Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

Nov. 17 2015 11:30 AM

Canada Opens the Door for Science Once Again

I have some very good news about the War on Science: The recent Canadian election has kicked out a regressive government and put one in place that, all signs indicate, will be much more welcoming of reality.

The election of progressive Justin Trudeau appears to be a huge win for science. For one, it means Stephen Harper is out, and his oppressive anti-science tactics along with him. Under his rule a lot of research funding was cut, for example. Worse was the fact that scientists were muzzled; they literally were not allowed to talk to the press about any research results without a governmental say-so.

This is not a repeat from Soviet Russia. This was Canada, in the 21st century.

But it was true, emphasis on the word “was.” One of the first acts of the new Trudeau government was to allow scientists to speak freely to the press. This is an extremely important event! A government that controls what scientists say can also control the science being done, which can have dramatic and profound effects.

For example, imagine if climate scientists in the U.S. were muzzled, only allowing climate change deniers access to the media. This is essentially what the previous Canadian government was doing.

But no longer. And that’s a very, very good thing.

And it gets better. Trudeau announced his new Cabinet, and (besides it having male-female parity, as well as a diversity that far better matches that of the population) it includes a minister of science!

Wow. This is fantastic news. Harper had banished science oversight to a junior minister in the industry department (part of an overarching plot to relegate science to the services of industry, a shameful act I’ve written about before–twice in fact, since I got an earful of trivial propaganda from the Canadian government after my first article about it).

But no more. Science now has its own ministry, and not only that, the minister is a bona fide actual scientist. Her name is Kirsty Duncan, and she is a medical geographer—she worked on tracing physical remains of the Spanish influenza epidemic that (almost literally) decimated the planet in 1918.

While Duncan will oversee the government’s role in pure science, there will also be a minister of innovation, science, and economic development, Navdeep Bains, who will oversee the coordination of science and industry.

This is a very positive development. Science is a way of finding knowledge that gets ever-closer to truth. It must be, by its very nature, an exploration of the Universe unfettered by political ideology or blinders installed by narrow-minded desires. If the research naturally goes that way, that’s fine, but science must inform politics, not vice-versa. Once politics starts interfering with science, well, that way disaster lies.

I’m glad the new Canadian government understands this. If only my own country’s majority party did.

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Nov. 17 2015 9:15 AM

The Cluster at the Edge of the Universe

I love it when a piece of news comes out that ties in so neatly with a recent episode of Crash Course Astronomy: Hard on the heels of my talking about clusters of galaxies in the distant Universe, astronomers have announced they’ve found an immense cluster 8.5 billion light-years away. It’s the most massive cluster found at this distance.

How massive? A quadrillion times the mass of the Sun massive. That’s equivalent to 10,000 galaxies like our Milky Way. That’s a huge honkin’ cluster.

The cluster is called MOO J1142+1527 (for “massive overdense object” plus its coordinates on the sky), and it was found as part of a project set out specifically to look for big galaxy clusters that are very far away. The project is called—are you ready for this?—Massive and Distant Clusters of WISE Survey.

Or, as I’m sure the astronomers involved prefer it to be called, MaDCoWS.

MOO J1142 was found in a search using NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) observatory, which surveyed the entire sky in different wavelengths (colors) of infrared. Distant galaxies give off a certain ratio of infrared light, so the astronomers used software to look for objects with those color ratios. If it found any, it then checked to see if there were lots of such sources all near each other, which would indicate it could be a galaxy cluster. They found thousands of such groups, and MOO J1142 was one of the best.

Switching to Spitzer Space Telescope, they then got infrared images with higher resolution, so that individual galaxies could be better seen. Once they had that in hand, it was off to the Gemini North and Keck observatories to take spectra, which gave them the redshifts of the galaxies. The redshifts are an indicator of distance, and that’s how they determined these galaxies were so far away.

Finally, they used an array of telescopes called CARMA that looks at microwaves from space. Using a sophisticated technique (the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect, for those who are curious), they were able to map the gas of the cluster and determine its immense mass.

Sometimes, when we look at very distant objects, we find some that are a bit puzzling. Remember, when we look very far away, we’re seeing the Universe when it was younger. Sometimes we find galaxies billions of light-years away that are bigger than we’d expect given their young age—that means galaxies form and grow faster than we first thought.

