A topic about outer-space and everything in it, from little green men to big spirally galaxies

The Curiosity Rover on Mars May Have Just Taken the Best Selfie Ever

Curiosity Rover's Selfie on Mars

Sure, you may have some cool selfies, but do you have one of you on another planet?! Here's the latest self-portrait from the Mars Curiosity Rover (click for larger version), just to help us all remember the mind-blowing fact that we have a robot driving around on the surface of another planet...

If you're wondering how the rover can take a selfie without any visible 'arm' in the shot, it's actually stitched together out of 75 separate images. For more information on this, see this 2013 post from Emily Lakdawalla where she explained a previous selfie taken by Curiosity.

(Image reprocessed by @Doug_Ellison)

Update: There's another very cool wide-angle Curiosity selfie!


The XXX-Files: Is Area 69, A Brothel Near Area 51, Spying on Government Secrets?

Captain Kirk Does His Thing

Not far up the road from the top secret military base Area 51 (aka 'Groom Lake', 'Dreamland' etc) lies Area 69 - another location with secrets, though of a different kind: it's a brothel. Said to cater to the sci-fi enthusiast, incorporating sex into an array of role-playing settings from famous sci-fi films and TV shows, the house of alien repute is now suspected by some to be targeting other clients - namely, workers from Area 51, in order to pump them (no pun intended) for secret information:

“Because of its close proximity and location, the brothel, gas station and convenience store will see a lot of truck and vehicle traffic from and to ‘the base’ – which official [sic] doesn’t exist. It is conceivable that a femme fatal or spy could work at the brothel and target men thought to work at the base in some capacity. Men get lonely and form relationships sometimes with whores at the brothel. Ply them with drinks and ask leading questions and they could reveal secrets about what they do at the facility at Groomlake…”, says Tony Gibbs of Charlotte, N.C. a private security consultant for high level corporate executives. “Why else would you set up such located out in the middle of nowhere but America’s most secret research facility”, he said.

You can find out more about Area 69 in this 2012 video report from ABC News:

(via @UnlikelyWorlds)

Link: Brothel near top secret base in Nevada poses a serious security concern

The Varieties of the UFO Experience

UFO Typology Chart 1967

Next time the Pleiadeans land in your backyard, use this handy chart (created in 1967) to identify their craft type and previous visits.

(via Bruce Sterling)

Life Too Slow to See - Timelapse Footage of Marine Animals

Slow life - timelapse footage of marine animals

Last month, in a post about hummingbird singing slowed down by a factor of eight, I asked whether "our human-based perception of events in time blind us to certain aspects of 'reality'". That principle isn't limited in one direction to things too fast for us to see or hear though - see the stunningly beautiful video below (fullscreen and HD that thing) showing 'slow life', made observable in our natural timeframe only by speeding up timelapse observations:

"Slow" marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Corals and sponges are very mobile creatures, but their motion is only detectable at different time scales compared to ours and requires time lapses to be seen. These animals build coral reefs and play crucial roles in the biosphere, yet we know almost nothing about their daily lives.

...To make this little clip I took 150000 shots. Why so many? Because macro photography involves shallow depth of field. To extend it, I used focus stacking. Each frame of the video is actually a stack that consists of 3-12 shots where in-focus areas are merged. Just the intro and last scene are regular real-time footage. One frame required about 10 minutes of processing time (raw conversion + stacking). Unfortunately, the success rate was very low due to copious technical challenges and I spent almost 9 long months just to learn how to make these kinds of videos and understand how to work with these delicate creatures.

Could there be 'slow life' at the extremes, moving on the scale of millennia, all but unobservable to beings like us limited to a century of life?

(Video by Daniel Stoupin - art prints of his photography are available there. Found via Explore)

NASA Orbiter Sees a Robot on Mars

Curiosity Rover on Mars

I am constantly amazed at how quickly I take amazing technology for granted which would have seemed like science fiction just a decade previous to their invention (iPhones, 60+ inch flat screen TVs etc). I guess it's just the way we're wired. But this still boggles my mind - we have put robots on to other planets, such as Mars, and in some cases we can even see those robots via other amazing technology, such as the above shot (click to telescopenate) of the Curiosity rover from the HiRise camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Amazingly, the HiRise camera has previously even imaged these robots parachuting down to the planet on their arrival.

Now, if we could just see an image of the landscape to the top left of this one, where the 'Mars light' (if it was a physical object) seemed to be shining from in those anomalous images last week...

