Bad Astronomy Blog

Like Tears in Rain: Our Scars on Mars Fade

14 hours 7 min ago

When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, it wasn’t alone. On its way in it also dropped its heat shield, its backshell and parachute, and the rocket-powered sky crane.

That last piece of hardware was pretty much what it sounds like: A platform that used rockets to hover over the surface of Mars, lowered the over down, then blasted away to a safe distance once Curiosity was firmly down. The sky crane rose in a parabolic arc, then impacted the ground, hard, about 650 meters away. It was still moving horizontally, so it left a blast pattern on the surface, blowing the dust away off the ground. The dust is brighter than the rock beneath, so it left behind a dark splash pattern.

That was about 2.5 years ago, and Mars hasn’t sat still. Weather and winds have beaten at the marks left by Curiosity’s accouterments, and they’ve faded with time. JPL just released this amazing animation composed of images taken by the HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing the erosion of the marks over time:

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

As you can see, the marks have faded, most likely gradually being covered over by dust. The other pieces of hardware show similar changes (though less dramatic, given their smaller impacts)—you can watch the animations for the heat shield, the backshell and parachute, and the rover landing site itself (of course, Curiosity has long since left; it’s a rover).

It’s not as simple as fading, though; the marks from the sky crane have also recently darkened. It’s not clear why, though it’s possible dust blew in, then blew out again. We’ve seen the dust on Mars has done more elaborate and weirder things.

This is more than just interesting: We’re gearing up to send more probes to Mars, and eventually people. Understand the Martian weather will be critical. The dust is extremely fine, like talcum powder, and made of iron oxide: rust. It will get into everything (it coated Opportunity’s solar panels, reducing power until strong winds cleaned it off later). Understanding the dust transport mechanisms will be crucial for living on Mars as well.

And since you’re here, why not: Back when the landing took place, YouTube user Dominic Muller created an amazing video using images taken from the descent camera on the sky crane; he used a technique called interpolation to smooth out the video, and if you haven’t seen it (or it’s been a couple of years), watch it! It’s quite remarkable.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

The Year of Living Weightlessly

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 04:00

Today, at 19:42 UTC (3:42 p.m. Eastern U.S. time), astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will ride a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station. This isn’t an ordinary mission: They will stay aboard ISS for a year, twice as long as the usual NASA expedition length. The purpose is to study long–term effects of microgravity on the human body, to learn more for a possible trip to Mars.*

Expedition 43, as this one is numbered,† has a number of different research directions, including seeing how the lengthy flight affects behavior, physical function, eyesight, metabolism, and more—things we know are affected by prolonged low-gravity conditions.

The reasoning behind this makes sense; a long flight to, say, Mars will seriously hamper astronauts’ ability to move around once they land.

I’ll note this isn’t the longest time people will have spent in space; two Russians spent more time on the old Mir space station, and two others spent a year on Mir as well. But this will still be pretty interesting from a biophysical point of view. A lot of work has been done in this field, of course, but having two people up that long at the same with consistent tests should prove helpful.

Not only that, but Kelly has a twin brother who will stay on Earth to provide a control group of sorts. His brother, Mark, is also an astronaut (the only siblings who have both been in space) who is married to ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Quite a family.

I wonder what the outcome of this mission will be. It may show us that long-term space flight is too debilitating; if that’s the case, then we may need to take seriously the idea of rotating structures to mimic gravity. Those are more expensive and have to be big to avoid the spin making astronauts dizzy. I’d love to see some of those built to test out how well humans can perform on them. I’m sure either way it will help inform longer space missions.

Personal opinion time: This mission is also being billed as a precursor to flights using the Space Launch System with the Orion capsule, a future I think is a dead-end for NASA. SLS is far, far too expensive and NASA doesn’t have the budget to make it sustainable. There are serious concerns that building it will cost so much that there won’t be money left for actually using it.

I agree with space activist and writer John Strickland on this; Scientific American put up an editorial about this one-year mission, and Strickland left a comment there. In it, he wrote that for the same money SpaceX could deliver a lot more. The Falcon Heavy rocket demo launch should happen later this year; I’d like to see that go successfully first before speculating any further. But it does seem like the right move for NASA. I have very serious doubts about SLS.

Anyway, I expect the Soyuz launch of the Expedition will be covered on NASA TV and its Ustream channel. I’ll be watching live, and tweeting about it too.

* Also riding on the rocket will be seasoned cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who will not be staying for the entire duration of this extended mission.

† NASA has a peculiar numbering convention for ISS missions. A new Expedition starts when three of the six crew members on board leave (officially when the door to the return capsule closes), so Expedition 43 started in early March, and there are now three people on ISS. Kelly, Kornienko, and Padalka will join 43 already in progress. The three on there now will leave in May, and that's when Expedition 44 starts. Kelly and Kornienko will stay through Expedition 46, overlapping with the crews from the other Expeditions.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

The Catastrophe That Must Not Be Named

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 04:00

By now you may have heard that Florida Governor Rick Scott is a flat-out global warming denier, even though his state is arguably the most vulnerable to sea level rise and other problems that are surely to come if we do nothing.

But even doing nothing is too much for Scott. Four former officials at Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection have claimed that Scott put out an unwritten rule ordering that no one at the DEP even use the phrases global warming or climate change in any of their communications.

