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Quantumaniac is where it’s at - and by ‘it’ I mean awesome.

Over here I post a ton of physics / math / general interesting posts in an attempt to make your brain feel good. My aim is to be as informative as possible, all while posting fascinating things that hopefully enlighten us both a little to the mysteries of our truly wondrous universe(s?). Plus, how would you know if the blog exists or not unless you observe it? Boom, just pulled the Schrödinger’s cat card. Now you have to check it out - trust me, it said so in an equation somewhere.

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Mickey Mouse Crater on Mercury

NASA’s messenger spacecraft, in order around the planet Mercury, has found this giant crater (about 105 km wide) topped with two smaller impact basins that come together to form the recognizable Mickey Mouse shape. Messenger (short for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) mission scientists said: 

The shadowing helps define the striking ‘Mickey Mouse’ resemblance, created by the accumulation of craters over Mercury’s long geologic history.

This view of Mickey is a good example of pareidolia (another being the famous ‘face on Mars’), a phenomenon in which the human brain recognizes familiar shapes and characterizations in random images. 

Image Source: Flickr

Stickney Crater - Phobos

Stickney Crater, the largest crater on the martian moon Phobos, is named for Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall, mathematician and wife of astronomer Asaph Hall. Asaph Hall discovered both the Red Planet’s moons in 1877. Over 9 kilometers across, Stickney is nearly half the diameter of Phobos itself, so large that the impact that blasted out the crater likely came close to shattering the tiny moon. This stunning, enhanced-color image of Stickney and surroundings was recorded by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as it passed within some six thousand kilometers of Phobos in March of 2008. Even though the surface gravity of asteroid-like Phobos is less than 1/1000th Earth’s gravity, streaks suggest loose material slid down inside the crater walls over time. Light bluish regions near the crater’s rim could indicate a relatively freshly exposed surface. The origin of the curious grooves along the surface is mysterious but may be related to the crater-forming impact.

Source

Curiosity Rover Prepares to Drill Into Rocks That May Have Once Been Wet

NASA’s Curiosity rover has explored a new area on Mars called Yellowknife Bay, which shows plenty of evidence of flowing water. The rover is preparing to drill into a rock nicknamed “John Klein” in the location in the next couple weeks, investigating its composition and searching for organics. This will be the first time that engineers have drilled into the surface of another planet.

Scientists already know that Curiosity’s explorations have taken it to a place that was basically an ancient riverbed. Now they are uncovering the complex geologic history of the area and have stumbled across many interesting features.

“The scientists have been let into the candy store,” said engineer Richard Cook, project manager for Curiosity, during a NASA teleconference on Jan. 15.

For the last few weeks, the rover has been moving from the plateau it landed on down a slope into a depression. As it descended, it passed through layers of rock that are increasingly older, taking it backwards into the planet’s history. Geologists are finding a lot of different rock types, indicating that many different geologic processes took place here over time.

Some of the minerals are sedimentary, suggesting that flowing water moved small grains around and deposited them, and other evidence suggests water moved through the rocks after they had formed. Tiny spherical concretions scattered through the rock were likely formed when water percolated through rock pores and minerals precipitated out. Other samples are cracked and filled with veins of material such as calcium sulfate, that were also formed when water percolated through the cracks and deposited the mineral.

“Basically these rocks were saturated with water,” said geologist John Grotzinger of Caltech, Curiosity’s project scientist, who added that these rocks indicate the most complex history of water that researchers have yet seen on Mars.

Curiosity brushed some of these rocks to remove their dust covering and then peered at them close-up with its high-resolution Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera. The rocks are sandstones containing larger grains up to 2 mm long surrounded by silt grains that are “finer than powdered sugar but coarser than sugar used to make icing,” said geologist R. Aileen Yingst of the Planetary Science Institute, a scientist on the MAHLI team.

Many of the grains are rounded, suggesting they were knocked about and worn down somehow. Because the grains are too large to have been carried by wind, they were most likely transported by water flowing at least 1 meter per second (2.2 mph). All these investigations suggest if you could go deep into Mars’ past and stand at the same spot as the rover, you’d probably see a river of flowing water with small underwater dunes along the riverbed.