I was completely expecting this to be the case for MOO J11452, too, because it’s so flippin’ big and so far away. But in fact, the MaDCoWS astronomers note in their journal paper that it’s within the reasonable limits of size and mass for its age (given how we think the Universe behaved when it was young). That was a fun surprise for me! I guess sometimes, not being surprised is a surprise.

They do also note that it is very large, and likely to be one of the most massive such structures at that distance or farther. That means it must be rare, and in fact, using some statistical analysis, they figure it’s likely one of the five biggest clusters more than 8.5 billion light-years from us.

In other words, we’re not likely to find too many more such distant beasts.

That’s amazing, too. We still have a vast amount to learn about our Universe, but in some cases we can be pretty sure we’re closing that gap. Finding such a massive, distant cluster is a big step, because there’s not likely to be many more. That makes it a fantastic laboratory for scientific exploration.

People sometimes ask me why I love science, but how can it be any other way? We’re literally looking across the entire Universe just so we can understand it better!

What’s not to love?

Here's the episode of Crash Course Astronomy I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Stay through to the end. You'll like it.

Nov. 16 2015 9:30 AM

GOP Senators and Representatives Band Together to Combat Climate Change and Its Denial

Over the past few years I’ve hammered pretty hard at Republicans in Congress for being anti-science because … well, because, as a party, they are.

But there’s dissension in the ranks, and I’m very, very pleased to hear it. And it’s over the single most important topic in the politicization of science: climate change.

There have been a few voices in opposition to the staunch GOP plank of head-in-the-sandism, but just a few. Lindsey Graham, for one, and Jon Huntsman for another (though Huntsman is a former governor of Utah, and not in Congress). I’ve also mentioned Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, before, who signed on with President Obama’s EPA Clean Power Plan.

But now it looks like they’re getting organized. In the Senate, Ayotte, along with Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee; Graham; and Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, has formed a Senate Energy and Environment Working Group, the purpose of which is to “focus on ways we can protect our environment and climate while also bolstering clean energy innovation that helps drive job creation. The group will meet periodically to discuss general energy and environmental issues and exchange ideas about potential legislation.”

That is fantastic news! I also like that they are paying attention to “market-based reforms” when it comes to energy. Alternative energy sources (notably wind and solar) are getting cheaper very quickly, and in many places are on equal footing with the energy generation cost for fossil fuels. It makes good economic sense to invest in these sources, and that’s a powerful argument when it comes to the conservative party … assuming that fossil fuel money won’t always present a roadblock to the ones in power.

I have a lot of hope in people like Ayotte, who has a history of bucking her party when it comes to climate. Good on her.

There’s hopeful news on the House side, too. Eleven GOP representatives put forth a resolution (H. Res. 424), “Expressing the commitment of the House of Representatives to conservative environmental stewardship.”

The resolution reads pretty well to my eye, stating for example, that “it is a conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment, responsibly plan for all market factors, and base our policy decisions in science and quantifiable facts on the ground.”

Nice. And true. Mind you, this is a resolution, not a bill, so it won’t be law or anything like that. But given how notoriously anti-science so many GOP representatives are—like the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee—this resolution is very positive, very hopeful. As I read it, I almost felt like it was an act of defiance. It wasn’t nailed to the door of the Rayburn House Office Building, but its point is clear.

It’s too bad that the only two GOP presidential candidates making any sense at all on climate—Graham and George Pataki—are polling so low their numbers are indistinguishable from zero. I still think Donald Trump and Ben Carson will flame out, leaving Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz as the actual contender after the primaries … and both of them are deniers. Of the two, Cruz is more of a flat-out denier, but Rubio is no prize either.

The members of the GOP who accept reality have a long, hard struggle in front of them. And while I’m sure I’d disagree with them over many issues, global warming is one of if not the most important issue of our time. I will support them on this, and I am very, very happy to see them taking on this mantle.

I would very much love to see this no longer be a partisan issue. This affects all of us, and the future of our species for several hundred years at least. It’s time everyone in power took it seriously.

Nov. 15 2015 9:30 AM

Swift’s 1,000th!

I’m kind of in awe over this news: On Oct. 27, NASA’s Swift satellite detected its 1,000th gamma-ray burst!