There has been some back and forth in various media about whether this was true or not — it’s hard to prove an unofficial decree — but then this video has come along which pretty much confirms the order was real. It shows Florida’s emergency management director Bryan Koon testifying to the state senate about receiving FEMA funds (which has threatened to deny some funding to states with climate-change-denying governors). During the Q&A, Senator Jeff Clemons (D-District 27) has some fun at Governor Scott’s expense.

Koon’s visible discomfort during this whole thing makes it pretty clear what’s what. It would be almost painful to watch… except for the obvious delight of the other Senators, who cannot stop laughing at the whole ridiculous mess.

I’m glad they recognize that. The rest of the country, the world, is laughing at their governor’s denial of reality. The problem is laughing won’t change their minds, or get these head-in-the-sand politicians voted out of office… or will it? A majority of voters think climate change is an issue we need to deal with, including Republican voters. If those voters go to the polls and make that stance clear, then maybe those politicians would figure out that all that Koch Brothers money won’t help them get re-elected.

Our changing climate needs to be an issue voters take seriously. What starts with laughter now will hopefully turn into the good kind of change later: Changing who’s in office.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Did Jupiter Destroy the Solar System’s First Planets?

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 04:00

Our solar system is weird.

First of all, it doesn’t look much like other ones we’ve been finding. A lot of those have Jupiter-size giant planets orbiting very close in to their parents stars (“hot Jupiters”), closer even than Mercury orbits the Sun. By contrast, our Jupiter orbits the Sun much farther out, more than a dozen times Mercury’s distance from the Sun.

Worse, a lot of these other solar systems are compact. They have several planets orbiting close in to their star, and these planets tend to be “super-Earths,” bigger than our home world but smaller than Neptune. They probably have thick atmospheres, too. A good example of this is Kepler-11, which has six planets that orbit their star inside the size of Venus’ orbit.

So why are we so different than everyone else? The answer may be: Jupiter. A new paper has been released that points an accusatory finger at our solar system’s largest world. Ours may have looked a lot like all the others we’ve seen, but Jupiter came along and wiped it out, setting the stage for what see today: lower mass worlds like ours close in, and bigger ones farther out.

Here’s how this works. When the solar system was very young, just a few million years old, it was basically the Sun in the center surrounded by a huge disk of gas and dust. Jupiter formed probably not too far from where it currently is, a few hundred million kilometers out from the Sun … but it didn’t stay there.

Its gravity interacted with the material in the disk around it. The overall effect of this is to cause Jupiter to start moving inward, migrating toward the Sun. It continued to interact with the disk material, including with actively forming bodies that may have been many kilometers or even hundreds of kilometers in size. It would send them inward, crashing into the Sun. As much as 10–20 times the Earth’s mass worth of material could have been wiped out this way by the time Jupiter got to about 230 million kilometers from the Sun (very roughly where Mars is now).

Something stopped its inward movement at that point. The culprit here is Saturn; models have shown that Saturn and Jupiter would also interact gravitationally through a process called a resonance; Saturn repeatedly tugged on Jupiter, pulling it back out of the inner solar system, placing it where it is today.

When it was all done, there was far less material close in to the Sun than there was initially. The inner planets we see today, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, formed from whatever stuff was leftover, which wasn’t much.

The idea of Jupiter’s migration has been around a long time, but this new model of how it interacts with the disk explains a lot of the weirdness we see now—including why our planets are smaller than we tend to see in other systems (because of the paucity of material from which they formed). The inner planets are thought to have formed as late as 100–200 million years after the solar system got started, and this explains why, too. They formed after Jupiter bullied its way through the system.

It’s also consistent with the existence of hot Jupiters; in other solar systems where a massive planet like Jupiter forms, but no second, slightly less massive planet outside it like Saturn forms, there’s nothing to reverse the course of the bigger one. It keeps moving in until it destroys the inner disk; at that point it stops migrating and you’re left with a system with a big planet orbiting close in.

And here’s a very cool thing: We think super-Earths may form easily and quickly in solar system like ours, perhaps as rapidly as a million years. That may have even happened in our own solar system. But when Jupiter moved in it would have disrupted the orbits of those planets, dropping them into the Sun. If they once existed, they don’t now! Jupiter wiped the slate clean. Then our familiar planets formed later.

Imagine how different our solar system would look if Jupiter hadn’t formed, or Saturn hadn’t reined it in.

The beauty of this model, too, is that it doesn’t just explain what we see, it also makes predictions. For example, if we see an exoplanet system with lots of close-in super-Earths, we should not expect to see a Jupiter-size planet farther out. If it were there it should’ve wiped out the inner planets. If there is a Jupiter-size planet farther out, you should expect to find 1) a second massive planet outside the first, but slightly less massive than the first (if it’s more massive, then it becomes the one to control the situation), and 2) smaller planets like ours in the inner region, not super-Earths. Or maybe nothing at all, if all the material got wiped out.

We’re not quite at the stage yet where we can go through the exoplanets catalog and check that statistically, but we’re getting there. A new planet-finding orbiting observatory is in the works called TESS, which should yield huge numbers of such solar systems, allowing us to check the hypothesis. The Kepler mission, which discovered more than 1,000 planets, has been retooled and may also provide data to confirm or negate this study.

