I’ve posted a lot of lovely and wonderful time-lapse videos of aurorae over the past year or two, but not one quite like this: It was shot out an airplane window!
The photographer, Paul Williams, says on his YouTube page that he was on a flight from London to New York (which swings north across the Atlantic) when he noticed the aurora out his window. He took 770 three-second exposures, for a real-time length of about 38 minutes (I suspect it was actually a bit longer to account for the time between exposures as well). He balanced the camera on a backpack, aimed it out the window, and hoped for the best. I’d say out came out pretty well!
If you’re curious about the red and green colors, I’ve written about them before; they come mostly from molecules and atoms of oxygen as well as nitrogen. The waving sheets are due to fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. Aurorae are caused when subatomic particles sleeting from the Sun are funneled by the Earth’s magnetic field down into our atmosphere, where they excite the electrons in atoms, causing them to glow. Since the particles flow along the magnetic field lines, they act as tracers for the shapes of those lines.
Williams posted some of the stills on Flickr; in one he caught a meteor! That’s cool.
I fly a bit, and I usually take an aisle seat so I can get up and stretch my legs if I need to. But I’ll sometimes grab a window seat if I know we’ll be seeing something interesting. I’ve watched the Sun take over an hour to set as I’ve flown west, I’ve seen canyons galore, optical effects, the Moon rapidly rising as the airplane’s motion adds to the Earth’s rotation.
But I’ve never seen an aurora. Someday, perhaps, I’ll take a transcontinental flight that’ll take me far north, and that will finally be my chance to glimpse one. With my luck I’ll be on the wrong side of the plane. I’ll have to remember to keep a bribe handy if the opportunity ever does come up.
More Aurorae Time-Lapse Videos:
Time-Lapse Video: Aurora Over Sweden
Rippling Noctilucent Clouds Eerily Glow With an Aurora
Time Lapse: Arctic Lightscapes
Without Warning: Time Lapse of a Pink Aurora, With a Bonus
Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse
Remember just the other day when I wrote that most planets orbiting other stars are found indirectly, and getting a direct picture of one is really rare?
Yeah, about that: Another one was just announced. Yay!
The planet is called HD 106906 b, and it’s about 11 times the mass of Jupiter. It orbits a star hotter and more massive than the Sun (for the astrogeeks: an F5V star with 1.5 times the mass of the Sun) that’s about 300 light years from Earth. As I pointed out in the other article, these planets are easier to find in the infrared when they are young and hot; the star and planet are only about 13 million years old — compare that to the age of the Earth, which is 4.56 billion years — and the planet was seen using the Magellan telescope in Chile, using an infrared detector.
Like the other three recently announced, HD 106906 b was confirmed as a planet because it is moving in the sky along with its parent star. If it were a background star or galaxy, the star would zip past it over the course of several years. Using earlier images from Hubble and the Gemini telescopes, the object was found to keep in step with the star’s motion. Therefore it must be a planet bound to the star.
Incredibly, though, it’s really far out from the star: 650 times the distance of the Earth to the Sun, or about 100 billion kilometers (60 billion miles). That’s an astonishing distance! Even Neptune orbits the Sun at 1/20th of that separation.
That’s actually a bit of a problem. We think planets form from a disk of material that swirls around a star as it’s born. But those disks don’t usually reach out anywhere near that far, leaving us with a mystery. As it happens, many stars form in clusters, collapsing out of knots of gas and dust in much bigger clouds. It’s possible this object formed that way along with the star, but it’s not clear how something that small could collapse out of the cloud. Usually, collapsing objects grow to much larger size, making star-like brown dwarfs or low-mass red dwarf stars at least.
What this means is that we don’t fully understand how stars and planets form. Of course, we know we don’t know everything! Objects like HD 106906 b are important, since they test the edges and boundaries of our ideas, which is where new ideas come from.
I want to point out that the astronomers found this planet because they were targeting stars known to have disks of dust around them. In the case of the star HD 106906, the disk wasn’t directly seen; the star was putting out more infrared light than it should, indicating the dust was there, glowing by its own warmth. In fact, by carefully analyzing that light the astronomers could infer the disk was actually a ring; it starts over two billion kilometers out from the star and stretches out to about 18 billion kilometers — that’s pretty big. The fact that it’s a ring means there may be planets orbiting inside it, closer to the star; the gravity from those possible planets sculpts the inner ring edge.
My first thought reading that was maybe the big planet formed closer in (where we know planets are created more easily) and interaction with another planet tossed it out to that huge distance. But it turns out that’s unlikely; a gravitational slingshot like that would play havoc with the dust ring, so again it’s likely the planet formed where it is, so terribly far removed from its warm host.
And one more thing. I want to highlight the image of the planet by Hubble; it was taken in 2004 (before it could be shown it was a planet and not a background star). The photos of the planet above used some fancy techniques to reduce the glare form the star so the planet could be seen; the Hubble image just shows the star and planet as they are. You may notice the star is, um, somewhat brighter. It’s actually millions of times brighter, which is why getting images of the planets themselves is so dang hard.
I’ve labored over data like this myself, and it’s tricky. What the team did here was good work. It’s a big step in understanding how planets form. More importantly in the short term, it shows that we can target stars with disks to look for distant planets, making it easier to find them.
For the moment, it’s still rare to get a snapshot of a baby planet. But, I hope, it’s only rare for the moment.
You may know Bill Nye as the Science Guy, but he’s also a passionate supporter of scientific research and CEO of The Planetary Society, a phenomenal group that advocates for planetary exploration.
For the past couple of years, NASA’s budget for planetary mission has been on a bizzare roller coaster of cuts, restoration, political wrangling, and outright byzantine manipulation (see “Related Posts” below for details). In the end, the lion’s share of cuts to planetary exploration have come from the White House.
Nye took to YouTube to record an open letter to President Obama, asking him to restore America’s role as a global leader of science, specifically solar system science.
As usual, Nye is eloquent and persuasive. The Planetary Society has a page set up to help you contribute to the campaign, either financially or through getting the White House (and other political leaders) to hear your voice. Please go and make yourself heard.
I wholeheartedly (and perhaps more importantly, whole-brainedly) agree with what Nye said:
“Supporting a robust space program raises everyone’s expectations of what’s possible… it’s inherently optimistic. It’s part of our national character.”
Have you seen the latest optical illusion that’s been going around the Web? You simply won’t believe your eyes.
Nor should you.
Here it is:
What’s the illusion, you ask? Those two vertical lozenge-shapes are the same shade!
Don’t believe me? Good! It’s always best to check things like this out for yourself. One way is to put your finger across the middle, blocking the part where they meet. When you do that, boom! You can see they’re the same shade of gray.
Here it is graphically:
Amazing, isn’t it? This is called the Cornsweet Illusion, after experimental psychologist Tom Cornsweet. Basically, it works by contrast: When we look at something, we perceive its color and shading relative to other things in the area and how we perceive it’s lit. In the picture here, we perceive the scene as three-dimensional, with the light source to the upper left (note the shadow on the ground). The upper lozenge is shaded so that we see it as tilted away from us at its top (making the bottom look shaded), and the bottom one tilted the opposite way, so its top is lit.
That means our brain sees the upper lozenge as lit, while the bottom one is shadowed. That, coupled with the contrasting shading in between them, messes with how our brains interpret the image, and we think the upper one is darker than the bottom one.
But it isn’t. I actually went into Photoshop and selected the color of the top lozenge and created a square using it, then did the same for the bottom:
As you can see, both squares look the same … because they are. For the graphics geeks: They both have RGB values of (123, 124, 126).
This sort of illusion has been around a long time; the most famous version is probably the checkerboard illusion:
There’s even a video demonstrating it, which I love.
I have a full explanation of the checkerboard on the blog, but it’s the same sort of thing as the one above. Your brain gets bamboozled by the shadow cast by the cylinder, so it thinks the square in the shadow is lighter than the darker squares around it, but in fact it’s the same color and shade.
I love stuff like this! First, because it’s simply delightful. I think people enjoy seeing things that baffle them; puzzles are very enticing and addictive. But there’s another reason I’m so fond of illusions: They show us in no uncertain terms that what we see is not what we get. It’s extremely easy to fool our eyes and brain, and we should never simply trust that what we see, what we think is going on, is a fair and accurate representation of reality.
This is why we have science. Richard Feynman called it (with characteristic simplistic brilliance) “a way of not fooling ourselves”.
I agree. And it’s something to keep in mind when someone claims they saw a UFO, or a ghost, or Bigfoot. Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable, even when someone swears up and down “I know what I saw.”
They didn’t. Just like the illusion above, seeing something is just the beginning of the investigation, not the end.
Here are more posts I’ve written about illusions that will baffle and delight and madden you:
The Blue and the Green (my favorite of all time)
This Illusion Will Drive You Mad
Hidden Circles Illusion
Square Circle Spiral
You Spin Me Right Round (and here’s a direct link to the original illusion)
Tip o' the Necker Cube to David Smith.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that measles cases in the United States in 2013 tripled over the annual average. There were 175 cases (so far), when usually there are about 60.
Well, let’s see. In March, there were 58 cases alone in Brooklyn, N.Y., tied to a Jewish community that refused or delayed vaccinations. In Texas, a megachurch that preached anti-vaccination views had an outbreak with at least 20 cases. In North Carolina, 23 cases were reported in one outbreak; most of them in a religious (Hare Krishna) community that was largely unvaccinated.
In all three of these outbreaks, someone who had not been vaccinated traveled overseas and brought the disease back with them, which then spread due to low vaccination rates in their communities. It's unclear how much religious beliefs themselves were behind the outbreaks in Brooklyn and North Carolina; it may have been due to widespread secular anti-vax beliefs in those tight-knit groups. But either way, a large proportion of the people in those areas were unvaccinated.
By the numbers, those outbreaks alone are responsible for the huge increase in measles cases in the U.S. this past year. And they are all due to people not getting vaccinated.
Listen: Measles is not a disease we should be screwing around with. Thirty percent of cases develop complications like pneumonia, diarrhea, or ear infections. One in 5 children who contract it are hospitalized. One in 1,000 will get encephalitis. One or two out of 1,000 will die from it.
Yes, die. From a disease that is essentially wholly preventable with a vaccine. Worldwide, measles kills more than 100,000 people every year. That’s 18 deaths per hour.
Before the U.S. vaccination program started in 1963, 400 to 500 people died from measles every year here. Tens of thousands more were made very ill and were hospitalized. Today, that number has dropped to almost—but not quite—zero. And that’s because of vaccines.
If you can, talk to your board-certified doctor and find out about what vaccines you need. Vaccines are not expensive, but even so, many places provide free vaccinations; the CDC has a page that lets you find locations of health centers near you.
And please, don’t listen to the nonsense promulgated by the anti-vaxxers. Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines do not contain a dangerous amount of toxins. In reality, vaccines work. They really do.
It’s been 50 years since the measles vaccine was approved for use in the U.S. The CDC recently honored Dr. Samuel Katz, who was largely responsible for its development. The vaccine is now used worldwide, and over that time, it has saved millions of lives. Millions.
As Katz put it, “The challenge is not whether we shall see a world without measles, but when.”
Hear, hear. In 1977 we wiped out smallpox. Measles? You're next.
Millennia ago, and 26,000 light years distant in the dim and somewhat unremarkable constellation of Circinus, a monster was born. And when that happened, it gave out a heck of a birth cry.
The baby in this case was a neutron star, and the bawling was the eruption of a supernova, the titanic and ridiculously powerful explosion that results from the death of a massive star.
That star probably started out with about 8 – 20 times the mass of our Sun. It was in a tight orbit around another massive star, the two circling each other every two weeks or so. At its heart, the star was fusing lighter elements into heavier ones; it was a gigantic nuclear furnace.
Eventually, after a few million years, that fuel ran out. The core collapsed, releasing a mind-numbing blast of energy. This blew out the upper layers of the star, ejecting them at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, creating the supernova. The core itself collapsed, forming an über-dense ball of subatomic neutrons few kilometers across. The explosion was probably not symmetric, but was instead slightly off-balance, providing an immense kick to the newly-formed neutron star.
The resulting system staggers the imagination: a white-hot star with the mass of the Sun but the size of a small city on a highly elliptical orbit around a normal (but also massive) star, sitting in the center of a vast cloud of superheated material screaming away at thousands of kilometers per second. Both the hot gas and the baby neutron star are so energetic they blast out X-rays… which is how we figured all this out.
Circinus X-1, as the system is called, is a high-mass X-ray binary, a pair of heavy stars in orbit around each other. We know of quite a few objects like this in the galaxy, but most of them are pretty old. But new observations of Cir X-1 have given astronomers a vital piece of information about it: its age. As the gas from the explosion slams into material around it, it slows down and cools, emitting X-rays. The physics of this is pretty well understood, and by measuring the temperature of the gas from the X-rays, astronomers determined the explosion must have occurred no more than 4600 years ago (and it may be younger still). This makes it by far the youngest high-mass X-ray binary ever found.
That’s a huge piece of the puzzle. As these binary systems age, they change. They cool off, they emit X-rays in different ways, the orbits of the stars change. Because this system is so young it’s a safe bet that what we see now is pretty much how it was when it formed. That allows astronomers to understand what was going on when the star exploded in the first place. That’s critical; imagine trying to understand how a baby human behaves by only studying adults. There’s a lot you could figure out, but you really want to be able to study a baby itself to know what’s what.
Now we have that baby. An octillion ton superhot baby.
I love the physics and science of this, how the pieces came together to figure it all out — I’ve spent my share of time studying supernovae. But despite all the technical details, one thing still strikes me…
Something over four millennia ago, humans didn’t have telescopes. When the light from the supernova reached Earth, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, and Egypt were flourishing, but the star was too far south for them to see well, or at all. Circinus is best seen from south of the Equator, where most cultures were hunter/gatherers; in South America for example the shift to farming was just getting started.
We know even very ancient civilizations were keen observers of the night sky; the cycles of the Sun throughout the year are tied to the seasons, and to a burgeoning agricultural civilization the import of that is obvious. The constellation of Circinus itself is nothing to notice; the stars in it are faint.
Until one day, one wasn’t. We have little or no records of astronomical observations from that part of world from back then. So I wonder, what did these people make of the sudden appearance of a new star in the sky, so bright it could have been the twin of Venus? Did they stand and gape at it, awe-struck, as it brightened over a few days and faded over months? What legends were spawned, what ideas were wrought, what fear or wonder was instigated?
If such an event were to happen now it would be the most significant astronomical event in the past several decades; every telescope on the planet and above it would be trained on the exploding star. We would study it, analyze it, dissect the information pouring in from it across all those thousands of light years. The knowledge we would gain would be unparalleled.
Yet I can also wish that given that chance, I would want to see it myself, to stand under the night sky and let the light that had traveled so far enter my eyes, tickle my brain. I can easily imagine the shiver that would travel down my neck as I soaked in the wonder of what I was seeing, the knowledge of what it truly is.
Perhaps we know more now than our ancestors did, with our basis of understanding through science, and our remarkable tools to investigate nature. But we still have much in common with them, and to stand in awe of the beauty of our surprising Universe is a characteristic I hope we never lose.
If you’re a nerd (and you read my blog, so: guilty) then you may have already seen this, but it’s worth making sure anyway:
Brilliant! And it must have taken a lot of work.
… but the programmer in me has to wonder. If you had a time-tagged script, and all the episodes of a TV show online, you could then write a program that would do this for you. Enter the lyrics for a song, and it will search the script to find spoken dialogue to match the words in the lyrics. When it finds multiple choices for a word (common words will come up many times) it can give you the choice of which one to use. It would then automatically grab the clips from the video using the time tags, string them together, and output a continuous video like the one above. You’d probably have to fiddle with timing before and after each word and phrase, but that’s still way easier than doing it all by hand.
Hmmmm. If you actually input the music to the song, the program could even do a frequency analysis and then autotune the dialogue to match the pitch! Then you really would hear Picard singing this song.
OK, BABloggees… make this so. I’ll be magnanimous, and only ask for a 1% intellectual property fee for the idea. You can then donate it to CosmoQuest.
On Wednesday, the daytime talk show Katie, hosted by Katie Couric, had a segment on the safety of Gardasil, a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV. This virus has been directly linked with cervical cancer, which kills 4,000 women in the United States alone every year. I’ve written about this vaccine many, many times, discussing its safety, and about various anti-vaccination groups that have fought against it. I will be clear from the start: I am highly skeptical, even critical, of these anti-vax claims, as everyone should be. Over a hundred million doses of the vaccine have been administered, and very strong studies have been done that have shown no link to either short- or long-term health problems.
To be even more clear: My wife and I did our research on Gardasil, and decided it was safe enough for our own daughter to get the vaccine.
The segment on Katie was both better and worse than I had hoped; better in that it did have some solid advice and info, and worse in that the program was very sympathetic to the anti-vaccination claims of some of its guests. Just as I did expect, the segment was loaded with anecdotes with no real evidence to support the anti-vaccination claims.
Post Hoc Is NOT Ergo Propter Hoc
It opened well, with Couric saying her daughters were up to date on their vaccines. But things slid downhill quickly thereafter.
Couric’s first guest was Emily Tarsell, whose daughter Christina died at the age of 21 after receiving Gardasil. Although Tarsell couldn’t give details due to an ongoing lawsuit, she did say Christina suffered a rash, fatigue, and dizziness after the series of shots. Christina died 18 days after her third shot.
As a parent myself, I cannot even begin to comprehend the horror of losing a child, and my heart goes out to Tarsell and anyone who has gone through something like this. But that doesn’t change the fact that correlation does not mean causation. Just because Christina had these symptoms after the shots does not mean they were caused by the shots, much less that the shot caused her death. Given how many tests the vaccine underwent before (and after) approval, the burden of proof of harm falls on the people who claim there was harm. This was not established at all during the segment; the claims were all anecdotal.
A very similar situation occurred in 2009, when a girl died shortly after receiving the vaccine, and claims were made the vaccine was the cause of death. However, it was later found the girl died due to a pre-existing cancerous tumor in her chest. The vaccine was not involved at all.
I’ll note that Tarsell is director of Gardasil network development for the National Vaccine Information Network, a noted anti-vax group I have written about before; they wanted to get anti-vax ads running on Delta airlines in-flight TV, for example (you can read more about that at Harpocrates Speaks), as well as in Times Square in New York City. NVIC has also tried to sue its critics into silence in the past. Needless to say, I don’t feel that NVIC is a reliable source of information on vaccines, having shown a historical bias against them. Tarsell’s involvement with them is worth considering.
Couric also discussed the vaccine with Dr. Diane Harper, who was a clinical investigator during the Gardasil studies. I was wary; the anti-vax movement has in the past used Harper’s words to make it seem like she is virulently anti-vax, but her stance is clearly more nuanced. Still, I wasn’t thrilled with some of what she said on the show.
She raised concerns about the efficacy of the vaccine—how effective it is, which is different from how safe it is—and asked parents to weigh the benefit versus “harm.” I put that word in quotation marks because doctors I’ve talked to always say “benefits versus risk,” which is very different. There is no proven harm to the Gardasil vaccine, although of course there is always risk to any procedure. However, as I pointed out above, the risk is extremely small.
There’s more she said I wasn’t happy with (like that the shot isn’t long-lasting; the CDC disagrees); but I’ll direct you to my Slate colleague Amanda Marcotte, who has more on this (as well as clips from the TV show).
The Plural of Anecdote Isn’t Data
Couric talked to another young woman who claimed to have had an adverse reaction—again, anecdotally. Her mother, Rosemary Mathis, was also on the show, and interestingly she is the director of a group called SaneVax (you can read more about them at Orac’s blog). Although they claim to “promote only Safe, Affordable, Necessary & Effective vaccines and vaccination practices,” they link to a video interview with Andrew Wakefield, who is essentially the father of the modern anti-vax movement, as well as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. RFK Jr. wrote an anti-vax article for Salon magazine so laden with errors they eventually pulled it. I also wrote about his anti-vax stance recently, and followed up when my editor talked to him personally after he complained about my article. The fact that SaneVax links to these men in their page about “Vaccine Safety” is clear indicator of their bias on the topic.
A Faint Light at the End of the Tunnel
Another doctor, Mallika Marshall, was also on the show, and this is where things got better. Dr. Marshall gave solid advice about vaccination and HPV, even stating that correlation is not causation. She also made the point that even though some cases of HPV do clear up on their own, it will persist in 10 to 20 percent of people who contract it, putting them at risk for cancer. Given how low the risk is for the vaccine, it is absolutely worthwhile to immunize as many people as possible. As she said, we should do this to “protect society at large,” which is really what vaccines are all about.
Finally, Couric chatted briefly with a mother and daughter who had the full course of vaccine with no ill effects at all. That was nice, but after showing very sympathetic interviews with the others, it seemed like an afterthought to the whole segment.
Balance? I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means.
The real problem with this entire segment on the “Katie” show was the false balance: The idea that there are two sides to this story. That is grossly unfair; the evidence is vastly on the side of the vaccine having extremely little risk, and no solid evidence at all that it causes harm. It’s not as though the research on this is split. Dedicating most of the segment to the stories of people who claimed it harmed them is not real balance or responsible journalism. Given too that people tend to be more sympathetic to those who have suffered, this segment was incurably biased. People who watch it are, in my opinion, very likely to become scared of a vaccine based on bad evidence. Seth Mnookin, author of the excellent book The Panic Virus (which discusses the rise of the anti-vax movement), calls the segment “fear-mongering.” I strongly urge you to read what he wrote about it.
The bottom line about all this, despite the confusion from the Katie show, is clear:
The HPV vaccine has been tested both for effectiveness and safety, and it has been shown to be an effective preventative measure against the virus with extremely small risk. No fatal injury due to the vaccine has ever been proven, and in fact the evidence presented in cases where girls died is anecdotal; no link to the vaccine other than timing (which can be coincidental) has been presented.
Let me put it this way: I’m glad my own daughter got her vaccination against this awful virus, and now, years later, if I had to do it all over again, I would.
[Correction (Dec. 5 at 16:30 UTC): In a paragraph in the original article, Christina Tarsell, the young woman who died, was listed as "Emily", her mother's name. I apologize for this mistake.]
Saturn is a gas giant planet, nine times wider than Earth, and mostly atmosphere. We don’t see its surface as such, but the top of its clouds. That means we peer down on a wildly dynamic environment, in some ways like Earth and in others, well, alien.
And sometimes both. Sitting over the planet’s north pole is a vast circulation pattern of gas called the north polar vortex: 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) across, it forms a surprisingly regular hexagon, with winds and storms churning around inside it.
