Space Shuttle Endeavour set for March 11 launch

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canavera, Florida | Image: MSNBCl

Just a few weeks after Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down again, NASA has cleared the way for Endeavour to return to the Space Station as soon as March 11, representing the quickest turnaround of Space Shuttle missions in years.

In fact, NASA plans to have a total of six Shuttle missions in 2008, so it shouldn’t be long after Endeavour touches down until the next mission is blasting off.

Endeavour’s mission will be to begin construction of a huge addition to the Space Station from the Japanese Space Agency, which will take three missions to fully assemble.

The final part of Kibo, which means ‘hope’ in Japanese, will include an outside area to do experiments in space itself. Don’t get too excited though – this part won’t launch until 2009.

Also included in Endeavour’s mission will be a test of a heat-shield repairing technique. This is vital for the Shuttle mission that will repair Hubble in August 2008, because if any problems were to occur with this while the Shuttle was at Hubble, the astronauts would be stranded – it’s not like at the Space Station where you can just wait for another Shuttle to come and rescue you.

I’ll keep you posted on the latest developments coming up to Endeavour’s launch. And make sure you don’t miss the launch itself – even watching it on TV is one of the most exhilarating things I can ever remember doing. Go Endeavour!

Kilauea: The world’s most active volcano opens up a new lava path

Wikipedia As it’s been erupting continuously for the last 25 years and is the world’s most active volcano, it’s no real surprise that the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea has now started spewing out even more lava. Destroying three abandoned homes in the process, the lava has recently started following a new path along Hawaii’s Big Island, although scientists say there’s nothing to worry about. (Click here for a video)

In fact, although Kilauea has erupted 34 times since 1954, as well as the current 25-year-old eruption, it is not really a dangerous volcano at all.

Instead of building up huge reserves of magma and then letting it all go suddenly, like Italy’s Mount Vesuvius for example, Kilauea just lets a gentle stream of lava flow pretty much continuously. It is so slow in most places that you could outpace it simply by walking, meaning it poses very little danger.

Wikipedia However, it does sometimes have impressive jets of lava (up to 1000 feet tall) that earned it the nickname the ‘drive-by volcano’, because you could ride by and be amazed by the fountains.

The latest twist in Kilauea’s lava path doesn’t really pose any danger – residents had plenty of warning that their homes would soon be destroyed, giving them enough time to set up a home in a safer location.

I’ve not been lucky enough to go to Kilauea – yet. Leave a comment if you’ve been!

 UPDATE: Kilauea has now started exploding for the first time in 84 years, and more new lava is erupting. Click here for the exciting details.

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Electron filmed for the first time

The traditional model of an atom | Image: Live Images You probably learned all about atoms when you were a kid, and how they are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons – I certainly did. We were all taught how electrons were really tiny – in fact modern science predicts that they are so small it is totally impossible to measure their size, even if we had super-futuristic technology.

And until now, many people thought that it would also be impossible to take a photograph of an electron, because they are so inconceivably small.

But now, scientists in Sweden have done just that, creating a video of a single electron riding along a light wave. But wait a minute… if electrons are so small, how could you ever figure out how to video them?

The new photograph of an electron | Image: MSNBCThe magic method involved using repeated flashes of light, each lasting 1 ‘attosecond‘ What’s an attosecond? Basically, it’s a measure of time so short that you could fit 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 attoseconds into a single second. In fact, one of the scientists on the team put it this way: an attosecond compared to a second is like a second compared to the entire lifetime of out universe. Wow – that’s a long time.

It was necessary to use such short pulses of light because, in simple terms, they had to try and image the electron before it moved away from where the camera was pointed at.

I think this new video could have monumental impacts for science – if we can film an electron, then what other subatomic particles can we film? I think we can expect some revolutionary new discoveries from projects like this one. We’re living in very exciting times for scientific research!

Check out the video – the reason it is not a perfect sphere is because of the different energy levels of the electron. This video has been slowed down immensely – it would last a fraction of a second in real life.

Preserving seeds for 10,000 years: New doomsday vault opens

The entrance to the 'doomsday' vault | Image: National Geographic

I don’t plan to be around 10,000 years in the future, but what would I do if I woke up in the year 12,008 and wanted something to eat? It would probably be a good idea to go to Norway.

- Svalbard Archipelago

Why? A new facility has just opened on a remote Svalbard island which aims to collect millions of seeds, preserving the genetic diversity of our crops in case humanity has a disaster like nuclear war or extreme global warming. Even if there was a major earthquake nearby or a direct hit by a nuclear missile, the new storage facility has been built so strongly that it would be able to withstand the destruction. (Click here for images of the doomsday vault)

Within a few years, the target is to have a few hundred samples of each of 4.5 million different varieties of crops, coming to a grand total of 2 billion individual seeds. So far only 100 million seeds have been added, but even they weighed a massive 10 tons, meaning that when the facility is full it will contain hundreds of tons of seeds.

