Friday, January 25, 2013

9 Years of 'Opportunity'

Today marks a huge milestone for NASA's Opportunity Mars rover: 9 years on the Red Planet. Not bad for a mission that had a 90-day design life. To date, Opportunity has driven over 22 miles across Mars, and, according to NASA, is still going strong, inspecting clay deposits at Endeavour Crater. For the record, clay tends to form in water of a neutral PH, which is very friendly to life.

Personally, I think it's about time that the now 'other' rover got some limelight back.
Launched for the Red Planet in 2003, a time which coincided with the closest Earth-Mars approach in thousands of years, Opportunity, along with its twin rover, Spirit, started their journey through space in the hopes of fulfilling a planetary scientist's dream of a large, long-lived, roving vehicle that was to serve as a mobile science platform. In the mission statement, Opportunity and Spirit were given a 90 day life estimate during which they would try to confirm the existence of water on Mars.
That was at the rovers' arrival in January, 2004.

Their initial mission to look for signs of water on Mars completed within the 90 day time frame, both rovers were still going strong. So, officially living on borrowed time, NASA scientists decided to try and get as much out of the rovers as possible before they too went the way of
Pathfinder/Sojourner, Viking, and all the other Mars missions.
Needless to say, the rovers did not disappoint, with their findings completely reshaping our knowledge of the Red Planet.

Speaking on
unimaginable longevity, John Callas, project manager for opportunity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said that “these are magnificently designed machines . . . we really have greatly expanded the exploration envelope by having a vehicle that can not only last so long but stay in very good health over that time, such that we can continue exploring."

Opportunity will live to celebrate many more anniversaries on Mars.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 in Review: Camera Manufacturer Winners and Losers

With the new year 2013 upon us, it's a time that pundits across many industries take a look back at the old year. Myself being a bit of a camera nut (if you haven't figured that out by now!), I decided that there is no better time than now to take a look back at the photographic industry, namely the major manufacturers, than now. So here we go, winners, losers, and those in between for 2012.

Winners: all of these companies are characterized by revolutionary products and/or drastic improvements in their lineups.

1. Canon. Going into 2012, there is no doubt that Canon had been getting beat by Nikon since 2007. Back in 2007, Nikon leapfrogged Canon's offerings with the D3 and D300. In the years since, every time Canon announced something, Nikon came out with something even better a week later. Going into 2012, Canon had already announced a new 1D body, the 18Mp, FF EOS 1Dx. Unfortunately, the 1D Mark III debacle fresh in mind, many photographers were leery of the new camera, especially considering its all-new AF system (which was the problem on the 1D III). This time, though, all was good as the 1Dx hit the market to high acclaim. Adding to this was the new 5D Mark III, which incorporated (finally) a lot of 1D-line features including a vast AF grid, weather-sealing, dual memory card slots, and a much faster continuous drive. With these two cameras alone, Canon finally caught up to Nikon in the high-end camera market, making Canon a winner for 2012.

2. Fujifilm. If there was any one breakout company in 2012, it was Fujifilm. Going into the new year, Fuji already had some hot cameras going, led by the APS-C point and shoot X100, which was, even a year after introduction, still a hard camera for retailers to keep in stock for long. Still, going into CES 2012, no one would have ever expected a smallish company like Fujifilm to steal the show, and the year. At CES, Fuji announced its X-Pro1 interchangeable lens model, along with plans for a whole series of X-mount lenses. Based off the immensely successful X100, the X-Pro1 was a huge hit for both its retro styling, stunning image quality, and for the fact that Fuji fixed a lot of nitpicks that people had about the X100 with this new camera. Come year's end, Fuji had already launched a bunch of new X-mount optics as well as a little brother to the X-Pro1, making many people, for the first time since the start of the digital era, start to question whether the dSLRs dominance among discriminating photographers was nearing its conclusion. In the end, only time will tell whether Fuji has created a niche product or has redefined the way the world takes pictures.

