Bad Astronomy Blog

And Yet, We Continue Upward

1 hour 58 min ago

On Tuesday night, Oct. 28, 2014, the Orbital Science Corporation’s Antares rocket exploded a few seconds after liftoff. It was supposed to bring supplies — food, hardware, scientific experiments — up to the International Space Station, but a still-unknown malfunction brought it down.

Quickly thereafter video of the explosion started coming in, including a dramatic one shot from the press area, which was a few kilometers removed from the launch site.

Skip Morrow was there, with his wife and young daughter. When I posted about the event, he left a heartfelt comment about his experience there. He has a blog where he expanded on what he said here, and it’s worth a read.

I could just barely see the rocket fall to the ground and immediately exploded. Three seconds after it exploded, the shock wave hit us. It was very, very loud and it really shook the place. Immediately the NASA escorts at the viewing area started yelling for us all to get back on the buses. My daughter started crying, and to be quite honest, I was pretty choked up too.  […] Most impressive of all though, were the people offer to help my daughter get through all of this. We reminded her that almost certainly, no one should have been hurt since this was an unmanned mission (of course, we now know that was indeed the case and no one was hurt or killed). We talked to her about how hard space flight is, and how easy we make it look. We talked about how we use incidents like this to help us learn more about how to improve space flight. We even talked about the Launch Abort System used on rockets such as the Soyuz and soon the Orion. She was still pretty devastated, but I know that in another day or two she will be back to normal. She will never forget this, and neither will I.

Commenting on my blog post, he said this:

My daughter took it really hard. She loves coming to these launches, but it never really occurred to her that one of these could turn out bad, like this one. She knows about Challenger and Columbia and Apollo 1, but she hasn't witnessed anything like this first hand. I really wonder how her opinion about wanting to be an astronaut will change because of this.

I wonder too. I was in college when Challenger exploded, and after the shock wore off, my resolution that we continue to explore space was strengthened, as if honed or tempered by the blast. My love of space and the desire to see us head to the stars runs deep, even when I was still a young child watching on TV as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, or seeing Apollo 15 launch in person.

I’ve written dozens of article on this theme, but now is perhaps the best time to reiterate: Going to space is hard. The levels of engineering needed are staggering, and it all has to go right or else, well, it all goes wrong.

And yet, we still do it. And we’re pretty good at it. Mistakes get made, and then, hopefully, we learn from them. Sometimes it’s a mistake in engineering, sometimes in culture. But the more we do this, the better we get. It’s been a long time since Americans could put people in space — another cultural error — but we’re close to doing so again. And when we do, we’ll start reaching for the stars again.

The good news about this event, such as it is, is that the ISS astronauts are in no danger of running out of supplies; a Russian Soyuz loaded with supplies lifted off successfully just hours after the Antares explosion, and docked with the station shortly thereafter. And, of course, there was no one on board the Antares, and no loss of life or even injuries. This failure was a costly one, but it could’ve been far worse.

So Morrow’s daughter is on my mind. I hope she sees this not as a catastrophe, but as a stumble, a misstep, which in the long run is inevitable as we head upward and outward.

Per aspera, ad astra.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

From the Moon to the Earth

5 hours 58 min ago

Every now and again, a picture is returned from space that is so stunning it becomes an instant icon, a touchstone that defines what space travel is about.

The Chinese engineering lunar test mission Chang’e 5-T1 has sent home precisely such an image. It is stunning almost beyond words.

The Earth hangs like a white and blue bauble in the black of space, distant and heart-achingly beautiful. Much closer lies the Moon, gray and white and black, its more-unfamiliar far side facing the spacecraft as it rounds the world, preparing to head back to Earth. For just a fleeting moment I could have been convinced someone had added a photo of the planet Mercury here; the Moon’s obverse half is so strikingly different than the near side. The lack of dark maria (except for Mare Moscoviense to the upper left) makes the Moon look like every bit the alien world that it really is.

You can read more about this astonishing image, and see more like it, at the Planetary Society Blog.

As I gazed upon it, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it looked somehow familiar. Then it occurred to me: I have seen it before. I even remember the exact date: Sept. 13, 1999.

Life sometimes really does imitate art.

Tip o’ the commlink to Emily Lakdawalla.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Iridescent APOD

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 09:00

I’m very pleased that the fantastic Astronomy Picture of the Day website picked up my photo of iridescent clouds I took during last week’s solar eclipse.

If you read my blog, then you absolutely should have APOD in your RSS feed and follow them on Twitter. I’ve had a long and very happy relationship with the APOD folks; they’re one of the very best astronomy sites in the world, providing a fantastic service. They also have excellent taste.

They have a 2015 calendar you can get, by the way; it’s a PDF and free. They do take donations, I’ll add. They bring you the whole Universe every single day, so please throw a little filthy lucre their way if you can.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Popeular Science

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 04:15

On Monday, Pope Francis was speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and dropped something of a bombshell: He said that the Big Bang and evolution are not contrary to Catholic beliefs.

What’s funny to me is that for people paying attention, these statements aren’t bombshells at all. To me it’s not newsworthy that he said these things, it’s newsworthy that people think they’re newsworthy.

Part of it is understandable. After all, it was the Catholic Church that condemned Galileo four centuries ago, when he claimed that the Earth moved around the Sun. However, that’s not exactly what happened; yes, what Galileo was saying was heresy, but he was also a colossal jerk and mocked the Church, in essence daring them to persecute him. Even then, they only put him under house arrest. Don’t get me wrong: The Church was the dominant force of ignorance during the Dark Ages, but the public notion of Galileo as hero against a monolithic and unsympathetic Church is a bit too black-and-white.