Shelves inside the seed vault | Image: CNN As if it wasn’t cold enough in Svalbard already – it never goes above freezing point – special air conditioning systems have been added to reduce the temperature to a frozen 0F (-18C). The low temperature is essential if the seeds are to last for thousands of years, and fortunately the ice around the seed bank won’t be melting anytime soon – it is located deep inside a remote frozen mountain.

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So when I wake up in 10,000 years, I’ll be able to eat whatever I want – maize, wheat, rice… I just hope I’ll manage to figure out how to get there…

Making the Internet 20,000 times faster: New satellite launched

'Kizuna' lifts off from Japan | Image: CNN The internet’s come a long way over the past few years, increasing in speed many times since the days of 56k Dial-Up.

But imagine being able to surf the web at speeds over 20,000 times faster than dial-up – thanks to a new satellite launched by Japan, that may soon be possible. The idea is that rather than using cables to transfer data, satellites and receiving dishes could be used to connect to the internet.

It’s all very well being able to download the latest movies onto your computer 20,000 times faster, but what will the real advantages of super high-speed internet be?

For a start, it could enable remote communities to get access to healthcare because all that would be needed to access the web would be a small, portable satellite dish, rather than miles of cable. Many rural communities around the world cannot access the internet at the moment because of the huge costs, but this new satellite technology could really change lives.

Satellite internet would also enable e-learning to really take off, with teachers able to talk to their pupils in real time through very high quality video.

The new satellite (Kizuna) is only meant to be experimental, but it is the start of a revolution in internet access. It will initially only be available for use in Asia, though Japan may open it up for testing by other countries as well in the future.

$30 million: The amount Google will pay you for going to the Moon

One of the contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize | Image: MSNBC Fancy winning $30 million? Google has now made it slightly easier to get those millions, and it’s all in the good cause of exploration.

So what do you have to do? Well, it was never going to be easy to get that much money: simply design a robotic spaceship, then get it to go to the Moon and make it travel 0.3 miles (500 meters). Then make it send back some video and pictures. That’s it. The only problem is that to get the full prize, you have to get to the Moon by 2012 – by as soon as 2014 the prize money will be withdrawn.

Following the success of the Ansari X Prize three years ago, which was won by SpaceShipOne (the ship soon to be used by Virgin Galactic for tourist trips to space) Google joined up with the X Prize foundation a few months ago, and hopes that the new Lunar X Prize will help spur on privately funded space exploration.

One of the contenders for the Google Lunar X Prize | Image: MSNBC The problem is that when only government agencies (such as NASA) send probes to space, progress is quite slow because there is only a limited amount of funding. If private companies and investors can be encouraged to start exploring beyond Planet Earth, then money will start flooding in and exploration will really start to pick up speed.

Once the private sector starts going to the Moon, it opens up the possibility of space hotels and lunar bases for vacations – things that just seem like science-fiction the way things are now, with state organizations doing everything in space.

I think the Google Lunar X Prize is an amazing idea, and I hope more competitions like it will open up in the future. Only this way can we really enter a true space age, and it means that we might just have a chance of being able to vacation on the Moon in our lifetimes. Now that is a cool thought!

Venus: The planet where it rains acid

Venus in visible light | Image: Wikipedia

Everyone seems to complain whenever it rains here on Earth, but on Venus you might actually have good reason to moan. Instead of water Venus’s clouds are made of corrosive sulfuric acid, and if you got covered in that, chances are you wouldn’t be around very long to tell the tale.

In reality it never rains sulfuric acid (at least not down to ground level) on Venus, because it evaporates before it has time to hit the ground – in fact, surface temperatures on Venus are hot enough to melt lead.

New research from ESA’s Venus Express probe is starting to reveal some of the secrets of Venus’s atmosphere, and some of them are very surprising indeed.

Unlike on Earth, where clouds tend to move only a few hundred miles at most, sulfuric acid clouds on Venus have ben seen moving from the poles to the equator, then back to the poles again, in just a few days.

Venus Express, which is due to end its mission in May 2009 | Image: ESABut wait a minute… where does all this sulfuric acid come from? After all, Venus is sometimes known as ‘Earth’s evil twin’ because of its runaway global warming, caused by excess carbon dioxide levels.

In fact, 97% of Venus’s atmosphere is made of CO2, although there are small amounts of gases such as sulfur dioxide and water vapor.

Recently discovered by the Venus Express probe is that the sulfuric acid is created when the sulfur dioxide and water vapor rise to the top of the atmosphere and are exposed to ultraviolet rays from the Sun, causing them to react and form sulfuric acid.

Why do they rise up? That’s one of the many things that remains to be found out, hopefully during this last year of the phenomenal Venus Express mission.

Click here for an interactive guide to Venus