The reusable Skylon rocket might take flight as soon as 2022. (Courtsey RE Ltd)


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

September 2014

In the News:

Reusable Rocket Might Fly by 2022 - A new study by the European Launch Service Operator suggests that a single stage ground-to-orbit rocket, named Skylon, being designed by Reaction Engines Ltd could be ready for cargo flights to the International Space Station as soon as 2022. Unlike conventional multi-stage rockets which are mostly disposable, Skylon will take off from the ground horizontally - like a plane - fly into orbit, then return to Earth and land on a runway. This is made possible by its SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engines) which act like a jet till the craft reaches the height of 17 miles and then like a conventional rocket engine after that. Because the engine is using air gathered from the atmosphere for the first part of its flight, only a relatively small amount of liquid oxygen is needed to get the craft into orbit reducing weight. This will mean that the mission cost of a Skylon flight to space might be as little as $94 million. A variation of the SABRE engine, designed for commercial flight operations, might someday allow passengers to flight from Brussels to Sydney, in less than 4 hours.

Outside of ISS has Sea Plankton - According to the ITAR-TASS news agency Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station have discovered sea plankton on the exterior of the platform. The researchers used high-precision equipment to examine samples taken from outside the Russian segment of the station. The tests seem to suggest that some organisms can live on the surface of the ISS for years despite exposure to zero gravity, extreme temperature conditions and hard cosmic radiation. "Results of the experiment are absolutely unique," noted chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission Vladimir Solovyev. "We have found traces of sea plankton and microscopic particles on the illuminator surface. This should be studied further." It isn't clear how the outside of the station became the home to living material, but it may have come from contamination from rocket engine residue.

Dinosaurs Very Unlucky - According to a study in Biological Reviews, if dinosaurs hadn't been so very unlucky, they might still be around today. The study notes that if the asteroid that struck Earth at the end of the Cretaceous era had just come a few million years earlier, or later, the reptilians might have been spared. "The asteroid almost certainly did it," (killed the dinosaurs) said biologist Stephen Brusatte, who led the study, "but it just so happened to hit at a bad time when dinosaur ecosystems had been weakened by a loss of diversity." The study suggests that in the years before the asteroid hit the Earth was going through some extreme conditions including massive volcanic eruptions and extreme changes in temperature and sea level heights. This lead to fewer and less diverse species of dinosaurs and making them very vulnerable to the effects of the asteroid strike when it came.

Mummy Making in Egypt Goes Back Farther - According to a new study the Egyptians started making mummies much earlier in their history than previously thought. Generally the start of true Egyptian mummification is dated to about 2,500 B.C.. Preserved bodies found before that era were thought to be the results of natural processes caused by the hot, dry conditions of desert sand in which they were buried. In the current issue of PLOS ONE journal, however, researchers from the Universities of York, Macquarie and Oxford reported that embalming agents were soaked in linen wrappings that were used on bodies as far back as 4,500 B.C. and this is probably the true beginning of mummification. The researchers identified pine resin, plant gum or sugar, plant oil and animal fat in the wrappings along with other agents. The recipe seems very similar to that used during the height of the mummy craze in Egypt 3,000 years later.

Fracking Earthquakes - On August 19th scientists recorded 20 earthquakes in a single day in Oklahoma. Most of them were so tiny they went unnoticed except on sensitive equipment. One near the city of Guthrie, however, registered a 4.3 on the Richter scale. Why all the quakes? Scientists are speculating that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) which uses the injection of wastewater into the ground to tap oil and gas may be the problem. Unfortunately researchers can't yet predict which fracking sites might cause problems or suggest ways to mitigate the risk of tremors.


Science Quote of the Month - "Never memorize something that you can look up." - Albert Einstein


What's New at the Museum:

Could a Coronal Mass Ejection End Civilization? - Asteroid impacts and super volcanos eruptions have been in the news the past few years as events that send us back into the dark ages, but the real threat might be something you've may have never even heard of: a Coronal Mass Ejection. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

A Killer History - Who were the Assassins? - Octavio

The Assassins were an order of Nizari Ismailis (which itself is a branch of Islam) that became famous in the period of the 12th century for committing murders to forward their military or political goals. It is from their name that we get the English word for a professional killer: assassin.

The order was founded around 1080 A.D. by Hassan-i Sabbah who became its first Grandmaster. We don't know exactly why Sabbah started the order, but legend has it he wished to exact vengeance on his enemies. This probably included other Muslims as well as Christians who came to the region as part of the First Crusade.

