Ceiling Nebula Is Watching You Trick-or-Treat
My friend and astronomer Amy Mainzer sent me a funny picture the other day. Amy is the top banana for NASA's NEOWISE mission, which scans the sky, looking for near-Earth asteroids in the far-infrared part of the spectrum.
The Spitzer Space Telescope was a similar observatory, taking more detailed pointed observations of various targets. One such object was NGC 6888, the expanding cloud of gas and dust blown out by the star WR 136:
Amy claims it looks like a jack-o‘-lantern. I can agree, kinda. But if pressed, I’d say it looks a lot more like ceiling cat.
I guess it’s scary either way.
In real life it’s even scarier. The central star, WR 136, is a massive and feisty beast. It was born with at least 30 times the mass of the Sun but shed a lot of that material in an epic solar wind when it turned into a red supergiant star (like Betelgeuse) a quarter of a million years ago.
It then turned into what’s called a Wolf-Rayet star, an incredibly luminous blue supergiant. Its wind switched from slow to fast, plowing into the previously ejected material, slamming into it and sweeping it up. The star emits a lot of ultraviolet light, which causes the shell to glow.
The rippling you see in it is due to the lower density stuff slamming into the thicker stuff. This creates fingers or ripples of matter called Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities, which are common in such objects.
By the way, did I mention that the entire nebula is about 250 trillion kilometers across?
WR 136 is still a beefy star, and doesn’t have much longer to live. Eventually, it’ll explode, a ginormously powerful supernova blast that will scream outward, catch up with the material in NGC 6888, and scatter it into the galaxy. Happily, the star is 5,000 light-years away, so we’re in no danger from it. But what a show that’ll be.
Because an octillion tons of superheated plasma barreling into space at thousands of kilometers per second disintegrating everything in its path is about the best Halloween treat I can give you.
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Suffers Major Accident
Earlier today, the Virgin Galactic private suborbital rocket plane SpaceShipTwo suffered a major malfunction and crashed in the Mojave Desert. At least one person, the pilot, was killed, and reports are still coming in.
Even the Sun is getting into the holiday spirit.
That image, taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on Oct. 8, 2014, shows places on the Sun where magnetic activity is high. In the far ultraviolet, the intense energies tossed around by these ridiculously strong magnetic fields can be seen, in contrast to more sedate areas. And, happily, on that date the Sun wound up looking like a giant pumpkin.
A pumpkin big enough to have over 100 Earths across its face, and well over a million needed to fill it up. If you want terrifying, then a star is a pretty decent way to go.
But if you do want more cosmic Halloweeny goodness, then you should go to my gallery of spooky star stuff, which has some honestly really cool and creepy shots in it. The Skull Flower gets me every time. This one of a ghostly chase scene embedded in a nebula is pretty funny, too.
And Yet, We Continue Upward
On Tuesday night, Oct. 28, 2014, the Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket exploded a few seconds after liftoff. It was supposed to bring supplies—food, hardware, scientific experiments—up to the International Space Station, but a still-unknown malfunction brought it down.
Quickly thereafter video of the explosion started coming in, including a dramatic one shot from the press area, which was a few kilometers removed from the launch site.
Skip Morrow was there, with his wife and young daughter. When I posted about the event, he left a heartfelt comment about his experience there. He has a blog where he expanded on what he said here, and it’s worth a read.
I could just barely see the rocket fall to the ground and immediately exploded. Three seconds after it exploded, the shock wave hit us. It was very, very loud and it really shook the place. Immediately the NASA escorts at the viewing area started yelling for us all to get back on the buses. My daughter started crying, and to be quite honest, I was pretty choked up too.
Most impressive of all though, were the people offer to help my daughter get through all of this. We reminded her that almost certainly, no one should have been hurt since this was an unmanned mission (of course, we now know that was indeed the case and no one was hurt or killed). We talked to her about how hard space flight is, and how easy we make it look. We talked about how we use incidents like this to help us learn more about how to improve space flight. We even talked about the Launch Abort System used on rockets such as the Soyuz and soon the Orion. She was still pretty devastated, but I know that in another day or two she will be back to normal. She will never forget this, and neither will I.
Commenting on my blog post, he said this:
My daughter took it really hard. She loves coming to these launches, but it never really occurred to her that one of these could turn out bad, like this one. She knows about Challenger and Columbia and Apollo 1, but she hasn't witnessed anything like this first hand. I really wonder how her opinion about wanting to be an astronaut will change because of this.
I wonder too. I was in college when Challenger exploded, and after the shock wore off, my resolution that we continue to explore space was strengthened, as if honed or tempered by the blast. My love of space and the desire to see us head to the stars runs deep, even when I was still a young child watching on TV as Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, or seeing Apollo 15 launch in person.
I’ve written dozens of articles on this theme, but now is perhaps the best time to reiterate: Going to space is hard. The levels of engineering needed are staggering, and it all has to go right or else, well, it all goes wrong.
And yet, we still do it. And we’re pretty good at it. Mistakes get made, and then, hopefully, we learn from them. Sometimes it’s a mistake in engineering, sometimes in culture. But the more we do this, the better we get. It’s been a long time since Americans could put people in space—another cultural error—but we’re close to doing so again. And when we do, we’ll start reaching for the stars again.
The good news about this event, such as it is, is that the ISS astronauts are in no danger of running out of supplies; a Russian Soyuz loaded with supplies lifted off successfully just hours after the Antares explosion and docked with the station shortly thereafter. And, of course, there was no one on board the Antares, and no loss of life or even injuries. This failure was a costly one, but it could’ve been far worse.
So Morrow’s daughter is on my mind. I hope she sees this not as a catastrophe, but as a stumble, a misstep, which in the long run is inevitable as we head upward and outward.
Per aspera, ad astra.
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.
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.
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.
BREAKING: Antares Rocket Explodes on Takeoff
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.
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.
So let’s head back out and see what’s going on at Saturn. Oh, just this:
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.
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.
Correction, Oct. 27, 2014 at 18:50 UTC: I originally wrote that the launch was in Florida, not Virginia.