Bad Astronomy Blog

Blood Moon: The Lunar Eclipse of April 2014

9 hours 53 min ago

Did you watch the total lunar eclipse last night? Judging from my Twitter feed, a lot of people did! Chatter and pictures were flying around the ‘Net as the silvery full Moon slowly drifted into the Earth’s shadow and turned a lovely shade of orange.

I took the picture above at about 07:21 UTC (01:21 Mountain time, local for me), about 15 minutes after the total phase started. You can see the bright star Spica (the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo) just to the Moon’s lower right, and the much fainter star h Virginis just above and to the left of the Moon. It was fun to see fainter and fainter stars pop up as the Moon faded away, its bright glow no longer capable of washing them away.

Over the course of an hour and a half I took some video using my camera (a Canon T41 with a 250 mm lens), so, for your eyes’ and brain’s pleasure, here it is:

I suggest making it big, if not full screen, and make sure you have the volume up for the first few seconds.

The coyotes really set the mood, didn’t they? Even though I was freezing my toes and fingers off, it was truly a wonderful and fun evening. I’ve seen a dozen or more total lunar eclipses, and I think my favorite part of this one was sharing my photos on Twitter in near real time. People all over the world were excited to see it, and that is a big part of why I do this.

Due to the complex and subtle dance of gravity and geometry, there will be three more total lunar eclipses visible to the United States over the next year and half: in October this year, and in April and September of 2015. While there won’t be any bright stars near the Moon for the eclipse in October, the planet Uranus will be only a degree away! That’ll make for some nice family portraits. And there’s also a partial solar eclipse two weeks later, on Oct. 23, 2014, too! That’ll be a treat. And if you live in Australia there’s a nice annular solar eclipse on April 29; this is when the Moon is slightly smaller than the Sun and leaves a ring of Sun around the dark Moon. There was one of these last year and there were some fantastic pictures and video. I hope we’ll get more.

Remember: Look up! There are always amazing things to see.

Cassini May Have Witnessed the Birth of a New Saturn Moon!

15 hours 59 min ago

Just when I think Saturn can’t surprise me any more: The Cassini spacecraft may have taken the birth pictures of a new moon! It may have also spotted its demise. Or maybe part of its demise. Also, it may be twins.

OK, let me explain.

The potential moon (nicknamed Peggy) is tiny, probably only about a kilometer (0.6 miles) across—really a moonlet—and is invisible in the Cassini pictures. However, its presence is betrayed by an odd clumping of material at the very edge of Saturn’s A ring, the outermost of Saturn’s main rings.

It was discovered by accident in an image taken on April 15, 2013—one year ago today. The picture above shows the main rings, the thin F ring outside them, and the irregularly shaped moon Prometheus (the actual target of the shot) in the center just inside the F ring. If you look carefully you can see a blob on the edge of the A ring. Here’s a close-up, with the clump indicated:

That’s clearly not a discrete object; it’s about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide and 1,200 kilometers (740 miles) long, but this is what you would expect if a small object were located near the edge of the ring—and why astronomers think there's most likely a moonlet there. It would have feeble gravity, but enough to affect the ice particles in the ring, creating the long, trailing clump.

Once they knew it was there, the astronomers were able to calculate an orbit for it, and then go back and look for it in older Cassini images. They found the clump in more than 100 such pictures! But in most cases it’s so faint and difficult to see that it was completely overlooked before. It appears brighter at certain viewing angles, which is why it was so obvious in the discovery image. The earliest it was seen was in May 2012, but before then Cassini was not in a good orbit to detect the clump, so there’s no way to really know how old it is.

But then things get weirder. In images taken before January 2013 there’s only a single object, but in later images, just around the time the object was discovered, a second one appeared! They’re obviously related, but it’s not clear whether the main object broke up due to a collision with something else, or whether Saturn’s tides (the change in the force of gravity over distance) pulled it apart. It may also be due to some other mechanism entirely.

I dug up another of the images showing the clumps, taken on June 22, 2013:

I’ve indicated their locations; you can just see a gap between them and the main A ring. Once I knew what to look for they were obvious, but I can see why they could’ve been missed before. They’re hard to spot. I’ll note that in other images they found what may be a third object as well, but it’s difficult to know what its relationship is to the other two (if any).

And we’re still not done. Not long after the discovery image, Object 2 disappeared! Due to complex interactions with the ring particles, an object the size of the small moon can migrate outward, away from Saturn, over time. Once it leaves the rings it would become essentially invisible. An alternate explanation is that it disintegrated; if its orbit was a bit eccentric, a bit stretched, compared to the particles in the rings it would have been continually bombarded by them, and could have been obliterated.

Still, it was there, at least for a while. And the other object may have survived as well.

So I suppose congratulations are in order for Saturn on its possible new moon … but it’s funny. Saturn is the Roman name for the Greek god Cronus (or Cronos), who was known for eating all his children to prevent them from overthrowing him (when you get down to it, a lot of the ancient myths are really, really horrid). But now we find out the opposite is true! The smaller moons may have been birthed by Saturn (or at least, its rings) and moved out before they could get eaten.

Science! I’ll take it over myth any day.

Science Ranch 2014: A Few Spots Left

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 11:28

There are only a few spaces left at Science Ranch 2014, a weeklong science-based vacation with me, June 22-28, at the Waunita Hot Springs Ranch in the Rocky Mountains near Gunnison, Colo. In addition to your humble host, we’ll have a geologist and an ecologist with us all week as well. There’ll be science talks, stargazing, nature hikes, horseback riding, rafting, great food, and special programs just for kids. We’ll also be taking a day to visit the staggeringly dramatic Black Canyon, which seriously has to be seen to be believed (check out this photo, for example).

My wife and I both love science, and when we go on vacation we always want to learn more about the natural history of where we travel … that’s why we started Science Getaways. We bring along professional scientists to tell us about what we’re seeing and to answer your questions, and I bring my 8” Celestron telescope so we can view the heavens. The dark skies at Wuanita should provide fantastic views (weather permitting, but summers in Colorado are almost always quite lovely and clear). You’ll have a great time, and you’ll learn something, too.

It’s a vacation with your brain.

No, Scientists Have NOT Found Life in a Meteorite. Again.

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 08:09

Hey, look! This again. An article claiming scientists have found microscopic life in a meteorite. I’ve been getting emails from folks (mostly via Facebook) asking whether this is real.

OK, let’s put this in context: For as long as humans have looked at the stars, we’ve wondered if there is life in space. Once science and technology caught up with our imagination we started using radio telescopes to listen for alien signals, we built giant telescopes on space and on the ground to search for other planets, and spent billions of dollars sending missions to Mars to looks for signs that there was once water flowing there, and even just the potential for life.

So if scientists found actual microbes—living bacteria, as claimed in this case—inside a meteorite that fell from space, I think it might make somewhat bigger news than being reported on some random news-like website you saw linked from Facebook.

And I say "news-like" website because the site in question, World News Daily, is satirical. It has articles with headlines like, “Former Pope Warns of Vatican Alien Agenda” and “Arctic Penguins Now Extinct” (think about it…).

And if the site is being serious, then its scholarly levels make the Daily Mail look like the New York Times.

The article itself is a clever mix of reality and outright crackpottery. It mentions real scientists, like Peter Brown, who is in fact a meteoriticist. The meteorite discussed in the article is claimed to come from a fireball that occurred on March 18, 2014 over southern Ontario; a real event (though, to my knowledge, no meteorites from it have yet been found).

The article also mentions Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator. The quote has a, um, key tell in it:

The general director of NASA, Charles F. Bolden, saluted the discovery and praised the canadian university for it’s exceptional contribution to the world’s astrological knowledge.

Emphasis mine. But I hope you see the point (not to mention the two grammatical errors).

Also, on a hunch, I did a reverse image search on Google using the picture of the meteorite shown in the article. It turns out to be one found in Antarctica a few years back. That’s a bit of a walk from Ontario.

So yeah, to be clear: This article is 100 percent bovine excrement, fertilizer, baloney, nonsense, hokum, and fish-wrappery.

Got it?

I can understand it spreading, though, especially on social media. It only takes one person to post about it (either missing the signs it was satire and taking it seriously, or sharing it as a joke) to get things started. People tend not to read past headlines—did you see the NPR April Fools’ Day joke that proved this?—or in general they just skim an article like this. And even if they do a quick check of the facts by, say, looking up the Ontario fireball event or the names of the scientists, they’ll find they’re real (though I suspect the number of people who would go that far is negligible).

Making it worse is that actual scientists have been making similar claims about life in meteorites lately, all of which have been utterly wrong (see Related Posts below for more about them). Those claims were just plain old bad science, but people half-remember them, and so it's no surprise to me that a joke article can wind up getting taken seriously.

Remember folks, put stuff in context! If the news is this big, you would’ve heard about it sooner and in a more reliable venue. And even that doesn’t make it true; you have to do a little work, dig a little deeper, to get to the truth.

Before hitting that button to send something to all your friends, remember: If you care enough to share, you should care enough to beware.

