Vol. 1 / No. 38 — Three Launches, One Landing, and Fourth Cousins

Orbcomm OG2 Satellites launched into orbit by SpaceX Falcon 9 Monday, Photo: Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Orbcomm OG2 Satellites launched into orbit by SpaceX Falcon 9 Monday, Photo: Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

A Good Week For Launches

This past week saw a whole lot of things go into space. On Sunday, July 13, Orbital Sciences Corporation launched their Orb-2 resupply mission to the International Space Station atop an Antares rocket. It arrived on Wednesday July 16, where it delivered 1664kg of cargo and experiments. The Cygnus craft will depart in a month’s time with about 1300kg of disposable cargo, and will run some maneuvering tests for a few days in orbit before burning up on re-entry. Check out Spaceflight Now’s post on the capture and docking for some beautiful photos, courtesy of astronauts/cosmonauts Alexander Gerst and Oleg Artemyev, currently aboard the station.

On Monday, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 to orbit carrying six ORBCOMM OG2 satellites into orbit. This is the tenth consecutive successful launch of the Falcon 9 to orbit, and you can check out pictures at SpaceX’s website.

Finally, on Friday July 18, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos launched a retrievable Foton M4 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, atop a three-stage Soyuz 2-1a rocket. The ship is carrying live animals (lizards), seeds, and other experiments, and will remain in orbit for 2 months before returning to Earth. Check out Spaceflight Now’s post on it for more.

And in other launch news, this week the US Federal Aviation Administration signed off on SpaceX’s plan to build a new spaceport in Texas.

45 Years On

And it’s exactly 45 years to the day since humans first set foot on the moon. I wasn’t around then — I wouldn’t be conceived until nearly ten years after Eugene Cernan took the very last human steps on the moon — but thanks to some wonderful folks on the internet, I can try to imagine what it must have been like. Over at Universe Today they’ve compiled a number of ways you can (re)live the launch, and if you’re up at 10:39pm EDT (7:39PDT) you can tune in to NASA TV to watch a live rebroadcast of the opening of the hatch, the exact same time and date of the same event 45 years ago. Lastly, over at Slate, Phil Plait has a nice piece of textual retrospective on the event that’s well worth a read.

Closer Than You Think

The award for the most watered-down (but still interesting) science story making the rounds this week has to go to a new bit of research out of Yale and UC San Diego reporting on the genetic similarities we (on average) bear with our friends. “As related as fourth cousins,” is what the coverage says, but the truth is actually much more interesting. According to the study, certain gene sets seems to be either homophilic or heterophilic — that is, we seem drawn to friendships with people who either have the same sets or very different sets of specific genes. For example, in general, we’re more likely to be friends with people with a similar olfactory gene set (a similar sense of smell, if you will), but more likely to be friends with someone with a very different set of genes for their immune system. These make sense if you think about it — especially the immune system. If we partner up with someone with a different immune system, then they’re more likely to deal with an illness we’d get and not pass it on to us than someone with the same immune system. Check out the article for yourself in PNAS.


No, the black bit isn't flat. Not that you can tell by looking. Photo: Surrey Nanosystems.
No, the black bit isn’t flat. Not that you can tell by looking. Photo: Surrey Nanosystems.

In nanotech news, a company known as Surrey Nanosystems has released a product they’re calling “VANTA” black — Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays — which is being hailed as the “blackest thing ever.” Absorbing an absurd 99.965% of all visible light that hits it, the stuff might as well absorb all of it. It’s so dark that no evidence of its shape can be detected, so, even on a piece of crinkled foil, any crinkles, nooks or crannies become invisible. Aside from being entirely peculiar to look at, it’ll also be incredibly useful for creating dark spaces — the insides of astronomical telescopes and microscopes, for instance, the visual equivalent of an anechoic chamber. For more reactions you can check out articles by the Independent, Gizmodo, and CNet (among others), but it all comes down to one thing: it’s very, very black.

Finding G

On the heels of recent news that the speed of light might not be the speed of light, and that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle might not be so uncertain as we’d thought, comes another story of uncertainty, this time about gravity. A really interesting article published in this month’s Physics Today details the long history of trying to measure the value of Newton’s gravitational constant, G, and how, after decades of trying, we still only have a value down to “three significant figures.” If you’ve got time on this lovely Sunday afternoon, I strongly recommend the read.


Until now, generating electricity from small amounts of waste heat has been a challenge. With larger amounts — for example that given off by nuclear power plants’ cooling towers — it can be applied directly to other jobs, as with nuclear desalination for instance. But for smaller amounts of waste heat — generated by your refrigerator, your car engine, your computer — the process has been more complicated, or at least more expensive. Aiming to change that, a company called Alphabet Energy will start selling a cheap, nontoxic thermoelectric material (a material that can turn heat into electricity) later this year. The material, known as tetrahedrite, has the potential to make recovery of waste heat an everyday part of modern technology. Here’s hoping, because the battery life on my phone is terrible, and it gets pretty hot during some of those marathon 2042 sessions.

Space Duck

In case you missed the universal exclamations of “Hey everybody, this comet looks like a rubber duck!” that reverberated across the internet this week, here’s the story: the NASA probe Rosetta is very close (~6000km) to its target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and it’s taken some pictures that reveal it to be a compound comet. That is to say, it’s two comets stuck together, something known as a contact binary. And yes, sure. If you squint and shake your head it looks a little like a rubber duck. But more interestingly, if they’re different densities, it could make landing, or even orbiting, a much bigger challenge. Check out the article posted over at ESA’s website for a gif of the comet rotating around and some interesting commentary, or the article over at Nature on the potential hazards of the situation. And now you’ll know what people are talking about if they say something about the “duck-shaped” comet.

Negative Mass

In the last story of the week, and one that went under-reported in my opinion, the Physics arXiv Blog is reporting that physicists have looked at the numbers and decided that negative mass is not, strictly speaking, completely ruled out in our current model of the universe. And this is a good thing, at least, if you like the idea of going faster than light. Check out the article, because it’s really something cool, if you can wrap your head around it.

The Best of the Rest

What a full week. Here’s some of the other things that I could’ve talked about but didn’t. Adding to the growing list of companies who’ll take payment in Bitcoin, Dell.com has announced that it will do so as of now; one theory of quantum gravity seems to suggest that black holes are actually about to explode into “white holes” but that time-dilation means “about to” could be billions to trillions of years; the FBI is concerned that self-driving cars will mean there are more hands free to do nefarious things; the National Ignition Facility has compressed diamond (ever so temporarily) to something like the pressure at the core of Jupiter; an experimental solar sail technology is hitching a ride aboard a SpaceX launch scheduled for 2016; scientists have found a way to use a neutered form of the “crazy cat lady” parasite Toxoplasma gondii to fight cancer; and, oh, this wasp is kinda pretty.

That’s it for today. If you have the time and the inclination, here’s a youtube video of a NASA conference from earlier this week, featuring NASA experts talking about the James Webb telescope and the new technologies being used in the search for the signs of extra-terrestrial life. It’s really interesting if you’ve got the time.

Have a great week.