Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

Sept. 1 2015 9:45 AM

Satellite Re-Entry Surprises Hawaii

Folks in Hawaii got a shock — or a thrill, depending on how much they knew about what they were seeing — when a very bright and dramatic “shooting star” blew across their skies on Aug. 31, 2015.

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That’s one example of many (one I saw had a lot of swearing in it, which doesn’t surprise me at all).

Was it an asteroid? A sign of the Apocalypse? Superman?

Nope. It was the re-entry of Cosmos 1315, a Soviet-era satellite launched in 1981. The giveaway for me that this was a satellite and not a natural meteor was how slowly it was moving. Typical meteor speeds are many dozens of kilometers per second, and they zip across the sky in a second or two. Satellites orbit at about 8 km/sec, and can take a minute or more to clear the horizon. Also, satellites tend to break apart as the pressure and heat of re-entry take their toll, and you can see that’s what’s going on in the video.

Also, the Aerospace Corporation put the re-entry track right over Hawaii at just the right time. Seems pretty cut and dried.

I’ve seen hundreds of meteors (probably thousands), and only one satellite re-entry, a Russian booster that burned up over the US East coast back when I was in grad school. It was pretty awe-inspiring, moving slowly and gracefully across the sky, with bits falling off. A meteor usually stays in one piece unless it’s a really big one.

There are a lot of birds up there, and this stuff comes down all the time. Usually they fall over the ocean where no one sees them (the planet is mostly water, after all), but when they come down over populated areas we usually get lots of dramatic video and photographs.

Cygnus reentry
Astronauts on the space station took this photo of the Orbital Sciences Corporation's Cygnus cargo ship re-entering in 2014.

Photo by ESA/NASA

Sometimes these can be a danger — ask this guy who lives downrange of a Chinese rocket launch site — but that’s extremely rare. Still, it’s something aerospace companies and national governments need to be concerned about, especially during test launches; debris from SpaceShipTwo came down in the Mojave after the test vehicle crashed in 2014, narrowly missing bystanders.

But what this tells me is — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — you need to look up! You never know what’s up there… and what’s coming down.

Tip o’ the heat shield to David Dickenson

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Aug. 31 2015 10:00 AM

Inundated By Global Warming

Do you think global warming is something that only affects us sometime in the future, decades or centuries from now?

Think again. Our planet heating up is affecting us now, and has been for decades. We’re already seeing a lot of serious problems due to it: extreme weather, more devastating hurricanes, wildfires, and sea level rise.

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Of all these, the last seems most like science fiction. Seriously, the levels of the ocean are going up? It can’t be much, right?

Think again, again. NASA just released results from several satellite observations going back to 1992. Those 23 years of data show that the oceans of the planet have risen substantially in that time: over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) on average, with some places on Earth seeing more than 22 cm (9 inches)!

This animation shows where the levels are going, and by how much:

The global sea level rise is driven by two major factors: One is that as water warms, it expands, raising the sea level. The other is that Greenland and Antarctica are melting, dumping 450 billion tons of water into the oceans every year. Every year.

glacier rivers
Rivers of water in Greenland created as ice melts. This flows to the bottom of the glaciers through holes, which helps glaciers retreat faster and dumps more water into the ocean.

Photo by NASA Earth Science News Team

So overall sea level is rising, but in some places it’s rising faster than others. For example, in the Pacific, heat travel east to west, so the eastern coasts of the Philippines and Japan have seen huge jumps in sea level the past two decades. Interestingly, sea levels have dropped in some places. Off the northeastern shore of the US you can see a drop. But in that case it’s because the Gulf Stream, a major warm ocean current, has shifted north somewhat, so levels have risen in the north but dropped in its wake to the south.

But those drops are highly localized. Globally, levels are on the rise.

global warming components
Where does all that heat go?

Drawing by Skeptical Science

The cause of all this is obvious and very real: global warming. As human activity — primarily dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year — causes the Earth’s surface temperature to go up, a lot of that energy is absorbed by the oceans, causing them to expand. Some of it is absorbed at the poles, melting ice there.