The next step for Curiosity is to drill 5 centimeter holes into some of these rocks and veins to definitively determine their composition. Grotzinger said that the team will search for aqueous minerals, isotope ratios that could indicate the composition of Mars’ atmosphere in the past, and possibly organic material.

The drilling will probably take place within two weeks, though NASA engineers are still unsure of the exact date. The procedure will be “the most significant engineering thing we’ve done since landing,” said Cook, and will require several trial runs, equipment warm-ups, and drilling a couple test holes to make sure everything works. The team wants to take things as slowly as possible to correct for any problems that may arise, such as potential electrical shorts and excessive shaking of the rover.

Tracking Mars: Curiosity Makes Its Mark on the Red Planet

Since Curiosity landed on mars on Aug. 6, the rover has traveled hundreds of feet over the Martian surface. In the process, it has tracked up the sandy, dusty terrain, leaving tire marks, scoop divots, Morse code and one tiny piece of itself behind.

Unlike the Apollo astronauts’ footprints on the moon, Curiosity’s trails will probably be wiped away by the planet’s frequent wind and sand storms. But there is still something so incredible about these little ephemeral marks we are making on another world.

Though the physical traces won’t last, their impact lives on in the images the rover is sending back to Earth. Here are some of our favorite shots of Curiosity’s tracks on Mars.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

New NASA Mars Mission Scheduled for 2016
Hot on the heels of Curiosity’s successful landing, NASA has decided to send another mission to Mars. The project, called InSight, involves drilling 16 feet into the crust of Mars. The mission, set to launch in 2016, will provide detailed information about the planet’s core, in particular determining whether it is liquid or solid.
“This is the first time we’re looking at the interior of Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator in the science mission directorate, during a press conference on Aug. 20. “There are many science questions we’re dying to learn the answer to.”
Though NASA currently has several probes on Mars — including the remaining MER rover, Opportunity, the new and popular Curiosity rover, and the high-flying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odysseyspacecrafts — future Mars exploration has been looking pretty sparse. Other than the MAVEN orbiter, set to launch next year, NASA had no further Mars missions on its plate. The U.S. agency had formerly partnered with ESA to send probes to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, but those plans were terminated when NASA’s last budget made deep cuts to planetary science. The new InSight mission puts Mars back on NASA’s radar.
Unlike Curiosity and its complex sky-crane maneuver, InSight will use Phoenix lander-type technology to reach the Martian surface. It will carry a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras as well as instruments to measure Martian seismic activity and the planet’s rotation axis. A small drill-like instrument will vibrate to wiggle down into the soil and penetrate a few feet into the crust to make temperature measurements.
Though a rocky planet like Earth, Mars is much smaller than our home world and has evolved quite differently. Unlike Earth, the Red Planet has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field. It remains an open question whether Marsquakes shake its surface and how much.
InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery-class program, which aims to produce top notch science on the cheap. The mission is capped at $425 million, a steal compared to the recent flagship $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Insight was competing for selection as the next Discovery mission against two others, the Comet Hopper, which would have explored the body of a comet, and the Titan Mare Explorer, which planned to land a small boat-like probe on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Image: JPL/NASA

New NASA Mars Mission Scheduled for 2016

Hot on the heels of Curiosity’s successful landing, NASA has decided to send another mission to Mars. The project, called InSight, involves drilling 16 feet into the crust of Mars. The mission, set to launch in 2016, will provide detailed information about the planet’s core, in particular determining whether it is liquid or solid.

“This is the first time we’re looking at the interior of Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator in the science mission directorate, during a press conference on Aug. 20. “There are many science questions we’re dying to learn the answer to.”

Though NASA currently has several probes on Mars — including the remaining MER rover, Opportunity, the new and popular Curiosity rover, and the high-flying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odysseyspacecrafts — future Mars exploration has been looking pretty sparse. Other than the MAVEN orbiter, set to launch next year, NASA had no further Mars missions on its plate. The U.S. agency had formerly partnered with ESA to send probes to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018, but those plans were terminated when NASA’s last budget made deep cuts to planetary science. The new InSight mission puts Mars back on NASA’s radar.