OK, wow, that was an awful aphorism. How about this: Before you share, use a skeptical glare.

Yeah, that’s worse. Whatever. All I ask is that you hesitate a moment before sharing a story like this one so you can think it over. Does it make sense? Is there another place I can look for more info (cough cough)? Is there a chance this is a joke/hoax/fake/wrong?

If you do that, then you’re well on your way to making the world a more real place. And I thank you for it.

Related Posts

No, Diatoms Have Not Been Found in a Meteorite
UPDATE: No, Life Has Still Not Been Found in a Meteorite
Is NASA Hiding Evidence of Life on Mars? I Seriously Doubt It.
Has Life Been Found In a Meteorite?
Follow-Up: Thoughts on the Meteorite Fossils Claim
Are We Aliens?

Watch the SpaceX Launch Live Today at 20:58 UTC

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 04:30

Today (Monday, April 14, 2014), SpaceX is scheduled to launch a modified Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. The launch is scheduled for 20:58 UTC (4:58 p.m. EDT), and you can watch it live on NASA TV or Ustream (I prefer the latter; there’s less lag in the video stream).

This third mission for SpaceX to the ISS has some interesting stuff going on. I think the most exciting is the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS. Spacecraft currently communicate with the ground via radio transmissions, the signal encoded with information much the way as how a radio in your car works. OPALS will use an optical light laser for this instead, which is a big leap forward if it works. Lasers take very little power, and the shorter wavelength of optical light means a lot more info can be encoded into the beam. This test will beam a video taken on ISS along with other information down to the ground.

When I was a kid, I read all of science-fiction author Larry Niven's stuff, and his ships communicated using lasers (they played key roles in several stories, too). When I got older I realized how many advantages there were to using lasers instead of radio, and now it's becoming a reality. Score another one for sci-fi.

Two other payloads include a suite of hi-def cameras that will take video of Earth (to test which designs work best in space) and a nifty package (called Veggie) that will allow the astronauts to grow vegetable plants in space using LED lights.

But there’s still another cool thing: SpaceX will be testing the hardware needed to have the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket land itself for reuse. This is an idea they’ve been testing with their Grasshopper series of test flights, using landing legs stowed on the side of the booster. After the stage separation (and the second stage lofts the Dragon capsule up into space), the booster will execute a burn to slow down, and the legs will deploy during the burn. This will all happen over the Atlantic Ocean, so it’s not an actual full-up landing burn; it’ll be a splashdown! But it’ll test many of the needed systems for an eventual and literal landing. SpaceX says the odds of this being a completely successful test are low, but it’s worth giving it a shot.

Once the Dragon capsule is in orbit it’ll rendezvous with ISS and berth on April 16. If there is a delay in launch, the next possible launch date is April 18. Various hardware issues on the Dragon and ISS have delayed the original scheduled launch, but engineers have decided it’s a go for today.

SpaceFlightNow will have fairly up-to-date messages loading on its site for more information. I’ll be watching and live-tweeting as well, of course. Watching a rocket launch is always fun, so I hope you’ll join in.

Jenny McCarthy: “I’m Not ‘Anti-Vaccine’”

Sun, 04/13/2014 - 04:30

Jenny McCarthy is claiming she is not anti-vaccine.

Here’s the problem with that claim: Yes, she is. That’s patently obvious due to essentially everything she’s been saying about vaccines for years. Yet in an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 12, 2014, she tries to ignore all that, and wipe the record clean.

In case you think I may be misquoting her, here is the first line of that op-ed: “I am not ‘anti-vaccine.’”

So, there you go.

She says she’s never told anyone not to get vaccinated. Assuming that's true, great! But that’s hardly the entry-level position for being anti-vax. For example, you can say things that are grossly incorrect about them that would scare parents into not vaccinating their children. That would fit the moniker “anti-vax,” I’d think.

So, for example, saying vaccines have toxins in them—as she has said for years, and as she reiterates in her op-ed—is a clear sign of being anti-vax. After all, if someone tells you you’re putting toxins in your body, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that make you want to stop doing whatever it is that’s putting them inside you?

Yet as doctors say, dosage makes the poison. The amount of, say, formaldehyde in a typical vaccination is much less than you’d get eating an apple. The same can be shown for the other ingredients claimed to be toxins in vaccines as well. The truth is vaccines contain far too small a dose of any of these things to cause any of the problems McCarthy and other anti-vaxxers claim exist.

Also, botulinum is the single most lethal toxin known to humans. Yet McCarthy has enthusiastically praised injecting this toxin into her face. How can anyone possibly say that and also say vaccines have dangerous levels of toxins in them with a straight face?

Which brings us to autism. McCarthy is still claiming that there is a link between vaccines and autism. However that is simply not true. Again and again and again and again this has been shown. McCarthy asks us to talk to families of people who have children with autism. That's certainly a good place to start, but it's the first step to an answer, not the last. Anecdotes are not data. We know people are subject to dozens of different biases that lead them down the wrong path when trying to determine cause and effect. That’s why medical studies are done so carefully, to make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves. And the studies clearly show no connection between vaccines and autism.

And finally, let’s take a step back and look at the claim that she’s not anti-vax itself. Jeffrey Kluger is a science writer for Time magazine. He interviewed McCarthy in 2009 about this issue, and she mentions that interview in her op-ed piece. Kluger disagrees vehemently with what she wrote in the op-ed, to say the very least.

I can see why. Here is what she writes in the op-ed:

“People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines,” I told Time magazine science editor Jeffrey Kluger in 2009. “Please understand that we are not an anti-vaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins.”

But Kluger points out that she left the last line out of that quotation. Here’s the whole thing:

People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines. Please understand that we are not an antivaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins. If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f--king measles.

Huh. That last line rather changes the tone of her position considerably, wouldn’t you agree? That’s a difficult stance to square with someone who is not anti-vaccine. As Kluger points out, her entire premise is false; since vaccines don’t cause autism, no one has to make the choice between measles (and other preventable, dangerous diseases) and autism.

Kluger finishes with this:

Jenny, as outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough continue to appear in the U.S.—most the result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children because of the scare stories passed around by anti-vaxxers like you—it’s just too late to play cute with the things you’ve said. You are either floridly, loudly, uninformedly antivaccine or you are the most grievously misunderstood celebrity of the modern era. Science almost always prefers the simple answer, because that’s the one that’s usually correct. Your quote trail is far too long—and you have been far too wrong—for the truth not to be obvious.

He’s right. She has gone on and on and on and on and on and on about it. She can claim all she wants that she’s not anti-vax, but her own words show her to be wrong.

Anti-vax is as anti-vax does. And she does.

Don’t Miss the Lunar Eclipse on April 14–15!

Sat, 04/12/2014 - 04:30

Do you live in North America, South America, Australia, or eastern Asia? Then you get to see a lunar eclipse on the night of April 14–15! And while North America is the best place to watch—we’ll get to see the whole event—the real action doesn’t begin until 05:58 UTC on the April 15, which is just before 02:00 EDT, so it’s a bit late. You might just want to stay up for it, though.

A lunar eclipse is when the Moon slips into the shadow of the Earth and gets dark. Unlike a solar eclipse (where the Moon blocks the Sun) a lunar eclipse lasts for hours and is perfectly safe to observe without protection. In fact, I find using binoculars is best!

How does this work? The Sun lights up the Earth (big duh there), and anything that’s illuminated casts a shadow. Normally the Earth’s shadow just goes off into space, but sometimes the geometry works out that the Moon passes into it. The Moon has to be opposite the Sun in the sky for that to happen, so lunar eclipses only happen when the Moon is full.  

The Earth actually casts two shadows; a wide, fuzzy one called the penumbra and a narrower, darker one called the umbra nested inside the penumbra. If the Sun were a point source in the sky (a little dot) there would only be one dark shadow, but because the Sun has a finite extent (that is, we see it as a disk) the geometry is a little more complicated. If you could see the shadows in the sky, the penumbra would be a big circle about five times wider than the Moon, and the umbra would be a circle inside it about half that size.

It helps to think of it from the Moon’s viewpoint. If you were standing there, looking back at the Earth and Sun, you’d see the Earth (barely; you’re seeing it’s night side) sliding slowly over the face of the Sun. At the moment the edge of the dark Earth starts to block the sun, you’re entering the penumbra. It’s getting darker, but most of the Sun is still unblocked, so it’s not getting very much darker. About an hour later the Earth completely blocks the Sun, and you’ve entered the umbra. The Earth is much bigger than the Sun from your point of view (about four times larger) so the Sun stays blocked for a while. Finally, the Sun peeks out the other side of the Earth; you’ve left the umbra and are in the penumbra again, and things start getting brighter.

What does this mean for us here on Earth? We’ll see the Moon enter the penumbra at 04:53 UTC April 15, or 00:53 EDT (53 minutes after midnight). Again, it’s no big deal, and you’d hardly notice. But the Moon’s edge enters the darker umbra at 05:58 UTC (01:58 EDT) and over the course of a few minutes you’ll see that part of the Moon get dark. Over the next hour or so more of the Moon will fall into the Earth’s darker shadow, and at 07:06 UTC (03:06 EDT) the entire Moon will be dark. It’ll stay that way for the next hour and 18 minutes, until it starts to move out of the umbra at 08:24 UTC (04:24 EDT), and will start to be illuminated by the Sun again. The umbral eclipse ends at 09:33 UTC (05:33 EDT).

