George Hrab Shows You How to Think
George Hrab is many things: a musician, a comedian, a fine dresser, and a very good friend of mine.
He’s also a skeptic, and an excellent storyteller.
Those last two are why I bring him up: He gave a TEDx talk about skepticism recently, and the video is now online. You really need to watch the whole thing; it’s only 24 minutes long, and it’ll fly by. That’s the same length as a standard sitcom, and trust me, it’s way better.
Or don’t trust me. That’s kinda the point.
There’s so much great stuff to take away from this talk, but my favorite is this quote (from the part starting at 12:57): “Every time you look on the Web, every time you receive a piece of email … pretend it’s April 1st.”
If Every. Single. Person. Alive. Would just DO that, then my job load would be cut by 15 percent. Easily.
George’s talk is a tour de force of what it means to think. It should be required viewing in schools around the world.
Update: Whatever WT1190F Was, It Isn’t Any More
This morning, just before 06:20 UTC and right on schedule, a small bit of space junk called WT1190F slammed into Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 40,000 kilometers per hour. The huge pressure generated as it plowed through the air heated it up, broke it to pieces, and it disintegrated.
We’re still not sure what it was, other than it was likely a piece of hardware from an earlier mission to the Moon. But we know for a fact it burned up: We have pictures!
The photo at the top was taken by a joint aircraft mission sponsored by the International Astronomical Center and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency. They were flying over the thick clouds covering the Sri Lanka coast and were able to get some pretty amazing shots of WT1190F as it came in. Here’s a brief video featuring a short animation and some of the photos:
Coooooool. That pretty much removes any doubt it was some human-made object; such things tend to break up and fall as parallel clusters of fireballs (for example, the Cosmos 1315 satellite, the Janice Voss ISS resupply ship, the Albert Einstein, and many others). That can happen with asteroids and other natural detritus, but not often, and it usually doesn’t look quite like this.
The weather prevented anyone from the ground seeing the event, but there are some reports of a loud noise around the same time. Of course, that could be thunder—like I said, the clouds were thick—but it’s possible it was the sonic boom from the debris as it passed through the air at hypersonic speed. I wonder if we’ll ever know …?
Sometimes, you have to be satisfied with not knowing. We may never find out exactly what mission this hardware was from. Science is like that. For every question we answer a hundred more pop up, and sometimes you just never know. The important part in this case is that the object was seen, it was identified in previous observations from years before, and that allowed an accurate orbit to be determined and a time of entry calculated.
Think about that! It was only rediscovered on Oct. 3, yet astronomers were able to pinpoint almost exactly when and where this thing would come down.
That’s astonishing. But then, that’s science.
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Jonathan McDowell.
More about WT1190F from shortly after it was discovered:
Correction, Nov. 13, 2015: I originally incorrectly identified the debris as WT1109F.
Crash Course Astronomy: Gamma-Ray Bursts
Back when I got my Ph.D. in astronomy, I was pretty focused on my own research topic. Still, I grew up loving astronomy, and I never lost the bug to learn about different aspects of it. For my degree I was studying an exploding star and had always been fascinated by apocalyptically huge explosions in space.
Thinking back on those days, I’m surprised I didn’t seem to know that much about gamma-ray bursts. These huge explosions in space are basically genetically designed to hit all my scientific sweet spots: They’re mysterious, they’re ridiculously powerful, everything about them is over the top, and they baffled astronomers for decades.
I’m not sure why I didn’t read much about them then, but that sure changed! They’re one of the most amazing kinds of events the Universe can muster these days. Even better? They’re the topic of this week’s Crash Course Astronomy:
I never did any scientific research on GRBs, but I’ve been involved with them for a while now. When I was working on Hubble I started getting really interested in them; I remember impatiently waiting on the data from observations of GRB 990123 taken by the camera I was working on. As soon as we got them, I pounced, processing them and creating an image of the explosion. I was stunned to see it sitting right on top of an odd, curved-V-shaped galaxy, clearly the host of the burst. Literally at the same time, my colleague Andy Fruchter (who did in fact study GRBs and was in charge of these Hubble observations) was also processing them, and he was the one to make the important announcement that the camera had clearly detected the host galaxy. It was extremely cool to have seen that data right as it came off the ‘scope.
