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A sad but cautionary tale February 24, 2009

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NASA‘s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, an Earth-observation satellite designed to measure in detail the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and study sinks and sources of the gas, crashed into the Antarctic following a failed launch attempt this morning. This is a blow to NASA and climate scientists worldwide, who were looking forward to the data from OCO to help understand how natural and human processes affect climate change processes. NASA blogged the launch live, and the minimal text I’m sure belies the anxiety the scientists and engineers must have been feeling. The cause of the crash was the failure of the payload protective cover to separate from the satellite. The satellite couldn’t reach its orbit and fell back down to Earth.

OCO’s loss is a stark reminder that launching stuff into space is still a pretty risky undertaking, With several high-profile astronomy launches coming up in the next 2 months (Kepler, Herschel and Planck), astronomers will be anxious for the safety of our own spacecraft. Fingers crossed!

How green is your telescope? January 23, 2009

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A promiment scientist at the University of Texas in Austin has pulled out of a major telescope project, SOFIA, because of his concerns about the environmental impact of the mission.  Prof. John Lacy felt he couldn’t support a project that excessivly harms the environment. SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a 2.5 m telescope that will fly high above the Earth’s surface on board a modified Boeing 747SP plane. Due for first (f)light in 2010, SOFIA will be able to detect radiation from mid-infrared to submillimetre wavelengths. Light at these energies is abosorbed by water molecules in the atmosphere, and by flying the telescope on a plane above much of the absorbing gas scientists can avoid those losses without having to launch a satellite into space, which is costly and difficult to upgrade or fix. The SOFIA plane is expected to fly four times a week, for up to 12 hours a time – so it’s easy to understand Lacy’s concerns.

The Texas media found out about Lacy’s withdrawal from the US-German project and ran a story about it – read it here.

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Science kudos for Obama December 21, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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US President-elect Barack Obama has been appointing some excellent people to advise him on all things scientific during his presidency. His latest appointment, John Holdren, to the post of director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has been met with particular joy from the scientific community, as Holdren is a physicist and leading expert on climate change. Hurrah!

Read more in The Guardian here, or the New York Times here. Phil Plait has some opinions on Obama’s appointments and the future of NASA under his administration.

UPDATE: Obama’s weekly address on YouTube of 20 December was actually about his science policy and appointments, watch it below. Sounds good!