Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

April 28 2015 11:35 AM

Breaking: Russian Resupply Mission to the Space Station in Trouble

Note: Information about all this is still coming in, so regard anything here as tentative. I’ll add updates to the bottom of this article as I get more reliable news

Last night, at 07:09 UTC (03:09 Eastern U.S. time), a Soyuz 2-1a rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan, carrying an uncrewed Progress capsule loaded with roughly 3 tons of food and supplies for the astronauts on the International Space Station.


After separation from the third stage, however, ground controllers got data showing the telemetry was sporadic and that only two of the five communication antennas had deployed. Not long after that it became clear the capsule was spinning rapidly, tumbling once every three seconds.

The original plan was to put Progress on a quick trajectory to meet ISS after just four orbits (about six hours). That was then delayed, setting up a Thursday rendezvous. With the spacecraft tumbling, this has now been delayed again, this time indefinitely until the problems are fixed.

And there may be a time crunch: Some reports indicate the Progress is in a bad orbit. Instead of a slightly elliptical orbit taking it from 190 to 240 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the current orbit may be dropping it as low as 124 km, where air is substantially thicker. This puts drag on the vehicle, dropping it lower, where air is thicker, dragging it more … if the capsule is indeed on an orbit with this low a perigee (closest approach to Earth), it may only have a few days before this decay causes it to burn up in the atmosphere.

Again, note that the Progress capsule is uncrewed, so no lives are in immediate danger. The astronauts on ISS have supplies for several months (SpaceX sent up a Dragon capsule with supplies just two weeks ago) and more resupply missions are scheduled (SpaceX has one planned for June 19 and another Progress launch is set for Aug. 6).

This problem comes on only the second flight of the new Soyuz 2-1a, an upgraded version of the standard workhorse Soyuz rocket (the first was in February). It’s too early at the present time to know what went wrong with the flight.

For more information, I suggest keeping an eye on, NASA’s space station blog, and the Twitter streams of the ISS and my friend and space expert Jonathan McDowell

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April 28 2015 7:00 AM

Making Sense of Nonsense: A MOOC About Climate Change Denial

The Earth is warming up. The climate is changing. Human activity is responsible.

Ninety-seven percent of actual climatologists agree on this.


But the media still give “equal time” to climate change deniers, who flood the public with misinformation. Just this week, the icky Heartland Institute hosted a “press conference” in advance of the Pope’s expected encyclical about global warming (for the record: I support the Pope); Rep. Lamar Smith (chairman of the House Science Committee!) wrote an embarrassingly misleading op-ed in the Wall Street Journal downplaying climate change; and a Pulitzer-winning newspaper printed an op-ed so full of errors that it’s hard to know if the authors were being breathtakingly dishonest or merely grossly incompetent.

What can we do?

A dozen scientists and science communicators think they have an answer: Inoculate the public. The metaphor is apt: The idea is to take the misinformation used by deniers and use it to teach the actual science of climate change, making it work for them … much like the way a vaccination inoculates against diseases by using a weakened form of the disease itself.

To do this, they have created a massive open online course through the University of Queensland in Australia, called “Making Sense of Climate Science Denial.”

Sick Planet Earth_stock

Drawing by Sharon Jacob/Shutterstock

I love this idea. First, anyone can enroll. Second, it’s free. Yes, FREE. Third, because it’s online you can take the course at your own pace, watching the pre-recorded videos on your own schedule. The video lectures include interviews with people on the cutting edge of climate change research and public policy, including Michael Mann, Katharine Hayhoe, and Naomi Oreskes.* They’ll arm you with the tools needed to understand climate change denial by going over the science and psychology of denial and the facts you’ll need to understand (and argue for!) the reality of our warming planet.

And, of course, I love this idea because an educated public ensures a strong democracy.

The course is coordinated by John Cook, one of the brains behind the wonderful Skeptical Science website. He’s put together a short video explaining this:

And yes, I did enroll in the course! It starts today, so sign up and learn how to face reality. Hopefully, we can turn the politics of this around and start taking action on a threat that faces us all.

Yes, the same “think tank” that put up billboards comparing climate scientists to mass murderers, because that’s a great PR move if you want to make yourself look really, really slimy.