Unlike Curiosity and its complex sky-crane maneuver, InSight will use Phoenix lander-type technology to reach the Martian surface. It will carry a robotic arm and two black-and-white cameras as well as instruments to measure Martian seismic activity and the planet’s rotation axis. A small drill-like instrument will vibrate to wiggle down into the soil and penetrate a few feet into the crust to make temperature measurements.

Though a rocky planet like Earth, Mars is much smaller than our home world and has evolved quite differently. Unlike Earth, the Red Planet has no crustal plates and no global magnetic field. It remains an open question whether Marsquakes shake its surface and how much.

InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery-class program, which aims to produce top notch science on the cheap. The mission is capped at $425 million, a steal compared to the recent flagship $2.5-billion Curiosity rover. Insight was competing for selection as the next Discovery mission against two others, the Comet Hopper, which would have explored the body of a comet, and the Titan Mare Explorer, which planned to land a small boat-like probe on a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Image: JPL/NASA

We Have Been Interplanetary Travelers for Half a Century

Yesterday, August 27th, 2012, was, in a sense, the 50th anniversary of interplanetary travel. Fifty years ago yesterday, Mariner 2 launched toward Venus, and became the first object to leave Earth and travel to another world. By means of robot avatars, humans have been interplanetary travelers for half a century. For me, this anniversary is a big deal, insofar as round-number anniversaries mean anything, but I’ve hardly seen a mention of it except for a few Tweets.

There were places where I could have noted this date and planned ahead for it, but, for whatever reason, I didn’t notice. There are lots of anniversaries being noted and celebrated these days, the most celebrated one this year being the 50th anniversary in February of John Glenn’s circling the Earth in Friendship 7.

Mariner 2 was not a sexy mission, so it’s not surprising it’s relatively obscure. It didn’t carry a camera. Its science experiments were, by modern standards, pretty rudimentary, but there was an impressive number of them. It had a cosmic ray detector and a cosmic dust detector. It had a solar plasma spectrometer, a microwave radiometer, and an infrared radiometer. But by visiting Venus, it learned a number of basic facts about the planet about which we’d been ignorant until the encounter. According to the National Space Science Data Center:

Scientific discoveries made by Mariner 2 included a slow retrograde rotation rate for Venus, hot surface temperatures and high surface pressures, a predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere, continuous cloud cover with a top altitude of about 60 km, and no detectable magnetic field. It was also shown that in interplanetary space the solar wind streams continuously and the cosmic dust density is much lower than the near-Earth region. Improved estimates of Venus’ mass and the value of the astronomical unit were made.

All of the facts in that paragraph are pretty much all the basic facts that you’ll learn about Venus in anything other than a college-level textbook. For me — someone who’s never known a time when there weren’t interplanetary spacecraft — I am struck by how ignorant we were about our nearest neighbors in the universe, before we began visiting them with robots, fifty years ago today.

Before Mariner 2, everything in the universe was an astronomical object. After Mariner 2, we had turned one of those points of shimmering light into a world — a world with atmosphere, climate, and weather, like ours. Yet it was also a world whose most basic physical properties — like how fast it rotates — were utterly alien to our own. When Mariner 2 visited Venus, not only did we learn about our neighbor planet, but the possibilities of things we could imagine finding at other planets became both more specific and more varied.

We still have not managed to send humans to any of these worlds beyond the Moon.  The death of Neil Armstrong last weekend is poignant, because although he didn’t talk about it very much, Armstrong clearly hated the idea that he and his fellow Apollo astronauts would be not just the first but also the last astronauts to visit the Moon. As much of a fan as I am of robotic exploration, I am not going to argue that robotic exploration replaces or competes with the desire that many of you share with Armstrong, to see humanity become a spacefaring species.

