Arctic sea ice is like the fabled canary in a coal mine when it comes to global warming. The far north is very sensitive to changes in climate, with temperatures that fluctuate more than the southerly latitudes.
The extent of (that is, area covered by) Arctic sea ice has been declining of late, as has its volume (which includes the thickness). This is true no matter what time of year you look; compare the maximum extent it reaches in winter today with what it was, say, 20 years ago and you can see it’s smaller. The same is true for the minimum extent in summer. This steady melting away of ice is a clear indicator of a warming planet.
However, 2012 was an exception ... in that the amount of Arctic ice fairly well plummeted, dropping far below average. Why? Scientists think they’ve figured that out, at least partially. And not unexpectedly, when the ice shrank away, a denier claim grew.
The images above are from NASA’s Aqua satellite, and they show natural-color shots of the Mackenzie River in the Canadian Arctic. Flowing north, its delta leads to the Beaufort Sea, which has copious ice floating in it in the winter. The two pictures are shown with a slider bar in between; move it back and forth to see the “before” shot (taken on June 14, 2012) and the “after” shot (taken on July 5, 2012) (Note: If you are using a mobile device you may see the images stacked vertically with no slider. If no images appear at all, click here to see them.)
In the “before” picture (moving the slider all the way to the right), you can see lots of ice in the water. Note, though, the ice piled up along the coastline. You can see the muddy water pooling in fingers stretching toward the water. That ice acted as a dam, holding the water back.
In the “after” picture (slider to the left) the dam is gone, and you can see the river water infiltrating the sea—the brown swirls are sediment washing out into the sea. Sometime in the intervening weeks the warm river water melted the ice dam and broke through, flooding the sea. This sudden infiltration of warm water raised the temperature of the sea considerably, melted the ice floating beyond.
Aqua has detectors that can see microwave energy, which allows the surface temperature of the water to be taken. Here is the same region, this time showing the temperatures before and after the flood.
(Click here if you don't see the images.) The darkest blue is cold water/ice at about -2° C, and white/lavender is +15° C. As you can see, in just a few weeks the temperature went up substantially; in some places it went up about 15° Celsius, a huge increase in thermal energy; by my rough calculations it would far, far exceed the energy released by a nuclear weapon.
No wonder that ice melted.
Scientists think this is what contributed to the huge drop in Arctic ice that year. If the water were to move into the sea more slowly (as it usually does), then there would be time for its excess heat to radiate away into the atmosphere or be dropped into deeper waters. Instead, the sudden inundation due to the ice dam breaking dumped all that warmth into the sea surface, where it could melt the ice.
That’s why 2012 saw record low ice in the Arctic. The next year, things were more normal, and the ice extent and volume were more like they had been in previous years.
And this is what brought on the climate change denial fairy tale: That in 2013 the ice had “grown” by 60 percent over 2012. This is incredibly misleading; starting with a record low and then measuring from that is hardly what I’d call an honest claim. That makes it seem like global warming has stopped or even reversed, which is baloney, pure and simple. The ice extent and volume in 2013 were far below average, and while it’s early yet, 2014 is gearing up to be the same.
Incidentally, the waters in the Mackenzie (and other Canadian rivers) are warming up due to global warming as well. Coupled with thinning ice also due to warming, this water is breaking up the ice more efficiently than in previous years, which may be the overall reason ice is disappearing from the far north (incidentally, there are no rivers flowing into the Antarctic region, so the ice there is not affected in this way).
Rivers are efficient conveyors of heat, it turns out; just another piece of the huge and complicated puzzle that is global warming. Scientists studying these effects are finding more and more ways these pieces all fit together, which is a good thing. The more we understand how the planet is heating up, the better we’ll be at predicting what will happen, and how we’ll have to deal with it.
All photos by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS).
Note the update at the bottom of this post about a second asteroid that will pass us today.
At about 21:00 UTC (4 p.m. Eastern time) today, the 25-30 meter-wide asteroid 2014 DX110 will pass just 350,000 km from the Earth—closer than the Moon!
We’re in no danger from this rock on this go-round, which is nice; it’s somewhat bigger than the one that exploded over Russia in 2013 so I prefer it keeps its distance. But you can watch the pass live using the Virtual Telescope Project, an observatory that will follow the asteroid and send images out on the Web. The picture at the top of this post was taken yesterday, March 4, 2014, when DX110 was still about 1.5 million km (900,000 miles) from Earth. It’s far too faint to see with the unaided eye even during this close encounter, so your best chance is to see it online.
You should know that rocks this size pass close to the Earth fairly often, but rarely hit us—a circle 350,000 km in radius has 3,000 times the area of the Earth! So we’re a pretty small target as things go. Averaged over time, a 25 meter asteroid is expected to hit us very roughly every 50 years or so, and would generally do so over the ocean and uninhabited territory. But rocks this size do hit us and eventually one will if we don’t do anything about it. That’s why it’s something we should be aware of and working on.
Update, March 5, 2014 17:00 UTC: An asteroid called 2014 EC that was discovered only last night will pass the Earth just after midnight UTC tonight, sliding past us at a distance of just 56,000 km (35,000 miles) above Earth's surface! This rock is roughly 10 meters across—half the diameter of the Chelyabinsk asteroid. A miss is as good as a mile, as they say, but it shows that there are lots of these things passing us all the time. There's aren't more now than there were; we're just getting better at finding them. Thanks to Ron Baalke for the alert.
Update 2, March 5, 2014 at 17:05 UTC: ... and no sooner do I write the above update that I find out that 2014 EC has a very, very tiny chance of hitting the Earth in 2025. I do mean tiny: the chance is only about one in 144 million. Almost certainly, as more observations of this small rock are made, the chance of an impact will drop even farther; I explain how this works in an earlier post. No need to panic over this one.
Correction, March 5, 2014 at 17:45 UTC: In the second update, I originally wrote that the chance of impact in 2025 was one in 2.7 million, but that is in fact a cumulative risk over several potential impacts over the years. The individual chance of an impact in 2025 is only one in 144 million, essentially 0. You can breathe even easier. Thanks to Ron Baalke again!
Every year, when NASA releases its White House budget request, I open the report with dread. Will it show that things are roughly the same as last year, or will there be more bad news, with slashes and cuts to vital programs?
And this year, like every other, I read it to find … both.
The Fiscal Year 2015 NASA budgetary request is hammered out by the White House with input from the space agency. It is a request; it's not final. Congress must put together its own budget, and then the two are thrown into a pit to see what can be agreed upon, what can be reconciled, and what compromises can be found. Think of it as a baseline for the actual budget which will hopefully be finalized later this year.
As usual, from what I can see, there’s good news and bad news in this. The real bad news is that the good news is only so-so, and the worse news is that the bad news is pretty bad.
In these maddening economic times, small cuts can be considered victories. In 2014 NASA got a total of $17.646 billion. The 2015 request is for $17.460 billion, a reduction of $186 million dollars, or about a 1 percent cut. That could’ve been worse. As we’ll see, though, it’s where those cuts are going that are bad.
