12-4-12 Next Thursday is Yuri’s Night, an international celebration of human achievement and ingenuity, in recognition of mankind’s achievements in space exploration—with hopes of inspiring a new generation to continue looking upward and reaching outward. Fifty-one years ago, Yuri Gagarin was the first human to launch into space. He later commented, “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty – not destroy it!

Do something on Yuri's night.  Look up some local or online event. Or just step outside with someone impressionable, and infect them with a sense of wonder.  And determination.

How do we recapture our enthusiasm for space? Neil deGrasse Tyson examines America’s ailing aerospace industry and NASA’s shrinking vision -- and asks what it would take for America to remain the leading power in space: “In fact we may be entering a new age of geopolitics, in which economic strength wields greater power than military strength. If that’s the case, we shouldn’t need reminders that innovations in science and technology drive tomorrow’s economies. That’s been true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. And so healthy investment in space exploration—something we saw 50 years ago, and something many other countries have just figured out—is like a new force of nature operating on a nation’s economic prosperity. As nothing else does, the frontier of space exploration, which draws upon a dozen fields of science and engineering, attracts the ambitions of those who are still in the educational pipeline. It is they who become the scientists and technologists. It is they who invent tomorrow.”

Hear hear. Every decade since the forties, some scientific breakthrough (or several) enabled the U.S. to stay rich and vibrant enough to then spend it all in the Great Buying Spree that propelled world prosperity and created a world-majority Middle Class. That is, every decade except the first decade of the 21st Century, amid the calamitous War on Science.

The possibilities are there! See my video: Grand Scale Reasons to Explore Space. I am on the board of advisers for the NASA Innovative and Advanced Concepts program. Last week in Pasadena we saw some outtasight and amazing proposals, some of them both groundbreaking and apparently eminently practical. All we have to do is rediscover within ourselves the kind of people who step outside and look up, now and then.

==Exoplanets and Runaway Planets==

Turns out there could be billions of habitable planets around faint red dwarf stars in our galaxy. Well... maybe.

An international team, including astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has applied the technique of gravitational microlensing to measure how common planets are in the Milky Way, surveying millions of stars over six years. The team concludes that planets around stars are the rule rather than the exception.  How was it done? Beyond gravitational wobble and Kepler's occultation method, there's an added method by which exoplanets are detected - via the way that the gravitational field of their host stars acts like a lens, magnifying the light of a background star. If the star that acts as a lens has a planet in orbit around it, the planet can make a detectable contribution, warping the brightening effect on the background star.

Microlensing is a very powerful tool, with the potential to detect exoplanets that could never be found any other way. But a very rare chance alignment of a background and foreground star is required for a microlensing event to be seen at all. And, to spot a planet during the rare event, an additional chance alignment of the planet’s orbit is also needed.  Significantly, any one episode is likely never to be repeated, so you can't learn much about the planet.  This mostly helps by offering statistics.  In  six year's worth of microlensing data used in the analysis, three exoplanets were firmly detected... enough to suggest that planets are very abundant. (In fact, we astonomers always expected it to be so, because of angular momentum considerations; but it is good to see proof.)

In other news: Astronomers believe that runaway planets may zoom at a fraction of speed of light. When a solar system passed close to a black hole, all sorts of wild stuff can happen, including planets being expelled from the galaxy at relativistic speeds!

==Solar Tornadoes, Micro Black Holes&Civilization's End==

Astronomers present images of a solar tornado as much as five times the width of Earth, an event they believe triggers solar storms.  Cool images!  Reminding me of the days when I was a solar observer at the Big Bear Observatory and caught on film the Great Flare of ‘72.  Yep!  By crickey!

Should we fear collisions with micro-black holes? Scientists seem convinced that such a tiny singularity (black hole) would pass right through our planet without gobbling enough mass to slow down.  Fair enough.  But what if the singularity were local?  So in much lower-velocity orbit in the Solar system?  Or even (as I portrayed in my novel EARTH) man-made?  One of ten thousand possible explanations for why we seem to be alone in the universe?

Noted author and futurist Vernor Vinge is surprisingly optimistic when it comes to the prospect of civilization collapsing. “I think that [civilization] coming back would actually be a very big surprise,” he says in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

And see a  fairly wise article on SETI by my esteemed colleague Nick Sagan.

==Fusion Finally?==

Computer simulations of magnetically-confined inertial fusion, suggest we may be a lot closer to workable fusion reactors than previously thought. Sandia Labs will test the simulation experimentally in 2013.  To which frequent blog commentor Sociotard cogently replied: “A scientist performing a detailed simulation of fusion is as close to making a meatspace model as a middleschooler making out with her pillow is to actually reaching second base.”

==Tech Updates==

Boston Dynamics does it again!  See the "sand flea rover"  prototype of a wheeled robot that can also (sproing!) leap actual tall buildings in a single bound.  Amazing... and highly relevant to our mission at the NASA Innovative and Advanced Concepts group. Watch the video.

Patent Bolt has discovered that Microsoft has been secretly working on a video headset since September 2010. A New Microsoft patent reveals that they’ve been working two styles of headset: an aviation styled helmet aimed at Xbox gamers, and one that resembles a pair of sunglasses for use with smartphones, MP3 players and other future devices.

MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a camera that peers around corners. It can “see” objects hidden behind walls... via a non-imaging method akin to radar, bouncing off other walls. that are in-view. The system can produced recognizable 3-D images of a wooden figurine and of foam cutouts outside their camera’s line of sight.

Printing three dimensional objects with incredibly fine details is now possible using "two-photon lithography". With this technology, tiny structures on a nanometer scale can be fabricated. (I was involved in the earliest version of this technique, back in the 1980s!)

Visualizing light in motion at a trillion frames per second..

== Great Sci-Television ==

Is There an Edge to the Universe? This episode of Morgan Freeman's Through the Wormhole will blow your mind!

Our family liked the whole series.  Well. Except the episode about "The Sixth Sense." And the fact that they could have used a physicist sci fi- author pundit, now and then...