That’s a lot of bursts.

Swift was launched in November 2004. It’s a relatively small and inexpensive astronomical observatory, designed to detect and rapidly target gamma-ray bursts, or GRBs. These flashes of gamma rays baffled astronomers for decades; they were discovered in the 1960s, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that we finally figured out what they were: unbelievably powerful explosions marking the births of black holes.

I’ve written about GRBs quite a few times; here’s a quick overview that will terrify you about how much energy these hellish objects pack. Also by coincidence, this past week’s Crash Course Astronomy is all about GRBs:

Despite their enormous energy output, GRBs fade so quickly that it’s hard to observe them. Swift was designed specifically to nail down their coordinates in the sky, sometimes as rapidly as seconds after the initial flash. Swift quickly slews over to point its other telescopes at the burst, taking critical observations within a minute or two, and also improving the location measurement. The coordinates are beamed to the ground, sent to telescopes around the planet, which then (if they can) also observe the burst.

Before Swift it could take hours, days, or even weeks to get good follow-up observations of GRBs. Now it takes literally seconds.

GRB 151027B
The GRB in question: Swift observation of GRB 151027B.

Photo by NASA/Swift/Phil Evans, Univ. of Leicester

The lucky 1,000th burst—called GRB 151027B (the second GRB seen on Oct. 27)—is soul-crushingly distant, more than 12 billion light-years away. Most GRBs Swift has seen have been billions of light years away, in fact. That’s how powerful they are; visible across the vast reaches of the Universe.

Swift has shown us that a GRB pops up in the sky nearly every day. That means there are actually far more of them out there than we see! The emission is beamed, focused into a tight jet; we only detect a GRB if that jet is pointed right at us. For every one we see, there are many more pointed the wrong way. And in turn, this means black holes are being born all the time, somewhere in the cosmos.

How’s that for your thought of the day?

I had the privilege of working on the education and public outreach for Swift for several years, helping to write educational activities based on its science, web articles, and more. I wrote a bit about that on the occasion of Swift’s tenth anniversary in space.

Swift is one of my favorite missions of all time. It was brilliantly conceived, carefully built, kept at a low cost, and has worked almost flawlessly for over a decade, doing cutting edge science in a field of astronomy that didn’t even exist when I was born.

That’s quite a legacy. And it’s still going. Congratulations to everyone on the Swift team!

Nov. 14 2015 9:30 AM

George Hrab Shows You How to Think

George Hrab is many things: a musician, a comedian, a fine dresser, and a very good friend of mine.

He’s also a skeptic, and an excellent storyteller.

Those last two are why I bring him up: He gave a TEDx talk about skepticism recently, and the video is now online. You really need to watch the whole thing; it’s only 24 minutes long, and it’ll fly by. That’s the same length as a standard sitcom, and trust me, it’s way better.

Or don’t trust me. That’s kinda the point.

There’s so much great stuff to take away from this talk, but my favorite is this quote (from the part starting at 12:57): “Every time you look on the Web, every time you receive a piece of email … pretend it’s April 1st.”

If Every. Single. Person. Alive. Would just DO that, then my job load would be cut by 15 percent. Easily.

George’s talk is a tour de force of what it means to think. It should be required viewing in schools around the world.

Nov. 13 2015 11:51 AM

Update: Whatever WT1190F Was, It Isn’t Any More

This morning, just before 06:20 UTC and right on schedule, a small bit of space junk called WT1190F slammed into Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 40,000 kilometers per hour. The huge pressure generated as it plowed through the air heated it up, broke it to pieces, and it disintegrated.

We’re still not sure what it was, other than it was likely a piece of hardware from an earlier mission to the Moon. But we know for a fact it burned up: We have pictures!

The photo at the top was taken by a joint aircraft mission sponsored by the International Astronomical Center and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency. They were flying over the thick clouds covering the Sri Lanka coast and were able to get some pretty amazing shots of WT1190F as it came in. Here’s a brief video featuring a short animation and some of the photos:

Coooooool. That pretty much removes any doubt it was some human-made object; such things tend to break up and fall as parallel clusters of fireballs (for example, the Cosmos 1315 satellite, the Janice Voss ISS resupply ship, the Albert Einstein, and many others). That can happen with asteroids and other natural detritus, but not often, and it usually doesn’t look quite like this.