First, the (for a sufficiently broad definition of “good”) Good News
Some areas got more money, like Space Technology. That includes tech that will help the proposed asteroid retrieval mission. I have misgivings about this mission; the goal isn’t yet clear, nor the source of the estimated $2.6 billion it will cost in total. The development of the tech needed for it will be useful no matter what, which is fine, but I still fear NASA will have to cut other missions to fund this one.
Commercial Spaceflight will see an increase of more than $150 million to a total of $848 million. That includes buying launches from commercial companies like SpaceX, and I’m all for that. That comes with a $300 million reduction to the Exploration Systems Development, the category that includes developing the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System, the next-generation rocket. I am not a big fan of the SLS, since I don’t think it pushes boundaries like NASA should be doing; these types of capabilities may be better handled by private companies that can do so more cheaply, motivated by NASA funding (interestingly, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has reportedly had similar doubts about SLS). This is a complex political football, though. Still, I have no doubt this will continue to get a large chunk of funding for the next few years.
Other projects got modest increases, including Heliophysics (yay; studying the Sun is important) and a few others. I’m happy to see some funding to look into a new Europa mission as well; we definitely need to go there!
But then there’s the bad news.
The Bad News
Earth Science: cut by $56 million (given that so many in Congress are climate change deniers who want to cut Earth-observing missions, I think this may be a mistake). Astrophysics: cut by $61 million (including mothballing the wonderful SOFIA aircraft unless a German partner can pony up the cash; see page 15 of the report). Planetary Science: cut by $65 million. That last one is almost a victory, given how the White House has tried to eviscerate planetary exploration over the past few years. But don’t be fooled; these cuts would hurt. A lot. (Note added after I wrote this article but before it was posted: Casey Dreier at The Planetary Society has more on this situation.)
But the one that really gets me, the one that is appalling, is the cut to Education: It will see a devastating reduction in funding of nearly $28 million, dropping to $89 million if this budget is passed as is. That’s nearly a 24 percent drop.
This is madness. I can’t brand it any other way. One of NASA’s shining triumphs is public advocacy, from creating educational products to garnering public interest in the overall mission of exploring the Universe. This cut seems to align with the bizarre notion of taking the educational efforts away from NASA and giving it to outside museums and the Department of Education. These are excellent groups, to be sure, but there is a wealth of experience in NASA’s Education and Public Outreach groups, hard-won over the past decade or so. I was involved with that, so I have first-hand knowledge; mission-specific E/PO with cooperation between those missions was working pretty well. There’s no need to change this and to my knowledge no one in NASA asked for it. It was simply decided from above. I think that’s a big mistake.
Giving a Hair Cut to a Bald Man
Again, let me remind you that this is a budget request. Congress will have a different budget for NASA, one that will hopefully restore some of the cuts. Congress-critters have wisely fought for more money in planetary exploration (NASA’s highest-profile space missions in many ways), so there may be hope yet. Every year, watching this process unfold is like watching a car crash in slow motion.
And it’s nuts from the start. NASA’s budget is a pittance compared with pretty much everything else the government does. President Obama’s proposed national budget for 2015 is $3.9 trillion. NASA’s budget is less than half a percent of that (0.45 percent to be more accurate).
To give you a sense of scale, take a one dollar bill, and a pair of scissors. They’d better be sharp: Slice off a sliver just 0.7 mm wide off the end—that’s about 1/40th of an inch. That’s the total amount of NASA’s budget compared with what we spend overall. A slice that narrow won’t even reach the ink printing on the bill.
That’s what we’re fighting over here, a razor-thin piece of the budget so small it’s dwarfed by the amount of money underreported to the IRS every year (by a LOT). It’s like running out of room on your hard drive and spending hours deleting a 4 KB text file, when there’s a directory filled with honking big 4 GB movies you’ll never watch again eating up space.
And to mix a metaphor, starving space is what we’re doing. NASA’s budget is so very, very small, and yet what it does with it is amazing. We have spacecraft orbiting Saturn and Mercury and sitting (or roving!) upon the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. We’re studying our own planet, finding thousands of others, mapping the Universe to the very edge of what we can see. We’re learning about weather systems and our climate, putting humans into orbit to see what we can do there, and exploring everything up, down, and in between. And we get the chance and honor to let people know all about it.
It’s a common joke on the 'Net to say we live in the future. But look again at what NASA does, and tell me we don’t.
We can have all that, and so much more, for just a small fraction of the edge of the border on the side of a dollar bill. A sliver that buys us the Universe.
Why are we slicing it even more?
I once saw a caterpillar that looked just like the picture above. And despite the somewhat staggering difference in scale, they have something else in common besides shape: They’re both decent metaphors for life cycles.
What you’re seeing in that remarkable shot is the galaxy M82, the host of the recent supernova SN 2014J. This picture was taken before that star blew up, though. M82 is a starburst galaxy, undergoing a huge wave of star birth. It’s producing something like 10 times the mass of the Sun of stars every year, many times what’s happening in our own Milky Way. Astronomers measure star formation rate in terms of the Sun’s mass, not number of stars, because the mass is easier to determine; a solar mass of material can create one star like the Sun, or many smaller red dwarf stars that are dim and hard to count (or a fraction of a big, hot star).
The image was taken by the Very Large Array, which detects radio waves, a low energy form of light. It focused on the inner region of M82, about 5'000 light years across (the entire galaxy is about 40,000 light years in diameter). This is where most of the star formation is occurring, and the fierce light of all these stars, born over the past 50 million years, is blasting out gas and dust from the galaxy’s core. What you’re seeing here is fast-moving gas moving outward, as well as light emitted by electrons spinning madly around the strong magnetic fields of the material there.
It really does look like a wave of material moving outward, which matches the view seen from optical telescopes, like the one here. That’s material getting flung away by the activity in the galaxy’s heart.
The bright dots in the radio image are a mix of gas clouds furiously forming stars and old supernovae that blew up long ago.
And that’s where this galaxy and my caterpillar overlap. In a galaxy like M82 (or ours for that matter), gas clouds form stars. Some of these are high mass, hot stars, which live short lives and explode. In their cores are heavier elements like iron, calcium, oxygen, and more, which get scattered into space by the explosion. This material slams into other gas clouds, which then form more stars, seeded with these heavy elements.
This happened in the Milky Way billions of years ago, and those elements from some long-dead star made their way into you. Your bones, your teeth, your blood, your very DNA have elements in them forged in the heart of a mighty star that violently tore itself to bits so that eventually you may live. It is a transformation on a literally cosmic scale.
I should hope the metaphorical metamorphosis is obvious enough. The only constant in the Universe is change, and much of it is a cycle. Birth, life, death, restructuring, and rebirth. That is also the theme of much of human art, from paintings and movies to myths and great novels.
Some say science is cold, dealing unemotionally with hard data. But that’s far from the reality. Humanity and life are reflected in the stars, and the Universe itself is poetry.
What’s the last thing a Romulan commander sees on their tactical screen before a volley of phasers turns them into space vapor?
