Hitchhiking to Mars

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is not traveling alone. Two small briefcase size spacecrafts, nicknamed “Wall-E” and “Eva” are hitching a ride as the first CubeSats to visit another planet.

NASA illustration two CubeSats at Mars

A CubeSat is a miniatized satellite for space research made up of multiple cubic units. CubeSats became very popular in the 2000’s for applications such as communications, tracking shipping or performing Earth observation.  Until now, all of them have stayed closed to our home planet.

The Mars twin CubeSats, officially called MarCO-A and B, flew on the same Atlas V rocket that sent InSight into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 4, 2018.

Insight lifting off Credit: Ben Smegelsky/NASA

Serving as scouts, the CubeSats will have a front-row seat of the show. Theywill follow InSight on its interplanetary trajectory to Mars and attempt to track the larger spacecraft’s descent and landing on Mars in late November.

Both CubeSats have already phoned home shortly after their release, indicating that their solar panels are providing enough charge in their batteries to deploy their own solar arrays, stabilize themselves, pivot toward the Sun and turn on their radios.

Both MarCos use a compressed gas commonly found in fire extinguishers to push themselves through space, the same way Wall-E did.

Movie still of Wall-E and Eve Credit: Pixar

In addition to charging their own batteries, the twins’ delicate electronics will also need to withstand bursts of radiation on their way to Mars.

If all goes according to plan, InSight will reach its destination in a little less than seven months. If the twins make it they will provide a welcome set of extra eyes as InSight tries to stick its landing on Mars.

This will be a crucial first test of CubeSat technology beyond Earth’s orbit, demonstrating how they could be used to further explore the solar system.


Hatching Stink Bugs

Husni Che Ngah photographed newly hatched stink bug nymphs around their empty egg shells. (Credit: Husni Che Ngah/Biosphoto)

They’re creepy when they buzz loudly past you towards light sources and produce an extremely pungent odor when disturbed, but stink bugs live their lives content to feed on plants and would rather not encounter you.

There are more than 200 species of stink bugs in North America. Adults are usually some shade of green, tan, or gray-brown.

After mating, the female lays batches of 20 to 30 eggs, depositing them on the underside of plant leaves. Her eggs look like tiny barrels and are light green in color to blend in with their surroundings and avoid predators. Sometimes the eggs are pearly white at first, turning pink later. On top of each egg is a circle of white projections.

A single female can lay up to 300 eggs in a single season.

Stink bug nymphs and their eggs on underside of citrus leaf Photo credit: Project
Stink bug nymphs and their eggs Credit: pinimg.com
Macrophoto of hatching stink bug by Adolf Abi-Aad/Flickr.com

The eggs hatch in four to five days, marking the beginning of the nymph stage. A small triangle on each egg shell is used by the nymph as a knife to cut the shell open. Stink bug nymphs usually remain gregarious for a short period of time after hatching, as they begin to feed and molt.

The time lapse video below shows live bugs in their egg shells © 2012 by Tim Doyle







Photo History of Eyeglasses

I thought it would be fun to look at the changes made to eyeglasses throughout the ages.

The first pair of what we would consider eyeglasses appeared in the late 1400s in Pisa, Italy. These eyeglasses actually looked like two small magnifying glasses (made with convex-shaped glass) riveted together at the top of their handles. The Museum of Vision notes that early eyeglasses were mostly used by monks and scholars.

Conrad von Soest, The Glasses Apostle, 1403

Lorgnettes were popular in France. A lorgnette is, quite simply, a pair of spectacles mounted on a handle.  It was an indispensable accessory for the 19th century lady about town.

Lady with lorgnette by Unknown Artist

The rarest, and most expensive, lorgnettes are those commissioned to have a watch embedded within the handle.

Vintage lorgnette

As the 19th Century ended, tastes changed toward more inexpensive, everyday spectacles such as the pince-nez. French for “pinch nose,” the pince-nez was first developed in France circa 1840 and began to be imported to America after the 1850s. Their popularity was helped by political figures such as Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge who wore them regularly.

Trade card showing pince-nez

The American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing bifocals in the mid 1700s. He split one lens in half, with the upper part being made for distance viewing and the lower part for near viewing. Antique Spectacles notes that Franklin wrote to London philanthropist George Whatley in May 1785, “As I wear my own glasses constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready.”

Benjamin Franklin

For most of the 1940s, round circle sunglasses with thick plastic frames were the trendy fashionable look.

Some people are famous for their eyeglasses like:

John Lennon
Dame Edna rhinestone glasses Tim Whitby Getty Images
Steve Jobs, 2008 AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Woody Allen
Iris Afpfel hsn:Instagram

What’s new:  smart glasses are wearable computer glasses that add information alongside or to what the wearer sees.

Apple smart glasses Credit: Shutterstock
Chinese police woman wearing smart glasses to access instant intellienge. Credit: AFP




Going with the Glow

Photo by Xiaohan Wang Note: This image has been digitally enhanced to make the colors more vibrant.

Xiaoham Wang first noticed the impressive central band of the Milky Way Galaxy. Stopping to take the photograph shown above, he noticed the image also had airglow bands,which were quite prominent spanning the entire sky.

