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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Science Vine - Issue 2: Google Mars, SpaceQuakes, and a Tachyon Joke

Science Vine- Issue 2, July 27, 2010

And the bartender says “Sorry, we don’t serve tachyons here.”
A tachyon walks into a bar…
Now, just in case you’re relatively physics challenged, click here for help with seeing the light. Or you can just left click and drag your mouse pointer over the seemingly empty space below for a clue.
A tachyon is a theoretical particle that travels faster than light, and as such, it would travel backward in time. This means that a tachyon would arrive before it left! Thus the reverse nature of the joke above.
For masochist individuals who wish to torture their own gray matter into temporal shreds of technicalities, please see ( for a good time before you get there.
NASA and Microsoft Research are adding new features in the WorldWide Telescope software that provide viewers with high-resolution 3-D maps of the Red Planet. This online virtual telescope allows you to explore the universe using images that NASA spacecraft have taken.
I recently checked it out for myself. Below is a screenshot from my computer featuring the Happy Face on Mars. Conspiracy theorists, please note that the crosshairs in the images are not alien formations on Mars, but rather alien formations on my computer screen!
And now, a cropped image from a bit closer view of the Happy Face crater:
And finally, another cropped image that’s even more zoomed in. It’s a little harder to make out the happy face now, isn’t it? And if you saw this image first, a happy face probably wouldn’t even come to mind.
The image below (another cropped, zoomed image from a screenshot) features a very elongated crater. Most of the time, we think of craters as being round, like the smaller craters inside and on both sides of this odd, cave-man-club shaped crater. Scientists think that, like other round craters, Marte Vallis was formed by an impact, but an impact at very oblique angle that started at the bottom of this image and gouged out a long trough.
But Wait! For those of you in a hurry to go check this WorldWide Telescope Mars out, be warned that you better have a fast computer, a fast Internet connection, and a decent video card/adapter! I ran this program on a 3 gigahertz processor with 1 gig of memory, and a fairly decent video card, but it still ran kind of sluggishly. However, the more you use it, the faster it gets because it downloads places you've explored already to your hard drive and is thus more quickly accessed on later expeditions to the Red Planet.
To learn more and download the WorldWide Telescope, visit:

For more information and images of Mars taken by HiRISE, visit:
Now aren’t you all shook up about that happy face and really loooonnng crater? No? Well maybe this next new shoot off the Science Vine will get you quaking.
Surely you’ve heard about earthquakes, but how about spacequakes? Yeah, that’s right, quakes in space!
According to a NASA Science’s Science News article (Spacequakes Rumble Near Earth – July 27, 2010), “Researchers using NASA's fleet of five THEMIS spacecraft have discovered a form of space weather [Yes, there’s a kind of weather in space!] that packs the punch of an earthquake and plays a key role in sparking bright Northern Lights.” The THEMIS mission aims to resolve one of the oldest mysteries in space physics, namely to determine what physical process in near-Earth space initiates the violent eruptions of the aurora that occur during substorms in the Earth's magnetosphere.
What caught my eye about this article is of course the word spacequake, which refers to a temblor (no, that’s not misspelled) in Earth’s magnetic field. Okay, but what might catch your eye now, is that some of these temblors actually reach the ground. Thankfully though, they don’t caused the destruction normally associated with the word quake!
In any case, there’s a really cool animation at the site linked above that shows just how the Earth’s magnetic field can get overstretched by the million-mile-per-hour solar wind and then snap back like a stretched rubber band being released.
But what does the acronym THEMIS stand for? Well I’m glad you asked, but you probably won’t be glad of the answer: Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms.  Now that’s what I call torture!
I think it’s interesting to note that, in Greek mythology, Themis is the goddess of justice, wisdom and good counsel, the guardian of oaths, and the interpreter of the gods' will. She was the daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), and was Zeus' second consort and the mother of the Horae (the Seasons) and the Moirae (the Fates). And finally, legend also has it that Themis was the mother of Prometheus.
And just in case you haven’t tumbled yet to that temblor of hints, Themis is also that blindfolded chick you sometimes see in and around halls of justice holding a sword and scales.
For more information on the THEMIS mission, just google it, or visit NASA’s THEMIS Mission page.

And that’ll do it for this edition of the Science Vine.
I do hope your grapes are never sour!

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