The entire universe in blog form

Aug. 16 2014 8:00 AM

My Life as a Comic

Oh, I do get around.

If you’re a comic book fan, you might remember an issue of The All New Atom* where I’m quoted. And were you aware Black Widow, Nick Fury, and I go way back?

Red Sonja
Have you now?

Panel from Red Sonja, by Dynamite Entertainment

And now, it so happens, I’ve had something of a run-in with Red Sonja, too. A little while back, Dynamite Entertainment bought the rights to Red Sonja, and it’s been re-imagined by my pal Gail Simone. I really like Gail, and what she’s done with the character. The inherent sexism in the character’s backstory has been essentially erased, and now she’s smart, bawdy, strong—both physically, morally, and in her depth of thought—and sees a world that can be better. And she’s willing to cut off the head of a demon or two to make sure it happens. Gail is an outspoken supporter of women's and LGBT rights, so this new take on Red Sonja is no surprise for me. I like it.

Red Sonja
Who is this wonderful, wonderful man?

Panel from Red Sonja, by Dynamite Entertainment

The new issue (#11) is a fun story, and I won’t give it away. But it’s worth picking up if only for a familiar character … and Gail says there’s more to come in #12. I will definitely be picking that one up, too.

*Correction, Aug. 16 at 16:00 UTC: ARG! I originally wrote that I was quoted in Ant Man, but it was in The All New Atom. That's my own silly fault: Gail wrote that issue as well, and when I was talking to her about it at a convention last year, I accidentally called it Ant Man. I was embarrassed by that! Now, somehow, the two have become conflated in my head, and apparently I am doomed to make that mistake over and again for the rest of my life. Sorry, Gail!

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Aug. 15 2014 8:00 AM

No, Google Moon Doesn’t Show an Alien Loitering on the Moon

This is Part N in what is apparently a never-ending series of articles that have a title that starts with “No, … .” You can find more in the related posts at the bottom of this post.

Update, Aug. 15, 2014 at 16:30 UTC: ARRRRG! I was soooo close. It turns out this object is actually a bit of dirt or debris that was in the lens of the camera that took it. This was in fact my first thought, but when I saw that the images used in Google Moon were from Clementine, I dismissed that idea, since the cameras used by space probes are very clean. What I didn't know (and didn't see in the Google Moon page) is that they also used Apollo images. The pictures in question were from a mapping camera on Apollo 15 (which is known to have had blemishes in its photos) and the link above explains the whole thing. I leave the blog post below intact so you can see my reasoning, but I also wanted to make sure you all see that I was right for mostly the right reasons, but in the end there was a critical piece of information I didn't have—what camera was used on what mission. My thanks to Mick West on Twitter for notifying me.

A video is making the rounds right now that doesn't-claim-but-still-kinda-claims there’s a picture of a figure standing on the Moon. Some sites use the word "alien."


In the video, YouTube user wowforreeel shows this weird dark shape on the Moon. I made a screen grab of it, and you can see it at the top of this post. Note wowforreeel labels the upper left part of it “Man?” and the lower part “Shadow.”

Right away I can tell that’s wrong. Look at the crater to the left; see how the rim is lit on the upper left, and the lower right is in shadow? That means the sunlight is coming from the lower right, and shadows are cast to the upper left. If this object is real, it’s the part to the lower right, casting the shadow to the upper left. I can see why wowforreeel labeled it that way, though; the “shadow” looks like it’s following the contour of the lunar landscape, as a shadow would.

But it can’t be a shadow, as I pointed out, so that makes me immediately suspicious this figure isn’t real. I don’t think I have to make it particularly clear that I don’t think it’s an alien, or even an alien shadow. Nor is it a statue “thousands of feet high,” as one article doesn't-claim-but-still-kinda-claims.

Moon image
An LRO image of the Moon, with the location of the "alien figure" in the Google Moon map indicated. If you ask me how much more aliens I could see, I'd say none. None more aliens.

Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

In the video wowforreeel is using Google Moon, which itself uses data from the Navy’s old Clementine mission for lunar images from 1994. But I knew we have more recent images, so I went to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter atlas of the Moon. Putting in the given coordinates (27°34'26.35"N 19°36'4.75"W), I quickly found far higher resolution imagery of that spot:

As you can see, nothing is there (note the image is rotated a bit relative to the Google Moon shot). Perhaps the alien got bored standing around since 1994 and walked off. Incidentally, the crater to the left in the Google Moon image is also in the LRO image (cut off at the bottom). It’s roughly 350 meters across—almost four times longer than a football field. The figure is only a little smaller, so if it’s an alien, it’s a tall one. I’ll note the surface around that location is undisturbed—no footprints, tracks, or markings of any kind except dinky craters. If there was something there 10 years ago, and it was removed before LRO got there and took a picture, you’d expect there to be some surface scuffling.

So, to my satisfaction, this establishes the object isn’t real. But then I wondered: Is this something in the Clementine images, or is it something in the way Google Moon stitched the images together?

Clementine Moon image
Clementine images stitched together, showing that same region of the Moon. The arrow points to the location of the anomaly, which is right where the seam between images is.

Photo by NASA/NRL

To check, I went to the NASA Lunar Mapping and Modeling Portal, found the same area … and saw that this “figure” appears very close to where there’s an image discontinuity, where different images taken at different times are connected together to make the bigger map.

That makes me strongly suspect this is not in the original Clementine images but instead is an issue with the way the Google Moon software is stitching pictures together to make the map. I’ve seen that sort of thing before.

So: It’s not in the LRO images, it’s not in the original Clementine images, but it is right where two images are stuck together. That’s good enough for me.

What we’ve got here is a case of what’s called “anomaly hunting”—looking for things that don’t immediately make sense. If you look hard enough, especially in data you don’t fully understand or have experience with, you’ll always find something weird. But it’s a big jump from something weird to something paranormal. I’d say an infinite one.

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Aug. 14 2014 2:00 PM

The Faces of Ultraviolet

I spend a lot of time thinking about how narrowly we see the Universe. Our eyes perceive the narrowest slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, the huge range of flavor lights comes in. Radio waves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays—they make visible light, from blue to red, seem hopelessly parochial.

You don’t need to go far outside what the eye can detect to learn a lot about the world around you. Photographer Thomas Leveritt knew this and decided to find out for himself what he could see.

Using a special filter and camera setup, he went outside in Brooklyn, New York, and took video of people in ultraviolet, using a monitor so they could see themselves as well. The results are amazing, and, I must add, delightful:

The genius part here was giving people sunscreen. The camera detects UV from the Sun that’s reflected off people’s skin; the point of sunscreen is to absorb that UV so it doesn’t even reach the skin. Since no UV is reflected from sunscreen, it appears black in the video, even though in visible light it looks white. It looks like people are smearing crude oil on their faces, which is pretty funny.

Ultraviolet is slightly higher energy than the bluest light we can see. It comes in three varieties: UVA, UVB, and UVC. These go from longest wavelength (lowest energy) to shortest (highest energy). The Sun emits far more UVA than UVB, and not a lot of UVC. That’s good: UVC has enough energy to kill cells. What little the Sun emits is mostly absorbed by the Earth’s air and the ozone layer (which is why we launch space telescopes like Hubble into orbit; they get above Earth’s irritatingly UV-opaque air and can see the higher energy light coming from objects in the Universe).

UVB is absorbed by ozone as well, but some gets through. Some small amounts are beneficial, triggering vitamin D production in the skin. If you get too much, though, it causes sunburn, destroys vitamin A in the skin, and causes cancer.

UVA is less dangerous than UVB but still not great. Long-term exposure can indirectly lead to cancer (creating chemical compounds that are carcinogenic) and destroys collagens in the skin that “age” it.