Then, a few years later, I worked on the education and public outreach programs for observatories like Swift, Fermi, and others. These would also play a crucial role in detecting and characterizing GRBs (as I mention in the video).
I wound up writing a whole chapter about GRBs in my book Death From the Skies! In fact, I spent more time on that chapter than any of the others, reading a huge number of research journal papers on how a pulse of high-energy X- and gamma rays from a relatively nearby GRB would affect our atmosphere.
This is a field of ongoing work, and it’s fascinating. The papers I read were all over the place, some predicting very bad things from a nearby GRB, others not so bad (all depending on the distance, of course). True story: The papers that concluded we’d be OK I marked with smiley faces on top, and frownies for the ones where we fared not so well. It was the best way for me to delineate the two stacks.
After reading all that research, the one thing I can be sure about: As tantalizing as these objects are to study, I’m really glad they’re really far away.
The Real Reason for the Coffee Season
So you may have heard of all this nontroversy about the Starbucks annual Christmas cup only being a plain red instead of having actual Christmas decorations.* This is all over social media, so I figured I’d help y’all out with this.
So there you go. I fixed it for you.
And if that’s not enough, then perhaps Stephen Colbert can help you figure out what’s what.
It’s nice to see his move to CBS hasn’t changed him. That was perfect.
Tip o' the white plastic lid to Slate's Lisa Larson-Walker for putting this image together for me so quickly and so perfectly.
Putting the WTF in WT1190F (Bonus: Taurid Meteors!)
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an object discovered in October that’s on an intercept orbit with Earth. The object, which is pretty small, is due to hit us around 06:20 UTC on Friday. That time translates to 01:20 for the U.S. East Coast, or 10:20 p.m. Thursday night for the West Coast.
Not a whole lot has been learned about it since I first wrote the article. We know it’s on a weird orbit that carries it out past the Moon, but it’s definitely bound to Earth; it orbits us. That makes it very likely to be a piece of space junk, maybe a part of a rocket that sent a probe to the Moon. Which one? It’s not clear, though Bill Gray of Project Pluto makes a good case that it’s not from Apollo, and probably isn’t more than a few years old.
Whatever it is, it’s small, no more than a few meters across—we know that from measuring its brightness, and assuming it’s metal. If it’s darker, then it’s bigger, but it’s still pretty small. It’s expected to completely burn up off the southern coast of Sri Lanka, which would make a spectacular light show for any witnesses … except, unfortunately, that’s around noon local time so it may be hard or even impossible to see. If I lived in that area I’d certainly go look though! If you’re there: Face south, and look up.
Still, I wanted to point out a couple of things. One is that the name of the object is unusual; most asteroids are named differently. But this one was found in the Catalina Sky Survey, which has its own internal method of identifying nearby objects, which then get renamed later once they’re confirmed. I don’t think this one had enough time for that. The European Space Agency has a nice post on how it got its name.
The other thing I want to mention is that right now is the peak of the annual Taurid meteor shower, and by all accounts this year is a good one. In fact, lots of fireballs—exceptionally bright meteors—have been reported so far. The Taurids are known for their fireballs, but Mike Hankey at the American Meteor Society says this may be due to a quirk of orbital mechanics; the stream of cometary debris that makes up the shower can be influenced by the gravity of Jupiter, focusing it somewhat. Every 61 years, the prediction goes, there is a “swarm” of Taurids passing Earth, and this year happens to be the peak. The numbers reported so far are impressive and are certainly interesting as far as the prediction goes.
Observing the Taurids is pretty easy: Go outside after dark and look up. Be patient, you may not see anything for a while; it only produces about 10 or so meteors per hour. But given the number of fireballs predicted, it’s worth a shot.
