The entire universe in blog form

April 9 2014 7:45 AM

Chili’s Reception: Restaurant Cancels Event With Anti-Vax Group

Last week, Chili’s made a mistake. The good news? They listened to reason and fixed it. The best news? It shows that reality can win out over nonsense if people speak up.

The family restaurant Chili’s has a series of goodwill campaigns called “Give Back Events,” where it does something nice for the community. Chili’s recently announced that it would do one in partnership with the National Autism Association, with the idea that the funds raised would go toward autism safety for kids, specifically for programs to prevent children with autism from wandering off, a common and dangerous phenomenon.

Let me be clear: I think it’s great that Chili’s does these events, and even better that it wants to take on something to do with autism. This is a serious issue, and a little more public awareness and funding isn’t a bad thing.

The problem was whom Chili’s chose as a partner. While the National Autism Association does some good work for families touched by autism, the group is also pretty clearly anti-vaccination.

Again, let me be clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. This has been shown over and again, and no credible medical organization thinks they are connected. The only groups promoting this imagined link are ideologically based, not evidence based.

The NAA makes it quite clear how it feels about vaccinations. Its page “Causes of Autism” points a finger right at vaccines, saying “The National Autism Association believes … vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune, or inflammatory conditions.” This statement about vaccines is profoundly false.

Another page also connects vaccines and autism. The FAQ has a question about vaccines, and it points people to NVIC, a notoriously anti-vax group. Many members of NAA’s board of directors have direct links with anti-vax groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue (its president is Jenny McCarthy, so there you go).

When this news got out to the ‘Net, the reaction was pretty strong. A lot of people hit the social media to let Chili’s know this was a mistake, and many media venues picked the story up. (This happened quickly enough and while I was working on other big stories that I let it pass for a day … and then it was over before I could say anything, which is why I’m writing this story now.)

Then a wonderful thing happened: Chili’s listened. And it canceled the event:

Chili’s is committed to giving back to the communities in which our guests live and work through local and national Give Back Events. While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.
We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism. At Chili’s, we want to make every guest feel special and we thank all of our loyal guests for your thoughtful questions and comments.
We’d love to hear your continued feedback on our Facebook page.

I think this is fantastic. Voices of reason shone through! And because I think it’s important to leave positive feedback when people make the right choice, I left this note on Chili’s Facebook page:

Dear folks at Chili's - Thank you for listening and reconsidering; NAA, like many such groups, has their heart in the right place but have gone in a very wrong direction with their efforts. As someone who has done extensive research (and writing) about the anti-vax efforts, I urge you to look into the Autism Science Foundation, which uses evidence-based work for their efforts. They understand the need for vaccines and the fact that there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

If you get a chance, please send them a thanks, too.

Of course, not everyone is happy. As a not-so-random example, the monumentally anti-science website Natural News has a screed penned by its creator Mike Adams, who, to be kind, is not exactly reality-based. He is a supporter of astrology, for example (!!), and also claims that chemotherapy is what killed Patrick Swayze and other celebrities who were suffering from cancer.

Adams was not pleased that Chili’s “caved to the medical mafia.” The number of straight-up fallacies in his article is almost impressive. He links vaccines to autism (nope), talks about courts admitting vaccines cause autism (grossly misleading), goes on about toxins in vaccines (also grossly misleading), and claims the people making up the “medical mafia” (which I suppose includes me) are brain damaged. Nice, eh?

But that reaction is not at all surprising from groups who deny all the real evidence and continue to claim that vaccines are evil. As a parent myself, I (with my wife) did the research at the time and decided to have our daughter get her full schedule of vaccinations. All three of us continue to get boosters when needed, too.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. The life you save may not be your own, but an innocent infant too young to get vaccinations herself.

So kudos to Chili’s for doing the right thing and not supporting an anti-vaccination group. I hope that it does eventually have its event and gives its money to a group (like the Autism Science Foundation) that understands the reality of the importance of vaccinations, as well as does good work with families touched by autism.

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April 8 2014 1:57 PM

(Final) Follow-Up: Yup. It Was a Rock.

[UPDATE (Apr. 11, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): The following post contains some corrections that I have clarified in a follow-up article. Please read that when you're done here. Thanks! -PP]

For those of you taking notes at home, over the past few days I wrote a couple of pieces about a viral video that purported to show a meteoroid (the solid part of space debris that gets hot and creates a meteor when it rams through our atmosphere) zipping past a skydiver. At first I was open to the idea, if skeptical, but upon further reading and examination I became more convinced it was just a rock that fell out of the skydiver’s parachute.

Unfortunately, that turns out to be the case. It really was just a rock.

Steinar Midtskogen, one of the people involved with making the video, has written a post with the story. Clearly they were hoping it was actually a meteorite, but the evidence mounted up to the more mundane, terrestrial explanation.

debris from parachute
A second bit of debris seen falling past the skydiver.

