The entire universe in blog form
Posted Wednesday, June 19, 2013, at 10:00 AM
I don’t think most people are aware that Mexico has a lot of volcanoes, and some are quite active. Popocatépetl is located just 70 kilometers (40 miles) from Mexico City and it’s been rumbling and grumbling since 1991. Because of this the volcano is constantly monitored, and because of that we get to see this awesome time-lapse video, taken on June 17, 2013, just after 13:00 local time, of Popocatépetl blowing its top:
Wow! You can actually see the shock wave blowing away from the vent, and the blast moving down the flank of the volcano and disturbing the material there. A few seconds later you can see boulders and other dislodged matter rolling (or more likely shot) down the flank (the motion is accelerated in the time-lapse; the entire video covers about 12 minutes of real time).
This eruption, for all its terrifying power, was actually not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things; the mountain settled down minutes later…although it was large enough to be detected by GOES-13 weather satellite in space (very cool animation there).
The ash cloud rose to a height of several kilometers and dissipated as it blew downwind to the southwest (away from Mexico City, happily). Volcanic material was blown out for a few kilometers around the area, setting small fires in the grass, but no one has been reported as injured. Roads around the summit have been closed, and traffic within 12 kilometers (8 miles) has been restricted. Sounds like a good idea to me.
In a few days I’ll be in Oregon for Science Getaways, traipsing among the volcanoes there. None is likely to show any grand activity while we’re there, but we’ll be investigating lava tubes, obsidian fields, and canoeing in a caldera lake. I expect to be tweeting a lot of pictures. Stay tuned!
Tip o’ the cinder cone to Maik Thomas.
Posted Wednesday, June 19, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Photo by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
If you’ve ever wanted your picture taken from more than 1 billion kilometers away, here’s your chance. On July 19 between 21:27 to 21:42 UTC (5:27–5:42 p.m. EDT), the Cassini spacecraft will be pointed toward Earth for a series of what will no doubt become iconic pictures of Saturn and our home world together.
The images are being taken as part of a giant mosaic of Saturn that will be captured by Cassini. The spacecraft orbits Saturn and over the course of four hours will be in a part of its orbit where the disk of the planet itself will block the Sun. Cassini will see the rings backlit, the planet dark, with perhaps a halo of light circling the disk due to sunlight scattered by its atmosphere.
Illustration by NASA/JPL-Caltech
But just off to the side, a bit below Saturn’s face, will hang the pale blue dot of Earth, 1.45 billion kilometers (900 million miles) away. Even from that terrible distance, Cassini’s cameras should be able to detect the Earth’s Moon as well.
Illustration by NASA/JPL-Caltech
During the 15-minute window outlined above, the spacecraft will have its cameras pointed at Earth, taking images in a series of filters to provide a relatively true-color image. The United States will be in sunlight then, but it will be night for people in Europe. The illustration here shows what part of the Earth will be seen by Cassini from Saturn; if you see your part of the world, then Cassini will see you. Be sure to go outside and wave. (Note: The folks at Cassini have already accounted for the 80 minutes it takes light to go from Earth to Saturn, so the times above are the times to wave.)
Now, to be clear, the entire face of our planet will be at best 2 pixels in size from Cassini, and the Earth is roughly 100 million times wider than your face. You’ll be, um, unlikely to recognize yourself. But when the final picture is put together, you’ll have the knowledge that when Cassini was looking at you, you were looking right back.
The final image should be spectacular. The picture at the top of this post was taken in 2006 and shows what it looks like when the Saturnian system is backlit by our star. Earth is in that shot (indicated by the arrow), a tiny blue bit just outside the bright main rings. (A similar shot was taken in 2012, sans Earth.) It made quite a splash (I picked it as my top picture of 2006, which proved so popular it jammed the Cassini Web servers at the time), and for good reason. It’s gorgeous, it’s weird, and it gives us a sense of just how remote and lonely and wonderful and audacious our exploits can be.
