The entire universe in blog form

July 11 2014 7:00 AM

Royal Greenwich Observatory's Astrophotographer of the Year Contest

I’m always excited when it’s time for the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest. Being a hugely prestigious observatory, it of course receives a dizzying array of astonishing pictures of the Universe around us. It’s always a pleasure to look through them.

This year a record 2500 entries were submitted, and from this they culled just 19 images to be on their short list for the prizes in the various categories, which include Earth and Space, Our Solar System, Deep Space, and Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year.

All 19 are magnificent, but I picked just a few I liked in particular to show you here. You can see them on the RGO site, and if you have a lot of spare time you can peruse all 2500 submission on Flickr. Winners will be announced on Sept. 14, 2014, and will be part of an exhibition at RGO starting Sep. 18. If you’re in England, go look!

Until then, here are a few of the finalists.

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July 10 2014 7:30 AM

NASA Launches a New Eye on Carbon Dioxide

On Wednesday, July 2, 2014, NASA launched a new satellite into orbit: The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2*, designed to study atmospheric carbon dioxide. OCO-2 will be able to measure the levels of CO2 in our air with incredible accuracy and on very small regional scales, something that’s never been able to be done before.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas: It lets visible light from the Sun pass through the air to heat the Earth, but it absorbs some of the infrared light the Earth emits as it warms. This traps a small but extra amount of heat in the Earth’s air, causing global warming. There are other greenhouse gases, like methane and water vapor, but in general over time they stay constant; humans dump a huge amount of extra CO2 into the air—30 billion tons per year; yes, that’s billion with a b—and it’s this extra amount that’s causing us so much grief. The level of CO2 in our atmosphere is now 150 percent of where it was at the beginning of the industrial age, and this is what’s causing the sharp and quite alarming jump in global temperatures over the past century or so.


NASA is very concerned with measuring global warming and the incipient change in our climate, and that’s why OCO-2 was launched. It will take an astonishing 24 measurements every second, getting more than 1 million observations per day. It’s very sensitive to cloud cover (which can compromise the measurements) so it should get about 100,000 usable observations every day in its 3-square-kilometer field of view. That’s an amazingly high resolution both in time and space, and will give us an excellent view of the sources and sinks of CO2 over the planet.

The launch was attended by photographers Jeff Sullivan and Lori Hibbett, who got fantastic shots of it. Sullivan created a lovely time-lapse video of the night:

I’m very pleased this satellite is on the job. Global warming may be the single biggest immediate threat humanity faces, and there’s still much to learn about how it works, what effects it will have, and what we can do to stop or at least minimize its effects.

My congratulations to NASA and to JPL, and to the entire OCO-2 team. Let’s hope this will be another big step in helping us save our future.

*The first OCO was lost in a launch failure in 2009; it didn’t achieve orbit and burned up over the Indian Ocean.

Lori Hibbett attends to her camera as the rocket carrying OCO-2 goes through a staging event high in the atmosphere.

Photo by Jeff Sullivan, used by permission

July 9 2014 11:21 AM

The View Is Getting Clearer

I have some good news, and some forehead-slappy news.



I’ve had serious problems with Shepherd for years; back in 2007 I called her out for what can charitably be called profound ignorance on some basic matters (like—and I’m serious—not knowing the Earth is round, claiming that nothing predated Christianity, and being a Young-Earth creationist).

Given that this is a talk show where the panel discusses various current events and offers up opinions, I have long said she’s an inappropriate person to have on. I’m generally understanding of people having opinions with which I disagree if they come to those conclusions in good faith (if you’ll pardon the expression), even if they’re based on bad evidence—everyone has their own beliefs that are illogical or even irrational. And certainly if everyone always agreed on everything it wouldn’t be a very interesting show to watch (or a fun planet to live on).

But there’s only so much ignorance I think a viewer should be asked to tolerate. Shepherd, in my own opinion, was well past that limit.