Photo by Anders Helstrup, from the video

I actually became convinced last night, when BA Tweep Helge Bjørkhaug sent me a link to a slowed-down version of the video. Immediately before the rock flies past, I saw a second piece of debris just to the right of the skydiver’s parachute strap. It was in several frames, and clearly real. Here’s a screengrab:

This is a frame from the footage online from the skydiver's forward-facing camera, at the 2:51 mark. The debris is highlighted. Literally a less than a second later the big chunk goes by, making it pretty clear they’re connected by the same event: the parachute unfurling. If they were both meteoroids, there is no way a smaller one would be so close to the bigger one; air resistance would have separated them by hundreds or thousands of meters by this point. The more logical and parsimonious explanation is that they came from the parachute itself, accidentally wrapped up with it when it was prepped for the jump.

[Update, April 8, 2014 at 20:00 UTC: Midtskorgen emailed me again and said the second object I point out here is actually the second skydiver, Jon Vegar. That sounds reasonable, to be honest; he appears later in the video near that spot, and the second object doesn't appear to be falling as fast as you'd expect a rock to fall. I'm OK with that, and this doesn't change the overall conclusion that the original object is a rock.]

[Update 2, Apr. 9, 2014 at 18:30 UTC: I'm getting feedback from people asking me why I think the first object is a rock, if I was mistaken about the second object. That's a fair question! It's because I was already pretty convinced the first object was a rock, and when I thought the second object was too it was adding just that much more evidence. But my conclusion wasn't based on the second object, just modified by it. Take it away, and the evidence still points to the first object being just a rock. Also, by that time the video makers had already reached the same conclusion. so I'm satisfied we've reached the conclusion here.]

Thus endeth our tale. While I would have loved this to have been a real meteoroid, I’m glad this worked out the way it did: The video-makers were honest, did their level best to figure this out, and when they got as far as they could, they put it out to the public. And when it was shown to not be what they had hoped, they admitted it openly and clearly.

That’s how you get to the truth, folks. Open inquiry, honest investigation, and acceptance of the line of evidence no matter where it leads. My hat’s off to the folks behind the video, and to all the people in Internet land who contributed to figuring this out. Well done.

April 8 2014 12:30 PM

No, That’s NOT an Artificial Light on Mars

[UPDATE (Apr. 11, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): The following post contains some corrections that I have clarified in a follow-up article. Please read that when you're done here. Thanks! -PP]

Apparently April is the month to debunk astronomical foolishness, for I have yet another bit of space silliness to disassemble.

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle ran a story showing a picture from the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been exploring the fourth rock from the Sun since August 2012. As the rover moves over the Martian surface it deploys an arsenal of tools to examine its environment.

That, of course, includes cameras. Many of the pictures are visually stunning, and some are plain old weird. After all, they’re shots of the landscape on an alien world!

But some folks take the word “alien” a bit too metaphorically. In the Chronicle article, the writer, Carol Christian, points out one particular picture (shown above) that depicts a spray of light that looks to be off in the distance. She wrote, “A NASA camera on Mars has captured what appears to be artificial light emanating outward from the planet's surface.”

Right, artificial. That’s the first conclusion we should jump to. But then, instead of asking any of a dozen scientists or science journalists who might actually be able to supply an answer, she just quotes the site she got the image from: UFO Sightings Daily.*

Yes, you read that right. The Houston Chronicle is repeating a story they found on a UFO conspiracy site.

When I saw the picture, I knew right away it wasn’t from some artificial source. It wasn’t even really a light source on Mars! I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time. To make sure though, I asked my friend Emily Lakdawalla, who is also a planetary scientist and journalist. Her immediate response: cosmic ray.

[UPDATE (Apr. 8 at 20:00 UTC): The plot thickens; Justin Maki, a scientist at JPL, says this may be a sunglint off a rock, and not a cosmic ray. That's certainly possible! As I note below, though, it only appears in one camera and not the other, so I'm not quite convinced yet. However, I'll wait a little while and see what shakes out of this, so I don't post a lot of confusing updates and corrections! In the meantime, even if it isn't a cosmic ray I can still be reasonably sure it's not aliens.]

Ah, of course. Cosmic rays are charged subatomic particles (like protons, electrons, and so on) zipping around in space. On Earth, our atmosphere absorbs them so they don’t have much of an effect on cameras down here. But if you put a telescope in space, they are bombarded by these little beasties. When a cosmic ray slams into the electronic detector in the camera, it deposits some energy in the pixel (or pixels) where it hits. These detectors are designed to detect energy from incoming light, and they can’t tell the difference between a cosmic ray hit and a photon coming from a distant star. All they do is register the energy (you can read a lot more about this on a page where I dismantled claims about Planet X).


Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech

And that’s what we have here. Curiosity was taking a picture of the Martian horizon, and during the time the picture was taken, a subatomic particle smacked into the camera, leaving behind its trail of energy. It’s a camera artifact, not a real one.

How can I know the light isn’t real, and is just inside the camera itself? Because the camera is the NAVCAM, which is actually two cameras, one on the right and one on the left. This provides a binocular view of the landscape, which can be used (just like our own eyes do) to determine distances to objects. At the same time NAVCAM RIGHT took the picture with the light in it, NAVCAM LEFT also took a picture … and there’s no light. Here are both pictures so you can compare them:

See? It’s in one camera’s picture but not the other, even though they were taken at the same time (on April 3, 2014, at 10:00:03 UTC).