Sea ice melting at the north pole is bad enough, but the land ice melting is nothing short of catastrophic. Climatologists have already shown that the melting of the West Antarctica ice sheet may be unstoppable. We may be locked in — that is, inevitably going to suffer from — a full meter of sea level rise, three feet. This may take a century or more, but it’s coming. And while that may seem like a long time, think of it this way: A meter per century is a centimeter every year, an inch every 2.5 years.

Mind you, that’s vertical rise. Look at the slope of a beach and you can see that a small rise vertically means a lot of horizontal reach to the ocean, too. We’ll see beaches disappear, coastlines changed. More immediately, we’ll see storm surges do far more damage as it takes less rise in the water levels to inundate cities. Remember what the surge from Hurricane Sandy did to NYC? We’ll be seeing more and more of that.

This is the new normal. And the scary thing is not so much that the new normal is bad, it’s that with more warming, rising sea levels, and changing weather patterns, the new normal will continue to get worse. There may not be a normal any more.

Just as a reminder: With only a single exception, none of the GOP Presidential candidates has a reality-based view on global warming (the exception is George Pataki, who has no chance of winning), and those views range from unsupportable by facts to unhinged in the extreme. Even those of them who admit it’s real think it’s not human caused, or that we can’t do anything about it without hurting the economy (and that is 100% ultra-grade fertilizer; it’s worse to wait). Even this far out it seems certain the House will go GOP again in 2016, so having a climate-change-denying President will mean at least four more years of inaction bolstered by the smoke and mirrors of the noise machine.

And don’t forget that the GOP in the House is still trying to eviscerate NASA’s Earth science budget, which goes in large part to monitoring the effects of global warming. Why? Simply put, they deny the reality all around them.

And all that time, the temperatures will rise, the glaciers will melt, the sea levels will rise, and we’ll be that much deeper into a catastrophe that is already well underway.

Aug. 30 2015 10:00 AM

Space Is Cold, But We Are Not

If you have five minutes — and I think you do — then I urge you to go take a look at this lovely and wonderful comic by French artist Boulet. Yes, there are a few typos in the translation, but it’s charming and sweet, and expresses quite a few points I strongly believe in myself.

Science is not cold, nor scientists unemotional. If we were, we wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. For so many, it is our sense of awe and wonder that drives us.

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Tip o' the pen cap to Jesse Anderton.

Aug. 29 2015 10:00 AM

Crash Course Astronomy: White Dwarfs and Planetary Nebulae

I’ll be honest: Every episode of Crash Course Astronomy has been fun to write, edit, and shoot. They all really have. But the past few episodes, and the next few to come, deal with one of my favorite topics in astronomy: What happens when a star decides to give up the ghost.

When stars die all sorts of fantabulous things happen: They explode, they leave behind bizarre ultradense objects, they fling gas into space that creates amazing and breathtaking shapes and colors.

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This week, CCA is about what happens after stars like the Sun die: They become white dwarfs, and in the process blow out a series of winds that become one of the most beautiful sights in the sky: planetary nebulae.

I studied the planetary nebula NGC 6286 for my Master’s degree at the University of Virginia, investigating a giant circular halo of gas around it from the star’s original red giant wind. I had to simultaneously learn about planetary nebulae, the physics of interacting colliding winds, how gas radiates light, how the digital detector on the telescope worked (this was when such cameras were brand spanking new, so every thing about them was a learning experience), how to use the telescope, and how to write code to analyze the data. It was… interesting. Very difficult, but in the end I got results that were worth publishing.

My advisor, Noam Soker, is the man I mention in the video. I have never met a harder working astronomer in my life; he published a ridiculous number of papers, covering one small topic very well in each, and then moving on. I remember talking to him about why 6826 had an elliptical inner region, and he suggested it could be from a Jupiter-like planet orbiting the star. The problem was it would have to be very close to the star to be enveloped when the star became a red giant, and I thought that wasn’t possible — our Jupiter, after all, is over 700 million kilometers from the Sun, way too far to get swallowed up! And you can’t form a planet that big that near a star anyway.

