Across the Universe: Distant new world may point to undiscovered planets in solar system

26 March, 2014

I have a new posting on my Guardian blog:

 

"Today’s discovery of dwarf planet 2012 VP113 suggests that many planet-sized worlds lurk undetected beyond the orbit of Pluto, maybe even a giant ‘Super Earth’

 

We learned today that our solar system is larger than we had previously known. A newly discovered, extremely distant dwarf planet with the tentative name of 2012 VP113 was announced. It appears as nothing more than a dot on images but we know a few things about it.

 

For a start, it is approximately 450km across, which is pretty small by planetary standards and means that it is almost certainly an irregular lump of rock and ice rather than a spherical "world".

 

We know also that it never comes closer than 80 times the distance of the Earth to the sun. And it’s pink. Honestly, it is. ..."

 

You can read the full story here.

 

The most amazing thing about this story is that almost a decade ago, I wrote about the theoretical possibility of these worlds for New Scientist. You can read that story here.


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Across the Universe: Searching for life on Mars: where should the ExoMars rover land?

26 March, 2014

I have a new post on my Guardian blog. This one is not written by me but was kindly offered by planetary scientist, Peter Grindrod, to whom I am very grateful.

 

"On Wednesday, the European Space Agency starts considering potential landing sites on Mars for its 2018 ExoMars mission. Dr Peter Grindrod at Birkbeck, University of London, is one of the experts tasked with this job. He kindly contributed this guest blog

 

If you had to pick just one place to find life on Mars, where would you go?

 

In the 1970s, John Guest worked on the Nasa Viking mission to Mars. Twin orbiters, twin landers – nobody builds missions like that these days. As a geologist, John helped to decide where one of the landers would touch down.

 

John told me how he and his friend Ron Greeley only had a couple of days’ worth of images from the orbiters, at a frighteningly low-resolution by today’s standards. They had to choose a landing site that wouldn’t leave the landers in pieces and would still be scientifically interesting. I thought that the pressure and responsibility of that decision must have been massive. John seemed nonplussed by my concern.

 

I remembered this story because the European Space Agency has recently asked the same question.

 

But this is no longer the Mars that John and Ron knew with Viking. We no longer have to rely on just a handful of low-resolution images and a rushed decision. Instead we have hundreds of terabytes of data at our fingertips to call upon in the search. ..."

 

You can read the full post here.


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New Scientist: Big bang breakthrough: Who is the father of inflation?

25 March, 2014

I have a new story published by New Scientist today. For me, it was a particular thrill to swap detailed emails with physicist Alexei Starobinsky, who predicted the gravitational waves way back in 1979. His extraordinary theoretical insight has been vindicated by this new discovery. I so wanted to call this article 'Who's the daddy?'

 

"The first clear glimpse of ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves, is being widely hailed as validation for inflation, the notion that the baby universe ballooned in size mind-bendingly fast just after the big bang. Reported last week, the discovery may earn some scientists a Nobel prize if confirmed by further experiments. But who are the founders of inflation?

 

Like the Higgs boson, which was hypothesised in various forms by several groups around the same time, it turns out that inflation has many fathers. That's partly because it draws on many disparate ideas in physics and cosmology. ..."

 

You can read the full story here.


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ESA: Choosing the ExoMars 2018 Landing Site

25 March, 2014

I have a new article published on the ESA website:

 

"The surface area of Mars is approximately 145 million square kilometres, almost the same area as the Earth's land masses. Imagine having to choose just one spot to land on and call home. Selecting the right place could mean the difference between achieving your scientific goals and failure. That's one of the tasks facing ESA and Roscosmos with their 2018 ExoMars mission.

 

Fortunately, planetary scientists have now spent decades studying Mars. They have used an array of increasingly sophisticated orbiters and rovers, and accumulated a vast library of images and information. Sifting through these data will help them guide the mission to a scientifically interesting place on the planet. ..."

 

You can read the full article here.


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The Guardian: Gravitational waves give Nobel prize committee another headache

21 March, 2014

I have a new article published by The Guardian:

 

"At least half a dozen scientists are in the frame for a Nobel if the discovery of primordial gravitational waves is confirmed – but only three can get it

 

If confirmed, the detection by physicists of primordial gravitational waves created in the first moments after the big bang, reported on Monday, will go down in the annals of science as a fundamental breakthrough in our understanding of how the universe began.

 

A team of American astronomers announced that they had detected the tell-tale signature of "cosmic inflation" using an experiment called Bicep2 – a telescope located under the clear skies of the south pole.

 

For more than 45 years, inflation has been just a theorist's dream. It is a hypothetical idea used to explain certain characteristics of the universe, in particular why space appears to have more or less the same density of matter everywhere.

 

The theory postulates that the universe underwent rapid expansion early in its history, doubling its size more than 60 times in the space of less than a second. It is akin to unfolding a crumpled piece of paper. All the wrinkles and defects are smoothed out into a more or less featureless continuum.

 

If Monday's result proves to be correct then the Nobel committee will almost certainly start reaching for its gongs. So who is in the frame? ..."

 

You can read the full article here.


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ESA: The Experiment that came in from the Cold

21 March, 2014

I have a new article published by ESA:

 

"A lost student experiment has been found in the arctic circle by Swedish reindeer hunters. The return of Suaineadh, which tested a deployable structure in space, means that thousands of images and reams of data thought lost can now be analysed to show the experiment’s performance. ..."

 

You can read the full article here.


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Tags: Satellite
 

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