The entire universe in blog form

Oct. 30 2014 7:30 AM

From the Moon to the Earth

Every now and again, a picture is returned from space that is so stunning it becomes an instant icon, a touchstone that defines what space travel is about.

The Chinese engineering lunar test mission Chang’e 5 has sent home precisely such an image. It is stunning almost beyond words.

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Oct. 29 2014 12:00 PM

Iridescent APOD

I’m very pleased that the fantastic Astronomy Picture of the Day website picked up my photo of iridescent clouds I took during last week’s solar eclipse.

If you read my blog, then you absolutely should have APOD in your RSS feed and follow them on Twitter. I’ve had a long and very happy relationship with the APOD folks; they’re one of the very best astronomy sites in the world, providing a fantastic service. They also have excellent taste.


They have a 2015 calendar you can get, by the way; it’s a PDF and free. They do take donations, I’ll add. They bring you the whole Universe every single day, so please throw a little filthy lucre their way if you can.

Oct. 29 2014 7:15 AM

Popeular Science

On Monday, Pope Francis was speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and dropped something of a bombshell: He said that the Big Bang and evolution are not contrary to Catholic beliefs.

What’s funny to me is that for people paying attention, these statements aren’t bombshells at all. To me it’s not newsworthy that he said these things, it’s newsworthy that people think they’re newsworthy.


Part of it is understandable. After all, it was the Catholic Church that condemned Galileo four centuries ago, when he claimed that the Earth moved around the Sun. However, that’s not exactly what happened; yes, what Galileo was saying was heresy, but he was also a colossal jerk and mocked the Church, in essence daring them to persecute him. Even then, they only put him under house arrest. Don’t get me wrong: The Church was the dominant force of ignorance during the Dark Ages, but the public notion of Galileo as hero against a monolithic and unsympathetic Church is a bit too black-and-white.

Still, that’s the public perception. And the last Pope, Benedict, (among other things) was not necessarily a big supporter of evolution, saying humans are “not the products of chance and error” (which in itself is a fundamental, if I may use that word, misunderstanding of how evolution works).

On the other hand, he made some conciliatory statements about science as well, saying, “there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

But let’s not forget Pope John Paul II, who said,

… new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. 

That’s beautifully stated.

Remember, while the Catholic Church may not be the favorite of progressives for any number of reasons—and I can think of quite a few (including, of course, the biggie)—being stridently anti-evolution is not one of them. That is more the province of Biblical literalists, who, historically and currently, have not generally been Catholics. Even many Protestants support evolution, though that would be more of a theistic evolution, with God setting things in motion and the laws of Nature taking over from there (which is also what the Popes seem to support as well).

The problem here is, in my opinion, one of polarization of “belief” in science and religion in America,* primarily due to the unholy marriage of the Republican Party and religious conservatives as the “Religious Right.” Despite the rock-solid fact that we are not a Christian nation, that concept has been loudly and often claimed by GOP politicians, increasingly honed over the years and sharpened to a fine point. Today, a Republican presidential candidate might as well stand up and say they eat live puppies rather than they “believe” in evolution. This science versus religion rhetoric has polarized our country so badly that a lot of people perceive all religion to be totally anti-science, and that’s not true, and not fair.

Another part of this is the broad lack of scientific understanding by the American public. This is exacerbated by the same people on the far right (both in schools and on the pulpit) who misrepresent science, casting it as strictly opposed to their particular religious thinking (which, to be fair, in many cases it is, because these folks believe in stuff that’s provably wrong). And while this type of belief and scare-mongering of science is not universal, it is widespread and pushed by the media.

And that makes what the Pope said news, instead of generating more of a “Oh, that’s nice” reaction.

My own views on all this, obviously, are not as black and white as many others I read. For example, I think religious people believing in theistic evolution is fine. I don’t believe it myself, but if folks want to believe in God for personal reasons and still accept the science, then good on them! At the very least, they’re not trying to legislate young-Earth creationism and other provably wrong concepts be taught in the classroom. And if they accept the science there, perhaps they can continue in that direction in other areas as well.

I’d far rather discuss the Big Bang with Pope Francis than with Ken Ham.