*Correction, April 28, 2015: This post originally misspelled the first name of Katharine Hayhoe.

April 27 2015 1:14 PM

SpaceX Launch Today, Second in Less Than Two Weeks

SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit today, carrying a Turkmenistan communications satellite. The 90-minute launch window opens at 22:14 UTC Monday night (6:14 p.m. Eastern time).

You can watch the launch live on the SpaceX LiveStream channel, NASA TV, and NASA’s Ustream channel. I will live tweet it, too. Update, April 27, 2015, at 17:45 UTC: My friend Robert Pearlman of CollectSPACE tells me this won't be on NASA"s channels since it's not a NASA launch.


Before you ask, there will not be an attempted landing of the first stage booster for this launch. The satellite being launched is going into a geostationary orbit, 40,000 kilometers up, and a lot of fuel is needed to get it there. There won’t be enough left to slow the first stage and land it, so it’ll drop into the Atlantic.

I think the most remarkable thing about this launch is that (if it goes off on time) the most recent Falcon 9 launch was only 13 days previous (on Tuesday, April 14). That’s an incredibly fast turnaround time for a company, and a day faster than its previous record of 14 days set last year.

For more info, I recommend this amazingly detailed America Space article. It answered many of the things I was wondering about for this launch. SpaceX also has a PDF press kit with highlights as well.

If the launch is scrubbed (weather may play a factor today) then it is scheduled for the next attempt Tuesday also at 22:14 UTC.

April 27 2015 7:00 AM

Bad Astronomy Video: The Bizarre Eructation of V838 Monocerotis

Something like 20,000 light-years from Earth lies a bizarre object.

Dubbed V838 Monocerotis—the 838th variable star found in the constellation Monoceros, the unicorn—it’s a luminous red star, well over 20,000 times brighter than the Sun.


That’s not so unusual; lots of stars are far more luminous and redder than the Sun. It’s also centered in a cloud of material, which, again, isn’t all that odd. Lots of stars have material around them, wither left over from their formation, or expelled as they die.

What makes this star so weird is its recent activity. In 2002 it underwent an epic eruption, brightening to a million times the luminosity of the Sun. Astronomers thought it might be a nova, an outburst caused when a tiny white dwarf accumulates matter on its surface, which explodes quite literally like a thermonuclear bomb.

When this happened, in 2002, Hubble was quickly called to service, pointing at the object. What it found was not a nova, but one of the oddest stars in the galaxy. Watch:

There are lots of things that could have happened to cause this event. Red supergiants are known to undergo periodic paroxysms, for example, but such things are generally not this powerful. Plus, whatever caused it must be something rare, or else we’d see more examples of it. That’s why I lean toward the stars-merging idea discussed in the video. It’s rare, but not impossible, and does explain what we’re seeing.

And to reiterate something I said in the video: What we’re seeing here is what’s called a light echo. The dust cloud around the star is old, probably thousands of years old. When the star suddenly brightened, it sent out a flash of light that moved outward, illuminating the pre-existing cloud from the inside out.

In the video it looks like the cloud itself is expanding (you can see motion of individual structures), but that's an illusion. Over just a few years the structure wouldn’t be seen to expand at all; we’re just seeing different structures (or different parts of the same structure, like filaments or compressed regions) as the flash of light moved through the nebula.*

It's pretty odd but adds to the overall awesomeness of it. And it’s a good reminder, in this 25th anniversary week of the Hubble Space Telescope, that the Universe is vast and strange and beautiful, and best of all, surprising.

We could have 25 Hubbles up there for 25 times 25 years and still only have scratched the surface of what’s out there to see.

*As opposed to objects like novae and supernovae which have been seen to physically expand over time.

April 26 2015 7:30 AM

Rising Rainbow

Aysun Ülger is, like me, someone who loves atmospheric optical phenomena. Halos, glories, aurorae, iridescent clouds … so much so she created a Facebook page where she collects such photos. She just started it, but there are already a few lovely examples there.

And this includes, of course, rainbows. Since I just wrote about that very cool quadruple rainbow in New York, I thought I’d follow up with an example of a fun series of photos Ülger took herself in Izmir, Turkey: a rainbow rising as the Sun set!