I’m guessing this:
That’s not a bunch of Federation symbols flying across some alien world. Well, it is an alien world, but it’s not in the distant reaches of the Alpha Quadrant: That’s Mars, and those are actually sand dunes, seen by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Technically, they’re called barchan dunes. They can form when the wind blows predominantly from one direction. If there’s an obstacle, like a big rock or small hill, the wind will blow around the obstacle, the same way water flows around a rock. Sand will pile up on the leading edge and also be swept around to the backside. Eddies in the wind create circular currents on the downwind side, building up walls of sand on the sides and creating that horseshoe crab-like appearance.
Eventually, you get a long, shallow slope leading to a crest, a sharp edge, then a steeper slope downwind. The wind supports the sand from rolling back down the upwind side, but downwind the sand is free to roll down, creating a steeper slope. The long arms leading downwind are due to the eddies in the wind behind the obstacle. Once formed, these dunes can actually move as a piece; the sand rolls up the shallow slope and then down the steep one, keeping the overall shape of the dune even though the individual sand grains change. In that way, it’s very much like a traffic jam on a highway, which persists and can move even as individual cars enter and leave it.
Barchan dunes are common on Earth and on Mars. They can form long, narrow chains called seifs, too—those make for very dramatic and beautiful formations.
I do enjoy watching the odd time-lapse video of the sky or two, and I love sharing them with y’all as well. Many are beautiful, of course, and that’s reason enough to spread the word. They encourage people to go outside and look up, and I hope by now you know how I feel about that!
But these highly sped-up animations show us the motions of the sky we miss in our 60-seconds-to-the-minute lives. It’s only when the heavens are accelerated that some things pop out, and it’s worth noting them.
Lovely, isn’t it? You can see halos around the Moon, light pillars, and other beautiful phenomena. (I love the snow on the ground sparkling and twinkling as the flakes reflect the moving moonlight.) But that’s not what I want to bring to your attention.
At 1:31, a sequence starts showing Orion sliding past the silhouette of a house. It’s very nice, but there are two hidden secrets in it. Did you see them?
Let me help. To the left of Orion and near the top of the frame is the bright star Procyon (the brighter star Sirius is below it—at the top of this post is a picture from the video, and Procyon is the star at the top left). Restart the video at 1:31 and keep your eyes on Procyon as it moves left to right.
Did you see it that time? There is what looks like a star just below Procyon, and it suddenly appears, gets brighter, then fades. Replay it again if you need to. Did you notice anything else odd about it?
The “star” doesn’t move with the other stars! It seems to sit tight in the sky. That’s because it’s not a star, it’s a geostationary satellite. These are satellites launched into special orbits that are about 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) up. At that height, they orbit the Earth once every 24 hours, the same as the rotation rate of the Earth. Because of that, they appear to stay more or less glued to the sky, while the stars slide past them (from their point of view the Earth looks like it’s not spinning below, so they’re always over the same spot on our planet, making them useful for weather observations and communications).
I suspect the satellite gets brighter and fades because it’s reflecting either sunlight or moonlight off its solar panels, and as the angle changes we see that reflected light pass over us. Usually they’re pretty faint and hard to see.
I mentioned there’s a second secret: It’s a second geostationary satellite! Just before the bright one appears under Procyon, there’s another one to the left of it, at the tip of a tree branch. At first I thought it was the branch, maybe reflecting some ambient light. But after watching it a few times I’m pretty sure it’s another satellite.
Incidentally, these satellites generally have orbits that are very nearly directly over the Equator. Both of the objects in the video are in fact in the part of the sky corresponding to that position (the “celestial equator”) so that adds credence to my hypothesis.
And there you go! Like I said, in a time-lapse video there are things that can appear and make themselves known that you would otherwise be totally in the dark about. Hidden away in the sky, there’s knowledge and beauty and science and fun.
But that’s redundant, isn’t it?
Sometimes, you just need a little flash of inspiration to make your day go a bit better. Even if that flash is caused by a chunk of space rock the size of a grape slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at 50,000 miles per hour and converting its considerable kinetic energy into light and heat in mere seconds.
Like, say, this.
Astrophotographer Mark Gee was about 20 minutes outside of Wellington, New Zealand, capturing the Milky Way rising over the ocean when that bit of cosmic debris made its showy demise. Normally, this would have been a lovely shot of the center of our galaxy with Antares glowing orange and various gas clouds dotting the stream of stars. But as chance would have it our planet was in the right place at the right time to intersect that small rock, and Gee was also at the right place and the right time to capture it on his camera.
He’s taken incredible photos of the night sky before, some of which take incredible care and planning to get the stunning results seen. But this time, a happy coincidence took a good shot and made it great.
It’s actually rather amazing what you can see from orbit. Once you’re off the ground, above it, your perspective changes, and you can put things in context. Signs of civilization can shrink down to almost nothing compared with the glory of nature, making them difficult to spot.
For example, peruse this image taken by a satellite:
Can you even see any signs of human activity there on the surface?
Oh, wait a second. My apologies. I forgot to mention: That’s not the surface of Earth … it’s the surface of Mars. And the signs of humanity you see there are really just a single sign.
Can you spot that blip right in the center? That’s the Mars rover Opportunity!
It’s only about 2.3 x 1.6 meters (7.5 x 5.2 feet) in size, so it’s just a few pixels across as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. If the scientists and engineers programming the probe didn’t know exactly where Opportunity was, it would be impossible to find! But we know exactly where all our working hardware is on Mars, and we know exactly where the orbiting cameras point, making it far simpler to get pictures of the land-bound rovers.
Opportunity is seen here at what’s called Solander Point, where it found that odd rock nicknamed the “jelly doughnut.” The rock suddenly appeared next to the rover, when earlier images taken by Opportunity showed bare ground. That was quite a mystery, but it’s now pretty clear that the rock was a piece of a larger one broken off by one of the rover’s wheels. Images like this one from HiRISE are pretty useful when things like this happen; it shows no fresh craters nearby, making it unlikely the rock was ejected by a small impact.
But for those of us back home who don’t study Mars for a living (and, I’d wager, even for those who do), images like this are still a thrill. As my friend Emily Lakdawalla puts it, “Seeing a spacecraft on the surface of a planet from another spacecraft never gets old.”
She’s right. It’s a great reminder that we humans are amazing when we want to be. We can, in a short time, go from creating myths about lights in the sky to landing on them and discovering their truths for ourselves.
Correction, March 6, 2014: Well, this will take a moment to explain.
In the article below, I wrote that the star Kappa Cas is moving through the galaxy at a stunning 1,100 km/sec. This turns out to be incorrect: The speed of the stellar wind blowing off its surface is that fast, but the star itself is moving far more slowly.
I based the original number off the NASA press release, which made that assumption about the speed. However, an email by astronomer Manfred Pakull set me straight. The star is actually moving relative to the Sun at about 25 km/sec, which means it’s moving around the galaxy at around the same speed we are.
So why is there an arc of material compressed next to it instead of a more spherical shell of dust? The speed of the star is very small compared to the wind speed, so I’m guessing the dusty material the star’s wind is ramming is not evenly distributed. Note that the overall shape is more like part of a sphere as opposed to a bow wave, so this seems likely. Funny, too: When I read the press release I looked for journal papers on the star and found none (Pakull did mention one, which has some relevant numbers for the star). That’s surprising if it really is a runaway star, so now that anomaly makes more sense. Everything else I wrote below is correct, but note that the parts about it being a runaway are almost certainly incorrect. And also? It’s still gorgeous.