The best time to go out is any time after early evening, maybe 8 p.m. or so local time. It doesn’t really matter which way you face, as long as you have a wide-open sky (with few things blocking it like trees, buildings, clouds, and so on). I prefer to lie down on a chaise lounge with a blanket, even though I generally bundle up. Colorado gets cold. I have a guide to watching meteors showers; it was written specifically for the Perseids in August, but most of the rules apply here too.
If you see any fireballs, report them to the AMS! It helps astronomers keep track of events, and in the end you’re making a small but interesting contribution to science. How cool is that?
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Amara Graps for the Taurids info.
Correction, Nov. 13, 2015: I originally incorrectly identified the debris as WT1109F.
Minute Physics: How to Go to Space
I’m not going to lie to you: I have smart friends, and they are also crazy talented. They inspire me, and it’s no surprise that they inspire each other, too.
Now follow this: Randall has a book coming out in the next couple of weeks called Thing Explainer (preorder it!), where he covers basic science concepts using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. This was an offshoot of his ridiculously popular Up Goer 5 cartoon on Xkcd.
Henry liked it so much he made a video for Minute Physics called How to Go to Space in the same manner. Watch:
Ha! I love it.
And I’m really excited to see Randall’s book, too, especially since <preen>I helped him a little bit with the space section</preen> (Update, Nov. 11, 2015: Bill Gates likes the book, too!). There’s something oddly engaging and dreamlike about the writing; I think there’s a lulling cadence when you’re forced to use only the “ten hundred words people use the most often.” I wouldn’t say it’s poetic, but more proto-poetic; the qualities of poetry are there, but not quite fully formed. It’s a wonderful patois.
And speaking of friends doing things with friends, Henry also partnered with Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, to rewrite “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” making it astronomically correct. It’s great! Henry even sings it.
Free advice for you: Surround yourself with smart, creative, funny people. They make the world better.
No, We’re Not Going to Have 15 Days of Darkness in November
Hey, it’s been a little while since I’ve had to debunk some piece of utter crap on the Internet. It’s like riding a bike though … if you’re riding a bike over an endless road strewn with what comes out of the south end of a north-facing bull.
The latest fertilizer covering the path to enlightenment is the claim that “Earth will experience 15 days of darkness in November.” I’ve heard that the original source of this is the fake news site NewsWatch33, which posts all kinds of nonsense (claiming some stories are true, others “satirical”). Of course, it’s been picked up by lots of other dodgy sites. Then it got on Facebook, which is like an agar dish for such ridiculousness, and from there it’s taken off.
Needless to say, no. No, we won’t have 15 days of darkness in November. No.*
So what’s going on?
According to the claim,
Astronomers from NASA have indicated that the world will remain in complete darkness starting on Sunday, November 15, 2015 at 3 a.m. and will end on Monday, November 30, 2015 at 4:15 p.m. According to officials, the “November Black Out” event will be caused by another astronomical event between Venus and Jupiter.
OK, let’s start there. One big indicator that this is baloney is the lack of time zones listed. Is that UTC, or Eastern U.S. time? Did Venus and Jupiter remember to set their clocks back last week? Do those planets even have a November?
As it happens, Venus and Jupiter are relatively close together in the sky. You can see them in the morning before sunrise in the east. They’re about 18° or so apart on the Nov. 15.
However, they’re not actually close together in space. Jupiter is about 900 million kilometers from Earth at that time, and Venus about 125 million. That’s means they’re 775 million kilometers apart from each other! That’s a bit of a hike.
Also, it’s funny that the claim doesn’t involve Mars, which appears in the sky right in between Venus and Jupiter.
Anyway, exactly how is Venus passing near Jupiter supposed to cause us plunging into darkness?
According to the claim, Venus will heat up Jupiter, causing “a reaction” which will release hydrogen into space, which will then hit the Sun, heating the Sun’s surface, and then—and I can’t believe I’m actually typing this:
The sun will then attempt to cease the explosions by emitting heat from its core. The heat will cause the Sun to dim to a bluish color. Once the sun reaches the bluish color, it will take approximately 14 days to restore its normal surface temperature, returning its normal color to the Red Giant.