Here’s a diagram that may help:

The Moon moves from right to left in the diagram. The positions are labeled. P1 is when it moves into the penumbra, U1 is when it moves into the umbra, U2 is when it’s fully immersed, U3 is when it starts to leave the umbra, U4 is when it’s out of the umbra, and P4 when the Moon leaves the penumbra, and the eclipse ends. The times are listed in the lower right in UTC. Subtract four hours for Eastern U.S. time, and so on.

Sometimes when the Moon is fully immersed in the Earth’s shadow it can turn an eerie blood red due to the way the Earth’s atmosphere scatters light—it’s the same reason the Sun can look redder at sunrise and sunset.

Want to hear something poetic? If you were standing on the Moon during the deepest times of the eclipse, from your view you’re seeing all the sunrises and sunsets on earth at that moment.

When someone tells you science is cold and emotionless, tell them that.

The only problem with this eclipse is the timing; it happens late Monday night/early Tuesday morning for most of the U.S. But don’t let that stop you! If you have clear skies you really should go out and look. And if you have a camera, please take some pictures! With a little planning you can get some amazing shots like the ones I’ve scattered through this post (see Related Posts below for many more). Check out this incredible time-lapse animation made by Jeffrey Sullivan of a lunar eclipse in 2011:

Observing the Moon with a telescope or binoculars during an eclipse is a wonderful thing, but if you only have your eyes, that’s fine too. It’s fun to go out every few minutes between U1 and U2 and watch the Moon get eaten by the Earth’s arcing shadow.

I hope you have clear skies and good viewing for this event! And if you don’t, never fear: There’s another one in October, then a third in April 2015, and a fourth in September 2015 too. You’ll have plenty of chances to see this lovely astronomical bit of geometrical alignment over the next year and a half.

Related Posts

Incredible Lunar Eclipse Floats Near the Lagoon (phenomenal photo!)
Lunar Eclipse Time-Lapse
Discovery Eclipse
STUNNING Lunar Eclipse Photo
A Lighter Shade of Umbra

The Perils of the Skeptic Journalist

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 08:26

Being a writer these days is fraught with peril. Everything you write goes out into the wild, potentially viewable by millions of people. Usually not, but it can happen. And it may not happen today, or tomorrow … but those words are out there, and someone may stumble on them a year from now, or more.

That’s an abyss that can be hard to face. As someone who’s been writing for a living for a while now, I’ve stood at that edge long enough to be familiar with it, if not actually comfortable there. I know that something I say may be overturned by time, shown wrong by updated information, or just made stale as tastes and public attention evolve.

Of course, sometimes I’m just wrong. I can deal with the others, but just being plain ol’ wrong can be a tough one.

Oh, and I’ve been wrong. The mistakes I’ve made in my articles have ranged from just simple, unimportant stumbles to some that actually cut to the heart of the point I was trying to make. Even those big ones don’t necessarily bug me too much, if the mistake is an honest one: Due diligence was done, the research was performed, but the wrong conclusion was reached.

It’s not always like that though. Sometimes the mistakes are just dumb. Self-inflicted. And this week I’ve made a few. I want to ask for your indulgence while I point them out.

Why? Well, science—meaning the seeking of reality, of truth, of objective knowledge—progresses in some ways by making mistakes, and by examining them openly. That way, we can figure out what went wrong and try to avoid doing it again. And as a skeptic, someone who tries to examine evidence honestly, airing out my errors helps keep me honest.

What follows are my mea culpae. Per errata ad astra.

The UFO and the Deer

On April 10, 2014, I posted an article deconstructing a news story about a trailcam in Mississippi that took pictures of some deer at night. It also caught a strange glow, and several weird shapes. I’ve seen that sort of thing before—internal reflections of light in the camera—and immediately figured that’s what these were. The source of light occurred to me immediately; I checked some software, and sure enough the full Moon rose within minutes of the pictures being taken. Done and done, I figured.

Except I wasn’t quite right. It turns out the reflections were not due to the moon, but instead were from bright infrared LEDs on the camera. The folks at Parastupid have a pretty good breakdown of this. It’s funny; the heart of what I was saying was actually right; it wasn’t a real object creating the glow, but just reflections. I was wrong about the source. My thanks to Alex Parker for a series of tweets pointing me in the right direction as well.

The thing is, the news story played up the mysterious aspects of this event, and I took the reporter to task for not investigating it more thoroughly. It bugs me when I see reports of UFOs or the like, and no real digging occurs.

But in a sense that’s just what I did. I found my explanation, found the support for it, and figured I was done (especially since I’ve seen the Moon mistaken for a UFO before). I should’ve thought further to try to find other explanations. If I had looked at the camera more carefully I would’ve seen the LEDs, and that would’ve made this whole thing pretty obvious.

Next time, too, even if the timing is perfect (like it was for the rising Moon in the video), I’ll try to remember that coincidences happen. That doesn’t make the obvious explanation the right one. And I’ll make sure my own methodology is sound before going after someone else’s.

The Martian Beacon

This one is similar to the one with the deer and the UFO. In a recent image of the surface of Mars taken by the Curiosity rover, there was an odd flash of light that appeared to be off in the distance. I saw right away that the blip of light looked very much like cosmic ray impact—subatomic particles from space hitting the detector–which I had seen literally thousands of times in Hubble images I worked on.

Since I wasn’t familiar with Curiosity images, I asked a friend who was, and she agreed they were cosmic ray hits. Case closed, I figured. I wrote up my post, and that was that.

Except not really. Another expert on Mars hardware said it may have actually been a “light leak,” a bit of sunlight that somehow got into the camera through a hole, or crack, or seam somewhere in the hardware. He also says it may be a sharp reflection of sunlight off a glinty rock. Those are certainly plausible, though right now we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure which of these explanations may or may not be the right one.

But the point is there were other possible explanations than a cosmic ray, and I should have entertained that idea. I didn’t; I came upon a plausible solution and ran with it—and while I confirmed it (and I am not putting any onus on my friend; this is all on me), the first answer I got fed into my own bias so I didn't question it as much as I should have. And like the other story, I took the reporter to task for not looking further. Arg!

This reminds me of my favorite line in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek not the glint in thy brother’s eye; canst thou not see the infrared LED reflection that is in thine own?”

I’m paraphrasing a bit. But either way, my apologies both to the reporters and my readers over this.

The Rock and the Skydiver

A video went viral last week purporting to show a meteoroid—the solid chunk of space debris that is called a meteorite once it hits the ground—passing by a skydiver. At first I thought it was plausible and wrote a post basically taking the tack that the video looked real (as opposed to a deliberate hoax), whether or not the object was actually a meteoroid or something else. But then more evidence built up that it really was just a rock that fell out of the skydiver’s parachute (this is surprisingly common). I wrote a second post at that point, saying I couldn’t be sure, but if I had to bet, I’d bet rock.

Then I got an email from Steinar Midtskogen, one of the people who made the video, and he was admitting they had to face the fact that it was almost certainly a rock. All well and good, but by that point I had noticed a second object in the video, which I took to be more debris falling out of the parachute. While I was pretty sure the first object was a rock by then, the second one convinced me. So I wrote a brief, final post to wrap everything up.

But then Midtskogen emailed me again, saying that they had also seen the second object, and that it was most likely another skydiver on the same jump. Oh! Well, that was certainly plausible, so I updated my post saying so.

Then confusion reigned. I got tweets and emails asking me why I still thought the first object was a rock, when it turned out the second object wasn’t a rock. So I wrote an update, pointing out that my conclusion didn’t depend on the second object, it was just strengthened by it. To me, it pushed my opinion from 95 percent sure to 99 percent, but going back to 95 percent wasn’t so bad. And again, the team had already come to the same conclusion, so I felt pretty safe in mine.

In this case, sure, I made a mistake, and should’ve examined the video more closely to see if the second object could’ve been the other skydiver (who does show up in the video). Luckily, it didn’t really matter, but it was still an error, and it caused confusion among my readers. That’s a situation I try very, very hard to avoid. These things can be confusing enough without me making them worse! I should’ve been more clear on why the second object was neither here nor there when it came to the overall picture.

The Skeptic Ouroboros

Being a skeptic is hard. It’s not easy to try to weigh evidence for everything, be methodical, critical, aware of bias, and come to a conclusion that you’re willing to drop if better evidence comes along. Worse, many times the things you are being skeptical of are cherished beliefs and values held by others, and that’s a fun little path to walk down. It can provoke some pretty, um, strong reactions in people.

But the absolute hardest thing of all is to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Did I miss something? Did I think of other explanations? Am I biased in some way, jumping to a conclusion because I think I know the answer?

How might I be wrong?

