^ Drew that silly thing over the weekend; I guess I miss drawing Selenis' space suit or something. =p The drawing lives in the episode 13 gallery, here.
The Space Shuttle Endeavour, after a few weeks of delays, finally blasted off for the International Space Station this week; it will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will look for all kinds of weird things like antimatter galaxies and "dark matter" stuff. I put a bit more detail about it at the bottom of this post two weeks ago. Funny how these Reuters and I think AP news articles only ever refer to it as "an expensive physics experiment"--like they don't want to have to use big words like "spectrometer," or something. :P
Congrats to @elephande and a little detective work for figuring out where I got Selenis' cover name for this episode, "Mer Sidereus" (this was going on over at A*'s Twitter feed thingy, by the way!). "Sidereus" came from the name of Galileo's treatise containing his early observations of heavenly bodies through his telescope: the Sidereus Nuncius was the first scientific treatise based on telescopic observations, in fact! I think I got to it from just eh poking around through star names on Wikipedia.
And I got "Mer" from "mare," which is of course Latin for "sea," and the first part of the names of craters on the Moon--in keeping with Selenis' lunar name scheme. "Mer" is also the exact French word for "sea," but I don't think I noticed that until later. And if you're wondering, I think of it--in her name here in the episode, I mean--as rhyming with "her," rather than "hair," as it would be in the Latin or French; besides, that would sound exactly like the French word for "mother," which would be *totally* confusing, since that's what Selenis calls her primary computer program. Probably nobody in A*'s society speaks those languages anyway, except maybe some weird academics somewhere who might know bits. Why that might be is...something I won't tell you until later. :P
Anyway, "Mer" is already confusing enough, what with being one letter away from the last name of everyone's favorite paranoid Core Sys despot, Solvan Mar, who Selenis did something painful to a few episodes back. How clever is that? Only the best hack writers make that kind of name goof-up! ;) :P
"Sidereus" could translate to "sidereal" in English, which more or less means "starry," so I suppose her cover name could mean "Starry Sea" if you were being generous. Which would be quite the hippy (why doesn't Firefox's spell checker know that word? :P) name! But I mostly just liked the sound of it.
This AP article claimed thirteen seconds of the Space Shuttle Endeavour rising above the clouds, as filmed by a woman with her cell phone on a commuter flight, "went viral"; I dunno about that, but it *is* an unusual viewing angle of a Shuttle launch (and this is the second to last one, so I guess it's good someone caught it!):
"The Game Archaeologist" and the friendly folks at Massively were kind enough to dig me up and ask me some questions about the gig I quit to do A*, namely being lead designer (by default! :D) on the now-defunct massively multiplayer game "The Matrix Online." They've put the resulting interview up on their site here.
I've been naughty and getting A* pages up a little later in the evening...okay more like in the wee hours of the next morning...than I should in the past few days because I've been binging on the archives of the webcomic Bad Machinery and the not-drawn-in-Illustrator chapters of its predecessor, Scary Go Round. They're about plucky British schoolgirls who solve zany mysteries and say things like "cor"; together with author John Allison's off-kilter dialogue, often bizarre plots, and quirkily elegant artwork, I don't know if anything could possibly be more charming.
I'd hesitated to get into it because his comics have been around forever and are frequently cited by the popular webcomic crowd, but looking at his viewer numbers it appears that his comics are rather under-read considering how lovely they are, so supporting them is entirely acceptable to that otherwise jealous, success-hating section of my lizard brain. I've duly added Bad Machinery to my webcomic reading list.