Oh, me. This was five years before the first “hot Jupiter” was found, and now I wish we had emphasized this even more in our paper instead of just adding a single line about it! It turns out they may be quite common; they form farther out from the star and migrate inwards over time. I was pretty shocked when 51 Peg b was discovered, and seriously my first thought when it was announced was, “PLANETARY NEBULAE! OF COURSE!”

Yes, I think in all caps sometimes. It’s very funny to me that planets and planetary nebulae are in fact connected, especially since, despite their names, they are very, very different objects. But in science you find that everything’s connected in one way or another. It’s a tapestry, and every thread counts.

Aug. 28 2015 10:00 AM

Make Me Dream, Under the Stars

One of the things I love best is when someone looks through a telescope for the first time. Even better when it’s a kid; a simple glance through the eyepiece, a single moment, and a lifetime of joy and wonder is theirs.

During the week of the Perseid meteor shower in August 2015, two dozen high school students participated in an Astronomy Camp held by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. They traveled to the high desert in that state to learn how to observe the sky, and then joined up with 600 other astronomers to participate in the Oregon Star Party.

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Astrophotographer Ben Canales followed them, and took footage of the events. He created this wonderful video, “Make Me Dream,” which made my heart very happy indeed.

Some technical detail: Canales used the new Sony A7 mirrorless camera, which uses new technology allowing it to shoot video at—get this—ISO 100,000 (it goes even higher, but Canales said that's the highest he could go and get acceptable noise levels, even with some fancy post-processing techniques). That’s incredible; such a high setting means the camera was phenomenally sensitive to light, which is how he was able to get scenes showing both the young students and stars of the Milky Way in the background, even out of focus (which spreads the light out, making them even dimmer). I have got to try one of those.

The last shot, showing the persistent Perseid train, is fantastic. Make sure you watch all the way to the end of the video, too.

All the sky footage was nice, but what really made my smile grow was the expressions on the faces of the students as they set up and used their telescopes. It gives a real sense of accomplishment to learn how to use a telescope; they can be finicky, and frustrating. But when things start to click, the whole sky becomes yours. When you know your way around the night sky it’s a treasure map … but it’s also the treasure itself.

Canales captures this perfectly. But what else do I expect from someone who took this picture, one of my all-time favorite astrophotos?

looking up

Photo by Ben Canales, used by permission

That is how I feel all the time when I am out under the stars. I highly recommend it. 

Aug. 27 2015 10:00 AM

Bubbly Hurricane

I used to play a lot with soap bubbles. Long after I grew up, I mean.

Scientifically, they’re very interesting; they explore such topics as thin film surfaces, optical interference, least-area surfaces, shape packing, and all kinds of chemistry.

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Also, they’re pretty and silly and fun.

But one thing that never occurred to me in all that time is that soap bubbles make a pretty good stand-in for hurricanes. It might surprise you that such a delicate and fragile structure might analogize one of the most powerful and destructive events on the Earth’s surface, but sometimes in science scale isn’t a problem. It doesn’t matter if it’s small or big, the interacting forces are what matter.

My friend Dianna, aka Physics Girl, explains in this great video:

Dianna’s a great science communicator; she has a knack for making complex issues simple, but not too simple. You should check out her other videos, especially this one on mirrors flipping right and left (… or do they?), and this one on vortices in swimming pools.

Bubbles are a lot of fun, and the science they show us is astonishing and beautiful. Especially, in my not-so-unbiased opinion, when they’re on the ten trillion kilometer or so scale.

As an aside, congratulations to Dianna for now being a part of the PBS Digital Studios family! They’re partners with Hank and John Green in producing Crash Course Astronomy, so I’m a big fan of them. 

Aug. 26 2015 10:00 AM

OK, How’d That Mountain Get There?

Ceres is the largest asteroid in the solar system*. The Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting it since early this year, and a few months ago, it spotted something really weird: a 6-kilometer tall mountain just sitting all by its lonesome on the surface.

Since that time Dawn has lowered itself closer to the surface of Ceres, where it can take higher-resolution images. A new photo of the mountain has only made things weirder:

 

Aug. 25 2015 12:05 PM

A Sun-Diving Neighbor

I suspect that when most people think about asteroids approaching Earth, they picture them coming from deep space, out past Mars and Jupiter.