A rainbow rises
This may be the tallest picture I've ever posted by ratio.

Photo by Aysun Ülger, used by permission


Those were all taken on the same day, April 6, 2015, except for the bottom one, which she included in the series to show just how high a rainbow can get. In order (top to bottom), they were taken at 3:41, 3:50, 4:24, 4:50, 5:21, and 6:11 pm. The bottom one was taken at 5:58 pm on March 28. But due to a local time change, it corresponds to 6:58 on the later date.

raindrop refraction
Refraction (bending) and reflection inside a raindrop. Click to spectroscopenate.

Drawing by Wikipedia/KES47, adapted by Phil Plait

As I’ve written about many times, rainbows appear in the sky opposite the Sun—to see one, you have to stand with the Sun behind you. That’s because the light from the Sun bends inside the raindrop and is reflected on the drop’s backside, back toward the Sun. But not exactly: The light leaves the drop at an angle of about 138°. Only drops 42° away from the point in the sky directly opposite the Sun send that light toward you (180°–138°).

Also, the colors that make up the Sun’s white light get bent by slightly different amounts, spreading them out across the bow.

Since the arc of the rainbow is centered on the point on the sky directly opposite the Sun, a low Sun means a high rainbow, and a high Sun means a low rainbow. As Ülger waited, the Sun set, so the rainbow got higher. You can even see a double rainbow (called the secondary) and Alexander’s dark band, the darker region between the two bows.

Too bad she couldn’t get a time lapse of this! But she did point me to this one, which shows the increasing (more vertical) angle of the base of a very bright rainbow as the Sun lowers.

We get extremely bright rainbows in Colorado in the spring and summer, once afternoon rain showers clear out. They tend not to last very long, but still, next time I see one I’ll have to try getting a time lapse of it. That’ll be a fun project.

April 25 2015 7:00 AM

A Crash Course in Transgender Sensitivity

On Thursday, the 14th episode of Crash Course Astronomy went live. It’s about our sister planet, Venus, and I spent quite a bit of time talking about just how infernally inhospitable it is.

Just as I have with every other episode, I had a lot of fun writing and recording it. A little background: Once we finish getting the footage of me talking, it’s edited and sent around to the team for comments. I then scour the ‘Net looking for good images we can use, usually from NASA, ESA, and other public organizations (they have excellent high-resolution images that are free to use). Those images (and sometimes video) are placed in the rough cut, and then it goes off to Thought Café, who does our animations.


Eventually it goes live on YouTube, posted around 3 p.m. Mountain time every Thursday. We promote it, and keep an eye on the YouTube comments for anything useful (did we make a factual error, is the audio good, and so on).

For the Venus episode on Thursday I was in Utah giving a talk at Clark Planetarium. When I got back that evening, I checked to make sure the video was up, linked to it for a blog post first thing Friday morning, and then went to bed.

I was out of contact for much of Friday, traveling home. When I landed, though, there was a text from my editor that there was a problem.

If you’ve watched Crash Course Astronomy, you know I like to make jokes, and sometimes I’m the butt of them. The team goes along with it, and it’s usually great. This time, though, we made a mistake without even knowing it.

In one part of the episode, I’m talking about how Venus is really pretty when you look at it from Earth, but up close, it’s an awful place. As I spoke about Venus being pretty, we put up a cute animation of Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus. But then, when I say Venus up close is awful (and say, "Yikes!"), we zoom in on the drawing and it turns out Venus has my face on it.

I thought this was pretty funny, a bit of humor poking fun at me. So we OK'd it.

Well, it turns out that wasn’t so OK and funny with a lot of viewers. We got some comments that the joke was transphobic, making fun of transgender people.

That’s why my editor had texted me. I called her, and she told me what had happened. As soon as she told me, I had a forehead-slapping moment. Of course this could be seen as transphobic. In retrospect it was obvious. The good news is that the team felt the same way and had already re-edited the video to remove that part, and had re-uploaded it before I had even called.

