The entire universe in blog form

Jan. 13 2015 7:00 AM

Yup, a Climate Change Denier Will Oversee NASA. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

So, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was just named to be the chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness as Republicans take over the Senate. This subcommittee (which used to be just Space and Science but was recently renamed) is in charge of oversight of, among other things, NASA.

This is not a good thing. Just how bad it is will be determined.

Before I rip into this, I want to be as fair as possible here: Poking around the Web, I don’t see any statements from Cruz that I'd consider directly antithetical to NASA’s efforts specifically to explore space. For example, in 2013 he wanted to reduce NASA’s budget, but that was more so that it would comply with the caps set by the Budget Control Act. In fact, he made a statement saying, “Proceeding with an authorization while pretending that the existing law is something other than what it is, is not the most effective way to protect the priority that space exploration and manned exploration should have.” That’s at least superficially heartening.

But that’s not to say he doesn’t pose a clear danger: Cruz is a staunch denier of global warming. In 2014, he said this in an CNN interview:

The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that—that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn't happened. 

This is, to put it mildly, what comes out of the south end of a north-facing bull. Yes, the Earth has warmed over the past 15 years, and the science is incredibly, unequivocally clear about that. Anyone making this claim either doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or is trying to sell you something (or, to be more accurate, has been bought).

Cruz has even joked about it, the punch line of which depends on one of the truly dumbest claims used to deny global warming: It’s cold outside. Yes, seriously.

This is very worrisome. NASA is one of the key scientific agencies studying global warming and climate change. A good fraction of NASA’s annual budget goes to Earth-observing satellites critical in looking at various factors of climate change (like the recently launched OCO-2, which monitors CO2).

This is as close to the analogy of putting the fox in charge of the hen house that there is. It would be as ludicrous as putting the rabidly anti-science Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also a matter of grave concern is that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) will chair the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, which oversees the NOAA. Rubio is also a climate change denier… and the NOAA is, after all, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Putting him in charge of the NOAA is like installing an atheist as Pope.*

Rubio has also said he can’t be sure the Earth’s not 6,000 years old (and he used the deplorable and disingenuous “I’m not a scientist” line while doing so). When confronted on that, he then gave a mushy answer that did little or nothing to assuage any misgivings. He confused religion and science, or at least claimed he did; it’s hard to know if what he said was what he honestly believes or what he felt was politically expedient to say. Either way, someone who has no problem saying he denies the role of human-generated pollution in the changing climate has no business being in charge of NOAA.

And yet here we are. The GOP controls both sides of Congress and is also the arguably the most anti-scientific group of politicians this country has seen in decades. Their ability to obstruct any progress on climate change was strong even when they only held the House; now that they control the Senate they may be able to actively reverse forward progress we’ve already made. After all, the first priority on the agenda of the new House was to give the go-ahead for the Keystone pipeline; the correlation between “yea” votes and funding from fossil fuel is unsurprisingly very high. As an aside, President Obama has said he will veto that bill, and it looks like the Senate may lack the votes needed to overturn such a veto.

We’re just getting started here, folks. I can’t imagine what disasters the GOP will wreak with these new powers. And that’s only dealing with climate change. When it comes to other basic issues, I’m very concerned indeed … and already putting my hopes in 2016. The next two years are going to be a very difficult uphill climb.

*Yes, I know a lot of people will say that would be a good thing. That’s not the point of the analogy, folks. Stay on target.

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Jan. 12 2015 11:55 AM

Space Suite

Via Universe Today, I saw this sweet little video by visual effects artist Lucas Green: “Space Suite”. He took NASA images from Cassini, Hubble, and more, applied a few simple 3-D tricks to them, and created something pretty dang amazing.

He gives details on his blog on how he created the effects.

It’s all really cool, but I was particularly impressed with how he animated the hexagonal wind system at Saturn’s north pole. The shape seems totally counterintuitive, but it’s a natural outcome of how fluids move in a rotating system. The images we have of the hex are incredible, but seeing it move so naturally and gracefully in Green’s video really brings it to life.