But there’s a substantial population of asteroids where the rocks spend most of their time inside Earth’s orbit, closer to the Sun. These little beasties are hard to find because they tend not to stray too far from the Sun in the sky, so they’re up mostly during the day or twilight hours.

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For my biweekly column at Sen.com, I wrote about a newly discovered asteroid called 2015 QM3 that is on such an orbit, swinging it past not just Earth, but also Venus and Mercury! It’s a curious object, getting close enough to all three planets that over millions of years its orbit is certainly unstable. Not many such asteroids are known (just 17!) so any time we find a new one it helps us understand the complicated dynamics of near-Earth objects.

My articles for Sen.com are subscription only, but for $5 a month you get access to a lot of pretty cool astronomical info. I check it for news and interesting photos every day. You should too.

My thanks to my friend and esteemed astronomical colleague Amy Mainzer for her help with some info about QM3 … and also for announcing the asteroid in the first place

Aug. 25 2015 7:00 AM

No, There Won’t Be a Giant Asteroid Impact in September

The latest from the Here We Go Again Department: An Internet rumor has gone viral that NASA is covering up information about a giant asteroid or comet that’s going to hit the Earth in September, sometime between Sept. 15 and 28.

Let me be clear: No.

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Let me be less clear but more snarky: Go look at a bull facing north. Now walk around to the south side. See what comes out? Yeah, this asteroid impact rumor.

There are a lot of reasons this story is nonsense.

  • It was on Before It’s News, a crackpot website that is to accuracy what Donald Trump is to humility. I also try to avoid getting my news from sites that leave vowels out of their name.
  • The claim that a comet more than 2 miles wide will hit the Earth in a month or two is ridiculous right away: It would be one of the brightest objects in the sky. I think someone might have noticed.
  • NASA couldn’t cover something like this up. First of all, they’re not the world’s only space agency. Second, NASA doesn’t control all the telescopes in the world. Or even really any. There are tens of thousands of astronomers all over the planet who would have seen and been talking about an object that big headed our way.
  • As Ron Baalke pointed out, NASA announced two asteroid impacts, one in 2014 and the other in 2008—both were small rocks that burned up in our atmosphere, but it shows that NASA has not covered such things up in the past.
  • Also, how many times have we heard this kind of crap from breathless pseudoscience sites? Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many times.
  • And how many times have they been right? Oh yeah: none. None more times.

This latest in the long-running series of hoax impact claims got spread around so much that the folks at NASA felt they had to issue a debunking of their own:

"There is no scientific basis—not one shred of evidence—that an asteroid or any other celestial object will impact Earth on those dates," said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
In fact, NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program says there have been no asteroids or comets observed that would impact Earth anytime in the foreseeable future.  All known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids have less than a 0.01% chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years.

I’m glad NASA went to the trouble to write and release that, but it ticks me off. People at NASA have better things to do than squelch silly Internet nonsense. That's your tax dollars at work, folks.

But a bigger reason I get angry about stuff like this is that it scares people. It really does; whenever these rumors go around, I get plenty of anxious emails and tweets asking me if they’re true. I don’t know why sites like Before It’s News and the others post fertilizer like that story—maybe it’s just for clicks, or for attention, or because they get their jollies by scaring people for no reason whatsoever.

But every time they do they are frightening people, they are wasting time, and they’re also contributing to the overall erosion of public trust in science.

And that is something we really, really don’t need.

Tip o’ the Whipple shield to Fark and @AbsolutSpaceGrl.

Aug. 24 2015 7:00 AM

Why NASA Still Can’t Put Humans in Space: Congress Is Starving It of Needed Funds

On Saturday, just a few days from now, it will have been 1,500 days that NASA has been relying on Russia to hitch a ride to the International Space Station.

It was that long ago when the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center—the last Shuttle flight to the ISS, and in fact the last Shuttle flight of them all. That was the last time an American rocket carried humans into space.

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As I have made clear many times, I do not begrudge President Bush for canceling the Shuttle program, nor President Obama for canceling its replacement, the Constellation program, which was running severely over budget and behind schedule.