When you look up at the sky, you’d be forgiven to think that the stars are motionless, frozen in time, mounted on the velvet vault of the heavens.
But in fact they are in motion, orbiting the center of our galaxy much like the planets orbit the Sun. The Sun itself, for example, is moving along at roughly 200 kilometers per second (450,000 mph). Some orbit a lot faster.
Take Kappa Cassiopeiae, for example. It’s what’s called a runaway star, screaming through space at a terrifying 1,100 kilometers per second … 2.5 million miles per hour! As it happens, it’s also a blue supergiant, a massive, hot star. These kinds of stars tend to blow out a fast wind of subatomic particles, like the solar wind on steroids. As the star plows through space, its wind rams into the material around it, creating a vast shock wave like air off the nose of a supersonic fighter jet. It’s invisible to the eye, but when you point an infrared telescope like Spitzer at it, you get stunning beauty:
How about that? Kappa Cas is the blue star in the center, and you can see the material arcing around it, snowplowed by the fierce interaction of the star and its surroundings. This image is infrared, which means the colors aren’t “real”; blue is a combination of light at 3.6 and 4.5 microns (five and six times the wavelength of the reddest light the human eye can see), green is from 12 microns, and red is 24 microns. What you see as red is dust that floats between the stars, and green is from complex particles very much like soot (created by stars both when they are born and when they die). In Spitzer images, stars tend to look blue because they give off most of their light toward that end of the spectrum.
The Sun is also moving through interstellar material, but the effect is nowhere near as profound as that from Kappa Cas. But then the wind from Kappa Cas is millions of times more powerful than the Sun’s and is blowing outward several times faster. Add that to the already incredible speed of the star, and you get a bow shock that’s a mind-crushing four light years ahead of the star: 40 trillion kilometers. That’s the same distance as the nearest star from the Sun, so you can see the influence of Kappa Cas extends a long, long way.
We’ve seen other cases of this as well. Zeta Ophiuchi is one; another massive star barreling through the night. Spitzer has observed it before, and it’s so beautiful that it’s one of my favorite all time astronomical photographs. Another infrared observatory, WISE, also took a great shot of it.
This raises the question: Just why is Kappa Cas on the run? There are a few ways stars can get accelerated to such high velocities. One is if they started out life as a binary, two stars locked in a tight orbit. If the other star exploded as a supernova, the two stars lose their grip on each other, and the angular momentum can fling them both away at high speed, just like a slingshot. Another possibility is that Kappa Cas was born in a cluster of a stars, and a close encounter with a pair of stars in the cluster gave it a kick sufficient to fling it out and into interstellar space.
Kappa Cas is actually bright enough to see with the naked eye; it’s a fourth magnitude star in the W of Cassiopeia. Better take a look while you can, though; being a blue supergiant, Kappa Cas doesn’t have long to live. Even though it has something like 40 times the Sun’s mass, it burns through its nuclear fuel at a far faster rate, shortening its lifespan considerably. Someday, perhaps in the next few hundred thousand years or less, it will explode. It’s 4,000 light years away, so we’re safe, but it’ll get really bright when it goes, getting far brighter than Venus in the sky. What a sight that will be!
Yegads. OK, let’s go over these point by point.
First, Kepler is designed to look for planets orbiting other stars by detecting a small drop in the starlight if a planet passes directly between us and the star. This is called the transit method, and it’s been used to great success. However, there are ways these observations can look like a planet is transiting when really it’s something else; a background star changing brightness, for example.
For that reason, when Kepler sees what looks like an exoplanet, it’s called a candidate until it’s verified. There are more than 2,500 candidates in the Kepler data! This has created something of a bottleneck in the data, making it hard to confirm planets rapidly. What astronomers did then is pretty clever: Look for multiple planets orbiting a single star. Why? Because you don’t expect to see very many of them if the candidate is a “false positive”; you might see just a handful out of thousands of candidates.
What they found instead were hundreds of such planets. They were able to then eliminate the false positives from the sample, leaving a pretty big set of more than 800 planets detected! Of these, more than 700 are newly found.
The size of the planet can be determined by seeing how much light from the star it blocks. The bigger the planet, the bigger the dip in starlight, and if the star’s size is known (and that can be determined), then the diameter of the planet can be found as well. Of the planets detected in this survey, the vast majority are actually smaller than Neptune (which itself is about four times the diameter of Earth). This is in contrast to most of the previous planets found, which are more like Jupiter in size (10 or so times the Earth’s diameter).
Of these, an amazing 106 are less than 1.25 times the diameter of Earth! Previously, only 16 had been found in Kepler data, and only about 20 were known in total (including those found using other telescopes). This is a major jump in known planets that are around the same size as our own world. The number sextupled.
Of all the new planets found, four orbit their stars at the right distance to sustain liquid water. This region around the star is called the habitable zone, and it’s really just an estimate; it depends on a lot of factors and has very fuzzy borders. Technically, the Sun’s HZ goes from Venus to Mars, more or less, but we know that Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, have liquid water under a frozen shell of ice. So take the HZ size with a grain of salt; in reality, it’s probably bigger than these conservative estimates.
All four of the planets in their stars’ HZs are bigger than Earth, ranging from 1.8 to 2.5 times our width. We know almost nothing else about them, but just because they’re bigger doesn’t mean they aren’t Earth-like. Surface gravity depends not just on size but on mass, so a lower density but bigger planet can still have very Earth-like conditions. Either way, we can’t tell, so I won’t speculate.
The final bit of interesting news is that the planets found orbiting each star tend to orbit in the same plane, much like the planets do in our solar system. Seen from the side, our system forms a thin disk, and the same is true for these other systems as well. This makes it pretty likely that other systems formed the same way ours did. That’s reassuring!
All of this put together is pretty striking, and very exciting. We’ve been compiling evidence for years that stars with planets are common and that planets in the galaxy might outnumber stars. These new results support that; multiple-planet systems are common. Not only that, Earth-sized planets are also common, and Earth-like planets may be huge in number too. We think there are billions of them in our galaxy alone. Billions.
I’ll remind you: In 1990, we didn’t know of a single planet orbiting an alien star. Not one. Just a few years later the first was discovered, and now we have confirmed the existence of more than 1,700! Mind you, these new results only come from using the first two years of Kepler data; when the technique is applied to all four years of data there’s no doubt a new treasure trove of planets will pop out.
The Milky Way, the whole Universe, must be fairly buzzing with planets. Billions upon billions of them, just waiting to be discovered. This new technique shows we can find them, even better than before. As time goes on we’ll build better telescopes, better detectors, and find new methods that will make this even faster and better. This is truly a magnificent time to be alive, and to stretch the realm of our knowledge ever farther.
Correction, Feb. 26, 2014, at 20:00 UTC: I originally wrote that the number of Earth-sized planets quintupled. However, since 20 were known, and an additional 106 were found, the number more than sextupled.
This is not an illusion per se, but I have to admit the first 30 seconds or so did freak me out.
