Scientists discover how to make on-demand lightning

Wikipedia Back in the days of ancient Greece or Rome, if someone could magically generate lightning-on-demand they’d probably be hailed as a god. Until not too many years ago most people believed that lightning and the roaring thunder that follows were some sort of warning or punishment from the heavens.

Well now scientists in New Mexico have put an end to those theories – or at least they nearly have. By firing lasers into a thundercloud they just about managed to generate a bolt of lightning. They didn’t actually manage it because their techniques aren’t yet well enough developed, but they say they should be ready before too long.

It sounds pretty cool doesn’t it, lightning whenever and wherever you want it (although obviously it only works when you’ve got a thundercloud). So how did they do it? It sounds almost like science fiction: they shot laser beams up into thunderclouds, which caused a line of gas in the cloud to become ionized – that means it was given a charge.

Wikipedia Because lightning is essentially just a huge stream of charged particles, the line of particles that the laser created acted much like a lightning rod, and it directed the flash of lightning downward. It didn’t hit the ground in this experiment because the technique used was not powerful enough, but before long scientists should have mastered the technology.

Wikipedia It’s all very well being able to generate lightning, but as with so many experiments like this you just have to wonder, well, why? Actually, it could have some good uses. By knowing exactly when and where lightning is going to strike, scientists can do their research into this deadly killer a lot more easily. It’s also going to be useful for testing how lightning-resistant new planes and power lines are.

We’ve already discovered how to create rain (well at least sort-of), and now we can make lightning. It’ll be interesting to see where weather research takes us next in the decades ahead. I bet those scientists wish they lived in Ancient Rome – think of all the special treatment they’d get now as gods!

National Geographic has an excellent interactive page showing how lightning works.

Taking traffic mapping to a whole new level: Microsoft releases Clearflow

Loads of people use their GPS systems to plan car journeys. But imagine being able to get a computer to vary its suggested route as traffic conditions change – even if that means driving off on some of the thousands of side-streets scattered through every city.

Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to know what the traffic conditions are like on every single side street in every city you want traffic information for? Well that’s what Microsoft has done, and they have now released their revolutionary new traffic-jam avoidance system, ‘Clearflow’ onto their web mapping platform for everyone to use.

image Wait a minute… what’s so great about this new technology – we’ve been able to get traffic information from Google Maps or traffic.com for years now, so what’s the difference? Basically, Google Maps and similar websites only monitor the traffic on major roads – after all, it would be impossible to keep track of the traffic on every single side-street 24 hours a day.

What Microsoft did was to analyze what happens to traffic on side streets as levels of traffic on main roads varies. This involved using GPS systems to record a massive 125,000 miles of car journeys, and then computing all this data to work out which side-streets are faster.

The result is that Clearflow really can calculate the fastest route for you, even if it involves a long and convoluted journey through dozens of smaller roads.

So next time you’re driving in the Big Apple in rush hour, you might just want to check out the new system at maps.live.com.

IMPORTANT: Users in the UK cannot use the URL given above – for some unknown reason it redirects to much-inferior Multimap.com. Use this URL instead: http://maps.live.com/?mkt=en-us

NASA captures a new 3D view of Mars’s moon Phobos

NASA You’d think that Mars’s moon Phobos – a 13.5-mile wide lump of brownish rock full of craters – wouldn’t be the most interesting place in the Solar System to take photos. But then space exploration does tend to throw up a lot of surprises.

One of NASA’s Mars probes recently captured the above image, and it’s revealing some fascinating details about something most people probably didn’t even know existed.

The most obvious thing about Phobos is the huge crater on the bottom-right of the image. Scientists say that its slight bluish color means it hasn’t been exposed to space as long as the rest of the moon, meaning the impact that produced the crater could have been quite recent.

Wikipedia Phobos may also be home to water-ice and materials rich in carbon, which is why a Russian-Chinese mission to collect samples from Phobos is expected to launch next summer.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped the new shot of Phobos from 4000 miles away, so I’m pretty impressed that the detail’s so good. In the full size image each pixel represents 22 feet (6.8 meters), so you can zoom in quite a lot. (Click here to download the full-size image. Be warned! It’s a 20mb file, so if you’re still using ancient dial-up be prepared to wait a few hours.) It’s really cool zooming in on the thousands of craters dotting the moon, especially the ones on the edge of the Moon and on the day-night border.

Phobos and Deimos What else is so great about the new image? OK, several probes have imaged Phobos before, but because MRO took two photos you can actually see the photo in 3D if you’ve got some of those special glasses.

The image also shows landslides around the massive crater (Stickney crater), and you can see some craters in the dark region illuminated by Mars-shine. This is when light from the Sun reflects off Mars onto Phobos, and it happens with the Earth and our Moon too – take a look next time there’s a crescent Moon.

