Bad Astronomy Blog

Chairman of Illusions

2 hours 24 min ago

Richard Wiseman is a psychologist and master of illusion. He delights in fooling your sense of perspective, memory, and overall perception. And he’s at it again, creating a lovely variation on a classic Beuchet chair illusion.

Some people say that Richard Wiseman and I look a lot alike. I’ll admit I occasionally refer to him as my evil twin, but then again sometimes I really don’t see it. After all, I’m apparently much, much taller than he is.

This sort of forced perspective is fun to read about. It’s a variation of the Ames room, a specially designed distorted room that is set up in a way to look normal but distorting objects in it. A lot of “Mystery Spot” type tourist traps use it.

I wrote about another variation of this sort of thing a while back, for a video that tricks you in more ways than one:

It’s so easy to fool our brains! Remember, what you see is not always what you get. And when you hear someone making an extraordinary claim, saying, “I know what I saw!” you can bet they really don’t.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Sentinel-1A Satellite Slammed by Space Debris

Fri, 09/30/2016 - 06:00

Space debris is a growing problem. Space is big—as many of us like to say, that’s why we call it “space”—but over time collisions are inevitable. This can have catastrophic consequences, including the loss of a satellite … and if the collision is violent enough it can create even more debris, increasing the hazard over time.*

Large collisions are very rare, because big objects are few. But there are vastly more smaller objects in space than big ones, making smaller collisions more common. In fact, on Aug. 23, the European Space Agency satellite Sentinel-1A suffered an impact from a small object, probably just a few millimeters across, which slammed into one of its solar panels and left a visible dent nearly a half meter across.

The impact was noticed immediately by ground controllers; the amount of electricity from the panels getting to the spacecraft dropped by a few percent, the orientation of the spacecraft suddenly shifted, and the orbit changed a slight amount as well. An impact was suspected, and images taken by onboard cameras quickly confirmed the collision.

The damage is minimal, so the spacecraft is fine (the amount of power loss is small, onboard attitude control fixed the orientation, and the orbit is adjusted every week anyway). It’s no surprise the solar panel was hit, because they are the largest component of the spacecraft and present the biggest target. Had the main spacecraft been hit, though, it could have resulted in serious damage.

One thing that’s not clear is if the impactor was actual space debris (that is, human-made debris from another spacecraft) or a micrometeorite from deep space. Micrometeorites travel much more rapidly (more than 20 km/s versus perhaps 12 for space debris), so a smaller bit can make a bigger hole. According to the telemetry and the images, the impactor came in from the direction the spacecraft is moving. That strongly implies it was space debris in a similar polar orbit to Sentinel-1A; micrometeorites can come in from any direction and so an alignment with the satellite’s orbit would be highly unlikely.

I’ll note that space debris larger than a few centimeters across is tracked from the ground, but something the size of a grain of sand or a small pebble is far too small to be detected. That makes them very dangerous, but it’s not clear what can be done about them. There are plans to clean up larger debris, but smaller debris remains an issue.

It’s interesting that images were taken of the damage. Sentinel-1A is equipped with cameras, but they were only used to observe the solar panels unfolding after the satellite was first launched, and then they were turned off. They were turned back on after the impact to see if any damage was visible. It wouldn’t surprise me if more satellites were equipped this way in the future. There have been many cases where debris collisions have been suspected to cause satellite anomalies, but without pictures it’s hard to be sure.

The good news is that Sentinel-1A is OK. In fact the very next day after the collision it was used to survey Italy from space after a massive earthquake struck that country, and the observations are helping scientists understand the ground movement after the event.

Engineers and space scientists take the problem of debris collisions seriously, though it may be a while before real solutions are evident. Until then, the best we can do is hope our birds don’t get hit. I’m just glad Sentinel-1A survived its encounter.

*See the documentary Gravity, Bullock, S. and Clooney., G, 2013

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Elon Musk Wants to Put a Million People on Mars

Thu, 09/29/2016 - 06:05

It’s no secret that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. This week, he showed how he — and a lot more people— just might do it.

At the International Aeronautical Conference in Mexico on Tuesday —and after teasing it for many months— he finally revealed his vision for the future of SpaceX, and possibly humanity. It involves a big rocket, a big spaceship, a big fleet, and big money.

Perhaps you sense a theme here. Bigness.

He calls it the Interplanetary Transport System (or ITS), and he’s not thinking small: He claims this plan can lead to a city on Mars of a million people or more, and it could be well on its way in less than a century. It’ll take thousands upon thousands of individual rocket flights.

What he and his company are planning is not in any way easy, and as he himself pointed out with characteristic understatement in a press conference after the announcement, “A lot of things have to go right.”

Yes indeed. So what exactly has to go right to put humanity on the Red Planet?

The Hardware

The plan is to use an enormous rocket, comfortably larger than the Saturn V that sent humans to the Moon, topped with a spaceship that can hold as many as 100 people. It will go to orbit, be refueled using multiple launches, blast its way to Mars, enter the atmosphere using aerodynamic braking to slow, then eventually land on its tail.

SpaceX put together a pretty dramatic animation of the basic flight:

Watching that I felt like I was seeing an updated version of movies I used to watch as a kid. But having thought it over, I have to say that what Musk is planning is doable. Yes, seriously. The engineering challenge is formidable, but technically possible.

There are four critical engineering steps needed to make all this a reality: The rocket must be fully reusable, the spaceship (the section that will actually go to Mars with people and supplies) must be refilled with fuel and oxygen on orbit, the right propellant must be used, and there must be a means of making that propellant on Mars itself.

None of these is easy. Not by a long shot. But they are possible.

First, the rocket. The as-yet unnamed booster is beefy. It’ll be 122 meters tall and about 12 meters wide (the Saturn V was 111 x 10 meters in size). That’s big. But it’s the thrust that shocked me: It’s planned to have a staggering 13,000 tons (29 million pounds) of thrust. The Saturn V —still to this day the most powerful rocket ever launched— had a thrust of 3,500 tons (7.5 million pounds). The SpaceX booster will have a thrust 3.5 times as much as that.

Thrust is one way to characterize how much stuff you can throw into space. This booster will be able to throw a lot. It should lift about 500 tons into Earth orbit, which is a huge payload. The heaviest payload the Space Shuttle took to orbit, the Chandra Observatory, had a mass of about five tons.

That huge thrust is good, because the Mars spaceship will be huge, too. Measuring about 50 meters long and 19 wide, it’ll be so heavy that even the enormous booster won’t be able to put it into orbit by itself. After the booster drops away, the spaceship (again, also as-yet unnamed) will use its own engines to get the rest of the way to orbit, using most of its fuel doing so.

That means the spaceship will have to be refueled. Or, as Musk put it, “refilled”; it’ll need fuel and oxygen used to burn the fuel. That’ll need more rocket launches, which in turn means the booster must be reusable. Like the Falcon 9 first stage, which has now been successfully relanded a half dozen times, after boosting the spaceship as fast and high as it can the giant rocket will turn around, slow, descend, and then land itself back at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Musk notes that they’re getting pretty good at this with the Falcon 9, and each landing is more accurate.

The ITS booster could be back on the pad after as little as 20 minutes. It’ll be inspected, and if it’s good to go a tanker full of fuel and oxidizer will be mated to it. The tanker is basically the same design as the spaceship itself (redundant designs save a lot of money and time to develop). It’ll launch into orbit, meet up with the spaceship, mate, and transfer the fuel. This may have to be done several times to give the ship enough fuel to get to Mars.

Once that’s all done, the spaceship leaves Earth orbit, accelerates to interplanetary speed, coasts for a few months, then arrives at Mars. Like the Space Shuttle Orbiters, it will slam into the Mars atmosphere and use drag to slow it down —parachutes for a ship this size are impractical— and then use its engines to land on its tail, just like in those old movies.

But we’re not quite done. To make the spaceship fully reusable (to save on cost per flight), it will need to tank back up and return to Earth (perhaps with people and supplies if needed). To do that, it’ll need to make its own fuel.

This part of the plan is probably the hardest, technologically speaking. The rocket and spaceship will use a new engine SpaceX calls Raptor (the first test model has already been built and underwent a test firing just the other day). It will be more powerful than the Merlins currently used by the Falcon 9, and will use extremely cold liquid methane for fuel. This has some advantages over currently fuels; while tricky to design the engine it does allow for more thrust  and a bigger rocket, but most importantly it can be made on Mars! There’s lots of water there in the form of ice, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Using various methods, these can be processed into methane to make more fuel.

