Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Saturn Moon goes from Death Star to Pac-Man!

Saturn's Moon Mimas

Saturn's Death Star Moon Mimas

Saturn's Pac-Man Moon Mimas

Saturn's moon Mimas must be a fan of 1980s pop culture.

Not satisfied with being labeled the "Death Star moon," Mimas has now decided to host an interplanetary game of Pac-Man.

Scientists working with NASA's Cassini orbiter yesterday released the highest resolution heat map to date of daytime temperatures on the icy moon. The map unexpectedly revealed a pattern that's the spitting image of the video arcade icon.

Even better, the map makes it look as if the galactic Pac-Man is about to chomp down on a red-tinged power pellet in the form of Herschel crater, an 80-mile-wide (128-kilometer-wide) basin that has long been Mimas's defining feature.

The zany pattern has scientists baffled, as they were expecting to see daytime temperatures more akin to an off-center bull's eye.

That's because the sun is directly over Mimas at midday, with lots of sunshine hitting close to the moon's equator.

A buildup of solar heat should mean that the moon sees its highest temperatures in the early afternoon, creating a pattern rather like the watchful eye of Hal, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame.

Mimas's predicted heat map

Instead, when Cassini swooped in for a close flyby of Mimas on February 13, the probe's composite infrared spectrometer saw heat gathered in a bizarre part-eaten pizza-pie kinda shape.

Of course, heat is a relative term: The "warm" Pac-Man region averages 92 Kelvin (-294 Fahrenheit, or -181 Celsius). That stands out in the temperature data because the cold, bluer region is about 77 Kelvin (-320 Fahrenheit, or -196 Celsius).

The astronomers suggest Mimas might have surface materials in those blue spots that are highly conductive, which means they quickly shuttle heat deeper into the moon.

"It's maybe something like the difference between old, dense snow and freshly fallen powder," Cassini team member John Spencer said in a NASA release. Darker, compact snow allows heat to soak through, while fresh, bright white snow acts like an insulator, trapping heat at the surface.

But why Mimas would have such an oddly sharp divide between conducting and insulating materials remains a mystery.

What's more, Cassini's close flyby also revealed more subtle temperature differences around Herschel crater that are equally hard to explain.

"Other moons usually grab the spotlight, but it turns out Mimas is more bizarre than we thought it was," said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker.

Let's just hope Cassini's upcoming April 5 flyby of the hazy moon Titan doesn't reveal any multicolored ghosts. Otherwise it's game over, Mimas. Game over.

Check out the article at National Geographic Blogs.

Weird stuff!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2010!

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2010!

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2010!

St. Patrick's Day: green beer, green cupcakes, green clothes; parades, corned beef, soda bread and shouts of "Kiss me, I'm Irish!" Hard to believe it used to be a holy day.

Even the Times Online's Faith Central blog doesn't mention anything religious until the seventh of its 10 tips to celebrate the day:

"St. Patrick's Day falls in Lent, when in the old days, abstaining from drink was a given. If you really want to be trad, go to Church. March 17 was originally a Holy Day in the Church calendar, marked by Mass-going in the morning, and a feast ... in the afternoon."

Jesuit Rev. James Martin on the Huffington Post calls for people to put the Saint Patrick back in St. Patrick's Day, telling the story of how Patrick was enslaved in Ireland from the age of 16 to 20, yet after he escaped and became a priest, still chose to return there to spread Christianity.

"In his 40 years in Ireland he attracted numerous followers, baptized thousands, and built churches -- for the people who had previously enslaved him. "I never had any reason," he wrote, "except the Gospel and his promises, ever to have returned to that nation from which I had previously escaped with difficulty."

For the Christian, Patrick poses an important question: would you be willing to serve a place where you had known heartache? And how much is the Gospel worth to you? For everyone, he offers a challenge: can you forgive the people who have wronged you? Could you even love them? Think about that over your green beer."

Many traditional Irish blessings mention, if not forgiveness, at least kindness to strangers: "May you always have a kind word for those you meet," ends one. "May your heart glow with warmth, like a turf fire that welcomes friends and strangers alike. May the light of the Lord shine from your eyes, like a candle in the window, welcoming the weary traveler," implores another. Beliefnet lists eight Irish prayers, including that of St. Patrick.

Meanwhile, on the Emerald Isle itself, it is not a celebratory day for everyone. Cardinal Sean Brady used his St. Patrick's Day sermon to address the sex abuse scandal in Ireland in which 15,000 children are said to have been victimized over the course of six decades:

"I have listened to reaction from people to my role in events 35 years ago. I want to say to anyone who has been hurt by any failure on my part that I apologize to you with all my heart."

NPR reported today on the complicated relationship between the Church and the Irish people -- though nearly 3/4 think the abuse scandal was mishandled, Catholicism is deeply interwoven into cultural and civic life. Pope Benedict XVI says he will issue a letter on the subject.

Check out the article at USA Today.

Interesting article… now pour me another green beer! Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Check out today's Google art:

Google St. Patrick's Day 2010