The comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed close to Mars

The comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring observed by the WISE space telescope (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring observed by the WISE space telescope (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Yesterday the comet C/2013 A1, also known as Siding Spring, passed very close to Mars. The distance from the planet was as low as about 140,000 km (about 87,000 miles), one third of the distance of the Moon from Earth, very close in astronomical terms. The event was followed by several telescopes but nearby ther was was the Earth’s “star fleet” consisting of NASA’s probes and rovers, ESA’s Mars Express probe and the Indian MOM – aka Mangalyaan – probe.

Discovered on January 3, 2013, the comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring comes from the Oort cloud, the cloud of comets that according to astronomers could exist at the edge of the solar system. Its distance from the Sun is thousands of times greater than that of Pluto so it’s impossible to see the comets that make it up. This makes it difficult to confirm its existence, however, comets keep on coming in the inner solar system so there must be something!

The origin of comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring makes it more interesting than ever. Comets are generally fossils of the first phase of the solar system’s history, the ones that come from the Oort cloud may have been unchanged or barely changed for a few billion years.

It wasn’t possible to see the comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring with the naked eye from Earth but many telescopes have already started observing it for some time. The various space probes in orbit around Mars have also tried to carry out analyzes of the dust and gas that fell into the atmosphere of the red planet.

It’s a truly unique opportunity to analyze a comet at close range, so much so that some of the Martian space probes have been moved to avoid the risk of being hit by part of its tail. Those are small particles but the comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring travels in a direction opposite to Mars therefore the speed relative to the planet is about 190,000 km/h (about 118,000 mph). Even dust can be dangerous due to the kinetic energy it would have in its impact with a spacecraft.

After the passage of Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, NASA has confirmed that its space probes have suffered no damage. MAVEN started studying the possible effects of gas and dust from the comet’s tail on the atmosphere of Mars. Probably the first images and analyzes will start arriving in the coming days.

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The ancient creatures known as vetulicolians might be the strangest relatives of human beings

A reconstruction of various species that belong to the phylum Vetucolia

A reconstruction of various species that belong to the phylum Vetucolia

A group of researchers at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum in Australia published in the journal “BMC Evolutionary Biology” an article that explains why vetulicolians, which are those belonging to the phylum Vetulicolia (image ©Apokryltaros), could be the strangest relatives of humans.

These creatures had lived in the Cambrian, 500 million years ago, and their fossils were discovered for the first time more than a century ago, in 1911, but their taxonomic status remained uncertain. After this new research, things could change.

Vetulicolians were strange-looking sea creatures, with bodies consisting of two parts: the front one was massive with a “mouth” and a row of five large round or oval structures on each side that were perhaps gills. The back part was composed of seven segments. These two parts were separated by a kind of bottleneck.

The phylum Vetulicolia was composed of several species whose fossils have been found in various parts of the world. Several species of vetulicolians have in fact been found in Canada, Greenland, China and Australia. New fossils have been found on Kangaroo Island, part of South Australia. It’s thanks to them, called Nesonektris, that researchers have obtained what they see as evidence of their proper taxonomic placement.

According to the authors of this research, vetulicolians were close relatives of vertebrates and therefore distant cousins ​​of humans. The evidence would be in a rod-like structure in their bodies that supports their long tail. It looks like a notochord, which is the precursor of the backbone.

The researchers point out that this type of structure was found only in vertebrates and their relatives. The consequence is that vetulicolians must also be related to vertebrates. According to Dr. Diego Garcia-Bellido, the main author of the article that describes the research, these animals are a proof of the extraordinary diversity of life during the Cambrian period.

That ancient period saw an explosion of very diverse life forms. Today, it’s often difficult to understand the relations among many creatures of the Cambrian because many of them have very little resemblance to those living today. Vetulicolians don’t look like fishes and even less to mammals yet they could be the unlikely cousins ​​of humans.

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Happy birthday Charles Stross!

Charles Stross in 2013 at DortCon Dortmund, Germany

Charles Stross in 2013 at DortCon Dortmund, Germany

Charles David George Stross (photo ©Xanathon) was born on October 18, 1964 in Leeds, England.

Charles Stross have wanted to be a science fiction writer since he was a kid but ended up studying pharmacy. Already in the ’70s, he started to tinkering around with home computers and having an interest in role-playing games, so much that he published articles in the magazine “White Dwarf” about “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.

In 1987, Charles Stross published his first science fiction story, “The Boys”, in the magazine “Interzone” but initially that was an occasional activity. He realized that pharmacy wasn’t really his field and at the end of the ’80s he decided to turn to computer science.

Over the years, Charles Stross has worked as a programmer and as a journalist. Since 1994, he held a column about Linux operating system in the journal “Computer Shopper”. It lasted until 2004, when he decided to devote more time to his work as a science fiction writer.

The first novel by Charles Stross is “Scratch Monkey” but it was published only in 2011 It’s also available online, for example on the website that hosts the author’s blog.