To make this even more clear, I made an animated GIF of the two shots:

As you can see, the landscape shifts a bit due to the different perspectives of the two cameras. The light is in one shot, but not the other.

I’ll note we see this kind of thing all the time, including in Curiosity images. Here’s one over a rock, for example. It’s not hard to find more if you peruse the Curiosity raw images archive (or the Unmanned Spaceflight forum, where space aficionados post and discuss the latest images from various missions).

So that’s what we have here. It’s not some alien rave, or a stranded bug-eyed monster signaling for help, or other fanciful fiction. No, it’s far more mundane, merely the quantized energy deposited by a subatomic particle that was accelerated in the magnetic fields of an exploded star and traveled thousands of light years across the galaxy at nearly the speed of light to finally slam into an electronic camera mounted on a mobile nuclear-powered laser-eyed chemical laboratory humans sent to another planet.

Clearly, reality’s not cool enough. We need to add aliens to make this a story.


(My very sincere and very large thanks to Emily Lakdawalla for help on this.)

*Correction, April 8, 2014: This post originally misstated the name of the website UFO Sightings Daily.

April 8 2014 10:30 AM

The Principle: A Documentary About Geocentrism. Yeah, I Know.

Of all the wrongiest wrongs that ever wronged wrongness, Geocentrism is way up on the list. The idea that the Earth is the center of the Universe makes creationism look positively scientific in comparison. It might be edged out by people who think the Earth is flat, but just barely.

And yet somebody actually went out and made a “documentary” where, apparently, that is exactly what they’re trying to promote. It’s called The Principle, and it’s making the rounds on the ‘Net right now. Here’s the trailer. Be ye fairly warned, says I: head asplodey stuff enclosed.

The trailer does seem to be making a case for Geocentrism (it's mentioned specifically), but given the title, I would guess they're going to try to make a broader point that the Universe itself was made—created, if you will—purposely for us. This idea (broadly speaking) is called the strong anthropic principle (hence the doco title), and as a philosophy it's not terribly informative. It's fun to think about in a limited sense, but in the end it always boils down to "God did it," which is slamming a door in the face of exploration and inquiry. I'm not a big fan of that.

About the trailer, yes, it’s narrated by Kate Mulgrew, aka Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. Some people are lamenting this, wondering if she’s a geocentrist. I doubt it, and you can’t necessarily judge an actor for the work they do. Mitch Pileggi (from The X-Files) narrated an episode of Exploring the Unknown debunking the Apollo Moon hoax, yet he also narrated Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? So you can’t jump to any conclusions here.

[UPDATE (Apr. 8 at 20:15 UTC); Well, that was fast. Kate Mulgrew just posted a note on Facebook disavowing the film in no uncertain terms. Thanks to Ben_Etc on Twitter for pointing this out to me!]

What’s far more interesting is that the trailer shows physicists Michio Kaku and Lawrence Krauss, both of whom, I strongly suspect, would call Geocentrism nonsense (and wait! Krauss did exactly that). So why are they in the movie? I would guess the producers didn’t tell them exactly what the movie was about when they did their interviews; that’s more common than you’d think. The makers of the execrable movie Expelled did just that to several scientists. A German TV company did that to me about a Moon hoax documentary they filmed me for (the segment promoted the hoax).

Update, April 8, 2014 at 15:15 UTC: On Twitter, Krauss has said that the clips of him in The Principle were taken from other interviews: "For all who asked: Some clips of me apparently were mined for movie on geocentricism. So stupid does disservice to word nonsense. Ignore it."

Anyway, the topic of geocentrism is interesting. You have to separate out little-g geocentrism as a frame of reference in physics (like saying “The Sun rose”) versus capital-G Geocentrism which is that the Earth is the center of the Universe because the Bible says so. The former is perfectly fine in limited cases (we use it to launch satellites and point our telescopes), but the latter is provably wrong.

I’ll note that the guy who made this documentary, Robert Sungenis, has been promoting this flavor of nonsense for a while now. I wrote about a Geocentrism conference he ran a few years back (called, seriously, “Galileo Was Wrong, the Church Was Right”). To give you an idea of the guy we're talking about here, he has a history of saying anti-Semitic things and also of making Holocaust denial claims (and you can find more lovely things about him here). That would fit with the conspiratorial tone of some of the movie trailer, too.

So I expect this movie/documentary will be more of this same flavor of nonsense. We'll see. As I’ve said before, the path of reality is narrow, and once you step off it, all manners of silliness seem equally plausible.

April 8 2014 7:45 AM

“Our National Debate About Climate Policy Is Broken”

Fox News
What the Fox says: Usually wrong stuff about global warming.

Image by the Union of Concerned Scientists

A new study just released by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that of the three major cable news networks, in 2013 Fox News far and away was the worst at covering news about climate change: More than 70 percent of their coverage contained misleading statements about it.

Shocking, I know.

Comparatively, CNN’s coverage was misleading 30 percent of the time while MSNBC was the most accurate with “only” 8 percent of its coverage being misleading.