Above all, I just think it’s amazing that yet another bit our Universe is proving to be so interesting. Before I heard about this photo I just though Phobos was a boring old lump of rock, but as you can see it’s actually a pretty interesting corner of our Solar System after all.

Want to know more about the Red Planet? See the Solar System’s biggest volcano in 3D, see photos of the first ever avalanche captured on Mars, and read why radiation may prevent humans from ever visiting it.

Replica Solar System discovered 5,000 light years away

BBC News

Back in ancient times most people thought that our planet was at the center of the Universe. Then we thought it was the Sun, and not too long after we realized that we’re actually just a tiny part of one of billions of galaxies in a Universe filled with trillions of other stars. Just over a decade ago one of the last things that we thought might be unique about our Solar System was disproved – the first ever planet outside our Solar System (an ‘exoplanet’ for short) was discovered around another Sun.

Wikipedia Now our uniqueness has been eroded away a little bit more – a British team of astronomers has discovered what looks a bit like a replica of our own Solar System, orbiting around a star 5000 light-years away.

OK, it’s not an exact replica, but the resemblance is quite striking. Two giant gassy planets (like Jupiter and Saturn in our own Solar System) have the same mass ratio to their sun as Jupiter and Saturn have to our own Sun. And the size of their orbit is proportionally the same as the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. (The star in the newly discovered system is only about half the size of our Sun, hence the reason why all the figures are given as ratios). The orbital period of the giants is about the same too.

So what about a copy of Earth and the other inner, rocky planets? Well, the scientists didn’t actually discover a new Earth, but they say that the existence of an Earth-like planet is quite likely because there is plenty of empty space in between the gas giants and the star.

Wikipedia Unfortunately there’s not much chance of us discovering any more planets in this system – at least not yet, anyway. Current techniques simply aren’t powerful enough to see such small objects so far away.

But wait a minute… if the system’s so far away, how could we detect that the giant gas planets were there? They’re pretty tiny too, surely, compared to the size of their sun?

They used a clever trick called ‘gravitational lensing’, which involves the effect first predicted by Einstein that if you put a heavy object (like a star) in front of another object (like another star further away), the star in front will bend the light from the star behind because gravity bends light. This enables us to see faraway objects much bigger than we would usually be able to see them. (Click here to read more about gravitational lensing, and how it enabled the Hubble Space Telescope to see a galaxy 13 billion light years away.)

Since we don’t know for definite that there’s a replica Earth in this system, should we really be getting so excited? I think the answer should definitely be yes – in the decade since we first discovered extrasolar planets, 300 planets outside our Solar System have been discovered. The more variation among these planets, the more chance of eventually finding ET. And that would be seriously cool.

Click here for NASA’s excellent exoplanet website: PlanetQuest.

The youngest planet ever discovered – only a few hundred years old

planeten.ch A few hundred years is a huge length of time for humans, but in cosmic terms it’s absolutely tiny. A hundred years in the world of Space could easily be compared to a millisecond for humans. But now scientists have discovered a planet that may have formed in as little as a few hundred years - which beats the former fastest forming planet by about 10 million years.

OK, it hasn’t finished growing yet, but the fact that it can be classified as a planet when it’s only been around for so little time is amazing astronomers all over the world. And the planet’s not the only interesting thing – its sun has only been around for a few hundred thousand years. (By the way, the planet and its sun are around 520 light years from Earth.)

So if this planet’s so young, how did astronomers find it? They used the Very Large Array (VLA) in Arizona to search for wavelengths of radiation that corresponded with pebble-sized lumps of rock (different sizes of rock emit different amounts of heat). They looked for pebbles because they are a vital hint that a planet is being formed.

National GeographicIt may be an intriguing discovery, but does is actually mean anything in terms of knowing more about our Universe? It certainly does – and it is stirring up quite a lot of controversy in the process. When stars form, they develop an area of rocks and gases around them, and these rocks and gases can eventually start to group together too form planets.

People used to think that planets formed when these rocks randomly collided, creating bodies with bigger and bigger gravitational attraction, which led to a sort of runaway growth. But this would take a very long time to produce a planet.

andrew.soave.net An alternative theory, backed by this latest discovery, is that planets actually form when an area of greater density within the area of rocks orbiting the star starts to contract, a process that could be complete within several thousand years.

OK, the difference between the two methods of planet formation don’t sound huge, but they have massive implications for scientists trying to understand the origins of our Earth. Let’s just hope that the meeting of the British Royal Astronomical Society (where this discovery was announced) won’t turn into a war between feuding scientists.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.