I contacted Leveritt, and he informed me that he used an AstroDon UVenus filter and a camera with a CMOS detector. Looking that information over, I think he was detecting light around a wavelength of 330–380 nanometers, smack dab in the UVA range.

Hubble’s colourful view of the Universe
When viewed in the UV to the infrared, the Universe is a lot more interesting. This Hubble shot shows galaxies in all their glory. Click to encosmosenate.

Photo by NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

It’s fascinating to see how skin looks different there. Melanin, a pigment in the skin, absorbs ultraviolet light much more than visible, so in the video patches of melanin—freckles!—look very dark. Glass blocks UV light quite well, especially in modern eyeglasses which are coated with a layer specifically designed to protect our eyes from solar UV. In the video it’s obvious that works.

Interestingly, some people’s teeth are very reflective in UV, and others’ weren’t. Plaque, resins in fillings or crowns, food, and enamel all absorb different amounts and colors of UV, probably accounting for those differences, too.

All in all, pretty cool. I’ve seen lots of thermal infrared imagers at various fairs, science demos, and so on, but never a UV one. Part of the problem is a source; bright sunlight works so you can film outdoors, but UV lights and such are expensive. It would be fun to play with a setup like this, looking at different plants, animals, even the night sky. (Venus is a favorite for near-UV astrophotography, because it highlights the planet’s clouds.)

Leveritt is a gifted portrait photographer, and I’m glad he’s getting some attention for this. I suspect manufacturers of sunscreen will be lining up to talk to him once they see this video.

Tip o’ the sunscreen tube cap to Jennifer Ouellette.

Aug. 14 2014 12:07 PM

FANTASTIC Close-Up of a Comet From Rosetta ... and Evidence of a Landslide

The European Space Agency has released close-up images of the comet 67/P Chuyurmov-Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft when it was only 104 kilometers from the nucleus, and they're beauts!

One of two close-up images released today of the comet taken by the Rosetta spacecraft. Click to encomenate.


This was taken through Rosetta’s main OSIRIS camera (a second image, available here, was taken 17 minutes later). Most of the images we’ve seen have been from the navigation camera, and lower resolution—I have a gallery of images from Rosetta in an earlier post. But in this one, wow! There’s a lot to see.

Remember, the comet nucleus has two main parts to it, a large, flattish “body” and a smaller, rounder “head” (it helps to think of it as a rubber ducky shape). They’re connected by a narrow neck, which we knew from earlier images was a bit brighter, more reflective.

In this image, we’re looking along the long axis of the body (bottom), so it looks foreshortened. This angle gives us a good look at the head (top) and neck. The head looks like there’s a sheer cliff there (about a kilometer high), and at the neck you can see brighter material piled up, with boulders and other rubble on top.

I’m going to do something I very rarely do, which is indulge myself in a little speculation. I am not a comet specialist, so I may be way off here. But this is too much fun to resist, and if I’m wrong—and an expert does come out and talk about this—I’ll let you know.

Think about the shape of the comet, and its gravity. If it were just a single, big lump, standing on the surface you’d feel a (very gentle) pull from gravity down, toward the center.

Get your red/green glasses! A 3-D anaglyph was made using two images of the comet, making some of the details in the picture stand out more. The looming cliff is far more obvious here, as is the rubble in the neck region. Click to embiggen.


But it’s not simple; it has two such lumps. If they were the same size and the same shape, then if you were in between them you’d feel an equal pull from each, in opposite directions. There would be less gravity at that spot. As you moved closer to one lump or the other, you’d feel a gradually increasing pull from gravity from that lump. Making things worse, the body lump is bigger, so it actually has more gravity. Just walking around the comet nucleus would be quite a bizarre trip, with your weight constantly changing.

Also, comets are fragile. They’re made of rock and gravel and dust help together by ice, and very weakly by their own gravity. They suffer small collisions over billions of years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re riddled with cracks throughout. 67/P orbits the Sun on an ellipse, and when it gets closer some of that ice turns into a gas and escapes (we’re already seeing that happening now, in fact).

comet LINEAR
In 2006, Hubble caught Comet LINEAR disintegrating as it approached the Sun. This is a much larger and more catastrophic event than calving, but they're related.

