Rocket landings for Russian capsules

Soyuz TMA-1 launcher in Baikonur
Soyuz TMA-1 launcher in Baikonur

Russian engineers are considering using a rocket-powered landing system for the their next-generation manned spacecraft that could replace the Soyuz capsule. One would think that a purely rocket-based system would be much more expensive than the parachutes that Soyuz currently uses, but Russia has a political reason for it. Russia's spaceport is in another country, Kazakhstan, so they would really like to move it to within its own borders. However, there is not much land area where a spacecraft could touch down around the new spaceport, so they would need a landing system much more precise than that of uncontrolled parachutes.

This brings to mind the fact that Russia has to depend on a foreign country, Kazakhstan, for its manned space program. This adds more complexity to the United States' manned space program once the Space Shuttle is retired: not only would the United States have to maintain good relations with Russia to maintain its manned space program, but it also needs to hope that Russia is on good enough terms with Kazakhstan.

Not that having all the infrastructure for a manned space program in one's own country would necessarily help. Russia and Kazakhstan were once part of one country, after all. It could get complicated for NASA if Texas really were to secede from the union and took the mission control center with it ...

"Harmless" carbon dioxide

Cattle killed by carbon dioxide
Cattle killed by carbon dioxide

That crazy United States congresswoman from Minnesota, Michele Bachman, has yet again made a fool of herself, this time raving about how harmless carbon dioxide is, completely missing the point about the effect of carbon dioxide concentrations on global warming. I normally would not talk about anything she does (I'm still not sure if she really is as unbelievably stupid and delusional as she appears to be or whether she's a firm believer that bad publicity is better than no publicity), but her ravings about carbon dioxide being harmless leaves me wanting to ask her a question:

Does she think that the 1,700 people who died in a natural burp of carbon dioxide from a natural reservoir of the gas would consider carbon dioxide harmless?

Torture may not have been stupid

I had thought that it was the height of stupidity that the Bush administration sanctioned torture techniques known to be used to extract false confessions and not so much reliable intelligence (as in, totally unreliable). But now there are indications that it may not have been stupid at all: it may have been much worse than that. It's beginning to sound like false confessions were exactly what they wanted.

With the release of the Senate Armed Services Committee report reviewing torture under the Bush administration, the possibility is raised that the torture was motivated by the Bush administration's desire to link Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein even if it was through false confessions. It's bad enough that torture was considered acceptable, but it is just evil that torture may have been used to support a political agenda. Then again, it would fit right in with the attitude of the Bush administration, which had consistently acted as if wishful thinking is a substitute for reality.

Supermassive black holes from dark gulping

I had thought that dark matter should be responsible for only a very small portion of the mass of supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies, for the same reason that dark matter is distributed much more evenly than ordinary matter. But it turns out I could be very wrong about this.

A young but heavy galaxy
A young but heavy galaxy in the background

Researchers from the University College London modeled the gravitational interactions between dark matter halos and gas embedded in the dark matter. They found out that depending on the thermal properties of dark matter, a small disturbance could cause a rapid gravitational collapse of dark matter into a black hole. Appropriately enough, this rapid collapse of dark matter is called "dark gulping".

Dark matter being what it is, there would hardly be any electromagnetic radiation from the collapse. This would avoid the blasting away of matter by a normal accretion disk which slows down the growth of a black hole, not that dark matter would be affected by radiation in the first place. It would also explain how supermassive black holes could have existed when the universe was less than a billion years old.

If it turns out that dark gulping is indeed responsible for the formation of supermassive black holes, it could provide an interesting look into the properties of dark matter. Because dark gulping is determined by the thermal properties of dark matter, which depends on the degrees of freedom of each dark matter particle, i.e. the number of ways that a dark matter particle could move, rotate, etc., this could give hints to the microscopic interactions of dark matter or even the number of extra dimensions our universe could have.

Hubble's 19th anniversary

To celebrate the 19th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope this week, a stunning picture of two galaxies merging has been released. The merging galaxies are in the upper parts of the image, and they have an impressive trail of blue star-forming regions. Remarkably, the galaxy in the bottom of the picture is not merging with any of the galaxies in the upper part of the picture: it just happens to be in the background. This would have been hard to tell without the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope, which reveals dust clouds around the trail that obscures the galaxy in the background.

Arp 194 and its cosmic fountain
Arp 194 and its cosmic fountain