Weeeeeeeeird. Those are actually paper sculptures by Chinese artist Li Hongbo. The paper leaves in the stacks are connected, a bit like honeycombs. They start off as a block, which can then be carved into different shapes just like stone. Hongbo sculpts them into beautiful classical heads, and then when you pull on them, well, you get that bizarre video above.
The first two segments are pretty nifty. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I thought for a moment this was going to be just an optical illusion, not actually motion of the medium itself. This was strongly reinforced in the second shot, where the camera moves down as the head is pulled up, making it look like the changing perspective is what’s causing the change we see. But it really is because the head is physically being pulled apart!
I suspect this is so engaging because of the “uncanny valley” effect, where artwork depicting faces looks almost—but not quite—real. It disturbs us. That’s why simple cartoons like Homer Simpson look just fine when we watch the show (the drawings are flat and not at all realistic), but when it’s turned into a 3-D photorealistic picture, it will haunt your nightmares for all eternity (seriously, you may not wish to click that link unless being drastically and soul-clenchingly disturbed for the rest of your life is something you truly desire).
In this case, the heads look like classic Greek sculptures, which are clearly representative of humans, but lack the depth of reality, so they are beautiful, not disturbing. When they become distorted as they are pulled apart, accordion-like, the eyes get stretched, the ratios of various features distort, and some atavistic part of our brain is activated. We’re repulsed. The creepy music only adds to the effect.
I often wonder what will happen when humanity meets its first true alien—not just a planet covered in single-celled goop but an actual complex creature from another world. Much of my own thinking has been triggered by a voracious consumption of science fiction, which unsurprisingly covers this topic extensively. Assuming we can even recognize a life form as being alive, will its shape repel us? If it looks something like us, but not quite like us, will we be betrayed by our own brains, tripping some ancient reflex of loathing?
I hope not. I can hope that by understanding our own minds better we can overcome this fear of “other.” In all the books and stories I read about first contact, though, I don’t think any used the idea that our own art might help us if and when we do meet our kin across the stars. I think it’s an angle worth exploring.
Tip o’ the chisel to my friend Lucky Yates.
This Honda Ad Leaves Me a Little Flat
Another Brain-Melting Illusion: The Dragon That Follows Your Gaze
Viral Illusion Will—and Should—Have You Doubting Your Eyes
This Illusion Will Drive You Mad
The Blue and the Green (the single greatest illusion of all time)
In most states, parents have to show proof that their child is vaccinated before enrolling them in public school. In my home state of Colorado, it’s pretty easy for parents to opt out of that. All they have to do is check a box on the enrollment form that says they have either a religious or personal belief that exempts them from vaccinating their kids.I’ve wrestled with this problem for a while, and I eventually came to the conclusion that a parent does not have the right to have their child in a public school if that child is unvaccinated [except for medical reasons], and for the same reason health care workers should not be unvaccinated. It all comes down to a very simple reality: It puts other children at risk. If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well, and part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.
(Emphasis mine, but then, that’s me talking there; I added the part about medical reasons to be clear.)
I do understand that people might have a religious belief against vaccinations. However, I think religious exemptions can and should only go so far. Certainly they stop dead when religion impinges on my rights to have my child attend a school that is safe. I have even less patience for the “personal belief” exemption because that strikes me as being aimed at people who are anti-vaccination. And they are most certainly wrong. I’ll note that “personal belief” dominates the reason why parents opt out of vaccines for their children in Colorado.
So I’m very glad to see new legislation being considered in Colorado that will make it tougher to opt out of vaccinations for children going to public schools. House Bill 1288 requires either a physician’s (or similar health care provider’s) signature or the completion of an online education course about vaccines before a parent can claim personal belief exemption. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start. Since that belief exemption is so dominant, this may significantly cut back on unvaccinated kids attending public schools.
Last semester there was a whooping cough outbreak at my daughter’s school. She’s vaccinated, so I wasn’t concerned for her, but I was for all the other students who weren’t vaccinated against this contagious and dangerous disease.
So this quite literally hits home for me. Even if it didn’t, I would’ve contacted my state representative to urge her to vote yes on HB 1288. If you live in Colorado, please do the same (here’s how to find your legislators). Here is what I sent my rep, Dickey Lee Hullinghorst. Feel free to write your own version:Dear Representative Hullinghorst— I am writing to urge you to please vote YES on House Bill 1288, "Student Immunizations Prior To School Attendance", which will make it more difficult for parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children who attend school. Vaccinations are one of the (if not the most) successful medical advances in the modern age. They save quite literally millions of lives every year, and their risk is extremely small compared to their enormous benefit. In Colorado, and Boulder specifically, we have seen recent outbreaks of dangerous and potentially fatal diseases such as pertussis that are vaccine-preventable. Recently, in San Francisco, a single unvaccinated person exposed thousands of people to measles, which is highly contagious... if you're unvaccinated.
(Note: I added links to make it easier for you should you wish to read more.)
I hope this passes. It isn’t perfect—I would prefer that unvaccinated children not be sent to public school at all unless they have a medical reason; that would keep the number of vaccinated kids up into herd immunity territory—but it’s a solid start.
Tip o’ the virion capsid to RunMonkeyMama on Twitter.
What the heck, climate change deniers? I mean seriously, what the actual heck?
For some reason, the past week has seen some climate change deniers totally lose their [expletive deleted]. I keep up with this stuff, so I’m used to seeing forehead-slappy moments, denial so abrupt and profound it’s hard to imagine the promulgator lives on the same planet the rest of us do. I mean, c'mon, the bar has already been set by comparing a climate scientist to a child molester and saying more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is just fine because plants love it.
But this week has seen the dumbosity go up a solid notch. If I went into details this post would eat up half the available electrons on the Net, so let me give you just a taste of outrage permeating the anti-science realm with a brief commentary.
1) A Hoary Op-Ed
Charles Krauthammer, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post, managed to cram in something completely wrong about climate change and global warming into nearly every paragraph. It’s practically a how-to of, um, how to deny reality. His nonsense is sensibly dismantled by scientist Scott Mandia, in detail by Jeffrey Kluger at Time, and ironically by Stephen Stromberg at, you guessed it, the Washington Post. It would be hard to pick the most head-desky moment, but calling climate scientists (and science journalists) “whores” is way up there. Claiming he’s neither a believer nor denier is another. It’s pretty clear where he falls.
Bonus: biblical quotations about whoring.
Dr. Roy Spencer is in a teeny majority; the 3 percent or so of scientists (he has a degree in meteorology) who think global warming isn’t real and human-caused. Since he is a scientist you’d think that would give him leverage—certainly Republicans in Congress think so, since they keep empaneling him in their hearings—but when you actually read his claims, they tend to fall a bit short of reality.
And when you read his latest screed, your eyes might roll so far back in your head you can see the inside of your skull.
Why? He says that people who use the word “denier” are … wait for it, waiiiit for iiittttt … “global warming Nazis”.
Yup, you read that right, he went there. He goes on and on about the use of the term “denier,” claiming it’s associated with Holocaust denial. However, that’s just hooey. It’s used in lots of ways by lots of people because it means “one who denies,” and I’ve been very clear about that. More than once.