So there you go. Easy peasy, right?


Some Issues

There are some issues with this. For one, we’re not really sure how to make the fuel on Mars, or how much it will cost. The chemistry of it is understood, but in practical terms the ice has to be mined, purified, and processed, and all that has to be done in quantity. That’ll take a lot of machinery, and a whole lot of robust engineering to make sure it works right. Repairs will be difficult until the base becomes sufficient.

Nothing this large has ever been attempted before, either. Despite recent setbacks, SpaceX has been doing pretty well with the Falcon 9, and has learned a lot about bringing boosters back, making reusable vehicles, and the like.

But there’s a helluva long way to go to get to the point where this huge rocket can be built. They need to learn how to do autonomous docking in space (that’ll be tested next year with the Dragon capsule berthing to the space station). They need to relaunch a used booster, and not just once, but multiple times. And of course, SpaceX still hasn’t sent any humans to space.

I’m not saying any of those are show stoppers. Just that this is a long, long road, and SpaceX is just now pulling onto it.

Still, I have some bigger concerns. For example, a trip to Mars using the ITS will take roughly 80 - 140 days (Mars has an elliptical orbit, so sometimes the dance of the planets brings it closer to Earth than other times, so this is an average). This raises the danger of radiation. Normally this isn’t all that big a deal; in interplanetary space levels are low. But if there’s a solar storm like a flare, this can send deadly waves of subatomic particles racing into space. If such an event occurs, astronauts will have to be protected.

Musk was remarkably cavalier about this, saying it’s not that big a deal. I disagree; it’s something engineers will have to plan for, especially given the sheer number of flights planned. Over 10,000 trips, the odds of a ship getting hit are very high indeed. Water is an excellent shield, and the ships will need plenty of it, so designing the transport to use it that way would be beneficial.

There’s also the issue of recycling air and water, and how that many people will get along for the months of hopefully uneventful travel through interplanetary space.

Also, it’s not clear to me what will happen when the first ships get to Mars. They’ll need protection from dust storms, from radiation, and also just a place to live. I know that this isn’t the kind of thing this presentation was meant to cover in detail, but some mention would’ve been nice to hear. If Musk really wants a million people to live on Mars, those first few will need shelter.

Mars Needs Money

Also, how this enormous undertaking will be financed is a bit hazy. Musk said that SpaceX is funding this right now, spending a few tens of millions of dollars per year on research. The Raptor engines have been funded privately, though recently the Air Force kicked in some dough). Eventually, once the final designs of the Falcon 9 are implemented, the company will spend more resources on it. They still need to get the Falcon Heavy off the ground as well, which hopefully will happen next year.

The cost of developing and launching the ITS are formidable: It’ll cost over $500 million just to manufacture a single rocket, spaceship, and tanker. Even if it’s reused many times, this is still a lot of cash, especially when you remember that he wants to launch thousands of these things.

SpaceX obviously can’t do it alone, and Musk said he hopes NASA and private companies can pitch in. There is some reason to do so; the engineering will be very useful and easy to spin off, and NASA is very interested in data SpaceX generates. The company is making money on contracts now, and heavy lift vehicles like the Falcon Heavy and the ITS booster could turn a profit for the company.

I strongly suspect that the ITS will cost far less than NASA’s Space Launch System, too, which will cost over a billion per flight (and is not reusable). SLS hasn’t been built or launched yet, so we’ll have to see how it will compare to ITS. Musk hopes to complete the initial development of the first ITS booster in 2020, and send people to Mars in about 10 years or so.

That’s possible. SpaceX has plans to send an uncrewed Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018, though realistically, given inevitable delays, they may have to wait until the 2020 apparition to launch (the same year NASA will send the Mars 2020 rover there, too). Musk wants to send people to Mars by 2024 as well.

But we’re talking a lot of money, at least a $10 billion investment before money starts to be made back. Musk talked about the cost per person to go to Mars as a way to judge the efficacy of this, and more than once talked about people “buying a ticket” for $100,000 to $200,000. It’s possible he might sell some, given that it could be a round trip, but I’m not sure people will pony up that kind of money to go live on Mars until it’s a viable habitat.

So, Will This Work or Not?

So what’s the bottom line? Is this possible?

The answer is yes, it’s certainly possible. But is it doable?

That one I’m not sure about. I think it very well may be, but again fortune will have to smile down a lot on Musk and SpaceX.

Still. Musk has pulled a rabbit out of his space helmet more than once in the past. SpaceX was nearly bankrupt when it finally got a Falcon 1 rocket off the ground, and showed it could go to space. The loss of a vehicle in 2015 slowed but did not stop them, and neither will the more recent Falcon 9 loss. SpaceX has built up quite a bit of momentum, and the Falcon 9 is still operating above a 90 percent success rate. And their ability to develop their own engines and bring a booster back from space is very, very impressive (Blue Origin is doing this as well).

While I can’t say for 100 percent sure we’ll be seeing people going to Mars on a rocket with SpaceX’s logo on the side using the ITS… I wouldn’t bet against Musk.


And finally, there’s one more question: Why do this? What motivates Musk?

As he said at the announcement:

It would be an incredible adventure. I think it would be the most inspiring thing that I can possibly imagine. And life needs to be more than just solving problems every day. You need to wake up and be excited about the future. And be inspired, and want to live.

I agree. And while some people have quoted him as saying he “wants to die on Mars”, when I talked to him in 2015 about this he waved off this as a bit of headline link bait. Then why go, I asked him.

“Humans need to be a multiplanet species,” he replied.

I agree with that as well. It’ll happen, inevitably, if we choose to make it happen. Musk has made his choice. I hope it pays off. It very well might.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

The First Photo of the Sun

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 06:00

I was doodling about on the internet reading about various astronomical topics—as I do sometimes, and I highly recommend it—and stumbled upon an interesting fact: The first photograph of the Sun was taken on April 2, 1845.

The photo, shown above, was made by French physicists Hippolyte Fizeau and Léon Foucault. They used a daguerreotype, what was really the first kind of photography; a metal plate was treated with chemicals that made it light-sensitive, exposed to a scene, then treated with different chemicals to stop the exposure.

That vintage photo of the Sun shows our star’s relatively sharp edge as well as a handful of sunspots. The spots are pretty big, roughly as wide as Jupiter (for comparison, the Sun is 1.4 million kilometers across).

I was pretty surprised to see the date, though. Why? Because this came five years after the first photograph of the Moon!

The exact date of the first lunar photo is unclear (many attempts were made, with varying results, and apparently some were mislabeled) but chemist John Draper announced he had made the accomplishment on March 23, 1840. At least one photo from around that date still exist, so the claim is probably acceptable.

I would naïvely think the Sun’s portrait would be taken before the Moon’s, since it’s brighter and therefore shorter exposures were necessary. But in fact that may have been the issue; remember, this was more than 170 years ago, and the mechanism to take a very short exposure may have been difficult to create. It’s far easier to take, say, a two or three second exposure than one that’s a fraction of a second if you lack the engineering to make the latter. The solar photograph above had an exposure time of 1/60th of a second.

Once the two brightest objects in the sky were captured on photographic plates, though, fainter ones followed. Although I’ve seen different dates listed, it’s generally accepted that on Sept. 30, 1880, astronomer Henry Draper (John’s son) took the first photograph of the iconic Orion Nebula. How far we’ve come—the same photo can be taken easily and in moments using a phone cam held up to a small telescope.

I dabbled in astrophotography when I was in high school (I rolled my own Tri-X film and developed it in my bathroom, for those of you who speak 20th-century photography nerd), and that led to a somewhat meandering path to eventually working on processing images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and calibrating a camera launched into space and placed in the venerable observatory in 1997. Even now I still love it when I can get a decent shot of an astronomical object with my own equipment.

What progress we’ve made since the 1800s! Professional observatories peering deep into the Universe, and “amateur” astronomers create jaw-dropping and scientifically interesting images. It’s thrilling, and it never stops being thrilling.

