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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Mars Plumes

Posted March 17, 2015 8:19 AM by CR4 Guest Author

Speculation is rampant, but offers no solid conclusion regarding the plumes of supposed clouds that amateur astronomers documented rising from a large area on Mars in 2012. Although the event took place more than two years ago, experts have been trying to understand the phenomena and published a paper recently in Nature. The cause and the source remain a mystery.

In the paper, astronomers offered two distinct theories. Plumes like those seen in 2012 have been observed by different instruments (observatories and satellites) since the mid 1990's but they were always confined to a height of roughly 60 miles. The previous plumes were determined to be clouds of either CO2/H2O ice crystals or dust particles, or they were auroras caused by "magnetic field anomalies." But even the auroras were only approximately 80 miles high. The 2012 plumes were from 120 miles to 150 miles high.

This means that these plumes are something new. According to the present gathered knowledge of Earth's astronomers, these plumes are impossible. It would be easiest to say that they are caused by magnetic flux within the planet and thus auroras, but that does not seem to be the case. An aurora bright enough to be seen at that distance would have to be 1000X more intense than those seen at Earth's poles. It is also unlikely to be either dust or ice crystals due to the height of the plume. At those elevations, the clouds should have dissipated before they could be seen.

So, astronomers, both amateur and professional, continue to observe the Martian limb hoping it happens again. A ray of light is the satellite MAVEN that has circled Mars since September of last year. Its purpose is to examine the Martian atmosphere closely. Maybe next time scientists will get a close up look at the plumes.


Nature - An extremely high-altitude plume seen at Mars' morning terminator

Nature - Bizarre Martian plumes discovered by amateur astronomers

1 comments; last comment on 03/19/2015
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The Universe Forever

Posted February 19, 2015 10:14 AM by HUSH

Growing up, my mother taught me a nursery rhyme that helped me remember the order of the planets. "Many very early men jump straight up near Pluto." Granted, it was mostly a nonsense mnemonic memory trick, but it did get me through some challenging grade two science quizzes. Once the order of the Solar System was committed to memory, the mnemonic memory technique was discarded but not forgotten. Undoubtedly new mnemonic techniques are taught now, considering Pluto's well-known demotion to dwarf planet in 2006, as well as the subsequent social and political "movements" to reinstate Pluto as a planet regardless of scientific legitimacy. Fortunately, these opinions have largely quieted, because as we grow our astronomical understanding, more strict definitions are needed.

Yet another understanding may be about to change, as a recent report suggests that the singularity-the moment when everything existed in a united, infinitely dense mass-never actually happened. Instead, the universe has always existed in some form. This would dramatically alter the way science is taught in schools, as well as many cosmological models.

Current science estimates the universe at close to 14 billion years old, and at the beginning everything was created by the Big Bang. The 'no singularity theory' does not eliminate the Big Bang, instead it says that all matter once existed in a type of mass with infinite energy potential. The Big Bang dispersed these cosmic materials. Many recent articles state that the theory posits the Big Bang never happened-that is not the case. (In this instance, unfortunately.)

Apparently there are problems with general relativity mathematics, as they can only infer what happened after the Big Bang, not before or during. Researchers at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, believe they have solved many of the inherited problems that arise by applying quantum corrections originally proposed by theoretical physicist David Bohm in the 1950s. His model describes both the expansion and evolution of the universe, and contains elements from both quantum theory and general relativity.

The new model also predicts that there won't be a reciprocal 'big crunch' either. With previous models, there was speculation the universe could one day reach an expansion maximum, only to collapse on itself to create a new singularity. New calculations also fulfill the theory the universe is filled with gravitons, suggested particles that facilitate gravitational forces, much the way electrons facilitate electromagnetism.

Recall that around this time last year, a group of researchers announced that they had found particle evidence of cosmic inflation from early in the universe's existence. This discovery would account for the universe's non-linear expansion and age ratio. Without this evidence for inflation, it means we seriously miscalculated the age of the universe. Now this evidence has been shown to be the result of misreadings. So the search for inflation evidence continues, or else the age of the universe is in question.

So all we know for sure is that we don't know the age of the universe, for sure. The Big Bang is alive and well, but the truth could be the universe had no beginning (and will therefore not end). The singularity theory has been around for a long time, but it's standing on shakier ground than ever.