But robots can — and do, every day, these days — go to places that no human now living could ever hope to go. Into the acid-washed inferno of Venus’ hellish atmosphere. Flying among the glittering icy moons and rings of Saturn. And they’ve been doing that for fifty years, serving as our eyes, ears, and organs of other senses that humans don’t even have.

On New Years Day 1963, a model of JPL’s Mariner 2 spacecraft above a floral “Venus” moved down Colorado Boulevard in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. JPL Director William Pickering, Grand Marshal of the parade, rode just ahead of the float, which was built and funded by JPL volunteers.

(Source: planetary.org)

A Poem.

An entire planet,

billions of people,

billions of hearts.

-

An entire planet,

in an unnavigable sea of galaxies,

each brimming with stars.

-

An entire planet,

housed in a vast sea of black,

riddled with those galaxies,

and those stars,

and those planets,

and these hearts.

-

And even amongst all of this,

I was fortunate enough

to meet you.

(Source: twitter.com)

RIP Neil Armstrong - First Man on the Moon

Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who became first to walk on the moon as commander of Apollo 11, has died. He was 82 years old.

He was born in the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, on Aug. 5, 1930.

On July 20, 1969, half a billion people — a sixth of the world’s population at the time — watched a ghostly black-and-white television image as Armstrong backed down the ladder of the lunar landing ship Eagle, planted his left foot on the moon’s surface, and said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Twenty minutes later his crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, joined him, and the world watched as the men spent the next two hours bounding around in the moon’s light gravity, taking rock samples, setting up experiments, and taking now-iconic photographs.

"Isn’t this fun?" Armstrong said over his radio link to Aldrin. The third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael L. Collins, orbited 60 miles overhead in the mission’s command ship, Columbia. President Richard Nixon called their eight-day trip to the moon "the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation."

Milky Way Now Has a Twin (or Two)

Research presented Aug. 23, 2012 at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Beijing has found the first group of galaxies that is just like ours, a rare sight in the local Universe.
The Milky Way is a fairly typical galaxy on its own, but when paired with its close neighbours — the Magellanic Clouds — it is very rare, and could have been one of a kind, until a survey of our local Universe found another two examples just like us.
Astronomer Dr Aaron Robotham, jointly from the University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and the University of St Andrews in Scotland, searched for groups of galaxies similar to ours in the most detailed map of the local Universe yet, the Galaxy and Mass Assembly survey (GAMA).
"We’ve never found another galaxy system like the Milky Way before, which is not surprising considering how hard they are to spot! It’s only recently become possible to do the type of analysis that lets us find similar groups," says Dr Robotham.
"Everything had to come together at once: we needed telescopes good enough to detect not just galaxies but their faint companions, we needed to look at large sections of the sky, and most of all we needed to make sure no galaxies were missed in the survey"
Sophisticated simulations of how galaxies form don’t produce many examples similar to the Milky Way and its surrounds, predicting them to be quite a rare occurrence. Astronomers haven’t been able to tell just how rare until now, with the discovery of not just one but two exact matches amongst the hundreds of thousands of galaxies surveyed.
"We found about 3% of galaxies similar to the Milky Way have companion galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds, which is very rare indeed. In total we found 14 galaxy systems that are similar to ours, with two of those being an almost exact match," says Dr Robotham.
The Milky Way is locked in a complex cosmic dance with its close companions the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are clearly visible in the southern hemisphere night sky. Many galaxies have smaller galaxies in orbit around them, but few have two that are as large as the Magellanic Clouds.
Dr Robotham’s work also found that although companions like the Magellanic Clouds are rare, when they are found they’re usually near a galaxy very like the Milky Way, meaning we’re in just the right place at the right time to have such a great view in our night sky.
"The galaxy we live in is perfectly typical, but the nearby Magellenic Clouds are a rare, and possibly short-lived, occurrence. We should enjoy them whilst we can, they’ll only be around for a few billion more years," adds Dr Robotham. Dr Robotham and colleagues have been awarded further time on telescopes in New South Wales and Chile to study these Milky Way twin systems now that they’ve been found.
The Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey is an international collaboration led from ICRAR and the Australian Astronomical Observatory to map our local Universe in closer detail. ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia providing research excellence in the field of radio astronomy.