I rather blew it a few times this past week by not asking those questions. I’ve been a skeptic a long time, but this is pretty good evidence that you never perfect the technique. Being skeptical is a journey, not a destination. You just have to keep trying.

I’ll keep trying. And just to help, I’ve left myself a little note stuck to my monitor to remind me. Now I just have to remember to check it before clicking that “publish” button every day.

The Beauty of the Mundane

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 04:45

Forty-five million light years away, toward the constellation of Ursa Major, sits a rather unremarkable galaxy. It is not undergoing huge bursts of star formation. It is not blasting out radiation from its core. It isn’t twisted into bizarre shapes by the gravitational influence of a nearby passing galaxy, nor actively eating any smaller galaxies, nor swaddled in thick layers of dust.

It just is, sitting there, being a spiral galaxy. And that’s what makes it so stunningly gorgeous.

That image was created by noted astrophotographer Robert Gendler, who made it using observations by Hubble, the 8.2 meter Subaru telescope, the Digitized Sky Survey, and some of his own images. It is breathtaking in its beauty, showing a galaxy remarkable in its unremarkableness.

I wrote details about NGC 2841 in an earlier article, when the Hubble image was released. Try as I might, I found very little about this galaxy to make it stand out. It’s an absolutely normal spiral galaxy. The only even mildly unusual things about it are that it has some activity in its core that has very slightly warmed up the gas there (probably due to weak action around its central super-massive black hole) and that it’s quite large. NGC 2841 is probably about 100,000 light years across, the same size as our home, the Milky Way galaxy. It almost certainly got that size by merging with other galaxies over the eons, growing each time, but that gluttony has long since passed; NGC 2841 is now stable, quiet, and excruciatingly lovely.

There is one thing I want to point out. The arms of the galaxy are numerous and short, studded with pink gas clouds where stars are being born and larger clouds of opaque dust that block the light from stars behind them. That gives the galaxy a categorization of “flocculent,” a word I quite like.

But it also leads to an interesting effect. In the close-up above, you can see that the dust on the near side of the galaxy (left and below the center) is more obvious and seems to fade out on the far side of the galaxy. This is due to geometry, plus the thickness of the galaxy itself.

On the near side, we have a clear view of the flat spiral disk of the galaxy. Both the stars and the dust and easily visible, the contrast high. But when we look to the far side we are looking across the galaxy itself. There are stars above the plane of the disk, and especially in the roughly spherical core of the galaxy as well. The individual billions of stars blur together to form a glow, a fuzz, and that “fills in” the dark patches of the dust on the far side of the galaxy. Just as the dust itself blocks light from stars behind it, the stars in front of the dust glow too, and make the puffy dust clouds harder to see. It’s a quick and easy trick to figure out which way the galaxy is tipped, which might be hard to determine by eye otherwise.

I have looked at and admired images of literally thousands of galaxies, and over the years I have discovered that there is no such thing as a boring one. Even the most mundane is a vast, sprawling collection of billions of stars, huge clouds of gas and dust, and structure on a scale so grand it dwarfs all of human achievements to a microscopic dot.

Nothing in nature is boring. It is a story told on the tapestry of the Universe, it is all interwoven, and the best part is that we are a part of it, and can try to understand it for ourselves.

Bambi Versus the Space Alien

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 08:51

[UPDATE (Apr. 11, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): The following post contains some corrections that I have clarified in a follow-up article. Please read that when you're done here. Thanks! -PP]

BA Tweep owlice sent me a link to a video that had me chuckling. It’s from the local Oklahoma City Fox station, KOKH, showing a Mississippi couple talking about some footage from a camera they set up outside their house. They were hoping to get a deer or two, but what they got was (cue creepy music) a UFO.

Well, kinda. Watch:

So what is it? Happily, the timeline is dramatically read by the newscaster: At 7:29 a dim light appears, at 7:35 it gets brighter, at 7:53 a weird shape appears, and then at 7:56 another sharper light appears … then it gets much closer, and finally “flies away”.

He asks, “The deer are lit up brightly. But how? The cameras are infrared and don’t emit light.”

Oh, I know how. I was literally 22 seconds into the video when I fired up my sky mapping software (Sky Safari), knowing what I’d find. Sure enough, on that date (Feb. 16, 2014) the nearly full Moon rose at the exact local time the lights were getting brighter. Being so close to full, the Moon would have been quite bright, lighting up the sky just before it rose. Once it was up it shone into the cameras, creating various lens flares, internal reflections caused by the optics. The part where it “flies away” (at 0:46 seconds into the video) is clearly a lens flare.

[UPDATE (Apr. 10 at 16:30 UTC): The plot thickens! Well, thins. Astronomer Alex Parker noted the camera does in fact give off light; it has a bank of infrared LEDs right above the lens. He's right, I totally missed that! You can see them at 1:22 into the video. These are very bright in the infrared, and are almost certainly what are illuminating the deer in the still picture I used at the top of the post—the ghostly reflection is the deer itself (though Parker notes it looks like it could be vapor from the deer's breath) and the "eyes" in the ghost are a reflection of the deer's eyes. I had assumed the Moon was doing this. I'll note the timing with the Moon rise is too much of a coincidence, though, so now I think both are at fault. The glow seen is due to the Moon, while the bright reflections are due to the infrared LEDs.

it goes to show: No good debunking goes unpunished.]

I can forgive people not familiar with the sky thinking something creepy was happening on their camera—in other words, the couple's reaction was not surprising and fairly typical, I'd wager—but it irks me to no end when newscasters run with stories like this without any skepticism about them. He (or his editor) could’ve called any number of astronomers (it was taken at night, after all), or just poked around on the Web looking for other explanations. Instead? We get a UFO.

By the way, the execrable Daily Mail credulously ran with this story too. Shocking.

I wonder though if the advent of the ‘Net has lessened the number of these kinds of breathless reports, even as individual stories may get spread wider and more quickly. I’m not sure there’s any way to tell. But as long as they keep happening, I’ll keep debunking them.

I have an odd sort of job security.

Related Posts

UFOs Over Denver Are Insects
NYC Fox Station Reports Jupiter and Balloons as UFOs

When Planets Attack
Holy UFO Hoax!
Man Calls Emergency Service to Report Flashing Lights in the Sky …


Mars at Its Best Right Now

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 04:45

Due to the orbital dance of the planets, Mars is currently at its best showing of the year, as close to Earth as it gets, and shining brightly all night long.

To see it, go outside. If it’s after sunset and the sky is dark, face southeast. Look up. There it is. It’s one of the brightest objects in the sky and shines with an orange-y glow.

The technical term for Mars’ place in the sky right now is opposition because it is opposite (literally, 180° around the sky) from the Sun. The Sun sets in the west, so after sunset look east. At midnight, when the Sun is lowest, Mars is at its highest. And closer to dawn as the Sun begins to rise in the east Mars will be sinking in the west.

This also means the Red Planet is as close to our own blue-green one as it gets for a couple of years, so it’s the best time to observe it. Mars is only half the size of the Earth, and more than 90 million kilometers (55 million miles) away, so it’s still rather small through a telescope. Despite that, astrophotographer Christian Fröschlin used his Celestron 8” telescope to observe Mars on April 9, 2014, creating enough images to string together into this amazing video:

Coooool. You can actually see the planet rotate! Mars spins once on its axis in a very Earth-like time of about 24.5 hours (what planetary scientists call a sol to distinguish it from an Earth day), so you’re seeing roughly 1/8th of a sol here. It’s currently summer in the Martian northern hemisphere, so that half of the planet is tipped toward the Sun; that means you’re seeing the north polar ice cap in the video. You can see a bunch more recent images taken of Mars over at Universe Today.

Mars isn’t far from the somewhat fainter orange giant star Arcturus in the sky, and it’s fun to compare them. Also, on Sunday and Monday the full Moon will be only a few degrees away, so that’ll make a good photo op.

If you have clear skies, get outside and look up! The Universe awaits.

Correction, April 10, 2014: Due to a typo I originally listed the distance to Mars as 45 million miles. It is actually 55 million.

Chili’s Reception: Restaurant Cancels Event With Anti-Vax Group

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 04:45

Last week, Chili’s made a mistake. The good news? They listened to reason and fixed it. The best news? It shows that reality can win out over nonsense if people speak up.

The family restaurant Chili’s has a series of goodwill campaigns called “Give Back Events,” where it does something nice for the community. Chili’s recently announced that it would do one in partnership with the National Autism Association, with the idea that the funds raised would go toward autism safety for kids, specifically for programs to prevent children with autism from wandering off, a common and dangerous phenomenon.

Let me be clear: I think it’s great that Chili’s does these events, and even better that it wants to take on something to do with autism. This is a serious issue, and a little more public awareness and funding isn’t a bad thing.

The problem was whom Chili’s chose as a partner. While the National Autism Association does some good work for families touched by autism, the group is also pretty clearly anti-vaccination.

Again, let me be clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. This has been shown over and again, and no credible medical organization thinks they are connected. The only groups promoting this imagined link are ideologically based, not evidence based.

