Saturday, October 23, 2010

Five Million Geeks to Earth

A couple of recent space-type things.

First, you may or may not recall that last year a NASA project to slam a missile into the Moon to see what it kicked up was regarded as something of a dud by media and a lot of the public when the plume it produced was not some big dramatic blast like an exploding volcano.

Well, scientists cared more about what the test revealed than what it looked like and they were excited by the fact that the results indicated that there is water on the Moon.

But wait! There's more! In fact, a whole jumpin' lot more. The latest analysis says that
[t]here's more water on the moon than on certain places on Earth.

That's the conclusion of many scientists who have spent the past year analyzing data from NASA's LCROSS spacecraft, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which was intentionally crashed into the south polar region of the moon.

LCROSS's original 2009 mission was to search for traces of water when it hit the perpetually shadowed crater called Cabeus. Not only did it find water, it found tons of it.
In fact, the estimates run as high as a billion gallons in that one crater. How much water is that? To hold it you'd need a cube over 500 feet long on each side. If you wanted to drain that cube in one day, the water would have to flow out at nearly 700,000 gallons a minute, nearly 12,000 gallons a second. In short, the evidence to date indicates that there is more than enough water on the Moon to supply a hypothetical Moon base.

Besides water, there was evidence of a variety of elements and compounds including hydrogen, carbon monoxide, sodium, silver, mercury, magnesium, ammonia, methane, calcium, and gold. Important among those is hydrogen: That hypothetical Moon base might be able to supply its own fuel. Peter Schultz, lead author of one of studies published in the journal Science, called it "a treasure trove."

However, Barack Obama is uninterested in Moon exploration. His reason is, literally and in so many words, "we've been there before." Which is rather like saying that because I've been to London I know everything I need to know and have experienced everything I need to experience about the UK - as well as suggesting that London would not be a good base from which to explore the rest of Europe. For his part, Schultz compared it to no longer going to Antarctica for research. Either way, Obama's argument is just lame and his claim that going to a near-Earth asteroid is a step toward Mars is silly.
Okay, first the closest thing to us, now the farthest from us. And the oldest, which in space is pretty much the same thing.
Hidden in a Hubble Space Telescope photo released earlier this year is a small smudge of light that European astronomers now calculate is a galaxy from 13.1 billion years ago. That's a time when the universe was very young, just shy of 600 million years old. That would make it the earliest and most distant galaxy seen so far. ...

"We're looking at the universe when it was a 20th of its current age," said California Institute of Technology astronomy professor Richard Ellis, who wasn't part of the discovery team. "In human terms, we're looking at a 4-year-old boy in the life span of an adult." ...

The new galaxy doesn't have a name - just a series of letters and numbers. So [Matthew] Lehnert [of the Paris Observatory, lead author of the study published in the science journal Nature,] said he and colleagues have called it "the high red-shift blob. "Because it takes so long for the light to travel such a vast time and distance, astronomers are seeing what the galaxy looked like 13.1 billion years ago at a time when it was quite young - maybe even as young as 100 million years old - Lehnert said. It has very little of the carbon or metal that we see in more mature stars and is full of young, blue massive stars, he said.

What's most interesting to astronomers is that this finding fits with theories about when the first stars and galaxies were born. This galaxy would have formed not too soon after them.

"We're looking almost to the edge, almost within 100 million years of seeing the very first objects," Ellis said. "One hundred million years to a human seems an awful long time, but in astronomical time periods, that's nothing compared to the life of the stars."
Nothing indeed: The predicted life span of our Sun is on the order of 10 billion years. That's 100 times longer than a hundred million years. Some stars are expected to last as long as 10 trillion years. So yeah, 100 million years is not a long time for space.

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