Still, that’s the public perception. And the last Pope, Benedict, (among other things) was not necessarily a big supporter of evolution, saying humans are “not the products of chance and error” (which in itself is a fundamental, if I may use that word, misunderstanding of how evolution works).

On the other hand, he made some conciliatory statements about science as well, saying, “there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

But let’s not forget Pope John Paul II, who said,

…new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.  It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.  The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. 

That’s beautifully stated.

Remember, while the Catholic Church may not be the favorite of progressives for any number of reasons — and I can think of quite a few (including, of course, the biggie) — being stridently anti-evolution is not one of them. That is more the province of Biblical literalists, who, historically and currently, have not generally been Catholics. Even many Protestants support evolution, though that would be more of a theistic evolution, with God setting things in motion and the laws of Nature taking over from there (which is also what the Popes seem to support as well).

The problem here is, in my opinion, one of polarization of “belief” in science and religion in America*, primarily due to the unholy marriage of the Republican Party and religious conservatives as the “Religious Right”. Despite the rock-solid fact that we are not a Christian nation, that concept has been loudly and often claimed by GOP politicians, increasingly honed over the years and sharpened to a fine point. Today, a Republican Presidential candidate might as well stand up and say they eat live puppies rather than they “believe” in evolution. This science versus religion rhetoric has polarized our country so badly that a lot of people perceive all religion to be totally anti-science, and that’s not true, and not fair.

Another part of this is the broad lack of scientific understanding by the American public. This is exacerbated by the same people on the far right (both in schools and on the pulpit) who misrepresent science, casting it as strictly opposed to their particular religious thinking (which, to be fair, in many cases it is, because these folks believe in stuff that’s provably wrong). And while this type of belief and scaremongering of science is not universal, it is widespread and pushed by the media.

And that makes what the Pope said news, instead of generating more of a “Oh, that’s nice” reaction.

My own views on all this, obviously, are not as black-and-white as many others I read. For example, I think religious people believing in theistic evolution is fine. I don’t believe it myself, but if folks want to believe in God for personal reasons and still accept the science, then good on them! At the very least, they’re not trying to legislate young-Earth creationism and other provably wrong concepts be taught in the classroom. And if they accept the science there, perhaps they can continue in that direction in other areas as well.

I’d far rather discuss the Big Bang with Pope Francis than with Ken Ham.

From polls and other reports it seems to me that most people in this country support science broadly and in many specific cases, even as they hold tightly their personal religious beliefs. That’s why I also think there is a huge amount of room for dialogue here, a place where people of faith and people of science can come together. There are places where we cannot, of course, due to zealotry and demagoguery. Unfortunately those people are loud (and many are even louder now due to mid-term elections next week).

But this is why I’m very happy to see the Pope say these things, and to see they’re making news. It’s also why I support people like Katherine Kayhoe, who is a religious evangelist and climate change scientist; Baptist Pastor C. Welton Gaddy, who doesn’t want religion taught in public schools; Reverend Barry Lynn, who is dedicated to the separation of Church and State; and my friend Pamela Gay, who is a fervent and terrific advocate for science and reason, and also a Christian.

So while I’m happy to hear what the Pope said, I’m not at all surprised by it. And I can hope that if he continues to say things like this — and that other religious leaders join him — then it will no longer be news. It’ll just be the way things are.

* I put “belief” in quotation marks because science isn’t a belief system

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

BREAKING: Antares Rocket Explodes on Takeoff

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 16:14

Fourteen seconds after launch tonight, the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket exploded. It’s not yet known why.

First: This was an uncrewed vehicle; no people were on board (and as I write this there are no reports of injuries). It was loaded with supplies and experiments for the International Space Station, and was Orbital's third such resupply mission.

Here’s a video of the launch:

As you can see, just seconds after launch there was something odd that happened in the first stage; there was a bright flare, then the bottom of the rocket exploded. As launch expert Jonathan McDowell notes, the first stage is built by the Ukranian company Yuzhnoe and uses Aerojet AJ-26 engines which are Russian NK-33 engines. These are very old engines (built in the 1960s and 70s) that are refurbished. While it’s not known if these were the cause of the explosion, I suspect they'll be very carefully scrutinized in the investigation. A recent test of one engine ended in failure.

Update, Oct. 28 at 22:30 UTC: Let me be clear: We don't know what caused this failure, and the engines are one of many possibilities. I am not pointing fingers, and I won't speculate beyond this. I changed the phrasing in the paragraph above to make this more clear.

Tomorrow, a Russian Progress vehicle will be launched to ISS with more supplies. I don’t think the astronauts on board the station are in any trouble, but I suspect this may impact the November launch of three more astronauts to ISS as part of Expedition 42.

Update, Oct 28 at 22:40 UTC: NASA has a list of the Cygnus spacecraft payload on the Antares rocket. It includes food, hardware, and quite a few student experiments involving microgravity. Thanks to Katie Mack for the link. 

This is all we know right now. I’ll post updates here as I find out more information, and you can go to the NASA OSC page as well.

My sincere and heartfelt condolences to everyone involved with this mission. Losing a vehicle, even an uncrewed one, is devastating. I hope the investigation quickly reveals the issue so that this can be fixed soon, and launches can resume.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Tethying Rings

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 06:35

So far over the past week or two I’ve covered a lot of ground in the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto, back to Mars, then in to the Sun.

So let’s head back out and see what’s going on at Saturn. Oh, just this:

Oh, do I love some good ol’ Saturn photo amazingness! What you’re seeing is Saturn’s moon Tethys right through Saturn’s rings, which are very nearly edge-on in this shot. The Cassini space probe was about 1.8 million km (1.1 million miles) from Tethys when it took this.