The NAA makes it quite clear how it feels about vaccinations. Its page “Causes of Autism” points a finger right at vaccines, saying “The National Autism Association believes … vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune, or inflammatory conditions.” This statement about vaccines is profoundly false.

Another page also connects vaccines and autism. The FAQ has a question about vaccines, and it points people to NVIC, a notoriously anti-vax group. Many members of NAA’s board of directors have direct links with anti-vax groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue (its president is Jenny McCarthy, so there you go).

When this news got out to the ‘Net, the reaction was pretty strong. A lot of people hit the social media to let Chili’s know this was a mistake, and many media venues picked the story up. (This happened quickly enough and while I was working on other big stories that I let it pass for a day … and then it was over before I could say anything, which is why I’m writing this story now.)

Then a wonderful thing happened: Chili’s listened. And it canceled the event:

Chili’s is committed to giving back to the communities in which our guests live and work through local and national Give Back Events. While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests. We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism. At Chili’s, we want to make every guest feel special and we thank all of our loyal guests for your thoughtful questions and comments. We’d love to hear your continued feedback on our  Facebook page.

I think this is fantastic. Voices of reason shone through! And because I think it’s important to leave positive feedback when people make the right choice, I left this note on Chili’s Facebook page:

Dear folks at Chili's - Thank you for listening and reconsidering; NAA, like many such groups, has their heart in the right place but have gone in a very wrong direction with their efforts. As someone who has done extensive research (and writing) about the anti-vax efforts, I urge you to look into the Autism Science Foundation, which uses evidence-based work for their efforts. They understand the need for vaccines and the fact that there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

If you get a chance, please send them a thanks, too.

Of course, not everyone is happy. As a not-so-random example, the monumentally anti-science website Natural News has a screed penned by its creator Mike Adams, who, to be kind, is not exactly reality-based. He is a supporter of astrology, for example (!!), and also claims that chemotherapy is what killed Patrick Swayze and other celebrities who were suffering from cancer.

Adams was not pleased that Chili’s “caved to the medical mafia.” The number of straight-up fallacies in his article is almost impressive. He links vaccines to autism (nope), talks about courts admitting vaccines cause autism (grossly misleading), goes on about toxins in vaccines (also grossly misleading), and claims the people making up the “medical mafia” (which I suppose includes me) are brain damaged. Nice, eh?

But that reaction is not at all surprising from groups who deny all the real evidence and continue to claim that vaccines are evil. As a parent myself, I (with my wife) did the research at the time and decided to have our daughter get her full schedule of vaccinations. All three of us continue to get boosters when needed, too.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. The life you save may not be your own, but an innocent infant too young to get vaccinations herself.

So kudos to Chili’s for doing the right thing and not supporting an anti-vaccination group. I hope that it does eventually have its event and gives its money to a group (like the Autism Science Foundation) that understands the reality of the importance of vaccinations, as well as does good work with families touched by autism.

(Final) Follow-Up: Yup. It Was a Rock.

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 10:57

[UPDATE (Apr. 11, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): The following post contains some corrections that I have clarified in a follow-up article. Please read that when you're done here. Thanks! -PP]

For those of you taking notes at home, over the past few days I wrote a couple of pieces about a viral video that purported to show a meteoroid (the solid part of space debris that gets hot and creates a meteor when it rams through our atmosphere) zipping past a skydiver. At first I was open to the idea, if skeptical, but upon further reading and examination I became more convinced it was just a rock that fell out of the skydiver’s parachute.

Unfortunately, that turns out to be the case. It really was just a rock.

Steinar Midtskogen, one of the people involved with making the video, has written a post with the story. Clearly they were hoping it was actually a meteorite, but the evidence mounted up to the more mundane, terrestrial explanation.

I actually became convinced last night, when BA Tweep Helge Bjørkhaug sent me a link to a slowed-down version of the video. Immediately before the rock flies past, I saw a second piece of debris just to the right of the skydiver’s parachute strap. It was in several frames, and clearly real. Here’s a screengrab:

This is a frame from the footage online from the skydiver's forward-facing camera, at the 2:51 mark. The debris is highlighted. Literally a less than a second later the big chunk goes by, making it pretty clear they’re connected by the same event: the parachute unfurling. If they were both meteoroids, there is no way a smaller one would be so close to the bigger one; air resistance would have separated them by hundreds or thousands of meters by this point. The more logical and parsimonious explanation is that they came from the parachute itself, accidentally wrapped up with it when it was prepped for the jump.

[Update, April 8, 2014 at 20:00 UTC: Midtskorgen emailed me again and said the second object I point out here is actually the second skydiver, Jon Vegar. That sounds reasonable, to be honest; he appears later in the video near that spot, and the second object doesn't appear to be falling as fast as you'd expect a rock to fall. I'm OK with that, and this doesn't change the overall conclusion that the original object is a rock.]

[Update 2, Apr. 9, 2014 at 18:30 UTC: I'm getting feedback from people asking me why I think the first object is a rock, if I was mistaken about the second object. That's a fair question! It's because I was already pretty convinced the first object was a rock, and when I thought the second object was too it was adding just that much more evidence. But my conclusion wasn't based on the second object, just modified by it. Take it away, and the evidence still points to the first object being just a rock. Also, by that time the video makers had already reached the same conclusion. so I'm satisfied we've reached the conclusion here.]

Thus endeth our tale. While I would have loved this to have been a real meteoroid, I’m glad this worked out the way it did: The video-makers were honest, did their level best to figure this out, and when they got as far as they could, they put it out to the public. And when it was shown to not be what they had hoped, they admitted it openly and clearly.

That’s how you get to the truth, folks. Open inquiry, honest investigation, and acceptance of the line of evidence no matter where it leads. My hat’s off to the folks behind the video, and to all the people in Internet land who contributed to figuring this out. Well done.

No, That’s NOT an Artificial Light on Mars

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 09:30

[UPDATE (Apr. 11, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): The following post contains some corrections that I have clarified in a follow-up article. Please read that when you're done here. Thanks! -PP]

Apparently April is the month to debunk astronomical foolishness, for I have yet another bit of space silliness to disassemble.

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle ran a story showing a picture from the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the fourth rock from the Sun since August 2012. As the rover moves over the Martian surface it deploys an arsenal of tools to examine its environment.

That, of course, includes cameras. Many of the pictures are visually stunning, and some are plain old weird. After all, they’re shots of the landscape on an alien world!

But some folks take the word “alien” a bit too metaphorically. In the Chronicle article, the writer, Carol Christian, points out one particular picture (shown above) that depicts a spray of light that looks to be off in the distance. She wrote, “A NASA camera on Mars has captured what appears to be artificial light emanating outward from the planet's surface.”

Right, artificial. That’s the first conclusion we should jump to. But then, instead of asking any of a dozen scientists or science journalists who might actually be able to supply an answer, she just quotes the site she got the image from: UFO Sightings Daily.*

Yes, you read that right. The Houston Chronicle is repeating a story they found on a UFO conspiracy site.

When I saw the picture, I knew right away it wasn’t from some artificial source. It wasn’t even really a light source on Mars! I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time. To make sure though, I asked my friend Emily Lakdawalla, who is also a planetary scientist and journalist. Her immediate response: cosmic ray.

[UPDATE (Apr. 8 at 20:00 UTC): The plot thickens; Justin Maki, a scientist at JPL, says this may be a sunglint off a rock, and not a cosmic ray. That's certainly possible! As I note below, though, it only appears in one camera and not the other, so I'm not quite convinced yet. However, I'll wait a little while and see what shakes out of this, so I don't post a lot of confusing updates and corrections! In the meantime, even if it isn't a cosmic ray I can still be reasonably sure it's not aliens.]

Ah, of course. Cosmic rays are charged subatomic particles (like protons, electrons, and so on) zipping around in space. On Earth, our atmosphere absorbs them so they don’t have much of an effect on cameras down here. But if you put a telescope in space, they are bombarded by these little beasties. When a cosmic ray slams into the electronic detector in the camera, it deposits some energy in the pixel (or pixels) where it hits. These detectors are designed to detect energy from incoming light, and they can’t tell the difference between a cosmic ray hit and a photon coming from a distant star. All they do is register the energy (you can read a lot more about this on a page where I dismantled claims about Planet X).

And that’s what we have here. Curiosity was taking a picture of the Martian horizon, and during the time the picture was taken, a subatomic particle smacked into the camera, leaving behind its trail of energy. It’s a camera artifact, not a real one.

How can I know the light isn’t real, and is just inside the camera itself? Because the camera is the NAVCAM, which is actually two cameras, one on the right and one on the left. This provides a binocular view of the landscape, which can be used (just like our own eyes do) to determine distances to objects. At the same time NAVCAM RIGHT took the picture with the light in it, NAVCAM LEFT also took a picture … and there’s no light. Here are both pictures so you can compare them:

See? It’s in one camera’s picture but not the other, even though they were taken at the same time (on April 3, 2014, at 10:00:03 UTC).

To make this even more clear, I made an animated GIF of the two shots:

As you can see, the landscape shifts a bit due to the different perspectives of the two cameras. The light is in one shot, but not the other.

