Thursday, March 30, 2006

Petascale Supercomputer

Cray is said to build the most powerful supercomputer, to be operational by 2008. The machine, capable of crunching numbers at up to 1 petaFLOP (floating point operations per second), is powered by 24,000 2.6 GHz quad-core AMD Opteron processors, and will have 400 terabytes of memory. Cray is building the supercomputer, dubbed Baker, for the US Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Currently the fastest supercomputer is the IBM Blue Gene/L, running at a mere 350 teraFLOPs (about a third of Baker's).

Supercomputers are used to model and simulate things such as the weather, protein folding, earthquakes, nuclear explosions, and even the Big Bang.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Skunk Works for Space

Skunkworks, as we all know, is the legendary (and secret) unit of US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed responsible for developing advanced weapons, such as the Stealth aircraft and the U2 and SR-71 spyplanes. NASA too had its own Skunkworks, responsible for funding and researching novel and revolutionary ways of explore the universe. Called the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, the agency is the hotbed of out-of-this-world research.

As examples, here are a few experiments and researches that NIAC has been funding lately:

1. X-ray interferometry, which aims to observe objects, such as the horizon of a blackhole, with super-fine resolution.

2. Self-transforming robotic planetary exporers, the concept of which aims to develop robot with reconfigurable elements that can autonomously transform depending on the environment

3. Plasma Pulsed Power Generator, a high-density power source for propulsion devices of interplanetary spacecraft

4. Antimatter harvesting in space envisions harvesting the ultimate power source for long-term exploration

5. Antimatter driven sails for deep space, which if successful, will develop spacecraft that can travel up to 250 AU using only 30 milligrams of anti-hydrogen.

For more information, you can go to the NIAC site.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

March 29 Solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse will occur tomorrow, March 29 in parts of Brazil, Africa and western Asia (not visible in the Philippines, though). This will be the fourth total solar eclipse in the 21st century. Partial eclipse can also be observed in parts of Europe, Middle East and western Asia during the time.

A New Dawn

NASA, in an apparent about-face, reinstated the Dawn mission, which it cancelled a few weeks back. The mission, part of the Discovery program, was designed to explore two asteroids - Vesta and Ceres. The spacecraft, powered by an electric ion engine, is to be launched on July 2007.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Brazil's first astronaut

The International Space Station is going to host Brazil's first astronaut, Marcos Pontes. The 42-year old astronaut is scheduled to fly to the space station on March 29 aboard the Soyuz TMA-8. He will spend 8 days on the station, performing experiments for the Brazil space agency.

Derailed by a handrail

NASA's floating albatross, which goes by the name International Space Station, continues to give the agency headaches. Astronauts currently living on the space station were prohibited to do spacewalks last week because of flawed handrails. Yup, that's right - astronauts wasn't able to perform spacewalks because NASA discovered that the handrails, which is used to tether astronauts to prevent them from flying off, were flawed. The agency has devised a new method for spacewalks from now to compensate.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Mars Recon Orbiter First Photo

NASA released the first photo of the Martian surface sent by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The photo was taken last March 24 using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera (HiRISE) and shows the Martian landscape at an altitude of 2,489 kilometers. Resolution is at 2.49 meters per pixel. MRO, launched last August 12, 2005, began orbiting Mars on March 10.

Photo from NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A Novel Way of Securing Food Supply in Space

A patent (# US6938574) issued by the US Patent Office points to a novel way of securing an adequate food supply for future space travellers. In full the patent is for "Rearing fly larvae and animals in space for waste recycling and food supplying"

The patent application's abstract reads:

In space, wastes from humans, animals, and crops can be fully recycled by rearing maggots which will be nourishing feedstuff for feeding animals. These animals and their eggs combined with crop plants will be varied food for humans in space. Water and nutrition left in the residues remaining after rearing the maggots can be recycled and used to fertilize crop plants. Rearing maggots, animals, and crop plants provides a self-sufficient food regenerative system that enables humans to live and work in space on long term missions independent of food from earth.

