Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

July 20 2015 11:28 AM

Reboot the Suit!

Every now and again I get involved in a project I’m truly, deeply excited about, and honored to be a part of. This is one of those times.

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum needs your help for a fantastic project. It needs to conserve and preserve one of the greatest icons in American History:

Neil Armstrong’s Apollo spacesuit.

This is the spacesuit he wore when he made that one small step, forever dividing history into two eras: one where humans had not yet set foot on another world, and one where we forevermore became a spacefaring species.

Monday—on the 46th anniversary of that first Moon landing—Smithsonian has announced a project to help raise the funds needed to preserve the suit, and they asked me to be a part of it. We made a video introduction to the project:

You can read more about all this at the Air and Space Museum's blog

The Kickstarter page has details on the different avenues that will be taken to conserve the suit, and also has the long list of rewards you’ll receive at various pledge levels … including access to files that will allow you to make a 3-D printout of the suit after it’s been digitized in high resolution!

The scale of this kind of project means it doesn’t come cheap. It’ll take $500,000 to fund it. But an artifact this important, this iconic, needs to be taken care of, and if this gets funded, the experts at the Air and Space Museum will do so with professionalism, care, and love.

We are just passing through history. This:

Armstrpong spacesuit
The first spacesuit on the Moon.

Photo by Phil Plait, with permission of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

This is history.

I was overwhelmed to be invited into the back corridors of the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to see the spacesuit for myself (I have bigger versions of the pictures you see here, plus a few more, in an album on Flickr). I walked past workbenches and open areas with priceless treasures—the wheels from the Spirit of St. Louis, a snuffbox given to passengers who flew on the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloons, and the original Enterprise model from Star Trek (!!!)—and was able to stand next to and peer into Cmdr. Armstrong’s suit.

It was, quite simply, one of the high points in my life. To be able to see it up close, to talk to its caretakers, see how they work with it and other priceless historical items … it was profoundly moving.

Armstrong spacesuit patches
To stand over this suit and see the actual mission and NASA patches was thrilling. Thrilling.

Photo by Phil Plait, with permission of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

This suit, with its human inside it, walked on the Moon. For 2½ hours, the suit traversed the lunar surface, allowing Armstrong to breathe and survive in one of the harshest possible environments. Along with Buzz Aldrin he set up scientific instruments, took pictures, and collected precious samples of the regolith and rocks around the landing site.

I’ve met some of the Apollo astronauts, and looked at other Apollo suits in museums. But this one? It was the first. The very first.

As Americans, as human beings of Planet Earth, it is more than our responsibility to maintain that spacesuit. It’s our duty. That’s why I jumped at the chance to participate in this project, and why I’m asking for your help.

If you have ever watched the footage of Armstrong stepping on the Moon, if you ever thought in awe of the grand adventure of traveling the 400,000-kilometer gulf separating it from our planet, if you ever gazed up at the Moon in the sky and wondered what it would be like to go there, and when we’ll be heading back again, then please, throw a little bit of money at this project.

My own dream is that, in a generation or two, a little boy or girl will be taking his or her first trip to the Air and Space Museum and will see that suit. It will make her wonder about her own history, and where the future will take her. And when she goes back home, back to the colony in Mare Tranquillitatis, she’ll look back toward Earth, and past it to Mars, to the asteroids, and to the stars.

But it starts here. Please help us Reboot the Suit.

I don’t ask this for much, but I will now: Please share this post and the Kickstarter link on any and all social media, and when you do, use the hashtag #RebootThe Suit. Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum has a broad presence on social media as well.

Thank you.

Phil Plait and Armstrong's suit

Photo by Phil Plait, with permission of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

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July 20 2015 7:00 AM

Venus, Jupiter, the Moon, and the Heart of the Lion

I was perusing Twitter on Saturday and someone mentioned that Venus and the Moon would be close together in the sky that night. I checked my Sky Safari software, and sure enough they’d be about 1° apart at sunset for me. Given that the Moon’s width on the sky is about 0.5°, that’s a nice, tight pairing.

