Methane, Water Vapor Point to Something Interesting on Mars

A few months ago, scientists announced preliminary data indicating the presence of methane gas in the atmosphere of Mars. The same team has now announced that this methane appears to be coming from three specific regions on the planet that also have a higher concentration of water vapor than the planetary atmospheric average.

On Monday, Dr. Vittorio Formisano, principal investigator for the Mars Express Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS), presented the new data at the International Mars Conference being held in Ischia, Italy. The presence of methane and water vapor together could point to present geothermic activity, life forms, or both on Mars.

The PFS instrument has also detected other gases and the analysis of this data is being peer reviewed. It is tempting to jump to conclusions, but although the scientists are openly suggesting the possibility of present life on Mars, they emphasis that much more data and analysis are required and that future missions to Mars may be necessary to find out for sure.

3D on the Web – Where is it?

In 1994, Tony Parisi and team invented VRML to bring 3D graphics to the web. The demise of VRML has been well documented. Eventually, it evolved into a second standard called X3D that is currently under development. Unfortunately, X3D hasn’t taken off either. In a recent blog entry, Parisi suggests now is the time for the web to embrace 3D graphics.

The required hardware and network connection speeds are rapidly improving but don’t expect the web to morph into a virtual 3D world any time soon. There is little practical use for 3D graphics on the web today, but early in the 2010s, expect haptic technology (tactile manipulation of digital items) to become the killer application that brings 3D interfaces to the masses. Prior to that, Microsoft, Apple and other companies will slowly start bringing the desktop operating system interface into the third dimension.

Voice recognition interfaces will have a much more immediate and profound affect on society over the next ten years. Hand-free operation of all of our devices, using commands to navigate the Internet, and the rapid replacement of human customer service representatives with automated systems all exist today and are rapidly improving.

Hamlet in 1603, 1605, 1611, 1622, and 1637

The British Library has recently digitized 93 pamphlet editions of Shakespeare’s plays that were printed during his lifetime and a few decades after. His manuscripts no longer exist but these quartos are the closest record of his original work, and there are variations that make comparison between editions interesting. For example, according to Professor Ann Thompson of the King’s College London, the 1603 quarto of Hamlet is considered to be “bad” due to its shorter length and errors, but some productions value its brevity and accessible language. The 1605 quarto and an edition from 1623 are used together for the most complete version of the play. The digitized quarto are available for free viewing on the British Library’s website.

Image of an Exoplanet?

Image credit: ESP - "The Brown Dwarf Object 2M1207 and GPCC"

The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) recently took near-infrared images of a body apparently orbiting the brown dwarf 2M1207 that could be the first image of an exoplanet. The reddish object is calculated to be about 5 times the mass of Jupiter. Water was detected in its spectra, suggesting it is too cool to be a star or brown dwarf. Research over the next two years should prove whether or not the object is actually orbiting 2M1207.

While over a hundred exoplanets have been detected since the early 1990s, none have been directly imaged. They have instead been detected by their minute tugging on their parent star or quick dips in light from the star as the planet passes in front of it. Several upcoming spacecraft and ground-based missions hope to greatly increase this number, but the real anticipation has been for actual pictures of these objects. Scientists hope to start discovering Earth-sized planets over the next few years and start taking pictures of such planets during the next decade.

The ability of modern telescopes to correct for the atmospheric blurring of our view of the universe has ushered in an exciting new age of exploration. In fact, several new telescopes just now being brought online will exceed the Hubble Telescope in capability. Just twenty years ago astronomers were pushing for a fleet of space telescopes that would take advantage of the fact that there is no blurring in a vacuum. About that time, researchers began developing interferometer technology, adaptive optics and other techniques for correcting blurring in ground-based telescopes. These technologies have finally matured, allowing telescopes right here on the ground to take breathtaking images of faint objects almost unimaginably far away.

[Header credit: ESO – “The Brown Dwarf Object 2M1207 and GPCC]

Your Wildest Desires, Captured on Video

Ever since consumers got their hands on personal camcorders they have been making movies, but production values have kept wide the chasm between amateur and professional video. In the past few years many of the tools professionals use have dropped significantly in price. New consumer electronics have brought more and more capabilities to customers each year. The latest consumer “toy” is a $3700 camcorder from Sony with high-definition capabilities. It can store 63 minutes of video on $18 HD videotapes. Sony also plans to release a digital still camera with better video capabilities, including up to an hour of video on bigger capacity memory cards.

While cameras and camcorders are themselves improving rapidly, their capabilities are being built into cell phones, some of which are well beyond the capabilities of the first digital cameras that began capturing attention in the 1990s.

Thus, we find ourselves in 2004 able to store high definition video and thousands of still images on affordable devices with enormous storage capacities ranging in sizes from small cell phones to reasonably-sized camcorders. At the same time, Apple, Adobe, and other software makers have begun releasing reasonably-priced products to help create movies with professional looking special effects and excellent audio, all creatable on your laptop or desktop computer.

Interestingly enough, the cutting-edge devices of 2004 will be the cheap throwaway devices of 2009, with many such devices combined into a single and smaller form factor. It is very likely that a cell phone in 2009 will include all the above capabilities. Storage will of course be practically bottomless; the necessary electronics will have shrunk down to allow such tiny form factors; cell phone processors will have roughly the same capabilities as today’s desktop computers; and displays will be flat, flexible, and brilliantly HD.

This look forward, however, only taking into account what is today coming out of the world’s laboratories. It does not in any way take into account research over the next five years, let alone breakthroughs and new ideas about how images, video and other data can be captured and displayed. That means that in just five more years, consumer electronics will greatly surpass your wildest desires at this moment. Of course, in five more years, your wildest desires will have also progressed on an exponential growth curve.

Cell Phone with a Spin

Spinning inside the Samsung SPH-V5400 cell phone is a 1.5GB hard drive, an industry first, according to the company. The cell phone can be used as an organizer, Korean-English dictionary, MP3 player, camcorder, and, well, a cell phone. Koreans will be able to purchase the device in mid-September.

By now you should know the exercise: follow the threads from similar products five years ago to today’s announced product, then look five years into the future. Go ahead; it’s your turn.