The weather prevented anyone from the ground seeing the event, but there are some reports of a loud noise around the same time. Of course, that could be thunder—like I said, the clouds were thick—but it’s possible it was the sonic boom from the debris as it passed through the air at hypersonic speed. I wonder if we’ll ever know …?

Sometimes, you have to be satisfied with not knowing. We may never find out exactly what mission this hardware was from. Science is like that. For every question we answer a hundred more pop up, and sometimes you just never know. The important part in this case is that the object was seen, it was identified in previous observations from years before, and that allowed an accurate orbit to be determined and a time of entry calculated.

Think about that! It was only rediscovered on Oct. 3, yet astronomers were able to pinpoint almost exactly when and where this thing would come down.

That’s astonishing. But then, that’s science.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Jonathan McDowell

More about WT1190F from shortly after it was discovered:

Correction, Nov. 13, 2015: I originally incorrectly identified the debris as WT1109F.

Nov. 13 2015 9:30 AM

Crash Course Astronomy: Gamma-Ray Bursts

Back when I got my Ph.D. in astronomy, I was pretty focused on my own research topic. Still, I grew up loving astronomy, and I never lost the bug to learn about different aspects of it. For my degree I was studying an exploding star and had always been fascinated by apocalyptically huge explosions in space.

Thinking back on those days, I’m surprised I didn’t seem to know that much about gamma-ray bursts. These huge explosions in space are basically genetically designed to hit all my scientific sweet spots: They’re mysterious, they’re ridiculously powerful, everything about them is over the top, and they baffled astronomers for decades.

I’m not sure why I didn’t read much about them then, but that sure changed! They’re one of the most amazing kinds of events the Universe can muster these days. Even better? They’re the topic of this week’s Crash Course Astronomy:

I never did any scientific research on GRBs, but I’ve been involved with them for a while now. When I was working on Hubble I started getting really interested in them; I remember impatiently waiting on the data from observations of GRB 990123 taken by the camera I was working on. As soon as we got them, I pounced, processing them and creating an image of the explosion. I was stunned to see it sitting right on top of an odd, curved-V-shaped galaxy, clearly the host of the burst. Literally at the same time, my colleague Andy Fruchter (who did in fact study GRBs and was in charge of these Hubble observations) was also processing them, and he was the one to make the important announcement that the camera had clearly detected the host galaxy. It was extremely cool to have seen that data right as it came off the ‘scope.

Then, a few years later, I worked on the education and public outreach programs for observatories like Swift, Fermi, and others. These would also play a crucial role in detecting and characterizing GRBs (as I mention in the video).

I wound up writing a whole chapter about GRBs in my book Death From the Skies! In fact, I spent more time on that chapter than any of the others, reading a huge number of research journal papers on how a pulse of high-energy X- and gamma rays from a relatively nearby GRB would affect our atmosphere.

This is a field of ongoing work, and it’s fascinating. The papers I read were all over the place, some predicting very bad things from a nearby GRB, others not so bad (all depending on the distance, of course). True story: The papers that concluded we’d be OK I marked with smiley faces on top, and frownies for the ones where we fared not so well. It was the best way for me to delineate the two stacks.

After reading all that research, the one thing I can be sure about: As tantalizing as these objects are to study, I’m really glad they’re really far away.

Nov. 12 2015 1:58 PM

The Real Reason for the Coffee Season

So you may have heard of all this nontroversy about the Starbucks annual Christmas cup only being a plain red instead of having actual Christmas decorations.* This is all over social media, so I figured I’d help y’all out with this.

Starbucks red cup
Ho ho hobliquity.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo courtesy of Starbucks.

So there you go. I fixed it for you.

And if that’s not enough, then perhaps Stephen Colbert can help you figure out what’s what.

It’s nice to see his move to CBS hasn’t changed him. That was perfect.

Tip o' the white plastic lid to Slate's Lisa Larson-Walker for putting this image together for me so quickly and so perfectly.


Nov. 12 2015 9:00 AM

Putting the WTF in WT1190F (Bonus: Taurid Meteors!)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an object discovered in October that’s on an intercept orbit with Earth. The object, which is pretty small, is due to hit us around 06:20 UTC on Friday. That time translates to 01:20 for the U.S. East Coast, or 10:20 p.m. Thursday night for the West Coast.