I tip my lens cap and dew shield to Fizeau, Foucault, Drapers 1 and 2, and all the others who pioneered this field. They may not have realized what they started, and that, nearly two centuries later, their work would still be known, respected, and recognized as one of the most important scientific advances in history.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Astrophoto: Dusty Star Birth and Future Spectacular Death in the Swan

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 07:14

Judy Schmidt is a wonder.

She’s an amateur astronomer who loves to play with astronomical images from big observatories, and when she does, the results are, well, wondrous.


That is an area of the sky in Cygnus, the constellation of the Swan (also called the Northern Cross), and shows a region called Cyg X, and I hadn’t heard of it before seeing that glorious image. Cya X is a dense molecular cloud very roughly 3,000 to 4,000 light-years away. Molecular clouds are vast complexes of cold gas and dust that can form stars. A more famous example is the Orion Molecular Cloud, in which sits the magnificent Orion Nebula.

Orion is well-known because massive stars recently formed near the edge of it facing Earth, and they ate their way through the wall of the cloud. Bursting forth, the thinner gas from the erupted blister reveals the luminous stars therein.

But Cyg X is more subtle. Stars are forming, but they haven’t blown through the thicker dust, so the cloud is dark to our eyes. But not to the eyes of WISE and Spitzer, space telescopes that took the images Schmidt used to make this picture. Knots and tendrils of dust, warmed by stars deeply embedded within, litter the view. The details in the cloud are lovely (and she created a whopping 10,000 x 7,600 pixel version that’ll keep your eyes busy for a long time).

Schmidt notes one peculiarity: the bright red ring to the left and below center. That is the star G79.29+0.46, what astronomers call a Luminous Blue Variable. These are a class of rare, very massive stars. The amount of energy a star generates depends on its mass, and these stars are so huge that they are ridiculously luminous; so energetic that they can barely hold themselves together under the onslaught of photons. They are on the edge of literally tearing themselves apart.

That makes them unstable, and prone to outbursts. The most famous example is Eta Carinae, a star roughly 8,000 light-years away that is nevertheless visible to the naked eye. In the 1800s it underwent a vast paroxysm, erupting with so much energy it was just this side of a supernova, and blowing out two expansing lobes of gas with as much mass as our entire Sun.

G79.29+0.46 is actually much closer than Eta Car, less than 4,000 light-years distant, but apparently its luminosity is dimmed by all the dust. Still, two eruptions in its past are apparent; they formed the two rings you can see in Schmidt’s image. These occurred something like 10,000 and 30,000 years or so ago, each launching shells of gas expanding rapidly away from the star. They swept up material in the cloud, compressing it, and forming soap bubble-like shells that look like rings from our perspective.

Someday—probably not more than a million years from now, perhaps much less—G79.29+0.46 will run out of fuel in its core and explode. I wonder how bright the resulting supernova will be? From that distance a typical supernova would be many times brighter than Venus in our sky, visible even in daytime! But in this case the dust will dim the event, but I’m not sure by how much. It may not even be visible to the naked eye at all.

Happily (assuming it happens soon) we have telescopes far better than our eyes to pierce the veil of dust, and we’ll be able to see the explosion very well. It may be the closest supernova we’ve had for millennia. I hope those astronomers in the future appreciate what they witness, and enjoy studying one of the most amazing events the Universe has to offer. Until then, and for now, we’ll just have to look upon Schmidt’s images of that region of the sky and gape in awe.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Passing a Kidney Stone Can Be a Real Roller Coaster Ride

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 06:00

I am not a doctor. Well, I am, but not the doctor doctor kind. So I don’t usually report on medical stuff (with the exception of vaccines, of course)… but when I read this headline from a press release about a particular research paper, I knew right away I simply had to write about it:

“Researchers find certain roller coasters may help small kidney stones pass”

I know, right? And the story itself is pretty wonderful.*

I’m not sure I can write it better than the press release did:

The foundational study was designed to validate the effectiveness of a 3D printed model kidney used in the research, led by a Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine professor of urology. Dr. David D. Wartinger, currently professor emeritus, initiated the study when a series of patients reported passing kidney stones after riding the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Walt Disney World in Orlando. In one case, a patient said he passed one kidney stone after each of three consecutive rides on the roller coaster.

OK, first, and again, I’m not a doctor so I’m not really in a position to analyze the accuracy of the research (though see the note at the end of this article). But, let’s assume for the moment that it’s good; the paper makes the usual caveats about preliminary findings supporting the anecdotal evidence.

But that’s what I like straight away about this: A doctor listened to his patients, heard their stories, got curious, and decided to look into the situation. That right off the bat is something I like to hear.

But then it’s how he tested things that slays me. Wartinger and a colleague used 3D printing to make a silicone model of one of the patient’s kidneys (based on tomographic scans). They then —and get this— filled it with urine and put actual kidney stones of various sizes into it, placing one each in the upper, middle, and lower passageways.

Right? But it gets better:

The researchers, who had permission from the park, kept the kidney model concealed in a backpack during 20 rides on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Researchers then analyzed those 60 ride outcomes to determine how the variables of kidney stone volume, location in the kidney and model position in the front versus rear of the roller coaster impacted kidney stone passage.

It’s OK if you want to read that again. To wit: They got permission from the park, stuffed the kidney model into a backpack, and then, unbeknownst to any other park celebrants, rode with the kidney on a roller coaster.

I hope they bought it some cotton candy first.

I love the idea of medical researchers going on a roller coaster with a fake silicone kidney filled with urine and actual crystals, probably enjoying the ride and screaming at the fun parts, getting off, checking the model, rotating and squeezing the model to reposition the stones… and riding the coaster again.

And then doing it again 18 more times.

And yes, they got some results: 64 percent of the time a stone passed if they sat in the back of the coaster, and about 17 percent of the time one passed if they sat in the front. That result was independent of the size of the stone or where it was in the fake model silicone kidney.

Mind you, from the writeup, this sounds like real science. They observed something, hypothesized an explanation, tested it, and varied their tests to measure the results better. They then conclude their results support the observations, though they don’t say it’s proof. But all in all this doesn’t sound too bad, and if these results pan out it could prove pretty useful to people who have small to moderate sized stones. At the very least, it does seem to indicate further testing would be useful, including using actual kidneys for the experiment (silicone is not a perfect representative of tissue, after all; and in fact the purpose of this research was to see how well the model behaved in the first place).

So I guess I really only have one question: When they got their results, did they exclaim, “Urea!”?

* NB: The research described was done by an osteopath and will appear in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Osteopathy is a form of alternative medicine, and while some of it uses rigorous medical procedure, there is a lot of quackery involved in the field as well. A whole lot. In the US, where this research was done, there appears to be higher scientific standards for osteopathy, though some is still suspect. Caveat lector et emptor. I’ll note that the research described seems legit; the careful mention of preliminary results supporting the anecdotal evidence gives me some degree of relief that this is not too extraordinary a claim. If there’s a doctor or other expert out there who disagrees, please let me know. You can reach me at

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

No, NASA Didn’t Change Your Astrological Sign

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 06:00

Seriously? This again?

Over the weekend I started seeing links to articles claiming that NASA has changed the signs of the zodiac. I knew immediately what this was about, even as I was scratching my head about a) how this is news, and 2) how short people’s memories are.

I found a few articles about this NASA “news” here and there; there's one on Yahoo that has the headline, “Your Astrological Sign Just Changed, Thanks to NASA”. The first paragraph alone is burdened with quite a few scientific errors:

We don’t want to be dramatic, but NASA just ruined our lives. For the first time in 3,000 years, they’ve decided to update the astrological signs. This means that the majority of us are about to experience a total identity crisis. Apparently, these changes are due to the fact that the constellations are not in the same position in the sky that they once were, and the star signs are about a month off now, as a result. To further confuse things, there is now a new, 13th sign, called Ophiuchus, which those born between November 29 and December 17 are lucky enough to have to learn to pronounce.

Cripes. No, no, and no. First off, NASA did not “update the astrological signs”. Second, the constellations haven’t changed. And third, Ophiuchus is an ancient constellation, identified by the Greeks thousands of years ago.

So what’s the deal? Well, before we even get started, keep this in mind: Astrology isn’t science; it’s nonsense. It’s been tested ten ways to Sunday and every time it fails. Even astrologers have come up with tests for it, and it’s failed those. Astrology doesn’t work.

Despite that, lots of people believe in it. That’s why I wrote a lengthy and detailed debunking of astrology.

So what’s the deal with this recent silliness? It has to do with the zodiac. As I wrote in an article on the zodiac:

The planets, including the Earth, orbit the Sun on pretty much the same plane (from the side, the solar system’s planets’ orbits look flat). From the Earth, it looks like the Sun moves around us once per year. The path it takes across the sky is the same year after year, and we call this the ecliptic. The planets all move across the sky in that same path, too. So, like clockwork, the Sun passes into the same constellations at a certain time every year. You know the names of these constellations: Sagittarius, Libra, Scorpius, Aries, Gemini … the constellation of the zodiac, or, if you prefer, the zodiacal constellations.

These 12 zodiacal constellations have been recognized in one way or another around the world, though most countries (and the International Astronomical Union) have adopted a modified version of them known to the ancient Babylonians and Greeks.

The thing is, there are more than 12 constellations the Sun can pass through. Some are smaller, or have fainter stars, so they get ignored. The biggest is Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, which is a huge constellation taking up quite a bit of celestial real estate, and in fact the Sun spends more time in Ophiuchus than Scorpius! Scorpius has brighter stars, and an obvious scorpion-like shape, so it gets better press.

So no, NASA didn’t add in Ophiuchus, or change the zodiac, or anything like that. It’s been around this whole time, but it’s been ignored by astrologers. They’re the ones who should take the blame for all this, not actual, real scientists who don’t even think astrology is worth wrapping fish in anyway.

Worse, there aren’t really 13 zodiacal constellations. By some counts, there are as many as 21! Not only that, but the Earth wobbles like a top, very slowly, and over centuries that changes the dates the Sun is in a given constellation. If you were born in late March in ancient Greece you would’ve been an Aries. Today, you’d be a Pisces.

Given that astrology is based on all this, shouldn’t they at least get their basic facts straight before trying to influence your life?

Finally, why is this suddenly news? This is the final irony here. This new foofooraw got started, apparently, due to an article on a NASA site for kids called SpacePlace. I like this site a lot and refer quite a few parents and teachers to it. It has simple explanations written at a level for children to understand, and it’s fun and accurate.

The SpacePlace article, Constellations and the Calendar, has been around a while but was recently updated in January 2016, which may have caught some astrology believer’s eye. The article —well worth your time to read— talks about how the zodiac constellations are defined, and how, over time, they’ve changed (as I described above). Apparently, someone didn’t read it very carefully, or didn’t understand it, and wrote that NASA had changed the zodiac. So, yeah. Wow.

But this isn’t even the first time this sort of thing has happened: Almost exactly the same story bubbled up in 2011!

You can’t keep a good piece of pseudoscience down. It’s like a zombie, always rising again.

You know what also rises? The Sun. And when it does, it’ll be because the Earth is spinning, and orbiting around it, and we’ll see the stars and planets and moons doing their thing. And we’ll study them with science and learn their ways, and if people who believe in astrology want to keep looking to the past, well, let ‘em. As long as they promise to remember it.

And that reminds me: In one sense, astrology is correct. There is a group of people whose lives are affected by the stars and planets: Astronomers. And if I can help spread that particular love, then I’ll be more than happy to.

P.S. Another article about this, written by astrologers in September 2016, once again tries to blame NASA for all this. As icing on the cake, they end the article with this gem: “Here’s a deal, NASA: We won’t meddle with the next space shuttle mission if you stop giving the world another astrological identity crisis.”  Just a note: The Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Infinity Squared: An Astonishing Time-Lapse Animation Of the Night Sky

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 06:00

Ben Canales is an amazing astrophotographer, specializing in time-lapse animations of the night sky (see, for example, this, this, and this).

He recently got his hands on a Canon MH20f-SH: A ridiculously sensitive camera capable of a stunning four million ISO! Even at 400,000 ISO it’s able to capture light so faint that it can be used to take passably well-lit video even at night… including the very dark night skies of an Oregon Star Party taken during the 2016 Perseid meteor shower.

Canales followed a score of high school students who went to the star party to experience the sky for themselves, and what he produced out of that night is, simply put, magical. Watch to the very end, and please, listen to what those students are saying.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick what my favorite part of this video is, but this comes close:

… you feel so small, but at the same time you know that there’s so much out there. [struggling for words] It’s… it’s… it’s kinda like unexplainable unless you’re out here yourself, [and] people should come out here and see this for themselves, it’s absolutely incredible.

Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I can wax poetical about the profound beauty of the night sky for a long time, but it’s a pale shadow of what it is to go out there be out there.

I know that 2016 has not been the best year for so many of us, but if you need a bit of joy and awe and the sense that there truly are greater things —and if you are physically capable of it— I urge you to find a dark spot and contemplate the cosmos. You’ll be better for it.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Shaking Hands with Pele

Fri, 09/23/2016 - 06:00

Our world is extraordinary.

Of all the planets, ours alone has a surface driven by tectonics*. Under the relatively thin crust lies a layer of incredibly hot rock under unimaginable pressures. The physics of this material is so bizarre and so extreme that solid rock can behave in some ways like a liquid, with hot material rising and cooler stuff sinking… though it only creeps along at something like two centimeters per year.

But move it does, driven by the heat of the Earth’s core below it, powered itself by four sources: radioactive decay, leftover heat from the planet’s formation billions of years ago, heavier material sinking down to the core, and the squeeze of gravity on all of this. As the hot material of the mantle slowly convects upward, it can punch through the thin solid crust of our planet, forming volcanoes.

I’ve visited many volcanoes in my years, including the monstrous Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Twice before I’ve stood near the rim of the crater Halema’u’ma’u, watching the plume of sulfur dioxide blowing up from a lava pool down deep in the throat of the vent. But I’ve never seen the lava itself… until just the other day.

That photo shows the view from the Jagger Museum, located roughly two kilometers from the vent (you can see a live web cam on the Hawaii Volcano Observatory page). I used binoculars to magnify the shot, and you can see the glowing lava clearly. Usually the surface of the lava lake is too far down the vent to see, but for the past few days pressure from below has driven it up to just below the rim. It’s a little hard to tell, but the yellow layer of rock is the rim, stained by sulfur fumes. The lava lake is about 15 meters below it, and the lava you can see in the shot was fountaining up as high as the rim itself.

I stood in awe watching this. That’s liquid rock, far denser than water, hundreds and thousands of tons of it launched into the air as gases from below drove it skyward. The forces below our feet are immense.

The volcano is littered with ancient lava flows, active steam vents (water from rain seeps down into the rock, gets heated by the magma below, and blasts back up as steam; standing in it feels like the Earth itself is exhaling on you), and in some cases dead pit craters, like Devil’s Throat:

This probably started as a cavern, but the walls collapsed, widening it and creating sheer vertical cliffs. It’s about 50 meters across and the same deep. It’s not a perfect circle, but the curve to the wall is obvious, as is the layering. That’s not sedimentary layering like you’d see in the American southwest; no such thing has happened on the Big Island. In this case, the layering is from dozens, hundreds of volcanic eruptions, each sending lava coursing away from the volcano. Everywhere you go on Hawaii you can see this same sort of thing.

It’s a stark reminder that the entire island is a gigantic volcano. Five of them, actually (Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Kohala, and Hualālai). Lava flows crisscross each other, some dark —these are generally fresher, only decades old— and some brown or redder, oxidized as they age, getting quite literally rusty.

Hawaii is known for its lush climate and biology, of course. Some of the plant and animal life is natural, coming to the island by wind, water, or wings, and some brought by humans for good or ill. But when you see the vast fields of sharp aa or rolling pahoehoe lava, it’s even more incredible to think anything can get a toehold here. But, as some people like to say, life finds a way.

I’ve been in Hawaii over this past week with friends and family, and as we've traveled along together our tour guides regaled us with colorful stories of native Hawaiian legends, most of which are richly layered “just so” stories to explain the volcano, the life on it, and other aspects of the islands. I’ve really enjoyed hearing all these tales, which —though perhaps more metaphorical than the scientific explanations—are wonderful and poetic. Pele, the goddess of the volcano, features prominently in them, capricious and powerful. Seeing the lava fountain and the force of the lava for myself, I can understand why the stories describe her so.

I work from home most times, and it’s easy to get overly focused on the day to day work, buried in the things that must be done, and to forget what an astonishing and amazing and awe-inspiring place we live on.

It’s worth remembering that, though. You need not travel far to experience it; the entire planet has something to offer if you simply look at it the right way. I hope that in whatever way you can, you take the time to do it.

* If you want to call Pluto a planet, then a case can be made for at least some of its surface responding to such forces as well, though under somewhat different circumstances.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

An Exploding Volcano Slowed Global Warming. Briefly.

Thu, 09/22/2016 - 06:00

As our planet warms up, the sea level is rising. This seems obvious; ice is melting from Antarctica and Greenland at a rate of several hundred billion tons per year, dumping all that water into the ocean. Less obvious is the fact that as water warms, it expands. Warmer water takes up more volume than cooler water, so as the oceans absorb the majority of heating of the planet, they expand, and that actually is a bigger effect on sea level rise than ice melting.

But another effect is that as the Earth warms, the rate at which ice melts and the oceans expand will increase, too. That means that if you look in the past, you’d expect sea level to be rising at a certain rate, but if you look at it more recently, that rate will be larger. If it rose at, say, 2 millimeters/year some time ago, it may be rising at 3 millimeters/year now.

That’s important. If you’re looking at the effects of sea level rise on coastal development and population over the next century, the difference in rates means your prediction could be off by several centimeters if you’re not doing the math correctly. That’s a huge difference, like the difference between flooding only during a storm surge and constant flooding.

For decades, scientists used tidal gauges (usually near coastlines) to measure sea level. In 1992, the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite was launched, using sophisticated techniques to measure it far more accurately. Scientists expected the satellite to easily detect the sea level rise acceleration after just a few years of observation.

To everyone’s surprise, though, they didn’t. The rate at which the global sea level was rising was steadier than expected. Were the global warming predictions off?

New research has finally solved this mystery: The predictions were fine. The problem was Pinatubo, and bad timing.

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted. More like exploded: It was the second largest volcanic event of the 20th century, blasting hundreds of millions of tons of ash, gas, and aerosols (particles suspended in air) into the atmosphere. This had the effect of cooling our planet a bit; the particles reflected incoming sunlight, reducing global warming.

It’s not a huge effect, but it was enough that it changed our climate. Cooler land meant less ice melting, and cooler oceans meant the thermal expansion was abated somewhat. That in turn meant sea levels actually went down, by as much as six or seven millimeters!

That sounds like good news, but it was temporary. Within a few years our warming planet took hold again, and sea levels began to rise once more as the waters heated up and ice melting returned to previous rates.

But it happened just before TOPEX/Poseidon launched. So when the satellite started taking measurements, it saw a faster than usual sea level rise as the Earth recovered from the volcanic event; the normal acceleration due to global warming plus the recovery of the sea levels after the eruption. Weirdly, that masked the effects of global warming a little bit, throwing off estimates.

Because the levels were going up faster than usual, it looks like the rate of sea level rise has dropped in the past decade. In the 10 years after TOPEX/Poseidon launched, it saw sea level rise at 3.5 millimeters/year ever year, but then, over the subsequent decade, the rate dropped to 2.7 millimeters/year every year.

In a sense this is good news. Well, not as bad news: Global warming is increasing sea levels by a lower rate than once thought.

But this is still pretty bad news, because we don’t want global warming to be causing sea level rise at all. But it is.

While volcanic eruptions are devastating locally, they do help with global warming a bit. But the effects don’t last long, and in the medium to long run are completely overrun by human activities which contribute to warming. The most cataclysmic eruptions only put a fraction of the junk into the air as humans due (to the tune of 40 billion tons per year of just carbon dioxide).

While we can’t trigger volcanoes to explode when we want, there are other ways to mitigate global warming. The overwhelming cause is burning fossil fuels, and we have within our reach the ability to dramatically decrease our use of such old technology. We can make the switch to renewable energy production like solar and wind, and do so in a way that actually helps our economy, despite the claims of doom from those who say it would hurt us (after all, as the price for solar energy continues to drop, shouldn’t we let the market decide?). We can actually save the world, and ourselves, and getting on to the road to a solution isn’t even really all that difficult.

As I have said many times, and will continue to say as long as I need to: The first step is to vote global warming deniers out of office. Only then will we be able to tackle this issue seriously and give it the attention it—and we—desperately deserve.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Rosetta's Final Resting Place Has Been Chosen

Wed, 09/21/2016 - 06:00

In August 2014, the space mission Rosetta rendezvoused with the four-kilometer-long comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and made history. It was the first spacecraft ever to orbit a comet, and the first to send a probe to the surface. It has returned thousands of images of the double-lobed comet to Earth, and given scientists enough data to spend a lifetime examining.

But it’s also time for the mission to come to an end.

Over the past few weeks the orbiter’s trajectory has been changed, bringing it down ever closer to the surface. On Sep. 29, 2016, when it’s just a few kilometers away, the orbiter will execute a “collision maneuver”, sending it down to the surface. On Sep. 30 it’ll make contact, and switched off. The mission will be over.

It will take data all the way down, observing its strange partner for the past two years. And now the European Space Agency has released information about its final resting place: An area on the smaller lobe of the comet near the 130-meter-wide pit called Deir el-Medina, named after a city in Egypt that also has a wide pit nearby. On the comet, this is an active pit where ice sublimates (turns directly into a gas) when it’s heated by sunlight. Dust blows out along with water vapor, creating the fuzzy head and long tail of the comet when it nears the Sun.

Rosetta should touch down pretty close to the pit. Hopefully it will see inside the pit, down into the layers eroded away by countless passes around the Sun. There are also blobby structures nearby that may be “cometesimals”, small snowballs from the early solar system that came together to form the comet. If they are, they’re among the oldest formations we’ve ever seen, close to 4.6 billion years old. Seeing them is like seeing a time capsule to when the planets were still forming.

Funny: An operations manager in the press release commented that the orbit of the probe is being affected by the comet’s gravity, changing the shape in ways difficult to predict. If the comet were a perfect sphere, its gravity would be easy to navigate. But the comet is shaped more like a squat, off-kilter bowling pin (oh, who am I kidding; it looks like a rubber duckie). Sometimes the small lobe is near the probe, sometimes the bigger one. That enough is sufficient to mess with Rosetta’s path, but the comet is also not homogeneous; it’s lumpy, and that means the strength of its gravity changes even more depending on the probe’s position.

So they’re being careful, edging the spacecraft ever-closer to the comet. I imagine the images we’ll be getting will be as amazing as anything we’ve seen so far —and so far they’ve been truly amazing— and only get better as the distance closes.

And on Sep. 30… well, we’ll see. It’s been an amazing journey, but there’s still a little ways yet to go.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

March … I Mean April … I Mean May … I Mean June … I Mean July... I Mean August 2016 Is the Sixth … I Mean Seventh … I Mean Eighth … I Mean Ninth … I Mean 10th … I Mean 11th Temperature Record-Breaking Month in a Row

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 06:00

N.B. If this article sounds familiar, it should. This has been happening so frequently I just copied the post for March April May June July and updated it.

October. November. December. January. February. March. April. May. June. July. And now August.

For the

sixth seventh eighth ninth 10 th 11 th month in a row, we’ve had a month that has broken the global high temperature record.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies,

March April May June July August 2016 was the hottest March April May June July August on record, going back 136 years. It was a staggering 1.28°C 1.11°C 0.93°C 0.79°C 0.84° 0.98° C above average across the planet. * The previous March April May June July August record, from 2010 2014 2015 2011 2014, was 0.92° 0.87° 0.86° 0.78° 0.74° 0.82° above average; the new record beats it by well over a tenth of a degree.

Welcome to the new normal, and our new world.

Note: NASA has created a short video describing its efforts to measure global warming, specifically pointing out that the first six months of 2016 have all been the hottest months on record of their kind:

As you can see from the map above, much of this incredible heat spike is located in the extreme northern latitudes. That is not good; it’s this region that’s most fragile to heating. Temperatures soaring to 7° or more above normal means more ice melting, a longer melting season, loss of thinner ice, loss of longer-term ice, and most alarmingly the dumping of billions of tons of fresh water into the saltier ocean which can and will disrupt the Earth’s ability to move that heat around.