I also knew that Jupiter was still nearby, slowly separating from Venus after their very close encounter a couple of weeks ago (which I only caught glimpses of through thick clouds here after sunset EVERY SINGLE DAY in Colorado, grrrr). Once the Sun set I was outside snapping away. I took about 150 photos, and one really stuck out for me:

July 19 2015 7:30 AM

The Two Tails of Comet Pan-STARRS

I somehow didn’t hear anything about the comet C/2014 Q1 (Pan-STARRS), which isn’t to surprising: It never got bright to Northern Hemisphere observers. The comet’s orbit kept it mostly in the Southern Hemisphere’s skies, and it only recently got brighter once it swept past the Sun in its orbit.

But if you do live south of the equator, it’s putting on a decent show. It’s still naked eye visible, and is close enough to the Moon in the sky to make for a pretty airing … as astrophotographer Yuri Beletsky proves with this astonishingly lovely shot:

July 18 2015 7:30 AM

What’s in Store for the Doctor in Season 9?

As you might know, I’m a pretty big Doctor Who fan (as in OHMYGODILOVETHISSHOW), and I’m really looking forward to the next season. While the most recent season had some issues (arg, “Kill the Moon”) there were several great episodes, and tons of lovely scenes. The next and ninth season premiers Sept. 19.

I was at Comic-Con last week and attended a press “round table” with the Doctor Who stars and showrunner Steven Moffat, which was both fun and interesting. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, here’s the trailer for Season 9!

Note: Spoilers ahoy, from here on out. Nothing major, but if you haven’t yet seen Season 8 or don’t want to know anything at all about next season, I suggest leaving here and finding something else to watch.

Well, that was quite a lot! I’m not sure which part was most intriguing, though Peter Capaldi playing guitar is high on my list (he used to be in a punk band with Craig Ferguson).

The trailer was played at the huge Comic-Con Doctor Who panel in Hall H (which seats more than 6,500 people), and the big reveal of Maisie Williams (from Game of Thrones) got a huge cheer. What’s her role here? I can’t help but wonder if (AGAIN, SPOILERS) she’s his granddaughter, Susan. She was his very first companion when the show started in the 1960s and was mentioned off-handedly in an earlier episode of the new reboot. During the press event (before the panel, and before we had seen the trailer) I asked about his granddaughter, and Moffat mentioned the Doctor would like to see her again. Hmmm.

Doctor Who panel
The cast (Capaldi, Coleman, Gomez) pose after the panel while moderator Chris Hardwick photobombs.

Photo by Phil Plait

There’s obviously a creepy element to some of the episodes, as you’d expect from Moffat (who wrote “Blink,” “Empty Child,” and “The Doctor Dances,” very creepy episodes indeed). Moffat said that this season, “There are scarier monsters. They’re more ‘creatures from the id,’ from the subconscious. They play with the way the Doctor sees the world. As the season unfolds, there are stranger creatures … the Universe is very dark; inevitably that’s where the Doctor will end up.” I like the sound of that; whenever we see the Doctor himself screwed with, the episodes get more compelling. Io9 has an article looking a bit deeper into some of this

But what about the Doctor and Clara?

According to the actors, their relationship deepens. Jenna Coleman, who plays Clara, had this to say: “Clara has lost ties with Earth, her perspective has changed, she wants to travel, have fun … these will be the glory days of Clara and the Doctor. She’ll be more reckless … she has nothing to lose, seemingly.”

Peter Capaldi added, “The Doctor is deeply, deeply bonded with Clara. He sees things and understands things that are beyond the perspective of human beings. He knows things about Clara’s future that’s informed his decision to stay with her.” She’ll also teach the Doctor more about what it means to be human, and how to interact with them.

Peter Capaldi
Capaldi ponders a question during the panel. Getting a good look at him during the press round, I felt his eyebrows seemed quite human. I think he uses stunt eyebrows for the show.