Came across an interesting AP article saying that, by looking for gravitational lensing of background stars, astronomers observing a slice of the Milky Way have found ten possibly Jupiter-sized planets that are either in very, very wide orbits around distant stars, or not in stellar orbits at all. And if you think about it, that shouldn't be too unexpected, since it's thought that even in the formation of our own solar system there were planets crashing around all over the place. It's kind of neat to think that space could be filled with just as many rogue planets as stars. The article doesn't mention it, so maybe there's a reason why this wouldn't be the case, but it occurred to me also that some of these could simply be very, very small would-be stars that failed to accumulate the requisite mass for stellar fusion--sort of sub brown dwarfs.
has a 50-kilometer-thick ocean of magma 30-50 km beneath its surface; other bodies in our solar system, such as Earth, are thought to have had magma oceans after their formation, but these have long since cooled; Io's is kept warm by the pull of Jupiter's massive gravity, which squeezes and stretches the moon by as much as 100 km.
Galileo had picked up unusual signatures in magnetic field data in two flybys of Io, and modern analysis has shown that this was probably caused by the presence of the massive magma ocean described above: it's been found that a certain type of rocks that form from cooling magma ("ultramafic" rocks) "become capable of carrying substantial electrical current when melted," and the presence of these in huge quantities--ie in said massive magma ocean--would explain the magnetic field anomalies caused by Io.
And I'm not even going to embed this because its too silly, but at certain points like this one in Little Boots' "Earthquake" music video, there's a visual effect that I think is meant to be like a supernova explosion--obviously a slightly cheap effect, but still somewhat effect-ive, I think. Well anyway it's pretty. :P
Blug! Spent too long drawing this, I got nothin' easy to post along with it newswise and I should probably just go to bed. :P I was even thinkin' earlier that I'd do a quick comedic Fun Times with Proctor & Mar doodle, but now I don't even have time for that.
Aw heck with it, we're doin' it.
There we go! Hahaaaaa. Man we will never stop laughing now; we need a black hole to swallow all these laughs. And that drawing.
Well I had so much fun with that little doodle yesterday that I decided to make "Fun Times with Proctor & Mar" a series, albeit one that updates haphazardly, ie when I feel like procrastinating from drawing real A* storyboards because I'm at a particularly delicate part in this episode's plot--or some situation like that, that was just a um random example yeah. So if you just can't get enough of the zany space adventures of the Core Sys twosome, set your bookmarks to funtimes.smbhax.com--or just stick around here, because I think I'll just be copying them into the A* news as I do them (they also make for a good excuse when I don't want to write a real news article! :D), like so:
I'll also post links to them on A*'s Facebook page and A*'s Twitter feed, so you can get notified of them that way too. I probably won't be doing them on anything near like a daily basis or anything, but I guess we'll see just how much procrastination I end up needing. :P
Oh yeah and let's not forget that my rather more regular Sunday fairy tale series, "The Princess and the Giant," will be having a new page out this weekend; if you managed to avoid checking the one from this past weekend, why you can get to it by clicking this suspenseful cropped banner version:
So yes I sort of have six webcomic series now. >_> (Does this surprise you? Then you may not have seen the more comics by me page, which keeps them all in a nice tidy last-updated list.)
Oh man, new record for slow drawing on this page, I think! Whew.
Over the weekend on the other hand I painted a quick sloppy and colorful version of Selenis, just playing around with a free painting program called Artrage Starter Edition. Click on this cropped detail to see the full thing in the gallery (it's big!):
Man, that program takes me back to the ol' college days, sloshing around oil paint and thinner in a rickety little garret on the third floor of Lorado Taft's (now) 100-year-old studio building on the south side of Chicago, in winter. Those were the days! Of sorts.
Anyway although you can't adjust the simulated paint thinner and stuff like that in this free 10 MB version of Artrage, it's a really good simulation of oil painting, and just darn fun to play with. Give it a shot!