From polls and other reports it seems to me that most people in this country support science broadly and in many specific cases, even as they hold tightly their personal religious beliefs. That’s why I also think there is a huge amount of room for dialogue here, a place where people of faith and people of science can come together. There are places where we cannot, of course, due to zealotry and demagoguery. Unfortunately those people are loud (and many are even louder now due to midterm elections next week).

But this is why I’m very happy to see the Pope say these things, and to see they’re making news. It’s also why I support people like Katharine Hayhoe, who is a religious evangelist and climate change scientist; Baptist Pastor C. Welton Gaddy, who doesn’t want religion taught in public schools; Reverend Barry Lynn, who is dedicated to the separation of Church and State; and my friend Pamela Gay, who is a fervent and terrific advocate for science and reason, and also a Christian.

So while I’m happy to hear what the Pope said, I’m not at all surprised by it. And I can hope that if he continues to say things like this—and that other religious leaders join him—then it will no longer be news. It’ll just be the way things are.

*I put “belief” in quotation marks because science isn’t a belief system

Correction, Oct. 29, 2014: I originally misspelled Katharine Hayhoe's first name.

Oct. 28 2014 7:14 PM

BREAKING: Antares Rocket Explodes on Takeoff

Seconds after launch, the Antares rocket exploded.

Photo by NASA

Update, Oct. 29, 2014 at 14:45 UTC: There's some good news today: A Russian Soyuz rocket successfully launched this morning with supplies for the station, its Progress vehicle docking with ISS six hours later.

Update, Oct. 29, 2014 at 01:30 UTC: A NASA press conference was held a few hours after the explosion; here's a rundown. They told people not to pick up any debris they might find near the launch site, because it might be dangerous. The launch pad was damaged by the explosion, but it's not clear yet how badly (night fell around the time of launch, so it's dark in the area). As expected, they won't comment on the possible cause of the accident but did say the astronauts on ISS are in no danger; there is a Progress launch with supplies in a few hours, and a SpaceX Dragon resupply mission launch in a few weeks. They have several months of supplies on board in any case. The full cost of the rocket and payload was about $200 million. The next step is to analyze the data from telemetry, cameras on the ground, and the debris. Incidentally, they did say the flight safety officer did hit the detonate button after the initial failure, but it's not clear to me just when. They haven't released the exact timeline, so we won't know the precise timing of what happened when until that's released. Orbital Science Corp. has expressed profound regret that they couldn't complete their mission but vows to find out what happened, fix it, and fly again.


Fourteen seconds after launch tonight, the Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket exploded. It’s not yet known why.

First: This was an uncrewed vehicle; no people were on board (and as I write this there are no reports of injuries). It was loaded with supplies and experiments for the International Space Station, and was Orbital's third such resupply mission.

As you can see, just seconds after launch there was something odd that happened in the first stage; there was a bright flare, then the bottom of the rocket exploded. As launch expert Jonathan McDowell notes, the first stage is built by the Ukranian company Yuzhnoe and uses Aerojet AJ-26 engines which are Russian NK-33 engines. These are very old engines (built in the 1960s and 70s) that are refurbished. While it’s not known if these were the cause of the explosion, I suspect they'll be very carefully scrutinized in the investigation. A recent test of one engine ended in failure.

The moment of the explosion. Note it occurred at the very bottom of the rocket.

Photo by NASA

Update, Oct. 28, 2014 at 22:30 UTC: Let me be clear: We don't know what caused this failure, and the engines are one of many possibilities. I am not pointing fingers, and I won't speculate beyond this. I changed the phrasing in the paragraph above to make this more clear.

Update, Oct. 29, 2014 at 01:00 UTC: More dramatic video is showing up, one taken from the press area a few kilometers away, as well as from an airplane flying near the launch site. I've embedded them below.

Tomorrow, a Russian Progress vehicle will be launched to ISS with more supplies. I don’t think the astronauts on board the station are in any trouble, but I suspect this may impact the November launch of three more astronauts to ISS as part of Expedition 42.

Update, Oct 28, 2014 at 22:40 UTC: NASA has a list of the Cygnus spacecraft payload on the Antares rocket. It includes food, hardware, and quite a few student experiments involving microgravity. Thanks to Katie Mack for the link. 