Let me be clear: I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke. None of us would knowingly make a joke at the expense of a group of people, especially one already marginalized and so often mocked in society. That wasn’t at all the intent, and it didn't occur to us it could be seen that way when we put it together. I hope you forgive us, and we’ll try to do better in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s more. In the comments to the (re-uploaded) video, some people are complaining that we are under the thumb of the PC crowd, and the phrase “social justice warrior” is used derisively. Let me address those commenters now:

You’re wrong. First, it’s not up to you to decide what offends or does not offend a group of people you are not a part of. You may feel that this was not an offensive joke, and you are welcome to that opinion; certainly the joke wasn’t intended that way.

But what you don’t get to decide is what offends others, especially in a group you’re not a part of. You may think that offense is undeserved, or that they are overreacting. You have the right to think that, but you cannot dictate it to those others.

Even if there was no harm meant in the joke, people may still take offense at it, and that’s their right. In this case, I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it, even angered.

And here’s the important bit: Apologizing and changing it does no harm, and in fact does some good; it helps a group of people see that we can be sensitive to their needs.

There are times when I think people are too sensitive, and times I think others aren’t sensitive enough. I tend to judge these on a case by case basis. But with a group that is historically marginalized and “othered,” well, a little (extra) empathy does a soul good.

And for the other bit, people derisively calling us “social justice warriors”? They may use it as a derogatory term, thinking of SJWs as shrill and overbearing, but to me it’s a term that refers to people willing to go to bat for others who don’t have as big a soapbox. I might prefer the term “ally,” but SJW fits fine, too. This world could use a lot more social justice. I’ll be happy to fight for it when I can.

So to them I say: “Thanks!”

April 24 2015 7:30 AM

Crash Course Astronomy: Venus

There but for the grace of physics goes us: Venus, second rock from the Sun, could be said to be Earth’s twin … but it’s the evil one.

Find out why on this week’s episode of Crash Course Astronomy!


I love the fact that you can learn all about Venus in this week’s episode, and then go outside after sunset and see it for yourself, shining brilliantly in the west. It’ll be close and bright for the next few months, actually, so you’ll have plenty of chances to see it. And in July it’ll start to show its crescent phase even in binoculars. That’s really something, and I hope y’all go out and take a look.

April 23 2015 7:00 AM

Slamming the Door Shut: Vaccines and Autism

Let’s start this off by being very clear: Vaccines don’t cause autism.

They just don’t. Perhaps I should be scientific, careful, technical, and say that no connection between vaccines and autism has ever been found. That’s technically true, because, after all, there is some incredibly small chance that eventually perhaps some connection might possibly be found. But when study after study after study shows no such connection whatsoever, at some point it’s probably OK to close the door on this.


Now it’s time to slam it shut. A new study, reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at a group of more than 95,000 children and found no connection between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine and incidence of autism.

Specifically, it looked at children who had older siblings, looking at the rate of diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and vaccination. The study is pretty interesting, and I suggest you read it, but the results are pretty clear, as the researchers themselves write: “MMR vaccine receipt was not associated with an increased risk of ASD at any age.”

Emphasis mine, but c’mon. That’s emphatic.

Mind you, younger siblings who have an older sibling diagnosed with ASD are themselves at a higher risk for it (likely due to genetic factors). Despite this, the researchers conclude:

These findings indicate no harmful association between MMR vaccine receipt and ASD even among children already at higher risk for ASD.

In other words, the MMR vaccine is not associated with autism.

Mind you, the entire modern anti-vax movement is based on the idea that the MMR vaccine somehow causes autism; that was the conclusion drawn by Andrew Wakefield in a paper published in the British journal the Lancet … a paper that was retracted, that had several of Wakefield’s team members asking to have their names removed from it, that established a clear conflict of interest for Wakefield who stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars replacing an MMR vaccine with his own alternative, and that prompted the BMJ to call Wakefield’s methods “fraudulent.”

Yeah, that paper.

This new study is getting some press, which is nice, but I’m seeing here and there some folks hoping this will be the last nail in the anti-vax movement. It won’t be. That’s because the anti-vaxxers are not basing their decisions on science, they’re basing them on emotion. We’ve seen this over and again; as I pointed out before, this isn’t the first study showing no link between vaccines and autism.