At 0:40, you’re not seeing a Dalmatian up close: That’s the surface of Iapetus, a weird,walnut-shaped moon of Saturn (the video opens moving past this moon, too). Right after that is a shot flying over the central mountain in our own Moon’s Tycho crater. I smiled when I saw that; the tilt-shift effect used makes it pop out of the screen, but also makes it look like a kid’s model … and that mountain is more than 2 kilometers tall!

Then there’s lightning in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a flyby of the Sombrero galaxy, geysers on Enceladus, and more. It’s stunning.

“Space Suite” is a demo, a proof of concept for a longer project Green is doing. After getting a taste of what he can do, I’m very much looking forward to the completed work!

P.S. The music is "Nero," from the group Two Steps From Hell, which creates epic movie trailer music. I really like their stuff, too.

Jan. 12 2015 7:30 AM

Kablam! The Newest Crater on Mars.

Meet the newest (as far as we know) impact crater on Mars.

That shot, taken by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows a fresh crater about 10 meters across on the surface of the Red Planet. You can tell it’s new by the crispness of the ejected darker material around it; in older craters that gets eroded by wind, erased slowly over the centuries.

Also, it helps that we have a camera that takes pictures of the surface all the time, so we can literally get before-and-after shots:

before and after
Then you don't see it, now you do.

Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

That picture was taken by the Mars Context Camera on board MRO; it sees much wider swaths of the planet, providing context for the much narrower HiRISE shots. It also looks for changes in the landscape, generally due to weather and other natural forces … like, say, small asteroid impacts. The before picture is from February 2012, and the after from June 2014. That means when the second image was taken, the crater was at most 28 months old. Fresh indeed!

Update, Jan. 12, 2015, at 15:30 UTC: To be perfectly clear, this is very likely to be the youngest crater of decent size on Mars. There are other craters on Mars that are also quite new; one appeared in an image from May 2012, so it's likely to be older, and another apparently was created by an impact on March 27, 2012, so again it's likely to be older. 

On Earth, you don’t usually get craters this size; our atmosphere slows and stops smaller rocks from space. The air on Mars is less than 1 percent the thickness of ours at the surface, so smaller rocks get through.

The impactor apparently came in from the west (left). It dug a hole big enough to excavate material under the surface, which appears much darker. You can see the characteristic splatter pattern of chunks thrown out, dripping debris down in long plumes, too. This is pretty amazing; we don’t usually see this so cleanly in new craters!

wider shot
A wider shot from HiRISE shows the debris that splashed out.

Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The streak is interesting, too. [Rampant speculation follows.] I wonder if that’s from the shock wave as the rock slammed through the air. The rock would’ve been moving hypersonically, far faster than the speed of sound, so it would generate a shock wave, compressing the air in front of it violently. The rock hit first, then the shock wave thundered down. If I’m seeing this correctly, material blown up by the impact would have blown upward, and then the air moving above and to the left of the impact site would’ve been like a wall, blocking that debris from falling to the left. The material moving to the left would have fallen around the column of air, leaving that streak.

This may seem like just gee-whiz stuff, data like this is important. For one, impacts at interplanetary speeds are really hard to replicate in the lab, and the physics of hypersonic impacts is incredibly complicated. This is a nice in situ experiment for us to study.

For another, we’ve seen a lot of new craters on Mars, and this gives us a rate for impacts, something, oddly enough, astronomers and others who wish to prevent similar asteroid impacts on Earth are interested in.

I suspect it also piques folks who are trying to figure out the ages of surface features on Mars; by watching this new crater over time, we’ll get an idea of how long it takes the various bits of it to fade.

For me personally, this is a reminder. When I was a little kid, we didn’t know much about Mars. Then we started sending probes there, and they returned pictures of a dry, dead planet, frozen in time. But that’s not true at all; Mars is a dynamic world, and that only becomes apparent when we go there and stay there. Change takes time, so we must spend the time to see it.

Jan. 11 2015 7:30 AM

Deeeeeep Thinking With Hank and John Green

This coming Thursday is the premier of Crash Course Astronomy, where, over the course of 40+ short YouTube videos, I’ll be waxing prosaic about all sorts of cosmic thinkery.

I have a syllabus I’m working from for the show, which I put together along with the help of a team of folks (including my dear friend and all-around astronomy wonder Michelle Thaller). The very last few episodes will be dealing with some Very Big Concepts: The evolution and eventual future of the Universe itself.

It’s something I’ve read a lot about and thought a lot about, especially when I wrote the final chapter of my book Death From the Skies! There’s so much content in this idea that I had to leave a lot of stuff out of the book, and I have some notes to myself about what I want to put into Crash Course Astronomy.

By coincidence, John and Hank Green just released an episode of their series Crash Course Big History, which deals with this topic as well.

I’ll have stuff to say about a lot of the concepts Hank and John discuss here, including details on things like the last star burning out, the eventual decay of matter, and what happens to black holes after a googol (10100) years (hint: It’s looking dark). It’s not all doom and gloom, though; there are some heartening messages in all this, I think, especially when it comes to living our lives on the teeny tiny human timescale we live in.

Some people find it depressing that the cosmos is so big, and time stretches so deep. But I’m just the opposite: It’s always better to know reality, for one thing, and for another I appreciate the contrast. I’m here now, and that’s pretty good, maybe even good enough.

And the very fact that we can understand such concepts is a pretty nifty development. It’s a big Universe, sure, but we understand a lot of it, too. That says a lot about us.

Jan. 10 2015 11:24 AM

SpaceX Launches Fifth Resupply Mission to ISS

The good news is that this morning, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon capsule on board. It’s headed to the space station, loaded with more than 2.5 tons of supplies.

The not-quite-as-good news is that the attempt to land the first stage booster on a floating barge wasn’t 100 percent successful. It found the barge and was able to land on it but had too high a velocity at touchdown, so it crashed.

I’ll note that a lot of venues are playing up the fact that it was a “failure,” but that’s unfair. A lot of things had to go right for it to do what it did, and it wasn’t expected to work flawlessly. It’s disappointing it didn’t land softly but heartening that so much of the attempt did work. It was too foggy and dark to get footage from the rocket cams on board, but note even that: It found the barge despite those conditions. Pretty amazing.

As for the primary mission, the Dragon is on its way to the ISS and will rendezvous with it in a couple of days. It’s loaded with food and scientific supplies; the SpaceX press kit has more info. Dragon will stay berthed to the ISS for about a month, during which time it will be loaded back up with supplies no longer needed by the astronauts. It’ll undock and, about six hours later, come back down to Earth.

After the Orbital Science Antares rocket explosion late last year, I’m glad to see SpaceX with another success under its belt. The astronauts weren’t in any real danger of running out of food—they have plenty, and the day after the Antares mishap a Russian Soyuz was launched to ISS—but it’s good to see more than one lifeline to space. I’ll be honest: Relying on Russia has always made me nervous, but Putin’s behavior lately, together with other Russian political shenanigans, makes me want to see the American effort redoubled.

Space exploration is important. I’m happy to see another solid American step taken in the right direction.

Jan. 10 2015 7:30 AM

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

I’ve gone something like 10 years without thinking of the song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” … and then it shows up in my life no less than three times in a couple of months. And here’s the weird part: All three of these things are really cool, and one is a correction to something I said that’s wrong.

Prepare to be scintillated:

1) I already mentioned this in an earlier blog post, so let’s get it out of the way: My very talented and funny friends Henry Reich and Zach Weinersmith created a scientifically accurate version of the song for kids and made it into a book and video.

It’s great. Go buy it.

2) In my first book, Bad Astronomy, I have a chapter about why stars appear to twinkle. I introduce the chapter with the first line of the song, crediting the music to Wolfgang Mozart.

Well, it turns out, that’s not true. It’s just one of those legends that gets passed around, eventually becoming self-sustaining (when you look it up online, you get lots of authoritative sites saying it’s true, so it perpetuates). I found this out from no less a light than Ken Jennings, 80-billion-times-Jeopardy! Winner (and, incidentally, host of the weekly Slate news quiz). He has a bit more of the history of the song, too.

