Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

Aug. 23 2016 9:00 AM

Super Slow-Motion Beauty of SpaceX Rockets

Every now and again, I think, everyone can use a little eye candy. In this case, though, it’s more than that: It’s also hope for the future. Watch this high-speed footage of SpaceX rocket launches and landings, and see what the future looks like now.

So cool.

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The first part shows the launch, booster separation, and landing of the first stage booster from the launch on May 4 of the Japanese communication satellite JCSAT 14 on a Falcon 9 rocket. The odd fireworks display in that section of the video is the interplay between the plumes from the first and second stages as they separated.

The landing of this particular booster was a big deal: Although it was the third successful landing (and the second at sea), it was the first time it was done from a launch designed to put a satellite into a geosynchronous orbit, which is much higher off the Earth than a low orbit, and required a higher than usual velocity. Landing this booster was therefore particularly difficult, and marked a big milestone for the company.

The next landing seen in the video was an even bigger milestone: It was the first successful vertical landing of a Falcon 9 first stage booster, accomplished on Dec. 22, 2015, (it was Dec. 21 Eastern time) for the ORBCOMM-2 launch.

I love that part of the footage. The booster used one of the nine Merlin engines to slow its descent, and you can clearly see the single engine burning while the other eight are dark, the dance of the flames playing over them as its blown back up toward the rocket’s back end.

The final part of the video shows the first stage rocket landing back at Cape Canaveral after launching a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on the CRS 9 mission, launched on July 18. Again, you can see the single engine burning as the booster lowers itself to the pad. The landing legs are folded up during launch, and are deployed on the way back down; you can see the unscorched sections of the booster showing where they were stowed until needed at landing.

Even though the footage is shot in high speed and therefore looks like it’s in slow motion, I suggest playing it back at 0.5 or even 0.25 times the normal speed (on YouTube, click the gear icon on the lower right, then change the speed setting). You can clearly see the play of the flames and the detail of the rocket engines. It’s really astonishing.

SpaceX is getting very, very good at landing the first stage boosters, and has been test-firing them to see how they might perform when reused. This will lower the cost of launch by a large margin, making access to space much cheaper. I’ll add that Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, has made several suborbital launches and landings with the same rocket, and will be soon attempting orbital launches with a next generation rocket. Several other companies (like Sierra Nevada and Boeing) are also on their way to making spacecraft that will eventually be used to carry supplies and people into space.

The future. We are very nearly in it.

Aug. 22 2016 9:00 AM

Global Warming Has Now Made the Northwest Passage a Thing

More than a century ago, explorers dreamed of a Northwest Passage, a route from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic by plying the waterways north of Canada, threading through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, huge icy islands north of the Canadian mainland.* Such a trip was fantastically dangerous and well-nigh impossible, since in the winter and even most of the summer, the waterways were either frozen solid or littered with huge blocks of ice.

Roald Amundsen was the first to successfully make his way through. It took him three years in a small ship starting in 1903, and included getting stuck in ice three times.

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Fast-forward. On Aug. 16—just days ago—a 250-meter-long, 1,070 passenger cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, set sail, and is expected to make its way through the Northwest Passage in just eight days.

How can it do so? Global warming.

Over the past few years, the Arctic has warmed so much that the fabled passage has become a reality. The ice melts so much in the summer that it’s not only possible for ships to make their way through the archipelago, but it may be commercially viable to do so.

To be clear, quite a few ships have made the passage since 2007, the first year the ice had melted enough to make it far easier to cross. But it’s been a struggle, and bigger ships have a more difficult time. On average, every year it gets easier as the ice melts away due to the increased heat in the Earth’s northern regions.

Deniers of global warming will make sidetracking claims, talking about how Antarctic ice is increasing (it isn’t), or other non sequiturs (note: In a massive irony, even the fossil fuel companies funding so much climate change denial accept that the Arctic is melting, and are scrambling for rights to drill for oil there). The reality is that the Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the planet—temperatures in the Arctic have been more than seven degrees Celsius higher than average—and the ice up there is melting so fast that it’s been called a “death spiral.”