People simply don’t make decisions based on facts. That’s not how we’re wired. Fear is an incredibly strong motivator, and many of the anti-vax groups use it to their advantage. Look at the truly atrocious Australian Vaccination Skeptic Network, who actually and truly compare vaccination to sexual assault (and seriously, survivors of such assaults may want to have a care clicking that link; the AVSN graphic is abhorrent and brutal).

And look no further than someone like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who believes that vaccines cause autism, and compared this to the Holocaust. Yes, the Holocaust. He backed off that analogy when called out on it, yet few seem to remember this isn’t the first time he’s made this despicable claim. I’ve written about Kennedy before, taking him to task on his unfounded claims, and wrote a follow-up after he doubled down on it.

So yeah. The folks who beat the drums about vaccines and autism will never stop. My hope is that they will eventually be marginalized, like Moon Hoax believers.

The good news is that action is being taken. California is looking at stricter rules for parents who want to opt out of vaccinating their children, for example, and in Australia, the religious exemption is being removed.

And of course the forces of good are still at work, promoting vaccination. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put out a lovely campaign using art to show how important vaccines are. Called The Art of Saving a Life, it features works of film, literature, music, photography, and more.

As someone who loves classical music, especially Debussy, one video in particular struck me. Called Afternoon of a Faun, it’s a powerful piece about Tanaquil LeClercq, principal dancer at the New York City ballet. Before a European tour in 1956, she declined getting a polio vaccine. She contracted polio in Copenhagen and became paralyzed. She never danced again. Chinese pianist Lang Lang performs the pas de deux from Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, with images of LeClercq in the background.

I would like to personally thank Mr. and Mrs. Gates for supporting this project. It is extraordinarily difficult to discuss this topic with people who lean toward being against vaccinations, and it’s all too easy to reinforce their beliefs. I think that by continually putting forth a positive message, together with presenting the facts, we can get vaccination rates in this country up to where they need to be to protect us all.

As a father myself, and with an immunocompromised family member, I know how important this is. When you get vaccinated, the life you save may be your own, and it may also be someone you know and love. But it may very well be someone you don’t know, but who is loved by others.

To those of you who vaccinate: I thank you too.

April 22 2015 7:00 AM

25 Years of Cosmic Treasures: Hubble’s 12½ Greatest Hits

On April 25, 1990, the world—the Universe—changed.

That was the day the crew of STS-31 deployed the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. This magnificent observatory has a special place in my heart. When it launched I was in graduate school in astronomy, and had just received my master’s degree. I was looking for Ph.D. research, and my adviser mentioned he was on a project to use Hubble to observe exploding stars … and now, 25 years later this week, Hubble is still going strong, doing astronomy.

And in my way, I am too.

I worked on Hubble one way or another for a decade, including being on a team that built one of the cameras that was installed on Hubble in 1997. I’ve written so much about Hubble over the past 2½ decades I don’t think there’s much more I can say about it. At the bottom of this post there are links to some of my favorite articles.

But I can still show you pictures. 

April 21 2015 4:02 PM

Is That Viral Quadruple Rainbow Picture Real?

This morning a picture tweeted by Nineteenth Amendment CEO Amanda Curtis on Long Island quickly went viral: It shows what looks like a quadruple rainbow!

I got some folks asking me if it’s real, and my immediate reaction is: Yup. Seriously, this doesn’t look faked to me, because I’ve seen this sort of thing before.


Double rainbows are fairly common (despite the meme). I’ve seen dozens of them; they’re caused when the sunlight hitting raindrops is particularly bright. The primary rainbow (the one you usually see) can be blazing, and you get a fainter but sometimes still quite bright secondary outside it, with the colors reversed. The primary forms when light is reflected inside a water drop once; the double is when the light’s reflected twice in each drop.

So why are there four rainbows? The angle of the weirder, more vertical bows is what gives it away. If the light forming rainbows reflects off a body of water (say, a lake, pond, or even standing water on a road), you get another set of rainbows cast at a different angle. I’ve never seen this myself, but there are plenty of pictures of it online.

So the picture is real! One thing I’ll add is that I think the colors have been enhanced; they’re a bit too garish to be real. But lots of phones do that, and of course people use filters when posting pictures all the time. But physically, yes, it’s real.

There you go. And it proves, once again, that you should heed my advice: Always look up. You never know what’s going on above your head.