I did my research before crediting it to Mozart (and I wrote the book when the Internet was very young, just a handful of electrons in a jar), but I must have found a source that simply repeated the claim. There’s probably some kind of lesson in here.

3) While this isn’t 100 percent technically about stars twinkling, it’s close enough that I will list it here: Once again from my friend Henry Reich, here’s a Minute Physics video about why we think of stars as being, well, star-shaped (that is, with little points instead of being dimensionless dots).

I suspect this idea of tiny imperfections in the lenses in our eyes is only part of the answer, though. I don’t actually see stars as having points, but my vision isn’t perfect (I’m a hair near sighted). But small bright lights do sometimes take on a pointed shape when I see them through scratched windows. This may contribute to the idea.

As an aside, though I imagine the idea of a five-pointed star goes back long before photography, we do see stars having points in a lot of modern photographs, like with Hubble. That’s because many telescopes have two mirrors, with the second one supported by metal strips. Light bends around the strips, creating “diffraction spikes” in many images. I’m not saying that’s why we think of stars as star-shaped, but it’s an interesting thing to know about. And we all need more interesting things in our lives.

Bonus! 4) Finally, after all that, maybe you're wondering just why stars twinkle. Well, maybe this'll help.

Jan. 9 2015 7:30 AM

Worst. Vacation Spots. Ever.

These posters are extremely cool. But there’s no way I’d visit any of these planets.

That poster and two others for the exoplanets Kepler-186f and HD 40307g were created by artist David Delgado and NASA visual strategists Dan Goods and Joby Harris. I love the retro feel to them!

I’ll note that Kepler-16b does orbit a binary star, but the planet is roughly Saturn-sized, so it most likely doesn’t even have a surface to stand on. If it has a big moon, though, that might be a nice place to visit.

HD 40307g is a super-Earth, with a mass eight times our planet’s, so apropos to its poster it most likely will have a higher surface gravity (though its actual size and therefore gravity is not known). Kepler-186f is just a hair bigger than Earth, but again we don’t know its mass. It might have an atmosphere like Venus (sucky to visit) or Mars (breathing-optional vacations tend to be downers).

Perhaps that’s what inspired artist Olly Moss to make a poster for Kepler-61b. He got it about right; that planet has twice the diameter of Earth and is on the inside edge of its star’s habitable zone; it could be a super-Venus, which would make for a short and unpleasant trip.

Mind you, all of these planets are many light-years away, too, so factor that into your plans.

I kinda like Earth. I can work here and vacation here. And it doesn’t take 40,000 years to get here, either, which saves on airfare.

Thanks to my bemohawked friend Bobak Ferdowsi for helping me track the artists down.

Jan. 8 2015 12:30 PM

Crash Course Astronomy Premieres Thursday, Jan. 15!

I am extremely pleased and excited to announce that the online video series I’m doing, Crash Course Astronomy, premieres next Thursday, Jan. 15, one week from today!

The weekly series, done under the auspices of Hank and John Green’s Crash Course educational videos and sponsored by PBS Digital Studios, will cover basic topics in astronomy like motions in the sky, naked-eye observing, the planets, eclipses, stars, galaxies, and the whole Universe (that last one may take more than one episode).

The videos will be available free to watch on YouTube, so you’ll be able to subscribe there. I’ll also embed the new one every week here on the blog, so you’ll be sure to see them. We have more than 40 episodes planned, so get comfy.

Our team has been working really hard on this for some time now, and I’m really proud of what we’ve created. They’re fun and informative, and my hope is that they’ll get you excited about astronomy ... and maybe you'll learn a thing or two as well. I know I sure did while I was writing them.

I love this stuff, I really do, and I can’t wait to start this new way to share the Universe with you! 

Jan. 8 2015 7:00 AM

Battle of the Checkerboard Bulge

I love optical illusions, especially ones where you know what your eyes are telling your brain is wrong, but you can’t seem to get your brain to see that.

The famous Checkerboard Illusion is a great example of this. Look at it: You know it’s an illusion, and you just know those squares are straight—their borderlines all parallel and perpendicular—but you can’t get your dumb brain to ignore your lying eyes.