And understandably so. Watch:

There are two ways to measure Arctic ice: extent and volume. Volume is obvious enough; it’s literally the volume of ice. Extent is similar to the area covered by ice but is technically defined as the amount of area covered by more than 15 percent ice in a given region. Both have decreased dramatically in the past couple of decades, but the extent is more important for the Northwest Passage. Warmer summers mean the ice doesn’t freeze as much in the winter, so it’s thinner and melts more easily the next summer. That makes getting through with a ship easier.

The record low extent for Arctic ice was in 2012. That was an unusual year; an ice dam collapsed, allowing warmer waters to move north, melting ice far more than normal. Arctic ice hits its minimum extent in September every year, and this year is on course to be among the lowest ever seen.

ice extent
The extent of Arctic ice each month over time. The grqy area shows the average (± two standard deviations; think of it as anything outside this region being statistically significant). The year 2016 is on course to be one of the lowest minimum extents in recorded history.

NSIDC

If you click that graph, you’ll be taken to an interactive version. Click the years to see the ice extent over time. You’ll note that 2012 was indeed the record low, but every year over the past 10 years has been far, far below average.

That’s because of global warming. Experts predict we’ll see our first ice-free Arctic summer around 2040, and given the downward trend of ice extent, that sounds about right. Mind you, this is inevitable; even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, stopped pouring carbon dioxide into our air, the damage is already done. Warming would continue for decades, perhaps centuries, and the Arctic ice will melt. The same is true for Antarctica; the trajectory of warming means that the western glaciers of that continent are almost certainly doomed to melt away no matter what we do now.

It’s not too late to save our planet, though. There are things we can do. Enact a carbon tax, for one. Switch to renewable energy for another, which is completely doable.

And third? Vote science deniers out of office. They inhabit not only the U.S. Congress but also political seats all over the world.

When it comes time to vote, vote. Climate change is important enough to make it a one-issue election, but some people feel that’s not enough to sway them. But really that’s a matter of framing. Chances are those who deny the reality of climate change deny lots of other science, too. When that one issue is reality itself, then damn straight this is a one-issue election.

*Correction, Aug. 22, 2016: I originally wrote the islands were north of Canada, implying (unintentially) that they are not part of Canada, when they actually are.

Aug. 20 2016 9:00 AM

The Day a Cloud Wore a Cheery Hat

I’ve written many times about summer clouds in Colorado; moisture-laden air blows over the Rockies to the west, flowing to the east. The Midwestern plains butt up against the hills, and as the afternoon Sun heats them, warm air rises vigorously and meets the eastward-flowing wave. Within a few dozen kilometers, this creates towering pillars of massive, wet air, punching upward into the sky.

A cumulonimbus cloud is born.

The drama and sheer energy of these storm clouds is terrifying and awe-inspiring. But even in their brute force, a delicate veil can be created.

Aug. 19 2016 9:00 AM

A Cosmic Flower Blooms and Sends Its Seeds Into the Void

NGC 7129 is a fascinating and terribly lovely object. It’s a stellar nursery, a site of active star formation, buried deep within an invisible cloud of very cold molecular gas and dust. Luckily for us, a handful of massive stars were born near the edge of this cloud, carving a blister in its side and exposing their fierce light and beauty to us:

Holy wow! That image is a combination of observations using the giant 10-meter Subaru telescope, the 0.81 meter Schulman Telescope (from my old friend Adam Block), and a 35 cm telescope, all of which were processed by Robert Gendler and Roberto Colombari.

It’s a spectacular photo to be sure, but there’s a lot of science in it, as well as a surprise.

Aug. 18 2016 9:00 AM

So What Exactly Is an “Alien Megastructure”?