3 comments; last comment on 02/20/2015
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Moving On from Planet Earth

Posted January 07, 2015 9:17 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: Exoplanet habitability Mars Venus

Where do you want to live? Only two weeks into another New York winter, let's just say I'm ready for Florida. Or at least Florida weather, even if the humidity seems to drive people insane. But why confine your habitation choice to a country, hemisphere or even planet?

After all, a Mars colony seems to be a forgone, inevitable conclusion. Mars One plans to send four people every two years to the red planet beginning in 2024. Even if the planned advertising revenues and reality TV show make the program seem like a publicity stunt and an MIT engineering report concludes that participants will die less than 70 days into their Mars odyssey. As long as you have one billionaire ready to throw gobs of money at a technology deficiency, it will be overcome. Mars exploration has been so overplayed, NASA is now looking at opportunities to send humans to Venus (in the blimp-like crafts at right) instead.

These missions are mighty ambitious for a race that has, to greatly oversimplify, essentially driven some high-tech RC cars around from 225 million km away. And there are many other planets that would better serve as humanity's first space outpost.

Planet habitability is evaluated by several criteria. The Earth similarity index (ESI) rates a planet's size, density, gravity and temperature, with Earth having a default value of 1. Other parameters consider suitability for vegetation; how far from a star the planet is; what the planet is composed of, as well as its atmosphere; common climates; and how adaptable resources are for human use.

In consideration of these variables, there are an estimated 8.8 billion habitable, Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars in our galaxy alone. So, let's hypothetically fulfill any doomsday prophecy you wish, and see what new planets might serve as the first extrasolar incarnation of human life.


This unconfirmed planet has an ESI rating of .98, making it the most Earth-esque replica yet discovered. Despite being unconfirmed, the Kepler telescope has recorded three transits to date, and another one is expected in July 2015. It has an orbit time equivalent to 449 Earth days. Its mass, radius and mean temperatures are also incredibly similar to Earth's, and 4878.01 is almost a sure bet to be an ocean planet. All of these factors mean an incredibly high likelihood of life on the planet. Its star, KOI-4878, is 1075.2 light years away, meaning that we'll never get there in our lifetimes. But a future race with the right technology could make it Earth 2. The only questions are: does anything live there? And if it does, are we willing to become the planetary invaders if it means saving our species and threatening others?

Gliese 667 Cc (artist rendering on left)

Several other planets are more suitable for human life than this one, which has an ESI of .85, but this is the highest-rated confirmed planet to date. It's also much, much closer to home than 4878.01, at [only] 22.7 light years away. Gliese 667 Cc has an orbit that is 28.155 days long (enjoy figuring out that leap year). Gliese 667 Cc exists in a triple-star solar system and receives 90% of the light that Earth does. However, the majority of the light is infrared; in fact Gliese 667 Cc would be 80% dimmer than the Earth. Despite this, it would also be quite hot, so hot that it borders on uninhabitable. If you picked climate change as your preferred Earth doomsday scenario, Gliese 667 Cc is an unlikely pick as home number two. Several other planets might also exist in the Gliese system that can sustain humanity, but are also unconfirmed.

Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f

Tau Ceti e is included as it is the closest potential extrasolar real estate. At 11.9 light years away, it will likely be one of the first planets investigated for life once we initiate the search. It has an ESI of .77 and a year of 168 days. Also notable about Tau Ceti e is its size: as it has 4.3 times more mass than the Earth, and is almost twice as big overall. This makes it a 'super-Earth.' Tau Ceti e is very hot though, as it orbits its star Tau Ceti at a distance closer than Venus orbits our Sun. Surface temperatures average around 70°C, so it's unlikely to be a permanent home. Its neighbor, Tau Ceti f, is worth mentioning only because it's much colder (about -40° C) than Tau Ceti e, but a gaseous atmosphere may warm the planet enough to sustain complex life.

For reference, Venus and Mars grade a .78 and .64 on the ESI scale, respectively. ESI isn't a perfect grade for habitability--many variables, perhaps ones not even quantified, effect the suitability of a planet for colonization.

Perhaps this is putting the cart in front of the ox. Until lightsails or warp drives are invented, we're stuck on this ball of mud. But one very distant day retirees may live out their golden years in the oven of Venus, instead of the stickiness of Sarasota.

2 comments; last comment on 01/09/2015
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Fun Things on the Internet - Happy New Year!

