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China’s Meteoric Rise in the Space Race

21 Nov 6a00d8341bf7f753ef01b7c87bb279970b-800wi

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) looks set to become a science power-house with projects and ambitions in space overshadowing any other country on the globe.

China’s roots in space exploration can be traced back to the 1950’s when rocket propelled ballistic missile programs spearheaded national security measures. After two decades of military tensions in the region, the country’s first satellite was launched into orbit in 1970. However, it was not until 1993, when the China National Space Administration (CNSA) was formed that we got an idea of their intentions in racing to the stars.

After a series of unmanned missions from 1999 onwards, China soon became the third country to send humans in to space successfully when the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft launched astronaut Yang Liwei in October of 2003. Since then the space community has seen an exponential rise in the amount of missions and other research programs headed by the communist state.

Reaching for the Skies

Back in September we saw news regarding the Space Administration entering a three year test phase of the World’s largest Radio Telescope in the south-western Guizhou Province.

Measuring in at 500m across, the telescope dwarfs the current largest Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico by nearly 200m.

With the ability to detect signals in the furthest reaches of the cosmos as well as focus on extremely distant, dense stars, this instrument is likely to make China one of the globe’s science superpowers.


Photo courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences

The Red’s Planet?

Following a number of scientific successes in the early part of this decade, the Chinese are continuing their aspirations in space exploration by planning un-crewed missions to both the Moon and Mars. In 2013 the Jade Rabbit lunar probe was launched as part of the lunar exploration program, which also aims to have the Chang’e-4 probe land on the far side of the moon by 2018.

The planet Mars seems to have captured the imagination of China as much as any other country. Beijing have a series of projects and launches lined up to prepare them for their first on-surface rover by 2020, and ambitions to send humans between 2040 – 2060.

China was also a leading member in the Mars 500 program, simulating the psychological effects of isolation for the duration of a mission to Mars, which is around 500 days.

Project 921

After decades of cooperation with the then Soviet Union and continued support from Russia, the Chinese developed modified versions of their Shenzhou spacecraft with the intention of constructing a permanently manned Space Station by 2022 under the title of Project 921.

In 2011 the PRC began their continual testing program by launching the first in a series of spacecraft modules under the name Tiangong, meaning “Heavenly Palace”. Manned crafts Shenzhou 8,9 and 10 were launched in the early twenty-tens, all docking with the first module Tiangong 1, creating history for China’s space program.

The second phase of this project was only recently entered when the Tiangong 2 precursor facility was launched to rendezvous with the first module and, after a month on board Tiangong 1 conducting scientific and medical tests, two CNSA Astronauts returned to Earth safely.

Shortly after astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee commented:

“our manned space program has achieved major new progress and is the latest achievement in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology… It is the newest achievement of Chinese people in climbing the peak of the world.”

Apocalypse 2012: Nibiru, the Maya or Planetary Alignment?

2 Dec Google Images

So this year is to be the year it all ends, our planets eradication from this Universe has been foreseen. The last remaining grains of sand have been said to be cascading down on our time here on Earth. It seems not without one last hooray. What terror this way comes? What is it we are to be so afraid of?  Are we to fear a head on collision with another planet or is celestial alignment due to bring Armageddon? We are going to look at some of the more popular catastrophe theories and more importantly deflate them, one thing you can be certain of is we sure as hell do not need Bruce Willis to get involved.

If you are looking for an exaggerated conspiracy story then you have come to the wrong place. Gossip and hear say is to blame for the, somewhat, minor hysteria that has caused people to fear the year 2012. Whatever viral ‘day of reckoning’ theory you are into read this carefully and tick the following rumors off your doomsday, checklist book. The world is not going to end this month and if it does, then money will be donated to some sort of charity for Zombies.

Artists depiction of Planet X (Nibiru)

One premise for Earths destruction is Planet X, or Nibiru, a theoretical body thought by some to be orbiting our Sun in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Belief in this planet stems from certain hypothesis drawn up hundreds of years ago. Astronomer Percival Lowell believed the wondering world was there due to inaccuracies in his research on Neptune. Other people were just plain crazy with the idea. Lowell coined the term ‘Planet X’ in 1894 to explain certain anomalies in the outer planet’s orbits but the phrase was stolen and used by Nancy Lieder in 1995.

Nancy Lieder, part-time theorist and website entrepreneur (website below), proclaimed that she was receiving messages from extra-terrestrials through an implant positioned in her brain. After some years being somewhat ignored she then went onto announce that Planet X was on its way to collide with Earth. This huge careering agent would speed through the inner Solar System and fly-by very close to us; this would apparently cause, puzzlingly, the magnetic field of the earth to reverse at the poles. The initial year for impact was 2003 but this date was obviously ridiculed after no such event occurred, then all theories related to Nibiru were abandoned.