What’s going on? El Niño might be the obvious culprit, but even earlier in the year when it was strong it was only contributing a small amount of overall warming to the globe, probably around 0.1° C or so. That’s not nearly enough to account for this. Also now, even though the Pacific waters have returned to more neutral conditions, we're still experiencing record heat.

Most likely there is a confluence of events going on to produce this huge spike in temperature—latent heat in the Pacific waters, wind patterns distributing it, and more.

And underlying it all, stoking the fire, is us. Humans. Climate scientists—experts who have devoted their lives to studying and understanding how this all works—agree to an extraordinary degree that humans are responsible for the heating of our planet.

That’s why we’re seeing so many records lately; El Niño might produce a spike, but that spike is sitting on top of an upward trend, the physical manifestation of human induced global warming, driven mostly by our dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

Until our politicians recognize that this is a threat, and a very serious one, things are unlikely to change much. And the way I see it, the only way to get our politicians to recognize that is to change the politicians we have in office.

That’s a new world we need, and one I sincerely hope we make happen.

*GISS uses the temperatures from 1951–1980 to calculate the average. The Japanese Meteorological Agency uses 1981–2010, which gives different anomaly numbers, but the trend remains the same. Realistically, the range GISS uses is better; by 1981 global warming was already causing average temperatures to rise.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

What Is the Largest Galaxy in the Universe?

Mon, 09/19/2016 - 06:00

You might think this question would be easy to answer. If it’s big, it should be pretty straightforward to find, right? Yeah, well, the Universe isn’t always that simple.

First, what’s a galaxy? Basically, it’s a collection of stars, gas, and dust (as well as invisible dark matter) bound together by its own gravity. Some are elliptical (giant puff balls), some have disks and spiral arms, some are irregular (shapeless), and some peculiar (they have a shape, but it’s … weird). If you need a refresher, this episode of Crash Course Astronomy explains them:

Most galaxies have billions of stars. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has hundreds of billions strewn across a disk about 100,000 light-years in diameter. Some galaxies are much dinkier, and have only millions of stars; those are hard to find, even when they’re nearby, because they’re so faint.

I like to think of galaxies as the basic building blocks of the Universe. They’re like towns and cities strewn across the cosmos. Back when we were first figuring out their true nature, they were sometimes called “island universes.” Poetic, and not a bad description.

Galaxies can grow pretty big, usually by eating other galaxies. They can collide and merge to form a bigger, more massive galaxy. In a few billion years we’ll crash into the Andromeda galaxy, forming one around twice the size we are now.

So, how big can they get? What’s the biggest galaxy?

It turns out that this isn’t easy to answer for two reasons. One is that it depends on what you mean by “size,” and the other is that, paradoxically, the biggest galaxies may be very faint.

Let’s tackle the second one first. There exists a class of galaxy called Giant Low Surface Brightness galaxies. As the name implies, they aren’t terribly bright, even though they can be quite large. They’re rare, so they tend to be far away, and that means they’re hard to spot. One, called Malin 1, was only discovered in 1986, and was recently found to be far, far larger than previously thought: It’s a spiral galaxy a colossal 700,000 light-years across. At least. That’s five times the size of the Milky Way.

Another, UGC 1382, has a disk of stars about the same size as Malin 1’s but has gas measured out to a distance of 720,000 light-years! Malin 1’s disk is about that same size, within measurement error. Malin 1 also has a gas envelope that is 720,000 light-years across.

These GLSB galaxies are way bigger than normal galaxies, but they’re faint. There could be more of them, even bigger ones, but they’re really hard to find. Malin 1 looks like a relatively normal spiral until you take really deep images of it.

So there could be larger galaxies out there, and we don’t even see them!

And then there’s another complication, and that’s what you call a galaxy.

Let me introduce you to IC 1101. If UGC 1382 and Malin 1 are huge, IC 1101 is a behemoth. Its diameter has been measured at a staggering, overwhelming 2 million light-years. If one end were placed at the Milky Way, it would stretch two-thrids of the way to Andromeda!

But wait a sec, because it may not really be that big.

IC 1101 sits in the center of a large cluster of galaxies a billion light-years away called Abell 2029. Because of this it’s enjoyed the largesse of the cluster’s larder; it’s collided with a lot of other galaxies. This has made it grow large, but it’s also been puffed up; the way galaxies interact makes them swell in size for a while before settling down again.

Worse, IC 1101’s gravity has torn smaller galaxies apart as they merge, and its surrounded by all this debris. It’s hard to separate that from the glow of the cluster itself (it’s full of gas that adds to the light) so IC 1101 may be far smaller than generally claimed. It may still be bigger than Malin 1 and UGC 1382 though. We just don’t know.

And apropos of all is the final problem: What do you call the edge of the galaxy?

UGC 1382 has a disk with stars in it, and that fades away with distance from the center. But as I mentioned, it’s surrounded by a huge halo of gas. Do you count that? If you want to compare apples to apples, you need to be able to see if another galaxy has such a halo and that observation may be hard or even impossible.

So where does this leave us? What’s the biggest galaxy?

I think it’s a safe bet that IC 1101 is as far as we know at the moment, but with an asterisk due to not really being sure where it stops and the cluster environment begins. If it gets disqualified, then Malin 1 may edge out UGC 1382, but they’re so close it’s hard to be sure.

And of course, bigger ones may exist.

I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I’m not comfortable putting things into tightly regimented bins. Nature doesn’t, so why should we? There’s no real border between a planet and a brown dwarf, and even the line between brown dwarf and star is fuzzy. Would you say something the size of a beach ball orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter is an asteroid? What about a baseball? A pea? A grain of dust?

Whenever you push boundaries, things get fuzzy. The same is true here. There may not really be a biggest galaxy. Instead, there may be the biggest galaxies, a porous container encapsulating specimens in which we needn’t be too concerned with individuals as far as records go.

Instead, we should study them to see how they tick, what made them so big, and how that might affect their own history and the evolution of other galaxies and the environment around them. That is a far more interesting task than picking out one and hanging a blue ribbon on it.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Does Climate Change Affect Our Weather? Yes. Yes, It Does.

Sat, 09/17/2016 - 06:00

What’s the different between weather and climate?

There are lots of ways to answer this. Weather is what’s happening now, while climate is what you expect long term. Weather is your mood, climate is your personality. Weather is a dog walking with its person, while climate is the person walking with the dog. Over time, say in thirty year chunks, weather kinda merges into climate.

But however you describe it, one thing is clear: Climate drives weather.

You don’t expect hurricanes at the north pole. The conditions aren’t right to generate them. You don’t expect long, sustained rainstorms in the Atacama Desert for the same reason. Weather is the local and ephemeral effects of climate.

So what happens as the globe warms, and climates shift? As more water can stay evaporated in warmer air, and precipitate down in places not used to it, or not used to it in such amounts? Hurricanes are driven by warm water, so as water warms hurricanes change (they don’t get stronger necessarily, but the strongest ones get significantly stronger).

Have no doubt: Weather is changing as climate does. But why believe me? Here are some professionals who can make their case well:

That video was put together by Peter Sinclair for Yale Climate Connections, and he’s made many more terrific ones about climate change.

The recent floods in Louisiana, the extreme heat and drought, the records broken all over the world… it’s hard to pin any one of these events to climate change, but taken as a whole?

Weather is your mood, climate is your personality.

This video also points out something important: Climate change may be slow, but it’s not some nebulous threat in the future. It’s happening now.

And come November, we can do something about it.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Retro Posters Promote an Ancient Battle: Humans vs. Disease

Sat, 09/17/2016 - 06:00

Regular readers know I’m no fan of infectious diseases. Well, no one is, I suppose, but there are those who court them, thinking our body’s natural defenses are enough to prevent infection.

Sometimes that’s true. But tragically, many times it’s not. That’s why we need vaccines.

We also need to study these diseases, figure out how they behave, how they’re structured, and what we can do to prevent them from getting out of hand. One group at the forefront of this is the Center for Infectious Disease Research, a non-profit organization that focuses on diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and more. They have a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group I have a great deal of respect for.

To increase visibility and public outreach, CIDR put out a series of very cool retro posters promoting their fight. I really like this style of art, and they’ve used it to great effect. The one at the top of this post is my favorite of the lot, with a superhero feel to it (and make no mistake, scientists researching these bugs are indeed heroes).