Oh, how I love this. This idea is still just a hypothesis, but it appears to be a good one, and better yet, it can be tested. And here’s the best part: By studying other solar systems, we learn more about ours. An example of one is a poor sample; you need many more to compare and contrast. The early discovery of hot Jupiters threw our ideas of planet formation for a loop, and then super-Earths messed with it more. But we use that data in planetary diversity to expand our models, refine them, and come to a better and greater understanding of ourselves.

Huh. Sounds like a pretty good lesson to me.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Sen: Ancient Radioactive Lunar Volcano

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 09:26

For my fortnightly column at Sen.com this go-round, I had a lot of fun writing about an ancient lunar volcano’s explosive eruption eons ago, the extent of which was mapped using gamma rays from radioactive thorium buried under billions of years of impact-produced lunar dust.

So yeah, I had a lot of fun. Sometimes just researching an article is pretty cool.

As I’ve said before, while the news and other sections at Sen are free, the blogs are subscription only. But if you look at the bloggers there, you’ll find that the price is totally worth it. You’d spend more than that on a book by just one person. And for that you’ll get to read lots of people covering lots of space. Literally.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Flying High During a Solar Eclipse

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 04:30

I should know better by now: Whenever I post a bunch of pictures from some astronomical event and say they were the best I saw, someone comes along and proves me wrong.

The photo above was taken by frequent BA Blog contributor Geoff Sims, who was flying on a plane chartered to observe the March 20 solar eclipse (the flight was planned by my old friend and dedicated umbraphilic astronomer Glenn Schneider). They were over the north Atlantic at 35,000 feet when he took that shot of the eclipsed Sun, the moon’s shadow darkening the Earth below.

It’s almost supernatural looking. On the left, the lighter penumbra of the shadow can barely be seen—to anyone there, the eclipse would have been partial, with bright sunlight still illuminating the ground.

On the right the dark umbra blots out the clouds below. Anyone there would have seen a total eclipse, the entire face of the Sun blacked out by the Moon. I love how the horizon sky is orange; the distant sunlight filtered through particles in the air.

I’m intrigued by the gentle curve of the shadow. If the eclipse had occurred over the Equator, the Moon’s shadow would have fallen straight down onto the Earth, and looked very circular. But at this high latitude, so far north, the Moon’s shadow is lengthened, stretched out into an ellipse. I wonder if that’s what we’re seeing here?

The shot was taken as part of the documentary Sims and Nelson Quan are doing called Chasing Shadows, and it loos like it will be jaw-dropping. They have a KickStarter to support it, so go there and throw money at them.

Photographer Stephan Heinsius was also flying through the eclipse (I believe on the same flight, in fact), and took video of it:

It looks very much like what Sims saw. Glenn has asked me several times to go on one of these flights. I may have to say yes eventually.

Here’s a bonus video of three smaller chartered planes that flew through the eclipse path, led by Xavier Jubier:

Wow. And still, I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse. But I only have to wait another couple of years…

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Bad Astronomy Video: The Pink and Purple Crab

Mon, 03/23/2015 - 09:00

Take equal parts 1) supernova, 2) Hubble Space Telescope, and 3) Herschel infrared Observatory. Mix well. What do you get? Purple (and pink) majesty.

This video is based on an article I wrote about this observation. And yeah, you want to go take a look; the high-res picture is pretty phenomenal.

I love this image of the Crab Nebula, if only because the colors are almost electric. But also because this has been an intensely scrutinized object; people have dedicated their careers to it, and lots of astronomers have done at least some work on it. I have too; I did a bit of coding for a Hubble observation years ago, and developed/updated a classroom education exercise based on the observable expansion of the gas. And, of course, I’ve observed it a zillion times with binoculars and telescopes.

But when you get new tech, like Herschel, you learn new things. Even familiar faces have something to teach us when we see them in a new way.

If there is a life lesson in there somewhere, feel free to find it. 

Watch more of Slate’s Bad Astronomy videos with Phil Plait.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Pluto Naming Rights

Mon, 03/23/2015 - 04:15

In a few months, Pluto’s gonna get a lot less fuzzy.

Right now, the distant world is a scant three pixels across in the camera of the New Horizons space probe. But it’s fast approaching; New Horizons recently crossed the distance where it was closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun. Given that Pluto is 40 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is, you can see that the probe is nearing the goal of its mission.

Closest approach will be in mid-July, 2015. A bit more than a month before then Pluto will be over a dozen pixels wide in images. Still not much, but enough to start seeing major features, coloration or brightness differences from spot to spot on the surface. Closing in at 14 kilometers every second, Pluto will grow rapidly, and details will clear.

The transformation of Pluto from a fuzzy blob to a sharp and clear world will be so rapid, in fact, that there won’t be time to name all the new surface features seen. Thinking ahead, the scientists involved have decided to create a list of potential names for features not yet seen. That’s pretty clever, but what names should go on that Plutonic list?

That, it turns out, is up to you. Seriously. The New Horizons team, in coordination with the International Astronomical Union (the official keeper of cosmic names), has a website called Our Pluto where you can suggest names and vote for the ones you like.

The names fall under several themes, including explorers (real and fictional), the underworld (Pluto was, after all, the god of Hades, and the moons are named after various related characters), scientists, engineers, starships and spaceships, and more. They make a special note: “We particularly welcome suggestions that come from the ancient past and from the world’s many diverse cultures.”

