BTS#: NASA artners with SpaceX, Boeing on ISS as probes arrive at Mars

NASA Announces Partnership with Boeing and SpaceX

Every single person who has ever launched into space has done it at the hands of a government agency: NASA, Roscosmos, and most recently, the Chinese National Space Administration. Of late, however, there has been a very noticeable dearth of launches from the United States. As the Shuttle program shut down, there was no new craft for the USA to use, and as a result they have been purchasing flights aboard the Russian Soyuz craft. This is limiting in many ways: it’s expensive, only 3 astronauts/cosmonauts can go at a time, subject to political strain. The United States needs a new launch system to get their astronauts to the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and further. On 16 September 2014, NASA announced how they’re going to do that: by contracting two private American companies to do it for them. The two winners of the $6.8 billion competition were Boeing (with its CTS-100 capsule), and SpaceX (with its Dragon capsule). This decision marks a pivotal turning point in human history. This is the point where private industry became a part of human space flight.

Suggested Reading: NASA Press Release, SpaceX youtube,

MAVEN and MOM arrive at Mars

Mars needs MOM. Two satellites, MAVEN of the University of Colorado, USA, and MOM, of the Indian Space Research Organization, launched in November of 2013 on a 10 month trek to the red planet. They launched so close together, because in order to get to Mars in the most efficient way, engineers must launch when the planets are lining up properly. Waiting for the window, there can be a backlog of missions. As a result, both of the Mars-orbiters-to-be will be inserting into Martian orbit over the next 5 days: MAVEN on 21 September 2014, MOM on 24 September 2014. Both orbiters will be attempting to better understand the atmosphere of Mars. Specifically, MAVEN will be looking at how the Sun’s interaction with the Martian atmosphere leads to loss of volatile chemicals (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas, and water). The MOM orbiter from India is more of a wayfinding mission. This is the first interplanetary mission India has ever attempted, and is meant to be a demonstration of the technology required to successfully insert into Martian orbit. Nevertheless, MOM carries with it atmospheric instruments, and ground imaging cameras.

Suggested Reading: MAVEN homepage, MOM wikipedia, MAVEN launch youtube,

Fat black hole in a little Galaxy

There are two kind of black holes in the Universe: super massive black holes (SMBH, weighing at millions or billions of solar masses) and stellar mass black holes (weighing at 10s to 100s of solar masses). A long held belief by astronomers is that most, if not all, large and well established galaxies would contain a SMBH at their centres. In many cases, we have direct evidence for the existence of SMBHs (see this video of stars orbiting the Milky Way’s SMBH, and this wikipedia list); by extension the assumption is that many major galaxies also house a similar object. Comparing the mass of the SMBH at the centre to the mass of the host galaxy, a relationship has been noticed, wherein the bigger the galaxy the bigger the SMBH. Typically, the mass of the SMBH would be 1% or less the mass of the galaxy (though there are some serious outliers to that relationship). It was unknown if any smaller or dwarf galaxies could harbour such a massive black hole.
A recent study using the Gemini Observatory has looked at the Ultra Compact Dwarf galaxy M60-UCD1. Astronomers suspected there to be an SMBH to be present, given to the unusual X-ray activity at the core. By measuring the speed at which stars at the centre of the dwarf galaxy orbit the centre, they were able to measure the mass of the object they’re orbiting. It weighs in at 21 million times the mass of the Sun, which is 5 times larger than the Milky Way’s SMBH. What makes that surprising is the dwarf galaxy is much smaller than the MW, both in size and mass. The dwarfs SMBH is 18% the mass of the host galaxy. The astronomers suspect it’s large mass compared to it’s host is likely because the dwarf galaxy was much bigger in the past, but has been stripped of most of its matter during an interaction with nearby major galaxy M60.

Suggested Reading: Nature Press Release, Nature Journal ArticleSagittarius A*,

BTS: Canadian Astronaut under the sea and a solar flare hits Earth

ice sculpting

You’d think it’d be frustrating to have to wake up for work every Sunday morning for your part time job, but when the place you work is the Ontario Science Centre, it’s hard to not have fun. Case in pictures:
Upon arriving at work one fine Sunday morning, my colleagues and I happened upon a massive pile of ice. And not just normal ice, but ice whose chunks were as large, or larger, than cinder blocks. It seems a private event at the OSC the night before had decided to discard their large block of ice to melt near a storm drain. Not to let such a icy opportunity go to waste, my co-workers and I set to building.


After playing around a bit, and decided on something to build, we started putting together an Inukshuk.* Here’s me putting the first horizontal piece in.


An almost finished product, just putting some decorative ice chunks in a circle around it.


Some of the ice was really wild to look at.


A fully completed ice inukshuk.


Group shot.


Of course, our actions attracted visitors, and questions about ice, melting, phases of matter, etc. started flying. We decided to set up a simple experiment to see the effects of different chemicals on the speed at which ice melts. In the above picture there are four chunks of ice covered in different chemicals. From the left: sodium chloride (salt), control chunk (nothing), sugar, and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). The salt definitely made the ice melt quicker, but the sugar and baking soda also had a different effect. The control chunk melted the slowest.


* I also made another inukshuk on my trip out to Prince Edward Island this summer, that covered in the local news paper.

BTS: Asteroid to give Earth a close shave on Sunday

The Universe in a Day

The Canadian Astronomical Society/Societe Canadienne D’Astronomie (CASCA) started a shared twitter account, @AstroCanada, in 2013. Each week, a different Canadian astronomer takes the helm, tweeting about their research, interests, and experiences. I have done this two times in the past, once when I was observing at the Bok Telescope, atop Kitt Peak mountain. Again, for the week of 14-20 July 2014, I decided to do some tweeting from the @AstroCanada account, but how to make my mark this time? This is where the Universe in a Day idea comes in.