You get a sense of just how thin the rings are here; although they’re hundreds of thousands of kilometers across, they’re only a few tens of meters thick! There are several subdivisions of rings, too. The thick band crossing Tethys is the A ring, and you can see the narrow Keeler gap (carved by the dinky moon Daphnis) also crossing Tethys’ face. Inside the A ring is the Cassini Division, then the broad B ring closer to Saturn. Outside the A ring, also seen crossing Tethys, is the narrow and frankly weird F ring. You can’t see it here, but the F ring is twisted and knotted by the gravitational interactions of the tiny moons Pandora and Prometheus.

Tethys is a pretty interesting place, too.

Tethys is a decently-sized 1062 km (660 miles) in diameter, but its average density is actually lower than water! Dump it into the Pacific Ocean and it would float… but it would also melt. It’s primarily made of water ice, a giant iceball. You can see in this image (and in others) that the surface is rough and heavily cratered, but the only big topographical features are grabens, gigantic cracks in the surface which probably formed as the moon cooled and solidified long ago. 

I love the perspective in this picture; compare the image above to this one taken at a much higher angle. That one makes Tethys look like it’s above the rings when it’s in fact aligned with them. The system of rings and moons around Saturn is constantly changing, as is Cassini’s angle on them, providing a never-ending parade of wonder. It’s a gorgeous solar system we live in, and I’m glad we live in a time when we can see that.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Antares Is Go for Launch Tonight

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 11:29

An Antares rocket sits on the launch pad in Virginia and is go for launch tonight at 6:45 p.m. Eastern time (22:45 UTC). 

The rocket will boost a Cygnus spacecraft—named the SS Deke Slayton, after the original Mercury astronaut—filled with supplies for the astronauts on board the International Space Station. This is the third resupply mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which, along with SpaceX, is contracted by NASA to send rockets up to ISS.

And if you live on the East Coast, you might be able to see the launch for yourself! As it gets higher, it will be visible to more people on the ground, from South Carolina up to New Hampshire. Universe Today has the details, including a visibility map.

If you can't see it for yourself, you can alway watch it online on NASA TV and NASA's UStream channel. I'll be live-tweeting it as well

Correction, Oct. 27, 2014 at 18:50 UTC: I originally wrote that the launch was in Florida, not Virginia. 

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

An Ionized Flower Blooms in Space

Mon, 10/27/2014 - 04:00

Oh, do I love me some young stars throwing their weight around! Behold what happens when they do:

This photo was taken by “amateur” astronomer Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, using a 20 cm Astro-Tech RC telescope, and is a total of nearly nine hours of exposure through various filters.

What it shows is the famed Cocoon Nebula, also called IC 5146. What you’re seeing is actually a cluster of young stars called Collinder 470, which is roughly 2500 light years away. And I do mean young; the bright star in the center of the nebula is only about 100,000 years old. Compare that to the Sun’s 4,560,000,000 years, and you’ll understand why these stars are mere whippersnappers*.

Stars form from clouds of gas and dust, and there are both in plenty here. The dark dust is strewn everywhere in this picture; you can see it as gray or black diffuse clouds. Note that where it lies, swaths of stars appear red; dust scatters away or absorbs blue light, letting only red light through. Most of the stars you see glowing ruddily in the dust are literally in that dust, or behind it.

But the bloom of the rose in this photo is obviously the bright pink nebula itself. The star in the center, called BD+46°3474, is a hot, massive B-type star. It’s a beast, five times the diameter of the Sun, 15 times its mass, and a brutal 20,000 times as luminous. Replace the Sun with BD+46 and the Earth would be a smoking ruin.

The power of a star like this can profoundly affect its environment. In this case, the star is embedded in a molecular cloud, a huge, dense clump of cold material — in this case, several hundred times the mass of the Sun worth of material. BD+46 was near the edge of the cloud, and when the star was born, its fierce light and energy inflated the cloud, created a blister in the side, and then blew it out entirely. What’s left is a cavity carved out of the side of the dense cloud filled with much lower density gas. The hydrogen gas inside the cavity glows characteristically red/pink, lit up literally like a neon sign.

At first I thought this might be a Strömgren sphere: a lone gas cloud in space lit by a star within. The edge of such a sphere is defined by where the starlight gets too weak to make the gas glow. But those tend to have sharper edges than what we see here, and clearly the Cocoon has fuzzy edges. That implies the gas is interacting with denser material, which is what you expect from a blowout in the side of the cloud. In this sense, it’s much like the Orion nebula, though on a somewhat smaller scale.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? If you like it, you should check out more of Hepburn’s work. She’s quite gifted, and has an amazing array of photos on her site.

* Get off my galaxy! <shakes fist>

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Chromatic Clouds

Sun, 10/26/2014 - 02:30

Oct. 23 was the solar eclipse, as you probably well know. I was out on my deck taking a lot of pictures as the event started, but within a few minutes the clouds rolled in. As the Sun disappeared, I was pretty sure the next hour was hopeless.

As you can see in the final image in the photo gallery I put up yesterday, the clouds thinned every now and again, and I was able to get a few interesting pictures. As I watched, though, I noticed the clouds were lenticulars, lens-shaped as they were sculpted by winds blowing up and over the Rocky Mountains to the west. Having some experience with this, I kept an eye on them … and sure enough, I saw what I was hoping for: iridescence along the edges.

This colorful phenomenon is amazing and lovely, and very hard to capture in photographs. I took a lot of shots at different settings, and when I saw this one I was stunned. It may be the most beautiful photo I’ve ever taken:

I mean, seriously. I took that! What you’re seeing is the edge of a cloud, fiercely lit by the Sun; by eye it was intensely white, with just a hint of color. The sky below it was actually blue, but it’s black here because I had to stop down the aperture and use a low ISO, as well as a fast exposure time.