Nancy still defends her ideas to this day, believing 2012 is to be the real end date. Here is an article on the planet terrorizing the solar system from the mastermind herself.

However, there is a rather large problem with this theory, Where is Nibiru? For a planet that is thought to be bigger than Jupiter it is awfully well concealed. Some have said Nibiru is simply orbiting the other side of the Sun, others have said its so dark in colour you can not see it against the blackness of space. The fact is, it is not there because if the planet were orbiting our sun, humans would have known about it for centuries maybe even millennia. This theory seems to far fetched to be anything other than individual lunacy especially since there is no shred of evidence to Planet X’s existence.

Another story that has caught the virtual headlines this year is a theory on planetary alignment. A picture showing three planets over the pyramids at Giza quickly spread across the world declaring that this celestial phenomenon would happen for the first time in nearly 2,800. The only thing wrong with this one is, well, science. Some prankster has obviously found out about certain goings on in the night sky around the winter solstice and decided to try and fool the easily swung majority. Many people did a small amount of research to decipher if any of these events were to take place anytime soon. Well actually three planets will line up over Egypt on the December 3rd 2012, but not symmetrically over the pyramids. Saturn, Venus and Mercury will appear close in the Eastern sky but this is not planetary alignment. The angle of the ‘alignment’ would also look more vertical than horizontal. (see picture below).

Hoax image of Planteary alignment

Planetary ‘alignment’ as it would look over Egypt

This picture (Left) has obviously been doctored because the event has not taken place yet. Another note is that if it was a real snapshot, as a photographer you would have to stand on the Northwest side of the monuments. The hoax picture would of have to have been taken from the Southeast meaning the accuracy of the ‘alignment’ is simply unfeasible. Researching this theory brought up no tangible evidence to support  just what planetary alignment theorists think will happen come this day. Does gravity cease to exist throughout the universe causing worlds and suns to fall? Does it awaken some sort of ancient evil behemoth to terrorize human kind? One answer I found was a link to the Mayans and the dreaded end to the now world famous calendar. There seems to be NO link between the two, although admittedly if one theory of the Apocalypse was to be right, this is the most feasible.

The Mayans are an ancient and very attuned race who used “The Long Count” calendar, as many other pre-columbian mesoamerica civilizations did, to calculate when and where they were. This age old calendar is scheduled to end this month on the 21st December 2012.

This has led many conspirators and schemers to envision doomsday according to Maya prophecy. The fact is anyone would have severe difficulty putting a date on doomsday. Nostradamus could not get it right in the end, so someone else must have seen it coming? Present day astrologers would leave this subject well alone, even as they proclaim supernatural telekinetic visions guide their teachings of the stars and human personality fusing. Even modern religious factions stay well away from putting exact dates on events. So did the Mayans have it right? Is the end of their calendar due to be the end of existence, as we know it? Well, the Maya were clever but not that clever.

The Maya were an intellectual and spiritual people living in what is now called Guatemala, on the border with Mexico. Throughout thousands of years these people strived to improve many aspects to their civilization. They were already great agriculturalists but as time went on they became experts in water cultivation, masonry and astronomy. During this period of huge improvement for human civilization the Maya always withheld their strong beliefs on worship and creation.

The story of Maya creation says that this world or realm we currently live in was the last in a series of eras that did not meet the almighty god Hunab Ku’s approval. We are currently considered to be within the fourth of theses worlds. The first three were all built and then destroyed by flood due to Hunab Ku being unhappy with imperfections to the composition of there inhabitants. The first occupants were too dense and unimaginative, the second uncommunicative and the third to god like. The fourth world’s inhabitants (the ancient maya) will also eventually be destroyed by a great flood, when? No one knows. This event holds no direct correlation with when the Long Count Calendar said the world would end. Although, it has to be said, recent natural events across the world has caused many to draw up comparisons.

The Mayan calendar is very different to ours, although they were great astronomers and used the cosmos’ clockwork to roughly the same accuracy as we record it today. Maya time keeping was made using much larger periods, the second largest being a B’ak’tun. Prophecy sees each b’ak’tun last roughly 144,000 days or roughly 394 years, according to a modern clock. On the 21st December 2012 we will come to the end of what the Mayans know as the 13th b’ak’tun. The end might sound disastrous and terrifying but many scholars say that this is just a transition period into a new age, or the “14th b’ak’tun”.