The Universe in a Day was the brain child of my supervisor, Patrick Hall, and is inspired by an assignment he gives to his first year astronomy students. The idea is to condense the entire history of the Universe into a 24 hour period. Thus, at 00:00:00 the Big Bang occurs, and 23:59:59.99999 is present day. Having been converted into the scale of a day, each event is thus easily tweetable. Beginning at 00:00:00 UTC on 18th July 2014, I tweeted the list of events below at their appropriate times.
The event is listed in the first column, and it’s actual time of occurring (in the units of ‘years ago’) is the second column. I then transferred that to a ‘time elapsed’ in seconds. To determine the scale, I had to determine how many actual years elapse for every 1 second that elapses in our ‘Universe in a Day.’ That calculation is:

    \begin{equation*} \frac{13,718,160,000}{24\times60\times60} = 158,775 \end{equation*}

Thus, in 1 second of our ‘Universe in a Day,’ 158,775 years of actual time go by. With this scaling, it is easy to work out the time of day a given event will happen (of course, you must know the actual time at which the event happened in the Universe’s history).
The events 19-28 all occur within the last minute of the day, and the events 21-28 all occur within the last second! In order to make sure the order came out properly via tweetdeck, I spread these events out over a few minutes. The UTC tag is still in each tweet, they just aren’t coming out at exactly the appropriately scaled time as they should have. But something tells me tweetdeck doesn’t have resolution to 1/100000th of a second.
(NB: events 22, 24, 26 were not tweeted to keep things less busy near the end of the 24 hr period.)

Event Actual Time (yrs ago) Timeline (sec elapsed) Time of Day
01. The Big Bang 13,718,160,000 0 00:00:00
02. CMB light is released 13,717,794,600 00:00:02
03. The first stars form 13,250,000,000 2,948  00:49:09
04. Light from Galaxy at z=8.2 is sent 13,079,232,000 4,024  01:07:04
05. The Milky Way's disk stars form 10,000,000,000 23,417 06:30:18
06. Light from naked eye GRB released 7,516,800,000 39,057 10:50:57
07. Our Solar System forms 4,560,000,000 57,680  16:01:20
08. Polaris forms 4,000,000,000 61,207 17:00:07
09. The first carbon isotope evidence of life on Earth 3,850,000,000 62,151 17:15:52
10. The first fossil microbes 3,500,000,000 64,356 17:52:36
11. The first multicellular organisms arise 2,100,000,000 73,173 20:19:34
12. Light from the Sloan Great Wall released 939,600,000 80,482 22:21:22
13. First complex life arises 542,000,000 82,986 23:03:06
14. First plant/fungi colonize land 454,000,000 83,540 23:12:21
15. Animals first appear on land 400,000,000 83,880 23:18:00
16. Vega forms 400,000,000 83,880 23:18:00
17. Extinction of the Dinosaurs 65,000,000 85,990 23:53:11
18. Light from the Virgo galaxy cluster released 62,640,000 86,005 23:53:25
19. Betelgeuse forms 8,600,000 86,345 23:59:06
20. Light from Andromeda released 2,531,700 86,384 23:59:44
21. Homo Sapiens Sapiens (modern humans) first appear 195,000 86,398.77184 23:59:58.77184
22. Light from the LMC is released 169,650 86,398.93150 23:59:58.93150
23. Human hunter-gatherer societies develop 30,000 86,399.81105 23:59:59.81105
24. Light from the MW centre is released 26,100 86,399.83562 23:59:59.83562
25. The end of the most recent ice age 11,500 86,399.92757 23:59:59.92757
26. Light from Deneb is released 1,300 86,399.99181 23:59:59.99181
27. Canada declares independence 147 86,399.99909 23:59:59.99909
28. Light from \alphaCentauri is released 4.35 86,399.99997 23:59:59.99997

1. The Big Bang: The term ‘The Big Bang Theory‘ was coined by astronomer Fred Hoyle in an attempt to juxtapose the two competing cosmological models of the time (the other being a ‘Steady State’ Universe). Unfortunately, the name stuck and is actually supremely misleading. It would be much more accurate to call it ‘The Everywhere Stretch Theory.’ The most recent data taken with the Planck space telescope indicates the Big Bang occurred 13,796,500,00\pm37,000,000 years ago. See Table 10 of this paper.
2. The CMB: The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is often referred to as ‘left over energy from the Big Bang.’ Effectively this is true, however, it glosses over so much interesting physics. As the Universe expanded, it reached a point where it was cool enough for atoms to form; it was at this point the light we observe in the CMB was sent towards Earth. A funny anecdote: the astronomers that discovered the CMB Radiation, Penzias & Wilson (1965), did it by accident (there’s a hilarious pigeon poop story that goes along with that). The two astronomers couldn’t account for a residual signal they were receiving in their brand spankin’ new telescope at Bell Telephone Laboratories; as a result they called a fellow astronomer Robert Dicke to ask for help. Dicke realized the signal they were receiving was indeed the predicted CMBR, which Dicke had been looking for himself. Famously, Dicke quipped ‘Boys, we’ve been scooped’ to his research team.
3. The first stars: At some point in the early Universe, stars began forming. These first stars, the first to condense out of the gas and plasma beginning to collect gravitationally, are known as Population III stars.


THIS is a work in progress… it will be filled out slowly as I find time to add my research to the post. However, any suggestions of events I missed, please send them my way.