The Moon will be full this evening. A full moon occurs approximately once every calendar month, when the Earth is positioned between the Sun and the Moon, so that observers located on the unlit side of the Earth are directly facing the fully-lighted face of the Moon.
At this time, the Moon is normally near it's brightest as seen from Earth; however, this evening at around 7:30 PM EDT, a portion of the Moon will darken noticeably as it enters and passes through the shadow of the Earth. This is known as a lunar eclipse. This event may already be in-progress at moonrise if you live in the US.
Lunar eclipses don't occur every month because the Sun-Earth-Moon alignment is rarely along a straight line. When they do occur, eclipses vary in degree from "partial" (where the Moon is only partly in the Earth's shadow) to "full", where the Moon is entirely darkened by the Earth's shadow. This evening's lunar eclipse is of the "partial" variety, and is more specifically known as a "Penumbral Lunar Eclipse" because only the Moon's southern edge passes through the outer edge of the Earth's shadow.
You can learn more about tonight's eclipse on the NASA web site.
This will be the last lunar eclipse of the year 2013. Enjoy!!
by James Toothman
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Sunday September 8th, 2013 photo of the Moon and Venus appearing together in close proximity in the twilight sky over New Jersey. This apparent alignment in the sky as observed from Earth is known as a conjunction. Image taken using Canon EOS Rebel T2i with Sigma 18x250mm zoom lens, 1/8th second exposure.
by James Toothman
Every Trekkie knows that slightly glitchy food replicators will be commonplace by the 24th century, providing personalized meal service on-demand to the crew of every star ship. Menu choices then will be limitless! But how do we get there?
Rewind 300 years or so. To kick things off, NASA is giving a Texas-based engineering firm 6 months and 125 million dollars to learn how to make ... pizza.
Well, actually not just pizza. Though pizza is expected to be an early prototype, research contractor SMRC (Systems and Materials Research Corporation - Austin, TX) proposes to design machines that can serve up a wide variety of nutritious, if not delicious, foods from just a handful of raw ingredients. They've imagined lofty goals of widespread commercialization, possibly even the promise of averting a food war or putting an end to world hunger. Achieving success will depend upon radically extending the development of existing "additive manufacturing" technologies into the realm of cuisine.
More widely known as "3-D printing", additive manufacturing is so named because it quite literally builds 3-D objects by repeatedly depositing thin layers of material, adding one upon another until the desired final shape is complete. These 3-D printing devices function a lot like your everyday 2-D ink jet printer, except that they make multiple passes over the same surface. To print a pizza, the device follows a digital blueprint. The blueprint becomes the recipe. Instead of dispensing cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dyes onto paper, SMRC will blend sugars, starch, oils & fats, proteins, and water to concoct something hopefully resembling dough and cheese.
Historically, space food might generously be described as minimalistic. During the early years of space travel, size and weight were the primary considerations. It simply wasn't feasible to carry "real" foods, and so the earliest astronauts made do with freeze-dried chunks of protein and toothpaste-like tubes of goo.
As the space program progressed and spacecraft grew larger, so too did the menus. But these larger spacecraft also accommodated more astronauts, and for longer durations, raising the need to efficiently store even more food (and waste) for longer periods.
Even recently, Shuttle astronauts needed to pre-plan their meals months in advance of each space flight, under the careful guidance of a trained nutritionalist. The list of available menu items was, by comparison, surprisingly extensive ... basically the same ordinary grocery store foods that we all enjoy. However, only a small quantity of fresh breads, fruits, and vegetables, could be carried on each journey; most provisions were still specially prepared and packaged to reduce bulk, increase shelf life, and make eating them manageable in the microgravity of space.
Today, with an eye toward very long duration space flights to Mars, shelf-life has become the key factor. According to NASA, food stores for a manned mission to Mars would need a minimum shelf-life of 3-5 years, but the current generation of "rehydratable" and "thermostabilized" space food degrades over time and does not meet these requirements. SMRC reportedly hopes that the raw ingredients for their printable system could remain edible and nutritious for upwards of 30 years.
Is 3-D printed space food the way to go? I for one can't imagine planning all my meals years in advance, so being able to offer our astronauts countless spontaneous combinations of synthesized dishes would certainly seem to me to offer an advantage over the current method of recycling the same pre-planned menus week after week. Will synthesized food taste good? Taste necessarily may be only a secondary consideration for NASA, but one they will surely do their best to address ... a hungry astronaut is not a happy astronaut. Perhaps one day soon NASA can again honor Gene Roddenberry, visionary creator of "Star Trek", by naming their first tasty 3-Dessert after him: "Rodden-Berry Pie".
3-D printing is very trendy, sometimes controversial, and just now in it's infancy. If NASA can make printable food viable for space travel then it might just be around the corner for the rest of us too, joining the ranks of talking supercomputers, handheld portable communicators, and ion propulsion as fantasy-turned-fact. And yes, $125 million for pizza may sound expensive, but remember it will come with as many toppings as the astronauts like AND fast, free delivery to anywhere within low-Earth orbit in 30 minutes or less.
by James Toothman
It has captured the imaginations of science fiction fans the world over - the possibility of traveling to distant worlds in the blink of an eye - but it has remained little more than fantasy.
We currently occupy a time where a significant technological deficit prevents us from considering such propositions, but that does not mean that interstellar travel could not one day become reality. And, it seems, that we have taken one more step toward that goal.
In order to get around the cosmic speed limit, the concept of warp drive was introduced. Such a scenario would actually cause space-time around a space craft to expand and contract, creating a cosmic wave, if you will, upon which the ship would ride.
While Einstein's equations preclude mass from traveling at speeds greater than that of light, space-time itself has no known limitations. So creating a bubble of space-time that moves faster than the speed of light that carries a space ship along with it - that, in effect is stationary in reference to the space-time bubble - is a clever end around the limitations of physics.
However, there has always been a problem with this hypothetical warp drive: Energy.
Even if we possessed the technological knowledge to effectively warp space-time around an entire ship, which we don't, the energy needed was always thought to be prohibitive. However, a new design suggests that there may be ways to dramatically reduce the energy needed.
While there is still a long way to go - these new designs would still require roughly the entire electricity output for the entire world for an entire year just to get the thing going - these strides point to a future where, with more study, the idea of warp drive may no move from being highly improbable to possible.
Image Credit: Harold White/NASA