What is airglow? Airglow is a layer of nighttime light emissions caused by chemical reactions high in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is caused by a variety of reactions involving oxygen, sodium and OH molecules (oxygen bonded to hydrogen).

Airglow is an example of chemiluminescence – the production of light in a chemical reaction.

Unlike Auroras airglows happen all of the time anywhere in the world, but they are usually hard to see. A disturbance — like an approaching storm — may cause noticeable rippling in the Earth’s atmosphere. The bands and patches of an airglow can shift and vary over minutes.

Green light from excited oxygen atoms dominates the glow. Another airglow component is the familiar yellow light from sodium atom.  Excited OH molecules emit red light.

Here are some other beautiful examples:

Airglow fan near Milky Way Galaxy above lake next to Bryce Canyon in Utah Photo by Dave Lane
Airglow in Loveland Pass Colorado by Bryce Bradford/fFlickr.com
Airglow in the skies over Tibet. Photo by Jeff Dai following some powerful


A Single Atom of Strontium

If you paid attention in science class you know that atoms make up everything. They’re the smallest unit of matter and everything you’ve ever touched, felt, or breathed is made up of matter, include your own body. They’re so small, in fact, that actually seeing an individual atom is pretty much impossible without the use of high-powered microscopes. I say “pretty much,” because there is apparently an exception to that rule and a truly remarkable photo showing a single atom captured in space has been awarded first prize in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s annual science photography competition.

The photographer, David Nadlinger, is a quantum physics student at the University of Oxford.

Photo credit: David Nadlinger Univ Oxford EPSRC

In the centre of the picture, a small bright dot is visible – a single positively-charged strontium atom. It is held nearly motionless by electric fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it. When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet color, the atom absorbs and re-emits light sufficient for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph.

Here’s a close-up of the single atom. Credit: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford/EPSRC

For a sense of scale the two electrodes on each side of the tiny dot are only two millimeters apart. The photograph was captured in a device called an ion trap.   To prevent the atom from zooming off, the trap employs an ultra-high vacuum chamber.

Pretty amazing. David Nadlinger has shattered the boundary between our reality, and the nanoscopic matter that shapes it.


A Rare Find in Tasmania

The spotted handfish is one of the world’s most endangered marine fish, having undergone a massive decline in recent decades.

Handfish grow up to 5” long, and have skin covered with tooth-like scakes, giving them the alternate name warty anglers. They get their name from the way they used their pectoral (side) fins like hands to grip the bottom. They rarely swim – they prefer to walk along the bottom on their fins feeding on small invertebrates.

Once relatively common, red handfish have become scarce in recent years, probably due to habitat loss and changing sea conditions.

Divers in Tasmania have discovered a new population of red handfish. The newly discovered colony could double their total population to 80 individuals.

This very rare red handfish has two color morphs – one a brilliant red with bluish and white fin margins, the other mottled pink with reddish spots and patches on the body and fins.

Photo by Rick Stuart/Reef Live Survey

Threats to red handfish include poaching for use as pets.  Also its low reproductive rate and low dispersal rate have raised fears of extinction.

Hopefully, the discovery of this second population means the red handfish has an alternative destiny ahead of it.

Here’s a short video by Michael Baron of two red handfish on the move:

A Tribute to Audubon

Nineteenth-century naturalist, ornithologist, and artist John James Audubon lived the later years of his life in northern Manhattan, in what is now the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem. Audubon is best known for his comprehensive book, The Birds of America, which was accompanied by beautiful, detailed illustrations of many of the birds.

Illustrated page from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. Photo by Susie Cushner

Today, visitors to Hamilton Heights will discover a series of amazing murals that honor Audubon while bringing attention to the effects of climate change on North America’s bird populations. Known as the Audubon Mural Project, the murals are a collaborative effort of the National Audubon Society and Gitler & ______Gallery (yes, that’s the gallery’s actual name – there is an underlined blank space).

This spray-painted menagerie graces roll-down gates and barren walls with permission of willing property owners. Here are a few examples:

Bay breasted warbler semipalmated plover by Fifty/FFTY Photo by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Western Bluebird at 1614 Amsterdam, NYC Artist: Shawn Bullen Photo: Hillary Eggers/Audubon
Anhinga at 3458 Broadway, NYC Artist: Lexi Bella Photo: Hillary Eggers Audubon
Spotted owl at 3841 Broadway, NYC Artist: Paul Nassar Photo: Hillary Eggers/Audubon
Roseate spoonbill at 3541 Broadway, NYC
Artist: Danielle Mastrion Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

Elsewhere, Audubon himself is rendered in flesh tones and with mutton-chop sideburns, staring curiously at a cerulean warbler on his shoulder with neither his rifle nor palette at hand.

John James Audubon contemplating the Cerulean Warbler at 601 W. 149th NYC Artist: Tom Sanford Photo : Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The National Audubon Society’s website has a map showing the location of each mural. The website also serves as an excellent guide for a tour of the murals, as it gives much more information about each one, including an explanation of how the birds are being affected by climate change and some remarks by each artist about their art.


Check out this video of Damien Mitchell creating a mural of a peregrine falcon for the Audubon Mural Project: