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Winter always stays a bit too long, and, after the blustery snow storms of March, you can always find me out in the garden frowning at the mud and waiting the first living things to pop up out of the thawing earth. Usually the hellebores bloom first followed by the crocuses, and then the whole symphony of blooms truly begins in earnest. This year, however, featured an unexpected player sounding the first note of the overture. After a light snow, I went out into the garden and found that the dark, cold earth was packed with pretty little mushrooms strewn across a portion of the garden about the size of a queen sized mattress. The mushrooms ranged in size from pencil eraser to a quarter-dollar-piece and were a lovely shade of burnt sienna.

Mushrooms are really the fruiting bodies of much larger underground organisms which are composed of delicate networks of threadlike hyphae. These elaborate filament networks are mutualistic with the roots & bacteria which make up the mysterious subterranean ecosystem. I would tell you more about this, but I don’t know more. Mushrooms are a truly mysterious hidden kingdom of life to me. I know some strange factoids about their cellular structure: primitive fungal cells are motile (!) whereas higher fungi have cellular septae, which allow organelles to be shared by many cells! I know the largest living organism known is a fungus. And of course everyone knows about the aesthetic (and chemical) range of mushrooms which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (and can be poisonous, medicinal, nutritious, or horrid, depending on mushroom type).

These mushrooms were quite pretty (in an earthy way) however my camera was not very good at differentiating them from the bark and leaf litter. In real life, they did stand out to the human eye, which raises yet more questions about their nature and composition. I am glad they are there, waiting underground and I will think about them as a larger part of the true garden (along with strange wasps, brown creepers, pseudoscorpions and tiny fluorescent dayflowers). If anyone knows any actual facts about these little fungi, kindly let me know. We will commence the regularly scheduled floral part of the spring symphony in the immediate future!

Population-cartogram_World.png

Today’s post is solely an infographic from the web–but it is a powerful infographic that bears a great deal of attention.  Above are the current nations of the Earth represented by population rather than landmass.  This population cartogram  was created by Max Roser to make people think more clearly about the real nature of the world’s human population.  Each little block represents half a million people.  Countries which loom large in world attention effectively vanish (like Russia, where mismanagement and grief are causing the population to shrink) yet countries which don’t appear in the shrill daily newscasts–places like Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia–are revealed as titans.  You can find the original in this article (which is fortunate, since WordPress will undoubtedly make reading the version above effectively impossible), along with a number of additional fascinating graphics.   We will talk more about the meaning of some of this later on, but for now it is worth just scrutinizing the cartogram and marveling at a world where Madagascar is bigger than Australia.

Population-cartogram_Asia-and-Oceania.png

When the Japanese space program successfully launched the solar sail IKAROS last year, Ferrebeekeeper noted that NASA had its own solar sail missions planned.  Last Friday, January 21st 2011, the United States Space Agency successfully deployed a 100-square-foot polymer sail in low-Earth orbit.  To quote the Satellite Spotlight website, the tiny craft, unromantically named “NanoSail-D2” was, “designed to demonstration the deployment of a compact solar sail boom system for use in deorbiting satellites and as an alternate means of propulsion to move satellites in space that doesn’t require fuel.”

Artist's Conception of NanoSail-D2--Picured Actual Size (Ha! I'm just kidding--the actual craft has a 14 foot diameter)

Although NASA’s Nano press page does not dwell on the mission’s problems, it has hardly gone off as planned.  As the name indicates, NanoSail-D2 is a tiny satellite.  Furled up in preparation for launch it was only 30 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm—about the size of a men’s size 12 shoe or a medium sour-dough loaf.  The satellite was supposed to be launched from its mother satellite, FASTSAT–a multi-experiment platform about the size of a dishwasher–on December 6th, but nothing happened.  Even though the launch door opened, the little sail remained folded up it in its launcher.   The solar sail mission was deemed a failure and NASA concentrated on the FASTSAT’s five other microsatellite experiments. Then, unexpectedly the solar sail spontaneously launched on January 19th.  It finished unfurling on the 21st and amateur ham radio enthusiasts tracked the craft’s beacon signals until its batteries wore out. You can find the satellite’s orbital path at the following link.  It should be quite visible traveling across the sky at night for another 70-120 days after which the drag of the sail will cause it to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

NanoSail-D2 was the successor to the unsuccessful NanoSail-D which fell into the Pacific Ocean (along with an Air Force satellite, a pharmaceutical satellite meant to study yeast in zero gravity, and a canister of cremated human remains) on August 3rd, 2008 when the Falcon I rocket carrying these respective payloads veered off-course.  The FASTSAT (along with the NanoSail-D2 and sundry other payloads) were launched from Kodiak on a Minotaur IV—a Peacekeeper ICBM modified for commercial and research purposes.

A Minotaur IV Rocket Launched from Vandenberg on September 25, 2010

Although I applaud NASA’s ingenuity and celebrate the successful launch of an American solar sail, I note that on December 8th, as NanoSail D2 sat malfunctioning in its launch bay, the Japanese IKAROS sail completed its primary mission when it flew by Venus at a distance of about 80,800 km (50,000 miles).  Japan is now planning a series of larger and more spectacular solar sail missions which they hope will culminate with a mission to Jupiter.

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