This is an interesting idea. It’s not a free-for-all, so that should prevent the usual irritating responses expected from the underbelly of the Internet, and in the end the names from the public are suggestions, not mandatory. But with the IAU involved, the ones chosen will eventually become official.

So here’s your chance to help name a feature on another world! Voting ends on April 7, so hurry. Orbital mechanics wait for no human.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Where Are the Pictures of Ceres?

Sun, 03/22/2015 - 04:30

I’ve been getting some emails and tweets asking why, if the Dawn spacecraft entered orbit around Ceres on Mar. 6, haven’t we seen any new close-up pictures for nearly three weeks?

The answer is not that NASA is covering up alien bases or Obama’s birth certificate or any other such nonsense. It’s actually due to gravity and chemistry.

Dawn doesn’t use conventional chemical rocket thrusters. While these can provide a lot of oomph, the fuel is heavy, which means you need to carry more fuel to carry that fuel, and so on. You can change directions quickly, but the cost is dedicating more of your precious payload mass to fuel instead of scientific equipment.

Instead, Dawn uses ion thrusters, which uses complex electric fields to fling ionized atoms out the back end at high speed. The thrust is a lot lower, but you use fuel so efficiently you can literally keep your engines on for months at a time. In the end, you get the same ability to change the direction and speed of your spacecraft; it’s just a lot more gentle and takes a lot longer.

So instead of blasting toward Ceres and blasting into orbit, it’s more like Dawn is sliding into orbit, catching up with the asteroid slowly and easing its way closer. To do that it flew past Ceres a bit, and is now on the side of Ceres away from the Sun. From its vantage point it’s looking down on the dark side of the asteroid. It’s also on a trajectory that took it farther away from Ceres, and is now falling down closer to it (like tossing a rock in the air, and having it fall back down into your hand).

In fact, a problem with Dawn’s reaction wheels (which are used to turn the spacecraft) caused engineers to put it on an orbital insertion path that’s even more fuel-efficient, to make sure they have extra fuel on hand if they need to compensate for the loss of the wheels. The diagram above shows this, and here's a nifty animation of the insertion as well:

So, though it’s been under the influence of the gravity of Ceres for a few weeks now, it’s not in a low orbit just yet. It will be soon though, and we’ll start getting lovely high-resolution images. I can’t wait. I’m dying to know just what those bright spots are; speculation is rampant among scientists, but really we won’t get definitive answers until Dawn gets close and can watch Ceres over time.

When will that finally start? April, so in just a couple of weeks. Patience, young Padawans. A new Ceres is coming.

Tip o' the electrostatic grid to Rachel WW for the link to the orbit video.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Snowy Hawaii

Sat, 03/21/2015 - 04:30

Now here’s something you don’t see every day: snow in Hawaii!

To be fair, that’s the Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island, and it tops out at 4,200 meters (13,800 feet). It’s commonly cold up there, of course, but snow is unusual.

The picture is part of a much larger shot taken by the Landsat 8 satellite. By coincidence, my friend and astronomer Mike Brown was at the observatory at the summit and took a lovely photo of it from a more terrestrial viewpoint.

It’s funny to think of Hawaii as getting cold, but when your island goes from sea level to more than a third of the way out of the atmosphere (as measured by pressure, at least), you get a bit of diversity in the weather.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Solar Eclipse Pictures and Video to Make Your Brain Happy

Fri, 03/20/2015 - 09:18

On March 20, 2015, the Moon passed in front of the Sun ... if you were on the right spot on the planet. Or, better, above it!

Let's start off with a special treat: From the ground, master astrophotographer Thierry Legault took video of the International Space Station crossing the Sun during the eclipse!

Incredible. Legault is really, really good at this sort of thing and traveled to Spain to catch the fraction-of-a-second event. 

Most of the U.S. would've been asleep during the eclipse overnight, which graced the skies of Europe, northern Africa, and Asia ...where for the most part it was only partial; it was total in the waters north of Europe and Asia. 

However, some places did see a total eclipse, like in Longyearbyen, a town in Svalbard, an island a few hundred kilometers north of mainland Norway. My pal Tunç Tezel was there and got this great shot:

The European Space Agency has a lot of images and video on its site, including this one taken by its Proba-2 satellite using a camera sensitive to the far ultraviolet:

There's a video of the eclipse from Proba-2 as well that's pretty nifty.

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti took an amazing picture of the Moon's shadow on the Earth, with a Russian capsule hanging off the ISS in the foreground:

And one more: NASA's Terra Earth-observing satellite took this dramatic shot of the Moon's inner (umbra) and outer (penumbra) shadow over clouds in the Arctic Ocean:

Those lines are called cloud streets and are pretty cool all by themselves.

And finally, if you want to understand eclipses, why, I did a Crash Course episode on them:

If you missed this eclipse, don't sweat it: There are a lot more coming, including the August 2017 that will sweep across the U.S.! I'll have more information about that closer to the event, of course.

Update, March 20, 2015, at 16:30 UTC: I originally wrote that this eclipse happened "yesterday," because it was during the middle of the night for those of us in the U.S. A few people got confused by that, so I changed it to simply the date of the eclipse: March 20, 2015. Sorry about that!