This Time.com article just so happens to share a name with today's A* page ;) (it also involves a scientist from my alma mater, woooo), which is just coincidence though and I'm mentioning it because it's talking about a new-ish theory that planets previously thought to be uninhabitable due to being too cold--too far away from their star--*could* possibly be warmer than previously thought, since if they had sufficient mass/gravity they could have an insulating atmosphere say of hydrogen, which doesn't condense when it gets cold like typical greenhouse gasses water vapor and carbon dioxide do. Also, it's pointed out that light from reddish stars, although less powerful, could warm planets with such atmospheres more than had previously been calculated because red light, being less energetic, scatters less than other light when it hits a gas, and thus is more efficient in warming an atmosphere (this is also why sunsets are red!).
And then I just wanted to post some pretty Hubble pictures I found on Wikipedia's open cluster page; an open cluster is a loose conglomeration of usually up to a few thousand stars that all formed from the same molecular cloud. They tend to stick together only for up to a few hundred million years before stronger forces pull them apart, but they're handy for studying stellar evolution because you know almost all the stars in an open cluster are about the same age and distance, so its easier to compare their other properties.
As for open clusters in our own galaxy--which may of course be of concern to A*--Wikipedia says:
"There are over 1,000 known open clusters in our galaxy, but the true total may be up to ten times higher than that. In spiral galaxies, open clusters are largely found in the spiral arms where gas densities are highest and so most star formation occurs, and clusters usually disperse before they have had time to travel beyond their spiral arm. Open clusters are strongly concentrated close to the galactic plane, with a scale height in our galaxy of about 180 light years, compared to a galactic radius of approximately 100,000 light years."
Well that's great but they also make for some nice pictures! So here we are:
^ That's NGC 346, an open cluster in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy only 200,000 light years from the Milky Way, about 7,000 light years across (the Milky Way is itself about 100,000 light years across), and containing several hundred million stars.
As you might guess from the name, there's also a Large Magellanic Cloud, a slightly less dwarfy galaxy that's somewhat closer (160,000 light years) and bigger (14,000 light years across, 10 billion solar masses) than the Small Magellanic Cloud.
As you also might guess from their names, since they're visible with the naked eye in Earth's southern hemisphere, they were observed by Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who went along on Magellan's trip to the Indies (1519-1522; of 240 who set out, only he and 17 others made it back!); the journal he kept of the voyage is one of our main sources of information on Magellan's travels. Pigafetta described them as "dim clusters of stars," according to Wikipedia.
That was the first European observation of the Clouds, but they had been observed way before that; they featured in the lore of south seas islanders, and if you want a date, the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, who lived from 903 to 986, recorded observations of the Large Magellanic Cloud and even the big Andromeda Galaxy in the Book of Fixed Stars he produced in 964--it was the first recorded observation of those galaxies.
So the southern hemisphere has it pretty good in terms of star watching--you can also see the band of the Milky Way from down there. In fact, here's a panorama of both Clouds (on the left) and the Milky Way (that big brown hazy stripe along the horizon), as seen from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile (that's one part of the observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) on the right):
^ That's NGC 604 in the Triangulum Galaxy (also known from its listing number in early star catalogues: Messier (Messier objects listed by Messier in 1771) 33 or NGC (the New General Catalogue from the 1880s) 598), about 3 million light years from Earth, which is still relatively close in galactic terms; in fact, it's part of our gravitationally bound Local Group (so is Andromeda, aka Messier 31 or NGC 224!). Cluster NGC 604 itself is about 2.7 million light years away, and 1500 light years across. It's one of the largest H II regions in the Local Group; an H II region is a big cloud of gas and ionized gas in which star formation goes on--the "H II" part comes from the symbol for ionized atomic hydrogen, which they contain in great abundance. H II regions are important for study because they're where to look if you want to see stars in the process of forming, or if you want to see radical young stars doing crazy stuff: a few hundred huge stars (each 15-60 times as big as our own Sun) at the center of NGC 604 are ionizing and blowing up all that gas, forming that spectacular 3D structure you see in the image.