And by recycling urine into drinking water, future space gourmands are all set. How do you say Bon appetit! in Martian?

Must Have Astro Accessory: Hand-shaped Sun Visor

Tired of using your hand to shield the sun's rays? Here's one cool accessory to wear while observing a solar eclipse or when performing daytime astronomy: the hand-shaped visor. The US Patent Office issued Patent # D499858 on this last 12/21/04.

(found this via

Space X'ed

Failed launch of new rocket

The maiden flight of Falcon 1, the partially-reusable rocket developed by Space Exploration Corp, failed. According to the last information posted on the company's website (, the 670-kg Falcon 1 managed to made it clear off the launchpad but was lost after the first stage burn. The rocket was tested off Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Is. in the Pacific. It was carrying a 20-kg satellite as payload, to be launched to a low-Earth orbit of 450 km.

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, who also founded PayPal.

Photo from

Nature+Wikipedia vs. Britannica

Encyclopedia Britannica has picked a fight with science journal Nature regarding the latter's study that compared the veracity of the former's articles vis-a-vis with the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

In December 2005 Nature released the study about Wikipedia's accuracy, and went to the extent of extolling scientists to help write and edit articles on the online encyclopedia.

Brtiannica called Nature's conclusions, which say that Wikipedia had an almost comparable accuracy as that of Britannica, as bad science. Nature reported that in 50 chosen pairs of articles that it reviewed, Wikipedia had 162 errors while Britannica had 123 errors.

According to Britannica, "Almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading. Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannica were not inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The study was so poorly carried out and its findings so error-laden that it was completely without merit."

Nature, in its response, said that it will not issue a retraction.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Asteroid named after transvestite

You can't make this thing up...

This is rather old news but I just recently stumbled upon on the web. I read on The Register that the asteroid 2005 UT12 was named by its Bulgarian discoverers after a popular Bulgarian transvestite folk singer called Azis.

What's next? Singularities named Ru Paul?

By the way, if you want to buy Azis's CDs, you can go to

Nvidia in Mars

I got a press release from Nvidia saying that NASA chose its graphics technology to reconstruct the imaging data sent by the two rovers currently roaming around Mars. Nvidia said that its graphics processing chips (probably the Quadro GPUs?) are used to visualize the Martian surface in 3D, allowing scientists to explore the red planet virtually.

Now, if we can only challenge the Martians in Counterstrike...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

UP Diliman's New Supercomputer

The University of the Philippines-Diliman's Computational Science Research Center has a new supercomputer. The CSRC High Performance Computing Facility is a cluster of Pentium 4 and Xeon systems capable of dishing out 80 gigaFLOPs (billion floating point operations per second) of computational power. The 4.8-million peso supercomputer, which runs on Linux, will be used to model natural phenomena, among others.

Astro Word of the Day: Crepuscular

Crepuscular is used to describe something related to twilight, such as the Sun’s crepuscular rays seen during sunset. The word crepuscular was drawn from Latin crepusculum, twilight, from the root word creper, meaning dark and obscure.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Astro Word of the Day: Apogee

Apogee is the point when the moon or (artificial) satellite’s orbit is farthest from the center of the earth. The word is from Greek apogaios, meaning ‘located away from the earth,’ derived from the roots apo-, away from, and Gaia, earth.

Lunar penumbral eclipse

I was able to witness the lunar penumbral eclipse that occured last March 15 at 5:21 am (thanks to Bamm for the tip). I didn't have a decent camera with me but I captured some pics using my phone's VGA camera.

Squeaky Wheel

Jet Propulsion Lab is reporting that one of the six wheels of the Martian rover Spirit stopped working. The actuator of right front wheel has apparently failed and the rover is now trudging along the Martian landscape using five wheels.

Closer to Big Bang

Here are the interesting findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, announced by NASA:

1. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old
2. Stars started forming 400 million years after the Big Bang, when conditions were more conducive to star formation
3. The universe is composed of 4% matter, 23% dark matter and 73% dark energy
4. We don't know what dark matter or dark energy is.
5. The universe grew from marble size to a volume larger than the observable universe in less than 0ne-trillionth of a second after Big Bang.