I’ll note we see this kind of thing all the time, including in Curiosity images. Here’s one over a rock, for example. It’s not hard to find more if you peruse the Curiosity raw images archive (or the Unmanned Spaceflight forum, where space aficionados post and discuss the latest images from various missions).

So that’s what we have here. It’s not some alien rave, or a stranded bug-eyed monster signaling for help, or other fanciful fiction. No, it’s far more mundane, merely the quantized energy deposited by a subatomic particle that was accelerated in the magnetic fields of an exploded star and traveled thousands of light years across the galaxy at nearly the speed of light to finally slam into an electronic camera mounted on a mobile nuclear-powered laser-eyed chemical laboratory humans sent to another planet.

Clearly, reality’s not cool enough. We need to add aliens to make this a story.

Sigh.

(My very sincere and very large thanks to Emily Lakdawalla for help on this.)

*Correction, April 8, 2014: This post originally misstated the name of the website UFO Sightings Daily.

The Principle: A Documentary About Geocentrism. Yeah, I Know.

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 07:30

Of all the wrongiest wrongs that ever wronged wrongness, Geocentrism is way up on the list. The idea that the Earth is the center of the Universe makes creationism look positively scientific in comparison. It might be edged out by people who think the Earth is flat, but just barely.

And yet somebody actually went out and made a “documentary” where, apparently, that is exactly what they’re trying to promote. It’s called The Principle, and it’s making the rounds on the ‘Net right now. Here’s the trailer. Be ye fairly warned, says I: head asplodey stuff enclosed.

The trailer does seem to be making a case for Geocentrism (it's mentioned specifically), but given the title, I would guess they're going to try to make a broader point that the Universe itself was made—created, if you will—purposely for us. This idea (broadly speaking) is called the strong anthropic principle (hence the doco title), and as a philosophy it's not terribly informative. It's fun to think about in a limited sense, but in the end it always boils down to "God did it," which is slamming a door in the face of exploration and inquiry. I'm not a big fan of that.

About the trailer, yes, it’s narrated by Kate Mulgrew, aka Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. Some people are lamenting this, wondering if she’s a geocentrist. I doubt it, and you can’t necessarily judge an actor for the work they do. Mitch Pileggi (from The X-Files) narrated an episode of Exploring the Unknown debunking the Apollo Moon hoax, yet he also narrated Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? So you can’t jump to any conclusions here.

[UPDATE (Apr. 8 at 20:15 UTC); Well, that was fast. Kate Mulgrew just posted a note on Facebook disavowing the film in no uncertain terms. Thanks to Ben_Etc on Twitter for pointing this out to me!]

What’s far more interesting is that the trailer shows physicists Michio Kaku and Lawrence Krauss, both of whom, I strongly suspect, would call Geocentrism nonsense (and wait! Krauss did exactly that). So why are they in the movie? I would guess the producers didn’t tell them exactly what the movie was about when they did their interviews; that’s more common than you’d think. The makers of the execrable movie Expelled did just that to several scientists. A German TV company did that to me about a Moon hoax documentary they filmed me for (the segment promoted the hoax).

Update, April 8, 2014 at 15:15 UTC: On Twitter, Krauss has said that the clips of him in The Principle were taken from other interviews: "For all who asked: Some clips of me apparently were mined for movie on geocentricism. So stupid does disservice to word nonsense. Ignore it."

Anyway, the topic of geocentrism is interesting. You have to separate out little-g geocentrism as a frame of reference in physics (like saying “The Sun rose”) versus capital-G Geocentrism which is that the Earth is the center of the Universe because the Bible says so. The former is perfectly fine in limited cases (we use it to launch satellites and point our telescopes), but the latter is provably wrong.

I’ll note that the guy who made this documentary, Robert Sungenis, has been promoting this flavor of nonsense for a while now. I wrote about a Geocentrism conference he ran a few years back (called, seriously, “Galileo Was Wrong, the Church Was Right”). To give you an idea of the guy we're talking about here, he has a history of saying anti-Semitic things and also of making Holocaust denial claims (and you can find more lovely things about him here). That would fit with the conspiratorial tone of some of the movie trailer, too.

So I expect this movie/documentary will be more of this same flavor of nonsense. We'll see. As I’ve said before, the path of reality is narrow, and once you step off it, all manners of silliness seem equally plausible.

“Our National Debate About Climate Policy Is Broken”

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 04:45

A new study just released by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that of the three major cable news networks, in 2013 Fox News far and away was the worst at covering news about climate change: More than 70 percent of their coverage contained misleading statements about it.

Shocking, I know.

Comparatively, CNN’s coverage was misleading 30 percent of the time while MSNBC was the most accurate with “only” 8 percent of its coverage being misleading.

This is not a surprise at all, of course; Fox News has long been known to distort reality when it comes to anything they feel threatens their ideology. What is surprising is that in 2013 their coverage of climate change was actually better than it was in 2012, when a jaw-dropping 93 percent of their statements about it were misleading.

If we were to grade them, in 2012 they’d have gotten an “A” in being unfair and unbalanced.

Diving into this a bit is interesting. The biggest contribution to CNN’s bad showing was due to false balance, having deniers on panels along with real scientists. For the most part with Fox the problem is with the hosts themselves, though they tend to have deniers on as guests quite a bit.

MSNBC was generally graded down by UCS because of a few mild overstatements linking some specific extreme weather events and climate change; in other words for going the other way than the other networks. They said that that climate change makes hurricanes and tornadoes more frequent, and tornadoes more intense. To my knowledge there is no well-established link for that (though climate change is indeed making the most intense hurricanes even stronger). So that’s a fair enough call by the UCS, but it’s chump change compared to the blatant denial so often seen on Fox. There are degrees of wrongness, and Fox wins here.

Worse, Fox viewers greatly outnumber those of CNN and MSNBC (1.76 million, 568,000, and 640,000 respectively), which means that even though MSNBC did a much better job, and covered climate change far more often, Fox’s distortions probably had a wider reach.

Fox’s ideological bias is so well-known it’s like the air around us; taken for granted. At least, it is to those of us who know better. Polls show that Fox viewers tend to be misinformed on a broad range of topics (though it’s not known whether less-informed viewers watch Fox News, or whether Fox News makes them less well-informed). This is no surprise; for example just last week Fox News was reporting on the Affordable Care Act, and used a seriously misleading graph. It was so stupendously bad that it even got lampooned by Saturday Night Live:

I think that graph is the best part of the segment, even more than the bit dealing with climate change, which also has some fun with my pal Neil Tyson as well. I’ll note a Fox News host later admitted the graph was misleading, but by then the damage was done.

And while that SNL segment was funny, the topic itself is not. Many of the effects of climate change are already and unequivocally being felt now, today. The latest IPCC report was dire, saying we need to take action right now to prevent the worst effects of climate change over the next few decades … and in some cases, no matter what we do, some of those effects are coming anyway.

Yet Fox News seems hellbent on making sure the public is less informed than ever about one of if not the most important issue of our time.

If you won’t even acknowledge the problem, how on Earth can you ever hope to fix it?

Follow-Up: The Meteorite and the Skydiver

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 08:00

Last week, a video went viral that purports to show a skydiver narrowly missed by a meteoroid falling past him. A lot of people have been speculating over the video, of course. I watched it many times, and after giving it some thought I wrote up my own opinion. Basically, the video doesn’t looked faked to me, and while I remained skeptical, I leaned toward it being real, and open to the idea that it really is a meteoroid.

Note: If this rock came from space then technically it was a meteoroid; they’re called meteorites after they hit the ground. I took great pains in my first article to call it a rock or an object, since its pedigree is still <puts on sunglasses> up in the air. I will do so again here. However, most of the articles I saw called it a meteorite, so I used that term in the titles so people would know what video I’m talking about.

Here's the footage again; you can see the object fly past at about the 1:50 mark.

Over the weekend I received lots of comments on Twitter, Facebook, and via email about the video and my post. Some of them were from people convinced the object is a meteoroid, while others poo-pooed the whole idea. But some of the discussion went into details of the video and what it could be, and I want to follow-up on what I wrote because of that.

To be clear and concise: While I initially dismissed this idea after some thought, it is entirely possible that what the video shows is a smaller rock that fell out of the skydiver’s parachute. I don’t think this can be ruled out, and indeed, is more parsimonious than the idea that the video captures an extraordinarily rare event like the dark flight of a meteoroid. So the video is almost certainly real, in that I mean it wasn’t hoaxed, but as things stand now we cannot know for sure what the object is or isn’t. But it being a rock trapped in the ‘chute is a far more likely explanation.

Well, ‘Chute

In my first post, I brought up the idea that the object was a bit of debris caught in the parachute, and then fell out when the parachute opened. However, given the size and speed of the object, that seemed unlikely to me, so I discounted it.

I may have been too speedy in that assessment. First, many skydivers have said falling debris is a relatively common event; all manners of small objects can get caught in the parachute when it is packed on the ground before the dive. So it’s not impossible, and there’s plenty of precedent.