(If there wasn't an Earthly robot on the Red Planet in that spot, I wonder if NASA would investigate further, or if the line would simply be that it's obviously some sort of shiny, mineral outcrop, and that the tracks leading to it are some sort of natural, wind-created striations in the Martian soil)


'Blood Moon' Rises Over Brisbane, Australia

Blood Moon rises over the ocean off Brisbane, Australia

While today's 'blood Moon' lunar eclipse occurred in the middle of Monday night for people in the United States, here in Australia the eclipse rose in the east - over the ocean for me here in Brisbane - right on the stroke of sunset on Tuesday evening. We took the kids down to the pier with a camera and tripod and grabbed a few images, including the one above. Bonus points for this shot, because it includes the star Spica (above the Moon) and the planet Mars (out to the left). Did you get clear skies and the opportunity to walk outside and take a look?

Mars Rover Sees a Light on the Horizon

'Light' seen on the horizon by Mars rover Curiosity

The Red Planet may well be a dead planet, but deep down we all seem to want to find that extraterrestrial intelligence is (or at least was) present on Mars. From the Face on Mars through to Bigfoot on Mars, news stories continue to be written about photographic anomalies on our second-nearest planetary neighbour (no doubt assisted by the relatively large number of missions that have placed satellites in orbit and rovers on the ground there).

The latest anomaly creating a buzz is a 'light on the horizon' snapped by NASA's Curiosity rover four days ago (April 3) soon after reaching a new study area known as the Kimberley (see the pic above - click for full-size image). But before you get too excited, there's a problem: Curiosity takes stereo pictures with two different cameras, and the 'light' only shows up in the right hand camera, despite both taking pictures simultaneously. This suggests that the 'light' is not truly out there on the horizon, but is instead an imaging artifact of some kind. Indeed, Doug Ellison, visualisation producer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explicitly stated on Twitter today that it was an artifact caused by "a cosmic ray hit". Such glitches have caused Mars confusion before, such as this story about a Martian base.

What I found odd though is that another image taken by Curiosity, a day earlier, also showed this 'light' artifact - and this glitch too was precisely on the horizon line:

Another 'light' seen on the horizon by Mars rover Curiosity

The camera is positioned differently, it was taken a day earlier, and yet the 'light' is on both occasions on the horizon. I thought perhaps that such glitches might manifest in areas of high contrast (e.g. where ground meets sky/distant mountain range) in an image, so I asked Doug Ellison on Twitter whether that was the reason for the similarity in location. His reply was that it was actually, quite simply, a coincidence that was bound to happen at some stage:

I bow to the experts on these matters, but I still find that explanation slightly unconvincing. Maybe there's a better one: the Martians are trying to blind the rover...

(Caveat for the sake of those without a drop of humour: that last statement was a joke).

Update: Last night I checked Curiosity's track maps and consulted Google Earth's Mars view to get a feel for the direction the images are looking. What I found piqued my interest even further. The bottom image in my post was taken on Sol 588, the top image a day later on Sol 589. During that time the Rover moved slightly to the south, and in both cases is looking west(ish), firstly from the north-side of a mound in the foreground and subsequently on the south-side. If you look at where the light is in relation to the mountain range in the background (use the quite recognisable 'two-level' mountain directly behind the 'light' in the top pic for reference), you'll notice that the 'light' would be in pretty much the same position on the terrain a couple of hundred metres away, if parallax is taken into consideration. Which tends to lift the possibility in my mind that it could very well be a physical object (shiny rock, electrostatic dust devil, Nephilim) rather than a cosmic ray camera artifact (though the issue of only being in one of the stereo cameras remains suggestive of a cosmic ray artifact).

Update 2: A few about-faces today on the cosmic ray artifact explanation. Doug Ellison, who in his reply to me was certain it was a CR, is now saying "I've done a complete 180. 589 could be a CR hit. 588 isn't. It hides behind a hill behind the two eyes... if one triangulates between the two observations, one finds a point on a small ridge line. That point is also visible in Sol 580 MastCam imagery that shows a tall, thing [sic], bright rock at the exact same point". And Justin Maki, lead scientist on Curiosity's engineering cameras, has told Alan Boyle that it could be the light is the glint from a rock surface reflecting the sun.

Link: Bright Blips on Mars Pictures Spark a Buzz Among UFO Fans

Has This New Discovery By Astronomers Confirmed there is a 'Planet X'?

Planet X?

Astronomers have extended the range of our Solar System with the discovery of a new 'dwarf planet' orbiting our Sun. The planet, currently technically labeled '2012 VP113', has an elliptical orbit that brings it to within 80AU of the Sun (an 'AU' is the unit of distance from the Sun to Earth) at perihelion (closest point in its orbit to the Sun) - some three times the distance from the Sun to Neptune - while it gets as far as 450AU away at the other end of its orbit. The object is not unique: astronomers have previously discovered another similar dwarf planet, named 'Sedna'. Indeed, the new discovery, by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, hints that there are a multitude of dwarf planets orbiting the Sun in a location known as the 'inner Oort cloud'.