This is all we know right now. I’ll post updates here as I find out more information, and you can go to the NASA OSC page as well.

My sincere and heartfelt condolences to everyone involved with this mission. Losing a vehicle, even an uncrewed one, is devastating. I hope the investigation quickly reveals the issue so that this can be fixed soon, and launches can resume.

Oct. 28 2014 9:35 AM

Tethying Rings

So far over the past week or two I’ve covered a lot of ground in the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto, back to Mars, then in to the Sun.

So let’s head back out and see what’s going on at Saturn. Oh, just this:

Tethys teed up on Saturn's rings.

Photo byNASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Oh, do I love some good ol’ Saturn photo amazingness! What you’re seeing is Saturn’s moon Tethys right through Saturn’s rings, which are very nearly edge-on in this shot. The Cassini space probe was about 1.8 million kilometers (1.1 million miles) from Tethys when it took this.

You get a sense of just how thin the rings are here; although they’re hundreds of thousands of kilometers across, they’re only a few tens of meters thick! There are several subdivisions of rings, too. The thick band crossing Tethys is the A ring, and you can see the narrow Keeler gap (carved by the dinky moon Daphnis) also crossing Tethys’ face. Inside the A ring is the Cassini Division, then the broad B ring closer to Saturn. Outside the A ring, also seen crossing Tethys, is the narrow and frankly weird F ring. You can’t see it here, but the F ring is twisted and knotted by the gravitational interactions of the tiny moons Pandora and Prometheus.

Tethys is a pretty interesting place, too.

Tethys is a decently sized 1,062 km (660 miles) in diameter, but its average density is actually lower than water! Dump it into the Pacific Ocean and it would float … but it would also melt. It’s primarily made of water ice, a giant ice ball. You can see in this image (and in others) that the surface is rough and heavily cratered, but the only big topographical features are grabens, gigantic cracks in the surface which probably formed as the moon cooled and solidified long ago. 

I love the perspective in this picture; compare the image above to this one taken at a much higher angle. That one makes Tethys look like it’s above the rings when it’s in fact aligned with them. The system of rings and moons around Saturn is constantly changing, as is Cassini’s angle on them, providing a never-ending parade of wonder. It’s a gorgeous solar system we live in, and I’m glad we live in a time when we can see that.

Oct. 27 2014 2:29 PM

Antares Is Go for Launch Tonight

Update, Oct. 28 at 22:30 UTC: The Antares rocket was launched on time today, but exploded a few seconds after takeoff. It's not clear what happened - I have not seen a replay yet, but a lot of people on Twitter say they saw flames above the bottom of the rocket. This was an uncrewed flight; no humans were on board and so far there are no reports of injuries on the ground. I don't know what this means for the astronauts on the ISS, but I'll have more information as I get it.

Update, Oct. 28 at 01:30 UTC: The launch was scrubbed Monday night when a boat was seen in the ocean off the coast of Virginia under the rocket's flight path. Another launch will be attempted Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 18:22 Eastern (22:22 UTC).


An Antares rocket sits on the launch pad in Virginia and is go for launch tonight at 6:45 p.m. Eastern time (22:45 UTC). 

The rocket will boost a Cygnus spacecraft—named the SS Deke Slayton, after the original Mercury astronaut—filled with supplies for the astronauts on board the International Space Station. This is the third resupply mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which, along with SpaceX, is contracted by NASA to send rockets up to ISS.

And if you live on the East Coast, you might be able to see the launch for yourself! As it gets higher, it will be visible to more people on the ground, from South Carolina up to New Hampshire. Universe Today has the details, including a visibility map.

If you can't see it for yourself, you can alway watch it online on NASA TV and NASA's UStream channel. I'll be live-tweeting it as well

Correction, Oct. 27, 2014 at 18:50 UTC: I originally wrote that the launch was in Florida, not Virginia. 

Oct. 27 2014 7:00 AM

An Ionized Flower Blooms in Space

Oh, do I love me some young stars throwing their weight around! Behold what happens when they do:

Cocoon Nebula
Like a flower trillions of kilometers across—and true to its name—the Cocoon Nebula is the site of active star birth. Click to enpupanate.