3. Samsung. In 2012, Samsung offered a lot of updates to current models, but the biggest news came in its marrying of technologies, namely cameras and mobile phones. At the start of the year, there was no doubt that Samsung was a leader in mobile technologies thanks to its popular Android operating system. In the lead-up to 2012,. many companies had been incorporating wireless technology into their cameras, albeit stripped-down versions. At the start of the year, the big question was simply this: when would a full-fledged smartphone operating system find its way into a camera? Well, hints came out in spring and, by fall, Samsung had made this a reality when it brought the latest Android operating system to a camera. End result: a camera that can do anything an Android tablet can do and everything an Android phone can do, sans making calls. Yes, while this has nothing to do with improving the picture taking experience (and is something I personally see as nothing but a marketing gimmick to people who insist on living in virtual reality), it has been a major leap forward in a technology that more people were demanding be brought to cameras. For this, Samsung is a winner for 2013 in its marrying of phone and photographic technologies.

Holding Steady: these companies are characterized by the overall trend of holding steady, offering neither major improvements nor by getting outright beat by the competition.

1. Nikon. Going into 2012, Nikon was undisputed king of the hill in the high-end dSLR market. Throughout 2012, Nikon pretty much rejuvenated its dSLR and mirrorless 1-series lineups as well as introduced a slew of new point and shoots. Unfortunately (and not wholly surprisingly) the company simply couldn't offer the breakthroughs it did in 2007 with the D3 and D300. Yes, the D4 and D800/D800E are quite the capable cameras, but they don't take performance to the next level the way last generation's models did from the previous. For Nikon, the biggest plus of the year was, once again, boosting the price to performance ratio with the D600, which offers a lot of pro-grade features (including FX sensor) for a price that was previously unimaginable. Still, though, mild updates coupled with a resurgent Canon have combined to eliminate Nikon's undisputed edge that it held over the competition one year ago.

2. Sony. Going into 2012, many people were seriously doubting Sony's commitment to its 'dSLR' line as no high-end models had been launched for nearly 4 years as it appeared that Sony was abandoning the high-end market for the consumer-grade segment instead. The good news, in 2012, Sony showed that it was committed to its dSLRs, launching a new high-end APS-C model as well as a new FF camera, too. Unfortunately, when it came to the technological innovation that it has been known for, Sony's new cameras for 2012 didn't have and dramatic new features like past models (like the translucent mirror). Still, though, a rejuvenated commitment to its dSLRs as well as updated NEX models as well as a quirky FF compact, the RX1, all go to show that Sony is anything but ready to simply ride on its past laurels going into 2013, which could mean for some cool models in the following year. Personally, I expect a FF NEX model sometime in 2013.

3. Pentax. Starting into 2012, Pentax was riding the crest of a wave as the company had its best lineup of the digital era to date. By the end of 2012, the same was pretty much true as the company had launched some mild updates of its past models, a few new lower-level optics, and an albeit bulky mirrorless model, the K-01. For Pentax in 2013, things can go one of two ways. First, the mild updates are simply stop-gap replacements designed to hold the fort until more revolutionary models make it to market or two, evidence of complacency that will lead Pentax to get passed up by the competition and wind up being a loser for 2013. Hopefully, the former of the options is true here.

4. Olympus. Going into 2012, many in the photographic community were questioning whether Olympus would see 2013 at all thanks to the company's corporate accounting scandal that caused the stock to plummet in value and many former top executives to wind up facing criminal charges. Well, come 2013, many are now wondering whether Olympus started the process of killing the traditional, mirrored dSLR. For Olympus, one camera alone, the OM-D dSLR like Micro Four Thirds model, may have, in one stroke, saved the company and changed the photographic industry. Up until the OM-D, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras had been characterized by lackluster AF and consumerish (not that great) build quality. With the OM-D, Olympus changed that, stuffing an AF system into the camera that can keep up (for the most part) with the traditional dSLR as well as beefing up the build quality with all-metal construction and splash proofing. If that weren't enough, Olympus started cranking out equally tough Micro Four Thirds lenses, no doubt with this camera in mind. All in all, the OM-D has been a smashing success that has gone to show that mirrorless cameras are no longer just toys, but that they can be highly-capable photographic tools as well. On the other hand, Olympus is still picking up the pieces from its corporate accounting scandal and continues to face financial troubles, which led to the selling of 10% of its stock to Sony. All in all, while a winner on the product end of things, Olympus still faces major hurdles in regards to overall company health, which single-handedly keep Olympus from the winner's column in 2012.

Losers: these companies either offered no major new products, had huge flops, or dire financial troubles.

