News & Current Affairs

July 21, 2009

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Asia set for total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse photographed in Egypt, 2006 (Darren Baskill)

Stargazers will travel long distances to see the eclipse

Millions of people in Asia will see the longest total solar eclipse this century on Wednesday as swaths of India and China are plunged into darkness.

Scores of amateur stargazers and scientists will travel long distances for the eclipse, which will last for about five minutes.

The eclipse will first appear in the Gulf of Khambhat just north of Mumbai.

It will move east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China before hitting the Pacific.

The eclipse will cross some southern Japanese islands and will last be visible from land at Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Elsewhere, a partial eclipse will be visible across much of Asia.

The previous total eclipse, in August 2008, lasted two minutes and 27 seconds. This one will last six minutes and 39 seconds at its maximum point.

Alphonse Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be following the eclipse from China, scientists are hoping data from the eclipse will help explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt.

“We’ll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it’s a very special opportunity,” Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China told the Associated Press news agency.

Solar scientist Lucie Green, from University College London, is aboard an American cruise ship heading for that point near the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow will pass closest to Earth.

“The [Sun’s] corona has a temperature of 2 million degrees but we don’t know why it is so hot,” she said.

“What we are going to look for are waves in the corona. … The waves might be producing the energy that heats the corona. That would mean we understand another piece of the science of the Sun.”

The next total solar eclipse will occur on 11 July next year. It will be visible in a narrow corridor over the southern hemisphere, from the southern Pacific Ocean to Argentina.

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE
Infographic (BBC)
In the area covered by the umbra (the darkest part of the shadow), a total eclipse is seen
In the region covered by the penumbra (where only some of the light source is obscured) a partial eclipse is seen

solar

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September 19, 2008

Europe plans asteroid sample grab

Europe plans asteroid sample grab

British scientists and engineers are working on a potential new mission to bring back material from an asteroid.

The European Space Agency (Esa) mission, which could launch in the next decade, would be designed to learn more about how our Solar System evolved.

The plan is to select a small asteroid – less than 1km across – near Earth and send a spacecraft there to drill for dust and rubble for analysis.

Mission plans are being worked on at EADS Astrium, in Stevenage, Herts.

A final decision on whether to approve the mission – known as Marco Polo – will be made in a few years’ time. The mission would launch towards the end of the next decade.

Asteroids are debris left over from the formation of the Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago.

Studying their pristine material should provide new insights into the ingredients of the early Solar System and how planets like Earth evolved.

“We’ll be looking at the best solution for getting there and back,” Astrium’s Dr Ralph Cordey told News.

“We’ve got to look at all elements of the mission – how we would design the mission, how to design the trajectory to one of a number of possible asteroids, how to optimize that so we use the smallest spacecraft, the least fuel and the smallest rocket.”

Marco Polo (EADS Astrium)

Marco Polo would map the asteroid as well as grabbing a sample

Esa has an exploration roadmap for the missions it wishes to conduct in the coming years.

One of its major goals is a Mars sample return mission – a mission to bring back pieces of Martian rock for study in Earth laboratories, where the full panoply of modern analytical technologies can be deployed.

An asteroid sample return mission would have huge scientific merit in its own right but it would also help develop the technology needed for the more challenging task of getting down and up from a large planetary body that has a much bigger gravitational pull.

Not that getting down on to a small, low-gravity body is easy. The wrong approach could crush landing legs or even result in the vehicle bouncing straight back off into space.

Such problems were amply demonstrated by the recent Japanese attempts to grab samples off the surface of an asteroid.

It is still not clear whether the Hayabusa spacecraft managed to capture any material and the probe’s return to Earth is still haunted by uncertainty.

The Americans landed on an asteroid with their Near-Shoemaker probe in 2001.

They have also sent the Dawn spacecraft to rendezvous with Asteroid Vesta in 2011 before going on to visit Asteroid Ceres in 2015.

There is even feasibility work going on in the US space agency to look at how astronauts could be sent on an asteroid mission one day.

September 8, 2008

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

CMS (M. Brice/Cern)

The UK alone has invested more than half-a-billion pounds in the LHC

The most brilliant minds should be directed to solving Earth’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, says Sir David King.

The former UK chief scientist will use his presidential address at the BA Science Festival to call for a gear-change among innovative thinkers.

He will suggest that less time and money is spent on endeavors such as space exploration and particle physics.

He says population growth and poverty in Africa also demand attention.

“The challenges of the 21st Century are qualitatively different from anything that we’ve had to face up to before,” he told reporters before the opening of the festival, which is being held this year in Liverpool.

“This requires a re-think of priorities in science and technology and a redrawing of our society’s inner attitudes towards science and technology.”

Huge expense

Sir David’s remarks will be controversial because they are being made just as the UK is about to celebrate its participation in the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics experiment.

The Collider, built at the Cern laboratory under the Swiss-French border, is starting full operations this Wednesday.

It will seek to understand the building blocks of matter, and, in particular, try to find a mechanism that can explain why matter has mass.

This international venture is extremely expensive, however. The UK alone has contributed more than £500m to the LHC – the largest sum of money to date invested by a UK government in a single scientific project.

Sir David said it was time such funding – and the brains it supports – were pushed to answering more pressing concerns.

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilization is really crucial.”

Big ideas

Chief among these challenges for Sir David is the issue of climate change. When he was the government’s top scientist, he made the famous remark that the threat from climate change was bigger than the threat posed by terrorism.

He said alternatives to fossil fuels were desperately needed to power a civilization that would number some nine billion people by mid-century – nine billion people who would all expect a high standard of living.

“We will have to re-gear our thinking because our entire civilization depends on energy production, and we have been producing that energy very largely through fossil fuels; and we will have to remove our dependence from fossil fuels virtually completely, or we will have to learn how to capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuel usage,” he said.

Finding and exploiting clean energy sources was now imperative, he said; and Sir David questioned whether the spending on particle physics research in the shape of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider was the best route to that goal.

He even doubted whether Cern’s greatest invention was an outcome that could only have come from an institution that pursued so-called “blue skies research”.

“People say to me: ‘well what about the world wide web? That emerged from Cern’. Brilliant. Tim Berners Lee was the person who invented that. What if Tim Berners Lee had been working in a solar [power] laboratory? Perhaps he would have done it there as well. The spin-out would have come from the brilliant individual.”

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