And if you think this doesn’t matter, remember that Spencer is a darling of the denial community. Also, shortly after I posted about Spencer on Facebook, a guy actually used the comments section there to call me a Nazi. Nice, eh?
Bonus: Spencer himself (with David Legates) wrote an op-ed in the Christian Post saying, “we deny ‘that most of it is human-caused, and that it is a threat to future generations that must be addressed by the global community.’” [Emphasis mine.] Huh. Doctor, heal thyself.
3) Defending the Status Erratum
Also among the 3 percent are atmospheric scientists John Christy and Richard McNider, who took to that Mos Eisley tavern of global warming media, the Wall Street Journal. As usual for a climate change op-ed in the WSJ, the account they weave is perhaps not an accurate representation of reality, as is made clear by Our Changing Climate and Climate Science Watch. From what I could gather not much they say in the op-ed is really new, either; they use long-disproven arguments about atmospheric heating and cooling. In fact, their claims were debunked before they even made them by John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli in an article last year in the Guardian. The article they recently wrote about Spencer pertains to the WSJ op-ed, too.
Bonus: Christy and McNider get their flat Earth and scurvy history wrong.
4) … And the Rest
Round and round we go. Fox News still claims global warming can’t be happening because 2 percent of the planet is cold. Ted Cruz concurs. There was a “debate” between Bill Nye and Marsha Blackburn; guess who had the facts on his side?
And I could go on and on, et cetera ad nauseum.
Bonus: There is no bonus here. Just an unending torrent of anti-science.
If anyone should be losing their minds, it’s those people who have been predicting all this for years only to be met by partisan and fossil-fuel-funded resistance. Yet they are the ones who are level-headed, and it’s the deniers who seem to get more shrill and more outrageous with every article written. I’m not a huge fan of the idea of “moving the Overton Window,” but sometimes I wonder.
Maybe it’s just because it’s an election year. Maybe it’s because without facts on their side, all they have is volume. But as the temperatures continue to go up, you can bet the noise will, too.
Remember that ginormous sunspot that was seen in January and was so huge and strong it actually survived long enough to be brought back around the far side of the Sun and face us again in early February?
Incredibly, it’s still there! And it just announced its return by literally exploding, blasting out a very respectable X-class flare. It started at about 00:30 UTC on Tuesday morning (7:30 p.m. Eastern time), and was still ongoing when I wrote this post (at 01:30 UTC).
The image at the top of this post is from the Solar Dynamic Observatory, taken in the ultraviolet where flares are very obvious. As I’ve described on the blog before, solar flares are where the huge magnetic energies stored in sunspots get let loose all at once, creating an explosion that dwarfs all of humanity’s weapons combined. This flare was accompanied by a spectacular eruptive prominence as well, a towering plume of solar plasma bursting out into space:
Gorgeous. But terrifying to think of the energy being violently released! I’m glad it’s 150 million kilometers away, and facing away from us. The classification of the flare is X 4.9, because that’s where it peaked on the detectors on the GOES satellite's X-ray detectors:
That plot shows the X-ray emission (technically the flux, the amount detected) over time, and the flare is pretty obvious. The plot tick marks are logarithmic, but the flare class is linear, so the first line going into the X range is X1, then X2, which is twice as bright as X1, then X3, which is three times as bright as X1, and so on. The flare is currently fading. Last month this spot blew out an X1 flare; this one was nearly five times as powerful.
But this sunspot is coming back around now. Over the next week the Sun’s rotation will bring it back to the center of the Sun’s disk, before once again sweeping it around to the Sun’s far side. We’ll have to keep our eyes on this one. A big flare can block radio transmissions, damage satellites, hurt astronauts in orbit, and (on the plus side) create dramatic aurorae. Let’s hope for the latter, but not the three former!
Stay tuned to Spaceweather.com for more info.
Correction, Feb. 25 at 16:30 UTC: I originally mislabled the red line in the caption of the graph, saying it was from higher-energy X-rays. My apologes; it's been corrected.
On Sept. 11, 2013, an asteroid hit the Moon. That happens all the time, but most of the cosmic debris is tiny, far too small to detect from the Earth.
But this one was different. Roughly a meter across and moving at interplanetary speeds when it slammed into the lunar surface, it created the brightest explosion ever seen on the Moon! The whole thing was captured on video:
The video was taken using MIDAS, or the Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System, a set of telescopes in Seville, Spain, which scan the Moon for just such an event. The astronomers also put together a longer video explaining the program and what they saw.
The flash was pretty big, getting about as bright as Polaris, the North Star. If you had been looking at the Moon at the time, you would have seen it yourself! It occurred on the Moon’s unlit area, near the dark area called Mare Nubium. A similar impact happened in March 2013 and was also captured on video, but wasn’t nearly as energetic as this one.
The explosion occurred because the asteroid was moving so rapidly. The energy of an object in motion depends on its mass and velocity. An asteroid hitting the Moon is typically moving at about 17 or so kilometers per second (38,000 mph)—that is, very fast. That gives it a lot of energy, and that energy is released very suddenly when it slams into the lunar surface. A sudden release of energy is what we call an explosion, so there you go.
The brightness of the explosion together with the typical impact speed means the asteroid was probably about 0.6 to 1.4 meters across—somewhere between the size of a big beach ball and a decent-sized clothes dresser—and had a mass of about 450 kilograms (1,000 pounds, or half a ton). Those are estimates, however; it may have been somewhat smaller or bigger. The impact energy was about the same as detonating 15 tons of TNT.
It’s not clear if this was a lone gunman, so to speak, or if it was part of a meteor shower. We get meteor showers when the Earth plows through the debris left by a comet as it orbits the Sun. The Moon gets hit by them as well, and there was a weak shower just two days before the Sept. 11 impact (the not-so-well-known Epsilon Perseids); the shower on Earth produced some pretty bright fireballs, too. The rocks in a meteor shower are moving much faster than the typical ones that hit the Earth and Moon, and in this case if it was part of the shower the impactor was much smaller, perhaps on 35 centimeters (1 foot) in diameter, the size of a basketball, and had a mass of only 50 kilograms (110 pounds). However, there’s no way to really know.
Interestingly, the flash of light from the explosion lasted much longer than usual. The video shows it glowing for more than eight seconds, while most impacts previously seen last less than a second. This may be due to an afterglow as molten material splashed up off the lunar surface, then fell back down.
Astronomers estimate the crater size as about 40-50 meters across, about half the length of a football field. So, yikes. That’s easily big enough to be spotted by the Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter, so I’m hoping we’ll see a picture of it soon (LRO did get a shot of the crater left by the March 2013 event I mentioned above).
The Moon is smaller and has less gravity than Earth, so it gets hit less often than we do. Still, this event can be used to estimate how often we do get hit by objects this size, and interestingly the number matches well with what was found just a few months ago by astronomers analyzing the Chelyabinsk impact over Russia in 2013. If something this size were to impact the Earth, it would disintegrate harmlessly in our atmosphere; the event over Russia was from an object 19 meters across, mind you, and it exploded very high above the ground. For biggish impacts that can still be dangerous; the Chelyabinsk event shattered windows and injured more than 1,000 people. However, we’re hit by meter-class objects several times a year, and for the most part people don’t even notice.