Not a whole lot has been learned about it since I first wrote the article. We know it’s on a weird orbit that carries it out past the Moon, but it’s definitely bound to Earth; it orbits us. That makes it very likely to be a piece of space junk, maybe a part of a rocket that sent a probe to the Moon. Which one? It’s not clear, though Bill Gray of Project Pluto makes a good case that it’s not from Apollo, and probably isn’t more than a few years old.

orbit of W1190F
The orbit of WT1190F (black line with tick marks) takes it past the Moon’s orbit (green circle) and, Thursday night, down to Earth (red circle).

Drawing by Bill Gray

Whatever it is, it’s small, no more than a few meters across—we know that from measuring its brightness, and assuming it’s metal. If it’s darker, then it’s bigger, but it’s still pretty small. It’s expected to completely burn up off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, which would make a spectacular light show for any witnesses … except, unfortunately, that’s around noon local time so it may be hard or even impossible to see. If I lived in that area I’d certainly go look though! If you’re there: Face south, and look up.

Still, I wanted to point out a couple of things. One is that the name of the object is unusual; most asteroids are named differently. But this one was found in the Catalina Sky Survey, which has its own internal method of identifying nearby objects, which then get renamed later once they’re confirmed. I don’t think this one had enough time for that. The European Space Agency has a nice post on how it got its name.

The other thing I want to mention is that right now is the peak of the annual Taurid meteor shower, and by all accounts this year is a good one. In fact, lots of fireballs—exceptionally bright meteors—have been reported so far. The Taurids are known for their fireballs, but Mike Hankey at the American Meteor Society says this may be due to a quirk of orbital mechanics; the stream of cometary debris that makes up the shower can be influenced by the gravity of Jupiter, focusing it somewhat. Every 61 years, the prediction goes, there is a “swarm” of Taurids passing Earth, and this year happens to be the peak. The numbers reported so far are impressive and are certainly interesting as far as the prediction goes.

Observing the Taurids is pretty easy: Go outside after dark and look up. Be patient, you may not see anything for a while; it only produces about 10 or so meteors per hour. But given the number of fireballs predicted, it’s worth a shot.

The best time to go out is any time after early evening, maybe 8 p.m. or so local time. It doesn’t really matter which way you face, as long as you have a wide-open sky (with few things blocking it like trees, buildings, clouds, and so on). I prefer to lie down on a chaise lounge with a blanket, even though I generally bundle up. Colorado gets cold. I have a guide to watching meteors showers; it was written specifically for the Perseids in August, but most of the rules apply here too.

If you see any fireballs, report them to the AMS! It helps astronomers keep track of events, and in the end you’re making a small but interesting contribution to science. How cool is that?

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Amara Graps for the Taurids info.

Correction, Nov. 13, 2015: I originally incorrectly identified the debris as WT1109F.

Nov. 11 2015 12:36 PM

Minute Physics: How to Go to Space

I’m not going to lie to you: I have smart friends, and they are also crazy talented. They inspire me, and it’s no surprise that they inspire each other, too.

To wit: My friend Henry Reich, who creates Minute Physics, was inspired by another friend, Randall Munroe, who creates Xkcd.

Now follow this: Randall has a book coming out in the next couple of weeks called Thing Explainer (preorder it!), where he covers basic science concepts using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. This was an offshoot of his ridiculously popular Up Goer 5 cartoon on Xkcd.

Henry liked it so much he made a video for Minute Physics called How to Go to Space in the same manner. Watch:

Ha! I love it.

And I’m really excited to see Randall’s book, too, especially since <preen>I helped him a little bit with the space section</preen> (Update, Nov. 11, 2015: Bill Gates likes the book, too!). There’s something oddly engaging and dreamlike about the writing; I think there’s a lulling cadence when you’re forced to use only the “ten hundred words people use the most often.” I wouldn’t say it’s poetic, but more proto-poetic; the qualities of poetry are there, but not quite fully formed. It’s a wonderful patois.

And speaking of friends doing things with friends, Henry also partnered with Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, to rewrite “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” making it astronomically correct. It’s great! Henry even sings it.

Free advice for you: Surround yourself with smart, creative, funny people. They make the world better.