Second, I discounted the idea of this being such an object due to its size. An analysis of the video by Steinar Midtskogen indicated the rock was between 8-20 cm (3-8 inches) across. Surely something that size (and weighing 1-20 kilos) would not get missed when the ‘chute was being packed!

But Midtskogen was assuming the object was a meteoroid, and falling several hundred kilometers per hour, terminal velocity for such an object. The speed it falls is critical for getting its distance from the camera (the object moves rapidly across the camera field of view, so if you know how fast it is moving then you can calculate how far it falls between video frames, and that can be used to determine its distance from the camera). He finds it was between 2.5 and 6.5 meters (8-21 feet) away when it passed.

But that assumes the object really is moving rapidly. If it fell from his ‘chute, then it could easily be moving much less quickly, and that would mean it was actually much closer to the camera, and therefore smaller. I didn’t initially think this would be the case because the object is well-focused in the video, and if it were really close it wouldn’t be.

That was an error on my part. The camera used is wide-angle and has a very large depth-of-field, the technical term used to mean the range of distance over which an object is focused. As you can see in the frame grabs from the video, the hand straps and tethers in the parachute are well-focused, and are less than a meter away from the camera! That means the object too could have been less than a meter away, which means it could have been much smaller, as small as just a couple of centimeters.

My friend and astrophotographer André van der Hoeven also analyzed the video, and determined the object was not accelerating when it flew past; in other words it was at terminal velocity. He reasoned that a rock falling from the parachute would be expected to accelerate due to gravity, so he concluded it must have fallen from far, far above the diver. [Update (Apr. 7, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): van der Hoeven recently updated his analysis to note that he can't rule out the rock coming from the parachute, only that it was unlikely.]

However, there are a lot of variables to this. At the speed at which the skydiver was falling, air resistance would be quite high and could slow a small rock very rapidly. There could also be quite a bit of turbulence from the parachute itself, creating eddies in the air that could change the velocity of a small falling rock. I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of it being debris initially stuck in the ‘chute due to the speed and/or acceleration at which it falls.

And I have to admit that it bugged me right away that we see the object just seconds after the parachute deployed. That’s another big coincidence in a big series of them. At first the evidence seemed to weigh against it coming from the parachute, but now it’s clear that’s not the case.

[Update 2 (Apr. 7, 2014 at 17:30 UTC): Dr. Philip Metzger a physicist and planetary scientist at NASA, analyzed the video using some sophisticated computer modeling and determined that the object was most likely either a small piece of rock very close to the camera, or a far larger one between 12-18 meters away. Given how big the object must have been if it were really that far away, this again lends more weight to the idea that this was actually a small bit of debris caught up in the parachute.]

Earth Diving

In my first article, I was more concerned over whether this was a hoax than a case of mistaken identity. That gave me a certain angle, a certain point of view, while looking over the video. I should have been more concerned over the possibility that while the video was authentic, the conclusion was mistaken.

After more thought, I not only cannot rule out that it was a smaller rock caught in the parachute that fell once the ‘chute deployed, I have to admit that it is a more likely explanation. That does not mean it’s the right one, of course. But bear in mind that meteoroids big enough to see are extremely rare, and are so uncommon that none—not one—has ever been positively caught on video, despite all the cameras we use all the time. That means this object is even more unlikely to be one, since it also fell very close to the camera (and coincidentally right after the parachute opened). That’s a whole lot of unlikely events happening in a row, which triggered my skeptical sense right away but makes it tingle even more strongly now.

I’ll note that Midtskogen emailed me over the weekend and was quite open about this possibility, and is eager to have others analyze the video to see what they can find; they put all the original footage on YouTube (though the original raw footage off the camera is not available yet; it’s too big for YouTube, but Midtskogen assured me they’re working on a home for it). That is precisely the right attitude, and I hope that other people can find clever ways to figure out more about this.

And finally, another observation: As usual, with a claim on the Internet, the reactions to it have been diverse, fascinating, and frustrating. From the comments I received, I found a lot of people didn’t really read what I wrote. Some people thought I was saying it is definitely a meteorite—but that’s not the case. I tried very hard not to say that in my post (though my concluding paragraphs are based on the idea that it was). Others were dismissive of the idea, saying that a meteoroid would still be hot and moving at hypersonic speeds, a misconception I specifically debunked in my article!

It was nice to see much of the commentary being calm and rational, with different people picking up various threads and analyzing them for their merit or lack thereof. Of course that wasn’t always the case, and some folks got pretty hot under the collar about this. But that is less than useless; it turns people off and can close avenues of discussion that might otherwise be useful. In a case like this, simple, reasoned discussion is the best way to go.

I’m still willing to be swayed further either way on the topic. I am not saying it was or was not a meteoroid, but it seems far more likely to have a far more mundane explanation. And either way, any conclusion will have to rely on better evidence and better, more detailed analysis than we have seen so far.

But if I had to bet, based on what we’ve seen? I’d put my money on it being a plain ol’ rock.

A Snail’s Pace Change in Cassini Reveals an Ocean Under Enceladus

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 04:30
I’d like to be
Under the sea,
In Enceladus’ ocean
In the shade.             — with apologies to the Beatles

New results from the Cassini Saturn spacecraft offer further evidence that the tiny moon Enceladus has an undersurface ocean of liquid water. This is pretty exciting news, since liquid water was once thought to be a commodity unique to Earth in the solar system.

We’ve known for years there must be some repository of water under the surface. In 2005, Cassini discovered huge plumes of liquid water erupting from the south pole region of Enceladus, and later pegged them to long cracks in the surface nicknamed “tiger stripes” (technically called “sulci,” they look more like tiger claw marks to me, which I think is a more appropriate metaphor as well).

The new data strongly imply that the water is coming from an ocean under the tiger stripes, some 30-40 kilometers (20-25 miles) under the surface, and reaching up to latitudes of 50° or so (Enceladus is about 500 kilometers (300 miles) across. What’s really cool is that it was found using the cosmic equivalent of a cop’s radar gun.

Cassini is in contact with Earth via radio. The frequency of those radio waves emitted is essentially constant, but as the spacecraft moves toward or away from Earth we see a tiny Doppler shift in the frequency. Think of it as ever so slightly moving a radio dial to a different channel, if you like. These tiny changes due to Cassini’s motion can be measured to incredible accuracy.

Cassini has encountered Enceladus many times over the years. From 2010 to 2012 it flew past at very low altitude over the surface of the moon three times (at 48, 50, and 99 kilometers, close shaves indeed). If Enceladus were a perfectly homogeneous sphere, then we would have seen Cassini’s speed smoothly increasing until it reached closest approach, then slowing smoothly as it drew farther away. That would be the simple effect of the moon’s gravity pulling harder on the spacecraft as it got nearer, then slowing it as it receded.

But that’s not exactly what was seen. Overall, yes, but on top of that were tiny variation’s in the spacecraft’s speed, amounting to a mere 0.2–0.3 millimeters per second—that’s about half an inch every minute, literally slower than a snail’s pace. What caused those?

The smooth acceleration only happens if the moon is a smooth sphere. But it’s not. For example, a mountain on the surface would pull on Cassini a bit harder, changing its velocity a wee bit. A large depression would also affect the velocity, though in the opposite way, because the lack of material pulls on Cassini less.

We know Enceladus is not a smooth sphere; the south polar region is actually a basin, with slightly lower elevation overall. That means there’s less mass there, which in turn means that its gravity is somewhat less. We’d expect it to have less force on the spacecraft, so it doesn’t accelerate on approach and decelerate as it recedes quite so much.

In fact that’s what was seen, but there’s more: given the size of the depression, Cassini wasn’t affected as much as expected. It actually accelerated and decelerated a bit more than what the math showed it should. The most likely cause: something under the surface denser than the ice above it, something with more mass that compensated for the basin’s lack of mass.

Given the fact that the moon is mostly covered in ice, and the plumes are made of liquid water, this dense region deep under the south pole is very likely to be the reported ocean of liquid water (which is denser than ice). 

That’s very cool. It’s important to understand this was expected; if it hadn’t found that anomaly then that would’ve been pretty strange, since we know the plumes must come from somewhere. Given this, the next questions become 1) just how big and deep is this ocean, and b) how does the water get from that ocean up to the surface? We know the plume eruptions are linked to the shape of the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn, which means they erupt due to the influence of Saturn’s gravity on the moon. When Enceladus is farther from Saturn the stress from the planet’s gravity is relieved a bit, and the tiger strip cracks open wider, letting the water through. But how the water is transported the dozens of kilometers up to the surface is still somewhat uncertain.

I’ll note that the existence of this ocean was not really “discovered” in the traditional sense. The plumes from the surface already made it clear liquid water existed under the surface. What makes this great is that it lends a lot of much-needed support to what we already thought was going on. I also suspect that the new data can’t entirely rule out some other reason for the gravitational anomaly, like a large region of rock under the surface. The scientists involved do note that is highly unlikely, and that’s fine by me. I do think the existence of the ocean is the most likely and best explanation of the velocity seen.