Here’s another one I really like:

I have to think the artist has seen the 1979 movie Meteor; there’s a scene where the Soviets and the Americans launch missiles at the incoming asteroid and it looks a whole lot like this artwork.

On their website, Scientific Director John Aitchison explains why they’re making these posters:

Our aim is to highlight the creativity, imagination, and passion that infectious disease scientists bring to this battle each day—and the optimism we see right at the epicenter of the struggle. […] It is an interesting time to work in the field of infectious diseases. Zika and Ebola captured the world’s attention and concern like nothing we’ve seen since the dawn of the AIDS pandemic. With the eyes of the world on these diseases, mountains were moved. Research dollars flowed in, red tape was cut, and the resulting forward progress over the ensuing months and years—researching and understanding the viruses, developing a pipeline of potential cures—amounts to more than has occurred in the previous decades for these diseases. What this plainly demonstrated to me was the importance of public attention. When our will is there, when we are focused, when we have the imagination to see that life can fundamentally improve, we achieve great results for our collective health and safety.

Well said. But then he also says this:

Improving our world’s health starts with science. Period.

Hot damn! Yes, I couldn’t agree more. This is not why we humans invented science, but it may be one of the most important results of it. When we understand our world better, when we see reality for what it is, we can make all our lives better.

Not-so-incidentally, the CIDR takes donations.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Blue Origin Will Test Their Capsule Abort System... in Flight!

Fri, 09/16/2016 - 06:00

Come October, the private space company Blue Origin will put on quite a show.

They’ve already flown their New Shepard rocket four times into space —above the arbitrary but common-sense 100 kilometer height above Earth’s surface— and landed it successfully on its tail. They also have tested the crew capsule on top, deploying it more than once, including the last time when one parachute of three was purposely not used, to see how the capsule would do with only two (it landed just fine).

But the fifth flight of the rocket will be very different. To get certified by NASA for crewed flight, Blue Origin has to show that the crew capsule can escape rapidly on its own if the rocket below suffers a catastrophe (even if they only go with private customers, Blue Origin still needs to prove they can do this). On the old Saturn V Apollo missions, this was done using a rocket mounted on a tower above the capsule (the so-called “tractor” or “puller” method). That added a lot of weight, and if it wasn’t used (it never was) it was ejected and thrown away after launch. That’s a waste of fuel and a perfectly good rocket.

Blue Origin has engines mounted below the capsule, which can be used to push the capsule away from the rocket in case of emergency. They tested this system dramatically in 2012, but it hasn’t been tested in flight, which is critical. And that brings us to the fifth flight of New Shepard: On that flight, scheduled for October of this year, the capsule will use the abort rocket to propel itself away from the main rocket during the ascent, which is when a catastrophe is most likely to happen. Not only that, but the company plans on doing this when the rocket is undergoing the maximum pressure from atmospheric passage during the flight, when the rocket will be moving faster than the speed of sound.

I guess that if you’re going to test a system, test it hard.

Here’s an animation of what this might look like:

The capsule will roar away from the rocket rapidly, and then (hopefully) parachute back safely to Earth. The rocket itself will not be as stable without the capsule on top, and will get a helluva kick as the capsule roars off. It may very well break up under the stress. Even it it survives the initial trauma, it’ll likely fall the rest of the way to the desert floor and impact at high speed. It’ll still have quite a bit of fuel on board, so, as CEO Jeff Bezos notes in an email, “…its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”

Most impressive. But if it does survive and lands, Bezos says it’ll be placed into a museum, which is fitting. It’s the first rocket ever to go into space and then land again vertically, let alone do it again three more times. It’s quite an accomplishment.

I’m interested in the fact that Bezos made this announcement at all; it was only a couple of years ago that everything the company did was kept secret until after it was accomplished. It seems that the string of successes has made Bezos (deservedly) more confident about Blue Origin’s ability to get things done.

I also have to wonder if SpaceX getting so much publicity is behind this as well. Elon Musk’s company has been sending cargo to orbit for some time, and has made huge strides in being able to reuse a vehicle. The loss of a Falcon 9 on the pad during fueling in early September was a major setback, of course, and will no doubt delay the first launch of a previously flown booster, which was set for later this year. It’s not clear when that will happen now.

Still, Bezos suddenly announcing events beforehand is interesting. They’ll even hold a live webcast of the launch when it occurs. I’ll have more information when we get closer to the time of launch. Stay tuned.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

I Didn't Even Know Mars Had a Southwest

Thu, 09/15/2016 - 06:00

Since 2012, the Curiosity rover has been tooling around the surface of Mars. It landed in Gale Crater, an ancient impact site nearly a hundred kilometers across, and its destination has been the base of Mt. Sharp, the informal name of Aeolis Mons, the crater’s central mountain that towers 5.5 km above the ground.

One of Curiosity’s science goals is to look for signs where conditions for life may have been good a billion or more years ago. This means finding things like clays and other minerals that form in water.

Or, say, like sandstone.

Curiosity is currently in a spot on lower Mount Sharp called the Murray formations, named after planetary scientist Bruce Murray. This area used to be a dune field an eon or two ago, but then filled with water and formed a lake. That water is long gone, but it profoundly affected the sand it soaked into. It deposited sediments in between the sand grains, cementing them together to form sandstone. When the water went away, winds began to erode the sandstone, and after enough time, carved the Murray Buttes.

Aren’t these beautiful? They look like they could’ve been photographed in Utah or New Mexico, but this is Mars! Curiosity took them on Sep. 8, 2016, just a few days ago.

The layering you see is from when this was still a dune field. The wind would blow the sand off the dunes, sorting and layering it. Some of the layers were on the dune slopes, and were tilted with respect to the other layers. Once mineralized it formed angled layers called “cross bedding”, and created incredible scenes like this:

Seriously. What a view! And different regions eroded at different rates, giving a profile of sharp, jagged edges against the butterscotch Martian sky.

The reddish color is from iron oxide —rust— in the dust of Mars, and in fact is the same reason there’s so much red sandstone in the American southwest. Long ago there were the ancestral Rocky Mountains, before the present ones, which were rich in iron. They eroded over millions of years, and the rusty remains formed a sea bed. That inland sea went away, and now we have red sandstone everywhere (it’s a very common building material in Colorado).

All that happened here on Earth from about 300 to 50 million years ago. It’s possible the sandstone you see in these images on Mars was already old by then.

I love this mission of looking for life on Mars. When I see pictures like these I am strongly reminded of how Earth-like Mars can be, and how clement it once was. When the Earth was still too hot after its formation to support life, Mars was cool enough to get a head start. We know life here started up relatively easily, so why not Mars? It was doomed, since the planet’s lack of a magnetic field allowed the Sun to strip away most of its atmosphere and its water.

But it’s possible Mars once had life, and we could find the remains of it, or some other indication it once existed. I hope we actually do find it, because the implications of that would be profound.

But I also love that we, as a species, have chosen to make this search at all. I think it says something important and special about us that we do.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

To Beat Trump, Clinton Needs to Bring Science to the Debates

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 06:00

What do the presidential candidates think about science?

Normally, these topics barely get a head nod from the hopefuls. But this year is very very different. Donald Trump, who barely can make two coherent sentences in a row on any topic, has released a torrent of anti-science nonsense. Most notably he’s called climate change a hoax, picked a global warming denier (and creationist) as his vice president, and hired a denier as his energy adviser. He’s anti-vaccination, thinks the California drought doesn’t exist, and has said NASA makes America look like “a third world nation”.

Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, has also made a slew of anti-science statements, and libertarian Gary Johnson is no better.

Heck, the cohort of candidates is so bad that when Hillary Clinton said “I believe in science” when she accepted the Democratic nomination, the internet practically carried her around on its collective shoulders.

But these are generalities. What do the candidates really think about scientific topics, like space exploration, mental health, energy, public health, what to do about climate change, and more?

A coalition of scientists wanted to know just that, so they drafted a series of 20 questions for the candidates. Calling this challenge Science Debate 2016 (this was also done in 2008 and 2012), they asked the candidates to answer.

And they have.

Well, three of four have. Gary Johnson has not responded as yet, but Clinton, Trump, and Stein have. And their answers are interesting.

Well, not Trump’s so much. I’ll get back to him in a moment.