Cassini is a plutonium-powered school-bus-sized robot that’s been orbiting Saturn for nearly a decade, and we put it there. That’s reason enough to take a moment and celebrate what we can do. And if you don’t believe me, read what Cassini Imaging Team Leader Carolyn Porco has to say about this. It’s inspiring.
The science Cassini does is astonishing, and we’ve learned more about Saturn in the past decade due to it than we had in the previous century. Scientists will be studying that data for the next century to come … but even so, it’s not all about science. Sometime it’s OK to stand back, admire the art, and realize that it can be about us.
Posted Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 1:30 PM
The show opens with a bit of space history from my friend Amy Shira Teitel, and then I’m on to give a brief history of Bad Astronomy, blogging, exoplanets, Kepler’s reaction wheels, asteroid impacts, and why science is cool. I had fun talking to Ray, and I hope you like it.
After my segment, Ray interviewed another friend, Geoff Notkin from Discovery Channel’s Meteorite Men. Geoff is an expert on meteorites and a very successful meteorite hunter. He talks about meteors and meteorites, Chelyabinsk, and what it takes to go out and find these celestial visitors. The show ends with music by James Olmos—no, not Admiral Adama, but a singer-songwriter.
Ray has talked to lots of great astronomy folks over the course of his series, so check them out!
Posted Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 11:00 AM
Photo by NASA, modified by Phil Plait
Not too surprisingly, there's been some ongoing tension between Congress and the White House over NASA funding for a while now. For some bizarre reason, the Obama administration wants to curtail NASA’s education efforts pretty severely, which in my opinion is not just a huge mistake but one that borders on insane. NASA outreach is a shiny gold star for the agency.
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will be holding hearings on Wednesday about NASA funding. SpaceNews released a summary of the draft congressional bill authorizing funds for NASA, and it has some pretty interesting things in it.
About education, it says:
There’s bipartisan agreement that the Administration’s proposal to re-organize NASA’s STEM education program is questionable. This bill maintains FY 2013 organization and funding level.
“Questionable.” Heh. My opinion on this is clear, and I’m glad to see Congress stating they want education and outreach to be a priority for NASA. You can read more about this situation at the AURA website.
About human spaceflight, it has this very interesting bit:
In the near-term, the primary objectives for NASA human spaceflight include:
[…] Continued commitment to develop the Space Launch System and Orion Crew Vehicle to return to the Moon and beyond, but no funding for an asteroid rendezvous mission.
Emphasis mine. Apparently, the White House’s proposal to snag, bag, and tag an asteroid is not a priority for Congress. That’s not surprising, as it would be expensive, and it’s not clear if some other part of NASA would be hit to pay for it. I like the idea of such a mission, but as I’ve said all along, I’d like to know where the money is coming from, and it better not be from some other worthy NASA project.
Now comes the monkey in the wrench. About planetary exploration, the draft bill says:
Relying on the guidance of National Academy of Sciences Decadal Surveys, this bill restores proper balance to NASA’s science portfolio. NASA Earth Science is reduced to 2008 spending levels to provide better balance of funding for NASA’s planetary science programs. Thirteen different federal agencies fund $2.5 billion annually in climate science research, but only NASA has space exploration as its primary mission. NASA is still involved in climate change research—spending $1.2 billion annually. NASA must remain focused on building weather satellites for NOAA to meet our nation’s urgent weather-monitoring needs, as well as building LANDSAT satellites for the US Geological Survey.
Well now. I have a few things to say about that.
First, I like the idea of restoring planetary exploration. This is another area where I strongly disagree with the Obama administration, which cut $300 million from this extremely successful program. Outside of straight astronomy (like Hubble), the planetary program is the most visible of what NASA does, even more so than the Space Station. And they’ve put the funds to great use, sending probes all over the solar system with far greater accuracy and success than any other space agency on Earth. Curiosity, Cassini, MESSENGER, Dawn … the list is lengthy. Cutting funds now would damage the future of the program for decades; it takes a long time to design, plan, and execute a mission. Congress wants to put that money back into planetary exploration.