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Crash Course Astronomy Episode 10: The Sun

Fri, 03/20/2015 - 04:30
Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love. –Hamlet, in a letter to Ophelia

Of all the stars in the Universe, the one we know best is our own Sun.

That’s not to say we understand it completely, of course. But we know it’s not a burning ember, or a god, or a great ball of fire (goodness gracious). It’s a fantastically huge fusion-generating plasma ball, the main source of light, heat, and gravity in the solar system.

Wanna know more? Of course you do. Let this guy in an orange shirt tell you more.

Researching this one was fun. I know a bit about our star, having written about it a bajillion times on the blog and in my books. The hard part, as usual, was struggling with what to leave out. I decided the chromosphere could be sacrificed, and details about the complex way the magnetic field is generated.

That wasn’t so bad, but the killer was the sunspot cycle. It’s a big topic, and too hard to synopsize for the video in the time allotted. In the end I figured I covered the spots, the solar storms, and the effects on Earth, so the fact that Sun waxes and wanes in magnetic activity would just take too long to go over. You can read more about it here if you’d like.

But, the hope is that you get a taste of the Sun—figuratively, because otherwise ow—and want to find out more. The thing about astronomy, about science itself, is that there’s always more to learn.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Ted Cruz Goes Full Orwell

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 10:54

In case you haven’t heard, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is not a fan of reality.

The reality of science, that is. He has a history of saying global warming–denying talking points and used some of his political power just this past week to pressure NASA into downplaying its role in measuring the effects of global warming on the planet.

Earlier this week, Cruz went on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and they discussed the issue. What Cruz said, in its entirety, is what comes out of the south end of a north-facing bull. Watch:

Here’s the transcript:

I just came back from New Hampshire where there’s snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple: Debates on this should follow science, and should follow data.  And many of the alarmists on global warming, they got a problem cuz the science just doesn’t back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrates that the last 17 years there’s been zero warming. None whatsoever. It’s why—you remember how it used to be called global warming and then magically the theory changed to climate change? The reason is it wasn’t warming, but the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it’s not.

There’s so much wrong in what he said that it’s almost cartoonish. It’s a tour de force of wrongness.

Let’s go point by point.

First: It’s cold in New Hampshire! Yes, because global warming doesn’t mean the Earth is always hot. It still gets cold because we have seasons; the Earth’s axis is still tilted. This is a standard denier talking point meant to distract from the real issue. Cruz starting off with this line is a sure-fire way of knowing that he’s got his head firmly planted in the sand. As Stephen Colbert wrote, brilliantly mocking this kind of ridiculosity, "Global warming isn't real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate."

Next, Cruz is right in one sense; we should follow the science. But the real science, not the nonsense he’s saying. Real science doesn’t cherry-pick one result that appears (incorrectly) to back up an outrageous claim, but ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that this claim is dead wrong.

He says satellite data shows no warming. That is wrong, wrong, wrong. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, his saying this shows at best a gross misunderstanding of the data. And there is a vast amount of data from other sources showing the Earth is warming up. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in February 2015, “[n]ine of the past 12 months have been either warmest or second warmest on record for their respective months.” And 2014 was one of if not the hottest year on record.

But of all the bizarre nonsense Cruz said in that interview, what really got my teeth grinding was his comment about how it used to be called “global warming” but now we call it “climate change” because the evidence doesn’t support warming. That is at the level of weapons-grade irony. The idea to start calling it “climate change” came from a Republican strategist, in an effort to make it seem less threatening.

By saying that, Cruz has gone full Orwell: His own party made that change in phrase, but he’s accusing scientists of doing it.

Ted Cruz is a flat-out science denier. He’s unworthy of a leadership position, especially one that deals with science. Yet he’s chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing NASA, and he wants to run for president.

If there’s anything that can counteract global warming, it’s the chill in the air I feel from having to write that last paragraph.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

You Are Gopher Launch

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 09:00

After this morning’s post, we all need a Unicorn Chaser.

I don’t usually post cute animal videos, but this one is pretty dang cute and is at least marginally apropos of the blog: At the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome rocket launch site, a prairie dog made its home in the ground. Not just anywhere, though: Right in the middle of the rail tracks over which a monster transporter moves.

Someone put a pretty nice webcam on the side of the hole, facing the launch site, where a Proton rocket waits for launch!

(I suggest setting the playback to 2x the normal rate.)

I love how the rodent watches the people moving … until its observations are so rudely interrupted. Also, if you’re going to install a camera in an animal’s hidey hole, make sure it’s secured well!

By the way, a lot of sites are calling the animal a gopher, but it looks more like a prairie dog to me. If there are any varmint experts reading, I’m listening.

Tip o' the nose cone to Jason Davis via Emily Lakdawalla.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Fear Mongering in the NYT: Does Wearable Tech Cause Cancer?

Thu, 03/19/2015 - 04:00

tl;dr: There is zero direct evidence that wearable tech causes cancer. The indirect evidence ain’t too good, either.

I suppose it’s a natural human reaction to worry a bit when some new technology is announced. Will it hurt privacy rights? How will it affect the way people interact?

Will it give people cancer?

Of course, that last one will give you a frisson of fear, an unconscious and reflexive chill that bites the back of your brain before a more rational reaction can kick in.

The last time this happened was with cell phones, which we’ll get to in a moment. But with Apple’s announcement of their new watch, it’s not surprising at all that people might be concerned over any possible health impacts.

What does surprise me is that the New York Times would publish an article that is basically little more than fear-mongering about it. The article, written by Nick Bilton, uses classic pseudoscience techniques: Speculation based on insignificant evidence, wordplay to make things sound worse than they are, and relying on an “expert” who is anything but.

Let’s be clear: There is no direct evidence wearable tech will cause health problems like cancer. None. Bilton admits that pretty much up front, but then goes on to speculate based on health concerns over cell phones, and that’s where the article goes off the rails.

Bilton plays up a study released in 2011 by the World Health Organization, which looked into any possible connection between cell phone used and brain tumors. The first and foremost thing you need to keep in mind is that no definitive connection was found. There was some, very slight, evidence that there might be a connection, but statistically speaking it was indistinguishable from there being no connection at all.

Despite this, the WHO put cell phones on their list of potentially harmful products, specifically Group 2B: possible carcinogens. Why? Because while they couldn’t prove a connection between cell phone use and brain tumors, they couldn’t rule it out either. Hence “possible” carcinogen.

Note: Other Group 2B substances include pickled vegetables and coffee. So there you go.

Bilton cites this study, but says

After dissecting dozens of peer-reviewed studies on cellphone safety, the panel concluded in 2011 that cellphones were “possibly carcinogenic” and that the devices could be as harmful as certain dry-cleaning chemicals and pesticides. (Note that the group hedged its findings with the word “possibly.”)

Note he uses the word “hedged”, thus placing doubt into the reader’s mind. But he doesn’t include the necessary detail that no link was actually found. He also mentions a Swedish research study that seemed to show a connection, but as noted medical skeptic Orac points out, that’s the only study out of a great number that has seemed to see a connection. A lot of other studies don’t show a connection at all (here’s a great synopsis at the Mayo Clinic site). I’m not saying the Swedish study is wrong, but that it seems odd that no one else has ever found a statistically significant connection.

Bilton talked to the leader of that study, which is fine. He didn’t talk to any researchers who found no connection, though.

As another expert, Bilton talked to Joe Mercola. My jaw dropped when I read that. Let me be very clear here: Mercola is a quack. You can read about his background at Quackwatch, but a good thing to note is that in 2005 the FDA ordered him to stop making illegal claims about the “alternative medicine” Mercola sells through his website. They sent a second order in 2006. And another in 2011.

Mercola is anti-vax. He’s been a bully about it, too. He promoted and sponsored an anti-vax ad in Times Square a few years ago. But he has very basic misunderstandings about how vaccines work. He promotes the nonsense that is homeopathy.

More to the point, Mercola has also written a great many articles playing up the dangers of cell phones, and—shocker—sells products to minimize your exposure to cell phone radiation.

Bilton going to him as an expert on health is like going to Ken Ham as an expert on evolutionary biology.

I was rather surprised to see that Mercola didn’t immediately latch onto the idea that wearable tech is dangerous (though I’m sure, given time, he’ll be selling products to counteract its effects), but he does say,

But if you’re buying a watch with a cellular chip built in, then you’ve got a cellphone attached to your wrist.” And that, he said, is a bad idea [due to radiation from 3G connections].

Except, as I’ve pointed out, no real connection has ever been found. Sanity check: If the connection were as strong as Mercola and others claim, it should scream out in real world studies; hundreds of millions of people use cell phones. That’s a big sample size. Yet the incidence of brain cancers hasn’t risen.

The obvious conclusion from all this is that cell phones are not a risk here, and so extrapolating to wearable tech is completely groundless.

One more note: The very first paragraph of Bilton’s article recalls when doctors promoted cigarettes in the past. That is a classic pseudoscience technique: poisoning the well against science right away, trying to foment distrust of doctors and medicine. That’s not just bad writing; it’s downright irresponsible.

I expect this kind of thing from rags like the Daily Mail or other fact-free tabloids, but from the New York Times? Wow.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Orion: Going Deep

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 04:15

One of the most globally recognizable constellations in the sky is, undoubtedly, Orion. Straddling the equator of the sky, it can be seen from literally every point on Earth, and its resemblance to a human standing upright spans cultures. It’s a landmark (skymark?) in the early months of the year, up high at sunset, and a favorite among astronomers.

I’ve looked at it hundreds of times. Thousands. I've used my eyes, I’ve used binoculars, I’ve used a series of telescopes for decades to probe the wonders inside Orion’s boundaries.

And in all that time, with all that experience, I’ve never, ever seen it like this.

That ridiculously beautiful photograph is by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, a master’s master of astrophotography. It’s so complex, so detailed, so deep and crowded that it took me a moment to find the actual stars of Orion in it!

For the record, Orion is on its side here, with orange supergiant Betelgeuse to the lower left, mighty blue supergiant Rigel to the upper right, and the iconic belt in the center, pointing upper left to lower right.

I’m not even sure where to start. I mean, the Orion Nebula, one of the showpieces of the galaxy, is nearly hidden to the right of the belt, lost among the other treasures visible.