1. Kodak. At the start of 2012, Kodak was a company in big trouble. Late to the digital game and late to realize that film was on the way out for the masses 10 years ago, Kodak had been behind the proverbial 8-ball since the start of the digital era. Unfortunately, as the years rolled by, things only got worse. Come the start of 2012, Kodak was reportedly mulling filing for bankruptcy, which it did less than a month into 2012. Kodak's last ace up its sleeve: all of it patents, whose sales executives hoped would avert the company's financial crisis. Unfortunately, Kodak's asking price was too steep and no buyers stepped forward until very late in the year (at reduced prices), which was too little, too late as Kodak already had announced that it was ending its involvement in the consumer photography market, which means no more cameras, film, photo paper, or printers will be found at any local retail store. For Kodak, 2012 truly marked the end of the world.

2. Panasonic. For Panasonic, 2012 marked a rather hold the course route on products as the company offered its share of new cameras in 2012. Unfortunately, in November, news came that Panasonic was in some serious financial trouble, with the question of layoffs, business closures, and asset sell-offs not being a question of “if,” but “when.” For the record, Panasonic has laid off 36,000 employees in the past two years and 10,000 more could lose their jobs come early 2013. Not good. Hopefully, new leadership at Panasonic can right the company ship before the company goes the way of Kodak.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy 2013 (and 5 ways the Cosmos Could Really Kill Us)

Happy New Year's Day! 2013, the year many never expected to see, has arrived and so goes the whole 2012 Doomsday nonsense as because by now, as even the most ardent of believers can't deny, the world is not going to end in 2012 thanks to the flipping of the calendar, which means that we can breathe a whole lot easier, or does it?

The fact is we live in a dangerous universe that can destroy Earth in several ways. The good news: while there are a lot of ways that could, in theory, wipe out all life on Earth, these events are extremely rare and the chance of any one of them taking place in any given year is very, very small. That said, why not look at ways the cosmos many of us love to study and admire could do us in, anyway?

1. Dying Sun.
ike people, stars are born, mature into 'adulthood,' grow old, and die. The glowing clouds of nebular gasses that so enchant modern astronomers and astrophotographers are, in reality, stellar corpses, the remains of stars that have died after using up all of the fuel that kept them shining brightly for millions, perhaps billions of years, chilling reminders that nothing lasts forever. When a star is in the prime of life, it fuses hydrogen atoms into helium, releasing untold amounts of energy the equivalent of billions of thermonuclear explosions a second. Why does the star then not blow itself up? Gravity. While the force of the nuclear fusion seeks to push out a star and make it expand, the star's own gigantic mass produces a gravitational force that keeps the star in a state of equilibrium between these two, competing forces.
A star begins to die when it uses up all of its hydrogen fuel. The nuclear fusion stopped but gravity still going strong, the star contracts into itself thanks to gravity. However, as the star contracts, it heats up to the point where it can start fusing helium nuclei together, releasing far more energy than it would with hydrogen fusion. Result: The extreme amount of energy released by the helium fusion somewhat overcomes the force of gravity, thus causing the star to swell to several times its original size, its outer atmosphere cooling as it expands. So, despite its growth in size to the red giant phase, the star is living on borrowed time as it will continue the cycle of burning an element, contracting, fusing an even heavier element, expanding, and so-on until iron is the next material in line for fusion. Unfortunately, iron fusion cannot occur because it takes more energy to fuse the nuclei than the fusion itself will generate. Result: Fusion stops and the star dies. In the case of the Sun, the Earth will have long since been engulfed by the swollen star itself by the time fusion stops. However, the Sun need not engulf Earth to destroy its life-giving potential. As the Sun expands, all the water will evaporate, the planet will heat up, and eventually the atmosphere will dissipate, leaving a hot, irradiated world inhospitable to life.
2. Impact by a large body.
The ancients thought that the heavens were perfect and unchanging. Now, we know that nothing could be further from the truth as we live in
a cosmic shooting gallery. Want evidence for this? Just look at the crater-marked Moon, which bears witness to 4 billion years of impact events. On Earth, thanks to weathering and other geologic processes, the impact scars are often smoothed away over time, are obscured by plant growth, or are just so big that they are hard to recognize except from space. However, one thing is clear: Earth has been hit by asteroids and comets in the past and will be hit again in the future. Just over a century ago, Earth had a close call when something exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia, leveling hundreds of square miles of forests. Needless to say, if such an impact had taken place over a populated area, the damage and death toll would have been catastrophic, and that was just a tiny body on the true scale of rogue space junk. If something bigger were to hit, we humans could easily go the way of the dinosaurs, our technology being unable to save us.
3. Monster solar flares.
This is unlikely going by what we know about the Sun, namely that it seems to be a very stable star, but it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility. On other stars, truly monstrous flares powerful enough to fry Earth have been observed. The good news is that these events occur on other types of stars and on stars with binary partners. The implication: the star being late in life as an unstable red giant increases the tendency for life-destroying flares, as does gravitational interaction with a companion star. Obviously, the Sun fits neither category. Still, though, it is an interesting possibility. So, if the Sun were suddenly to explode in killer activity, what would happen? Short answer: A monster blast of highly-charged particles from the Sun could, in theory, strip away the Earth's protective magnetic field and thus allow the Earth to be blasted by deadly doses of radiation.
4. Rogue black hole.
Nearly a century ago, when developing his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein discovered that his equations allowed for the possibility that the universe is expanding from a giant explosion and the idea that there could be stars with no area at all, so-called
'black holes,' named for the fact that their gravity would be so strong that not even light could escape. Even for a man as genius as Einstein, these ideas were just too much to believe as Einstein added his infamous, erroneous 'cosmological constant' to steady the universe and, as for black holes, they were just too weird for scientists to believe on theory alone.
In the 1960s, though, evidence for black holes started to come to light. In the constellation Cygnus, there was observed an empty point in space that was radiating X-rays without cause. Working through various theories, scientists were baffled. Finally, in desperation, the old, moldering idea of the black hole was resurrected and, guess what, Einstein's almost too weird to believe idea fit the observations perfectly. In the years since black holes have been detected (remember, we can't see the,) all over the place, including true monsters at the centers of galaxies.