Not that it’s a lock. Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society blog reports that a leaked NASA draft about appropriations indicates NASA itself will take any extra money for planetary exploration and redirect it to other projects. That strikes me as more foolishness. Hopefully Congress will disallow this; I have notified my own representative to let him know.
And finally, I have to comment on the bit about the climate change portion of the congressional statement. Reducing Earth observations to pay for planetary exploration is just as bad and just as irrational as what the White House is trying to do. Yes, other agencies study global warming, but NASA has a huge role in this. It partners with these other agencies to give us as complete a view of Earth as we can get. This issue is one of the most important ones we face as a species, and having NASA on our side is a damn good idea.
So why would Congress want to cut out climate change funding? Or should I phrase it as, “Why would the Republican-controlled Committee on Science want to cut funding for climate change research?” I did some poking around online, and every single Republican on the Science Committee ranges from being at least wishy-washy about climate change (saying things like the science isn’t conclusive, which is simply untrue) to full-blown global warming denialism (such as Lamar Smith, the committee chairman, who I’ll note is a proponent of space exploration; Paul “Lies from the Pit of Hell” Broun; Dana Rohrabacher; Jim Sensenbrenner; and others).
So I smell partisan science denial in this attempt to defund NASA’s climate change research. I’m all for getting more money to planetary exploration, but not at the cost of studying our own planet.
This draft bill, if it proves accurate and the basis for the congressional appropriations for NASA, is a mixed bag. Agree, disagree? Contact your representative and let him or her know.
Tip o’ the nose cone to my friend and astronomer Heidi Hammel.
Posted Tuesday, June 18, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Photo by Phil Plait
On Monday, there was a foofooraw on the Internet about the Miss USA pageant, when Miss Utah stumbled on a question much to the derision of online critics. As it happens, I was recently thinking about beauty pageants because of a talk I gave in Utah, where, coincidentally, I met the Miss Utah from the Miss America Pageant (to be clear, a different woman than the one in the recent Q-and-A kerfuffle). This seems like as good a time to write about it as any.
In April I was in Salt Lake City to visit the Clark Planetarium on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. I had a lovely time, in no small part due to the care and handling by director Seth Jarvis and public relations guru Lindsie Smith. If you’re ever in Salt Lake City, you should pay Clark a visit.
At the planetarium I gave my “Death from the Skies!” talk—all about asteroid impacts and how to avoid them—to a crowd of more than 300 folks, and they seemed to enjoy it. I also got to briefly meet a lot of them while signing books, which is always fun. I think my favorite parts were when a young boy told me he wanted to be a “Martian geologist,” and a group of young men and women were there who were going to the state science fair in May. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation getting fired up about science. That’s the Bernoulli effect above my wings.
It was while I was at the planetarium that I also met Kara Arnold, the current Miss Utah for the Miss America Pageant, who ran her pageant platform on improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and encouraging women and girls to enter STEM career paths. She majored in biochemistry in college and is currently attending medical school (which is on hold for the year she’s Miss Utah). She’s smart and approachable and gave a brief inspiring talk about her work to the audience before I went onstage.
While listening to her talk to the audience about STEM support, I found myself conflicted; I’m not a fan of pageants, given their objectification of women, and I suspect she and I would disagree over other issues as well. On the other hand, Arnold is performing a wonderful service, traveling around Utah and the country promoting science the way she does. For that I’m very grateful. She’s probably doing as much or more good in the name of science than a thousand other people her age.
As she spoke, I was struck by how much I travel to talk about science and how overwhelmingly supportive people are of it. It’s a selection bias, I know: Those folks are coming to hear an astronomy talk, and many are predisposed to looking at reality through the lens of science.
Still, I suspect a substantial fraction of the people who hear me talk would disagree with me strongly on many issues. Not necessarily scientific ones, but things like gay rights, reproductive rights, and so on.
