New comet might blaze brighter than the full Moon

File photo of Comet Hale-Bopp which wowed observers in 1997. Image: Kazuhiro Seto.

A new comet has been discovered that is predicted to blaze incredibly brilliantly in the skies during late 2013. With a perihelion passage of less than two million kilometres from the Sun on 28 November 2013, current predictions are of an object that will dazzle the eye at up to magnitude —16. That’s far brighter than the full Moon. If predictions hold true then C/2012 S1 will certainly be one of the greatest comets in human history, far outshining the memorable Comet Hale-Bopp of 1997 and very likely to outdo the long-awaited Comet Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) which is set to stun in March 2013.

The new comet, named C/2012 S1 (ISON) was found by the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) in Russia on 21 September when astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok captured it on CCD images taken through a 0.4-metre reflector. Its near-parabolic orbit suggests that it has arrived fresh from the Oort Cloud, a vast zone of icy objects orbiting the Sun, pristine remnants of the formation of the Solar System.

C/2012 S1 currently resides in the northwestern corner of Cancer. At magnitude +18 it is too dim to be seen visually but it will be within the reach of experienced amateur astronomers with CCD equipment in the coming months as it brightens. It is expected to reach binocular visibility by late summer 2013 and a naked eye object in early November of that year. Northern hemisphere observers are highly favoured. Following its peak brightness in late November it will remain visible without optical aid until mid-January 2014.

Comet brightness predictions sometimes exceed their performance. Amateur astronomers of a certain age may remember the Comet Kohoutek hype of 1973 – not quite the ‘damp squib’ it has been portrayed, since it reached naked eye visibility! Even if C/2012 S1 takes on the same light curve as Kohoutek it is certain to be spectacular, quite possibly a once-in-a-civilisation’s-lifetime event. ~ Peter Grego

Einstein’s brain FOUND ON APPLE iPAD

Albert Einstein’s brain can now be downloaded to your trusty Apple iPad, should you own one.

Sadly it’s not an iOS-compatible simulation of the top physicist’s mind, best known for coming up with the general theory of relativity and laying the ground work for quantum mechanics. Instead it’s a selection of photos of slices of the German-born boffin’s grey matter.

Still – the app will let iPad users get as close to the great man’s brain as any neurobiologist can.

A slide of Einstein's brain available on iPad, credit NMHMC appEinstein’s brain … a still from the app

Einstein’s brain was removed and preserved when he died in April 1955. Pathologist Dr Thomas Harvey of Princeton Hospital split it into 170 parts and sectioned them into microscope slides. He then stained the wafers to highlight the cellular structure and nerve conduction tissue.

Dr Harvey’s collection of brain samples was bequeathed in 2010 to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago, which has just scraped together the cash to digitise the slides and put them in a new iPad app. The software is available from Apple’s App Store for $9.99, or £6.99, and funds will go to the museum.

The magnified high-resolution images give fanbois the view that they’d get if the brain slides were on the business end of a microscope, and the app makers hope opening up one of the world’s greatest brains to neurobiologists everywhere, as well as the the general public, will garner new insight into the workings of the Nobel prize-winning boffin’s cerebral matter.

Nothing exceptional was found about Einstein’s brain in 1955, but a 1999 survey found that it contained a rare density of connections between neurons in the language, spatial and mathematical areas.

One severe limitation of Harvey’s slides is that it is hard to tell exactly where each sample was taken from Einstein’s brain: the 170 parts are loosely attributed to the brainstem and various lobes rather than specifically located. Solving the location of the brain parts is now considered to be much more important.

The Chicago museum features another interesting brain from Dr Harvey’s collection: Henry Molaison, who died in 2008 after living for decades with profound amnesia.

Planned updates to the Einstein app will include further slides as they are digitised and will add more context to existing ones. ®

Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say

A ring-shaped warp drive device could transport a football-shape starship (center) to effective speeds faster than light.
A ring-shaped warp drive device could transport a football-shape starship (center) to effective speeds faster than light. The concept was first proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre.
CREDIT: Harold White

HOUSTON — A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel — a concept popularized in television’s Star Trek — may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say.

A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light. A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre; however, subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.

Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially bringing the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.


“There is hope,” Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center said here Friday (Sept. 14) at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss the challenges of interstellar spaceflight.


Warping space-time

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind. [Star Trek’s Warp Drive: Are We There Yet? | Video]

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn’t being warped at all.

“Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light,” explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. “But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light.”

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

“The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

 Laboratory tests

White and his colleagues have begun experimenting with a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory.

They set up what they call the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, essentially creating a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.

“We’re trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million,” White said.

He called the project a “humble experiment” compared to what would be needed for a real warp drive, but said it represents a promising first step.

And other scientists stressed that even outlandish-sounding ideas, such as the warp drive, need to be considered if humanity is serious about traveling to other stars.

“If we’re ever going to become a true spacefaring civilization, we’re going to have to think outside the box a little bit, we’re going to have to be a little bit audacious,” Obousy said.