As for McCarthy, well, her vociferous and glaringly wrong stance against vaccines leaps her way to the front of the pack of people who needn’t be given a voice on television. I was clear about this when she was hired for The View, and I was even more clear when—in a twist that would make Orwell proud—she claimed she wasn’t anti-vaccination. Her influence on the anti-vax movement presents a threat to public health, and anti-vax beliefs are causing huge spikes in preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough.

So yes, I’m glad McCarthy’s leaving a TV show that has an audience of millions of people, many of whom are young mothers with vaccination-age children. However, sadly, I’m also quite sure she will find some other soapbox from which she can peddle her nonsense. There’s no lack of such venues in today’s media.

And now the forehead-slappiness: Apropos of apparently nothing, Sarah Palin is throwing her hat in the ring to be on the show. It doesn’t sound like ABC invited her, and Palin is well-known for, um, self-promotion, so I doubt there’s any weight to this. It would be, in my opinion, a wash to lose Shepherd and McCarthy and gain Palin; the former governor of Alaska has made creationist noises before, and honestly has hardly said one rational thing since getting into the public eye years ago. Her latest step in bizarro land is to unironically call for President Obama’s impeachment for “dereliction of duty,” even though she herself quit the office of governor in the middle of a term after numerous ethics investigations. So, yeah.

Anyway, I know in the long term all this host shuffling on a daytime TV talk show doesn’t mean a huge amount, but I do think it means something. A lot of folks watch TV, of course, and millions still get a lot of their news and information from shows like The View. That means the producers, in turn, have responsibility for what they say and do. Hiring people to give opinions who are known mostly for their advocacy of provable nonsense is not raising the level of discourse in this country, and that’s something we sorely, sorely need.

Tip o’ the moose antlers to Davin Flateau for the info about Palin.

July 9 2014 7:30 AM

Noctilucent Clouds Over the London Eye

My pal Christoph Malin is an astrophotographer, and a very good one; I’ve written about his photos many times.

He sent me an email saying he was in London at a pub, and when he walked out he could scarcely believe his eyes: In downtown London, he could see noctilucent clouds! Being very rarely seen, he quickly set up his camera to get photos of them. He put them together to make this lovely time-lapse animation:


Very cool. I love the composition, with the huge London Eye ferris wheel in the foreground.

As it happens, noctilucent clouds are poorly understood. They appears as thin, wispy clouds (looking very much like tightly constrained cirrus) usually just after sunset or before sunrise when the sky is dark. The look milky white, shiny (hence the term noctilucent, which means “night-shining”), and sometimes bluish.

They are extremely high up, 76–85 kilometers (46–51 miles) in altitude. They’re visible due to being lit from beneath by the Sun but are very faint. That’s why they’re visible only at sunset (or before sunrise, like when Malin's photos were taken), when the Sun is well below the horizon to people on the ground but still visible from the cloud’s point of view.

They’re so high up they are actually above the troposphere and stratosphere, where every other kind of cloud forms. Noctilucent clouds exist in the mesosphere, and how they form and evolve isn’t terribly well known. They need dust and water vapor to form, as well as extremely cold temperatures. Several formation mechanisms have been proposed, but it’s not clear which may be most prevalent or even correct.

One reason for the lack of understanding is that they’re a new phenomenon; none has ever been reported before 1885. An intriguing possibility is that they are related to global warming, though this (again) is not well known. I suggest reading the Wikipedia page on noctilucent clouds; it gives a good description and has many links you can follow down the rabbit hole.

And now I have something to add to my list, including a total solar eclipse and an aurora: Things I really want to see but still haven’t yet. I’ve really got to get moving on this.

[UPDATE (July 9, 2014): I initially said that these clouds are sometimes visible after sunset, but to be clear they are also sometimes visible before sunrise as well.]

July 8 2014 12:40 PM

Typhoon Neoguri Takes Aim on Japan

People on the main island of Japan are preparing to get hit by the strongest cyclone the Western Pacific has seen in the 2014 season: Typhoon Neoguri. It has already passed over Okinawa, and its 190 kilometers per hour (118 mh) gusts left widespread damage and at least one person dead.