A new animated image above of the six-sided system was just released by astronomers, and is the first to show the motion of the vortex in color, and is the highest-resolution full view of it so far. We’ve seen spectacular shots of it before, but never the whole thing like this:
[Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton]
The images were taken by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting the ringed planet since 2004. In it you can see difference between the inside and outside of the hexagon; scientists can use these images to understand better what’s going on in Saturn’s complex atmosphere, including what material is in it, the sizes of the particles, and the temperatures of the gaseous constituents as well.
Incidentally, see that big whitish circle near the bottom of the vortex? That's a storm roughly 2000 km (1200 miles) across: comfortably larger than Texas. The huge hurricane in the very middle of the hexagon has also been seen in staggering detail before as well.
The hexagon looks freaky, but it’s actually not that surprising; we see similar things on Earth in our own jet stream (called Rossby waves). What I find most interesting is not that it exists at all but that it’s so symmetric and well-defined; on Earth it’s sloppier. Saturn spins far faster than Earth does (its day is about 10.5 hours long), so, coupled with its larger size, the Coriolis force is far larger there, helping define the vortex’s shape.
Images and animations like this help us understand what’s going on in that vast laboratory over a billion kilometers away. I am all for that; knowledge for its own sake is a wonderful thing. But we’re also trying better to understand our own planet, and it helps considerably to have something with which to compare and contrast it, even something seemingly so different. Inevitably with space science, looking out is very much the same as looking in. We try to understand the Universe so we can better understand our own environment.
Regular readers know I love me a volcano picture from space, and today I have two.
The first is from one of my favorite volcanic hunting grounds, the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia. This forbidding region has several active volcanoes, and when they are covered in snow, they make for an extremely photogenic — if slightly terrifying — setting.
Klyuchevskaya (also spelled Kliuchevskoi) is one of a cluster of volcanoes on Kamchatka, and is pretty active. It’s a big one, reaching 4750 meters (15,500 feet) high, and has been continuously active for centuries. On Nov. 16, 2013, the International Space Station was 1500 km (900 miles) to the southwest of the stratovolcano when an astronaut snapped this highly oblique shot of it:
Ooooh, aaaaaah. The plume of ash and steam appears to be blown east by winds immediately after leaving the vent, and by the shadows I’m thinking it was early in the morning. I’ve written about Klyuchevskaya many times (like here and here and here), and every time it’s because of some amazing image of it taken from space. It’s truly lovely, if tremendously forbidding.
Note that essentially every large peak you see in that photo is a volcano. Yikes.
Let me now take you from the frozen north to the tropical southeast: Vanuatu, an archipelago of volcanoes east of Australia. Astronaut Mike Hopkins was flying over it in the ISS recently, and tweeted this spectacular photo of one of the islands in the chain:
He doesn’t say which one it is, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that it’s Ambrym, a shield volcano with a caldera about 12 km (8 miles) across — you can see the rim of it circling around to the left in the photo. It was created in a huge explosion around 50 A.D., one of the largest in recorded history. It’s still a very active volcano, with two cones in the caldera: Marum (the oval one on the left) and Benbow (right; in the picture north is roughly down). The picture is a little overexposed (you can see it in the plume) but it shows the vegetation and the lack thereof perfectly.
The island is lightly populated, but there have been several deaths due to eruptions in the past; people were killed by lava bombs and overtaken by flowing lava. Still, the location looks lovely, and one day I’d love to visit it. I need someone with more money than sense to fund me for a year to travel the world and visit amazing places; if I ever got to Vanuatu I’d very much like to see Ambrym, as well as Gaua.
What a planet we live on! There are so many places to see, and so many things to learn about them.
A lot of tech is so ubiquitous you don’t even notice it anymore; it would be like a fish noticing the water in which it swims.
Google certainly fits that category; it’s not very often a company name becomes a verb. It’s second nature now to fire up a browser and type in a few words when I need some help pinning down a word or phrase, or to just get more info on a topic.
A while back, Google introduced autocomplete; if you start typing words into the search engine text field, it’ll make suggestions for words even before you’re done typing. I don’t find this feature particularly useful since I generally have a pretty good idea what I’m looking for when I’m searching. But I can certainly see its utility.
The suggestions are based on previous searches by users as well as page content, so the most common things people type in (weighted with with highly-ranked sites) are what Google offers up as helpful phrases. That makes sense; using the most common searches is statistically likely to match what you might need.
It’s not hard to imagine a downside to this, though. It can focus searching to a few popular sites, and can reinforce false information, since those pages may not be vetted for accuracy.
I was alerted to this when Lindacska126 on Twitter sent me the following tweet:@BadAstronomer Have you seen what happens when you Google "Scientists are"? pic.twitter.com/xWf7hoKd4W
The link goes to a screengrab showing Google’s suggestions to her. I typed “Scientists are” into Google and got essentially the same results:
Ouch. That doesn’t seem to fare well for what people think of scientists.
I’ll admit, most scientists are liberal, or perhaps better described as progressive. In general that’s to be expected of someone who has an open mind, is ready for open inquiry, and willing to change their views based on evidence. But only in general; I know many conservative scientists who are quite brilliant. I’ve been labeled as liberal myself many times, which makes me chuckle; my views on most topics are a bit more subtle than can be assumed from such a blanket label.
But the “scientists are stupid” and “scientists are liars” suggestions are troubling. Can it be that most people really think this?
I decided to follow through, and see what pages are actually recommended by Google if you use these suggestions. What I found is that yes, many of the pages linked do make these accusations — and they come from the usual suspects, such as fundamentalist religion sites, or climate change deniers. No surprise there. And some are satirical pages, clearly meant as parody. But it’s not hard to find page after page, site after site, sincerely making these claims about scientists.
What do we make of this? Is all hope lost?
This is troubling, to be sure, but I don’t know just how bad it is. After all, we don’t know why people are using these terms. I search for things I know are wrong all the time, for instance, so I type weird things into Google every day. Of course, I tend to be looking for people making claims that are, um, not as reality-based as they could be, so maybe I’m not the best example.
I can think of a few other ways this may not be so bad, but I keep coming back to the fact that in the United States, roughly 45% of people outright deny evolution. Climate change denial is on the wane, but still, something like a third of people in the US deny that humans have played a role in it. And it’s not hard at all to find media pundits who froth and rail against science, as long as it doesn’t have the ideological stance they cleave unto.
Scientists need a better rep. Science is everywhere, all around you, all the time. You’re soaking in it. I can make all manners of arguments of why it’s important philosophically — and I have — but it’s also absolutely critical economically; our way of life in the United States, and the world, depends absolutely on scientific achievements. From better agriculture to medicine to communication to mitigating global disasters, science plays a fundamental role in each.
So what to do? In my opinion, there are two things that will help. One is to not let broad and ridiculous accusations about science and scientists go unchecked. I do that here quite often, of course.
The other, though, is if you love science, tell people. Write about it, talk about it, sing about it if you can (and Gawker? You're not helping; we should be encouraging people to look up the definition of "science", not making fun of them).
And if I may, let me suggest simply being a better person. I get this idea from my friend George Hrab, who has a segment on his podcast where he answers questions from listeners. Many times, he is asked by someone who is nonreligious how their reputation can be improved. George tells them to lead by example: be friendly, help out, do charity work. Then, later, if someone finds out you’re not a believer, it won’t color their opinion as much. In fact, it may change their mind about an entire group of people they otherwise would have written off.
I suspect the same can be done for science. If so many people truly think scientists are liars, scientists are stupid, then we need to show them otherwise. Don’t lecture; teach (or better yet, converse). Don’t insult or belittle; enlighten. Admit your mistakes, show where you learn from them. Talk about the joy and wonder and awe of truly understanding the Universe as it actually is!