This is not a surprise at all, of course; Fox News has long been known to distort reality when it comes to anything they feel threatens their ideology. What is surprising is that in 2013 their coverage of climate change was actually better than it was in 2012, when a jaw-dropping 93 percent of their statements about it were misleading.

If we were to grade them, in 2012 they’d have gotten an “A” in being unfair and unbalanced.

Diving into this a bit is interesting. The biggest contribution to CNN’s bad showing was due to false balance, having deniers on panels along with real scientists. For the most part with Fox the problem is with the hosts themselves, though they tend to have deniers on as guests quite a bit.

MSNBC was generally graded down by UCS because of a few mild overstatements linking some specific extreme weather events and climate change; in other words for going the other way than the other networks. They said that that climate change makes hurricanes and tornadoes more frequent, and tornadoes more intense. To my knowledge there is no well-established link for that (though climate change is indeed making the most intense hurricanes even stronger). So that’s a fair enough call by the UCS, but it’s chump change compared to the blatant denial so often seen on Fox. There are degrees of wrongness, and Fox wins here.

Worse, Fox viewers greatly outnumber those of CNN and MSNBC (1.76 million, 568,000, and 640,000 respectively), which means that even though MSNBC did a much better job, and covered climate change far more often, Fox’s distortions probably had a wider reach.

Obamacare graph
To avoid hugely misleading graphs, it's best to have a y-axis that starts at 0. Then you'd see that the left hand plot is actually 6/7ths as high as the one on the right, not 1/3.

Photo from Media Matters for America

Fox’s ideological bias is so well-known it’s like the air around us; taken for granted. At least, it is to those of us who know better. Polls show that Fox viewers tend to be misinformed on a broad range of topics (though it’s not known whether less-informed viewers watch Fox News, or whether Fox News makes them less well-informed). This is no surprise; for example just last week Fox News was reporting on the Affordable Care Act, and used a seriously misleading graph. It was so stupendously bad that it even got lampooned by Saturday Night Live:

I think that graph is the best part of the segment, even more than the bit dealing with climate change, which also has some fun with my pal Neil Tyson as well. I’ll note a Fox News host later admitted the graph was misleading, but by then the damage was done.

And while that SNL segment was funny, the topic itself is not. Many of the effects of climate change are already and unequivocally being felt now, today. The latest IPCC report was dire, saying we need to take action right now to prevent the worst effects of climate change over the next few decades … and in some cases, no matter what we do, some of those effects are coming anyway.

Yet Fox News seems hellbent on making sure the public is less informed than ever about one of if not the most important issue of our time.

If you won’t even acknowledge the problem, how on Earth can you ever hope to fix it?

April 7 2014 11:00 AM

Follow-Up: The Meteorite and the Skydiver

Last week, a video went viral that purports to show a skydiver narrowly missed by a meteoroid falling past him. A lot of people have been speculating over the video, of course. I watched it many times, and after giving it some thought I wrote up my own opinion. Basically, the video doesn’t looked faked to me, and while I remained skeptical, I leaned toward it being real, and open to the idea that it really is a meteoroid.

Note: If this rock came from space then technically it was a meteoroid; they’re called meteorites after they hit the ground. I took great pains in my first article to call it a rock or an object, since its pedigree is still <puts on sunglasses> up in the air. I will do so again here. However, most of the articles I saw called it a meteorite, so I used that term in the titles so people would know what video I’m talking about.

Here's the footage again; you can see the object fly past at about the 1:50 mark.

Over the weekend I received lots of comments on Twitter, Facebook, and via email about the video and my post. Some of them were from people convinced the object is a meteoroid, while others poo-pooed the whole idea. But some of the discussion went into details of the video and what it could be, and I want to follow-up on what I wrote because of that.

To be clear and concise: While I initially dismissed this idea after some thought, it is entirely possible that what the video shows is a smaller rock that fell out of the skydiver’s parachute. I don’t think this can be ruled out, and indeed, is more parsimonious than the idea that the video captures an extraordinarily rare event like the dark flight of a meteoroid. So the video is almost certainly real, in that I mean it wasn’t hoaxed, but as things stand now we cannot know for sure what the object is or isn’t. But it being a rock trapped in the ‘chute is a far more likely explanation.

Well, ‘Chute

In my first post, I brought up the idea that the object was a bit of debris caught in the parachute, and then fell out when the parachute opened. However, given the size and speed of the object, that seemed unlikely to me, so I discounted it.

I may have been too speedy in that assessment. First, many skydivers have said falling debris is a relatively common event; all manners of small objects can get caught in the parachute when it is packed on the ground before the dive. So it’s not impossible, and there’s plenty of precedent.

Second, I discounted the idea of this being such an object due to its size. An analysis of the video by Steinar Midtskogen indicated the rock was between 8-20 cm (3-8 inches) across. Surely something that size (and weighing 1-20 kilos) would not get missed when the ‘chute was being packed!

But Midtskogen was assuming the object was a meteoroid, and falling several hundred kilometers per hour, terminal velocity for such an object. The speed it falls is critical for getting its distance from the camera (the object moves rapidly across the camera field of view, so if you know how fast it is moving then you can calculate how far it falls between video frames, and that can be used to determine its distance from the camera). He finds it was between 2.5 and 6.5 meters (8-21 feet) away when it passed.

