Tonight is the night of the Yule moon, also called the “wolf moon” (the first new full moon of the year), and coincidentally will be the largest and brightest full moon of 2010. This is because the Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle but an ellipse, with its nearest point to Earth some 31 thousand miles closer than its furthest. And occasionally the full moon will coincide with this closest approach, which is enough for the moon to appear 14% larger and 30% brighter than at any other time this year. Incidentally, this also means the previous new moon was very nearly the smallest it could have been, which is why – along with occurring with Earth at its nearest to the Sun – the solar eclipse on January 15th was annular (Space.com).
Also watching the skies tonight may be Luchezar Filipov, Deputy Head of Space Exploration at the Bulgarian Academy of Science. However, Filipov’s interest is not the Moon, but aliens, who he believes are living among us on Earth at this very moment. Filipov and his team claim to be in telepathic contact with the aliens, who he says are friendly, but could not establish a coherent conversation because of our “lack of evolution”. This lack of coherence appears to have only been one way however, as Filipov was still able to state that the aliens were critical of our immoral behaviour, environmental destruction and use of cosmetics and artificial insemination, which they condemned as unnatural – unlike space travel one presumes. The next meeting of minds between Filipov and the aliens is scheduled for sometime in spring this year (Sofia Echo).
But perhaps the aliens are backing the wrong species, because it’s move over Iron Man and make way for Iron Snail. The scaly-foot snail is certainly well protected for its kind, with an iron rich outer layer that deters piercing, a thick organic middle that dissipates the force of an attack and a calcified inner layer that gives the shell sufficient rigidity to resist attempts to crush it. The snail’s armour is so good that it’s attracted the interest of the Department of Defense, who are seeing if any useful lessons could be learned for application in the man-made versions (MIT).
Someone else who could have benefited from some armour is “Macho B”, who was – until his death in February last year, the last known wild jaguar in South West America. Perversely, it wasn’t poachers who did for him in the end but Arizona’s own Fish and Game Department, who deny it was their intention to capture the jaguar despite setting snares around his territory. Now a federal inquiry has concluded that Macho B was trapped deliberately, and the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to bring charges (NY Times).
But even as the jaguar takes one step nearer joining the dinosaurs in extinction, scientists are one step closer to bringing them back, in our imaginations at least. For the first time, a team from China, the United Kingdom and Ireland have determined the colours and pattern of a dinosaur, a metre-long feathered carnivore called Sinosauropteryx. Turns out the bird-like bipeds were orange, with white striped tails and a “mohawk” display crest on their heads. Despite the feathers, Sinosauropteryx was a flightless reptile who most likely used its feathers primarily for display (CBC).
In the future, all people will smell this way! Well maybe not, but design house Genki Wear has launched three Star Trek themed scents for the trekkie who has everything, including B.O.
For the men there's a choice of Tiberius or Red Shirt. The former refers to the "T" of James T. Kirk, and presumably makes you smell like a womanising maverick. The latter an allusion to the numerous expendable extras from the original series; though why smelling like someone with a life expectancy of minutes is supposed to be a turn on is not explained. For the women there's Pon Farr, named for the stage of a Vulcan's life where their emotions come to the surface and they become both aggressive and sexually receptive. Fortunately for Earthwomen (and their partners) the pointy ears and domestic violence are optional, and staging fights to the death with gardening implements is not advised.
It is surprising to think that less than fifteen years ago we knew of no planets but those in our own solar system. Now astronomers discover them with such frequency that it takes finding a potentially habitable one like Gliese-581d to stir the public’s interest. But a British team at the Isaac Newton Telescope on the Canary Islands may have done something much more amazing than finding another planet in the Milky Way, they believe they may have just detected one in another galaxy. The object orbits a star in the Andromeda galaxy, more than 2.5 million light-years away from Earth, causing that star to wobble. Normally any motion would be invisible at such a distance, but by chance the distant solar system is acting like a lens in front of even more distant stars, and every wobble of the lens is magnified enough to be discernable (Scientific American).
Closer to home, relatively, is the planet is known only as WASP-18b, but if it were ever to be given a proper name it would be “Icarus”, for this is a planet that has flown too close to its sun. WASP-18b is the 375th extrasolar planet discovered by astronomers, and is possibly the most extreme one yet. It is another gas giant like Jupiter, but ten times the size of our neighbourhood giant, yet it orbits its star in less than a day. This 22.5 hour long “year” would mean the planet is so close to its sun, and moving so fast, that tidal forces are almost certainly dragging the planet inwards to its doom. The team from Keele University that discovered WASP-18b, led by Coel Hellier, calculate that realistically the planet probably has less than a million years left (Nature).