Photo by Phil Plait

Will Clara leave the Doctor any time soon? “Clara loves the Doctor so much I don’t know what it would take to leave,” Coleman said. “[Traveling with him] opens your eyes to the Universe.”

I try to avoid getting spoilers of any kind, so I was surprised to see Michelle Gomez there; she plays Missie, the latest incarnation of The Master. Apparently she wasn’t quite as disintegrated as we were led to believe at the end of Season 8.

Gomez and Moffat talked quite a bit about the Doctor and Missie being two sides of the same coin, being friends. “They’re not enemies at all,” Moffat said. “It’s a friendship between a vegetarian and hunter.”

“She has an attitude that the rules don’t apply to her,” Gomez said. “We both do the same thing. We both kill a lot of people. He feels bad about it. I don’t.”

Watching them on the panel, I was impressed by the clear friendship and respect they all have for each other. And it’s clear they love the show: Capaldi showed up on a day he wasn’t filming so he could watch them film one particular scene involving Clara, whomever Williams plays, Vikings, and a spaceship. 

Come on. You’d show up for that too. I have to admit I’m intrigued.

So, two more months until the premier. I think the trailer is all the spoilering I need, so I’ll avoid any more news … but it did what it’s supposed to do, and got me excited for the oncoming episodes.

In the meantime, you might enjoy this nonspoiler and cute video by Kat Robichaud: “Somebody Call the Doctor.”

July 17 2015 2:50 PM

Pluto and Charon Keep Getting WEIRDER

If there’s one thing we always find when we see a solar system object up close for the first time, it’s something surprising. Or somethings. Or lots and lots of somethings.

New images and data were released Friday from the New Horizons probe, now well past Pluto and its system of moons. We’re still getting these sent back from 5 billion kilometers away as a trickle, but what’s being seen so far is, well, amazing. As the mission’s top dog, Alan Stern, said today at the press conference, “I may be a little biased, but I think the solar system saved the best for last.”

An image released yesterday of Pluto’s moon Charon has a feature so bizarre a lot of people are scratching their heads over it. Check this out:

July 17 2015 7:00 AM

Crash Course Astronomy: How Far Is Far?

Astronomy is weird. Everything we study is really, really far away. So far away really, that for most of history we didn’t know how far away they were. It was impossible to measure.

But then some Greeks decided to figure out how big the Earth is, and then how far away the Moon is, and the Sun, and before you know it (well, a few thousand years later) we’re measuring the distances to objects clear across the known Universe!

How? I’m glad I asked … because now I can answer, in this week’s episode of Crash Course Astronomy!

It’s always a good day when I can squeeze in a Fonzie reference. And poke fun at Star Wars.

I really enjoyed writing this and the past few episodes, because they lay the groundwork we’ll need for all the rest. Using what we know about light and about distances, the Universe unfolds before us. In the episodes coming up, we’ll leave the solar system behind and start to examine the cosmos around us.

Starting next week, we’ll be taking a Very Big Leap. Get ready, there’s a whole Universe we’ll be exploring from here.

July 16 2015 7:00 AM

Map of the Stars’ Homes

Gaia is a European Space Agency satellite, a flying saucer–shaped observatory designed to measure the positions and velocities of stars with incredible precision. The idea is to build up a 3-D map of a billion stars.

Yes. A billion.

It does this by continuously sweeping the sky, taking supremely precise data for each star that enters its field of view. Over its five year mission, it will seek out and explore, taking about 40 million observations every day!

It also takes a lot of “housekeeping” data, routine measurements used to understand what the spacecraft itself is doing. Since it spins, stars moves across its field of view. It measures their speed, so that engineers back on Earth can keep track of the rate of spacecraft spin and its orientation.

By simply counting the number of stars moving across its vision, and knowing their positions in the sky, a picture of the sky can be made … but not using images of the stars themselves, but the numbers from the data of how densely they’re dotting the sky. Behold:

July 15 2015 4:15 PM


Today, for the first time, we have received our first looks at Pluto and its moon Charon up close! And the pictures are truly amazing.

