Help Name Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moons

Pluto
Pluto is one of the little mysteries of our solar system. An icy dwarf planet far from Earth, it’s never been studied up close. The best scientists have been able to do is to examine it with the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the coolest scientific instruments ever invented.

In 2011 and 2012, they discovered two new moons around Pluto, bringing the total number of its satellites to five. Right now they’re known by the boring scientific designations S/2011 (134340) 1 and S/2012 (134340) 1. Most astronomers call them by the shorter yet equally boring nicknames P4 and P5. Now an online poll on the website Pluto Rocks!, run by Dr. Mark Showalter of the P4/P5 Discovery Team, is letting YOU help decide what to name them.

All the choices come from Greek and Roman mythology but one has a special significance for science fiction fans – Vulcan. None other than William Shatner has gotten behind the push to name one of the moons after Mr. Spock’s home world. He’s urging fans via his twitter feed to vote for Vulcan. On his own twitter feed, Leonard Nimoy said, “‘Vulcan’ is the logical choice. LLAP.” LLAP stands for “Live long and prosper,” of course.

According to the current tally, Vulcan is way ahead, with Cerberus and Styx neck-and-neck for second place. I decided to release my inner Trekkie and voted for Vulcan. Since there are two moons to be named, you get to go back and vote again. I’ll be voting for Thanatos. It’s way behind but it’s the coolest name on there after Vulcan.

P4 is Pluto’s smallest moon, measuring an estimated 8-21 miles across and orbits Pluto in about 31 days. P5 is 6-16 miles across and orbits Pluto in 20 days. Little is known about their physical makeup although it is thought they are a combination of water ice, other frozen elements and molecules, and small bits of rock.

While astronauts and space tourists won’t be getting to these destinations anytime soon, it’s nice to know that you had a part in naming them. Voting ends at noon EST on Monday, February 25.

[Photo courtesy NASA via the Hubble Space Telescope]

Scientists Develop Tractor Beam (On A Microscopic Scale)

tractor beamA research team in Scotland and the Czech Republic has developed a tractor beam.

A press release from St. Andrews University reveals that scientists at that university and at the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic have for the first time been able to use light to draw objects closer, although only on a microscopic scale.

It has long been known that photons create a small amount of pressure. Johanes Kepler described the effect way back in the 17th century when he observed that the tails of comets point away from the sun. Experiments using light to push microscopic objects have been conducted for decades, but the current research is the first time light has been used to attract objects.

The team discovered that under a certain set of parameters with a special optical field, the pushing effect turns into a negative force and the object is drawn closer.

The negative force is specific to the object’s size and composition, allowing scientists to pick and choose what objects to attract. This would have applications to medicine and biological research, enabling researchers to sort cells or even parts of a cell. The team’s results have been published in Nature Photonics.

A real science-fiction-style tractor beam would have to be on a vastly greater scale than these experiments, however, so don’t expect it to be used for transportation anytime soon. We’ll see space tourism long before that. The tractor beam experiments are a bit like teleportation experiments that made headlines a year ago. We’re seeing what our grandkids might one day take for granted.

[Image courtesy St Andrews University]

The unquiet grave of Jesse James

Jesse James, Frank James, Old West, Wild West, outlaws, Missouri
Jesse James never got any peace. He grew up in western Missouri in the 1850s, where a bitter border war with Kansas was the background to his childhood. He was a teenager when the Civil War started and got beaten up by a Union militia. Eventually he joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, and when the war was lost he was unable or unwilling to return to civilian life. His years as an outlaw were ones of constant struggle, and even after he got assassinated by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri, he didn’t rest easy.

After his death rumors started circulating that he wasn’t really dead. Some claimed he had murdered someone so he could get away from the police, but Jesse craved publicity and often sent boasting letters to the press. Giving all that up for a life of anonymity doesn’t fit with his character. Some say Robert Ford had in fact killed Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin. There’s good evidence that he did, but this was a year before he shot Jesse James. In fact, fear over Jesse’s finding out who killed his cousin became one of the main reasons Ford betrayed him.

Other stories claim Ford killed a different man. Both versions would have us believe that Ford was part of a conspiracy to hide Jesse from the law, something Jesse had been doing successfully for almost twenty years. They would also have us believe that all of Jesse’s friends, family, and associates were in on the conspiracy and took the truth to their graves. Jesse’s body was on display in an open casket both in St. Joseph and Kearney and nobody at the time voiced any doubt that the dead man was Jesse.

This didn’t stop a steady string of impostors from hitting the carnival trail looking to make a quick buck. This infuriated Jesse’s surviving relatives and if any of the impostors dared come through Missouri they’d end up face to face with a real member of the James family, and an angry one at that.