OK then. Odd punctuation and grammar usagement aside, well, none of that makes any sense at all.
For one, if Venus could heat Jupiter from that distance, then we’d be in a whole peck o’ trouble, being seven times closer. Brightness drops as distance squared, so we’d get 50 times as much heat from Venus as Jupiter would! If Big J got cooked, we’d be vaporized. We’re still here, so I think we’re OK.
But wait! There’s more!
The Sun isn’t a red giant. It’s not even red. It can’t change to a bluish color without doubling its surface temperature, which would make it much, much brighter, not dimmer—the amount of light a star gives off goes as the temperature to the fourth power, so if the Sun’s temperature doubled, it would become 24 = 16 times as bright. Imagine the Sun 16 times brighter. Now imagine the Earth on fire. Does that sound like 15 days of darkness to you?
Also, the whole thing about the Sun’s core emitting more heat to counteract the surface temperature increase is just word salad. I’ll note that the core is where the Sun’s heat is generated, but it takes hundreds of thousands of years for that heat to get from the core to the surface. So even if any of this claim made any sense at all—and it really, really really doesn’t—then if there were a problem with the surface, it would be our descendants in the year 1 million who would have to deal with it.
I assume there will still be Internet hoaxes around then, too.
The site goes on, talking about NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issuing a “1000 page report” (that seems excessive, even for a government bureaucracy), and more. I don’t think I need to go on.
I wouldn’t bother with folderol like this, but the thing is, some people take hoaxes like this seriously (check the hashtag #NovemberBlackOut if you don’t believe me). They’re not stupid, they just don’t have any familiarity with the science of this. More importantly, most people aren’t taught how to think critically. That does not come naturally to us humans; in fact, just the opposite. People tend to believe things from authority figures, and don’t check the facts.
If we taught people how to ask questions, how to dissect claims, how to examine evidence better, then a lot of these hoaxes would evaporate. Not to mention other bad claims, like those from anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, psychics, climate change deniers, 9/11 truthers, creationists, and many more.
Remember, too, that politicians are people, subject to the same biases and bad thinking as the rest of us. Those folks actually do have real impact, making laws based on nonsense and attacking real science as well.
I’m not worried about 15 days of darkness. I’m worried about the very real threat bad thinking poses to all of us.
*Well, I suppose you could add up all the darkness we have in November, and see what you get. So, 12 hours per day averaged over the planet, times 30 days, which is … let’s see ... holy wow, 15 days! Huh.
Update: Spectacular Photos and Time Lapse of the Trident Missile Launch
Last weekend—on Saturday—a mysterious bright fan of light swept across the sky on the U.S. West Coast. It was seen by perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom, understandably, were pretty flipped out by it.
It was quickly determined to be an unarmed Trident II missile test launched by a submarine in the Pacific. The missile is a three-stage affair; when one stage burns out, a small explosion is triggered, which separates it from the rest of the missile, the next stage ignites, and off it goes again.
Update, Nov 10, 2015: The Navy has released some interesting photos and descriptions of the test.
The staging event is what made a lot of people wonder what the heck they were seeing; once the missile is above most of the atmosphere that gas expands in a ring, and if it’s up high enough, it’s lit by the Sun for all to witness.
My Twitter stream lit up about this as well, and I got a couple of people pointing me to a photographer, Porter Tinsley, who was taking photographs on the shore of the Southern California Salton Sea at the time. She caught the missile at the perfect time and took some fantastic shots of it. Here’s an animation of them; it takes a bit of explaining so see below.
She was facing almost due west for these photos (if you look carefully you can see the star Vega near the top of the shots on the right, and Altair to the left). Since the action is on the horizon, the missile must have been a few hundred kilometers away. I'll note that a Pentagon statement says it was headed toward Kwajalein Atoll in the south Pacific, a usual target. However, in every video I've seen the missile moves left to right; for a viewer facing west that means it was heading in a northerly direction. I'll be curious to see how this is resolved.
From Tinsley's photos it almost looks like the missile explodes, but that’s not real: She was taking short exposures at first, then started taking far longer ones. Jumping from a fraction of a second to 13-second long exposures makes things much brighter!
It looks like she caught the expanding cloud of gas from the staging event not long after it started. I can’t be sure from her pictures, but it almost looks like I can see a faint spiral arm pattern to it. That can happen if the ejected booster starts spinning, blowing out gas. It gives the venting material a water-sprinkler effect, an expanding spiral pattern. This has been seen before in the famous Norway Spiral, the most dramatic example I’ve ever seen.
In the last few frames, to the lower right of the blue cloud, you can also see the orange glow from … well, something. It may be the ejected stage; it appears to have at least one and maybe two faint fans of material coming out of it. The long exposures blur the effect, so it’s hard to say. Still, it’s very cool.
I’ll note that I received hundreds of Twitter responses to this, and some people were arguing about it. Many were questioning whether this was really a missile launch, for example. Yes, it was. I won’t bother delving too deeply into conspiracy theory nonsense; we have plenty of footage of what a missile launch at night looks like once it’s dozens of kilometers off the ground, and this was that.
Other people wonder why they were testing a missile at all. Well, that’s no surprise: This technology is complicated, and it’s a pretty good idea to give it a run-through every now and again. Conditions change, weather changes, the circumstances where you might have to use this missile change, so testing it is sound military thinking. Why they did it when they did, when so many people would see it, is a different question. It may have been a simple matter of logistics; depending on where they have certain assets that can watch the test (radar stations and the like) and report back.
A lot of people were pretty unhappy the Navy didn’t announce it beforehand, but hello. It’s a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. There are bad guys out there, so why give them any notice and make it easier to scrutinize this better?
Look, I’m no fan of war, nuclear or otherwise. You won’t find me beating the drum to march off; I grew up during the Cold War and had nightmares about nuclear annihilation. But those bad guys do exist, and while you might argue over how much we spend, how we spend it, and all that, I do hope we can all agree that we do need to defend ourselves if necessary. I hate that we might have to, but there are lots of things going on in the real world that I’m pretty unhappy about. Better to accept that they exist and figure out what to do about them than pretend they don’t, and find out how big a mistake that was later.
When the Sun Went Medieval on Our Planet
In the years 774 and 993, the Earth was attacked from space.
Not by aliens, but by a natural event—and it was very, very powerful.
Whatever it was, it subtly altered the chemistry of our planet’s atmosphere, creating trace amounts of radioactive elements like chlorine-36, beryllium-10, and carbon-14. And those provide the clue to what the event was: Those isotopes are created when high-energy protons slam into our air. That means the source must have been from space.
These must have been huge waves of subatomic particles that slammed into us on those dates. Spikes in the abundances of those elements were found all over the world, including ice cores from the Arctic and Antarctic, Chinese corals, and more. Generating that many particles isn’t easy, and only extremely violent events can do it.
Several possible sources have been considered. One candidate is that the Earth got caught in the beam from a gamma-ray burst, the mind-crushingly powerful demise of a very high mass star. I wrote about this being the possible cause of the 774 event in an earlier article. However, GRB impacts don’t usually create 10Be due to the detailed physics of the blast, so that makes a GRB as the source shaky. Plus, they’re very rare events, so having two happen in as many centuries is extremely unlikely (I didn’t know about the 993 event when I wrote that article, or else I would’ve been a lot more likely to wonder about other sources).
New research studying the amounts of these radioactive materials in ice cores points to a different culprit, one I wouldn’t have thought possible: the Sun.
The Sun generates ridiculously strong magnetic fields in its interior, and these can store vast amounts of energy. They can release this energy explosively on the surface, creating intense solar flares. Sometimes the loops of magnetism do this far above the Sun’s surface, creating what are called coronal mass ejections. These are less intense (that is, less concentrated bursts of energy) than flares, but far larger and more powerful; think of flares versus CMEs like solar tornadoes versus hurricanes.