The good news is that it’s drawing in dry air, which is weakening the system; cyclones like this need warm moisture for power. As I write this, its sustained winds are clocked at about 105 kph (66 mph), still very strong. The size of the typhoon is incredible; it's easily thousands of kilometers across. Evacuations have been advised for hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, and tens of thousands are without power.

Over the past day astronauts on board the International Space Station have passed over the typhoon, and they have taken astonishing pictures of the storm system. As always, pictures like these are amazingly beautiful, but never doubt for a second that what you are seeing is as destructive and dangerous as it is awe-inspiring and lovely.

July 8 2014 11:00 AM

Climate Change Is a Threat to National Security

Global warming is real, and we’re starting to feel the physical effects now. It’s difficult to pin any one event on a warming world; it’s like playing craps with a pair of loaded die. That 12 you rolled may have been random, or it may have been because the dice are very slightly weighted. You have to throw a lot of rolls before the effects are seen with any certainty.

But these physical effects on our planet are just the start. Droughts, fires, more extreme weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification … these are just the primary, direct consequences as our planet gets hotter.


But these will have further effects. Starvation, mass migration, rise of disease, species extinction, and collapse of infrastructure follow these primary effects. These will profoundly affect people, and that means politics will play its role, from the local, tribal level all the way up to nations.

David Titley was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, and an expert in climate change and national security. He served on the CNA Corp.'s Military Advisory Board, which recently issued a strongly worded report calling global warming a threat to national security.

Titley wrote an op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reiterating the need to take this threat seriously. It’s actually pretty simple to understand: A changing world environment means a changing political environment. If some regions stand to lose in the crap shoot of climate change, then they will see the need to take action. Furthermore, as the geophysical landscape literally changes, nations will move to capitalize on it (such as melting Arctic ice opening up shipping lanes, and, ironically, more places to drill for oil). These are things our government must pay attention to, and must make plans for.

Of course, as I’ve written about before, Republicans in Congress added an amendment to a Department of Defense funding bill specifically forbidding money be spent on looking into global warming. Ironically, for all their nationalistic claims, their actions put our nation in very real jeopardy.

Once you deny reality, the fantasy you spin can be very dangerous.

And, of course, they are cheered on by the Noise Machine. The latest is by perennial reality-stomper David Rose, who would probably deny the Earth was warming up when the Sun turns into a red giant and fills half the sky. In the Daily Mail (I know, wrapping a fish in the Mail is an insult to the fish, but it’s sadly widely read) he penned his usual nonsense, this time a ridiculous piece about there being more Antarctic sea ice than usual, so how can global warming possibly be real?

Happily John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli handily destroy this bit of misinformation. The bottom line: Antarctic sea ice comes and goes every year, and a relatively small increase this year does very little to balance the vast loss of Arctic sea ice, or the massive melting we’re seeing in Greenland and Antarctic land ice. Abraham and Nuccitelli correctly point out that screeds like Rose’s are distractions, adding noise to the discussion without adding any real content.

In situations like this, I picture deniers with their backs to a raging forest fire, looking at one tree off to the side that’s not yet aflame, claiming that everything’s OK.

Everything is most certainly not OK. We’re changing the planet, and that’s changing the shape of geopolitics. We need to face that fact, and the sooner the better.

July 8 2014 7:30 AM

Two Big Rocks Pass in the Night

Around the same time Mars and the Moon were making each other’s acquaintance earlier this week, two other solar system bodies were prepping to do the same thing: Ceres and Vesta, the two biggest asteroids in the solar system, got pretty close together, too.

Ceres and Vesta
Animation showing the asteroids' apparent motion in the sky over the course of an hour. Click to dwarfplanetate.

Photo by Jerry Lodriguss, used by permission

That two-frame animated GIF is from astrophotographer Jerry Lodriguss, who took the two pictures an hour apart when the asteroids were separated by about 10 arcminutes, about one-third the apparent diameter of the Moon on the sky. In that short time their motion was visible against the fixed background stars.


When I say “their motion,” I’m actually including a lot of hidden things. Both orbit the Sun, of course; Ceres is about 400 million kilometers from the Sun, and Vesta 350 million. Ceres makes one orbit in 4.6 years; Vesta 3.6.