But that assumes the object really is moving rapidly. If it fell from his ‘chute, then it could easily be moving much less quickly, and that would mean it was actually much closer to the camera, and therefore smaller. I didn’t initially think this would be the case because the object is well-focused in the video, and if it were really close it wouldn’t be.

That was an error on my part. The camera used is wide-angle and has a very large depth-of-field, the technical term used to mean the range of distance over which an object is focused. As you can see in the frame grabs from the video, the hand straps and tethers in the parachute are well-focused, and are less than a meter away from the camera! That means the object too could have been less than a meter away, which means it could have been much smaller, as small as just a couple of centimeters.

My friend and astrophotographer André van der Hoeven also analyzed the video, and determined the object was not accelerating when it flew past; in other words it was at terminal velocity. He reasoned that a rock falling from the parachute would be expected to accelerate due to gravity, so he concluded it must have fallen from far, far above the diver. [Update (Apr. 7, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): van der Hoeven recently updated his analysis to note that he can't rule out the rock coming from the parachute, only that it was unlikely.]

However, there are a lot of variables to this. At the speed at which the skydiver was falling, air resistance would be quite high and could slow a small rock very rapidly. There could also be quite a bit of turbulence from the parachute itself, creating eddies in the air that could change the velocity of a small falling rock. I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of it being debris initially stuck in the ‘chute due to the speed and/or acceleration at which it falls.

And I have to admit that it bugged me right away that we see the object just seconds after the parachute deployed. That’s another big coincidence in a big series of them. At first the evidence seemed to weigh against it coming from the parachute, but now it’s clear that’s not the case.

meteor by Mark Gee
The hot, glowing phase of a meteor's fall only lasts for a few seconds and occurs high in the atmosphere; after that the rock cools and falls at terminal velocity, a few hundred kph.

Photo by Mark Gee, used by permission

[Update 2 (Apr. 7, 2014 at 17:30 UTC): Dr. Philip Metzger a physicist and planetary scientist at NASA, analyzed the video using some sophisticated computer modeling and determined that the object was most likely either a small piece of rock very close to the camera, or a far larger one between 12-18 meters away. Given how big the object must have been if it were really that far away, this again lends more weight to the idea that this was actually a small bit of debris caught up in the parachute.]

Earth Diving

In my first article, I was more concerned over whether this was a hoax than a case of mistaken identity. That gave me a certain angle, a certain point of view, while looking over the video. I should have been more concerned over the possibility that while the video was authentic, the conclusion was mistaken.

After more thought, I not only cannot rule out that it was a smaller rock caught in the parachute that fell once the ‘chute deployed, I have to admit that it is a more likely explanation. That does not mean it’s the right one, of course. But bear in mind that meteoroids big enough to see are extremely rare, and are so uncommon that none—not one—has ever been positively caught on video, despite all the cameras we use all the time. That means this object is even more unlikely to be one, since it also fell very close to the camera (and coincidentally right after the parachute opened). That’s a whole lot of unlikely events happening in a row, which triggered my skeptical sense right away but makes it tingle even more strongly now.

I’ll note that Midtskogen emailed me over the weekend and was quite open about this possibility, and is eager to have others analyze the video to see what they can find; they put all the original footage on YouTube (though the original raw footage off the camera is not available yet; it’s too big for YouTube, but Midtskogen assured me they’re working on a home for it). That is precisely the right attitude, and I hope that other people can find clever ways to figure out more about this.

And finally, another observation: As usual, with a claim on the Internet, the reactions to it have been diverse, fascinating, and frustrating. From the comments I received, I found a lot of people didn’t really read what I wrote. Some people thought I was saying it is definitely a meteorite—but that’s not the case. I tried very hard not to say that in my post (though my concluding paragraphs are based on the idea that it was). Others were dismissive of the idea, saying that a meteoroid would still be hot and moving at hypersonic speeds, a misconception I specifically debunked in my article!

It was nice to see much of the commentary being calm and rational, with different people picking up various threads and analyzing them for their merit or lack thereof. Of course that wasn’t always the case, and some folks got pretty hot under the collar about this. But that is less than useless; it turns people off and can close avenues of discussion that might otherwise be useful. In a case like this, simple, reasoned discussion is the best way to go.

I’m still willing to be swayed further either way on the topic. I am not saying it was or was not a meteoroid, but it seems far more likely to have a far more mundane explanation. And either way, any conclusion will have to rely on better evidence and better, more detailed analysis than we have seen so far.

But if I had to bet, based on what we’ve seen? I’d put my money on it being a plain ol’ rock.

April 7 2014 7:30 AM

A Snail’s Pace Change in Cassini Reveals an Ocean Under Enceladus

I’d like to be
Under the sea,
In Enceladus’ ocean
In the shade.
            —with apologies to the Beatles

New results from the Cassini Saturn spacecraft offer further evidence that the tiny moon Enceladus has an undersurface ocean of liquid water. This is pretty exciting news, since liquid water was once thought to be a commodity unique to Earth in the solar system.