The first published novel by Charles Stross is “Singularity Sky” (2003). It introduces a post-technological singularity fictional universe in which he also included themes such as transhumanism, space opera and other typical of the author such as information freedom. In 2004 he published a sequel, “Iron Sunrise”.

In 2004, Charles Stross published “The Atrocity Archives“, which contains the novel “The Atrocity Archive” and the novella “The Concrete Jungle”, which won the Hugo Award. They are the first stories of the Laundry series about a secret British agency the protagonist Bob Howard is recruited by with an offer he cannot refuse.

In the Laundry series, demonology is a branch of the mathematical sciences and there’s a mix of geek and Lovecraftian elements with those of British spy story and the humor typical of Charles Stross. In the following years some sequels were published: “The Jennifer Morgue” in 2006, “The Fuller Memorandum” in 2009, “The Apocalypse Codex” in 2012 and “The Rhesus Chart” in 2014 as well as some short fiction. A role-playing game based on these stories was also created.

In 2004, Charles Stross also published the first novel of another series, that of the Merchant Princes. In this fictional universe some humans can travel between parallel worlds with different levels of technology. Originally, the publisher proposed it as fantasy but it’s actually science fiction. The series consists of: “The Family Trade” (2004), “The Hidden Family” (2005), “The Clan Corporate” (2006), “The Merchants’ War” (2007), “The Revolution Business” (2009) and “The Trade of Queens” (2010). The first three novels have won the Sidewise Award for alternate History, an award given to the best works of alternative history.

The novels of the cycle of Merchant Princes have recently been republished in only three books: “The Bloodline Feud”, “The Traders’ War” and “The Revolution Trade”.

In 2005, “Accelerando” was published, winner of the Locus Award, consisting of some interconnected stories that tell the story of three generations of a family before, during and after the technological singularity.

In 2006 the novel “Glasshouse” was published, set in the 27th century, which addresses social issues more than previous ones, without forgetting the technological ones. It won the Prometheus Award and in Germany the Kurd-Lasswitz-Preis.

In 2006, Charles Stross published the novella “Missile Gap”, winner of the Locus Award.

In 2007, Charles Stross published “Halting State“, set in the near future in an independent Scotland. In 2011 he published a sequel, “Rule 34“. The author had planned a third novel in the series but felt that the revelations about mass surveillance by the NSA in particular made some of the basic issues addressed in the two published novels obsolete.

In 2008, Charles Stross published “Saturn’s Children“, a space opera inspired by Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In 2013 he published the sequel “Neptune’s Brood”.

In 2012, Charles Stross published with Cory Doctorow’s the novel “The Rapture of the Nerds”, a fix-up of two novellas and a new part.

Many of the best Charles Stross’s short fiction have been collected in the anthologies “Toast: And Other Rusted Futures” in 2002 and “Wireless: The Essential Charles Stross” in 2009.

Charles Stross also writes on his blog Charlie’s Diary, a useful resource for those who want to learn more about his ideas and interests. Often his works aren’t easy to read for those who don’t have a good knowledge of technology, especially information technology. The people who can understand him fully can appreciate stories that typically go well beyond hard science fiction for the influences of other genres and his humor.

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Water ice photographed on Mercury

The Kandinsky crater on Mercury photographed by the Messenger space probe (Image ASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The Kandinsky crater on Mercury photographed by the Messenger space probe (Image ASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

An article published in the journal “Geology” illustrates the discovery of water ice on the planet Mercury made ​​thanks to NASA’s Messenger (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) space probe. Several pictures show frozen water and other materials in permanently shadowed craters near Mercury’s north pole.

The theory that on Mercury there could be frozen water goes back many years. This possibility was taken into account despite the generally very high temperatures on the planet’s surface analyzing radar images taken from Earth. They revealed the existence of deposits at the poles that had the characteristics of ice water but it took years to verify that theory.

In 2012, thanks to the Messenger space probe it was possible to make more accurate analyzes from the planet’s orbit with various types of instruments. In 2012, Messenger allowed to gather evidence of the existence of ice at the north pole of the planet. Thanks to the extension of this probe’s mission, it was possible to take several photographs of some polar craters to have further confirmation of the existence of water ice.

Water on Mercury can be present only in perennial shadow so it wasn’t easy to get photographs that reveal the deposits. After several attempts, however, the mission team was able to obtain the desired images using the Messenger probe’s wide-angle chamber (WAC) of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument.

Photographs of deposits of water ice were obtained and sometimes also of other materials. Those are probably materials rich in organic compounds, which make this investigation even more interesting. Those deposits have been identified in craters such as Kandinsky and Prokofiev.

In the crater Berlioz, whose position is at a lower latitude, it’s too hot even in the permanent shadow to have water ice on the surface. Instead, under the surface it’s cold enough to have stable ice.

One of the main questions about these deposits regards their age. It’s a major problem because the answer has implications for the problem of the water arrival on all the rocky planets, including Earth. The images indicate that the polar deposits are composed of water arrived recently or that it’s regularly restored through some process.