Now the only issue is that there is no 14th b’ak’tun. The Maya simply do not have a unit larger than 13 baktuns or 5,128 years. Using this time period working backwards we get to the year 3114 BC, many chronologists believe this date to be either the creation of this 4th world or that some other colossal event took place around this time. Other theorists just think that the Mayan calendar will simply reset to 0 rather than a great flood that destroys all life on Earth. The end of an ancient peoples calendar doesn’t mean that some sort of pubescent millennium bug is back either, so get that out of your minds.

The 21st of December is very close to the winter solstice, a time when the sun reaches the lowest point in the sky and begins its journey back up the horizon, meaning longer hours of light and heat. This date has been regarded as a celebration for millennia across the world and time itself due to the longer periods of energy essential for farming and hunting. The subject of winter solstice was covered in a previous Before Us The Stars article,

The Maya were fantastic astronomers and agriculturalists so this is no coincidence that an important date to them should also fall on a still significant date to millions around the globe. Being aware of the cosmos was vitally important to enabling the civilization to grow; the Mayans were able to fine-tune their calendar over generations ensuring they would never go hungry.

All of these theories carry only the one thing in common, the fact that they are just theories. Armageddon is coming, that is a fact, but real substantial evidence on the exact date would be almost impossible to find. Almost impossible because when it comes to the universe we are clueless, we have no real idea about what is out there, is that surely the most exciting theory of all?

However we are a species able to change and predict the world around us, a land probably envisioned by ancient ancestors of ours.

What will you be doing on Friday 21st December 2012 to celebrate or repent?

MSL: Will ‘Curiosity’ get the better of NASA?

20 Nov Artist depiction of 'Curiosity, MSL latest rover

On November 26th the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will finally be prepared to launch their third mobile laboratory, rover ‘Curiosity’, to the planet Mars. This mission is fraught with new challenges and especially risk as the agency will have to pioneer new exercises in order to assure the capsule has a soft landing. Can NASA overcome adversity and prove to this world that the work these rovers do will benefit our curiosity of the red planet?

NASA will have to perfect a brand new operations maneuver when this one-ton vehicle falls to the rocky surface at colossal speed. A rocket assisted landing will be attempted for the first time in outer space surroundings, NASA will have no second chances. The leading scientists of this mission do not have the luxury of the previous MER mission where the rovers were shielded by an airbag, leaving them to bounce along the unstable ground.

This pioneering mission has a lot riding on it as it is to date NASA most expensive mission into outer space, costing the administration $2.3 Billion. The capsule encasing the rover will be enroute to the red planet for over 8 months, increasing the chances of malfunction or error. The expensive payload carries a lot of new and improved equipment aboard making this one of NASA’s most risky of missions to date.

Humans have always been fascinated with their red neighbor and the idea of ‘Martian’ life forms walking or indeed invading the Earth. This MSL mission is taking that idea a step further as it goes in search of evidence to suggest that life once roamed this world.

MSL stands for Mars Science Laboratory and this will be the name given to the overall mission. The launch of the Atlas V rocket, the subsequent separation of the Curiosity rover and rocket, the 8 month journey, the decent to the planet, the landing onto Mars and of course the search for previous indications of life on the surface.

This mission has never been about finding microbial life. It is designed to asses habitability, past and present, not to detect life”. Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

NASA already has two other such machines that have been skimming the Martian surface since 2003. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were part of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) sent to the planet to study its geology and surface. This mission has had umpteen amounts of success and both machines are still strong today. They even assisted Mars experts to plot the landing site for Curiosity.

The gale crater is an area on Mars scientists believe is perfect to land their car-sized craft and it is an area of great interest as well. Guy Webster says,

Selection of Gale crater was indeed based on new discoveries after start of development of MSL, particularly the discoveries of clay materials on Mars since 2005”.

With the landing zone being 12.4 miles by 15.5 miles across, you might think it is quite some distance, but imagine landing a remote controlled airplane travelling at supersonic speed from a platform over 33 million miles away and you get an idea of the scale of this operation.

The launch window for the Atlas V rocket starts at 15:30 (GMT) on Friday 25th November and will run until December 18th, if all goes to plan. The Rover is expected to land on the Martian surface in August 2012.

[COSMIC BODIES] – SuperStars

6 Nov Sizes of Stars

The stars… the givers of light, the givers of warmth, the givers of life…

These huge fiery furnaces have been burning brightly for billions of years and they will continue to light up the universe for many more to come. Our Sun is just one prime example of an ordinary, middle-aged star but stellar systems come in all shapes and sizes. In this issue we will uncover super massive stars and witness some of the most luminous objects in the universe.