For contrast, here’s a photo I took minutes later at settings that better show the sky:

The cloud stretching across the top is the one that’s featured in the first photo, and you can see the two lenticular clouds below it. The cloud in the middle with the forked end on the left was also pretty colorful a few minutes before I took this shot. At the upper right of the photo you can see just a hint of color, too. 

The colors are amazing. Pink and teal are common in iridescence, but I’ve only seen yellows once or twice.

As for the science behind this, I wrote about it before:

Iridescence is a weird phenomenon. You need lots of tiny raindrops ( or ice crystals) all the same size over a large portion of the cloud. In a rainbow, the lights goes into the droplets and gets bent (twice) to create colors. In iridescence, though, the light actually bends (diffracts)  around the droplets. Different colors bend by different amounts, splitting the colors apart. The size of the raindrop needs to be roughly the same size as the wavelength of light, so when I say “tiny” I mean it: The drops must be less around a micron in size! A human hair, by the way, is about 100 microns in width, so these really are teensy drops. But it’s more complicated than just that. The cloud also has to be what’s called optically thin; that is, mostly transparent so that on average a beam of light only hits one droplet and only gets bent once. If it hits multiple drops the colors get washed out. That’s why this happens more often near the edges of clouds, where they’re thinner. On top of that,  the light waves interfere with each other, similar to how waves in a bathtub add together or subtract from each others’ wave heights as you wiggle around (and please, don’t deny you’ve ever done this playing in the tub; it’s fun, and educational!). These processes combine in complicated ways to produce these different colors.

I was very excited about getting shots of the eclipse on Thursday, but to be honest, I’m a lot happier with this one than any of the pictures of the Sun I took! The lesson here is, when you’re out and about, keep your eyes and mind open to what’s going on around you, and be flexible. Goals change, and you can wind up with something a lot cooler and more beautiful than what you originally planned.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines


Sat, 10/25/2014 - 04:02

The European Space Agency partnered with Platige Image to create this video, and it's stunning. Stunning. Make it full screen, and watch.

Well, well. Not what you expected, was it? That was magnificent, and it shows in video form just what I feel every time we send a new probe into the black.

We didn't make these worlds, but we will explore them.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Gallery: The Partial Solar Eclipse of October 2014

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 04:00

Yesterday was the last solar eclipse the US will see until August 2017. This was a partial eclipse, so the Sun wasn’t completely blocked by the Moon, but it was still a lot of fun. Judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, a lot of folks watched this eclipse and took pictures. I was out on my porch taking shots, too – well over a hundred, though only a few came out.

Some people had far better circumstances than I did, though. I asked for them to send me pictures, and I got a lot! Here are just a few of the ones I received… and I threw in one I took as well. You’ll see why.

All photos below used by permission.

Why not start things off with a classic? Craig Ruff took this shot in Table Mesa using a 10 cm telescope. The detail is great; you can see the brain-grindingly huge sunspot group AR 2192 looming in the middle of the Sun’s face as the Moon blocks a big chunk of solar real estate.

Edward Plumer got an unusual view using an H-alpha filter, which lets through light form warm hydrogen. This accentuates the twisted magnetic fields of the Sun, and you can see a huge filament lying across the Sun like a scar. Compare the visible light image on the left with what you can see using the filter, and you can understand why astronomers like to see things in as many different ways as possible.

Astronomer Alex Parker took this wonderful shot as Sun set behind the iconic Boulder Flatirons. He said it was a syzygy, an alignment of three objects: The Sun, the Moon, and the Earth itself blocking the Sun as it set.

Astronomer and friend Emily Lakdawalla knew that one part of her house creates a spectrum when sunlight hits it. Sure enough, when the Sun was in the right spot, it threw out this amazing multiple-colored eclipse rainbow. I like how each color is a complete (if somewhat distorted) image of the Sun. I used to work with spectra like this back in my Hubble days… though I never observed the Sun with it.

But I have to add Hubble did observe the Sun, exactly once.

For most of the US, the eclipse happened in the late afternoon, so the Sun set mid-eclipse for a lot of people. Bob Robinson caught it between clouds, illuminating the sky is a glorious red. I like how the foreground is silhouetted, including the tower on the left.

I asked for clever photos, ones you might not expect, and Jonathan Albright delivered: he used binoculars to project the Sun, and it was low enough that his shadow made a cameo in the photo as well.

Sometimes you just get lucky: Doyle Sliff was shooting photos of the eclipse when an airplane made an unexpected appearance. It’s about the same apparent size as the sunspot… but in reality the sunspot is well over ten million times bigger.

And why not: I’ll wrap this up with a shot I took myself. The beginning and end of the eclipse were clear here, but the long middle was cloudy. I waited patiently, then less patiently… and was rewarded when the clouds thinned a bit. I think they added a lot of drama to the picture, especially with the airplane contrail across the bottom. It goes to show you that astronomy (and photography, and especially the two together) is sometimes a waiting game. It’s worth trying, even when it seems like the odds are hopelessly stacked against you.

If there’s a life metaphor to take from that, well, feel free to find it. But patience is something we’ll all need to see the next eclipse around these parts. I’m very much looking forward to it… since it may very well be the very first total solar eclipse I’ll have ever seen.

I think I’ve been patient long enough.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 04:30

First off, let’s get this straight: If you use Twitter, you should be following space station astronaut Reid Wiseman. He posts amazing photos all the time, and your life will be the better for it.

For example, on Sept. 28, while orbiting over the Sahara Desert, he took this stunning photo:

If that doesn’t take your breath away, then please, give me a moment to explain what you’re seeing.

The sky is dominated by the glow of the Milky Way, the combined might of billions of stars, faded only by the terrible distances of interstellar space. Our galaxy is shaped like a great, flat disk, 100,000 light-years across, with a central spherical hub of stars swelling out from the middle. Wiseman was facing in this direction when he took this photograph, so the hub can be seen bulging out in the center.