But while I’m there talking to them, those issues aren’t important. Not right then, not at that specific time. What’s important is promoting science and getting more people to think critically. And although I might not be comfortable with the opinions or values some people may hold, or they of mine, the fact of the matter is it’s possible to come together on some issues, despite our differences. And who knows? Maybe some of the lessons on how to analyze a problem, how to think about an issue, will spill over from one area to another.
It’s worth remembering that. I will always fight for science and against anti-science when I have to, but I will always bear in mind that not everyone who disagrees with me on other issues is the enemy. Reality is the ultimate big tent.
Posted Monday, June 17, 2013, at 10:30 AM
You’d think it would be hard to hide a whole exploding star, but the galaxy has managed to do just that for 2,500 years.
Supernova remnant G306.3-0.9 somehow managed to elude discovery until 2011, when it was seen during a survey of the galaxy by the orbiting Swift observatory. Swift detects X-rays and gamma-rays, extremely high-energy forms of light emitted by the most powerful and violent events in the Universe—like exploding stars. X-rays from G306 betrayed its existence to Swift, and when astronomers noticed it, they swung other telescopes around to investigate.
The image at the top of this post is a combination of observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope (which sees infrared light), and the Australian Telescope Compact Array (which detects radio waves). X-rays are shown in blue, infrared in red and cyan, and radio in purple.
The circular shape of the object is a big hint to its origin as an exploding star, but the presence of X-rays is the clincher. When a star explodes, it blasts out a brain-crushing amount of matter and energy. The expanding debris can outmass the Sun by a factor of 10 or more, screaming outward at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. The energy emitted in a supernova in just a few weeks is the equivalent of the Sun’s output over its entire lifetime of 10 billion years.
The violence of a supernova is almost too much to comprehend.
This is belied by the beauty and apparent serenity of the image, isn’t it? We see it frozen in time, its vast power diminished by distance. It’s only through our understanding of physics and mathematics that we can even begin to understand the forces at work here.
The star exploded about 2,500 years ago (ignoring the time it took for the light to reach us), and the debris has expanded to about 25 light-years in diameter. That means the material was blasted outward to at least 1 percent the speed of light—and probably more, given it slows down over time as it rams through the thin material between the stars. As it slams into that gas, shock waves form in a similar way that sonic booms are created from supersonic aircraft. These shocks bounces around in the material, compressing it, and playing havoc with the magnetic fields inside. This accelerates subatomic particles to fantastic speeds, just under that of light itself, and it’s the interaction of the particles with those magnetic fields that generates the X-rays seen by Chandra and Swift.
Stars explode in our galaxy every century or so on average. We know of roughly 300 supernova remnants in our own galaxy, and G306 is one of the youngest. Some are tens of thousands of years old, and a handful older yet. Many of them are when a massive star explodes after a very short life, so they are still embedded in the gas and dust clouds from which they were born. That absorbs the fierce light, obscuring them from our view. That in turn means there are probably hundreds more supernova remnants in the Milky Way, many as young or younger than G306, that remain undiscovered.
It’s incredible that one of the singular violent events possible in the Universe can be relatively nearby yet be completely invisible. But we’re getting better at this. Our telescopes improve all the time, and we keep a sharp eye on the sky. I expect that over time, many more of these hidden cataclysms will come to light.
Posted Monday, June 17, 2013, at 8:00 AM
Fire image courtesy peasap's Flickr photostream; Earth image from NASA; composite by Phil Plait.
Oh, that Heartland Institute. This fossil-fuel-funded climate change denial “think tank” has made its name making outrageous statements that generally aren’t even within a glancing blow of reality. Like the way they hugely exaggerated the importance of “Climategate”—what I like to call a manufactroversy—or their horrific billboard campaign comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber and Charles Manson. That was where they actually had the temerity to say:
The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.
Nice, huh? No wonder they hemorrhaged sponsors so rapidly after that boondoggle.
So when I heard that one of their global-warming denial screeds had been translated into Chinese and that Heartland was claiming the Chinese government was becoming more “skeptical” about climate change, well, I myself was hugely skeptical.
Turns out, I was right.