Perhaps the most obvious is the sweeping arc of red gas covering most of the picture. This is Barnard’s Loop, a tremendous shell of gas that may have been expelled by a supernova, an exploding star long ago (I’ve also read it could be gas blown out by young stars being born). The arc is at least a hundred light years across, possibly much larger, and excited into glowing by the hot, young, massive stars in the Orion nebula.

The large red flower-like cloud to the left is the Lambda Orionis nebula, a star-forming cloud centered on the supergiant star Lamba Orionis. The red glow (and in the loop as well) is from hydrogen gas. It’s probably about 130 light years in size.

There’s also the Flame Nebula just to the left of the lowest star in the belt, the Horsehead to the right, the Witch Head nebula stretching out almost horizontally above Rigel, and seriously dozens of more objects scattered hither and yon. The detail is stunning, Shocking.

Andreo made a similar mosaic that was so spectacular I chose it as my Number 1 astrophoto for 2010. This image is better. It's even deeper (a total of 220 hours of exposures!) and more detailed. It’s a masterpiece.

Perusing Andreo’s site, DeepSkyColors.com, will melt your brain. Every image there is jaw-dropping. You can also follow him on Facebook, where he discusses his astonishing photos. Looking for a gift? The Orion photo is available for printing, too. I bet a lot of folks would be very happy getting something like this as a present. I’ve never seen the like.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Space Invaders Invade Space!

Tue, 03/17/2015 - 08:45

I’m not trying to give away my age or anything here, but I remember seeing my first Space Invader console. At the time, the best you could do at home was playing Pong or some variant of it that involved a couple of dots and a line moving around on your screen, and believe me, it was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.

One day I was at a sci-fi convention (Disclave? Balticon? One of those) and saw a crowd of people in the dealer room. I walked over and saw them clustered around a standup console, and it was thumping ominously. I couldn’t see the screen, but the thumping got faster, and the people were cheering and clapping. What the heck …?

Once I saw the game I knew right then that everything was about to change. It was amazing. Of course, that seems like ancient history these days, but history has a way of coming back up on you … way, way up.

That is a picture of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti holding a mosaic tile on board the International Space Station. She’s in the cupola, which has windows facing in different directions, providing the exact kind of view a space invader would have shortly before landing on our fair blue world.

The tile is part of a series done by French artist known as Invader, and they appear all over the world. And now, I suppose, above it. Cristoforetti will use it as a way to inspire young children to create art by mixing geometry and colors, which I think is a fine thing to do.

And while it was fun for me and also a way to dump a couple of hundred kilos of quarters over the years, to kids these days that experience for me is history. Maybe this is a way to teach them that, too.

Previously in Slate:

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

An Astronomical Conversation

Tue, 03/17/2015 - 04:15

On Feb. 26, 2015, I had the pleasure of being a guest at the Florida Institute of Technology, to speak on stage with my friend and astronomer Hakeem Oluseyi. Hakeem is a professor there, and the idea was to have a public discussion about current topics in astronomy—not so much a talk by one person, but more of a guided conversation between two friends. It was moderated by FIT astronomer Dan Batcheldor.

We talked about the weird plumes or clouds seen in the upper atmosphere of Mars, a recent spate of fireballs seen across the country, and also the retraction of the BICEP2 observatory claim of seeing direct evidence of cosmic inflation. That was the idea, at least; of course given two garrulous astronomers who love astronomy and science, the talk was pretty free-range. We wandered a bit.

The entire talk (including the Q&A afterward) is available for your eyeballs:

Of all that, my favorite part is at the 1:26:30 mark, when two young girls (around 10 years old, maybe younger), asked a question I hear a lot: Why are we spending money on space when we have so many problems here on Earth? This is a very common question, and one that seems like a natural one, but it’s based on a false premise. Actually, two: One is that there isn’t enough money to do both, when in fact there is (we just choose to waste a lot of it on things that are not helping and which in fact are hurting us)

But the other false premise is that the money we spend on space doesn’t help us here on Earth. But the real case is that money we spend on space has a direct effect on everyone on Earth! It helps develop new technology with wide-ranging use, it stimulates the economy, and it helps us better understand our planet—the only one we have, and one on which we’re having a vast and profound impact.

I think it also does something intangible but also crucial: It inspires us. The beauty, the mystery, the sense of adventure … these are all things that tickle the backs of our brains, give us a sense of being alive, tell us of things greater than ourselves.

Humans could live our entire lives eating bland food, drudging through uncompelling work, plodding along one foot after another, our heads hung down and looking only as far forward as the next footstep.

Space exploration lifts our heads up. It shows us the sky, the stars, the Universe, an entire cosmos just begging us to learn more about it.

Humans are capable of greater things. Every once in a while, we just need to look up and be reminded of that.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Does Astrology Work? I’m Gonna Go With “No.”

Mon, 03/16/2015 - 08:30

Of all the pseudoscience still pervading the human brain, astrology is probably the oldest. As I point out in an episode of Crash Course Astronomy, millennia ago it kinda made sense; there were cycles to the stars and the seasons, and with our lives so tied to agriculture and weather, it was natural to suppose the stars affected us in other ways.

But now, after centuries of scientific investigation, we know better. Or we should. Apparently, we still don’t. Astrology still gets a lot of play in the media, despite having no good evidence for it and an overwhelming tsunami of evidence against it.