But there’s more! The Earth is orbiting the Sun, faster than either asteroid. We sit on Earth and sweep past them, like a passenger in a car passing cars in other lanes. You have to account for everyone’s movement if you want to figure out just how the two asteroids move and send spaceships there.

Which, in fact, we have done: NASA sent the Dawn spacecraft to visit Vesta, and it stayed in orbit around the asteroid for a year. It left Vesta in late 2012 and is now approaching Ceres. It’ll arrive and go into orbit in February 2015.

From Earth the asteroids are barely bigger than dots (even to Hubble). But when you go there they look like this:

Vesta, up close and personal.


Yeah. That’s what Vesta looks like when you’re a few hundred kilometers away. Right now we only have blurry image of Ceres, but in a few months that will change a lot. What will we see? If we knew that, we wouldn’t have to send probes there.

Space exploration is pretty cool. It turns lights in the sky into worlds! Each different, each wondrous, each with so much to teach us.

And they’re fun to watch, too.

July 7 2014 7:30 AM

Stop Giving Airtime to Crackpots

Oh, I do so love this. It’s precisely the right thing to do, sorely needed and sorely overdue. In this specific case, back in 2012 the BBC was criticized for news shows inviting on people with fringe views, especially when the science being discussed was solidly understood.


Obviously, the topic most abused in this way was the reality of global warming. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying any attention at all.

But more broadly, most TV news shows do this, especially when they are done with a talk show format. It’s all too easy for a news program or other venue with a biased ideological objective (cough cough Fox News cough Wall Street Journal cough) to bring on people who sound authoritative, but who are in fact simply cranks or contrarians with outlandish claims. This sort of bias sows doubt, which is far easier to do than to debunk it.

In other subjects, it’s possible for honest people with different values to come down on different sides of a debate. But when it comes to science, especially firmly established and consensually agreed-upon science, putting on some crackpot who disagrees is not “fair and balanced.”

News shows don’t put on a flat-earther whenever they show a map. They don’t get an opposing opinion from a young-Earth creationist when a new dinosaur fossil is found. They don’t interview an astrologer when a new exoplanet is discovered. So why put on a climate change denier when we’re talking about our planet heating up?

I’ll note that giving cranks the boot is only Step 1. What’s Step 2? Stop electing them to office. I can name a dozen reality-denying national politicians without breaking a sweat, as I’ve done many times on the blog. But I’d like to shine a light specifically on Kentucky state Sen. Brandon Smith (R-Hazard), who actually and really and truly let these words fall from his mouth:

As you (Energy & Environment Cabinet official) sit there in your chair with your data, we sit up here in ours with our data and our constituents and stuff behind us. I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.

If your brain survived that onslaught, then I’ll dispute that. The average temperature on Earth is very roughly 14° C (57°F). The average temperature of Mars is -55°C (-67° F). Not really “exactly the same”.

Ironically, if Mars ever did have the same temperature as Earth, it would be due to global warming from the greenhouse effect. The atmosphere of the Red Planet is less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s, but it’s mostly carbon dioxide. That gas raises the planet’s temperature a few degrees. On Earth, given our distance from the Sun and other factors, the average temperature should hover around freezing. Thanks to greenhouse gases like CO2, it’s far more clement … but since we’re adding huge amounts of carbon dioxide to our air, it won’t stay that way for much longer.

People would actually be a whole lot better off if those coal mines were on Mars.

Just as we’d be a whole lot better off if all our politicians acknowledged the reality of reality and our media kicked folks who think otherwise to the curb. I applaud the BBC for its stance (as well as the L. A. Times and other venues), and hope to see a lot, lot more of this in the near future.

July 6 2014 7:30 AM

When the Moon Met Mars

Last night (July 5, 2014), the geometry of the heavens swept the Moon past Mars in the sky. This happens every month, but last night the fleeting encounter was closer than most. From my location in Boulder, Colorado, they got a mere 10 arcminutes apart; about one-third the size of the Moon itself.