What I do begrudge is a Congress that has made this situation far worse by underfunding the Commercial Crew Development program, which was specifically designed to allow commercial companies to pick up the slack and get Americans back into space on board American crewed vehicles.

Every year, NASA works with the White House to create a budget. The amount the president has asked to fund Commercial Crew over time would have been enough to begin the first launches this year, 2015.

But over the past five years, Congress has consistently underfunded Commercial Crew, usually by several hundred million dollars every year, as much as 25 percent of the requested funds. The total amount that’s been shorted is about $1 billion.

Yes, a billion.

It’s gotten so bad that NASA’s Chief Administrator Charles Bolden sent a letter to the congressional committees that oversee NASA’s budget. You should read it; it’s not long. Here’s a choice quotation:

In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding. Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned. This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.

That last sentence is critically important. Every launch we miss because Congress has underfunded Commercial Crew is a launch we have to pay Russia for—and Putin’s government has been consistently jacking up the price for years.

My friend Mika McKinnon cranked the numbers and found that it will cost upwards of a half billion dollars to put six astronauts on the space station in 2017 (Bolden’s number is in that same ballpark), but it would cost 75 percent of that to launch them on American vehicles—and that money would be staying here in the U.S., not being sent to Russia.

Why are we investing in Russia, and not ourselves?

Perhaps because many of the Congress members who are in charge of NASA’s budget right now are more invested in building the Space Launch System, the NASA rocket system designed to replace the Shuttle.

My opinion on SLS and the Orion capsule are a matter of record: I think, given the cost, that money would be far, far better spent on commercial rockets. SLS is so expensive that I worry there won’t be money left in the budget to do anything with it. I’m not the only one who thinks that either. Nor am I the only person who has been outspoken against SLS. Lori Garver thinks it’s a waste of money, too, and she is former deputy administrator of NASA!

So why is Congress so gung ho for SLS? Maybe because so many Congress members have people building SLS in their states and districts.

For one very critical example, space journalist Eric Berger points out that Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, is the chairman of the Senate’s committee that funds NASA, and he has Marshall Space Flight Center in this district. Marshall is where SLS is being designed and built. Shelby also has a history of throwing roadblocks in the way of funding Commercial Crew and SpaceX.

Berger also points out that Congress has made it clear that other government-funded agencies, like the Department of Defense, are not allowed to buy hardware from Russia. Yet here we are, with that same Congress forcing NASA to pay Russia to the tune of nearly 500 million bucks for one year.

For its part, Congress has asked the president why he is underfunding SLS. That’s pretty audacious, given these facts (and given that Congress actually funded SLS at levels higher than what NASA requested). Coincidentally, the amount of money cut from Commercial Crew is about the same as what we’ve been sending to Russia for seats on their Soyuz. I'll also note that at the very best, SLS won't be ready to put humans in space for four years after a commercial vehicle could. How many billions of dollars would that mean giving to Russia to cover that gap if Commercial Crew is still underfunded?

CST-100
Drawing of Boeing's commercial crew space capsule CST-100 docking with ISS.

Artwork by Boeing

Let me be clear: I love NASA. I think it represents the best of what we humans can do. I also know it is tied in knots trying to appease the whims of Congress and the White House, two winds that blow in vastly different directions. I have taken the president to task before for mysteriously and bafflingly underfunding planetary exploration, but in this case the White House has it right.

I know that SLS and Orion are too big and moving forward too much to cancel now. That’s a political reality, and while I can’t make my peace with it, I can understand its truth. But this nickel and diming Commercial Crew must stop. Boeing and SpaceX need that money to keep the schedule, and if Congress can’t find it, then we’ll just be sending payload bays full of cash to Russia for many more years to come.

The solution is easy. The amount of money we’re talking about here isn’t much in terms of government spending, and it will save hundreds of millions of dollars per year in the long run, all the while promoting American industry and ingenuity.  

Congress: Increase NASA’s budget by the amount needed. Fund SLS and Orion as you see fit, but don’t do so at the cost—literally—of Commercial Crew Development.

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