Frank’s Geekery Episode 3: Spreading Science Literacy, and a Visit to Kennedy Space Center

In this week’s episode, we talk about what you can do as a citizen to promote science literacy in the US, and around the world. We’ll also show you the latest at Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center, where they’re kicking off their “Summer of Mars” program.

As always we start with a review of the week’s science news, including:

Links mentioned in this episode:

The Planetary Society
The National Center for Science Education

Music licensed from SoundDogs, images from

Available in video and audio form below:

Precursors of Life Found Around Young, Sun-Like Stars

One of the great mysteries of science is how life arose on Earth. We just don’t know. Did it evolve from scratch, from chemical reactions inside Earth’s early primordial ooze? Did it come to us in bacterial form from Mars, where it evolved further here? Did our solar system pass through some cloud of organic material as it spun around the galaxy? Are we all just in The Matrix? We simply don’t know.

A hint comes from studies of a distant cluster of sun-like stars called IRAS 16293-2422, which discovered the presence of a complex organic molecule called methyl isocyanate. This “prebiotic” molecule is very similar to peptide, which is what holds the amino acids inside proteins together. Proteins are an essential part of life as we know it.

These stars are very young, suggesting that complex organic molecules can form even before planets do, under the right conditions. Methyl isocyanate was also discovered in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko two years ago in our own solar system, which shows this compound also existed while our own planet was being formed. Methyl isocyanate has also been found inside large star-forming gas clouds, such as Orion KL and Sagittarius B2(N).

Together these findings suggest that the building blocks of organic life are easily found in the environments stars form within – it’s not something unique to our solar system. What we don’t know is how unique our solar system is in providing the conditions needed to build these components into actual living, breathing creatures such as ourselves! But we’re one step closer to understanding that process.

This discovery was made using the ALMA array, a group of 66 dishes high in the Andes mountains, using both new and archived data. The results are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and summarized nicely at the AAAS Science website.

Image credit:

The Oldest Human Fossils Just Got Discovered

Well, this is sort of a big deal – our own species, Homo Sapiens, is 50% older than we thought!

An ancient skull found in the Jebel Irhoud cave in Morocco has actually been around for awhile, but was recently re-dated. This new data shows that modern humans emerged 300,000 years ago – 100,000 years earlier than previously known.

This fossil shows that modern humans evolved “face-first” – our faces flattened before the backs of our skulls finished developing into their contemporary shape.

Searches for the origins of humans have historically centered around Africa’s Great Rift Valley, so finding this specimen in Morocco was somewhat unexpected. Morocco would have been at the edges of the ranges of Homo at the time, based on what we currently know.

The details are presented in the journal Nature.

Image credit: / ozandogan

How Many Moons does Jupiter Have?

Ask two different astronomers, and you’re likely to get two different answers! It depends on what you call a “moon,” but the latest official tally is now 69 – with two more discovered today!

The two new moons, given the catchy names S/2016 J 1 and S/2017 J 1, are only about a mile across. The small, rocky debris orbiting Jupiter really tests the limits of what we consider to be a moon.

Like most of Jupiter’s moons, these two are in retrograde orbits. That is, they orbit in the opposite direction of Jupiter’s own rotation, implying they were passing asteroids that got captured by Jupiter’s gravity, as opposed to bodies that formed along with Jupiter itself. Jupiter’s huge mass means it captures a lot of debris in our solar system, sometimes claiming them as new moons.

Many of Jupiter’s moons have been observed and never seen again, so we can’t really be sure about the total count.

These latest moons were discovered by astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institute for Science. They were actually looking for “Planet X” – a hypothetical large, unseen planet in the outer reaches of our solar system. A few frames happened to include Jupiter, and so they analyzed these just out of curiosity and made this discovery.

If you look through binoculars or a telescope at Jupiter, you’ll see the four large “Galilean” satellites shown above: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – and each are fascinating in their own right.

Image credit: NASA / JPL

The Worst Planet in the Universe (so far) got Discovered.

Don’t go to the newly discovered exoplanet KELT-9B. It sucks.

KELT-9B holds the distinction of being the most inhospitable exoplanet discovered to date. With a temperature of 7800 degrees Fahrenheit, this gas giant (almost three times the size of Jupiter) is hotter than most stars!

This extreme heat is a result of orbiting close to a very hot “A-type” star (with the catchy name of HD 195689) and being tidally locked, so the same side of the planet always faces the star. That’s where it’s so hot. It’s so hot, that even though this planet is much larger than Jupiter, it only has about half the density – because the heat has caused it to puff up like a balloon. In fact, the planet is slowly evaporating from the extreme ultraviolet radiation hitting it.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, the star will be engulfed by its star as it turns into a red giant before it can evaporate away into nothing.

Definitely cross KELT-9B off your travel plans. This discovery was made at JPL, led by a visiting scientist from Ohio State University, Scott Gaudi. Detailed findings were published in the journal Nature.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

Watch India launch its biggest rocket yet.

I could write a lot about how India’s successful launch of their GSLV MK.3 is remarkable. It boasts the world’s second-largest booster rockets, and this was the first flight of their most powerful rocket. Its 2.2 million pounds of thrust delivered the 6,913-pound GSAT13 communications satellite into its transfer orbit without a hitch.

But it’s just plain cool to watch:

I actually got a little teary-eyed; seeing people achieve a great technical achievements like this is always a little moving. It’s also really interesting to compare how India’s space program, and its people, operate differently from our own.

SpaceX Sticks Another Landing

It’s been a busy weekend in the field of spaceflight!

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched the first re-used Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on Saturday, and it was flawless. The first-stage booster returned to its landing zone at Cape Canaveral, and again nailed its landing. This booster will be refurbished and re-used. Check out SpaceX’s Flickr stream for your next desktop wallpaper – there are lots of stunning photos of the launch there.

This was the 100th launch from Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A – you know, the same one Saturn V’s to the moon, and the Space Shuttle, took off from. It was SpaceX’s 35th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, and the 7th this year.

The re-used Dragon capsule will be captured by the ISS at 10 AM this morning (Eastern time).

Yesterday, the Cygnus supply ship at the ISS undocked and began its return to Earth as well. After spending a week in orbit, it will re-enter on June 11.

India just launched its newest, most powerful rocket successfully, and we’ll cover that separately. Congratulations are in order for getting their heaviest satellite yet into geostationary transfer orbit!

Image credit: SpaceX

Frank’s Geekery Episode 2: Dealing with Science Deniers

In our second episode of Frank’s Geekery, we’ll tackle the subject of science deniers. What do you do when you’re confronted with a flat-Earther, a moon landing denier, or someone who thinks scientists are all part of an evil conspiracy?

We’ll go there, after reviewing the week’s science and technology news:

  • New LIGO detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes that may date back to the Big Bang
  • Reconstructing faces directly from brain cells
  • Saturn’s moon Enceladus was flipped on its side
  • Arianespace sets a new record for the heaviest and most expensive commercial payload
  • The world’s biggest aircraft gets rolled out of its hangar for the first time
  • DNA recovered from ancient Egyptian mummies

Paul Allen Just Rolled Out the Biggest Aircraft Ever

It’s hard to keep track of all the tech billionaires who are investing their fortunes into space technology. We know Elon Musk has SpaceX, Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin, and Richard Branson has Virgin Galactic. Did you forget about Paul Allen? Well his company, Vulcan Aerospace, reminded us all they’re still around in big way.

In the Mojave desert, they rolled out the Stratolaunch airplane – and it’s huge. With a wingspan of 385 feet, it blows away the previous record holder, Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose.

The plan is to use Stratolaunch to ferry spacecraft to very high altitudes under its belly, where they can then be launched that much closer to orbit and with some orbital velocity already established. It’s another way to lower launch costs, as the aircraft is of course re-usable, much like SpaceX’s booster stages. Stratolaunch has the advantage of being able to deliver multiple payloads to different orbits in the same mission.

This approach of launching spacecraft from a plane may not sound new, as Orbital ATK has been doing this for awhile now. Indeed, Stratolaunch is partnering with Orbital to use Orbital’s launch vehicles together with Stratolaunch’s aircraft.

These are indeed exciting times in space technology. One wonders what we might achieve if all of these billionaires and government were to team up toward a common project, but having a diverse set of technologies being developed independently has the nice benefit of “hedging our bets” as we reverse the downward trends of the US’s spaceflight capabilities.

Image credit: Stratolaunch Systems Corporation

Decoding the Brain’s Facial Recognition

In what’s being called “a major breakthrough that is destined to be famous for as long as people read about neuroscience,” researchers at Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology have successfully reconstructed facial images by monitoring just 205 neurons in monkey brains.

It was previously thought that facial recognition in the brain was much more complex; perhaps specific facial features were encoded somehow, and matched against a database of people you know in order to yield instant recognition of the people that are important to you. But, all it takes is a couple of hundred neurons to successfully distill a face down to the features you need to recognize it.

This study correlated the output of the brain’s “face patch” of neurons with measurements of the shapes of faces – for example, the distance between the eyes – and the color and texture of the skin. Nothing more. By doing this, they were able to reconstruct images of faces based purely on the activity of these neurons, which humans were able to recognize compared to original photos 80% of the time.

These findings were reported yesterday in the journal Cell.

As a computer scientist, I find these results especially exciting. It suggests that a task as complex as facial recognition can be accomplished with hardly any “hardware” – the magic is in the algorithms our brains have evolved. This means artificial intelligence may be closer than we thought, if we can continue to crack this code.

Image credit: / bowie15

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