The next task is to search through everything that’s known about those 20 stars, a process which ruled most of them out. Finally, after a huge amount of work, we’re left with 0.003% of the original sample – 4 stars which might, just might, have planets orbiting them. Wow!
NASA’s latest Mars mission, Phoenix has launched and is on its way to the red planet. The mission was put together using much of the technology developed for the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander and the canceled 2001 Surveyor lander, so fingers crossed for a smooth flight to Mars. I haven’t been this excited about a mission since Huygens, and you can hear all about it on the last Living Space.
Much more importantly though, I think Phoenix is the first mission to have a movie-style trailer.
Last Friday morning I was putting the finishing touches to Living Space, checking that nothing of importance had happened overnight. This is my job as Harriet is busy with her real life in the mornings, what with being a breakfast DJ and everything.
Last Friday evening, I found myself at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London watching a new musical called Take Flight about the pioneering days of manned flight, focusing on the Wright brothers and daring aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
Late last Thursday night, UK time, an explosion at the New Mexico facility of Scaled Composites, the company which built X prize winner Spaceship One and are building the vehicles to be used by Virgin Galactic killed three people and injured three others who are still in hospital.
Back on Friday morning, I wrote what I hope was a fair summary of the explosion as based on the news on Phil’s Bad Astronomy blog, along with the then breaking news of space station sabotage and drunken astronauts. While recording, we watched those two stories cycle around on News 24 and Sky, but no mention of the New Mexico explosions. A week later, with the honorable exception of the Guardian, I have seen no mention of the story in any of the UK press, all of whom reported the NASA story. Why not?
In the dark of the theatre, as I watched the tales of the great pioneers of 20th century flight unfold before me (if you like Sondheim-esque musicals, go. If you don’t run a mile. I do, it was great) it was hard not to think of the morning’s news. Early flight was dangerous; peopled died, Earhart herself famously disappeared while attempting to fly around the world. According to Patrick, who met him, Orville Wright ended up a disappointed man, upset his invention had been used for war.
Todd Iven, Glenn May and Eric Blackwell all lost their lives working on something they believed in; an attempt to send man into space. It’s too early to say what the immediate cause of the accident was; the ultimate cause was their belief – and that of the rest of the Scaled Composites team, including the three who were injured – that it was worth doing dangerous things in order to further the cause of man in space. The general manager of the airport where the accident occurred, Stuart Witt, was quoted as saying ‘What we do is inherently risky. These are not the days we look forward to, but we deal with it.’
Tomorrow morning I’m getting on board a flight to go and visit colleagues in Toronto, and then in California. The reason this is possible – indeed, routine enough to be boring – is because of the risks taken in the early days of flight. Here’s hoping that the work that Iven, May and Blackwell did will one day make going to the Moon and beyond seem just as routine.
Update: Details of a fund for the injured employees are given on the main Scaled site.
NASA’s Kepler mission is one of the furthest advanced of all of the missions designed to search for extrasolar planets, and is due for launch next year. I’ve just listened to a NASA science press briefing, which included lots of good stuff from right across planetary science and astrophysics. (The highlight was probably details of a Cassini flyby of Enceladus due for next March.)
Most of it was an overview of things to come, but there was one point of interest. In order to avoid cost overruns, Kepler’s main science mission has been reduced from 4 years to 3 and a half years; this will mean the same number of targets will be studied, but the best guess is that there will be an 11% decrease in planet detections. Obviously if the mission is successful then there will probably be an extended lifetime, but the pressure is now on.