H II regions also include many more of the coolest-looking nebulae, so if you want to check out some more spectacular pictures, click that last link and scroll down a bit. :)
Videos galore today! But first a plain text link. BBC News just reported that NASA's Swift satellite, which studies gamma ray bursts, caught a burst in April 2009, "Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) 090429B," that they now believe is the most distant object yet known: the detected burst of gamma rays, which are a highly energetic form of light, registered as a fuzzy little red dot just at the edge of their detection capability, and is thought to have come from a massive explosion, perhaps a supernova, occurring 13.14 billion years ago, or just 520 million years after the hypothetical Big Bang.
It's interesting to think of all the mysterious bursts of light zinging all around us; this one over 13 billion years ago flew out of a supernova or something, heading just precisely in the direction the not-yet-formed Earth and Sun would occupy much later. And I tried looking this up, but failed; I never see it mentioned, so it's probably wrong for some very obvious reason, but are all those photons, ancient and new, winging around in space, considered when thinking of what "dark energy" might be? Or are they already included in the calculations for regular energy? I guess since scientists seem to think they know roughly how many stars the universe has had and does have, they can calculate the approximate energy output these would have given off, or whatever... And what about the very slight physical pressure--since photons supposedly have just a tiny tiny smidge of mass to them--from all these photons going everywhere? Could that be part of the force causing the expansion of the galaxy? Somebody who knows this, please let me know. :P
Anyway that article got me poking around NASA's Swift mission site ("Swift" refers to the bird, and is not an acronym, according to Wikipedia), and man if they don't have a bunch of recent videos concerning black holes! Which makes sense since gamma rays can only come from really energetic stuff like what happens around the massive gravitational pull of black holes.
In this video they show the results of a Max Planck Institute supercomputer simulation of merging neutron stars: neutron stars come from supernovas of stars not quite big enough to collapse into black holes, but if two neutron stars then come together, which is the crazy thing this simulation tested, that swirling meeting would produce a huge magnetic field that turns out to quickly coalesce into the torus shape necessary to form intense jets of matter shooting out of the poles of the new central black hole: and those jets are where the energy we detect as *short* gamma ray bursts comes from: most GRBs last a few seconds, and those are thought to come from supernova explosions, but there are much shorter ones, too, and until now it wasn't clear where those short ones could come from; ie, what could create an energy burst of such intensity, but only for a very very short period. Apparently merging neutron stars could do it. Mystery solved?
In the next video it's reported that Swift has been able to detect the "missing" active galaxies in the visible universe around us--that is, the galaxies where the central supermassive black hole is sucking in huge clouds of matter, and emitting energy as a result in the form of X-rays. But a lot of these have gas and dust around them--or are sideways to us, so we're seeing them through their surrounding disc--so the X-rays get aborbed, and we can't detect them--until now. Swift is sensitive enough to spot them, and in fact has been finding so many of these heretofore unseen active galactic centers that they say the energy they emit (hey this gets back to that question I had about emitted energy zinging around the universe, in a way) could account for nearly all of the universal background radiation. The findings also seem to confirm that galactic activity in our universe reached its peak about 7 billion years ago, when loads of galaxies had had time to form, and were now crashing into each other and so forth.
Which brings us to the third video, which is a nifty simulation of two galaxies colliding; this simulation shows that the disruptions to their shape as they close together would feed material into their central supermassive black holes, making them activate, and then, once the supermassive black holes merged, the resulting "wind" from that merger would blow away most of the remaining galactic material. Anyway, it's pretty.
I have three more videos, and these have nothing to do with astrophysics really. I just heard this song "Eight Zero One" by Lacunae today, and went and looked it up on YouTube, and what do you know but the group has just recently put up a pretty neat video for it.
That high-contrast look is sort of like Photoshop's "threshold" filter, which I used to play around with a lot to break photos or game screenshots down to stark black and white images, and doing that kind of got me interested in going back to Photoshop's "Lasso Tool" to try to draw such images by hand, which eventually resulted in the sharp black and white look of A*. So it's a look I like.