The most surprising answers to me were Stein’s. Some of her stances I agree with: We need more renewable energy, for example. Many I don’t, like completely dumping nuclear energy, and demilitarizing space. For the former, nuclear energy in this country is decades behind cutting edge, and it’s time we at least look into making it cleaner, safer, and more secure. Also, like it or not, there are bad guys out there, and military use of space is needed to be able to collect intelligence. That actually saves more lives than it costs.

I was fascinated by her statements on vaccines; she hasn’t been entirely anti-vax in her earlier statements, but she’s pandered mightily to that group. In these answers she is far more clear about the necessity of vaccines. But after everything else she’s said, I am very skeptical about this new tact.

Clinton’s responses were also interesting, in that unlike the other candidates, she outlines a lot of specifics on many of the topics. Usually these sorts of answers are mushy, but she (well, her staff) actually lays out quite a few details about taking action on climate change, energy, and more. I agree with quite a bit of what she wrote, including her plans for climate change (though I still wish she were even more aggressive about it), securing the internet, helping those with mental health issues, and more.

I was disappointed, however, in her passage about space exploration. There’s not much really there in her statement aside from praising NASA. I’d love to hear more about her ideas about Earth science, future exploration of the solar system, ensuring funding for NASA, and more. President Obama has done things I’ve liked and things I haven’t with regard to NASA, and I’d very much like to know whether she plans on continuing in his footsteps.

And that brings us to Trump. Of all the candidates, his statements at Science Debate are the most transparently from his staff; the grammatical contrast with his public speeches and tweets is, well, dramatic.

But the thing is—and this is no surprise at all—there’s almost no content to his answers. Like his other public statements, they are all generalities and no substance at all. Reading them too, his anti-science leanings come out. I mean, c’mon, he thinks global warming is a hoax (he can’t even bring himself to answer the Science Debate question without putting scare quotes around the words), so of course his answer there is just verbal dancing. The GOP has made it clear it wants to sell off federal land in national parks, so his statement, “Laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources,” is fairly transparent.

His answer to the question about space exploration is even less weighty than Clinton’s, just saying space exploration is great. There are no details there at all.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Trump lies about everything, saying only what satisfies his immediate political expediencies. He has abandoned the dog whistle of racial and sexist politics, and is instead now using a megaphone. White supremacists and misogynists have heard him loudly and clearly. His ability to garner votes in black America is essentially dead (he’s polling the worst of any GOP candidate in decades), and women are avoiding him in droves.

Even so, he might have traction to status quo white male America. I hope this is not the case, but I fear it may be.

But not when it comes to science. A discussion of science could give Clinton an edge. Polls show that concerns among Americans over global warming are at an eight-year high, with 64 percent expressing a great deal or fair amount of worry on the topic. Trump flatly denies global warming exists. That gives Clinton an advantage right there. Even better, Republicans are expressing more concern about warming as well, and that strikes right to the heart of the very people Trump is disenfranchising.

Clinton has a chance here to widen her gap ahead of Trump. Science has become a wedge issue in GOP politics.

Our technological advances, our engineering, our education, our infrastructure, our health care system, our energy generation, even our ability to produce food and water rely entirely on our ability to understand the science behind these issues. If we ignore the science—and I don’t think this is an exaggeration at all—we are endangering our ability as a nation and a people to exist.

So while in the past I haven’t thought that a science debate would really help much, I’ve changed my position on it. I endorse this idea, whether it’s in the form of an actual debate or just these public policy statements issued by the candidates.

Remember, Trump’s view of science is dim. Clinton has nothing to lose and much to gain by bringing up science between now and November, while Trump has everything to lose. And that’s a situation I’d very, very dearly like to promote.

So kudos to Sheril Kirshenbaum and Shawn Otto, the minds behind Science Debate 2016. Please go to the Science Debate website and read what’s there. It has a huge amount of information, including what you can do to urge the candidates to talk science. Be a part of this movement, and be a part of making sure that science takes its rightful place in the political discourse.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

Xkcd Takes on Global Warming

Tue, 09/13/2016 - 09:11

My friend Randall Munroe is a wonder. He is more than just ridiculously smart; he knows how to access all that wonderful knowledge stored in his brain, combine various pieces of it, and then present it in innovative ways that somehow make complex issues easy to understand, and even fun.

In a recent issue of his web comic Xkcd he tackles global warming, and literally turns it sideways.

Instead of plotting temperature vertically and time on the horizontal axis as is usually done, he makes time vertical, starting 22,000 years ago. That makes the temperature move from cooler on the left to the present record heat we’re seeing today on the right. The beauty of this is that it gives him room to comment, to draw. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing. It’ll take a few minutes, but it’s oh so worth it. (Note: Make sure you read the alt text by hovering your mouse over the comic.)

For example, as we come out of the last ice age 19,000 years ago, the ice melts due to changes in the Earth’s orbit (called Milankovitch cycles), allowing more sunlight to hit the poles. The increase is slight, but this is all that’s needed for a feedback loop to release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This then accelerates the temperature increase and the ice melting. A lot of climate change deniers muddy this idea, asking why temperatures go up before CO2 abundance does, when scientists claim it’s the other way around. But the deniers ignore the well-known reasons that temperatures started going up a little bit first, and how that triggers more CO2 release.

But to me, the most important thing Randall did in this comic is to beautifully show how rapidly the Earth is warming. The increase in temperature is pretty slow, with the dashed line of temperature moving left to right subtly as you scroll down. But then, finally, after nearly 15,000 pixels of scrolling down, you can see the temperature take a sudden sharp surge to the right, showing the painful and very recent upturn in heat stored all over our planet. It’s a slap in the face.

This isn’t the first time Randall has tackled global warming in an Xkcd comic, but it’s certainly the most astonishing. His way of thinking turns normal thinking on its head, and forces you to see things as he does.

I wish we all could do this, all the time. The world would be a far better place.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines

This Illusion Knows When You Are Looking at It

Tue, 09/13/2016 - 06:00

Regular readers know I have a love of optical illusions, and I have a really freaky one for you once again.

The image above is from master illusion maker Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Take a look at it. It’s a pattern of intersecting vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, making a grid of sorts. In a regular pattern where the lines intersect Kitaoka has placed a black circle surrounded by a thin white ring.

Go ahead, focus on one of those circles. Notice anything?

Yeah. When you look at one circle, all (or most of) the others disappear! What the what?

I’ll note that all the images in this article are JPGs, so they’re not animated or anything like that. They are true illusions. Kitaoka calls this one the Ninio Extinction Illusion, after Jacques Ninio, who published a paper about it. It’s a variation of what’s called the Hermann grid illusion, which you may have seen before:

It’s just dark square tiles with white alleys in between. If you fix your gaze on one alley intersection, it looks white, but all the others look gray!

A variation on this is called the scintillating grid. At the places where the gray alleys intersect, small white circles are inserted, just touching the corners of the black tiles:

As you move your gaze around, small black circles seem to appear and disappear in the white circles everywhere except right where you’re looking, as if they know where you’re gazing. It makes the grid look like it’s flashing, or scintillating. It’s bizarre.

Kitaoka’s illusion takes this to the next step, separating the circles so they’re dispersed a bit more. When you look at one, it’s very difficult to see any others, as if they disappear when you don’t look at them (Schrödinger’s dots?).

So what causes this? It was first thought that it had to do with the way the grid fell on the retina in your eye, where cells called photoreceptors react to the light. However, other researchers have found that can’t be true, because changing the grid a bit destroys the illusion, even though the cells should react the same way. This has led them to believe the illusion happens in the brain itself, in the primary visual cortex located in the back of the brain. However, it’s still not clear what sort of misfiring is going on that tricks your brain into thinking the dots are appearing and disappearing.

So even though this illusion is simple in setup, why it actually works is something of a mystery. How about that?

And of course, I love it when that happens. Our brains are so easy to fool: We see colors that aren’t there, patterns that aren’t there, motion that isn’t there, faces that aren’t there, hear sounds that aren’t there. It’s a testament to the slapdash nature of evolution. Our brains weren’t designed; they accumulated over millions of years, adjusting here and there as circumstances and natural selection warranted. What we have now sitting in our skulls isn’t so much a finely tuned computer as a seriously jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg machine.

Always remember that when someone claims they saw a UFO or a ghost, and swear they know what they saw. Because the odds are really, really good they don’t.

Tip o’ the parafoveal vision to my friend Tracy King.

Categories: Astronomy Headlines