The dark lanes, filigreed and branching away, are literally space dust, large grains of complex organic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—essentially soot. They litter the galaxy, strewn across it as stars are born, and as they die. The dust is opaque, so it blocks the light of stars behind it. You are literally seeing the silhouette of smoke blown out from the life cycle of stars, scattered across a million billion kilometers.

You can see a few clusters of stars, looking like fuzzy puffs here and there. There are also thousands of stars in the photo, including the bright red supergiant Antares, the heart of Scorpius, just to the right of the center of the picture. You may note it looks blurred; to get the fainter Milky Way in the photo, Wiseman had to take a time exposure. During the exposure the space station moved eight kilometers every second around the Earth. The stars streak a bit during that time.

Closer to home, the bright red dot next to Antares is Mars. Yes, the planet, where we humans have currently more than a half-dozen robots flying or roving over the surface.

Below that is the eerily lit and ruddily colored edge of the Earth. The Sahara Desert makes its hue known. The thin red and green glowing arc above the Earth’s limb is called airglow, and is due to complicated chemical processes occurring about 100 km over the surface, as molecules release the energy they absorbed from the Sun during the day.

Note that well: You can see the curve of the ground, the horizon, in the photo, and just how thin our atmosphere is from this vantage point. It’s a narrow, delicate, fragile shell surrounding us, and yet it allows all life to exist.

And that basic truth is belied by the framework of this photo: The space station itself, modules and docked spacecraft pointing to the fact that we have managed to leave this Earth, if only for a short distance and small span of time.

It’s not easy, this exploration of space, but we can do it. We have the intelligence, the ability, the imagination needed to see where it will take us. All we need is the will. I think we have that too, when we are at our best.

So. If that photo didn’t take your breath away when you first saw it, please take a second look. The whole Universe, our entire future, is framed in that picture, taken by a man who happened to be in the very right place at the very right time.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Update: Sunspot 2192’s X-Class Flare

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 09:30

Just a quick update: Sure enough, as predicted, the freakishly huge sunspot AR 2192 blew out a powerful X-class flare today around 14:00 UTC. The picture above shows the view from the Solar Dynamics Observatory; in the far ultraviolet it’s very sensitive to solar activity. Note the Earth for scale there, in case you need the Universe to crush your feeling of self-importance under its heel.

Flares are massive explosions on the Sun associated with sunspots. You can read about them in detail in an earlier post I wrote, but the quickie version is that magnetic fields in sunspots can store vast amounts of energy. Looping magnetic field lines can get tangled up and snap, releasing their energy as mind-crushing explosions called flares. They’re rated by how much X-ray energy they emit; for example M-class are “moderate”, and X-class are the highest.

Today’s flare was an X 1.6, which is fairly powerful. And by “fairly,” I mean it exploded with the energy of something like a million times the combined yield of every single nuclear weapon on Earth.

So yeah, bit of a big bang there.

We’re in no danger on Earth from this flare. There are likely to be radio blackouts and minor issues like that, but that’s probably it. We may get some aurorae and such, too, so keep your eyes on for info on that.

AR 2192 is the largest sunspot complex seen in more than a decade, going back at least to when this solar magnetic cycle began. It’s been huffing and puffing, putting out a bunch of M flares, and this is the second X flare in as many days. It’s quite likely to continue this rude behavior for a while, and if there’s more news, I’ll let you know. 

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Monster Sunspot Will Make Thursday’s Eclipse That Much Cooler

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 07:30

Right now, a truly ginormous sunspot is turning its baleful eye toward Earth.

The spot, called Active Region 2192, is a bit hard to wrap your brain around: Its dark core is easily big enough to swallow the Earth whole without it even coming close to touching the sides, and the whole region is several times larger than that, easily more than 100,000 kilometers across. It’s the biggest sunspot we’ve seen this solar cycle (bigger than one I reported on in January that was also huge).

It’s feisty, too, having blown off a series of moderate M-class solar flares recently, and one that edged into X-class. We’re expecting more from it as well, so stay tuned to,, and Realtime Flares on Twitter for up-to-the-moment news about any big eruptions. [Update (Oct. 22 at 15:00 UTC): Yup. AR 2192 blew off an X1.6 flare at 14:00 UTC today.]

When I saw pictures of it a couple of days ago, I knew it would be big enough to see without binoculars or a telescope. Using just my solar viewing glasses (which are rated safe to use to view the Sun; see here for more) I easily saw the sunspot with my own eyes as a black blemish near the Sun’s edge. Holy wow!

I decided to try my hand at getting a shot of it. Sacrificing a pair of solar glasses, I rigged up a small filter for my camera, went outside, and got this:

Not bad! You can see AR 2192, as well as a few other spots (including the small one near the Sun’s edge that is visible in the SDO picture at the top of this post).

Clouds started rolling in, but far from being discouraged I figured that might actually make for a dramatic scene. I was right:

Nifty. And good practice; I want to make sure I’m ready for the partial solar eclipse tomorrow.

Speaking of which, let me repeat my call: If you get good and clever shots of the eclipse, please let me know! I want to post a gallery of a half-dozen or so. Make sure you tell me where you took them, what equipment you used, and whether they’re also online (so I can link to you).

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

An Illusion That Makes Me Happy and Sad

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 04:30

I’m normally a pretty cheerful guy, though I do have my moods. I’m not very good at hiding them, either, I’ll admit. So when you look at the photo below, would you say my mood as depicted on the left is the same as on the right, when the picture is inverted?