Isn’t that why we love science in the first place?
My hope is that we can change Google’s algorithm, so that one day it will produce this:
Tip o' the beaker to Zach Kopplin for the Gawker link.
Stop whatever you’re doing (unless you’re performing brain surgery) and watch this astonishing and enthralling time-lapse video, showing the Earth from space using photographs taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station:
You know the drill: Make it hi-res and full-screen, and thank me later.
The video was created by David Peterson, who also made a similar video called “All Alone at Night”. Some of the clips I’ve seen before, but many are new to me.
At the 29 second mark, I was thrilled to see a glory, a complicated optical phenomenon where light is reflected back from water droplets in the air, creating a circular rainbow beneath the observer. You can see it tracking along with the station as it orbits above the clouds.
At 1:00 in, you see the Sun dip between the station’s solar panels; I believe this sequence was shot in 2012 at the summer solstice. At that time, the Sun never sets for the ISS; it just dips down near the limb of the Earth and rises back up, much as it does at the Earth’s north pole.
At about 1:30, you can see two docked Russian spacecraft (a Soyuz in the foreground and a Progress in the back) with the Earth behind them. To my surprise, you can see the Progress firing its rockets twice, once on each side! The Progress rockets are sometimes used to maintain the ISS attitude (orientation to the Earth) and I had never seen video of them firing before.
At 2:00, Peterson put in a remarkable series of shots showing C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy), a spectacular Sun-grazing comet that sported an extremely long tail. Discovered in 2011, it was very photogenic, and astronauts on the ISS took many photos of it.
He ends the video with a series of moonrise shots, which I never tire of. You can also see astronaut Don Petit working in the cupola; he was a pioneer of taking beautiful photographs from the station, and is a fitting way to end the video.
Tip o' the spacesuit visor to astronaut Ron Garan on Twitter.
[P.S. The music for the video is from the production company “Two Steps From Hell”, which makes music for movie trailers; you’ve probably heard their work many times without even knowing it. I quite enjoy their music, and really like the albums “Invincible” and “Archangel” in particular.]
Very cool news: Three new planets orbiting other stars — exoplanets — have had their picture directly taken!
Seeing planets around other stars is hard. Planets are faint, and stars bright: From a distance, for example, the Sun is a billion times brighter than Jupiter. Most times, when we look at other stars, the planets are totally lost on the glare.
Sometimes, though, we can make things easier. Planets are warm, so looking in the infrared helps. Looking at younger planets helps, too, since they still glow with the leftover heat of their formation. Cooler, redder stars are dimmer, making planets around them easier to see as well. Finally, checking out nearby stars is a big plus, since that means we can more easily separate out the planet and its star (like looking at a distant car blurs the headlights into one glow, but when it’s closer you can separate them).
After all these years, only about a dozen planets have been directly photographed, and even then some are controversial; their ages aren’t well known, and that affects their measured mass. Some might be brown dwarfs, objects intermediate in mass between planets and stars.
But now we have three more exoplanets baby pictures! Here’s what we know about them.
FW Tau b
FW Tau is perhaps the most interesting of the three systems. The star is actually a binary, two stars orbiting each other. Both stars are cool red dwarfs, about a quarter of the mass of the Sun each, orbiting about 1.6 billion kilometers (one billion miles) apart, roughly the distance of Saturn to the Sun. The stars are a bit less than two million years old, and are 470 light years from Earth.
The planet was first noticed in 2001, but was not confirmed as a planet until recently. This was determined by what’s called proper motion: The stars’ physical motion through the galaxy can be seen over time, and the planet is clearly moving with them.
The planet, FW Tau b, orbits both stars at a staggering distance of 50 billion kilometers, over 300 times farther away from its stars than Earth is from the Sun. For comparison, Neptune is only 30 times Earth’s distance from the Sun, so this new system is ten times wider than our own. From that distance, the two stars combined would only be about as bright as the full Moon as seen from Earth.
The planet has a mass ten times that of Jupiter, and is still hot due to its age, probably around 1700° C (3000° F), so it’s not habitable by any means. But it exists, and we have the picture to prove it.
ROXs 42B b
ROXs 42B is also a binary star, with both stars smaller and cooler than the Sun. They’re a bit under seven million years old, and 390 light years from Earth. The planet is also about 11 times the mass of Jupiter, but is closer in to its stars, about 22 billion kilometers (14 billion miles) away from them. That’s still many times farther out than Neptune is from the Sun.
Like FW Tau b, it’s moving through space bound to those two stars, and its that motion which gave it away as a planet orbiting them. It’s also quite hot, about 1900°C (3400° F).
The mass is somewhat hard to determine for this object, and may be anywhere from 6 – 15 times the mass of Jupiter. At the lower end it’s definitely a planet, but at the higher end it’s more like a brown dwarf. Some of this depends on the distance of the star from Earth; if it’s farther away, the planet must be more massive to be as bright as it is. The authors of another study of ROXs 42B b (published just two weeks before the other one, thouhg made public in October) are a bit conservative in the planet mass, but it seems to me that it’s likely to be part of a known and nearby cluster of young stars, meaning the planet is on the lower end of the mass scale.
ROXs 12 b
ROXs 12 is also a cool red dwarf, and also about the same distance as ROXs 42B is from Earth, 390 light years. The planet is bigger, about 16 ± 4 times the mass of Jupiter. As it happens, anything bigger than about 13 times the mass of Jupiter is more in the brown dwarf category; with the uncertainty in the mass of this object it’s not completely clear if it’s a planet or not. But it’s close, and for now (until better measurements are made) I’ll grant it, given the caveat. Either way, it orbits the star at a distance of about 31 billion kilometers (20 billion miles).
Interestingly, both FW Tau b and ROXs 12 b may have a disk of material around them, meaning they are still actively in the process of forming. The observations show they both glow in the light of warm hydrogen — with very young planets, that’s generally indicative of a disk. If so, we’ve caught them in the act of gathering material, building themselves up even more. That’s pretty cool (even if it means ROXs 12 b may be pushed out of the planet category as it gains mass).
I’m fascinated by these direct images of planets. For now, given our technology, the ones we see this way are young, hot, and massive. But we’re getting better at this. As we make bigger telescopes equipped with better detectors, and use more sophisticated techniques in our observations, more planets will be found. I have no doubt that we’re getting closer to being able to physically see a planet like the Earth, orbiting some nearby star. It may yet be several years away, but that time is coming.
I wonder how it will be, to gaze upon the light of a planet like that? To know that from there, our own planet would look much the same?
Over the weekend, the Chinese government did something that has not been attempted in nearly 40 years: Launch a spacecraft for a soft landing to the Moon.
On Dec. 1, 2013, the Chang’e 3 lander and rover launched successfully from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan, China. It’s on a direct orbital insertion path, meaning it heads straight from Earth to the Moon (sometimes, long, looping paths are taken to utilize Earth’s gravity for maneuvers to save fuel). It should enter lunar orbit on Dec. 6, orbit for a week, then land in an area called Sinus Iridum (“Bay of Rainbows”) on Dec. 14.
I have some thoughts on this, but first, there’s a launch video that — as is usually the case with launch videos — is very, very cool.
Launch occurs one minute into the video (although I have to say, a few seconds earlier when they cut to the shot of the bottom of the rocket, with the small fins and engines bells sticking out, I had a momentary flashback to watching Gerry Anderson supermarionation TV shows as a kid). Other key moments are at 1:29, when they cut to the external rocketcam, 3:19 when the external boosters cut out and fall away, 3:33 when the second stage ignites after the first falls away, and 6:38 when the third stage booster ignites and the second stage falls away.