The Sun, at the centre of our solar system, was integral to that of human existence, to large and our planet would be to hot for liquid water to form, to small and the energy emitted would not be enough to support the staples we rely upon. Our star is at exactly the right size and distance, 93 million miles away, for humans to bathe in its brilliant glory and prosper from its energy. The Sun is known as a ‘Yellow Dwarf’ star, it is at the middle of its life cycle or ‘Main Sequence’, the point of a stars life were it starts to burn its reserves in a bid to fight against the inevitable gravitational forces that will one day collapse it into a much smaller ‘White Dwarf’ star.

The sheer size of the Sun leaves our planet basking in the warmth of the radiation discharged from nuclear reactions going on under its surface. A super heated core converts hydrogen into helium at the temperature of 15 million degrees Celsius, compare that to the hottest Earth temperature of 70.7 degrees recorded in Libya and we can count ourselves lucky we are at the perfect distance. It is said that a million Earths could fit in the sun and that it is 750 times the size of all the masses of all the planets combined.

At this moment the star’s approximate size is thought to be near to 1,000,000 miles in diameter as it grows older it will start to expand outwards, past the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars as it uses up the last of its energy. Even at this inconceivable magnitude the star is still dwarfed by our next specimen 8,000 light years away.

Eta Carinae is a binary system, consisting of at least two stars orbiting each other, surrounded by a huge cloud nebula ejected from one of these stars in a mass explosion in the past. One of the stars is a smaller Wolf-Rayet star which burns slower and at a lesser temperature than its oversized blue neighbour. This star managed to stay stable for the time being but will be subject to a super or hypernova explosion in the near future, approximately in the next 10,000 to 20,000 years.

Supernova and hypernova explosions occur once a star has finished nuclear fusions and has exhausted its last reserves, this will lead to an eruption and total destruction, once gravity loses the battle, of the matter once holding it together. The size and class of the star determines what type of explosion it will endure.

This massive blue star, Eta Carinae, is 120 times the volume of the sun, which means if it was at the centre of our system it would extend beyond the distance of Jupiter, past the four inner planets and far beyond the asteroid belt that separates those rocky bodies from the outer gas giants.

Eta Carinae is a ‘Luminous Blue Variable’ (LBV), meaning its luminosity differs due to it pulsating irregularly; this aside this giant still burns at the brightness of 4 million suns. Although this star is younger than ours it is much larger, meaning these class of stars are able to produce an iron core at their centre, this is thought to one day cause Eta Carinae to go hypernova.

Another example of stellar behemoths that has its future yet to be determined is Betelgeuse(Beetlejuice) or Alpha Orionis. A red supergiant that is 300 times bigger than Eta Carinae and 500 times that of the sun. Placed at the centre of our solar system and the surface would reach out to twice the orbit of the planet Mars. Betelgeuse, due to its size, is the 10th largest star and its furnace is 14,000 hotter than our own. Sitting on the shoulder of Orion in this popular constellation, Betelgeuse has an uncertain future ahead of it. Running low on energy Betelgeuse is sure to explode into a supernova. When…? No one knows. It could happen in the next million years, it could happen this decade.

Betelgeuse (top left)

It is unlikely for this star to explode any time soon but it is not impossible, when it inevitably does happen Betelgeuse will appear as a second sun to us. Rivaling that of our own during the day and out shining the moon during the night. This will conclude in either the explosion slowly dimming out over the course of a few months, or turning into a gamma ray emitting pulsar sure to reign for thousands of years.

Finally we have our last remaining stars the brightest, Sirius and the largest VY Canis Majoris who both belong to the constellation Canis Major.

Sirius is also a binary star system like Eta Carinae but its major star Sirius A is our point of interest as it is the brightest of all the stars in the night sky. Sirius A is 23 times more luminous than our sun and double its size, quite small in comparison to some of the other stars featured above. Sirius used to be of huge significance to ancient civilizations that depended on the night sky for their survival. As time has moved on it held less importance due to technology helping us pinpoint ourselves on this planet but Sirius has still remained the brightest star ever discovered.

Sharing the same constellation as Sirius is VY Canis Majoris, of which this section of the night sky is named. It is massive, truly gigantic and is a bit of an anomaly. Being the biggest it is also one of the brightest, surprisingly unlike most other giant stars this is a single star system, consisting of just one red hypergiant, much like Betelgeuse but significantly larger.

If the Earth were to represent 1cm on a ruler then VY Canis Majoris would correspond to 2.3km.

If, like the others, it were placed in the middle of the solar system we call home. This star would end far beyond the orbit of the planet Saturn.

It is one billion times the size of the sun.

Much like Betelgeuse VY Canis Majoris will meet a violent end. Thought to occur in the next 100,000 years both of these red supergiants are expected to go supernova causing beautiful but dangerous eruptions that will eventually be recycled into new, possibly even bigger stars.

Example of a Hypernova