You might. But if you do, your brain has fooled you: you’ve become a victim of its wonky way of perceiving the world.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the same two pictures flipped upside for proof:

Distressing, isn’t it? This image comes from Optical Spy, and it’s an example of a well-known but still not completely understood effect called the Margaret Thatcher illusion. Yes, seriously, that’s its name. The illusion was first published using an image of the Prime Minister, and the name has stuck. Optical Spy has done this trick with quite a few skeptics and other well-known illusion-lovers; I was surprised and pleased to find my own goofy mug there.

As you can see, the first images are the same, except in the one on the right my eyes and mouth have been individually inverted (this process is called — yes, really — thatcherization). When the whole picture is then flipped, our brains have a hard time seeing it. Yet it becomes glaringly obvious when that image is flipped back. Whoever did the image of my face did a good job blending the edges of the edited regions; usually the pictures are just cut-and-paste, making it even weirder looking.

What’s even more interesting about this illusion is that no one knows exactly what causes it. Clearly, we recognize faces using individual pieces of the face — the eyes, nose, mouth, and so on. Our brains recognize faces even when there are only hints of those features, too, and even when they’re clearly random patterns, like in clouds, wood grain, flowers, gas clouds in space, or rocks on Mars. Even sometimes in other places where you would not expect to see a face. This psychological effect is called pareidolia, and is very strong; after all, the canonical smiley face is just two dots and a curved line, yet we see it as a smiling face!

Clearly, our ability to recognize faces is relational, that is, we see pieces of the whole in relation to one another. But it’s configural as well; that is, how those pieces are arranged. For some reason that part is lost when a face is inverted, and that is the subject of debate among psychologists. You can read a good synopsis of it on Mixing Memory, or more detail in a research paper about it, and of course a simple explanation is on wikipedia. By coincidence, an article on testing this effect on monkeys (with interesting, positive-seeming results) was just posted on io9, too.

As for my own photo, that was taken by my brother-in-law for the cover of my book Death from the Skies! Now I’m wondering if we should’ve used the thatcherized version. It seems like a better match with the theme of the book.

Tip o’ the Necker cube to the many folks who sent me the link to the Optical Spy page.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 04:00

On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, the Moon will pass in front of the Sun.

What we’ll see is a partial solar eclipse, where the Moon passes along a chord of the Sun’s face, never completely blocking it out. At maximum eclipse the Sun will look like a thick crescent, the dark disk of the Moon moving across it.

This is a very cool event, and it favors Canada and the United States; it’ll be visible in nearly the entirety of both countries. The exception is the extreme northeast, where the Sun will be setting as the eclipse starts (whether you see anything or not from that area depends on your exact position; see below).

Fairly Warned Be Ye, Says I

First, let’s get this out of the way: NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER FILTERS. You probably won’t do severe or permanent damage to your eyes by looking at the Sun with your eyes alone, but I’d advise against it (especially for younger children, who have clearer lenses in their eyes that let through more damaging UV light). AND DON’T EVER EVER EVER LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH A TELEPHOTO LENS, BINOCULARS OR A TELESCOPE without proper filtration, and honestly, unless you really know what you’re doing, just don’t do it.

You might think sunglasses are OK, but they’re generally not. They can make it worse; they block visible light from the Sun, so the pupil in your eye widens. That can let in more harmful UV and infrared light.

If you want to see this event properly and safely — and you should, because eclipses are very cool — I urge you to find a planetarium, observatory, or local astronomy club near you and let experts handle the equipment for you. They might even have a pair of eclipse glasses you can use (it’s too late to order ones now, but there will always be more eclipses so I suggest you order some; they’re cheap).

I have more about safely observing the Sun in a post about the Venus Transit from 2012; I strongly urge you to read it before going out to take a look.

OK, so what does all this mean?

Here’s how this works. The Moon orbits the Earth once per month, and the Earth orbits the Sun once a year. The Moon’s orbit is tilted to Earth’s orbit by about 5°, so as it goes around the Earth it passes through the Earth’s orbital plane every two weeks or so. If the Moon’s orbit weren’t tilted, we’d get a solar eclipse every month when the Moon passed between the Earth and Sun. Since it is tilted, though, sometimes it’s “above” the Sun at new Moon, and sometimes “below”. We only get eclipses rarely because the Moon has to be crossing the plane of Earth’s orbit at the same time it’s new Moon, so that it gets exactly between us and the Sun.

On Oct. 23, the geometry is close but not quite perfect. Instead of passing directly in front of the Sun, cutting straight across it, the Moon passes the Sun at an angle off-center, so it only partially blocks our star. That’s why this is a partial eclipse, and not a total one.

In a lunar eclipse, the Earth gets between the Sun and Moon, and casts its shadow on the Moon. The event happens on the Moon, so everyone on Earth facing the Moon sees it at pretty much the same time.

But a solar eclipse is the Moon casting its shadow on Earth. The Moon is moving, orbiting us, and the Earth is rotating as well, so what you see and when you see it depends on where you are (it’s like sunset, which you see at a different time than someone east or west of you).

On the left is an animation showing the view from above the Earth, looking down on the US during the eclipse. The curved line sweeping around clockwise is the terminator, the day/night line. The big grey distorted circle is the physical shadow of the Moon. You can see that over time it moves roughly eastward and southward, the combination of its motion and the Earth’s spin. If you live anywhere inside the path of that shadow, you’ll see an eclipse. The closer you are to the center of the shadow, the more of the Sun will be blocked.

So when will you see it? If you happen to live near a big city, here’s a table showing eclipse times, and there’s also an interactive page where you can enter your location and it’ll tell you when the eclipse happens.

As an overview, here’s a map showing timing and percentages of the Sun blocked.