Cory Albrecht made a great page for this, with a slider bar that shows you the board with and without the dots, so that you can see for yourself the lines are all straight. Even then, the board looks all bulgy. Amazing.

The illusion itself is attributed to Akiyoshi Kitaoka (the creator of what I consider the single greatest illusion of all time), but what causes it?

Sebastiaan Mathôt, writing at the CogSci website, talks about the margins, the distance between the dots and the edges of the similarly-colored squares.* The dots don’t actually touch the border; they’re inset a bit, leaving a margin. He speculates our brains interpret these margins as lines, skewing our perception, changing the apparent angle of intersection of the square borders. Instead of all right angles, some apparently becoming acute, some obtuse.

checkerboard section
A subsection of the board, from the upper right.

Certainly the arrangement of the dots is crucial. At the center the squares seem to bulge outward, and it has two black dots flanking each of its four its vertices. But closer to the edge the lines look slanted, and the dots are arranged differently (black squares have a pair of white dots in opposite corners, and vice-versa). On the left is a 3x3 crop of the upper right part of the board; see how the vertical lines appear to slant left? (It may help to look a bit to the side of the picture to see it, oddly.) The dots are arranged differently there.

This may be a variation of the Hering Illusion, where parallel lines are distorted when placed over lines radiating from a point. If so, it could have something to do with how we perceive distances, since the Hering Illusion relies on perspective based on the vanishing point. Interestingly, this means it could be related to the Moon Illusion, where the Moon looks bigger on the horizon than overhead! It also relies on our brain getting confused about distance.

Obviously, using Albrecht’s slider, you can see the dots are important. But the margins? I’m not sure. I thought of a way to test this: The margins are very thin, thinner than the dots themselves. If I move away from the monitor, at some point I’ll get far enough away that my eyes won’t see the thin margins any more, but I’ll still see the dots. If the illusion vanishes (I see the squares being square) then the margins are important. If not, then it may be due to the dots themselves.

I shrank the image down to make the distances manageable and tried it out. To my surprise, the illusion persisted even when I couldn’t see the margins (about a meter or so away from my monitor). I could still see the dots though.

Hmmm. I backed up farther. At about two meters away the dots blurred too much for me to see them against the squares … and the illusion vanished. This makes me think it’s the dots themselves governing this illusion. Try it!

I think it might have more to do with our brains trying to connect the oppositely colored dots themselves, and getting tricked by the dots around them. But, to be honest, I can’t be sure.

A smaller board makes the illusion stronger.

Interestingly, when I shrank the image down the illusion got far stronger! I placed the shrunken version here; to me, the lines appear far more curved, and I had to hold up a straightedge to them to convince myself the image processing routine I was using (Gimp) didn’t distort the field. Test it for yourself: The lines are still straight. Incredible.

But why? I’m not sure. I suspect it has to do with more of the smaller squares fitting into your central field of view; some illusions depend on where in your field of view things happen. That would be consistent with the idea that when you look at a small section of the board, it’s the surrounding dots that warp the lines. You can see them more easily in the smaller version.

In the end, I don’t think a lot is understood about the specifics of this illusion. That in itself is pretty cool! That means there’s more to learn.

And in the end, this illusion shows us something I’ve said over and over on this blog: Seeing should not be believing! What you see is never really what’s going on; there are a whole series of things going on between your eyes and your brain that distort reality.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I know what I saw”? I always smile ruefully when I hear that. They think they know what they saw. But what may have really happened may be far, far different.

Tip o’ the Necker cube to Cory Albrecht.

*Correction, Jan. 8, 2015: This post originally misspelled the first name of researcher Sebastiaan Mathôt.

Jan. 7 2015 7:00 AM


Yesterday, I posted an amazing Hubble Space Telescope picture. I don’t think it’s too soon to post another shot from Hubble … and I think you’ll agree when you see it, especially after you get an understanding of what you’re seeing.

First, the eye candy: The magnificent Andromeda Galaxy, as seen by Hubble.