Photo by Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, used by permission

This photo was taken by “amateur” astronomer Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, using a 20 cm Astro-Tech RC telescope, and is a total of nearly nine hours of exposure through various filters.


What it shows is the famed Cocoon Nebula, also called IC 5146. What you’re seeing is actually a cluster of young stars called Collinder 470, which is roughly 2,500 light-years away. And I do mean young; the bright star in the center of the nebula is only about 100,000 years old. Compare that to the Sun’s 4,560,000,000 years, and you’ll understand why these stars are mere whippersnappers.*

Stars form from clouds of gas and dust, and there are both in plenty here. The dark dust is strewn everywhere in this picture; you can see it as gray or black diffuse clouds. Note that where it lies, swaths of stars appear red; dust scatters away or absorbs blue light, letting only red light through. Most of the stars you see glowing ruddily in the dust are literally in that dust, or behind it.

But the bloom of the rose in this photo is obviously the bright pink nebula itself. The star in the center, called BD+46°3474, is a hot, massive B-type star. It’s a beast, five times the diameter of the Sun, 15 times its mass, and a brutal 20,000 times as luminous. Replace the Sun with BD+46 and the Earth would be a smoking ruin.

The power of a star like this can profoundly affect its environment. In this case, the star is embedded in a molecular cloud, a huge, dense clump of cold material—in this case, several hundred times the mass of the Sun worth of material. BD+46 was near the edge of the cloud, and when the star was born, its fierce light and energy inflated the cloud, created a blister in the side, and then blew it out entirely. What’s left is a cavity carved out of the side of the dense cloud filled with much lower density gas. The hydrogen gas inside the cavity glows characteristically red/pink, lit up literally like a neon sign.

At first I thought this might be a Strömgren sphere: a lone gas cloud in space lit by a star within. The edge of such a sphere is defined by where the starlight gets too weak to make the gas glow. But those tend to have sharper edges than what we see here, and clearly the Cocoon has fuzzy edges. That implies the gas is interacting with denser material, which is what you expect from a blowout in the side of the cloud. In this sense, it’s much like the Orion Nebula, though on a somewhat smaller scale.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? If you like it, you should check out more of Hepburn’s work. She’s quite gifted and has an amazing array of photos on her site.

*Get off my galaxy! <shakes fist>

Oct. 26 2014 5:30 AM

Chromatic Clouds

Oct. 23 was the solar eclipse, as you probably well know. I was out on my deck taking a lot of pictures as the event started, but within a few minutes the clouds rolled in. As the Sun disappeared, I was pretty sure the next hour was hopeless.

As you can see in the final image in the photo gallery I put up yesterday, the clouds thinned every now and again, and I was able to get a few interesting pictures. As I watched, though, I noticed the clouds were lenticulars; lens-shaped as they were sculpted by winds blowing up and over the Rocky Mountains to the west. Having some experience with this, I kept an eye on them… and sure enough, I saw what I was hoping for: iridescence along the edges.

This colorful phenomenon is amazing and lovely, and very hard to capture in photographs. I took a lot of shots at different settings, and when I saw this one I was stunned. It may be the most beautiful photo I’ve ever taken.

Oct. 25 2014 7:02 AM


The European Space Agency partnered with Platige Image to create this video, and it's stunning. Stunning. Make it full screen, and watch.

Well, well. Not what you expected, was it? That was magnificent, and it shows in video form just what I feel every time we send a new probe into the black.


We didn't make these worlds, but we will explore them.

Oct. 24 2014 7:00 AM

Gallery: The Partial Solar Eclipse of October 2014

Yesterday was the last solar eclipse the U.S. will see until August 2017. This was a partial eclipse, so the Sun wasn’t completely blocked by the Moon, but it was still a lot of fun. Judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds, a lot of folks watched this eclipse and took pictures. I was out on my porch taking shots, too—well over a hundred, though only a few came out.

Some people had far better circumstances than I did, though. I asked for them to send me pictures, and I got a lot! Here are just a few of the ones I received … and I threw in one I took as well. You’ll see why.