Let’s celebrate some cool geeky stuff

Geek is in these days. Well, let’s face it…we won. Today I thought I’d share four things I think are pretty exciting, cool, and pretty funny, in a dry geekily ironic sort of way. Starting with…

1. Curiosity landing
So far there have been 49 attempts to fly by, orbit or land on Mars or its moons, by robot. Of those (unless I’ve miscounted) 19 have worked. And on 3 August we have the chance to make that 20. On 6 August, NASA’s ‘Curiosity’ – a SUV-sized Mars rover  – is going to slam into the Martian atmosphere at over 13,000 mph – relying on one of the biggest heat shields of its type to protect the lander from 2900 degrees of compression heating.

That, of course, is only the start. Once through the heating phase – where it’s steered by top-mounted rockets – and now plunging at a mere 1000 mph, it jettisons the heat shield and pulls a manoeuvre to clear the remains. Then it deploys a supersonic parachute that has to tolerate 65,000lb of force. The chute weighs just 100 pounds.

As it approaches the ground, still falling at 100 mph, it blows the chute and lights four rocket motors. Just above the ground, it hovers and lowers the rover on a crane. That’s to prevent Martian dust being kicked up and covering the rover. The rover unfolds its wheels and, as it touches the ground, pyros blow the cable. The lander rockets away to avoid crashing on the rover.

All this in seven minutes, automatically. There are hundreds of steps, every one of which has to work perfectly first time. Not only has it never been done before, it’s never been tested for real. Ground controllers won’t know until after it’s happened, because in August radio signals from the rover will take 14 minutes to reach us.

It’s an awesome engineering solution to a very difficult problem – landing a heavy vehicle on Mars, into unique Martian conditions (thin atmosphere, dust)  within the mass constraints of an affordable launcher. The system is sheer genius. But, uh…are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yah.  It’s gonna crash, isn’t it? I hope I’m wrong about that.

2. Higgs Boson
The probable discovery of the ‘god particle’, 45 years after Peter Higgs theorised it, is only the beginning. What I want to know is whether every particle from now on is going to commemorate a sailing rank. ‘Aye sir, I’m Bo’sun Higgs.’

3. Stephen Hawking’s theory of everything
I’m still chasing the papers on this, but have a feeling I saw it already on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ where Hawking picked holes in Sheldon’s version of the same thing (Sheldon’s arithmetic was wrong). The thing is, every physicist has been looking for this particular theory since, well, forever. It’s possible Hawking’s found it. He’s been right about everything else.

4. Checking out Betelgeuse in case it explodes
Every time I look at the night sky, I make a point of picking out Betelgeuse – Alpha Orionis. It is known to Maori as Puutara. It’s a variable red supergiant, just ten million years old, the eighth or ninth brightest star in our sky and unmissable even against the glare of city lights (at least where I live).

It’s in the constellation Orion. Track down from the three stars on the belt – Alinitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – and you can’t miss it. Bright red. It’s enormous – its diameter was measured as early as 1920. If its centre was where the Sun’s centre is, the surface could be up to 5.5 astronomical units out – approaching the orbit of Jupiter. As its mass is only 18 or 19 times that of the Sun, it is mostly very thin gas, equivalent to Earth’s atmosphere at high altitude. But it’s puffing up and shrinking back, and it’s going to turn into a Type II supernova soon, in stellar terms. Some time in the next million years.

I figure it might have already done it, and we won’t know until the light reaches us. There’s no danger to Earth – Betelgeuse (we think) is 640 light years away and its axis isn’t pointing at us (hence no gamma burst). But it will outshine the Moon, for a while. And I figure the odds of the light from its explosion reaching Earth during the few seconds I happen to be glancing up are somewhat better than the chance of winning New Zealand’s main Lotto prize. (By ‘I figure’, I mean, I did the arithmetic).

Is there anything that’s impressed you, lately? Not just geekery. Do share!

***Oh – and for something not at all geeky, not even slightly…if you want to win a copy of my new book Convicts – signed by me – check out this contest. Runs until 28 July 2012.***

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


8 thoughts on “Let’s celebrate some cool geeky stuff

  1. I’ve been reading quite a bit lately on the Higgs-Boson particle, and Stphen Hawking, but I did not know about Betelgeuse. You’re always so great at pointing out things that make me go hunting on the internet!

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    1. Thank you! Yes, the ‘check out Betelgeuse in case it explodes’ trick is a bit flippant on my part (but still a better bet than a lottery ticket). However, the science of the detonation is very clear – it’s not if, but when, and soon in an astronomical sense.

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  2. The Betelgeuse scenario is particularly fascinating. I just learned about it the other month while talking to a member of the local astronomy club in the build up to the transit of Venus. He said that if it went bang then it would almost be as if we had two suns for a while.

    Makes you wonder what the cultural impact of such an astronomical event might be. My guess would be that the story of “the appearance of a second sun” would almost be a generation defining event. I’ve heard that might be one theory to account for the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Unlikely perhaps, but a thought worth entertaining.

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    1. One of the cultural impacts already has been the silly notion that Betelgeuse exploding would extinguish all life on Earth. No. It’s too far away. But yes, it would be very, very spectacular; and afterwards, we’d have front-row seats to the expansion and growth of the resulting nebula. The one to watch for in terms of possible Earth damage is Eta Carinae, approx 7500 light years off, an unstable blue giant that has already blown off its outer layers – and is liable to explode as a hypernova within the next million years. If it does, there is potential to do damage to the upper atmosphere, though we’d be safe on the ground I believe.

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