Lacunae also have a bunch of other really nice songs with inventive videos on their YouTube channel; a few others I quite like are The Loneliness of Lovers and the appropriately-named-for-us Stars Burn Out. Lacunae are sort of a post trip hop group, and I'm a big trip hop fan; there are very few remaining trip hop groups these days, so it was nice to find Lacunae's particular brand of hyper-cut beats.
I should also mention that I'm probably going to be putting ads on the site in the near future, maybe starting in a week or two; if it goes according to plan, they'll roll out in a couple phases. This time I intend to have them all below the comic, in a sort of row of squarish things, basically aping the ad layout of Buttersafe.
Continuing on from yesterday with the theme of gamma ray bursts, the Swift satellite that detects them, and supermassive black holes, something unprecedented has been observed in the heavens since March 28th of this year! That's when Swift detected a large gamma ray burst--but it didn't stop! Even a burst from a supernova will cut out after a few seconds, but it's been nearly two months now, and from the looks of the Wikipedia article on this burst, GBR 110328A (also known as Swift J164449.3+573451, or Sw J1644+57 for short), it's still going. Here's an image Swift took of it on March 28th, in which the red/yellow X-ray reading is combined with white and purple optical data of nearby objects:
Most gamma ray burst images I've seen from Swift are just blurry red dots; this nice big flared one is unusually powerful, especially considering how long it's been going on. Not only that, but there have been a lot of flares in the signal, suggesting that a dynamic situation took place at the source.
Well, this was big stuff, so big that both Hubble and Chandra--which also reads X-rays, but with more positional precision than Swift--were called into action to take a look, and, according to this NASA article, Hubble spotted a small (apparently unnamed) galaxy at that location, 3.8 billion light years away, and Chandra was able to determine that the burst was coming from the approximate center of that galaxy.
Which means it's probably a jet of material shooting out of a magnetic pole of a supermassive black hole, aimed directly at us. This isn't unusual--that's what most quasars, or more specifically blazars, are thought to be--but this will have been the first time that one has been observed starting up: that is, the first time the supermassive black hole center of a galaxy has been observed going from a dormant to an active phase as a large amount of matter drifts into it and starts getting swallowed up.
That NASA article says the supermassive black hole is probably smaller than A*, the one at the center of our own galaxy (A* is about 4 million solar masses), but this slightly earlier scientific research paper on it estimated the hole to be about five times the mass of ours, or 20 million solar masses; maybe the NASA article shows that number has since been revised.
The article makes the case in detail for the burst being a jet from a newly activated supermassive black hole, showing that the energy curves since the supposed start-up time have differed from the standard curves of blazars or tidal disruption of stars by supermassive black holes. Such events have been inferred from indirect data before, but not observed directly--and those were fairly short events, and didn't have the flaring activity that this one has had. So this really could be the first observed birth of an active galactic nucleus (AGN), and it could end up teaching us a lot about how supermassive black holes and the galactic cores around them change--how galaxies evolve, in fact. Exciting!
I kinda like how the drawing of Selenis came out on this latest page; I've tended to shy away from my old silhouette drawing method (that is, draw the character's silhouette against the background, then carve details into it) in brightly lit areas like this Andiran Robotics space station office interior, especially when the character is light colored, because I didn't think the heavy dark areas of the silhouette method would look right in such lighting conditions, but it seemed to work pretty well here, so maybe I need to rethink that.
Well anyway it's Friday (or at least I'm pretending it's still Friday...), so I don't have to think about that again until Monday, and early next week this rather longish but important character establishing scene will wrap up, and we'll start getting into more of the station, which will carry us close to Selenis' unsuspecting prey.
Before that of course I'll be doing a new page of my Sunday fairy tale comic, The Princess and the Giant, and if you didn't catch last weekend's page yet--which really brought down the house, if I may say so--here's a handy preview/link banner you can use to get to it, so you'll be all set for the next page this weekend: