The entire universe in blog form

Dec. 15 2014 11:27 AM

A Rain of (Teeny) Asteroids

Over the weekend, the Geminid meteor shower came to a peak. This annual event occurs when the Earth plows through debris left behind by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon as it orbits the Sun (it gets so close to the Sun that bits of the rock vaporize and blow off the asteroid). Each little bit of interplanetary detritus is moving at about 35 kilometers/sec (22 miles/sec), fast enough that as it rams through our air, it heats up enough to become incandescent, and we see a “shooting star.”

I was out Saturday night (Dec. 13), and over the course of two hours I saw so many I lost count; I’m pretty sure I spotted at least 80. I wasn’t able to get any Geminids on camera (grrrrr), but happily photographer Neil Zeller had far better results:

Spectacular! He drove up northeast of Calgary to get nice dark skies, and it was clearly worth the trip. The photo is actually a composite of several exposures; he was facing northwest and captured the Milky Way, several Geminids, and a lovely green aurora on the horizon (Zeller has an astonishing gallery of aurora photos on his website). On the far right you can just see an interesting pair of stars tightly spaced; that’s Mizar and Alcor, the stars in the bend in the Big Dipper’s handle.

As you can see, all the meteors seem to point in the same direction. That’s because they do! The meteors appear to come from a part of the sky near the head of Gemini (hence their name), and radiate away from that point in all directions. It’s a perspective effect, like driving through a tunnel and seeing the lights on the walls appear to come from the same spot ahead of you, and streak away to the sides.

As I stood under the chilly Colorado sky Saturday, this radiating effect was pretty strong; I saw meteors in any part of the sky I looked, and they always pointed back toward Gemini (except for one that was a random meteor unrelated to the shower; on any night you can usually see a few per hour). I saw every flavor of meteor, too: long streaks, short ones, faint ones, bright ones, and one that flared about as bright as Jupiter (magnitude -1 or 2 if you want details) that left a luminous vapor trail that lasted for just a second or two. That was amazing.

This was easily the best meteor shower I’ve ever watched myself. It’s usually too cold and cloudy this time of year to see it, but things worked out well; in fact, as I write this (the day after the shower) it’s snowing!

The mighty hunter. Click to embiggen.

Photo by Phil Plait

And I did get a lot of very pretty pictures from the night, including this one of Orion through the trees (and Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky, to the lower left). It was totally worth the cold fingers, toes, and nose.

Tip o' the lens cap to Daggerville on Twitter.

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Dec. 15 2014 9:39 AM

Opting Your Kid Out of Vaccination? That’s Sickening.

Hmmm, it’s been a while since I’ve posted on how anti-vaccination propaganda is making people sick and putting children needlessly at risk for terrible diseases.

[Opens up map, looks around, sees blinking red alarm light over Michigan.]

Ah, Michigan, that bifurcated mitten by the lake. I spent three years at U of M and grew quite fond of it.

But then, I didn’t get measles or whooping cough while I was there.

You have a decent risk of that now, due to low vaccination rates. In Traverse City, a recent outbreak of pertussis forced the closure of a charter school with 1,200 students (there were 10 confirmed cases and 167 probable cases) and infected children at 14 other schools.

Why did this disease hit schools so hard? The reason is almost certainly exactly what you’d think: Vaccination rates for children in schools are low because parents have been opting them out.

Most states have mandatory vaccinations for children to attend public schools, but they also have opt-out waivers for parents who don’t want their children vaccinated for religious reasons … and for “personal reasons.”

This means anti-vaccination reasons. And you know how I feel about that. Virtually every claim made by anti-vaxxers is wrong, or a gross distortion of the truth.  The actual truth about vaccines is that they are extremely effective and their risks are minimal.

I’m not a fan of religious waivers—especially when it comes to health care workers, for example—though I understand that’s a political hot potato (even though, in reality, very few religions forbid vaccinations).

But personal waivers? The more I think about it, the more I come down pretty clearly on it: If your child is able to get vaccinated, and you choose not to do so, then your child should not be allowed to attend public school.