Another interesting element of the research is the difference between Mercury and the Moon, which under other points of view are similar. In the Moon’s polar regions it’s colder than on Mercury’s but they look different. This problem also can help to better understand the processes of formation and evolution of Mercury, the Moon and the Earth as well.

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Nikolay Davydenko retires

Nikolay Davydenko at the 2009 U.S. Open

Nikolay Davydenko at the 2009 U.S. Open

This morning, the Russian tennis player Nikolay Davydenko (photo ©Emmett Hume) has announced his retirement from the competitions in a press conference held in Moscow.

Nikolay Davydenko was born on June 2, 1981 in Volgograd, in the then USSR and now in Russia. He started playing tennis when he was 7 years old with his brother Eduard, who has always been his coach. He turned pro in 1999.

Initially, Nikolay Davydenko played tournaments in the Futures Tour then started attending those of the higher level, winning his first Challenger in 2000. His improvements have been slow but steady beyond some physical problem.

In 2003, Nikolay Davydenko won his first ATP tournament in Adelaide, Estoril and St. Pölten. These results showed his skills on different surfaces and the progress he made over the years through hard work.

In 2004, Nikolay Davydenko won the tournaments in Munich and Moscow. Especially he started having results consistently enough to bring him for the first time among the top 30 in the ATP rankings.

In 2005, Nikolay Davydenko started to get good results in the Grand Slams with the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semifinals at Roland Garros. During the year, he won again the tournament in St. Pölten and qualified for the first time for the ATP Finals, reaching the semifinals finishing the year at no. 5 in the ATP rankings.

In 2006, Nikolay Davydenko had his best year, winning again the tournaments in Estoril and Moscow and those of Pörtschach, Båstad, Sopot, New Haven and Paris-Bercy. He also reached the for the first time semifinals at the U.S. Open. During the year he also married Irina and helped Russia to win the Davis Cup. He finished the year at no. 3 in the ATP rankings, his best result.

In 2007, Nikolay Davydenko won the tournament in Moscow obly but got so many good results that he finished the year at no. 4 in the ATP rankings.

In 2008, Nikolay Davydenko won again the tournaments at Estoril and Pörtschach and those of Miami, Warsaw and Shanghai. At the ATP Finals he reached the final for the first time.

In 2009, a left foot injury hampered the first part of the season for Nikolay Davydenko. After missing a few months, he managed to win the tournaments in Umag, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. Above all, at the end of the year he won the ATP Finals.

In early 2010, Nikolay Davydenko won the Qatar Open but due to a wrist injury he had to skip several weeks and after his return he struggled to return to his previous levels.

In 2011, Nikolay Davydenko won the Qatar Open again and the tournament in Munich but his decline started. The speed and reflexes that had characterized his best years seemed in decline and his results were affected. The Russian won his last tournament, again the Qatar Open, in 2013.

In recent years, Nikolay Davydenko had various physical problems and couldn’t get back to 100% anymore and aventually he decided to retire. He was a player without a great talent but reached extraordinary levels working hard with consistency.

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NASA identified the potential targets in the Kuiper Belt for the New Horizons space probe

Artistic concept of a Kuiper Belt Object with its orbit compared to the ones of some planets (Image NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI))

Artistic concept of a Kuiper Belt Object with its orbit compared to the ones of some planets (Image NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI))

NASA announced that it identified three potential targets for the mission of the New Horizons spacecraft after its Pluto flyby. They are Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) found using the Hubble Space Telescope exactly for this purpose.

The research program of KBOs was successful from the start, leading to the discovery of two interesting objects and then three more. In particular, the first object discovered, identified as 1110113Y, was subsequently defined certainty targetable. For this reason, it’s called PT1 by the team of the New Horizons mission.

Two more of the five KBOs found by the Hubble Space Telescope have been called PT2 and PT3 by the New Horizons mission team, which defined them as potentially targetable. They will require further observations over the coming months to track more accurately their orbits and understand whether and how the spacecraft will be able to reach one of them.

The observations made so far have allowed to understand something of the nature of these KBOs. Astronomers always hope to find more planets in the solar system but the potential targets of the New Horizons mission are essentially large asteroids with a diameter estimated between 25 and 55 kilometers (between 15 and 34 miles).

Their distance from the Sun is more than forty times that of the Earth so their light is very dim and it was hard to even find them. Measuring their size accurately is even more difficult and probably we’ll see the real aspect only of the KBO that will actually be reached by the New Horizons spacecraft.

These KBOs are debris left over from the solar system’s formation phase, as a result they have remained virtually unchanged except for the occasional collision for billions of years. Such objects have contributed to the formation of the planets that exist today and it’s for this reason that they are so interesting.

For budget reasons, the New Horizons space probe was supplied with enough fuel to reach only one of the KBOs identified. The exact trajectory will be determined at a later time but probably the target will be reached in 2019.

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