Last week, I wrote another article about KIC 8462852, aka Tabby’s Star, which is behaving very oddly indeed. It shows sharp dips in brightness that last for hours, as well as much longer ones that last for days (or longer) that indicate something is blocking a substantial fraction of the star’s light.

The most likely explanation is a cloud of dust with comets or asteroids embedded in it, which can cause the star to dim. However, it’s been maddeningly difficult to explain all the star’s behavior with this natural model. So, ever since its discovery and perhaps a bit sheepishly at first, astronomers have toyed with the idea that maybe what we’re seeing is evidence of an advanced alien civilization.

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To be clear, no one is saying that’s what’s going on. But it’s a cool idea, and worth investigating at least a little. No radio signals have been seen from the star, though, and no other indication of aliens has been found.

Still, it’s fun to think about. The premise is that aliens are building huge panels of some kind around the star in order to capture more of its light to power their civilization (imagine it like the ultimate work of a Little Green Elon Musk). The idea of alien megastructures has been around a while, and has some merit as a thought piece.

Astronomer David Kipping, who studies Tabby’s Star, made a short video explaining all this simply and engagingly. He does a great job summing up what we know:

Kipping studies exoplanets and moons, and he and I agree strongly on this topic. It’s fun, it’s interesting, no astronomer really thinks this is what’s happening for sure, but it’s a compelling idea and well worth looking into. You know, just in case.

For more details and insight into what’s going on with Tabby’s Star, astronomer Jason Wright also made a video diving into the topic more deeply:

Back when all this started I had a long and very engaging conversation with Jason about it, and his take on it is grounded in reality and firmly based on evidence. His conclusion, like all the rest of ours, is that this is a highly intriguing star, its behavior is almost certainly natural, but it’s stimulating and perhaps even rewarding to look into more speculative explanations. They’re unlikely to turn out correct, but they stretch our imaginations and exercise our brains in a way that can be helpful in solving mysteries.

So, as usual, I’m still not saying aliens. But no matter what this turns out to be, it’s wonderful and stimulating, and just good old fashioned fun for a scientist to think about.

More about Tabby's Star:

Aug. 17 2016 9:00 AM

Trump’s VP Mike Pence Wants to Teach That Old Time Religion in Public Schools

I’ve written a word or two about Donald Trump, as you might imagine, but not much on his vice  presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (except to say, unshockingly, that he is a climate change denier).

You know anyone picked by Trump to be his running mate almost certainly will have a problem with established science, of course, but it turns out Pence is also a young Earth creationist. And one with a lot of conviction about it, too. In 2002, while a congressman from Indiana, he gave a short speech on the floor of Congress denying evolution, and used quite a few misleading, if not outright false, claims.

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There’s a lot to debunk here, but let me point out some choice bits.

Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as anything other than a theory. He hoped that some day it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we [emphasis mine].

Oh my, Gov. Pence, yes we have.

But no one is pointing out that the textbooks will need to be changed because the old theory of evolution taught for 77 years in the classrooms of America as fact is suddenly replaced by a new theory, or I hasten to add, I am sure we will be told a new fact.

When we learn new things in science we do generally say, “We’ll have to rewrite the textbooks,” a phrase used so much it’s actually a cliché.

And also it will be taught as fact if it truly is one, because that’s how science works. It grows and learns from new evidence. Don’t you think you should change your mind about a topic when new, contradictory evidence is brought forth?

And now that we have recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask, can we teach it as such and can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?

Evolution is taught as a theory. And also a fact, because it’s both.

As for “other theories,” hang tight a moment.

Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence believed that men and women were created and were endowed by that same Creator with certain unalienable rights. The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female. He created them. And I believe that, Mr. Speaker.

Ah, the old “America is a Christian nation” gambit (and note that many denominations of Christianity have no problem with evolution). But that’s false. And that has nothing to do with whether evolution is true or not. And it is.