It’s that simple. I’ve made this argument before:

In some areas, public school authorities have mandated that students be vaccinated for various diseases, and that of course can run afoul of parents’ beliefs. I’ve wrestled with this problem for a while, and I eventually came to the conclusion that a parent does not have the right to have their child in a public school if that child is unvaccinated, and for the same reason health care workers should not be unvaccinated. It all comes down to a very simple reality: It puts other children at risk.
If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well, and part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.

When you send your kid to a public school, this is no longer a personal decision. It’s a very public one, and you are putting thousands of people at risk for diseases that can cause grave harm, and even be fatal. And yes, I’m vaccinated, and so are my wife and daughter, but not everyone can get vaccines due to health reasons (people who are immunocompromised, for example). Some babies are simply too young to get vaccines yet, for example, and they are at very high risk for infectious diseases like pertussis and measles.

And that, I am very sad to say, matters very much.

Update (Dec. 15, 2014 at 16:15 UTC): I have just been informed that a new policy in Michigan will start in the new year; parents will have to have their opt-out forms certified by the local health department before choosing not to vaccinate their child (the idea being they will then get more and better information about vaccines). That's a step in the right direction, but in my opinion still doesn't go far enough; if that child attends a public school the result can be serious outbreaks, as we've seen. Thanks to Jamie Mueller on Twitter for the tip.

I have said this before, and as long as we have outbreaks of diseases due to low vaccinations rates I will continue to say it: Don’t listen to the anti-vax rhetoric. They’re wrong. Instead, talk to a board-certified (i.e. non-quack) doctor and find out if you need to get your vaccinations (including boosters) and if you should vaccinate your family.

People shouldn’t be dying because of diseases we can easily prevent. But they are. Do your part.

Thanks to Luke Schmerberg for sending me the news about Michigan.

Update (Dec. 15, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): I changed the phrasing of the sentence about unvaccinated students not being allowed to attend public schools for clarity.

Dec. 14 2014 7:30 AM

Fix’d in Heaven’s Air

We live on a whirling ball of rock thousands of kilometers across. As it happens, most balls of rock that size in the Universe are whirling, so it’s not really weird. It just seems weird.

The reason it seems weird is that the rotation of the Earth is pretty slow when it comes to things we can perceive; it’s not like being on an amusement ride with a small radius and rapid spin. We’re pinned to the surface of a planet, and it’s huge.

We’ve evolved over a zillion years to think the Earth is fixed, and the sky spins around us. That’s why we say the Sun rises, and not “the Earth’s west-to-east angular motion has caused a reflexive apparent motion in the otherwise nearly fixed Sun such that it seems to move in a westward fashion above the eastern horizon,” which honestly, would be too pedantic even for an Internet commenter.

But it’s true. The stars move across the sky because we move under them, we just don’t see it that way.

But what if we could? I bet it would look like this video by neuroscientist and photographer Alex Rivest:

Wheee! That’s fun. He took some time-lapse animations of the sky, then set them up so the stars stay fixed, letting the ground move (he was inspired to try this by a video created by José Selgado). It’s an odd, and subtly disturbing effect. It was neat to see his Mount Everest footage in there, too.

I also stumbled on an interesting illusion: If I kept my eyes on a feature in the sky (a star, or a dark patch in the Milky Way) it does look like the ground is rotating, but if I looked near the edge of the frame, or right where the ground and sky meet, it looks like the stars are moving, or a weird combination of both sky and ground moving.

Our brains are ridiculously easy to fool. But you knew that, right?

Correction, Dec. 18, 2014: This post originally misidentified Alex Rivest as a neurologist. He’s a neuroscientist.

Dec. 13 2014 7:45 AM

An Island Makes Waves in the Sky

I don’t know why cool cloud patterns seen from space fascinate me so; maybe it’s just my inherent love of science, clouds, space, nature, and art.

Actually, after writing that sentence, maybe I do know why.

Also, sharing that love is fun, too. So for you, here is a really nice shot of a wave cloud pattern seen by Landsat8:

ship wave clouds
The Earth provides us with another gorgeous example of fluid dynamics.

Photo by Jesse Allen using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey

What you’re seeing are called “ship wave clouds,” because the overall pattern resembles the waves of water as a ship moves through the ocean. The cause of this is Île Amsterdam, an incredibly remote and tiny volcanic island located in the southern Indian Ocean. It’s only about 10 kilometers across, and the peak reaches to about 850 meters above sea level. You can just see the edge of the island on the left-hand side of the image, peeking through the hole in the clouds.

As a steady wind blows over the volcano, it rises up and cools. Moisture in the air condenses, forming clouds. But as the air cools it sinks, warms up, and the water evaporates again, so the clouds disappear. The warm air rises, and boom! Repeating pattern. At the same time, the wind gets pushed around the volcano as well, so the pattern gets wider downstream.

This photo is one of the best I’ve ever seen of the phenomenon … though when it happens over an island chain it’s pretty amazing as well. I see similar things sometimes as the wind blows over the Rocky Mountains, just a few kilometers to the west of my home. When wind, water, and geology interact, it’s a canvas on which nature paints nearly infinite varieties of beauty.

Dec. 12 2014 7:30 AM

10 Things You Need to Know to Watch the Geminid Meteors This Weekend

Note: This post is an updated version of the viewing guide I wrote last year. 

If you’re looking for a way to see an amazing sight while simultaneously freezing your butt off, do I have the meteor shower for you: the Geminids!

This annual shower peaks on the evening of Dec. 13-14 (Saturday night/Sunday morning), when there should be very roughly 100 meteors per hour. Unfortunately, the third-quarter moon rises around midnight, which brightens the sky and makes fainter meteors harder to see. Still, it's worth going out and taking a look!

Watching a shower is pretty easy; all you have to do is go outside, look up, and be patient. Shooting stars are somewhat random, so you might not see any for a few minutes, then you’ll see three in a row. The longer you wait, the more you’ll see.

But there are some things you should know. If you have clear, open skies, and follow the instructions below you, should have a celestial event to remember!

1) Time

Usually, meteors are best seen after local midnight (literally, halfway from sunset to sunrise) because that’s when the Earth is facing into the oncoming meteors (like seeing more rain hitting your front windshield when you’re driving in a storm). However, in this case, any time after about 10 p.m. should work. The meteors appear to radiate away from a point in the sky in the constellation of Gemini (see No. 2), which is well above the horizon by then. The later you wait the better, but remember the Moon will start to mess things up after it rises at midnight.

Once you're outside, it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to get fully adapted to the dark—your pupils dilate, letting in more light, and your eye produces a light-sensitive protein called rhodopsin. Both of these take time to fully kick in. So don't be disappointed if you see very few or no meteors right away. White light will bleach the rhodopsin, by the way, so if you need some light, use a flashlight with red cellophane covering the front. That will preserve your night vision.

When your sky is big, your chances of seeing meteors are better.

Photo by John Chumack, used by permission

2) A Wide Open Sky

This is really important. Meteors appear in random spots on the sky and can go from horizon to horizon. The more sky you can see, the more meteors you'll see. Try to avoid nearby buildings, trees, and so on.

If you trace the path of the meteors backward, they will appear to radiate from one point in the sky located in the constellation Gemini (hence the shower name). This is the same effect as when you're driving a car through a tunnel and the lights on the walls and ceiling appear to come from the point ahead of you. A good view of Gemini will up the odds of seeing more meteors. If you can find Orion, Gemini is to its upper left (for folks in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern Hemisphere this shower isn't nearly as prolific because Gemini is much lower in the sky).

No matter what, a big wide view is your best bet.

3) Dark skies

Meteors are generally not terribly bright. A few can be blazing, but most are about as bright as your average star, so you want to be away from lights. Your backyard might be fine, but make sure street lights are blocked and your house lights are off.