You can find out more about these events in the Crash Course Astronomy episode I did on the Sun:
I also have a chapter in my book Death From the Skies! about solar storms and their effects on Earth.
When I wrote about the 774 event on this blog before, I mentioned that a flare or coronal mass ejection was unlikely to be the source due to the amount of energy needed to create these radioactive elements. However, that new research indicates that the Sun is the most likely culprit for this interplanetary assault, and that, in turn, means the Sun can produce more powerful events than we previously thought.
We’ve known for a long time that the Sun is capable of producing huge magnetic explosions. In 2003 it let rip a series of solar storms so powerful that one of them set the record for the biggest flare seen in modern times. And the strongest known was also the very first solar explosion ever seen—called the Carrington Event, after an astronomer who studied it—and happened in 1859. It created aurora as far south as Mexico and Hawaii! Events like that can also create what are called geomagnetically induced currents, or GICs: The Earth’s magnetic field shakes so violently that it induces currents in conductors on the ground. Telegraph operators reported being able to send messages even though the power was disconnected; enough electricity was flowing through the lines to work the devices.
There's more. In 2012 the Sun blew out another blockbuster that was in many ways the equal of the one in 1859, but happily for us it was sent off in another direction, and missed the Earth. Had it hit us, the huge flux of charged particles would have overloaded satellites. Worse, the GIC would’ve caused widespread power failures and blackouts. A much smaller solar storm in 1989 did just that in Quebec.
It’s not clear whether the 774 and 993 events were that powerful or more; it’s hard to scale these things without direct measurements. But the astronomers who did the research estimate the 774 event (the more powerful of the pair) was five times stronger than any solar storm seen in the modern satellite era (starting in 1956) up to 2005.
I’ll admit, that’s scary. Our modern civilization depends on our electronic devices, and those in turn depend on electricity and satellites. A blast hitting the Earth from a storm as big as any of those four historical events would be bad. Very bad. The 1989 power surge blew out huge transformers in North America, and these can take months to replace. Imagine months without electricity, and you start to get an idea of how disastrous this can be.
We don’t know how often the Sun throws a tantrum as large as these, but clearly it’s done so at least four times in the past millennium or so—probably more, since three of them hit the Earth, and we only knew of the fourth due to our space-based astronomical assets. Statistically speaking, most will miss us, so they’re likely more common than we thought.
This is a threat we need to take very seriously. Unfortunately, it’s extremely expensive to mitigate. Our power grid in the U.S. was constructed decades ago when our use of electricity was much lower. It was designed with lots of spare room for more power flowing through it, but over the years our appetite has grown, and the grid is currently very nearly at capacity. Big spikes now can cripple huge areas.
We need to upgrade the grid, add more capacity, more capability to handle surges induced by solar storms. The good news is there are studies being done to see what we can do to prevent widespread blackouts, and NASA is on it as well. We also have eyes on the Sun, including NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, and scientists monitor "space weather" constantly.
By coincidence, just last night I read that the White House is looking into this situation pretty seriously, and I'm very glad to hear it. A monster solar storm may be the biggest and most immediate threat there is from space, but it’s one we can handle if we’re prepared for it.
Mother of Dragon Galleries
The folks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center have released a bunch of really cool photos of (or related to) the SpaceX Dragon capsule. And by “a bunch” I mean more than 300.
One of my favorites is the shot above, taken on Feb. 10, after the capsule had been berthed to the space station for nearly a month (as part of the CRS-5 mission). This picture was taken not long after it had been released, and I love the contrast of the capsule, solar panel “wings” extended, floating over the coast of Oman (specifically, near the port town of Raysut), the mountainous desert ending abruptly at the Arabian Sea.
I recommend clicking through them; they’re pretty. I like this one as well, but then I’m a fan of entrained altocumulus clouds. JSC also put up a gallery of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus resupply ship, too.
I still can’t believe we can get such high-resolution and gorgeous photographs of space at our fingertips. We live in amazing times.
Tip o’ the heat shield to David Jehl.