%Gallery-108698%Over time these impostors reduced in number, but even as late as the 1930s old men were puttering around telling anyone who’d listen that they were Jesse James. In 1931 a fellow named John James claimed to be Jesse, but when questioned by family members couldn’t answer basic questions about the family, such as the name of Archie, the half-brother killed in the Pinkerton raid on the James farm. Frank James’ wife Annie brought him Jesse’s boots and challenged him to try them on. Jesse had had unusually small feet, and like O.J.’s gloves, the boots didn’t fit.

But John James continued to claim he was Jesse. It only ended when his brother signed an affidavit that John was lying and put him in a mental institution. It turns out John James really had been a an outlaw. Back in 1926, at the age of 79, he’d killed a man who tried to collect a loan of 50 cents!

Then another impersonator appeared. J. Frank Dalton was first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s by Ray Palmer, editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and perpetrator of the famous Shaver Mystery, which got thousands of Americans believing that malevolent underground robots were zapping people with mind control rays and sleeping with Earth women. Compared with that, Dalton’s story is almost believable. Well, not really. Dalton played the rodeo circuit claiming to be Jesse and told wild tales of how he was a fighter pilot in World War One at the age of 69. Stretching credibility even further, two of his gang members toured with him. All three claimed to be over 100 years old. Dalton spent his last years doing promotional work for Meramec Caverns in Missouri, celebrating his (alleged) 103rd birthday there along with a Billy the Kid impostor.

In 1950 Dalton went to court to change his name back to Jesse James. The judge made the wise ruling that: “There is no evidence here to show that this gentleman, if he ever was Jesse James, has ever changed his name. If his name has never been changed, he is still Jesse James in name and there is nothing for this court to pass on. . .If he isn’t what he professes to be, then he is trying to perpetrate a fraud upon this court.” Dalton died the next year.

Jesse James wasn’t the only person who attracted impostors. His wife Zee and brother Frank had their share of impostors too. It didn’t take much to get a media frenzy going, and there was easy cash to be taken from the gullible. This is common with important historical figures. Everyone from Bloody Bill Anderson to Hitler have accumulated stories of their survival. It seems we don’t want to let these people go, even if we actually want them dead.

All these stories caused no end of headaches for the James family. At first Jesse was buried at the James Farm in order to keep the grave safe from relic hunters. Eventually he was moved to the family plot at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. Doubts about who was really in the grave lingered, however, until in 1995 his remains were exhumed and subjected to DNA testing. When compared with the DNA living descendants, it was found that the body was, indeed, Jesse James. Descendants of some of the hoaxers were on hand for the results, and they insist the DNA tests don’t prove anything. Stories continue to circulate about how Jesse James survived his assassination.

The legend lives on. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Solar plane flies nonstop for a week


We recently reported on the historic flight of the Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered plane to fly through the night. Now another barrier has been broken. The Zephyr solar plane has flown nonstop for seven days.

Unlike the Solar Impulse, which carried a pilot, the Zephyr is an unmanned drone built by the UK defense firm Qinetiq. Drones have seen extensive service in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years but are hampered by the need to return for refueling and thus losing sight of targets. Drones that never need to land have an obvious advantage. The civilian potential is obvious too, with researchers already thinking up applications for using them for scientific observation.

This development also marks another step forward for potential solar-powered commercial flight. The Zephyr has solar cells along its 22.5 meter (74 ft) wingspan that drive the propellers and fill batteries that are robust enough to power the plane from sunset to sunrise. Will we one day see solar-powered commercial flights? It may be a long way off, but considering the rapid pace of technological change, it’s unwise to say that anything is impossible.

The Zephyr is still in the air near the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and its support team plans to leave it flying for another week.

No historical plaque for Scientology founder

English Heritage has rejected an application to put up a plaque at the former home of L. Ron Hubbard.

The American science fiction writer, who became a controversial figure when he founded Scientology, was based at 37 Fitzroy Street in London’s West End from 1957 to 1959. The Hubbard Foundation had applied to English Heritage for a blue plaque to mark the building. Blue plaques are recognizable to anyone who’s been to London as marking the spot of a famous event or building, or where a famous person has lived, worked, or died.

English Heritage states they rejected the application because, “It was felt that since Mr Hubbard had died only relatively recently, in 1986, that more time was required to make an objective assessment of the importance and longevity of his achievements. The panel also noted that Mr Hubbard had no address in London which could be considered as comparatively settled, and moved around a great deal.”

The Hubbard Foundation owns the building and runs it as a museum. They are appealing the ruling.