The closest passage was around 7 p.m. local time for me, with the Sun still up. However, that didn’t deter me—I could easily see Mars through my telescope (it was easy to spot in binoculars as well). So while they were close together I set my ‘scope up, attached my camera, and took about 200 pictures. Of those a few came out well, and I think this one is the best:

Moon and Mars
You can see Mars near the top of the image. Click to appulsenate.

Photo by Phil Plait, used by permission


How cool is that? It might be hard to see, but in the full resolution image Mars is clearly red, and is also clearly not full, that is, a complete disk. Like the Moon, Mars has phases, but because it orbits outside the Earth’s orbit from the Sun we never see it as a thin crescent (it would need to get between the Earth and the Sun for that, which is thankfully not possible). But it can be gibbous, and in fact last night it was about 87 percent full. I think the phase is exaggerated in my photo possibly due to the focus, but the truth is even by eye it wasn’t full.

And I figured what the heck—after spending so much time getting the focus right, why not get a big ol’ shot of the Moon?

Hard to believe that's nearly 400,000 km away. Click to embiggen.

Photo by Phil Plait

You know what? Our skies are very, very pretty. It gives me indescribable joy to go out and appreciate that beauty, to try to capture it, and most of all to share it with you.

Because it’s a FAQ: I have a Celestron C8-SGT XLT (an 8” Schmidt Cassegrain), and my camera is a Canon T4i.

July 5 2014 7:30 AM

Putin Their Money Where Their Mouth Is

I may be known for standing up in public and telling people Don’t Be a Dick … but sometimes you have to tell people when they’re being one.

As you can imagine, folks in Ukraine aren’t terribly happy with Russia, especially in the form of its President, Vladimir Putin. I would think having part of your country invaded by Russia and then seeing a suspiciously high (96 percent or more affirmative) voter referendum to join the Russian Federation would make anyone a little sore.


So some Ukrainian activists decided to exact a small bit of revenge. They adopted a star, listing their name as “Putin-Huilo”.

Putin Huilo
The First Annual Vladimir Putin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence

Photo from the EuroMaydan Facebook page

Why is this funny? Because the name means, um, well, something not terribly flattering toward Putin. I found a few explanations that should draw you a fairly clear picture.  

I have to admit chuckling over this. I’m no fan of Putin, who seems to pine for the good ol’ days of the USSR. And if I have to choose between him and a group of plucky thumbs-to-their-noses astronomy enthusiasts … well.

The star they adopted was through the Pale Blue Dot project, run by the White Dwarf Research Corp. This is a nonprofit made up of professional astronomers raising money to do real research in asteroseismology and cosmochronometry, fields that deal with the properties of stars. Their work is solid, and they already funded some research that led to the discovery of the smallest known exoplanet in 2013. If you want, you can adopt a star as well and help support real, important research.

Incidentally, I checked with Travis Metcalfe from White Dwarf, and he confirms the story is legit. The star isn't actually named "Putin-Huilo" of course; this is just a fun and unofficial way for the group to raise funding. I’ll note this is different than some less-then-stellar companies that claim to “sell” stars, which are at best deceptive. Donations to White Dwarf go toward the astronomers so they can continue their research.

Out of curiosity I poked around to find the star. Using the Goddard Space Flight Center SkyView page, I made a nice picture of it:

The star adopted is at the center of this picture; it's too faint to see without a telescope.

Photo by Digitized Sky Survey/SkyView

It’s faint, about magnitude 11.5, so you’d need a decent telescope to see it. The colors here aren’t true; I set them such that infrared light looks red, red light looks green, and blue light looks blue. Given its measured colors, it looks to be similar to the Sun, which is rather interesting. I had to chuckle—compared to the Sun, it’s actually a bit redder. That seems fitting.

As for the Ukrainian astronomers, I wish them the best. I think their star is safe. I’m not sure how far away it is, but if it is like the Sun, it’s about 700 light years distant. That’s too far even for Putin to annex.

Tip o’ the babushka to the fantabulous Iszi Lawrence.