The WMAP was launched on June 30, 2002 from Cape Canaveral. Its mission is to map out the cosmic microwave background radiation. (photo from NASA)

Friday, March 17, 2006


Red Spot Faux Pas?

GMA Channel 7 and some Philippine newspapers have reported that a Filipino named Christopher Go "discovered" a new, growing red spot on Jupiter in February 27. Dubbed Red Spot Jr, it was officially named Oval BA. Apparently Go, an amateur astronomer, was able to photographed Oval BA turn from white (in November 2005) to brown (in December 2005) to red recently.

While Go's imaging is a feat in itself, I would want to take issue with the "discovered" part, because it is not entirely correct. The new spot was spotted way back in 2000, when three smaller spots merged. Oval BA was already observed by the Hubble telescope as well as by other astronomers.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Astro Word of the Day: Syzygy


One of the few English words that do not have a vowel, syzygy is the positioning of three heavenly bodies along a straight line, like what happens during solar and lunar eclipses. Transits and occultations, as well as planets in conjunction or opposition are also considered as syzygies. The word is of Greek origin, which means “yoked together.”

Astro Gadget: Imaginova Starry Night Bluestar Telescope Adapter

Using this nifty gadget, you can connect your telescope to a PC via Bluetooth - minimizing the risk of tripping over wires in the dark. You can also keep your computer from a distance to further preserve your night vision.

Astro Gadget: Celestron SkyScout portable star finder

A gadget designed for the lazy astronomer, the Celestron SkyScout uses GPS and gravitational/magnetic field sensors to pinpoint objects and locate them with respect to the Earth. It can connect to a PC via USB for software updates. Priced at $399.

Beating a Dead Horse

NASA has announced yet again that it is delaying the next launch of its "workhorse," the Space Shuttle, due to problems with the ship's fuel sensors. The shuttle Discovery, slated to be retired in 2010, will probably be launched to the International Space Station in July.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

High-temperature Minerals Found in Wild 2

NASA reported that it found high-temperature minerals from the samples taken from comet Wild 2. The presence of such minerals in the samples, brought back by the Stardust spacecraft, suggests that the material ejected by the early sun have traveled to the outer regions of the Solar System. Among the minerals found are olivine and other calcium, aluminum and titanium-rich compounds.

Googling Mars

Google has Mars. With the Google Mars service, at, users can view the martian maps just like in Google Maps (or Google Earth for that matter). The maps were generated from the data collected by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) onboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

Astro Word of the Day: Bolide


Bolides are meteors that have entered the Earth’s atmosphere and are bright enough to cast shadows. They are often observed to have “exploded” and they usually emit a sound right after entry, much like a sonic boom. Bolide is a French term, derived from Latin word for missile, bolis, which originated from Greek boie, to throw or strike.

Icy Super Earth Discovered

An icy extrasolar planet was discovered orbiting a red dwarf 9,000 ly away from the Earth, reports National Geographic News. The planet, 13x bigger than the Earth, is cataloged as OGLE-2005-BLG-169lb. Though the planet was terrestrial, its surface temperature is a chilly -201 deg. C, about as cold as Neptune. The planet was discovered using a technique called gravitational microlensing.

Buran Prototype for Sale

Gizmodo reported that a prototype of the Soviet-era shuttle Buran, called the BOR-5, is currently being bidded out online. Starting price is $500,000. So far the highest bid is $98,000.

One-eighth scale of Buran, the BOR-5 weighs 1.4 tons, and is more than 15 feet long and almost 10 feet wide (wingtip to wingtip). First used in 1983, it was used to validate the aerodynamic characteristics of the Buran at hypersonic speeds. BOR is the abbreviation for Bezpilotnyy Orbitalnyy Raketoplan (Unmanned Orbital Rocketplane).

Monday, March 13, 2006

First Light

Welcome to the First Light blog, where everything related to astronomy is fair game.