We’ve known for years there must be some repository of water under the surface. In 2005, Cassini discovered huge plumes of liquid water erupting from the south pole region of Enceladus, and later pegged them to long cracks in the surface nicknamed “tiger stripes” (technically called “sulci,” they look more like tiger claw marks to me, which I think is a more appropriate metaphor as well).

The new data strongly imply that the water is coming from an ocean under the tiger stripes, some 30-40 kilometers (20-25 miles) under the surface, and reaching up to latitudes of 50° or so (Enceladus is about 500 kilometers (300 miles) across. What’s really cool is that it was found using the cosmic equivalent of a cop’s radar gun.

Cassini is in contact with Earth via radio. The frequency of those radio waves emitted is essentially constant, but as the spacecraft moves toward or away from Earth we see a tiny Doppler shift in the frequency. Think of it as ever so slightly moving a radio dial to a different channel, if you like. These tiny changes due to Cassini’s motion can be measured to incredible accuracy.

Cassini has encountered Enceladus many times over the years. From 2010 to 2012 it flew past at very low altitude over the surface of the moon three times (at 48, 50, and 99 kilometers, close shaves indeed). If Enceladus were a perfectly homogeneous sphere, then we would have seen Cassini’s speed smoothly increasing until it reached closest approach, then slowing smoothly as it drew farther away. That would be the simple effect of the moon’s gravity pulling harder on the spacecraft as it got nearer, then slowing it as it receded.

The ice ball of Enceladus; the tiger stripes (shown in blue) are near the bottom, running parallel. Click to embiggen.

Photo by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

But that’s not exactly what was seen. Overall, yes, but on top of that were tiny variation’s in the spacecraft’s speed, amounting to a mere 0.2–0.3 millimeters per second—that’s about half an inch every minute, literally slower than a snail’s pace. What caused those?

The smooth acceleration only happens if the moon is a smooth sphere. But it’s not. For example, a mountain on the surface would pull on Cassini a bit harder, changing its velocity a wee bit. A large depression would also affect the velocity, though in the opposite way, because the lack of material pulls on Cassini less.

We know Enceladus is not a smooth sphere; the south polar region is actually a basin, with slightly lower elevation overall. That means there’s less mass there, which in turn means that its gravity is somewhat less. We’d expect it to have less force on the spacecraft, so it doesn’t accelerate on approach and decelerate as it recedes quite so much.

In fact that’s what was seen, but there’s more: given the size of the depression, Cassini wasn’t affected as much as expected. It actually accelerated and decelerated a bit more than what the math showed it should. The most likely cause: something under the surface denser than the ice above it, something with more mass that compensated for the basin’s lack of mass.

Given the fact that the moon is mostly covered in ice, and the plumes are made of liquid water, this dense region deep under the south pole is very likely to be the reported ocean of liquid water (which is denser than ice). 

That’s very cool. It’s important to understand this was expected; if it hadn’t found that anomaly then that would’ve been pretty strange, since we know the plumes must come from somewhere. Given this, the next questions become 1) just how big and deep is this ocean, and b) how does the water get from that ocean up to the surface? We know the plume eruptions are linked to the shape of the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn, which means they erupt due to the influence of Saturn’s gravity on the moon. When Enceladus is farther from Saturn the stress from the planet’s gravity is relieved a bit, and the tiger strip cracks open wider, letting the water through. But how the water is transported the dozens of kilometers up to the surface is still somewhat uncertain.

I’ll note that the existence of this ocean was not really “discovered” in the traditional sense. The plumes from the surface already made it clear liquid water existed under the surface. What makes this great is that it lends a lot of much-needed support to what we already thought was going on. I also suspect that the new data can’t entirely rule out some other reason for the gravitational anomaly, like a large region of rock under the surface. The scientists involved do note that is highly unlikely, and that’s fine by me. I do think the existence of the ocean is the most likely and best explanation of the velocity seen.

A schematic showing how the water plumes form. Click to engeysernate.

Drawing by NASA/JPL-Caltech

And the implications of this are very exciting indeed. Organic (that is, carbon-based) materials have been detected in the plume water, meaning the rock and water under the surface of Enceladus have mixed. And even though the Sun never reaches these icy depths, there’s also clearly a source of energy melting the water (in the form of Saturn’s gravity squeezing the moon). That doesn’t mean there’s life there, of course, but it is pretty provocative. And now we think similar plumes from Jupiter’s moon Europa exist as well.

I’d say it’s about time we got serious about sending a lander to one or both of these small worlds. This is an entirely new window on our solar system that has been thrown open here. At the worst, we’d learn a vast amount about our neighborhood and the solar system in which we live.

And at best, maybe, just maybe, we’d learn about our neighbors, too.

April 6 2014 7:45 AM

A New Volcanic Island Swallows Its Older Sister

Tens of thousands of years ago, an undersea volcano a thousand kilometers south of Tokyo reached a milestone: Its peak reached the surface of the Pacific Ocean. It became an actual island. For millennia it slept, but in the 1970s a series of eruptions grew the island, which was named Nishinoshima. It was tiny, just a couple of hundred meters across.