It looks daunting but it’s not that hard to interpret once you get used to it. The more-or-less horizontal curves are marked 0.20, 0.40, 0.60 and 0.80; those are telling you how much of the Sun is blocked. I’m in Boulder, Colorado, just south of the 0.60 line, and so the most I’ll see is about 56% of the Sun blocked. That’s not enough to really notice it getting any darker out.

The more-or-less vertical lines tell you the time of greatest eclipse in UTC (subtract 4 hours for Eastern, 5 for Central, 6 for Mountain, and 7 for Pacific times). Boulder is just to the east of the 22:30 UTC line, and for me I’ll see the most amount of Sun blocked (what’s called greatest eclipse) at about 22:34 (16:34 or 4:34 p.m. local time).

Viewing and Photographing the Eclipse

First off, again, here are some tips on how to safely observe the Sun, and you can find a lot more here. I’ll reiterate a few here.

If you have certified eclipse/solar viewing glasses, you’re OK. These are designed to block the dangerous IR and UV light from the Sun, while cutting way down on the visible light. The Sun looks like a small disk, and the eclipse will look really cool just like that. Again, don’t use sunglasses, even if they are UV blocking! They can actually increase the damage to your eyes.

I’ll add here that there is a monster sunspot (AR 2192) that is crossing the Sun’s face right now, and that’ll make a very dramatic feature to see during the eclipse.

If you have a pair of binoculars you can use them to project the Sun on a piece of white paper. Again, seriously, don’t look through them at the eclipse unless boiling your eyeballs is something you’re hoping to do. Also, be warned: The Sun can heat up the inside of your binoculars, and can damage them. I’ve used this technique many times with no problem, but I have pretty decent equipment. Plastic lenses, for example, might not fair well. Proceed at your own risk.

First, block one of the big lenses with a lens cap or something opaque, so you’re only using one half of the binoculars (otherwise you get two images). Get a big piece of white paper (poster board is great for this) and prop it up facing the Sun. Hold the binoculars so that you can see the shadow of them on the paper. Orient them so that the shadow of the binoculars is as small as possible; when they’re aligned with the Sun you’ll see an image of the Sun on the paper. Move the binocs towards or away from the paper to get the Sun the right size, and focus them. This takes some practice, but after a few minutes you’ll get the hang of it.

You can also do a variation of this projection method with a telescope, but I really, really don’t recommend it. ‘Scopes gather a lot of light and focus it down into a tight beam, and that can severely damage eyepieces and/or the telescope itself. And NEVER use one of those little “Sun filters” to screw into your eyepiece! Those can heat up and crack, and under some circumstances shatter, sending glass shard outwards at high speed. Not a good idea.

If you happen to have a telescope with a Mylar Sun filter that goes over the front end of the ‘scope then you’re probably OK. Just make sure you know what you’re doing. I’d hate to see anyone get hurt, or equipment get damaged, from observing the eclipse.

And finally, if it’s cloudy where you are, don’t despair! Eclipses are always live streamed from various locations, so you’ll be able to watch it on your computer. The Coca Cola Space Science Center will have a webcast, and I’ll add more here as I find out about them.

The next solar eclipse is on Mar. 20, 2015, visible from Europe and Asia; the next one visible from the US will be the great total eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, which will cut right across the heart of the country. That one will be a big deal.

So if you’re in North America, try to catch this one; it’ll be three years before the next. There’s something wonderful and, yes, other-worldly about eclipses, even partial ones. If you get a chance to watch (safely), take it. And if you do get pictures, send me links (either via email, or on Twitter) — I’m hoping to put up a gallery of the most clever and cool ones. I have a gallery from the May 2012 solar eclipse that might give you some inspiration.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 04:00

Yesterday, Oct. 19, at approximately 18:30 UTC, Mars got buzzed by a comet.

The comet, named C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), passed just 130,000 km (80,000 miles) above the surface of Mars, the closest cometary encounter with a terrestrial planet ever seen (the adjective is because Jupiter has been hit by several comets and asteroids in the past few years).

Siding Spring is an Oort cloud comet, meaning it came from the very remotest regions of the solar system, almost certainly plunging into the inner system for the first time after billions of years in the dark. It chose quite a path for its first trip here! Mind you, the comet got three times closer to Mars than the Moon is to Earth. This was a close shave indeed.

NASA and other space agencies took precautions, moving their orbiting probes to the far side of the Red Planet during closest approach, while the rovers were pretty much on their own. Happily, they all appear to be fine, even after the comet dropped tons of material into the atmosphere at dozens of kilometers per second.

We’re still awaiting images taken from those probes, but in the meantime, quite a few dramatic pictures were taken from Earth. Here are a few of the ones I like best… and if you want to learn more about comets, may I humbly suggest my own Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets page when you’re done perusing these images?

Master astrophotographer Damian Peach (seriously, go check his stuff out) took this shot at 11:07 UTC on Oct. 19th. Mars is obvious enough — it’s shining at about 1st magnitude, one of the brightest objects in the sky — and the comet appears ghostly green to the lower left. Mars is very roughly 10,000 times brighter than the comet, making this a difficult observation! Right now, Mars is lined up very near the center of the Milky Way, so the background is filled with stars, providing a stunning backdrop to an already stunning image.

Did I mention how tough it is to get a shot of the pair? The Virtual Telescope Project barely captured the comet (marked with lines) at 17:00 UTC, while Mars nearly blasts out the detector (the thick vertical line through Mars is due to blooming, where the detector overflowed due to the planet being so bright). This stack of nine 60-second exposures was guided on the comet’s movement, so the stars are streaked a bit. It was taken at twilight when the duo were just 15° above the horizon, so this was challenging to say the least. The large fuzzy circles are from Mars light reflected multiple times inside the telescope.