Then he said this:

And I also believe that someday scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rationale explanation for the known universe.

Oof. Well, ID is not a theory, it’s just warmed-over creationism, and is now actually illegal to teach in public school because it’s religion, pure and simple. It was made illegal in 2004, two years after this speech, but ID was purposely constructed to be modified creationism since its inception (I'll note that Pence has made similar anti-evolution claims in the years since, too).

I feel that at the very least, a vice presidential candidate should uphold the Constitution, especially the First Amendment.

Not that Trump appears to have any desire to want to, either. That makes them quite the pair. I hope that come November, they can be unemployed together.

Aug. 17 2016 9:00 AM

No, That’s Not a Picture of Antarctica From Space

I’ll make this short and (bitter)sweet: There’s a picture going around social media people claim shows Antarctica from space.

But it’s not; at least not really. It’s actually a visualization of data, a computer-generated image showing the extent of sea ice around Antarctica on Sept. 21, 2005.

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The overall image is a composite from several different Earth-observing satellites, but the sea ice is from the AMSR-E detector on board the Aqua satellite. It uses microwaves to measure the extent of ice floating in the ocean. This was then mapped onto a computer-generated globe of the Earth from Blue Marble Next Generation (using different data from AMSR-E to estimate the ice color). The terrain map is actually from 2004, a year before the ice data were taken.

Perhaps it’s a subtle point. After all, many images from Hubble and other observatories are composites using separate images, sometimes in wavelengths invisible to our eyes! While this case is similar, it isn’t a snapshot taken by some orbiting camera; it’s more like making a map (like ones showing color-coded temperatures) created using various sources and then putting them together in a way that looks very photorealistic.

It's certainly beautiful, and even helpful both scientifically and with getting people to see our planet in a different light. But it's not really a photo of Earth from space.

Perhaps too it’s not a big deal. It’s not a fake, or a hoax, or anything like that. But I do think it’s a good idea to understand the difference between an actual photo and a visualization. Under the assumption they’re real, unreal pictures are commonly passed around social media rapidly and without much critical analysis. I see this a lot (at the bottom of this article is a short list of just a few such widely shared pictures I’ve written about), and I think it’s worth pointing out the difference between the real and the imagined.

I’m not trying to pick on people who do this, either. It’s natural to want to share something beautiful or exciting or awe-inspiring! And I’m glad people do, because images from and of space are beautiful and should inspire us.

But in my opinion, the real Universe is amazing enough without having to make stuff up about it. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between a photo depicting reality and a drawing meant to represent it, and something I wish more people could do.

More articles about fake/hoaxed pictures or illustrations mistaken for reality:

Aug. 16 2016 9:00 AM

March … I Mean April … I Mean May … I Mean June … I mean July 2016 Is the 6th … I Mean 7th… I Mean 8th … I Mean 9th… I Mean 10th Temperature Record-Breaking Month in a Row

N.B. If this article sounds familiar, it should. This has been happening so frequently I just copied the post for March April May June and updated it.

October. November. December. January. February. March. April. May. June. And now July.

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For the sixth seventh eighth ninth 10th month in a row, we’ve had a month that has broken the global high temperature record.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, March April May June July 2016 was the hottest March April May June July on record, going back 136 years. It was a staggering 1.28°C 1.11°C 0.93°C 0.79°C 0.84° C above average across the planet.* The previous March April May June July record, from 2010 2014 2015 2011, was 0.92° 0.87° 0.86° 0.78° 0.74° above average; the new record beats it by a full tenth of a degree.

Welcome to the new normal, and our new world.

Note: NASA has created a short video describing its efforts to measure global warming, specifically pointing out that the first six months of 2016 have all been the hottest months on record of their kind:

As you can see from the map above, much of this incredible heat spike is located in the extreme northern latitudes. That is not good; it’s this region that’s most fragile to heating. Temperatures soaring to 7° or more above normal means more ice melting, a longer melting season, loss of thinner ice, loss of longer-term ice, and most alarmingly the dumping of billions of tons of fresh water into the saltier ocean which can and will disrupt the Earth’s ability to move that heat around.