But then there were a series of eruptions just south of the island in November 2013, in a still-submerged part of the volcano. This created a second peak, which poked through the water’s surface to become a new island just a few hundred meters from Nishinoshima.

That wouldn’t last: The new island grew as the volcano continued to erupt, and just before New Year’s Day 2014, the new island grew so big it actually connected to the old island. Now there is just one … and it’s still erupting, as you can see in this lovely image taken by the Landsat 8 satellite on March 20, 2014:

nishinoshima island
The new volcanic Nishinoshima Island, seen FROM SPAAAAACE. Click to hephaestenate.

Photo by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, usingLandsatdata from the USGSEarth Explorer.

The new, merged island is about 1,200 meters (3/4 miles) across, and the volcanic cones reach about 60 meters (200 feet) above sea level. The Japanese Coast Guard has been watching the island carefully and has many dramatic pictures of it; here’s my favorite:

One of the two volcanic cones making up Nishinoshima Island, the other is off to the right but its plume is visible.

Photo by the Japanese Coast Guard

The Landsat picture is pretty cool; you can see the island itself on the left (north is to the right), and the actual volcanic plume as a faint gray streak. The puffy white clouds are forming as water droplets condense around the particles in the plume. This is called nucleation. This process is how all clouds form, though usually it’s from dust in the air, not volcanic material! I like how the plume appears to come out in puffs (possibly from cyclic volcanic pumping) and the clouds follow the same pattern. This goes on a long way, for dozens of kilometers downwind:

A wider view from Landsat 8.

Photo by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, usingLandsatdata from the USGSEarth Explorer

Our planet is an active one, constantly churning and moving. Old land is subducted under continental plates, and new land forms as volcanoes take the guts of the Earth and eject them onto the surface. This usually takes millions of years to see real progress, but it does sometimes also happen on a human timescale. I love living in a time when we can see it from different perspectives, including from space! It really provides us with an amazing view of this literally ever-changing world.

Note: Just as I was about to post this, I saw that my friend Mika McKinnon wrote about it (and other ocean volcanoes) on io9. Nice coincidence!

April 5 2014 7:45 AM

Did a Skydiver Almost Get Hit by a Meteorite? (Video.)

A couple of days ago, a video taken by a skydiver hit the ‘Net like an asteroid impact. That’s because that’s exactly what the claim was: footage of a meteoroid zipping past the falling diver, a rock from space clearly caught on camera.

I was on travel (sigh; that seems inevitable when stuff like this happens) so I couldn’t get a good look at it, but now that I’ve had some time to peruse it I have to admit the video does look legit. My default response is of course extreme skepticism; video hoaxes seem to outnumber real ones 10 to one.

But my conclusion here is that unless this was faked outright—and there may simply be no way to ever know that—then this does show what appears to be a rock falling, and that means it may be a meteorite. It certainly looks that way!

First things first. Here’s the video:

The whole thing is worth watching, but the best shot of the rock flying by comes at about the 1:50 mark.

Given that I’m leaning toward it being real, let me cover how it might have been faked first.

Meteor Might

If this footage is faked, then the rock was either a real object dropped on purpose, or it was digitally added to the video (or something real mistaken for a meteoroid; I’ll get to that presently). I am not an expert in video manipulation—though I suppose I could be considered one in simple digital imagery, given my experience working on astronomical images—but it doesn’t look faked to me. The image isn’t overly crisp like so many are, and it doesn’t look pixelated or cut-and-pasted. I don’t have the original footage, and I have not heard anything from video experts, so I suspect we’ll have to leave that question unanswered.

Good advice.

Photo by Not An Exact Science Show, used by permission

So let’s look at it being done practically, using a real rock. Many people have suggested it was dropped from the plane, but that’s very unlikely; Anders Helstrup, the skydiver who took the video, had been falling for some time before deploying his parachute, and it would’ve been incredibly difficult to get the aim just right. Even if the plane were just off frame, the aim would’ve had to been extraordinary. Even if they tried multiple times to get it right, this appears to have been far too lucky a shot.

Others have suggested it came from his parachute (see comments at that link); we see it zip by right after the chute is deployed. But note how fast the rock is dropping. If it started from his parachute, it would’ve been falling far slower relative to him. So I don’t think that’s the case either. Note too that some people think it might have been a rock caught in his parachute (probably when it was packed), but something that size and weight probably would have been noticed. And either way, the relative speed makes this explanation unlikely.

So if I were to fake something like this, the easiest way would be to have a third skydiver along to do it. They would jump after Helstrup and his companion, or just stay above them. The third diver could move into position (easy enough since they used flight suits, which are highly maneuverable) and drop the rock from some height above.

Again, though, the speed of the rock belies this. It was moving pretty rapidly, so I doubt anyone would aim it that well. If they made an error, they could seriously hurt Helstrup.

And I also have another serious problem with this: Any way of making this footage involving dropping a real rock would’ve had to have been tried many times to get it right. That means they dropped an actual rock from thousands of meters up over inhabited land many times, an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing to do. Hoaxing something is one thing; purposely endangering people is another, and I have a very hard time making the assumption they’d do that.

Composite of individual frames from the original video, showing the rock's path.

Photo by Anders Helstrup, from the video

Meteor Right

OK then, let’s assume it’s real. How can that be?

A lot of people think meteoroids (the actual rock) fall to the ground at high speed, but in fact smaller ones move much more slowly. When it starts out, the object in space is moving dozens of kilometers per second, but it slows down extremely rapidly in our air when it’s still 80-100 kilometers above the ground. As it gets lower it can break up, and those pieces decelerate savagely as well. By the time it’s 20 or so kilometers up, it’s essentially free falling to the ground. It hits terminal velocity of a few hundred kilometers per hour, and then falls at a constant speed after that. So if this rock was from a meteor, it wouldn’t be moving hypersonically when it passed Helstrup. It would move just like we see in the video.

I’ll note that Steinar Midtskogen at the Norwegian Meteor Network did a great analysis of the video (here’s an English translation) and shows the rock to be about 8–20 cm across, depending on how far it was (2.5–6.5 meters away), which he calculates based on an assumed rate of speed.* That also gives it a mass of just under a kilo (2 pounds) to about 20 kilos (45 pounds).

A fairly typical stony meteorite—this one fell in Georgia in 2010. Note the darker crust on the outside and lighter material inside. Click for more info.

Photo by the Tellus Museum

Looking at the video, the rock does have the appearance of a meteoroid (note: it’s not technically a meteorite until it hits the ground). If the main mass that fell into our atmosphere broke apart, you’d get smaller pieces where one side could be dark from the heat of passage (called the fusion crust) while another side would look brighter, since it’s “fresh” rock, shattered from the original. Even the color looks about right.

That doesn’t mean it is a space rock, though. It could be some sort of other debris, though what I don’t know. It doesn’t look like something from an airplane, and at that height it’s unlikely to be a grinder tip from an industrial belt (a relatively common object mistaken for a meteorite).

One last note: A rock that big implies an even bigger starting mass, which means the actual meteor event would’ve produced a very bright bolide/fireball a few minutes before the footage we see. I can’t say how bright it would’ve been, and given it was broad daylight, and somewhat cloudy skies, it’s entirely possible something like that could’ve been missed.


So what do we make of all this? I don’t have solid evidence either way. Proof could come in the form of the actual meteorite, but despite two years of searching, no meteorite has ever been found—which isn’t surprising, given how much area we’re talking about here. It could’ve fallen into a creek, or forest, or some other difficult-to-search place. Not finding the rock doesn’t prove anything either way.

I’ll note that Helstrup had at least one expert looking at the video (Hans Erik Foss Amundsen, a geophysicist), who concluded it was real. Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today also got confirmation of its reality from a Norwegian astrophysicist. That does sway me.

Could this video have been faked? Well, sure, anything can be these days. But it seems unlikely. And it does hold together consistently. After watching it a number of times and thinking it over, my conclusion is that it is much more likely to be real than not.

That being the case, if someone does find the meteorite in question, it could be incredibly valuable. Meteorites from known falls are worth more than random ones, and this one would be even more special: It’s the first time anyone has gotten footage of the so-called dark flight part of a meteorite’s fall. (There is footage of the Russian Chelyabinslk meteorite impacting a frozen lake, but the rock itself isn’t seen, just the plume from the snow and ice blown up by the force of impact)

Also, I wonder: If this is a smaller piece of a larger fall, then there should be more rocks to find as well. The strewn field, as the fall area is called, could be quite large, with very few pieces in it. But that does increase the chance of finding smaller pieces “upstream” of the fall.

I certainly hope the pieces (or piece) are found. How interesting and exciting it would be to actually have the first physical specimen from a known, photographed, dark flight!

*Correction, April 7, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of Steinar Midtskogen of the Norwegian Meteor Network.

April 4 2014 7:45 AM

… But Does a Fire Tornado in Australia Spin the Other Way?

Last weekend I posted a video taken not too far from where I live showing a “fire tornado”—really a spinning vortex of rising air drawing its power from fire on the ground. It was pretty dramatic, mostly due to hundreds of tumbleweeds swirling around it, drawn in by the rotating column of wind.

After posting it, I got a note from Chris Tangey, who specializes in photography in Australia’s Outback. He took some footage of a fire tornado in 2012 that he claimed was better than what I posted … and he’s right.

Yegads. The speed and power of such a vortex depends on how quickly the air in the middle can rise, which in turn draws in air from farther out; as that air spins and falls in the rotation speeds up, tightening the vortex and magnifying it. As you can see in the fire, spurts of flame leap up the inside of the vortex, clearly giving it more strength. The sound and speed of it are enthralling.

fire tornado
This wider view really shows how tightly focused this vortex was.

Photo by Chris Tangey, from the video

I had never heard of this phenomenon until a year or so ago. But now there are cameras everywhere … and, sadly, with global warming likely increasing both the number and severity of wildfires, we’re bound to see lots more footage like this.

Note: The title of this post is a joke; in general the Coriolis force only acts on far larger scales, so I would think a vortex like this (such as a dust devil) is just as likely to spin clockwise as counterclockwise. It would be interesting to see some statistic on this, though!