The rocket used was the biggest and heaviest of China’s Long March boosters, powerful enough to fling the 1200 kilogram (2600 pound) rover and lander to the Moon. Once they land, the rover will deploy and wander the surface to make scientific measurements. The instruments include the usual sorts of things for a rover: cameras, surface probes, mineralogical testing devices, and a far-ultraviolet telescope; UV light is absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, so the airless Moon is a good platform for such an astronomical device.
The mission has a three month nominal lifespan, and is a testbed for future and more ambitious rovers. You can read more about all this at Emily Lakdawalla’s blog at The Planetary Society.
So what do we make of this?
First, China has been launching rockets since 1970, and has done quite a bit of space exploration. It seems like a straightforward enough assumption that they will continue to aim for the Moon — they’ve launched two orbiters, Chang’e 1 and 2, already — with an eye toward eventual crewed mission. They’ve already been building space stations in low Earth orbit (the Tiangong space station in the movie “Gravity”? Yeah that’s real), and have invested a lot of cash into space; they have four main launch sites and are clearly serious about this next step in human exploration.
I’ve written my thoughts about this a few times in the past, usually when China makes progress, or when NASA’s future is threatened yet again by Congress, the White House, or its own Administration. The bottom line is this: I want humans to live in and explore space. If those humans are Chinese, or Russians, or what-have-you, then I’m glad, because it significantly improves the long-term survival chances of our species.
But I’m an American, and there’s some amount of pride in me. This country has always been a leader in pushing back the boundaries of space, and inspiration is no small part of that. I want to see my own nation continuing that pioneering spirit, but instead I see it all-too-commonly mired in bureaucracy and politics, and stunted by a lack of vision.
I am not interested in another space race. This needs to be articulated clearly: Such things tend to be all flash and no substance. In the 1960s it led to many Soviet and American disasters, and to a too-well-defined and specific goal: Landing humans on the Moon. Once those footprints were there, we turned on backs on the Universe, or at least the human exploration of it. A race has a finish line, and once you cross that line, you’re done.
That is precisely the opposite philosophy we should have right now. Exploring space is a long-term goal, one with many paths, many achievements along the way, and not one shining endpoint where, once we get there, we can rest.
What I hope to see from this latest Chinese effort is a rekindled sense of desire in America, a strong sense that once again we should be leaders in this grandest of all adventures. We need to achieve a balance between good-natured national competition and cooperation, so that all humans can benefit as we reach for the sky. And the benefits are many.
My congratulations to the people of China as they strive for the Moon. I hope that in a few years, there will be many others of us joining them.
Monoceros is a constellation of faint stars not far from Orion and Sirius, visible in the winter sky. I’d expect it to have a better rep than it does, given the Internet’s obsession with what it represents: a unicorn.
Still and all, there’s another reason you should know about it. Lurking in its borders is an astronomical mystery, an object of incredible beauty, terrifying power, and bizarre origin. Best of all, it’s a puzzle, since we don’t really understand what it is or what it’s doing.
It goes by the cryptic name V838 Monocerotis (which sounds like a horrible disease). It’s been observed by Hubble many times, and those data are available to the public. Telecommunication engineer Roberto Colombari took his hand to those observations, and created the best image of V8238 Mon I’ve ever seen:
Yegads! How weird, and wonderful.
This is combination of observations taken at three colors, approximately blue, green, and red. Colombari had to do some serious fiddling to get this final image; the camera itself has a gap between the detectors which leaves black lines across the images (you can see it in the inset raw image below). He combined several images in each color, including some rotated by 45° to fill in the gap. In the end, he was able to make a smoother image with a darker background than I have seen of V838, which adds substantially to the beauty.
But what the heck are we seeing?
There are a few things we know for sure. In 2002, the star underwent a truly epic eruption, brightening from obscurity to nearly naked-eye visibility, despite its soul-crushing distance of 20 quadrillion kilometers away. It blasted out radiation at level a million times that of our Sun, and was briefly one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy. The material around it is mostly dust; this stuff heavily reddens light passing through it, and in fact the Hubble images using the blue filter don’t even show a hint of the cloud. Not only that, but images taken in the years since the star’s outburst show the dust changing considerably.
It turns out though, that the dust cloud isn’t physically changing! It’s normally dark, and the blast of light from the star is lighting it up. Since light travels at a finite speed, we see some parts of the material being lit before others; this is called a “light echo”. So it only looks like the cloud is growing; in reality it’s hardly moving at all.
Studies indicate that the dust existed before the eruption, part of a huge star-forming cloud, and is probably only about 3 – 10 million years old; a blink of the cosmic eye. Still, if the star is extremely massive, that’s enough time for it to start dying.
That was my first thought when I initially saw this object. Stars live their lives in a delicate balance; heat generated in their cores due to nuclear fusion tries to expand them like hot air balloons, but their immense gravity tries to squeeze their octillions of tons gas into the core. If something happens to that balance, the star can react poorly. For example, it can undergo epic paroxysms, blasting out vast clouds of gas and dust.
But it turns out that’s probably not what’s going on here. That would explain the star getting bright, but we don’t see the sort of expanding shells of material associated with such an outburst.
A leading idea — and get this — is that the central star is the result of two big stars colliding and merging! That’s an extremely rare event, but it would explain a lot of what we see. It would cause a huge blast of energy, for one. It would also produce X-rays, which were seen in other observations. The star would expand a lot, causing it to become very red, which is the obvious color in the Hubble pictures.
That’s pretty weird, but we don’t see too many stars like V838 Mon, so a rare event may be called for. They may have been two stars in orbit around each other, perhaps on a very long elliptical path, and over time finally merged. It’s just good we happened to be looking so we could see the 2002 flare up. Astronomers are still watching the star; if it has another such outburst then we may need to find another explanation; a collision is a singular event and we wouldn’t expect a repeat. But nothing on that scale has happened to the star in the past decade.
Before this, I never would have guessed something like this could happen; star collisions really are extraordinarily rare. But the Universe is vast, and time is deep. If you look long enough, you’re bound to see exceptional events. And when they are this stunningly beautiful, why, it makes the search that much easier to do.
Or… “That time I was right, then wrong, then probably right again like I was in the first place, more or less.”
The other day I wrote up a synopsis of the life and possible death of comet C/2012 S1 (ISON). Karl Battams, who runs the SungrazerComets Twitter feed and the Comet ISON Observing Campaign page, has an excellent summary of what we know so far (with a couple of very cool animations, too). The bottom line is that it’s been one surprise after another, with it getting bright, then dim, then bright again, then dim.
But, as we get more images of the comet as it heads away from the Sun, its ultimate fate is perhaps a little easier to see. The NASA / ESA spacecraft SOHO has been observing the comet since it entered its field of view on Nov. 28, and has told an interesting if somewhat head-scratchy tale. The solid nucleus of the comet started out about two kilometers wide, and got very bright. It faded rapidly as it approached the Sun, pretty much the opposite of what you might expect. But then it got bright again after it rounded the Sun, though not nearly as bright as before. And now it appears to be fading without stop.
Here’s a video I put together showing the comet starting on Nov. 28 at 07:00 UTC (02:00 EST), and ending 44 hours later on Nov. 30 at 04:00 (Nov. 29 at 11:00 p.m. EST):
You can see the comet head was so bright at the beginning it was saturating the SOHO detector, but then faded fast (I wrote a brief explanation of what you see in SOHO images in an earlier post). The other thing to note is that now, days later, the comet has faded substantially; there is no nucleus to be seen, and we can even see stars right through the comet (the image at the top of this post was taken on Nov. 30 at 20:42 UTC, and makes that clear; ISON is on the upper right and is now pretty well dispersed).