And the implications of this are very exciting indeed. Organic (that is, carbon-based) materials have been detected in the plume water, meaning the rock and water under the surface of Enceladus have mixed. And even though the Sun never reaches these icy depths, there’s also clearly a source of energy melting the water (in the form of Saturn’s gravity squeezing the moon). That doesn’t mean there’s life there, of course, but it is pretty provocative. And now we think similar plumes from Jupiter’s moon Europa exist as well.

I’d say it’s about time we got serious about sending a lander to one or both of these small worlds. This is an entirely new window on our solar system that has been thrown open here. At the worst, we’d learn a vast amount about our neighborhood and the solar system in which we live.

And at best, maybe, just maybe, we’d learn about our neighbors, too.

A New Volcanic Island Swallows Its Older Sister

Sun, 04/06/2014 - 04:45

Tens of thousands of years ago, an undersea volcano a thousand kilometers south of Tokyo reached a milestone: Its peak reached the surface of the Pacific Ocean. It became an actual island. For millennia it slept, but in the 1970s a series of eruptions grew the island, which was named Nishinoshima. It was tiny, just a couple of hundred meters across.

But then there were a series of eruptions just south of the island in November 2013, in a still-submerged part of the volcano. This created a second peak, which poked through the water’s surface to become a new island just a few hundred meters from Nishinoshima.

That wouldn’t last: The new island grew as the volcano continued to erupt, and just before New Year’s Day 2014, the new island grew so big it actually connected to the old island. Now there is just one … and it’s still erupting, as you can see in this lovely image taken by the Landsat 8 satellite on March 20, 2014:

The new, merged island is about 1,200 meters (3/4 miles) across, and the volcanic cones reach about 60 meters (200 feet) above sea level. The Japanese Coast Guard has been watching the island carefully and has many dramatic pictures of it; here’s my favorite:

The Landsat picture is pretty cool; you can see the island itself on the left (north is to the right), and the actual volcanic plume as a faint gray streak. The puffy white clouds are forming as water droplets condense around the particles in the plume. This is called nucleation. This process is how all clouds form, though usually it’s from dust in the air, not volcanic material! I like how the plume appears to come out in puffs (possibly from cyclic volcanic pumping) and the clouds follow the same pattern. This goes on a long way, for dozens of kilometers downwind:

Our planet is an active one, constantly churning and moving. Old land is subducted under continental plates, and new land forms as volcanoes take the guts of the Earth and eject them onto the surface. This usually takes millions of years to see real progress, but it does sometimes also happen on a human timescale. I love living in a time when we can see it from different perspectives, including from space! It really provides us with an amazing view of this literally ever-changing world.

Note: Just as I was about to post this, I saw that my friend Mika McKinnon wrote about it (and other ocean volcanoes) on io9. Nice coincidence!

Did a Skydiver Almost Get Hit by a Meteorite? (Video.)

Sat, 04/05/2014 - 04:45

A couple of days ago, a video taken by a skydiver hit the ‘Net like an asteroid impact. That’s because that’s exactly what the claim was: footage of a meteoroid zipping past the falling diver, a rock from space clearly caught on camera.

I was on travel (sigh; that seems inevitable when stuff like this happens) so I couldn’t get a good look at it, but now that I’ve had some time to peruse it I have to admit the video does look legit. My default response is of course extreme skepticism; video hoaxes seem to outnumber real ones 10 to one.

But my conclusion here is that unless this was faked outright—and there may simply be no way to ever know that—then this does show what appears to be a rock falling, and that means it may be a meteorite. It certainly looks that way!

First things first. Here’s the video:

The whole thing is worth watching, but the best shot of the rock flying by comes at about the 1:50 mark.

Given that I’m leaning toward it being real, let me cover how it might have been faked first.

Meteor Might

If this footage is faked, then the rock was either a real object dropped on purpose, or it was digitally added to the video (or something real mistaken for a meteoroid; I’ll get to that presently). I am not an expert in video manipulation—though I suppose I could be considered one in simple digital imagery, given my experience working on astronomical images—but it doesn’t look faked to me. The image isn’t overly crisp like so many are, and it doesn’t look pixelated or cut-and-pasted. I don’t have the original footage, and I have not heard anything from video experts, so I suspect we’ll have to leave that question unanswered.

So let’s look at it being done practically, using a real rock. Many people have suggested it was dropped from the plane, but that’s very unlikely; Anders Helstrup, the skydiver who took the video, had been falling for some time before deploying his parachute, and it would’ve been incredibly difficult to get the aim just right. Even if the plane were just off frame, the aim would’ve had to been extraordinary. Even if they tried multiple times to get it right, this appears to have been far too lucky a shot.

Others have suggested it came from his parachute (see comments at that link); we see it zip by right after the chute is deployed. But note how fast the rock is dropping. If it started from his parachute, it would’ve been falling far slower relative to him. So I don’t think that’s the case either. Note too that some people think it might have been a rock caught in his parachute (probably when it was packed), but something that size and weight probably would have been noticed. And either way, the relative speed makes this explanation unlikely.

So if I were to fake something like this, the easiest way would be to have a third skydiver along to do it. They would jump after Helstrup and his companion, or just stay above them. The third diver could move into position (easy enough since they used flight suits, which are highly maneuverable) and drop the rock from some height above.

Again, though, the speed of the rock belies this. It was moving pretty rapidly, so I doubt anyone would aim it that well. If they made an error, they could seriously hurt Helstrup.

And I also have another serious problem with this: Any way of making this footage involving dropping a real rock would’ve had to have been tried many times to get it right. That means they dropped an actual rock from thousands of meters up over inhabited land many times, an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing to do. Hoaxing something is one thing; purposely endangering people is another, and I have a very hard time making the assumption they’d do that.

Meteor Right

OK then, let’s assume it’s real. How can that be?

A lot of people think meteoroids (the actual rock) fall to the ground at high speed, but in fact smaller ones move much more slowly. When it starts out, the object in space is moving dozens of kilometers per second, but it slows down extremely rapidly in our air when it’s still 80-100 kilometers above the ground. As it gets lower it can break up, and those pieces decelerate savagely as well. By the time it’s 20 or so kilometers up, it’s essentially free falling to the ground. It hits terminal velocity of a few hundred kilometers per hour, and then falls at a constant speed after that. So if this rock was from a meteor, it wouldn’t be moving hypersonically when it passed Helstrup. It would move just like we see in the video.

I’ll note that Steinar Midtskogen at the Norwegian Meteor Network did a great analysis of the video (here’s an English translation) and shows the rock to be about 8–20 cm across, depending on how far it was (2.5–6.5 meters away), which he calculates based on an assumed rate of speed.* That also gives it a mass of just under a kilo (2 pounds) to about 20 kilos (45 pounds).

Looking at the video, the rock does have the appearance of a meteoroid (note: it’s not technically a meteorite until it hits the ground). If the main mass that fell into our atmosphere broke apart, you’d get smaller pieces where one side could be dark from the heat of passage (called the fusion crust) while another side would look brighter, since it’s “fresh” rock, shattered from the original. Even the color looks about right.

That doesn’t mean it is a space rock, though. It could be some sort of other debris, though what I don’t know. It doesn’t look like something from an airplane, and at that height it’s unlikely to be a grinder tip from an industrial belt (a relatively common object mistaken for a meteorite).

One last note: A rock that big implies an even bigger starting mass, which means the actual meteor event would’ve produced a very bright bolide/fireball a few minutes before the footage we see. I can’t say how bright it would’ve been, and given it was broad daylight, and somewhat cloudy skies, it’s entirely possible something like that could’ve been missed.

S’trewth

So what do we make of all this? I don’t have solid evidence either way. Proof could come in the form of the actual meteorite, but despite two years of searching, no meteorite has ever been found—which isn’t surprising, given how much area we’re talking about here. It could’ve fallen into a creek, or forest, or some other difficult-to-search place. Not finding the rock doesn’t prove anything either way.

I’ll note that Helstrup had at least one expert looking at the video (Hans Erik Foss Amundsen, a geophysicist), who concluded it was real. Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today also got confirmation of its reality from a Norwegian astrophysicist. That does sway me.

Could this video have been faked? Well, sure, anything can be these days. But it seems unlikely. And it does hold together consistently. After watching it a number of times and thinking it over, my conclusion is that it is much more likely to be real than not.

That being the case, if someone does find the meteorite in question, it could be incredibly valuable. Meteorites from known falls are worth more than random ones, and this one would be even more special: It’s the first time anyone has gotten footage of the so-called dark flight part of a meteorite’s fall. (There is footage of the Russian Chelyabinslk meteorite impacting a frozen lake, but the rock itself isn’t seen, just the plume from the snow and ice blown up by the force of impact)

Also, I wonder: If this is a smaller piece of a larger fall, then there should be more rocks to find as well. The strewn field, as the fall area is called, could be quite large, with very few pieces in it. But that does increase the chance of finding smaller pieces “upstream” of the fall.

I certainly hope the pieces (or piece) are found. How interesting and exciting it would be to actually have the first physical specimen from a known, photographed, dark flight!

*Correction, April 7, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of Steinar Midtskogen of the Norwegian Meteor Network.