An intriguing coincidence is that the current positions of both Sedna and 2012 VP113 - which are also near both their perihelions - are very similar, leading to some speculation of an unknown, massive body orbiting our Sun well beyond our current sensing abilities - a 'Planet X':

The latest work has already thrown up an intriguing possibility. The angle of the body's orbit and that of Sedna's are strikingly similar, an effect most likely caused by the gravitational tug of another, unseen body. One possibility is a "Super Earth" that traces so large an orbit around the sun that it has never been seen.

"If you took a Super Earth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have," said Sheppard.

Over at her Planetary Society blog, Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed breakdown of the discovery, the coincidences, and what it might mean for the Planet X theory. She notes that for a an object of that size to form ('accrete'), it needs to be in a circular orbit - so the elliptical orbit of these two dwarf planets suggests that they were 'scattered' by something at some point after they formed. But the 'Planet X' theory isn't the only possible explanation - the planets may have been thrown into their current orbits by a star that passed within "several hundred AU of the Sun and disturbed orbits of objects it passed near", or it may be due to the fact that Earth was born in a star cluster.

It's really quite striking how close Sedna and 2012 VP113 are to each other right now, both close to their perihelia, both at around 80 AU. Here's an illustration that I put together using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser that shows you just how close they are.

Their current proximity is mostly a coincidence, given the fact that they have different orbital periods; there's nothing about their orbits that says they should be in the same place at the same time, except for the fact that their orbits happen to take them to similar spots in the sky when they are close to the Sun. But we are more likely to discover such objects when they are near perihelion (hence brighter and moving faster), so given the proximity of their perihelia they would've been somewhat close to each other in the sky because that's where we could see them both.

The fact that they have perihelia at similar locations is an interesting observation, though. And it's one that Trujillo and Sheppard noticed, too... They went on to hypothesize that the clustering of argument of perihelia resulted from "a massive outer Solar System perturber" [and] showed that it works for a super-Earth at 250 AU, but "This configuration is not unique and there are many possibilities for such an unseen perturber."

...I have confess to a bias here: I really wanted this coincidence in argument of perihelion to be strong evidence of a planet X. I would love for there to be a planet X. So would Trujillo and Sheppard, evidently, because they spent quite a bit of space showing it could work. And so would Nature, because then the first clear indication of a planet X would be in an article published in their journal.

But Hal [planetary scientist Hal Levison] dashed my hopes, or at least my certainty. "It's a very weak result," he told me; and indeed the paper spends more column inches on what 2012 VP113 tells us about the inner Oort cloud as a population than it does about this potential "perturber."

"There may be other explanations for this, rather than the extreme position of, "it's a planet"; but I can believe there's something going on".

In other words: something threw these planets into their elliptical orbits, but we still don't know what. Watch this...errr...space.

Link: A second Sedna! What does it mean?

Is Our Universe the Only Universe?

Because the universe just isn't big enough...

Is there more than one universe? In this visually rich, action-packed talk, Brian Greene shows how the unanswered questions of physics (starting with a big one: What caused the Big Bang?) have led to the theory that our own universe is just one of many in the "multiverse."

UFO Invasion Planned for April 5th

Alien Craft

Prepare for the UFO invasion folks. Darklore contributor Nigel Watson has uncovered a plot to fill our skies with illuminated flying craft, though the provenance is far from extraterrestrial - it's a prank being designed by remote-control (RC) aircraft enthusiasts. Via Yahoo News:

Dozens of volunteers around the world have signed up for what may be the biggest prank in history - using decades of knowledge of ‘UFO sightings’ to time the launch perfectly.

The ‘aliens’ will be strips of LED lights, on remote-controlled multi-rotor drone aircraft - launched at 8pm, so there are plenty of people to see the ‘invaders’, and held at a distance where it’s difficult to see what’s behind the glowing lights.

Nigel Watson, author of the Haynes UFO Investigations Manual found plans to “cause a wave of UFO sightings around the world and an apocalypse-like idea in the media,” on forums frequented by drone fans.

Watson says, “‘The Big UFO Project’ was originally scheduled to run on April Fool’s Day, but they have changed it to 05 April 2014 so that it will not seem like an obvious prank. Anyone who has a multirotor drone (pictured below) or anything that can carry a strip of LED lights and hover is invited to join in this event.

I was pointed to discussion about the project on a remote-controlled aircraft forum a few days ago, though since the plan has made mainstream news the thread has been locked down (it can still be found for now in Google's cache).

So, if any aliens *are* actually out there: April 5th would be a really good night to scout around without any witnesses being taken seriously...