So what happened? A video from a different viewpoint may help. The STEREO spacecraft are twin probes moving around the Sun in opposite directions. They are on the other side of the Sun from Earth, so they have a very different perspective on what happened. Here is a (low-res) video from STEREO A showing the same events:
At about 10-11 seconds in, as ISON is about to swing around, you can see it starts to emit a thin puff of something (it looks like a flash, a sudden thing, but I suspect that might be an illusion due to the comet happening to cross a bright region in the solar atmosphere, making the comet look brighter). This may possibly have been a disruptive event, breaking apart the nucleus. That would explain why it faded. Heating and expansion of the material would cause it to glow briefly, which would be why the comet brightened after perihelion, and then as it dispersed it would thin, so overall the comet would fade.
Mind you, the SDO and PROBA2 spacecraft did not see the comet; if a lot of ice were blown out they should have seen it. Also, at the end of the videos you see a cloud of material blow out and sweep around the comet; that is likely fine dust blown out by the solar wind. So it may be that the disruption event shook out a lot of dust, and what we’re seeing now is a big cloud of debris moving away. Maybe we’ll know better when Hubble can take a look, but that won’t be for a few weeks (Hubble cannot look near the Sun, so we have to wait for orbital mechanics to bring the comet farther out). It may be there are still some decent sized chunks, and these could still brighten. I wouldn’t get my hopes up though.
As I’ve said many times, though, there's a lot of stuff going on here, and it’s not at all clear what happened. I’m guessing based on what I’ve seen, experts I’ve talked to, and my own experience observing comets.
And while I won’t make any firm predictions, because that path leads to ruin (or at least frustration), it does seem like this is the comet’s last gasp. The ethereal nature of the material in the SOHO images from Saturday makes it look like it won’t recover from this latest waning.
But who knows? When the comet started fading before perihelion I thought it might be dying, and I was more sure when it really smeared out. Then it came back, and we thought it survived, but now it’s looking more like that was a last gasp. This comet (and our estimation of what it’s doing) changes its story on an hourly basis, it seems.
So assume none of this is written in stone (or ice). We will certainly learn more as scientists analyze the data returned, and we get even more observations in the coming months.
There is something to be said for perseverance, for persisting until the last moment you can. You can make a lot of moral and emotional arguments for it, of course, but there’s also a mathematical one: If you stick around long enough, sometimes the odds, stacked against you as they may be, will break your way.
Scott Rinckenberger is a photographer from Seattle. He was in Joshua Tree National Park, finishing up a five-week trip shooting scenes in the American west. I don’t want to spoil the whole story — he tells it well on his own website — but on the last day of the trip he threw the dice one last time… and they rolled his way:
This phenomenal shot shows the campsite where he and his friend were staying. It’s a lovely foreground, and the sky itself lent a fine photogenic backdrop. But as luck would have it, a meteor shot across the field of view during the short 30-second exposure.
That’s actually a fairly common occurrence; shooting stars happen several times an hour, especially if you’re in a dark site and can see the fainter ones. But this one was hardly faint! As you can see, it streaked in from the upper left, and shortly before burning out it flared brightly several times.
What we call meteors are actually tiny bits of rock (or sometimes metal) that blaze as they ram through our atmosphere. When you compress a gas it heats up, and when an object moving dozens of times faster than a rifle bullet plows through the air, it violently compresses the gas ahead of it. The air heats up so much it glows. At the same time, the meteoroid — the solid bit of material — itself is undergoing extraordinary pressure. The rock can flatten, pancaking, and crumble under the strain. When it breaks apart there are suddenly several rocks compressing the air ahead of them, which means more surface area to heat up, and more light is generated. Those rocks can also break up, until they are so small they either decelerate and no longer glow, or burn up entirely.
This all happens in a fraction of second at these speeds, and the velocity is so high the energies can be quite large. I expect the rock that Rinckenberger caught with his camera was perhaps no bigger than a grapefruit, but at 30 or more kilometers per second, that’s all it takes to make a very bright flash in the sky. He caught the whole thing, including the breakup, just barely fitting into the frame.
And not only that, it provides some balance to the picture, offsetting the big rock in the foreground and the airplane seen on the right in the sky.
I’d say he was lucky, but in this case, luck = (low chance of event) x (plenty of time spent looking). Sometimes luck breaks your way, but if you’re ready for it, and keep plugging away, then you can make the big score.
There is something to be said for perseverance.
Yesterday, comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) zoomed over the surface of the Sun, barreling through the star’s intolerable heat and light. We all waited on the edge of our seats to see what would happen, and amazingly, a few hours later, something came out the other side.
But what, exactly? We’re still not sure. But here’s my guess, based on what I’ve seen and heard.
Let me give you a quick overview first. The comet itself was a chunk of rock, gravel, and dust held together by ice, smushed into an object perhaps two kilometers (a bit over a mile across). It came from the Oort cloud, a vast repository of such icy chunks well outside the orbit of Neptune. The orbit of ISON is extremely close to an escape trajectory for the solar system, meaning this is likely its first and only dip into the neighborhood; it may not ever return, and instead be ejected into interstellar space (or at least not be back for many, many, millennia).
As it approached the Sun on Nov. 28, it suddenly got very bright, which could have been from an outburst (perhaps due to solar heat seeping under the surface, reaching a pocket of ice, changing it directly from a solid to a gas, and triggering a sudden expulsion of that gas as it expanded), or even a disruption event. Since the ice holds the comet together, losing that ice means losing the infrastructure of the comet itself. It can break apart into smaller chunks, like other comets have in the past.
Still, it looked solid enough as it kept heading for the Sun… for a while. But a few hours later (but still before closest approach) it had faded considerably, and images from the NASA/ESA spacecraft SOHO showed it looking more smeared out. The trail of stuff narrowed toward the tip, but we didn’t see a single, bright spot there, which is what we expected for an intact comet. Those of us who were punditing at the time were, understandably, becoming convinced ISON was breaking up.
Pining for the Fjords
Then it got too close to the Sun for SOHO to see it (SOHO uses an occulting mask, a disk of metal, to block the fierce light of the Sun and allow it to see the fainter environment around our star; that’s why you see a black spot in the images, and the long bar to the upper right which holds the disk in place). We waited.
At some point after perihelion I made a decision. I drew a line in the sand, saying I thought this was an ex-comet. But then, not long after, like Lazarus or a zombie, ISON came back from the dead.
But Wait! What Light Through Yonder SOHO Breaks?
By 19:48 UTC, a little tadpole was visible in the inner SOHO images. Within a few hours it was clear something had made it around the Sun. But was it an intact comet, or just a dust cloud of debris ripped apart by the terrible forces it experienced?
That brings us to now. What of the comet? Well…we’re not really sure. The latest pictures do show a condensed blob of something, and it doesn’t look quite as much like a debris cloud as it did.
Best guess: As it rounded the Sun the solid nucleus fell apart. It may have released a lot of junk — dust, gas, whatever — but a sizeable chunk remained. That itself is still being heated by the Sun, and so is surrounded by a fuzzy coma of material. We can clearly see a tail of dust following behind it in the same orbit, and another tail of fine dust getting blown out by the solar wind (multiple tails of different compositions are common in comets).
So I wouldn’t say the comet survived, so much as some of it wasn’t destroyed. A subtle difference, perhaps, but clearly something is still there.
Interestingly, both the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the European PROBA2 spacecraft did not see any hint of ISON as it passed the Sun. That’s extremely puzzling; PROBA2 has a very sensitive camera. Both are easily able to detect oxygen atoms released by the comet, which should glow in ultraviolet light (and the oxygen would come from water, an abundant substance in the comet). It’s not clear at all why the comet was invisible; it may be more evidence it did mostly break up. But again, we’re still seeing a tail (which means it’s blowing out material), so the only thing we can be sure of is that there’s more to this story than we’ve figured out in this short time.