4) A Lounge Chair

You need to be able to see a lot of the sky for minutes or hours, so you want to be comfortable. A chaise lounge or a folding beach recliner is a big plus. You can lie on the ground with a blanket if you want, but comfort is important if you're going to be out for a while. The ground tends to be cold at night and wet too. Which reminds me ...

5) Blankets!

Hello, it’s December, and that means it’ll be cold. You won't be moving much, either, so you won't be generating much heat. You won't see many meteors if your teeth are chattering (I imagine hypothermia won't help either). Stay warm!

6) Telescope, Binoculars

I recommend not using a telescope. Why not? Telescopes see only a small part of the sky, and meteors appear in random spots. I guarantee the best meteor of the night will happen while you are stooped over an eyepiece, and you'll miss it. However, Jupiter is well positioned for viewing, so this is as good a chance as any to do some observing, and I hate to tell people to not take advantage of a nice night! But be prepared to hear everyone else gasp and then mock you for missing the best meteor ever.

Binoculars are better. You can scan the sky, look for interesting things, and still be able to look around quickly if a bright meteor appears.

Keep your eyes open! Meteors are fast, and you don't want to miss one.

Photo by Colin Legg, used by permission

7) Star Chart

Hey, you're outside! Why not get familiar with the sky? You can find charts at local bookstores and online if you do a little searching. Orion, Gemini, Taurus, the Pleiades ... this is a fine time of year to be out looking for cosmic landmarks.

8) Rest

Oh boy, is this one important. It's after midnight, you're lying down, snuggled in a blanket, it's dark, and your eyes are focused on infinity. You start daydreaming a bit ... and the next thing you know, the Sun is rising and you're covered in frostbite.

Take a nap this afternoon if you want.

9) Friends, Family, Neighbors

Having other folks with you will help you stay awake, and honestly, the joy and beauty of a meteor shower is best shared. One of my favorite times ever with The Little Astronomer was watching the Leonids shower when she was little. She had a blast, and not just because she got to stay up until 3 a.m. with her dad ... but then again, that's a big part of it, too.

10) An Appreciation of What You Are Seeing

Read up on meteor showers, what they are, what we've learned from them. The Geminids are debris from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon, which sometimes acts a bit like a comet (every other shower comes from debris sloughed off by comets). Asteroids orbit the Sun for billions of years, and you're seeing tiny parts of them—most no bigger than a grain of sand—as they slam into our atmosphere a hundred kilometers above you at speeds of up to 40 kilometers per second. How cool is that? The shower has an interesting history as well, and it's always fun to know more about an event, especially one in which you're participating.

Bonus) Wonder

This may be the best thing to bring, and the easiest. Meteor showers are simply wonderful. It's a cosmic show, and it's free, and it's very, very cool.


Dec. 11 2014 12:03 PM

No, That’s Not a Real Photo of an Aurora From Space

Facebook is to misinformation what a high school is to mono. Basically, it gets in there, and boom! Everyone shares it.

The culprit this time is a picture claiming to be an aurora taken from space. Here’s the photo:

I saw this linked from a Facebook page called ScienceDump, one of those accounts that posts pictures that are vaguely sciencey, and only sometimes gives links to further info or attribution for the images.

In this case, the only caption given was, “Ring of Fire. A picture taken by NASA of the Northern Lights from space.”

I knew right away that caption was completely wrong. For one thing, the Earth, stars, and aurorae simply don’t look real. Note the complete lack of clouds, for example. Second, the aurora aren’t that tall; those streamers are hundreds of miles in height, but in reality aurorae sheets are only a few miles in height.

I did a reverse image search using Google, and at first just found the usual reshares of this photo. I did find a few sites debunking the picture, but none knew where it was from. My biggest clue came from the sattrackcam blog, which dissects the image pretty well, but also mentions the shot was used in a video.

That gave me an idea. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has an excellent video team, and I know a lot of their animations are online. I started poking around on their site, and it took a little while, but I finally found the exact original video this image is from!