Photo by NASA,ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI)

We sometimes see an event in comets called “calving,” where a large chunk of the solid nucleus separates off and flies away into space, together with debris. I wonder very much if we’re seeing the aftermath of such an event here.

I’d guess that ice warmed up, turned into gas, and leaked out through a crack in the head. When enough escaped, the rock was weakened, and the pressure exerted by the gas sheared off a huge chunk. That may have flown off into space, but the weird gravity of the region pulled some the debris into the neck region in a massive landslide, where it piled up.

The surface gravity on the comet is less than a thousandth that of Earth. Friction would play a large role, which is why I suspect the stuff piled up in the neck. Debris might want to flow onto one of the lobes or the other, but the pull of gravity is so weak, and the resistance due to friction so high, that flow was restricted.

Again, I’m guessing here, so don’t take this to heart. But images like this one are exactly what scientists wait their whole lives to see. Examining them is fun, and speculating is the start of inquiry.

But it’s not the end. Without more evidence, speculation is just that: a wild guess. But the beauty here is that we’ll be getting far, far more data from Rosetta. It’ll orbit the comet for more than a year, and will deploy the Philae lander in November. We’ll be getting a lot more images—some from a mere few kilometers away!—and eyes on the ground as well. I may be speculating now, but I have to hope that in a few months, we’ll know.

Aug. 14 2014 8:00 AM

New Research Links Extreme Weather to Global Warming

If you live in some parts of the Northeast United States,* you just experienced two months’ worth of summer rain falling in less than a single day.

Of course, if you do live in the swath of the country from Detroit to New York and down into the mid-Atlantic states, you hardly need me to tell you that. Look out the window. But what you might want to know is that the deluge you’re getting may be due to climate change.

Tying extreme weather to climate change is tricky. It’s not so much “this event was due to the Earth warming, which is disrupting the climate” as it is “statistically speaking, we’re seeing more extreme weather events, getting even more extreme over time”. Think of it as playing craps with ever-so-slightly loaded dice. You can’t be sure that snake eyes you threw was due to the dice being weighted, but over time you’ll see a lot more of them than you’d expect, statistically, from fair dice.

We’re throwing an awful lot of meteorological snake eyes lately.

A paper just came out by a team of climatologists possibly linking global warming to these extreme weather events. It’s based on an idea that’s been around a while, but hadn't been verified. Now we’re seeing evidence for it.

The key to this is what’s called a “blocking pattern”, where a high-pressure system becomes immobile, squatting over a specific spot. Under the high-pressure spot, this can bring long, grueling heat waves that don’t go away for days or weeks. On the edges it can bring a deluge of rain, as moist air from the south is brought up to meet colder air coming down from the north. That’s what Detroit and New York just went through.

These blocking patterns are themselves associated with the jet stream, the constant flow of air about 10 kilometers above sea level at latitudes between 30° and 60°. Sometimes the flow weakens, and the winds can dip down into more southern latitudes. These meanders (sometimes mistakenly called the “polar vortex”) depend on a lot of factors, but the new research just published indicates they may be due to the Arctic warming up. The physics is complicated — fluid dynamics is amazingly subtle and complex — but the research indicates a warming Arctic can create and amplify the conditions that lead to jet stream excursions, and therefore blocking patterns.

Alaska heat wave
In 2013, a blocking pattern squatted over Alaska, causing record breaking heat for the largest state.

Photo by Jesse Allen and Jeff Schmatltz, using data from theLand Processes Distributed Active Archive Center(LPDAAC) and theLANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.

It was a blocking pattern that led to a phenomenal heat wave in Alaska in 2013, to the floods in the Northeast, and to the unbelievable rain we saw here in my home town of Boulder last year; we got over 30 cm in just a day or two. A normally quiet creek near my house became a raging torrent:

During the Alaska heat wave, I mentioned that there were some scientists wondering if this were tied to global warming and climate change (similar thoughts happened after the Boulder flood as well), and of course the usual suspects came in and raised the zombies of denial.

This new paper supports what I was saying. Again, we can’t always point to any one event and say “global warming caused (or amplified) this — though sometimes we can. But as our planet heats up, as ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland slides away, as California continues to suffer its most apocalyptic drought on record, pointing a finger at such things will get easier and easier.

Tip o’ the brolly to The Guardian.

*Correction, Aug. 14, 2014 at 14:15 UTC: I originally wrote the Northeast U.S., but of course only some parts got the torrential rain, like Islip, New York. I apologize for using imprecise language there.

Aug. 13 2014 12:14 PM

Reminder: Humans Can Do Wonders

Just a reminder: Humans have a spacecraft tailing a 4-billion-year-old comet more than 400 million kilometers away and moving at nearly 16 km/sec, all the while taking pictures, sampling material blown out of the primordial snowball's guts, and generally just being awesome.

You're welcome.

Aug. 13 2014 8:00 AM

Prepping for a Cometary Martian Encounter

On Oct. 19, 2014, Mars is going to get a very close encounter with a comet. On that date—at 18:21 UTC to be precise—C/2013 A1, also known as comet Siding Spring, will pass an incredible 132,000 kilometers (82,000 miles) from Mars. That’s a planetary squeaker, a near miss that, on a cosmic scale, is the thinnest of razor slices.

It’ll definitely miss the Red Planet; we know that for sure. But comets aren’t asteroids; if an asteroid misses, it misses. A comet, though, is a collection of rock, gravel, and dust held together by a variety of ices, and as the comet approaches the Sun that ice sublimates, turns directly into a gas. As that happens other debris dislodges from the comet, forming the fuzzy head and long, sweeping tail. All this debris together can be thousands of kilometers across or more.

So a miss by the relatively small solid nucleus of the comet is good, but the debris cloud may still pose a threat. Right now, Siding Spring isn’t terribly active—it’s spewing out roughly 50 liters of water ice per second, along with dust and probably larger (millimeter sized?) grains of rock. The bulk of this detritus is likely to miss the planet as well, but even if the edge of it skims Mars, it could put some of our robotic assets there at risk.

To minimize the risk, NASA has adjusted the orbits of its Martian orbiters so that they will be on the other side of the planet, protected by its bulk, when the incoming threat from the comet’s dust is predicted to be at its peak. Mars Odyssey orbiter adjusted its orbit on Aug. 5, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter made a similar maneuver on July 2. Planners with ESA are looking into what to do with Mars Express to ensure its safety.

What about the rovers and landers? They should be pretty safe; Mars has an atmosphere, though thin, and it should prevent the small bits of cosmic junk from impacting the ground. Larger bits are more rare, and it’s unlikely that, if there are impacts, anything that big will hit anywhere near the rovers. I’d love to see a few smaller impacts close enough to observe with Curiosity, say, but far enough to be safe! That would be fascinating.

I’ll note there are a couple of probes on the way to Mars (MAVEN and MOM). MAVEN arrives just before the comet does, and controllers will adjust its orbit to avoid debris. I poked around, but it’s unclear to me what controllers plan to do with MOM.

My pal Karl Battams has more details on this at the Planetary Society blog, and JPL has a part of its site dedicated to the cometary encounter. This will be something to keep our eyes on for sure.

Aug. 12 2014 12:00 PM

Still Life, With Bird

While walking Canes Major and Minor (the same walk where this happened), my wife and I were circumnavigating a lake when I saw a cormorant sitting on a branch sticking out into the water. I love birds, and I thought it would make a nice shot.

Another ho-hum day in Boulder, Colo. Click to enphalacrocoracidaenate.

Photo by Phil Plait

Well, that came out a lot better than I expected! The cormorant is tough to see, so click that to get the high-res version. I like how the lake was so still you can see the reflection of the bird, and of course the magnificent Boulder icons of the Flatirons looming in the background.

Hard to believe I took that with my iPhone 4S!

Aug. 12 2014 8:00 AM

Three Congressmen Are Using Red Tape to Bind SpaceX to Earth

Hey, remember Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the guy who threw needless layers of bureaucracy at SpaceX because the private space company was doing its job of launching rockets into space a little too well? Well, it looks like he’s being joined by gentlemen from the other side of the Capitol: Three congressmen are trying to do the same thing.

Here’s the deal: SpaceX, as you may know, is making good on its promise to make access to space cheaper and more reliable. Their Falcon 9 rocket is putting payloads into orbit for less money than the big government contractors charge.

As one might expect, government officials who have such contractors in their own districts and states are unhappy with this. And apparently some are willing to smear SpaceX as retribution.

Three House members—Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.)—have sent a memo to NASA demanding that the agency investigate what they call “an epidemic of anomalies” with SpaceX missions.

This is ridiculous for many reasons. For example, the congressmen say that SpaceX should be accountable to the American taxpayer, but in fact as a contractor the rules are different for them than they would be if NASA themselves built the rockets, just as the rules are for Boeing or any other contractor. In fact, as reported by Space News, NASA didn’t actually pay for the development of the Falcon 9; Elon Musk did.

Another reason this is silly is that every rocket ever made has undergone problems; they are fiendishly complex machines and no design has ever gotten from the drafting board to the launch pad without issues. Sure, SpaceX has experienced launch delays and other problems, but the critical thing to remember is that those problems are noted, assessed, and fixed … sometimes within hours or minutes. I remember a LIDAR issue in 2012 that prevented a SpaceX Dragon capsule from berthing to the ISS; the issue was examined and fixed so rapidly I was stunned. “Anomalies” are inevitable; what’s important is if the lessons were learned, and the mission was successful. If SpaceX were suffering more than the usual number of problems that would be worth investigating, but that's not the case here.

The congressmen’s complaint that SpaceX is behind schedule smells like a red herring to me as well; every new rocket has suffered delays. Of course, NASA’s Space Launch System—a next generation rocket that is supposed to replace the Shuttle—is suffering delays of its own. Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of SLS. And it’s clear SpaceX is catching up, and is set to leapfrog ahead with new tech, like the Dragon V2 and the Falcon Heavy (the latter is due for its first launch next year—compare that with SLS, which won’t have its first test launch until at least 2017, and a crewed launch in 2021).

That’s why this whole thing looks to me to be a transparent attempt from members of our Congress to hinder a privately owned company that threatens their own interests. I’ll note that Boeing (the major SLS contractor) has a big plant in Alabama, Brooks’ (and Shelby’s) home state, and United Launch Alliance has its HQ in Colorado, home to Gardner and Coffman (it’s even in Coffman’s district). This sounds more like they’re trying to protect their own turf more than honestly wanting transparency from SpaceX.

What’s ironic is I write this not long after a successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch. In fact, that launch was delayed just before it went up due to a problem in the first stage hydraulics. The important bit? The folks at SpaceX quickly resolved the issue and were able to get the rocket launched just hours later.

So yeah, I guess Brooks, Coffman, and Gardner would call this problem an “anomaly” … even though the launch was successful, the Falcon 9 successfully took its payload into space, and successfully deployed it into a geosynchronous orbit.

If there’s any anomaly here, it’s why a few people in Congress seem so hell-bent on throwing roadblocks in the way of private businesses that can revolutionize our access to space. Is Orbital Sciences next, or Sierra Nevada and other smaller, more flexible companies poised to start launching payloads into orbit? How long will these Congress critters be an impediment to the future?

Per exasperation ad astra.

Aug. 11 2014 12:15 PM

Also, This

Hey, why should Italy have all the fun?

I can see mi casa from here.

Photo by NASA