Still, here we are. For the lunar eclipse that occurred in October 2014, a reporter for Time magazine interviewed an astrologer on what the eclipse meant and passed the vague, ineffective advice on to the public. As you might imagine, I have something to say about that. So here’s Episode 2 of my new video series, “Bad Astronomy,” where I point out just why astrology doesn’t work, even more so in this specific case.

As a reminder, this will be a regular video series, going up every Monday. Next week we will be back to actual science, happily. And don’t forget to take a look at the first episode, too: “Surviving a Close Call With a Black Hole.”

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Politics Is Poisoning NASA's Ability to Do What It Needs to Do

Mon, 03/16/2015 - 04:00

Well, I told you so.

When Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was made head of Senate committee in charge of NASA’s funding, I (and many others) were appalled. Cruz is a science denier, flatly claiming global warming isn’t happening.

This is an issue, since many of NASA’s missions are directly focused on examining the amount, extent, and impact of that warming. And rightly so.

While Cruz may not be able to directly impact NASA’s budget, he can certainly make things difficult on the agency, and pressure others to change NASA’s emphasis. He made this very clear last week when he held a meeting with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden as a witness. Cruz opened the session asking Bolden about NASA’s core mission, a clear shot at the idea that they should be looking outwards, not down.

Throughout the session, Cruz downplayed Earth science, claiming that NASA has lost focus on exploring space. It’s clear everything he was saying came from his stance of global warming denial.

And that is utter nonsense, to be incredibly polite. Pure and simple.

Bolden shot back, saying, “We can't go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don't know it — and that's understanding our environment.” In other words, we must study the Earth and its changing climate. Studying our planet is at least as important as studying others.

Second, as Bolden also points out, NASA has been gearing up for doing more human exploration for some time now*. While I am not a fan of the Space Launch System rocket, it will certainly be able to lift a lot of payload into orbit and beyond (though at huge expense). And SpaceX is working on the Falcon Heavy, which will launch well before SLS gets off the ground, and will also be capable of heavy lifting. Its first demo launch will be in just a few months.

Over the years, NASA has had to beg and scrape to get the relatively small amount of money it gets—less than half a percent of the national budget—and still manages to do great things with it. Cruz is worried NASA’s focus needs to be more on space exploration. Fine. Then give them enough money to do everything in their charter: Explore space, send humans there, and study our planet. Whether you think climate change is real or not—and it is— telling NASA they should turn a blind eye to the environment of our own planet is insanity.

Bear in mind, too, Cruz has his sights set on the White House. That’s where NASA’s budget starts. Under a Cruz administration, NASA’s Earth Sciences program would be screwed.

There’s more. A few days before Cruz held his session, the House Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (which has NASA in its jurisdiction) also held a meeting with Bolden as a witness. The Chairman, John Culberson (R-Texas), is a friend of NASA; he was the one who fought for more money in NASA’s budget for a mission to Europa.

But even he holds some mistaken ideas about the agency. Right now, we depend on the Russians for access to the International Space Station, and given Russia’s current volatility (to say the least), Culberson asked Bolden what contingency plans NASA has if Russia decides to pull out.

Bolden said the only contingency we have is commercial flight to get humans into space. Culberson took issue with that:

Bolden: Had we gotten the funding that was requested when I first became the NASA administrator, we would have been all joyously going down to the Kennedy Space Center later this year to watch the first launch of some commercial spacecraft with our crew members on it. That day passed. And I came to this committee and I said over and over, if we don’t fund commercial crew…. Culberson: Had NASA not canceled the Constellation program we’d be ready to fly within 12 months. Bolden: Mr. Chairman that is not correct… whoever told you that, that is not correct.

Hearing Culberson say that makes me grind my teeth. The Constellation rocket system was way behind schedule and well over budget, and that’s why President Obama cancelled it, correctly in my opinion. If we had kept it going I’d bet we still wouldn’t be able to put people into space today. At least not without huge impact to NASA’s other capabilities, due to its fixed budget.

And Bolden is right. Over the years, the President’s NASA budget request for commercial flight has been slashed by Congress over and again (in FY 2012 it was cut by over 50 percent). If that money had instead gotten to NASA, we might very well already be celebrating the launch of Americans into space by an American rocket. Instead, here we are, dependent on the Russians.

Watching Congress grill NASA over what is Congress’s fault is frustrating to say the least.

I have issues with the President’s requests for NASA as well, and I’ve been vocal about them. But on the balance, it’s been Congress that has been slowly squeezing the life out of NASA’s ability to return to human spaceflight. And the shenanigans there still continue, since there has been a lot of political tomfoolery involving SLS, especially when it comes to SpaceX. I suggest Rep. Culberson talk to his colleagues about that before complaining to NASA that they can’t do what they’ve been mandated to do.

Look. NASA is the world’s premier space agency. Yes, I am an American, and yes, I say that with pride. Certainly, the European Space Agency is doing fantastic things, and will continue to do so, but NASA has done more, gone farther, and been more a source of inspiration than any other.

But the politics of funding a government agency is tying NASA in knots and critically endangering its ability to explore.

At one point in his meeting, Rep. Culberson said, “Everything NASA does is just pure good.” That’s a nice sentiment. It would even better if Congress and the White House would let them do it.

* Planetary missions are in trouble, though.

My thanks to NASA Press Secretary Lauren Worley for the budget numbers pertaining to commercial space flight.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

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