The image comes in at the one-minute mark. The whole video is clearly computer generated. In fact, there’s a credit at the bottom of the GSFC page: “Visualizer/Animator: Walt Feimer (HTSI) (Lead)”; HTSI is for Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc. The video was created under contract to depict how the Earth’s magnetic field channels subatomic particles from the solar wind down into the atmosphere, where they make the air glow.

It only took me a few minutes to figure this all out. I did have the advantage of knowing about GSFC’s video page, but this ScienceDump page didn’t bother with fact checking or credit at all. Whoever runs it just made up a caption and ran with it. I’m no fan of these kinds of accounts; I see a lot of them on Facebook and Twitter, posting blatant garbage and claiming it’s real. ScienceDump appears to be marginally better than most, linking offsite to other sources. But this aurora photo shows it’s not 100 percent.

A good antidote for all this is to follow @FakeAstroPix and @PicPedant on Twitter (want a chuckle? Check out PicPedant’s background picture on their Twitter page; I could’ve saved myself some effort). @HoaxOfFame looks good, too. And, of course, there are hundreds of science communicators out there you can follow on social media to get the real scoop on real science.

I know that urge to retweet and share these kinds of photos can be strong, but I urge you not to subscribe to those kinds of accounts. Don’t get me wrong: It’s nice to get people excited with cool pictures and factoids, but from what I can see a lot (many? most?) of these sorts of accounts just post pictures while rarely giving credit or explaining them. And worse, a lot of them post total nonsense and even faked pictures, passing them off as real.

I’ve said this before, but it’s probably worth saying again, many times: The Universe is cool enough without making up crap about it.

Dec. 11 2014 7:30 AM

Is Earth’s Water Locally Sourced?

We call Earth a water world, and that’s pretty fair: Our planet’s surface is 70 percent covered in it, it makes up a percentage of our air, and there’s even a substantial amount of it mixed in to the planet’s mantle, deep underground.

But where the heck did it come from?

This is no idle question. We have a lot of water here, and it must have come from somewhere. There are two obvious sources—it formed here along with the Earth, or it was brought to Earth from space. Which is the dominant source has been a topic of long and heated debate among astronomers.

The first big science results have just been announced by the European science team working with the Rosetta probe, and, in my opinion, they throw more gasoline on the fire. Measurements made by the probe show that comets like 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko—the one Rosetta is orbiting—couldn’t have been the source of our water.

But that hardly helps answer the underlying question! Why not? Ah, the details …

When the Earth formed 4.55 billion years ago (give or take), there was a lot of water in the disk of material swirling around the Sun. Close in to the Sun, where it was warm, that water was a gas, and farther out it formed ice. We see that latter part echoed down through time now in the form of icy moons around the outer planets.

You’d expect water collected on Earth along with everything else (metals, silicates, and so on). When the Earth cooled, a lot of that water bubbled up from the interior or was outgassed by volcanism.

But we have another big source, too: comets. These are dirty snowballs, rock and dust held together by water frozen as ice. They formed farther out in the solar system, where ice was more plentiful. Long ago, just a few hundred million years after Earth formed and started to cool, there was a tremendous flood of comets sent down into the inner solar system, disturbed by the gravitational dance of the outer planets as they slowly settled down into their orbits. This Late Heavy Bombardment, as it’s called, could have supplied all of Earth’s water.

How to tell? Well, it turns out that in this one case, hipsters are right: Locally sourced is measurably different than stuff trucked in.

See? I told you; I liked this interplanetary water before it was cooled.

Photo by gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Water is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen atoms, it so happens, come in two flavors: The normal kind that has single proton in its nucleus, and a heavier kind called deuterium that has a proton and a neutron (there’s also tritium, with two neutrons, but that’s exceedingly rare). Deuterium is far more rare than the normal kind of hydrogen, but how rare depends on what you look at. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in Earth’s water can be different than, say, water in comets, or on Mars.

Note I said, “can be”. We know the ratio differs across the solar system. But suppose we find the same ratio in comets as we do on Earth. That would be powerful evidence that water here began out there. Astronomers have looked at a lot of comets trying to pin down the ratio, and what they’ve found is maddening: Some comets have a ratio very different from Earth’s, and only one (103P/Hartley 2) has a ratio similar to ours.