So, what would happen if one rogue black hole were to come and pay our solar system a visit?
Short answer: a lot of bad things.To learn more, read on. Because a black hole is all about gravity, some very weird things would happen in regards to the way the world operates. As the black hole neared the solar system, the orbits of the outer planets would go awry thanks to the massive, infinitely dense boy moving among them. In fact, the outer planets could be sucked in to the black hole, thrown out of the solar system, or, as best case scenario, have their orbits drastically altered. As the black hole got closer, Earth's orbit would become erratic because of the massive gravitational tug. Looking into the sky, the stars would appear to shift in position because the light coming from them would be twisted by the black hole's gravity. As for Earth's doom, one of three things could happen: it could get sucked in, thrown out of the solar system, or wind up in a drastically altered orbit. In a close call, Earth would find itself thrown out into the blackness of space, away from the Sun, and itself an ice world in short order. In a lesser pass, Earth would fine itself on a drastically altered orbit that could take it to the outer reaches of the solar system, in far too close to the Sun, or both. Now, for a direct hit. A hard to believe as it may seem, when the black hole got close enough, everything on Earth ranging from people to oceans would be pulled off the surface of the planet and into the black hole, wherein it would be 'spaghettified' out of existence.

5. Gamma Ray Burst.
For reasons scientists do not fully understand, every now and then, there are massive explosions of gamma rays called
gamma ray bursts that come from distant space. The current theories state that such bursts come from especially powerful supernova, though that idea may have to be modified in the future as our knowledge and instruments become even better. Either way, a gamma ray burst in our neck of the galaxy, namely within 6,000 light years (give or take depending on the source) of Earth, could be very, very bad news for humanity as, even at that vast distance, the radiation burst could be powerful enough to strip away much of Earth's protective atmosphere and/or disrupt our magnetic field, thus leaving Earth unprotected from solar radiation which, unfiltered by the atmosphere/magnetic field, will prove deadly with time, leaving an uninhabited, ghost planet in its wake. Throughout Earth's history, there have been mysterious, mass extinctions that seem unexplainable by science. One of these vents took place about 440 million years ago, when over 50% of life on Earth was wiped out for reasons unknown. However, one interesting fact is this: the surviving species all descended from deep-water organisms, this suggesting that something left the deep oceans untouched while killing everything on land. A prime suspect here: a gamma ray burst.

So, as the new year arrives, if you were scared about 2012, rest assured that the world can't end in this year of doom as 2012 is now in the past. Now, as stated at the start of this article, keep in mind that the chances of any of the 5 real life cosmic Doomsday scenarios actually taking place is almost infinitely small but, on the other hand, these things can happen. My advice heading into 2013? Take time to enjoy the stars (or whatever it is you like to do) because life is anything but certain.

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