What’s going on? El Niño might be the obvious culprit, but in fact it’s only contributing a small amount of overall warming to the globe, probably around 0.1° C or so. That’s not nearly enough to account for this. It’s almost certain that even without El Niño we’d be experiencing record heat.

Most likely there is a confluence of events going on to produce this huge spike in temperature—latent heat in the Pacific waters, wind patterns distributing it, and more.

JMA July temperatures
The Japanese Meteorological Agency measured similar temperatures as GISS (though it uses a different baseline for the average). Note the trend. See a "pause"? I don't.

Japanese Meteorological Society

And underlying it all, stoking the fire, is us. Humans. Climate scientists—experts who have devoted their lives to studying and understanding how this all works—agree to an extraordinary degree that humans are responsible for the heating of our planet.

That’s why we’re seeing so many records lately; El Niño might produce a spike, but that spike is sitting on top of an upward trend, the physical manifestation of human induced global warming, driven mostly by our dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

Until our politicians recognize that this is a threat, and a very serious one, things are unlikely to change much. And the way I see it, the only way to get our politicians to recognize that is to change the politicians we have in office.

That’s a new world we need, and one I sincerely hope we make happen.

*GISS uses the temperatures from 1951–1980 to calculate the average. The Japanese Meteorological Agency uses 1981–2010, which gives different anomaly numbers, but the trend remains the same. Realistically, the range GISS uses is better; by 1981 global warming was already causing average temperatures to rise.

You may have noticed that the actual temperature anomaly for each month over March through July appears to be dropping; 1.28 to 1.11 to 0.93 to 0.79 (though this month was bumped up to 0.84°). That may be due to El Niño weakening, but it’s hard to know over such a short time period. Even if the trend continues, I’d bet 2016 will be the hottest year on record.

Aug. 15 2016 9:00 AM

Chemtrails? Nope.

I’ve spent a lot of time debunking silly conspiracy claims in my time. NASA faked the Moon landings, the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world in 2012, a mysterious planet named Nibiru would wipe out life on Earth in 2003, the government created fake snow in Atlanta that wouldn’t melt and scorched when burned … I’ve even debunked government officials who claim other government officials are covering up conspiracies.

So when I say I haven’t bothered debunking chemtrails because they’re too goofy even for me, you can glean how I really feel about them.

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Still, a handful of people are extremely devoted to the idea that the government is spraying us with chemicals from airplanes, and what you think are simple contrails are actually high doses of mind-altering (or climate altering) chemical compounds meant to keep us under control, I mean, come on, wake up sheeple!

Sigh.

In fact, when you see clouds coming from airplanes they really are just the product of condensation of water vapor. But why let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy?

Still, it’s worth trying. That’s why scientists from the University of California–Irvine and the Carnegie Institute got together and researched the topic. They knew they wouldn’t convince the conspiracy theorists, but having a solid source of objective science might help inform the public discourse.

They surveyed hundreds of experts in contrails as well as those who study atmospheric deposition (how various chemicals fall to the ground from the air), presenting them with the evidence provided on various chemtrail websites (mostly in the form of photos of airplane trails and analyses of water and soil samples), asking them to evaluate it.

In the end 77 scientists reported back, and the results were not terribly surprising. Ninety-eight point seven percent (76 out of 77) of the scientists said they had encountered no evidence of a secret large-scale atmospheric program, or SLAP. Everything they saw on the conspiracy websites showed that what they were seeing was the natural consequence of airplanes flying around all on their own without government nefariousness.

Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is the one scientists who dissented. In that case, it’s hardly a smoking gun:

The one participant who answered yes said the evidence s/he had come across was “high levels of atm[ospheric] barium in a remote area with standard ‘low’ soil barium.”