I love that we can do this; the advent of inexpensive but high-quality telescopes (in this case, made by my friends at Celestron) together with good electronic detectors make recording these events far easier—computers are also fast enough to analyze the data quickly too, which would be incredibly tedious for a human to perform (unless staring at a mostly unchanging view of the Moon for hours on end is something you’d enjoy). I had an idea to do this back in the 1990s, but it would have been a nightmare to set up. Nowadays, it’s far easier.
And we get cool video of impacts that have a lot to tell us about the history of the Moon, and even the current history of Earth. Science! I love this stuff.
On Feb. 22, 2014, the Moon ate Saturn.
Well, kinda. From our point of view here on Earth, the orbit of the Moon swept it directly in between us and Saturn, blocking the ringed planet from our view. This kind of event is called an occultation, and they’re pretty cool to behold.
That video was shot by photographer Colin Legg, who took it from Perth, Australia, just before sunrise. Legg has a fantastic eye for astrophotography; I’ve featured his work on the blog so many times I can’t even link to it all, so just go here and click around to get an eyeful.
Occultations are amazing. I’ve seen a few myself, and they’re always fun. While I wouldn’t say they’re rare as a class of events—there’s usually one or two a year visible from a given site—seeing the Moon pass in front of a bright planet doesn’t happen terribly often.
That’s because the solar system isn’t as flat as you might think. Most of the planets orbit in the same plane, so that from the side the solar system does look pretty flat. Saturn’s orbit is tilted relative to Earth’s by about 2.5°, which is a fairly narrow angle. But the Moon is only about 0.5° in size in our sky, which is pretty small. Not only that, the Moon’s orbit is tilted to ours by a hair over 5°, so things have to align just so to get Saturn and the Moon together in the sky. Usually they miss each other by a few degrees.
But this time it worked out well for us—well, some of us. Those of us in the U.S. missed it because our part of the Earth was facing the wrong way when it happened. Happily for Legg, though, Australia was in the right position to catch it.
If you want to know what’s next for lunar occultations, you can go to Universe Today, which has compiled a list of 101 astronomical events for the year. I may try to catch the March 10/11 event where the Moon blocks the somewhat bright star Lambda Geminorum. That’ll be a kick to see with binoculars, and it happens at 8:30 or so at night in Boulder, Colo., so I won’t have to get up at crack o’dawn o’clock to see it.
I’ll add that there is actually a group dedicated to observing such things: IOTA, or the International Occultation Timing Association. While you may not have the bug that bad, they do have pretty good lists of stuff to keep your eyes open for. Give it a shot!
Tip o’ the lens cap to Maik Thomas.
He’s also what I think of as a “data artist”, someone who can take data and turn it into art. This isn’t easy: It takes a deep understanding of the data and of the science to create something both beautiful and amazing. He’s done it before, showing what it would look like if all the exoplanets discovered by Kepler orbited one star, or what supernovae would sound like if converted to music, or turning the mini-eclipses of the exoplanets in the Kepler 11 system into a piano sonata.
Now he’s gone and done something both astonishingly beautiful and scientifically fascinating: He took the asteroids in the solar system observed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey—more than 100,000 of them!—and created an animation showing their orbits, their relative sizes, and even their colors in the survey. The resulting video, “Painted Stone,” is simply wondrous.
The beauty of this is obvious. But there are deep scientific explorations displayed here when you look carefully. Please indulge me a moment to explain.
The vast majority of asteroids in the solar system orbit the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. We’ve known for a long time that they aren’t just scattered willy-nilly in that vast volume; when you examine them, you find many of the rocks are on very similar orbits. The orbit of an object can be defined by just a handful of characteristics called the orbital elements; these include how close the orbit gets to the Sun, the length of the axis of the orbit (the length of the longest diameter of an ellipse, called the major axis), its tilt with respect to Earth’s orbit, and a few other parameters.
Asteroids that have similar orbital characteristics are said to belong to the same family, and many such families are known. It’s thought that all these asteroids in one family may literally have the same parent! Some time in the past, a bigger asteroid suffered an impact from another asteroid, breaking off smaller rocks that then go off on their own orbits. If that happens, the shrapnel will have very similar orbits, though not exactly the same … which is what we see.
You can look at reams of numbers laid out in tables to see this, or you can take those numbers and turn them into something visual our brains can process more easily. When you look at Parker’s video, you really can see this. For example, the asteroids in the inner main belt are greenish but the asteroids farther out appear bluer/purpler. I’ll note the asteroids aren’t really those colors; what astronomers call “color” is the difference in brightness of an object in one filter versus another. So if an asteroid is brighter in the red filter than the blue one, it can be said to be “red” even if the difference is slight. For us astronomer types, color is a relative term when we use it scientifically.
Having noted that, you can see that hugging Jupiter’s orbit are reddish objects. Can you also see how there are two clumps of them, about a third of an orbit apart? Those are the Trojan asteroids, populations of rocks more or less held in place by Jupiter’s gravity. It’s a quirk of physics; when a big object (like Jupiter) orbits another more massive one (like the Sun), there are two points in the orbit (60° ahead and behind) that are gravitationally stable, like a dip in the road. Asteroids can collect there, and Jupiter is so big it has lots of Trojans. The Earth is smaller so we have far fewer; the first one (and only one known so far) is 2010 TK7, discovered by NASA’s WISE mission. I wrote about how this all works in an earlier post if you want the fun details.
Asteroid families are fascinating. They tell us the history of the solar system, because the distribution in sizes, colors, orbital shapes, and more give us insight into the impacts that formed them. Parker’s professional scientific work on this was fun to read; I didn’t know that there at least 37 distinct asteroid families orbiting the Sun. Those have always been defined using the orbital elements, but he showed that by adding color information from Sloan, the families could be even better defined. That helps astronomers by reducing false positives (asteroids that look like family members when they’re not), which in turn sharpens our ability to analyze them. When that happens, details pop out that were hidden before.
We’re in an age where we’re learning about asteroids incredibly quickly. My stance on this is public and very clear: good. We need to know more about them, not only for the pure joy of exploration and knowledge, but also because they sometimes get uncomfortably close to our own blue-green planet.
And as I’ve said many times before as well: There is a deep beauty in science, and it can be indistinguishable from art. I think Parker’s video makes that quite clear.
Tip o’ the dew shield to Sarah Hörst.
Hey, what do Bruce Campbell and I have in common? Besides that we’re both unspeakably groovy?
We’ll both be at Phoenix Comicon on June 5-8! Mind you, Mr. Campbell is one of the big-name guests while I’ll most likely just be skulking around the halls fanboying out over him, but the point is, I’ll be there!
I’ve heard a lot of good things about this con and have wanted to go for a few years. A few months ago I was in Arizona giving a talk, and a chance meeting with one of TPTB from the con led to an invite. (Thanks, Lee!)
The schedule isn’t quite finalized, so I’m not sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I’m sure it’ll include being on panels, giving talks, and hanging out with my new best friend Bruce. And yeah, I do have plans for some other cons this year, but nothing is set in stone yet. I’ll post more info when I have it. I hope to see y’all there!