Now that’s interesting: 103/P is a Jupiter-family comet, meaning it used to orbit the Sun far out, but dropped into the inner solar system, got its orbit modified by Jupiter, and now has a much shorter path that keeps it in the inner solar system.

Rosetta’s comet, 67/P, is also a Jupiter-family comet. You’d expect them to have roughly similar deuterium/hydrogen ratios.

They don’t. 67/P, according to Rosetta, has three times the deuterium per hydrogen atom as Earth (and 103/P).

What does that mean? It’s not clear, which is why this is maddening. It could be simply that not all Jupiter-family comets have the same ratio; they may all have different origins (born scattered across the solar system, so with different D/H ratios), but now belong to the same family. Or it could mean that 67/P is an oddball, with a much higher ratio than most other comets like it. That would seem unlikely, though, since we’ve studied so few you wouldn’t expect an oddball to be found so easily.

Making things more complicated, some asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter have water on them, and it appears to have an Earth-like D/H ratio. But we think they have so little water that it would take a lot more of them impacting the early Earth to give us our water than it would comets. That’s possible, but we know lots of comets hit us back then, so it’s still weird that the D/H ratios don’t seem to work out. Still, it’s nice that there could be another potential source to study, and this new Rosetta result does lend credence to the idea that asteroids did the wet work.

So if you ask where Earth’s water come from, the answer is: We still don’t know. No doubt it wasn’t a single source anyway, but came from multiple kinds of objects, which muddies the water (so to speak, though kinda literally).

The good news is, we’ve only studied a dozen or so comets this way, which is a pretty small sample. As time goes on we’ll visit and observe more, and perhaps be able to nail this down better. Same with asteroids; there are a lot of them, and they’re worth poking at too.

And that’s the fun of this. Maybe no single observation will give us that “Eureka!” moment, which means we’ll just have to do more amazing, fantastic, and awe-inspiring missions to comets. What a shame.

Dec. 10 2014 12:11 PM

Global Warming: It’s OK to Be Smart About It

So you know the Earth is warming up—after all, it’s overwhelmingly obvious and the vast majority of climate scientists agree about it. But some people just can’t seem to accept that; in the loudest cases they’re ideologically driven (and/or fossil fuel–funded), but it’s possible that a lot of folks just don’t have the facts. 

When you talk to them at a cocktail party (or at family dinners, what with the holidays and all that), things can get ugly fast. Short of running away or having your head explode, what can you do?

Here’s an idea: Show them this video from It’s OK to Be Smart, created by scientist and science communicator Joe Hanson.

Not bad! He covers a lot of the basic knowledge you need to counter most of the silly global warming denier claims. If you need more, I suggest Skeptical Science’s amazing list of climate myth debunkings, and Hank Green’s video debunking of ten common claims.

And if they bring up the so-called pause in warming, well, there’s been a lot of noise about it, but when you look at the data carefully, the pause disappears. And when people talk about this faux pause they only look at atmospheric temperatures, and even then a limited set of them. When you look at the heat budget of the whole planet, including the oceans, things look a whole lot less pause-y.

Studies have shown that presenting the facts by themselves doesn't usually work to change a person's mind, especially if those beliefs are ideologically based. Worse, in some cases it an make them dig in. That's one reason I generally don't engage with deniers and such on social media (also, they typically aren't interested in a real discussion anyway). But I think at the very least the facts need to be out there, and hopefully the information here will help.

Dec. 10 2014 7:15 AM

Stormscapes2: Stormier

A couple of months ago I posted an amazing time-lapse video called Stormscapes, showing storms and mesocylcones, created by photographer Nicolaus Wegner. It’s really worth watching; seeing those swirling, dark clouds forming vortices over the Midwest is terrifying and mesmerizing.

Wegner contacted me recently; after a year of storm chasing he put together another video, Stormscapes2, and it’s way, way better than the first one. In fact, I’d say it’s seriously one of the most incredible weather videos I have ever seen.