In other words, they found some unusually high amounts of barium, which hardly supports the idea of wide-spread cover-ups of mind control techniques—and it sounds like the scientist in question was simply saying he or she can’t rule SLAP out, which is a far different thing than saying it’s real. When I can’t find my keys in the morning I can’t rule out that dinosaur ghosts hid them from me. It just seems a tad unlikely.

The research is actually rather interesting, and I encourage you to read it. But as the authors note, it won’t make a dent in the conspiracy theories. The first thing you’ll find out when you deal with people like that is that any evidence against them is part of the cover-up. This is what I call a philosophical cul-de-sac; they’ve removed themselves from any possible evidence and criticism, and at that point I’ve learned to walk away. At least to walk away from them specifically; in some cases it’s worth pursuing the discussion with the public because they’re liable to hear about it, and a place to find actual facts and debunking is a handy thing to make available.

Don't panic
Don't push the button, Frank.

Shutterstock/Shay Yacobinski

So I’m glad these scientists went to the effort, even though it may seem silly. Conspiracy theorists usually don’t make a big splash in real life, but if they get the ear of a politician, time, money, and effort can indeed be wasted, sometimes on a big scale. Given how anti-science so many members of Congress can be, I don’t think there’s any idea too silly for them to not take seriously.

If Congress critters think the Earth is cooling, that it’s only 6,000 years old, that vaccines are dangerous, and that the existence of snow disproves global warming, then chemtrails don’t seem like that much of a stretch.

Aug. 14 2016 9:00 AM

NASA Video Shows Meteor Shower … From Above!

Late last week marked the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, generally one of the most dependable shooting star shows of the year. You can usually spot about a meteor per minute streaking across the sky, leaving behind a momentary trail of vaporized rock that fades rapidly as it cools in the upper atmosphere.

Meteors burn up about 90 to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. So what happens if you happen to be 400 kilometers up, orbiting the Earth? What would it look like if you were looking down, toward the Earth, during a meteor shower?

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That video was made on Wednesday using a camera on the International Space Station, specifically designed to look for meteors from above.

Did you see the two meteors in the clip? One happens at six seconds in, the other at 16 (the bright flash at the start of the video is lightning in a storm). It looks like they’re right over the surface, but perspective distorts that; they’re way up high.

Here’s a funny thing, too: At best only one of those meteors was from the Perseids! The meteors in a shower all appear to come from one part of the sky, as the Earth plows through the debris. It’s like driving through a rain storm, where the drops hit your front windshield because that’s facing into your direction of travel.

But the two meteors in the video are traveling at right angles to each other (one moves up, the other to the right). From the height of ISS all Perseids should travel in more or less the same direction, so at least one of those was not a Perseid! It’s possible neither were, but I can’t be sure without knowing the direction of the ISS movement, the exact time of the shot, and information like that. Still, the video is very cool.

It was made as part of a joint venture between the U.S. Southwest Research Institute and Japan’s Planetary Exploration Research Center, part of a project called Meteor Composition Determination. Besides taking video like the one above it also employs a special type of spectroscopic device called a transmission diffraction grating. This acts like a prism, breaking up the light of the meteors into colors. The resulting spectrum reveals the composition of the meteoroid (the solid bit of debris that burns up); every element has a unique pattern of colored light it emits as it glows. Since these meteors come from comets, it’s a way of studying comets right here on (well, above) Earth.

I went out with friends to see the shower on Friday night. We didn’t see too many over the two hours we were there; maybe a dozen or so. To be honest, being north of Los Angeles I’m surprised it was dark enough to see any, and the Moon was up too). But in this case it was just as much fun to hang out with friends as it was to watch the show. Meteor showers are wonderful, and I urge you to go out and watch one sometime. The next good one is probably the Leonids in November, and then the Geminids in December. Mark your calendars!

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