As his headquarters Sabbah used the fortress at Alamut in what is now northwestern Iran. The order he created had a hierarchical structure with himself at the top. At the lowest level were the "Fida'i" (which means self-sacrificing agent). The Fida'i went through an extensive training program that included combat, convert operations, disguise, religion and the use of horses. A Fida'i also had to be cold, calculating, patient and willing to sacrifice his own life for the success of the mission. These traits made them perhaps the most feared assassins in the world at that time.

It is unclear exactly how Sabbah commanded such fervent loyalty among his foot soldiers. One story is that Sabbah, after drugging new recruits with hashish, would take them into a "secret garden of paradise" which contained attractive young maidens and beautiful plants. They were told that if they wanted to return to this wonderful place in the afterlife they would need to serve the order's cause.

Most scholars consider this story, which came from Marco Polo's writings, a myth, as the Alamut fortress shows no sign of ever having contained a "secret garden."

The Assassins had a strict code of ethics and never targeted common people, but only important political or military figures. They believed a single assassination could be used to achieve their goals instead of open warfare which would lead to widespread bloodshed. Their weapon of choice for such attacks was a dagger, sometimes tipped with poison.

Sometimes murder was unnecessary, however. It is said that Sultan Sanjar, who was at odds with the Nizari, woke up one morning to find an assassin's dagger driven into the ground beside his bed. Alarmed he secretly arranged a truce with the group which lasted for decades.

The end of the Assassins Order in Iran came in 1275. The Mongols invaded the region and it is thought that the order sent its agents to kill their leader, Möngke Khan. They failed and the Mongol army besieged Alamut. Eventually the fortress was taken and the order wiped out.

Another portion of the order, however, survived in Syria into the 14th century. Toward the end they may have worked as assassins for hire.

There are a lot of stories about the Assassins and they often appear as characters in both role-playing and video games like Assassins Creed. Much of the material in these, however, has been based on unconfirmed stories about the order, which may have been originally propaganda authored by the group's enemies so it is unreliable. Most of the truth about the Assassins, unfortunately, has been lost to history as many of their records were destroyed when Alamut fell.

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In History:

Kennedy Moon Challenge - In a speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged American to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade. This sparked a space race with the Russians which ended with the United States sending Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface in July of 1969. It also launched a whole cottage industry of moon landing deniers.


In the Sky:

Moon and Planets Near in Sky - Take this chance to see the moon close in the sky with Saturn and Mars. On September 27, the crescent Moon is near Saturn. By September 28, the Moon will be half way between Mars and Saturn. Finally on September 29 it will be close to Mars.



Hot Alien Civilizations - Scientists think it maybe possible to detect alien civilizations by looking for their heat signature. According to an article in the The Astrophysical Journal the researchers believe that any advanced civilization using energy would have to generate waste heat in mid-infrared (MIR) wavelengths. We may be able to detect such the generation of excessive quantities of MIR radiation even with our instruments today. Because our instruments are not very sensitive, however, the civilization in question would have to be very large and advanced occupying a whole galaxy. A preliminary look at data seems to show no evidence of these "Type II" galactic civilizations in the area, but as instruments get more sensitive it may be possible to detect smaller civilizations.


On the Tube:

Please check local listing for area outside of North America.

Nova: Ghosts of Machu Picchu - Why did the Incas abandon their city in the clouds? On PBS Sept. 3rd at 9 pm ET/PT.

Nova: Vaccines—Calling the Shots - Examine the science behind vaccinations, the return of preventable diseases, and the risks of opting out. On PBS Sept. 10th at 9 pm ET/PT.

Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine - Said to be deadliest great white shark of all time, "Submarine" is a 30 foot great white that has terrorized the shores of South Africa for decades.Locals believe this shark is responsible for countless fatal attacks, but existence has never been proven. On The Discovery Channel: Sept. 4th at 8:00PM & 11:00PM ET/PT.

Houdini - From humble beginnings at circus sideshows to sold out concert halls in Europe, Part 1 of Houdini follows the rise of the boy Erich Weiss as he becomes the man Harry Houdini, master escapologist. The rabbi's son from Wisconsin is the epitome of the American Dream as he makes his way through the early 20th century vaudeville craze and emerges as America's first bonafide world renowned superstar. Adrien Brody stars as The Great Harry Houdini with Kristen Connolly and Evan Jones co-starring. On the History Channel: Sept 1st 9:00 PM ET/PT. Part 2 immediately follows.

10 Things You Don't Know About: Edison vs. Tesla - Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are two of the most famous minds in American History... yet their lives and work are filled with facts you'd never even imagine. There's obscure inventions, eccentric ideas, a proposed duel... not to mention the surprising site where you'll find artifacts from their first collaboration. The show leaves no bulb unscrewed in finding the most incredible facts surrounding these scientific giants. On the History Channel: Sept. 6th, 9:00 PM ET/PT.


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