I’ll note the trajectory of the comet hasn’t changed. Gravity is far and away the dominant force steering the comet, and it’s still on its way out. It’s still bright, though not nearly as bright as it was. And it’s still very close to the Sun, just a few degrees away, so it won’t be visible just yet.
However, after a few days, if it stays bright, it may be visible in the pre-dawn sky. I wouldn’t bet on it, but geez, I wouldn’t bet against it either with this comet. Look low to the eastern horizon while the sky is still dark; you may need binoculars. As far as I can tell, the tail (if any) will stick more or less straight up away from the horizon (depending on your latitude). It may be visible after sunset in the west-northwest as well, but the angle of the tail won’t be as good.
I do NOT suggest trying to see it while it’s still near the Sun; it’s too faint and the chance of eye damage (if you use optical aids like binoculars or a telescope) is too high to risk it.
My advice is to wait a few days to see if it’s visible to the eye before dawn, and in the meantime delight and be puzzled by the fantastic images we’re getting from space.
The comet, or what’s left of it, will make its closest approach to Earth at the end of December, when it will be 60 million kilometers away. A few weeks later, it’s possible that we’ll pass through the debris trail from ISON, and see some meteors from it. At this point, given the capricious nature of the comet, I’d score this one as a firm maybe. We’ll know more in the coming weeks. I don’t think there’s any real danger from big pieces, since the comet itself will be millions of kilometers away at the time, so don’t fret. We should be safe from needing Bruce Willis’s help here.
This comet has been a weirdo since Day 1, and continues to surprise and fascinate astronomers. And normal people, too. I was overwhelmed with the response I got yesterday both during and after the NASA video Hangout, as well as on Twitter, where I was trying to keep up with this iceball as it performed its merry pranks for the planet to see. My tweets got hundreds of replies, in many different languages, showing how this event touched people all over our own small world.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Comets and cats are equally predictable. It’s a losing game to be firm with them; your best move is to watch, wait, and enjoy the show while it happens. That’s my plan, for sure.
Tip o' the Whipple Shield to my pal Craig DeForest for the PROBA2 news.
[Oh, you gluttonous Americans! Thanksgiving is over, and you can barely move around your own overzealously fed digestive tract. The very thought of hitting a mall on Black Friday fills you with dread… as well it should. So why bother? I’ve been thinking of sciencey/geeky/skeptical gifts you can order online (using your fing-longer while still lying supine, no doubt) and writing about them. Previous entries have included “The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars”, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Living on Earth”, and a joke book I wrote with Zach Weinersmith called “27 Nerd Disses: A Significant Quantity of Disrespect”. This time: music!]
Last year, on February 18, 2012, my friend and musician George (“Geo”) Hrab threw a concert in his hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. If you listen to his Geologic Podcast you know his music is funky, smart, science-laden, and highly skeptical. I was really happy to hear he would be doing a concert, and then thrilled when invited me to come. I wound up introducing the whole schmeer, as well as performing on stage for “Death from the Skies” (based on my book), and a couple of other pieces. The concert was a blast — but you don’t have to take my word for it…
… you can see for yourself! The “21812: A Gneiss Night Out” is now out on DVD. It has the whole concert as well as lots of fun extras, including interviews with some of the folks involved, tons of photos, a cool typography video, and a “Making Of” documentary. If you’re a fan of Geo — and you should be — this is a must have.
Here’s a sample, “Children on Airplanes”, an amazing drum trio that opened the second half of the concert.
Next up: more music. Unlike Geo’s stuff, I have a hard time finding a simple category for the music of Carly Paradis. It’s not really classical, it’s not really rock, or folk, or any easily-defined theme. It’s mostly instrumental, though she does use some voice… it’s atmospheric, but not new agey.
She just came out with an album called “Hearts to Symphony” (available on iTunes and Amazon), and whatever kind of music you want to call it, I really like it. She has some samples on Soundcloud which will give you a taste, and there’s a short review with some choice words about it. The iTunes link above also has samples.
I’ve never met Carly, but we’ve been Facebook friends for a couple of years, and we’ve chatted back and forth a few times. She’s a science fan, and in fact one of her songs, “7.83 Hz”, is named after the fundamental frequency of the Schumann resonance, an electromagnetic standing wave in the Earth’s ionosphere. I mean, c’mon.
I listen to this album quite often at home while I’m writing (I’m actually listening to it now as I write this article, if you like your reviews meta), and I find it mesmerizing. She plays with harmonies, building simple themes and adding complexity to them. Much of the music on the album is symphonic, broad, sweeping… she’s done music for movies (like “Moon”) and has worked with soundtrack composer Clint Mansell, so she has the chops.
I wish I could put my finger on this music, but I can’t. So I’ll just say give it a listen and then buy it if you like it. I like supporting talented, independent artists, and I hope Carly has a long and productive career ahead of her.
[The previous post was getting overtaxed with updates, so I’m doing a new one here.]
[UPDATE (Nov. 28 at 23:30 UTC): Whatever is left of ISON is now visible in the wide-field camera on SOHO; you can see it poking its nose into the blue part (that's the LASCO C3 camera; the red inner part is from LASCO C2, a narrower field of view). A bit brighter than I expected, but as always, patience, young padawans.]
[UPDATE 2 (Nov. 29 at 02:30 UTC): This beastie continues to surprise. This SOHO image, from 00:18 UTC on Nov. 29, sure looks like something survived intact. At this point all I can say is the same thing I've been saying all along: predicting comets is like predicting cats. Good luck with that. For those keeping score at home, it got bright, then it faded, then it got all smeared out, then it came around the Sun smeared out, and then it seemed to get its act together again. At this point, I refuse to make any further conclusions about this comet; it seems eager to confuse. I've been hearing from comet specialists who are just as baffled... which is fantastic! If we knew what was going on, there'd be nothing more to learn.]
So comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) has passed the Sun, but not without cost: At some point previous to the rendezvous something happened to the nucleus (the solid part) of the comet, and by the time it made its final approach it clearly was not doing well. The normally compact head of the comet got smeared out, a pretty good sign the nucleus had disintegrated.
The latest image I have right now is from the NASA/ESA SOHO Sun-observing spacecraft, from 20:30 UTC (2:30 p.m. EST) today:
The comet came in from the lower right to the upper left, whipped around the Sun, and has come out from the other side… or something has. As you can see, there is no centrally condensed bit, just more smeared out stuff. That looks like debris to me, or at best a very small and pale reflection of the splendor of what ISON was.
Well, as I (and many others) have been saying all along, with a comet like this you just have to wait and see what will happen. It held together a long time, got very bright last night, faded this morning, then apparently fell apart. This isn’t surprising; we see comets disintegrate often enough as they round the Sun. ISON’s nucleus was only a couple of kilometers across at best, so it would have suffered under the Sun’s heat more than a bigger comet would have.
Still, there’s more observing to do, and of course much data over which to pore. We’ve seen Sun-grazing comets before, and we’ve seen comets coming from the very deepest parts of the solar system before, but we’ve never seen a comet from that part of part of our neighborhood graze the Sun. We’ll learn a lot from this event, I have no doubt.
A lot of folks are sad the comet fell apart. I understand that; I never did get a chance to see it myself, and now it looks like I won’t. But the Universe cares not for our desires; it just does what it’s going to do. And there’s lots of science afoot here, so in fact I’m not sad at all; I’m pretty happy. This was an amazing event! And it may be a long, long time before we see the like again.
And, of course, Stay Tuned: I’ll keep updating if more news comes in.