Heartland made this claim:
The trend toward skepticism and away from alarmism is now unmistakable… Publication of a Chinese translation of Climate Change Reconsidered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates the country's leaders believe their [failure to sign a global climate treaty] is justified by science and not just economics.
Note: That quotation is from an article at the Guardian about this; Heartland took down the page with their original press release. Now, why would they do that?
Because it was egregiously false. It was so fallacious, in fact, that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) issued a very stern statement (emphasis mine):
The claim of the Heartland Institute about CAS’ endorsement of its report is completely false. To clarify the fact, we formally issue the following statements:
(1) The translation and publication of the Chinese version of the NIPCC report, and the related workshop, are purely non-official academic activities the group of translators. They do not represent, nor they have ever claimed to represent, CAS or any of CAS institutes. They translated the report and organized the workshop just for the purpose of academic discussion of different views.
(2) The above fact was made very clear in the Translators’ Note in the book, and was known to the NIPCC report authors and the Heartland Institute before the translation started. The false claim by the Heartland Institute was made public without any knowledge of the translator group.
(3) Since there is absolutely no ground for the so called CAS endorsement of the report, and the actions by the Heartland Institute went way beyond acceptable academic integrity, we have requested by email to the president of the Heartland Institute that the false news on its website to be removed. We also requested that the Institute issue a public apology to CAS for the misleading statement on the CAS endorsement.
(4) If the Heartland Institute does not withdraw its false news or refuse to apologize, all the consequences and liabilities should be borne by the Heartland Institute. We reserve the right for further actions to protect the rights of CAS and the translators group.
Wow. The number of times they use the word false makes their feelings pretty clear (as does another CAS notice). Also, note the part where they say Heartland knew what they were claiming was false, too.
And false it was. As the Guardian article points out, China has been stepping forward about climate change, testing out political and engineering ideas to try to curb carbon emissions. China has also officially endorsed the International Panel on Climate Change’s statement that the world is warming and it’s due to human influence.
So, after this withering blast from CAS, what does Heartland do? Issue a notpology:
Some people interpreted our news release and a blog post describing this event as implying that the Chinese Academy of Sciences endorses the views contained in the original books. This is not the case, and we apologize to those who may have been confused by these news reports.
Seriously, Heartland? “Some people”? I think you misspelled “everybody,” including the very China Academy of Sciences you were touting, because that’s precisely what you were saying.
This kind of wishy-washy phrasing is nothing more than yet another attempt at distraction, as well as blame-shifting from their own huge and embarrassing error to “those who may have been confused.” Sorry Heartland, but your position is clear. You can’t even deny your own denial.
Groups such as the Heartland Institute and so many others are sowing confusion at a time when we need more clarity, not less. We need to make real steps toward curbing global warming, and as recent reports have shown, it’s already hard enough. President Obama is making a lot of promises toward that goal, but making actual movement is a different issue. This is why I continue to write about this issue; the more people who get the real facts, and see who is trying to obfuscate them, the better.
Posted Sunday, June 16, 2013, at 8:00 AM
A few years back, a pair of House Finches built a nest under the eave of our roof. After the chicks hatched and flew away (which we missed) a second pair (or maybe the original) nested there again—clever, saving them the need to rebuild from scratch.
Over the next two years the nest was abandoned, though, until last year when a robin took up residence. That proved unfruitful; a few days after I took the picture in that link I saw the broken egg shells on the ground. I never did find out what happened, but given nature, red in tooth and claw, I suspect another bird came along and ate the egg contents.
But never fret! This year, amazingly, a pair of handsome House Finches have once again taken up residence.
That’s the mama bird, who seconds later snuggled in (literally; her tail feathers waving back and forth primly as she hunkered down into the nest) for a nice brood. She wasn’t thrilled with my being less than ten meters away snapping pictures, but hey! It’s my house too.
Actually, she was in the nest when I first walked outside to take the picture, but flew off to a nearby tree when she saw me. Turns out her hubby was there too:
Adorable. And loud; they sing a lot. But it’s sweet sounding, and I like it.