First, here’s Charon.

Wow! Charon is 1,207 kilometers (750 miles) in diameter, to give you a sense of scale. That’s roughly the distance from New York City to Atlanta.

The dark region at the north is nicknamed Mordor. If you look closely, there are craters in it that are bright. This means the dark coating is a thin veneer, thin enough that small impacts go right through it to the brighter material beneath.

Scientists have already speculated that the dark region may be a deposit of ice leaked from Pluto’s atmosphere very slowly over time. Pluto’s atmosphere is incredibly thin, but due to its low gravity the atmosphere there is pretty puffy, and easily lost at the top to flow over to Charon.

July 15 2015 11:59 AM

Pluto: From Hubble to New Horizons

In 2010, a map of Pluto’s surface was created using multiple images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. For half a decade, they were the best images of the world we had.

But that’s all changed. The folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute put together a nifty animated GIF showing just how much better the best got on Tuesday:


Very cool. And remember, the New Horizons shot is from before the closest approach! We'll be getting much, much higher resolution images soon.

I’ve been getting lots of questions asking why the Hubble images aren’t better. That’s understandable; people see incredible high-res Hubble pictures of planets, galaxies, nebulae … so why not Pluto?

It’s a matter of what’s called angular resolution, the ability to distinguish closely spaced small objects in the sky. For example, your eye has a resolution of about an arcminute, or 1/60th of a degree (where there are 90° from horizon to zenith, and, for comparison, the Moon is 30 arcminutes across).

Hubble has a resolution of very roughly 0.1 arcseconds, where an arcsecond is 1/60th of an arcminute. That means Hubble can see features on an object about 600 times better than your eye can! That’s pretty good.

And usually it’s good enough. We can see individual stars in other galaxies, breathtaking shock waves and ripples in gas clouds, and features speckling other planets.

But Pluto is small, and very far away. It’s only 2,370 kilometers in diameter (smaller than our Moon) and 5 billion km distant! Even Hubble sees it as only a few pixels across. Using sophisticated processing techniques, details can be teased out, but the result is what you see above.

That’s why there’s nothing like actually being there.

Incidentally, even on the closest astronomical object in the sky—the Moon—Hubble can only see objects about as small as a football stadium! I know that seems weird, but it’s true. Seeing the Universe takes some getting used to.

As for Pluto, there is a press conference scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday, and that’s when we’ll finally see a few New Horizons images from the close encounter with Pluto on Tuesday morning. I’m so excited to see them! Stay tuned.

July 15 2015 7:00 AM

Life Imitates Art: Pluto’s Face Predicted in 1979

I talk a lot about how entwined art and science are, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as good an example as this: Space Artist Don Dixon predicted what Pluto looked like back in 1979 … and he nailed it.

Pluto art
Pluto today (left, via New Horizons) and from a painting done in 1979 (right). Wow. Click to enhadesenate.

Photo by Don Dixon, used by permission; Pluto image by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Are you kidding me? That’s the cover he did for the book Out of Darkness: The Planet Pluto, by Clyde Tombaugh and Sir Patrick Moore. Amazing.

And this is more than coincidence! As he writes on his Cosmographica site, the overall look of Pluto is probably modified by ices on its surface sublimating (turning directly into gas) during local summer and redepositing elsewhere on the surface where it’s colder. That means craters and lowlands should have different brightnesses … just as we’ve now seen with New Horizons.

And the color he used may be pretty close, but that’s not coincidence either; we’ve known for some time that methane on the surface would get hit by ultraviolet light from the Sun and turn into more complex organic compounds called tholins, which are reddish. The colors we’re actually seeing so far are more orangey than red, but close enough.

So yeah, he was doing more than guessing. And that’s all well and good, but still. Geez. The similarity is really incredible.

I’m tellin’ ya: art and science. The science informed Dixon’s art, and now his art has hopefully helped inform you. That’s how this stuff works.

Tip o' the easel to my old friend Robert Hurt.