Listening for the Phoenix

Phoenix Lander Amid Disappearing Spring Ice

The Mars Odyssey orbiter will be listening for radio signals from the Mars Phoenix Lander. Having ceased communications near the end of 2008 with the onset of the Martian winter, the Phoenix lander is extremely unlikely to have survived, but if it somehow manages to come back to life with the start of the Martian spring, it will be sending out signals that Odyssey should be able to pick up. The Phoenix lander was not designed to survive the Martian winter, so it would be extremely impressive if Odyssey picks up signals from the lander: it really would be like a phoenix in more ways than one (the other way being a resurrection of a cancelled Martian lander project).

There most likely won't be any signals from the Phoenix lander, though, but this is still an opportunity to remember the impressive achievements it made.

Kepler discovers planets


The Kepler spacecraft will observe the same patch of sky for years in an effort to discover planets by the slight dimming as they pass in front of their parent stars. Having been launched in March last year, it confirmed its ability to detect planets by detecting a known planet a few months later.

Now it has been announced that Kepler has discovered five new planets. They are all large planets, one about the size of Neptune and the others larger than Jupiter, that orbit very close to their parent stars with orbital periods of only a few days and are extremely hot, with surface temperatures ranging from 1200 to 1600 degrees Celsius. Since they orbit around their parent stars so quickly, Kepler was able to observe the dimming of the light from the stars enough times that it can be confirmed that they are indeed planets. Discovering planets that are more like our own Earth, with much longer orbital periods that last months or years, is going to take many more years of observations.

There also seems to be an odd rumor about the observation of planet-like objects being hotter than their parent stars. If they were planets, then this shouldn't be possible. Another possibility is that they are white dwarfs, except they appear to be too big to be white dwarfs, either. If this rumor happens to be true and not some sort of miscommunication, then it looks like we are going to learn something very surprising about white dwarfs or discover an entirely new type of cosmic object out there.

Predictions for 2010

Despite the fact that I am not psychic, I have this irresistible urge to make predictions for this year:

  1. There will be a terrorist act somewhere in the world. (Just as in every year during the last decade.)
  2. A famous person will die. (Just as in every year since forever.)
  3. A U.S. politician will be implicated in a sex scandal, who will resign unless he is a Republican.
  4. The Catholic Church will have to lose even more money over a legal settlement.
  5. Someone will think they see Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or other holy figures.
  6. An artificial black hole will not destroy the Earth, nor will we be turned into strange matter.
  7. Dark energy will mostly remain a mystery, dark matter less so.
  8. There will be less ice in the Arctic, Antarctica, and many other glaciers around the world.
  9. The hit rate of these predictions will be higher than those for most self-proclaimed psychics.
  10. I will still be blogging by the end of the year.

Like all predictions that have a nice chance of becoming true, they're pretty vague, and the chances are probably higher because they're based on extrapolation rather than a funny feeling in my head.

Testing the escape

I just saw a video where the Attitude Control Motor for the Orion Crew Vehicle Launch Abort System was tested, and I was pretty impressed with how the exhaust of the rocket was controlled. On the other hand, since it's part of the escape system when something goes drastically wrong with a launch, I find myself hoping that it never actually needs to be used ...

Global map of Mercury

It is still more than a year before the MESSENGER spacecraft goes into orbit around Mercury. But along with images taken by Mariner 10 more than thirty years ago that observed less than half of Mercury's surface, images taken during the three flybys of MESSENGER were enough for nearly complete spacecraft images of the planet's surface. For the first time, we have a nearly complete global map of the surface of Mercury taken in visible light. That would be cool enough: the map is also going to be useful when MESSENGER goes into orbit around Mercury, which is when it can really start studying the planet.

Global map of Mercury

By the way, I can't help but be drawn by the dark band that seems to span the whole planet in the north-south direction. Anyone know what it is?