What I don’t like, though is what I saw tucked into the eave under which I was standing:
I thought at first it was a Yellow Jacket, but given the shape of the nest I now suspect it’s a Polistes dominula, a European paper wasp, an invasive species in the United States. Either species is aggressive and mean, and they frankly terrify me. I got stung by one on the fingertip a few years ago—like the damn thing knew where the densest cluster of nerve endings are in the human body—and there are no words for the intensity of the pain I felt. I’m pretty sure for a moment I shifted into another dimension.
So these are not as welcome a visitor as the finches. The wasps come every year and nest under our eaves, and every year I have to clean them out. But in one sense I hate to do it; they are a marvel of evolutionary engineering, and their nests are a wonder.
But that stinger evolved too, and so it’s either us or them. I vote us.
In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on the birdies. If the eggs hatch, I bet I’ll have some cute pictures soon. It’s happened before.
Posted Saturday, June 15, 2013, at 8:00 AM
It’s no surprise that funding cuts are hitting everyone in science. From research to outreach, there’s less money coming from the top down, and that means less science at all levels.
We need science. We need more research, more people involved, more interest generated, and more of the public knowing about it.
Cosmoquest is a group run by my friend Dr. Pamela Gay that gets the public involved with science (full disclosure: I am an advisor to CQ). They run hands-on demos, do interviews online, create and run citizen science projects, and generally just get out there and evangelize science.
Cosmoquest gets funding from several sources, but NASA grants are a big one, and those are being cut back severely. Faced with this sudden loss, Cosmoquest is holding a massive 32 hour live telethon on June 15 – 16 starting at 16:00 UTC (12:00 noon EDT) to help raise needed funds to keep the organization going. It will be held on Google+ in the form of a Hangout, a live video program, hosted by Pamela and Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (aka Noisy Astronomer) with lots of special guests.
Including me! I’ll be on at 22:15 UTC (6:15 p.m. EDT) Saturday, today, June 15, talking about all sorts of things, including my time working to create educational materials based on real NASA astronomical satellite data. Other guests include Surly Amy, Scott Sigler & A Kovacs, Dr. Seth Shostak, Dr. Kiki Sanford & Jennifer Ouellette, and many more.
Posted Friday, June 14, 2013, at 11:32 AM
Video screenshot courtesy of Mike Olbinski
Stop whatever you are doing, make this full screen, and prepare to be awed: This time-lapse video of a supercell storm cloud rotating over Texas is far and away the most amazing thing you’ll see today.
Yes, that’s real.
A supercell is a rotating thundercloud; the spinning vortex in the middle is called a mesocyclone. Conditions need to be just so to create one. First you need a wind shear, where wind blows faster in one spot than another, so a blanket of air is flowing over another one. This sets up a rolling vortex, a horizontally rotating mass of air like the way a wave breaks when it gets to a beach. An updraft then lifts that vortex, which then spins vertically.
The warmer air in the vortex rises; this is called convection. If there’s a boundary layer of air above it, called a capping layer, it acts like a lid, preventing the vortex air from rising. It builds up power and can suddenly and explosively grow to a huge size. Wikipedia has a good description and diagrams of how this works.
Supercells generally form where there’s a lot of flat land to get that good horizontal flow first. Texas has that in abundance, which is why photographer Mike Olbinski went there in hopes of getting footage like this. (Read his description of his adventure on the Vimeo page for the video; it’s quite good.) Texas, it so happens, is roomy, so it took him four years to be at the right spot at the right time—in this case, June 3. Persistence paid off for him, and because he shared this terrifying beauty, it paid off for all of us. Olbinski has several other incredible storm-chasing photos on his website.
I’m fascinated by weather phenomena, and supercells like this are something I’d love a chance to see from close by … but not too close by. They can create havoc locally, with torrential downpours (that look like alien spaceworms blasting the Earth), severe lightning, and tornadoes. Given that, maybe video like this is satisfying enough for now.
Tip o’ the tornado cellar door to BABloggee Jeremy Huggins.