Make this hi-def, full screen, and crank the volume up, because holy yikes.


From the opening sequence to the last frame, that’s magnificent. I was also really impressed by how Wegner let the music inspire the editing, and it really adds to the look and feel of the video.

The creepy oncoming storm sets the mood immediately, but then the double rainbow and crepuscular rays (shadows of clouds leaving long, dark shadows in the sky) converging on the horizon provide a brief interlude. Very brief.

Mesocyclones! Lightning! Exploding cumulonimbus clouds! Devil’s Tower! And then, at the end, one of my favorite kinds of clouds: bulbs of mammatus clouds hanging down. Those are really peculiar, and it’s not at all clear why they form. Their shape gives rise to their name, because they look like mammary glands. Seriously.

mammatus clouds
A swarm of mammatus clouds is a sign of unstable, violent weather on its way. Also? Creepy.

Photo by Nicolaus Wegner, from the video

I’ve seen mammatus clouds just once, and it was unearthly. They’re harbingers of severe weather, and Wegner mentioned he got that sequence the day a series of tornadoes hit the town of Wessington Springs, South Dakota. The town was devastated, but due to the work of the National Weather Service, not a single person was killed. They predicted the conditions were ripe for tornadoes, issued a warning, and people were able to get to safety in time.

That’s amazing, but that’s science. We’ve learned so much about the weather that we can predict with pretty good accuracy where and when tornadoes can form, and get people to safety.

As I watch Stormscapes2, I’m in awe of the beauty of weather, but I’m also uplifted. We understand a lot of these phenomena very well, and the things we don’t understand, we learn. And when we learn, we make things better. We save people’s lives.

Science saves lives. That’s a pretty good thing to learn, too.

Dec. 9 2014 10:45 AM

No, Asteroid 2014 UR 116 Is Not Going to Hit the Earth

This is Part N of what is apparently an infinite series of “No, Asteroid XXX Is Not Going to Hit the Earth” posts.

So on Oct. 24, 2014, a team of Russian astronomers found a near-Earth asteroid. Designated 2014 UR116, it’s somewhere around 400 meters across, which is decent-sized. If it were to hit us, that would be bad.

The good news is it can’t hit us. It really can’t; over the next century or so the orbit doesn’t bring it any closer than about 5 million kilometers or so. That’s a pretty wide margin, well over 10 times the distance to the Moon.

The Lomonosov Moscow State University (which hosts the telescopes used to find the rock) has a page up saying the asteroid theoretically can hit us, but I’d call that a bit of a stretch. Unfortunately, the Christian Science Monitor picked up on this and posted an article about it as well. The article does say there’s little chance of it hitting, but also has this sentence under the title: “In a video posted online Sunday, astrophysicist Vladimir Lipunov says the newly discovered asteroid could collide with Earth during its three-year orbital cycle.” I suspect he meant theoretically as well, in the far distant future, but in practical terms for the near future it can’t.

asteroid 2014 ur116
Animation showing the movement of the asteroid against the background stars.

Photo by Lomonosov Moscow State UniversityUniversity

The original Lomonosov page got on Reddit, too. So the news got around, prompting the JPL Near Earth Object Program to put up a page saying there’s no risk from this asteroid. I have to agree. Sometimes we can’t know the orbit of an asteroid well because it hasn’t been observed enough, but in this case there are 300 observations spanning six years (it was only discovered a month or so ago, but once the orbit is determined it can be backtracked to see if it appears in older observations), which is pretty good. It doesn’t come anywhere near us for at least a century.

Of course, breathless conspiracy theorists are speculating rampantly about this; YouTube videos are easy enough to find (I’ll leave to you to find them if you care enough). But that happens Every. Single. Time. an asteroid is found that comes within a few million kilometers of Earth. I’ll note these conspiracy theorists and doomsday mongers have been correct exactly zero times.

Asteroids are a real concern, and we do need to be searching for them. But, like so many others we find, 2014 UR116 can be safely put into the “Nope” column.

Tip o' the isostatic resonance to Ron Baalke.

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