Milky Way Now Has a Twin (or Two)

Research presented Aug. 23, 2012 at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Beijing has found the first group of galaxies that is just like ours, a rare sight in the local Universe.

The Milky Way is a fairly typical galaxy on its own, but when paired with its close neighbours — the Magellanic Clouds — it is very rare, and could have been one of a kind, until a survey of our local Universe found another two examples just like us.

Astronomer Dr Aaron Robotham, jointly from the University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and the University of St Andrews in Scotland, searched for groups of galaxies similar to ours in the most detailed map of the local Universe yet, the Galaxy and Mass Assembly survey (GAMA).

"We’ve never found another galaxy system like the Milky Way before, which is not surprising considering how hard they are to spot! It’s only recently become possible to do the type of analysis that lets us find similar groups," says Dr Robotham.

"Everything had to come together at once: we needed telescopes good enough to detect not just galaxies but their faint companions, we needed to look at large sections of the sky, and most of all we needed to make sure no galaxies were missed in the survey"

Sophisticated simulations of how galaxies form don’t produce many examples similar to the Milky Way and its surrounds, predicting them to be quite a rare occurrence. Astronomers haven’t been able to tell just how rare until now, with the discovery of not just one but two exact matches amongst the hundreds of thousands of galaxies surveyed.

"We found about 3% of galaxies similar to the Milky Way have companion galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds, which is very rare indeed. In total we found 14 galaxy systems that are similar to ours, with two of those being an almost exact match," says Dr Robotham.

The Milky Way is locked in a complex cosmic dance with its close companions the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are clearly visible in the southern hemisphere night sky. Many galaxies have smaller galaxies in orbit around them, but few have two that are as large as the Magellanic Clouds.

Dr Robotham’s work also found that although companions like the Magellanic Clouds are rare, when they are found they’re usually near a galaxy very like the Milky Way, meaning we’re in just the right place at the right time to have such a great view in our night sky.

"The galaxy we live in is perfectly typical, but the nearby Magellenic Clouds are a rare, and possibly short-lived, occurrence. We should enjoy them whilst we can, they’ll only be around for a few billion more years," adds Dr Robotham. Dr Robotham and colleagues have been awarded further time on telescopes in New South Wales and Chile to study these Milky Way twin systems now that they’ve been found.

The Galaxy and Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey is an international collaboration led from ICRAR and the Australian Astronomical Observatory to map our local Universe in closer detail. ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia providing research excellence in the field of radio astronomy.

Photos of Curiosity on Mars and the Environment

These photos taken from space shows of Curiosity’s landing site and the stunning environment that the rover may explore over the coming year on Mars.

Ever since Curiosity landed last week, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been snapping pics ofthe rover from space. This latest shot, taken using the satellite’s HiRISE camera, is the first to capture Curiosity and the surrounding environs in vivid (false) color.

The northernmost part of the image, representing the area nearest to Curiosity, is fairly flat and uniform. The rover itself can be seen sitting in a discolored spot, surrounded by dust that was blasted when the sky crane’s rockets brought Curiosity down for a safe landing.

Farther south are enormous sand dunes and various geologic features that the rover may visit as it travels to the base of its eventual target: Mount Sharp. These colorful outcrops include hydrated minerals, clays, and sulfates that will help scientists unravel the complex watery history of Mars. Curiosity may be sitting atop similarly interesting features right now but dust obscures their view from orbit. With the rover on the Martian surface, geologists are eager to start probing that environment.

A person in orbit around Mars would not see this area in these colors — in reality the bluish regions are more of a gray color. HiRISE took the photo in infrared wavelengths, and the image was then enhanced to bring out subtle differences. Rocks tend to be bluer while dusty regions are redder. As well, rougher surface materials are redder, showing off the different textures that Curiosity may visit.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona [Full-resolution 1500 x 13400 pixels]