2011 Preview of Science Headlines

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The Fiske Planetarium and Science Center at CU-Boulder is proud to bring you a new monthly column on current topics in the earth and space sciences. Here are some developing science and technology headlines that are sure to spark imagination and curiosity. In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at these and other topics.

The Retirement of the space shuttle:
NASA’s 30-year-old space shuttle program, with a surviving fleet of three orbiters, has reached the end of its useful lifetime. NASA and Congress have called for the retirement of the nation’s flagship spacecraft. If you have never been to Florida to see the shuttle launch, we highly recommend you do so before it’s too late. The sound and sight of a launch is amazing. The final flight is currently scheduled for April.

Discovery of earth-like planets: In March 2009, NASA launched the Kepler mission. This spacecraft stares continuously at more than 100,000 stars. It looks for a very slight dimming of starlight that would be caused by a planet passing in front of a star and blocking some of its light from reaching earth. To date, Kepler has found about 10 planets around these stars, with hundreds of potential candidates waiting to be confirmed. Now that Kepler is entering its third year of operation, and since planets like earth or Mars take one to two years to orbit a star, scientists believe this is the year that we may begin finding many earth-like planets.

Launch of the next generation of Mars rovers: Later this fall, NASA plans to launch the much-awaited successor to the Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity.” Formally known as the “Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)” and named “Curiosity,” this Volkswagen-sized rover will be far more capable than the current rovers. Curiosity will be able to travel much faster and farther than the current rovers. Like its predecessors, Curiosity’s mission is to look for chemical and mineral evidence of life on the red planet.

Testing the standard models of gravity and quantum mechanics: For the better part of 80 years the world of physics has been dominated by two elegant yet incomplete and incompatible theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, which describe the behavior of the very large, and the very small, respectively. Some hope that mathematics might unify these descriptions of the universe, while others believe that the discovery of predicted sub-atomic particles might do so. Enter the “Large Hadron Collider,” located near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC is the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. Scientists believe that in coming months and years the LHC will either help to solidify long-standing theories, or force us to rethink them.

Renewable energy vs. fossil fuels: Apart from the politicized issue that “global warming” has become, there is widespread agreement that fossil fuels will get scarcer and more expensive over time. Renewable energy technologies are increasingly viable from a technological standpoint. Acceptance and utilization of these technologies has been slow in the U.S. because they are generally more expensive than fossil fuels. However, as prices of “traditional” fuels climb, economic incentives are joining environmental reasons in making renewable sources attractive.

Fiske Planetarium is located on the main CU campus, north of the Kittredge Commons and east of the new Center for Community building, on Regent Drive. Fiske has the largest planetarium dome between Los Angeles and Chicago, and hosts 30,000 people each year. It has been serving Boulder and surrounding Front Range communities for over 35 years.
If there are science topics and/or headlines that you’d like to know more about please let us know (Fiske@colorado.edu). Visit the website http://Fiske.colorado.edu for a list of upcoming speakers and programs. You may also securely leave your e-mail through our web page, and automatically receive a calendar of upcoming programs on the first day of each month. The next live Fiske talk is Saturday, Feb. 5. Cal Tech astronomer Mike Brown, discoverer of several new planets beyond Pluto, will give a talk based on his new book:
How I killed Pluto, and Why it had it Coming!