On Friday night, Apple announced a major security flaw in its software for mobile devices. And I do mean major—it left users open to a “man in the middle attack”. That’s pretty bad. If you used an unsecured Wi-Fi connection (at a coffeehouse, hotel, airport, etc.), this flaw could allow someone to interject themselves electronically into transactions you make on your iPhone or iPad, allowing them to access a lot of your information you thought was secure (like, say, credit card numbers).
This flaw has been around a while (and it looks to me like it was due to a cut-and-paste error in some code), but Apple just issued a patch that should fix it. If you use an Apple mobile device, stop what you’re doing right now and upgrade to the new version of the mobile OS—ZDNet has a good article with details.
(Update 2, Feb. 23, 2014, at 17:30 UTC: Well, this gets better and better. A lot of people are reporting that upgrading their devices are causing them to "brick", that is, freeze up—if you can't access that link, try here. That's essentially what happened to me, as outlined below, so have a care.)
It’s easy to do the upgrade (though your kilometerage may vary). All I had to do was plug my device into my computer, open iTunes, click the button for the device I just plugged in, and then looked for the button that says, “Check for update.” Click, and away I went. In your case, it may pop up an alert kickstarting this first when you plug the device in. Another way is to do it on the mobile device itself: Go to Settings, then General, then Software Update. It'll help you from there.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple for me.
(Note: What follows is part overly detailed cautionary tale, part rant, and is particular to the problem I had. If you upgrade successfully, feel free to skip over this and just go play the weekly Slate news quiz instead. Do NOT take what I say below as advice; what worked for me might not work for you, as you’ll see. For all I know it’ll make your iPad dissolve or explode or slip into an alternate dimension. If you have a problem upgrading you can’t solve, I suggest using Google, or talking to someone at your nearest Apple store.)
Now having said that, I had some trouble upgrading. I have an iMac that’s up-to-date, an iPhone 4S, and an iPad 2. The iPhone upgraded just fine, and it took about 15-20 minutes.
The iPad upgrade, though, was something of a disaster. The device disconnected itself in the middle of the upgrade for some reason (I really don’t know why; I had it sitting off by itself on the corner of my desk; all I can think of is the cable got bumped). Interrupting the process is never good, and in this case it totally freaked out my iPad. I lost everything on it and it wouldn’t even show me my home screen!
Being an alpha geek, though, I had a complete backup stored on my computer, so I didn’t panic. I disconnected the iPad, reconnected it, and then reset it to the factory settings (which is just a button on the iTunes screen when you plug the iPad into your computer). I then simply restored it from the backup …
… which didn’t work. Oh, all my apps came back, but the only music that showed up in my Music app were a handful of albums I recently bought through iTunes. Last year I spent a dreadful weekend importing all my old CDs into iTunes, and those were gone off the iPad. Weirdly, they were still in iTunes on my Mac; they just wouldn’t sync with the iPad.
Then I noticed my videos were gone as well; I have a few I made on my iPhone and camera that I’d moved over to my iPad, and they simply weren’t there (though again, they were in iTunes, and marked specifically to be synched). Nothing I did would sync them back!
I poked around a bit, and saw that in the Music tab for my iPad on iTunes, my Playlists were checked to be synched, but the other lists (Artists, Albums, etc.) were not. Curious. I checked all the boxes listed under Artists, and resynched the iPad to see if at least they would get moved over.
Voilà! All the music showed up (including the other lists). Not only that, all my videos did too. They were not there before, and then they were. I have no clue why, so I assume it was gnomes (who will, no doubt, jump right to Step 3).
I’ll note that I’ve been using computers a long, long time (the first machine I ever used was a PDP 11 in case you’re tempted to get into a “well, I started off using a blah blah blah” war with me), and stuff like this makes me fairly irritated. The original OS error looks like an honest if terrible mistake, and I’m sure some coder at Apple is having their head handed to them right now over this. But it’s when I try to use my stuff as a human being that I can feel my blood pressure rise. Windows, Mac, it doesn’t matter; the interface between human and computer seems to be getting more difficult, not easier. And I’m not pleased I had to spend hours diagnosing this when I have better stuff to do, like write about anti-science and politics and generally things less irritating than computer nerdery.
I don’t know if my iPad upgrade problem is common or not, though one colleague at Slate also had the same thing happen (and he has an iPad 4). I’d hate to be an Apple genius right now; the phone calls will be flooding in, I’d wager.
As it happens, my iPad is getting pretty long in the tooth, and it’s time for me to replace it. I was leaning toward getting the shiniest new iPad (I do like much of the way it works), but this has given me pause. I guess I’ll be hitting the Interwebs and looking at reviews of what’s out there.
Thus endeth my tale of iWoe. I certainly hope things go more smoothly for you, BABloggees. And as a final note: Whether you use Apple, Windows, or what-have-you, I do suggest getting yourself a VPN. I’m not sure it would’ve helped in this case, but I find it very useful indeed when I travel. Obviously, computer security is a major issue. Our privacy online is getting eroded away and having beefed-up security is simply A Good Idea.
We live in an age of ironies: While the Earth warms up, some local areas get incredibly cold. Anyone suffering through the recent polar vortex excursions (and another is on its way) knows that.
The U.S. Midwest has suffered the brunt of this. Every year, it gets cold enough for long enough that some amount of the Great Lakes freezes, but this year about 88 percent of the surface area of the lakes was frozen—an amount not seen since 1994!
The image above was taken by NASA’s Aqua, an Earth-observing satellite designed to map out water on our planet. It’s a natural color image and shows the extent of the freezing. It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between ice, snow, and clouds, so Aqua helpfully also took images using infrared filters, making the features easier to distinguish:
Different wavelengths (colors, if you will) of infrared light are absorbed and reflected differently by the features below, making it easier to tell them apart. In this case, water is deep blue, ice is pale blue (where it’s thicker it looks brighter), snow is blue-green, and clouds are blue-green or white.
As you can see, a lot of water is covered, some of it in pretty substantial ice sheets. If they hadn’t labeled Lake Erie, I would’ve missed it.
Given these waves of cold that have hit the area, you might expect January to have been cooler than average. However, and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, this last January was actually the fourth-warmest on record! While the Midwest was shivering, other parts of the world were cooking; Alaska, for example, is still dealing with record heat. In the end, warming offset cooling across the globe.
The freezing of the lakes is only partly due to the polar vortex shenanigans; even in November 2013 freezing had begun. The amount the lakes freeze every year is pretty variable, as I recall from when I lived in Chicago and later in Ann Arbor, Mich. And folks who live east of the area may be thankful: With ice covering the open water, the famed (and dreaded) “lake-effect snow” may be reduced. Less open water means less water vapor to be picked up by winds and dumped as snow. I’ll note that Michigan may still suffer from that, since Lake Michigan looks mostly open. I’ll be curious to see regional snowfall amounts when all this is done.
In the meantime, wacky weather rages on. Here in Boulder, Colo., we’re dealing with high winds off the mountains; they blow all day and rage at night (they woke up my wife and me many times over the past few nights). I flew back from Boston the other day and the landing was … interesting (if you define interesting as terrifying). We’re flying to Tucson, Ariz., for a Science Getaways vacation next week. I hope things settle down by then.