Posted December 31, 2014 9:58 AM by Chelsey H

52 Things you Thought Were True (But Really Aren't) - This was a little upsetting. Did you know that the chewy base of gum is indigestible and passes straight through? It doesn't sit in your stomach for 7 years…. I've lived a lie.

Engineers' Guide to Drinks

2014 in Numbers - Technology stories in 2014 told through some of the numbers behind them.

How to Prepare a Car for Storage - A step by step guide.

Other things to do during winter break…

20 Arduino Projects

Engineering Projects for Kids

15 Tips That Will Make You a Better Cook - Good tips to know - especially if learning to cook is a New Year's resolution!

Speaking of resolutions… 5 Easy Ways to Accomplish All of Your Goals

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Unschool In Session?

Posted December 26, 2014 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller

The national Common Core initiative and a bevy of standardized tests have drawn an awful lot of doubting eyes toward American education. While Common Core at its heart seems a fine idea, implementation has proved troublesome in many states. Here in New York, where significant improvements in standardized test scores from September through June result in financial gain for schools, fudged scores and student manipulation spur militant reactions from both parents and teachers.

The increase in national oversight has also added fuel to the alternative education movement, particularly homeschooling and unschooling. The question remains, though: are these relatively extreme ideas viable gateways for bypassing constrictive schools or pipe-dream solutions at best?

While the public is mostly familiar with homeschooling, unschooling might be a foreign concept to many. As the term implies, unschooled kids do exactly what they please. Unschooled kids are taught by one or both parents, like homeschooling, except that unschooling focuses on life skills and a "learning to learn" approach. If a student's passion is to play video games in their room for eight hours a day for an entire year, they do just that. There is (and should be) no logical ceiling to unschooling: the idea is that an individual child knows what they need to learn and when, and that traditional schooling exhausts this curiosity through forced activities. In the case of the year-long video game binge, unschooling parents would contend that it's natural and that many wildly successful entrepreneurs went through identical periods.

Unschooling is one of the more radical approaches to bypassing a U.S. higher education system that seems to lose adherents every year. With more and more bright students coming up with million-dollar ideas and securing venture capital from their dorm rooms, college is no longer a fish-in-the-barrel on the road to financial success. Sure, unschooled kids can take the SATs and attend college on their own wits, but why would they want to reintegrate with the system their parents worked so hard to avoid?

As radical as unschooling seems, if combined with a parent knowledgeable in information seeking and evaluation it might be a superior option to traditional schooling, especially regarding STEM education. An engineer friend of mine once told me that a good engineering program doesn't teach to facts and figures but instead teaches how to think critically and analytically when facing any problem. How feasible is it to expect a traditional school, with national and state testing standards, to achieve the same?

Unschooling is about teaching kids to teach themselves, and search for information that interests them. The goal is to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of today as traditional schools do. Critics of unschooling level complaints similar to those traditionally pinned on homeschooling. Undersocialization, underskilled parents, and inherently lazy kids are frequently cited criticisms. Then again, there's a variance in defining success. Unschoolers draw on stories of brilliant, unconventional dropouts like Steve Jobs, but is every student cut out for an entrepreneurial future? Conversely, many unschooled and homeschooled kids do attend college, in which the unschool-to-school transition is difficult but not impossible.

My daughter attends an independent school by necessity, and there are the same pros and cons as in any comparison of education systems. I both love and loathe the freedom: the school can do whatever it pleases academically (so that you'd better hope it's run by qualified individuals, not business owners), but it's also sorely lacking in quality extracurriculars like those found in publicly funded schools.* Perhaps the unschooling debate is essentially similar: a student better hope their parents know what they're doing, or they'll be left unsocialized and sorely lacking in life skills. Then again, there are some terrible public school teachers out there. And maybe parents really are the best candidates to foster their child's curiosity, whether at school, home, or both.

*Although they did host a kindergarten engineering challenge: the old "see-how-many-pennies-you-can-float-in-your-paper-boat-design" one.

Image credit: Nicholas Scalice

11 comments; last comment on 12/28/2014
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Nerdy Gifts

Posted December 13, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Yay Christmas! Shopping for the fantastic nerd in your life? Here are some ideas to help you find that perfect thing for your favorite nerd.





What's been the best gift you've ever given?

8 comments; last comment on 12/16/2014
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