Astronomers Nick Howes and Ron Wodaski opted to go with a wide-field image (Siding Spring is to the lower right of Mars), which really emphasizes the stars and ribbons of dust in the galaxy, hundreds of trillions of kilometers farther away than Mars and the comet. In case you needed a crushing sense of scale today.

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Experiment (WISE) took multiple images of the comet back in July 2014. The comet’s motion is apparent as it slid between a bright star to the lower right and the galaxy NGC 1316 to the upper left. It appears red because the dust (as well as possibly carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide) released from the solid nucleus as it neared the Sun glows at the longest wavelengths WISE can see — far into the infrared, well outside what our own eyes can detect.

Of course, Hubble got in on the action as well. It took several images of the comet, and you can see activity changing the comet’s appearance over several months as ice on and beneath its surface is heated by the Sun, turns into gas, and spews out via jets.

As time goes on we’ll see more fantastic pictures of this once-in-several-million-years event, and I’ll post ‘em as I find ‘em. Check back soon!

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Persistence Pays Off: The Smoking Trail of a Shooting Star

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 04:30

On Oct. 16, 2014, a redditor by the handle -545- was camping at the Ashton-Wildwood County Park in Iowa. He spotted a clearing in the trees near his campsite which framed a part of the sky, so he set his camera up to take a series of 10-second exposures in the hopes of getting good footage for a time-lapse video.

What he got was better than good: He caught a bright meteor that left a persistent train, a trail of glowing vapor that lasted for quite some time:

That’s pretty amazing timing and framing. The meteor appeared right in the middle of the hole in the trees, and the meteor must have appeared very early in the 10-second exposure that first shows it; you can already see some of the vapor trail it left behind. For those keeping track at home: The brightish star to the right of the meteor is Gamma Triangulum, the star above the middle of the streak is 1 Tri, and the little diamond to the left is 12 and 13 Tri with two fainter stars (HD15226 and HD15326); it took me a while poring over my planetarium software to nail this down!

This sort of event is pretty rare, though not unheard of (I have several blog posts showing them; see Related Posts below). A meteor is just a small chunk of rock, ice, or metal that’s orbiting the Sun, and the Earth gets in its way. As it plunges through our atmosphere at high speed, it violently compresses the air ahead of it, heating it. This in turn heats the meteoroid (the solid bit of interplanetary debris; as it burns up it’s called a meteor, and if it hits the ground it’s a meteorite), which glows and leaves behind the bright but generally short-lived trail.

But the event can also ionize the air, stripping electrons from their parent molecules. As the electros recombine, they give off a bit of light. This is called a persistent train, and some have been known to last for many minutes. The train is roughly 80-100 km above the ground, and upper atmosphere winds blow it into twisting, eerie shapes.

-545- really nailed this one! You might think he was lucky, but it’s not luck. It’s persistence. Events like this happen, and if you go outside enough, watch the sky long enough, take enough pictures… you’ll wind up with something amazing.

And if you do see a bright meteor (sometimes called a fireball or bolide), make sure you note your time, location, and the direction you saw it. Then you can report it to the American Meteor Society, which collects these data. Sometimes this can help recover meteorites if there are any!

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to reddit, and the many, many people who sent this my way.

Related Posts

A Meteor’s Lingering Tale
A Puff of Celestial Smoke
Like Two Trains Passing the Night… A Year Apart
A Persistent Orionid
The Remains of Halley’s Comet Burn and Linger in the Sky

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Mars and the Comet: The Countdown&nbsp;

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 04:30

On Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, at about 18:30 UTC (14:30 Eastern), Mars will experience a very close encounter with a comet. 

The comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) will pass just about 130,000 km (80,000 miles) from the surface of Mars. There is no danger of an impact, but the planet will pass through part of the comet's tail (which is composed of gas molecules and dust).

NASA and other space agencies have taken precautions to make sure the spacecraft at Mars won't be hurt, but they're also hoping to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity to see a comet VERY up close and personal. I'm not sure just when we'll start seeing data from them, but I highly recommend keeping an eye on Emily Lakdawalla's blog page and her Twitter feed. She is really great about staying up to date and relaying accurate information as soon as she has it. 

I'll try to keep up as well, and if anything interesting happens I'll let you know. It's generally a good bet to follow me on Twitter too, as I'll be linking to things there, including news form other folks as it's confirmed.

A thought: The NASA comet page says the coma (the big fuzzy cloud of gas surrounding the solid nucleus of the comet) is about 20,000 km across. At closest approach, that means that if you were standing on Mars, the comet would appear to be over 8° across! That means that if you have a big hand, you could just barely block it with your upraised fist.

That's astonishing. What a view that would be! And while the astronomer part of my brain is envious and wishes we could see something like that from Earth, the human part of my brain is screaming obscenities at the astronomer part of my brain. In real life, it's probably best comets keep their distance from us.  

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Figuratively Shiny: A Firefly Video

Fri, 10/17/2014 - 08:00

Firefly went off the air over a decade ago now*, but even with the movie Serenity there’s been a Mal-shaped hole in the hearts of fans, including me.

Perhaps now that cavity can be filled in a little bit. The company Lootcrate, with producer and director Julian Higgins, has created a fan-made short video called “The Verse”, about a different crew in the same universe as that of the good ship Serenity. Here’s the thing: It’s really, really good. Seriously. If you’re a Browncoat, you need to watch this right now.

See? Told ya. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Given the time span since the series ended, a reunion show seems pretty unlikely. But I could get into this new crew, I think. And hey, did I spy Vic Mignogna, who plays Jim Kirk in Star Trek Continues, another fan-made production? That must’ve been on purpose.

It’s pretty amazing what dedicated and talented fans can do. And we’re seeing more and better web series all the time, too. This Internet thing may just have a future to it.

* You kids get off my ‘verse!

Categories: Astronomy Headlines