Saturn’s lightning 10,000 times more powerful than Earth’s

NASA / MSNBC

I love being in the middle of a thunderstorm – being in the center of the light, noise and heavy rain is a really exhilarating experience. But new research from NASA’s Cassini probe makes me think that maybe Saturn would be an even better place to experience a massive storm.

Why? Saturn’s storms not only have thunderbolts thousands of times more powerful than Earth’s measly zaps of electricity, but the storms can also last for months on end. The current storm being observed by Cassini has been going on for over five months now – a record for the ringed planet.

Wikipedia Saturn’s huge size obviously explains why thunderstorms are so much bigger there than on Earth, but is that the only reason? Saturn, Jupiter and the other gassy planets are actually always bound to have more huge storms like this, because unlike our planet, their atmosphere is the planet, not just a thin layer on top of loads of rock.

Cassini’s discovered some other cool things about Saturn too – a 2000-mile wide storm near the South Pole that looked like a hurricane was discovered back in 2006, and of course Saturn’s many moons are proving to even more interesting than the giant planet itself.

That’s why it’s great news that NASA recently announced that funding for Cassini will continue until at least 2010 – hopefully even longer. Go Cassini!

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Where is the brightest place on Earth?

Where’s the brightest place on Earth – the place that is illuminated most when the Sun has gone down? New York’s Times Square perhaps… what about the glow of office lights around London’s business district… or maybe the bustling heart of Mumbai, the world’s most populated city. They’re all pretty bright, but of course nothing could beat the flashing, colorful sea of lights that make up Las Vegas – the brightest place on Earth.

NASA has just released some new images of our planet at night, and I think it’s really fascinating to see what they tell us about our civilization.

Until not long ago, most of Saudi Arabia was a vast desert, void of human habitation. But now its cities are bustling, and as their population increases, so does its brightness. I love the little strip of light connecting Jeddah and Mecca in the photo on the right – that’s the tiny but well-illuminated road linking the two cities.

Earth It’s also really interesting comparing cities by day and night. The photo on the left is Chicago – as soon as darkness comes the gray and brown sea of buildings is turned into a mass of light, coming from every building, road and shop.

So how did NASA get these photos? It’s not as easy as you’d think – you have to bear in mind that the ISS (where these photos were snapped from) moves about 7 miles a second above Earth, and combined with the long exposure times necessary for such a dark photo, it’s difficult to avoid getting blurry photos, as any photographer will know.

The solution was to create a camera mount that rotated really slowly, to compensate the movement of the ISS. The result: beautiful pictures showing the amazing things humanity is capable of.

The only problem is that sometimes our lights go too far – many city-dwellers can’t see more than a handful of stars because artificial lighting lights up the sky so much. I’d really recommend looking at the International Dark-Sky Association‘s website – they’ve got loads of tips about how to reduce light pollution. But before that, just appreciate how fascinating our planet looks when it’s dark.

Traveling back in time with Wikipedia

Wikipedia It’s over 500 years since Johannes Gutenberg invented his famous printing press – something which had actually been around centuries earlier in China and Korea. Nowadays the internet is fast replacing old-fashioned books as the way to find things out.

But now Wikipedia is doing some time travel, going back a few centuries to produce a book version of the revolutionary user-edited encyclopedia. It will only be available in German for now, but if it takes off, it may well spread around the world.

But before you book-lovers get too excited, is it actually ever going to be a hit? My prediction is a definite no. Aside from the price (around $30, compared to free access for the online version), I don’t think the publishers have realized that a paper copy of Wikipedia wouldn’t actually be much use. The whole idea of Wikipedia is that it is constantly updated, and that’s what sets it apart from the traditional encyclopedias like Britannica.

Wikipedia2Rather than going back to the past, I think it’s better to look forward to the future. It’s been interesting watching Wikipedia’s gigantic surge in popularity in recent years – for many people it is the only encyclopedia they ever use. In fact, it’s the 7th most visited site on the whole internet. It’ll be very interesting watching how Wikipedia evolves over the next few years.

Perhaps in 100 years time, our descendants will be wondering how we could ever use such archaic technology compared to what they will have. Ah, if only Wikipedia could invent a time machine that could go forward a few centuries, rather than back.

NASA’s new image of the stars that shouldn’t exist

National Geographic / NASA

Beautiful, isn’t it? But I think it also looks a bit weird compared to most galaxies. Lots of scientists think it’s strange too, although not just because of what it looks like.

Until now it was thought that the majority of stars always form in the centers of galaxies, because that’s where most of the star-forming material is. Also, there are lots of triggers for star formation in the center of a galaxy, like shock waves that come after stars explode and die that can trigger material to start reacting, and thus form new stars.

But as often happens in science, this new photo shows that maybe scientists were wrong about where stars form after all. The The Sombrero Galaxynew photo shows a huge number newborn stars in the outer red spiral arms of the galaxy – something unexpected, because the spiral arms are quite sparse compared to the galactic center 140,000 light years away.

We have known for a long time that stars can form in the spiral arms of a galaxy, but to find so many young stars in such a relatively empty empty area of space is puzzling astronomers. This new galaxy could revolutionize our understanding about how and where stars form.

It’s just one of those things about science – whenever you think you understand something, something crops up that means you have to start over. But hey, that’s how we make progress!

NASA’s twins that could save our world

Wikipedia Imagine a billion tonnes of scorching hot gas and radiation being hurled toward you – it’s not the sort of thing you come across every day.

This is actually something our Sun does on a regular basis, although fortunately for us our atmosphere stops anything too dangerous getting in and hurting us.

But satellites, as well as any astronauts in space, feel the full force of a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) – as these massive bursts from the Sun are known – and they can be really dangerous.

That’s why NASA decided to launch the Stereo mission, two twin satellites that give us unprecedented views of CME’s – something that would be vital if a CME was ever to come toward us. (Click here for two interesting videos from Stereo)

And it’s not just about damage prevention – we’re learning loads about the Sun too like new footage from Stereo showing just how powerful solar bursts can be as they rip the tail off a comet. The Stereo probes are telling us loads of things we didn’t know about our parent star.

BBC NewsSo why are there two probes in Stereo – wouldn’t just one have been cheaper? The whole point of Stereo is to give us a 3D view of the Sun – just like having two eyes a small distance apart helps our brains give depth to our vision, the two Stereo probes can give us a three-dimensional view of our Sun because one follows a path slightly in front of Earth’s orbit, and its twin trails on behind.

What would happen if one of these CME’s flew straight into our planet? Something not many people realize is that the effects on our lives could actually be huge. For a start many satellites would be knocked out, meaning no television, GPS, weather forecasting and more for a few days. And then there’s cell phones, the internet, and anything else that needs satellites to work.

Wikipedia The good news is that thanks to Stereo, we will be given a few hours’ warning if a CME is heading toward our planet, giving operators vital time to shut down any satellites in the path of the Solar blast, as well as making sure any astronauts are safely inside radiation-proof areas.

The wonderful Stereo probes are yet another example of why scientific research isn’t just about proving some professor’s theory or doing some irrelevant calculations – it really could save our lives. Of course, until the day when a CME is headed our way, it’s always fascinating  to discover more about our amazing Universe.

Interested? Read about how radiation could prevent humans from ever going to Mars.

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