I’ve been holding off writing about this until it was official, and now it is: the area of the arctic covered by sea ice has reached a record low.
[Click to embiggen.]
"Sea ice extent" is (more or less) a measure of the amount of ice covering the sea surface. It’s measured using satellite data; the area is divided into many bins, and sea ice extent is calculated by adding up all the bins with more than 15% ice in them. Every year the ice starts to grow in the autumn and melts in the summer, so you get a sine-wave curve of extent every year.
Satellite observations began in 1979. In the graph above, the dark line is the average summer extent for the period 1979 – 2000. The gray area around it is the measurement uncertainty (2σ if you want to be exact). The dashed green line is the extent for 2007 – the previous record low year – and the blue line is 2012. I added the red line so you can compare 2007 to now. The data numbers show the record is ...
[I was going to wait to post this until next week, but with Neil Armstrong's death I've decided to put it up now. If he could risk his life open up the Moon as a world for all mankind, the least I can do is share it as much as I can.]
If you need a little extra dollop of awesome in your day, then try zooming in and flying over the surface of the Moon, care of astronomer Pete Lawrence’s incredible mosaic of our nearest cosmic neighbor:
[You may need to refresh this page if you don't see the Moon picture directly above this sentence.]
Click the button on the lower right that makes the picture expand to fit the browser, then zoom in and out using the + and - buttons. Click and drag to fly around. Make vrooom vroom noises.
Make sure you zoom in all the way and then cruise over the terminator, the day/night line. Trust me.
This ridiculously cool image is composed of 166 separate sub-images taken over the course of just 45 minutes on August 10, 2012. He used a Celestron 14" with a video camera. Get this: each of the 166 sub-images is ...
The first human to set foot on another world has died. Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong was 82.
There is so much that can be said about this man, from his incredible career to his notorious shying away from the spotlight. He had history thrust upon him, and performed in a way that will be an inspiration to generations of explorers.
I’ve said many times that we can divide all of history into two parts: before humans landed on the Moon, and after. It was not just an important moment, it was the moment, a defining, crystallizing slice of time that confirmed that we humans had become a space faring race. One world could not and would not contain us, and the sky itself was no longer the limit.
We have had our missteps since that one small step, and we can argue about the directions we are or should be taking. But given what we’ve done, and what we are capable of, I have the spark of hope that the future will look back at July 1969 and recognize it for what it was: the dawn of a new ...
I have a very odd coincidence to report.
I like getting fun questions from folks, the kind that take a little bit of math and physics to explain, but wind up taking you to fun places. A common question like that is, "What would happen if everyone in China jumped all at once?" Would it throw the Earth out of orbit? Would it cause an earthquake? Would it do anything?
The answer is, essentially, no. I tackled this a few years back; there was this announcement by a group that wanted to get 600 million people to all jump at once so that the Earth would be pushed farther from the Sun and global warming would be solved.
Um, yeah. They called it World Jump Day, and I made quick work of it. Nothing at all would happen, for lots of reasons. Still, it’s fun to think about, right? And it turns out World Jump Day was something of a prank anyway.
And that’s where the coincidence I mentioned comes in. I recently happened to see a video done by vsauce asking this very question. He handles it really well in an entertaining video:
Earlier this year, the folks at the European Space Agency’s Hubble HQ announced a contest called Hubble’s Hidden Treasures: they wanted people to go through the massive archives of Hubble’s data and look for gorgeous objects that may have been previously overlooked.
This is a cool idea, and they got over 3000 submissions! They just announced the winners, and it’s a collection of jaw-dropping beauty. Here’s the first place winner in the "Image Processing" category, a stunner of NGC 1763, part of a massive star-forming complex in a companion galaxy to our Milky Way:
Oooo, pretty. [Click to embiggen.] That was done by Josh Lake, who won the public vote as well as the judges’ with this work.
It was also nice to see BABlog regular André vd Hoeven place in the contest as well. But I have to say, after looking over the winners, I would’ve leaned toward this shot, by Judy Schmidt:
Holy wow! You need to click that shot to see it in much higher resolution to really appreciate it. That’s XZ Tauri, a newly-born star a few hundred light years away. ...
[NOTE: This is not my first foray into political opinion on this blog, so I expect to get a lot of comments which could charitably be called angry. BEFORE YOU COMMENT, first, read the ample links I have included in this post. These are how I back up my arguments, and reading them first may prevent you from saying something already refuted. Second, read my note about posts covering politics and religion. Third, read my commenting policy. Thank you in advance.]
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the mantle of the Earth this week, you probably heard what Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said about women’s bodies and rape. If you haven’t, my friend Matt Lowry at Skeptical Teacher has the lowdown.
But in a nutshell – apt phrasing, that – Akin claimed that:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare… If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
This is so appallingly ignorant – to be kind – that it makes my brain explode. Pregnancy from rape
In case you’re not getting enough Curiosity in your life, here are two videos, both showing the descent from the rover’s eye view. However, these are new and pretty different!
The first video shows the descent using the high-resolution images from the MARDI (Mars Descent Imager), which have been further cleaned up and sharpened. It’s truly magnificent! Make sure you set the video to hi-res and make it full screen:
The second video is really clever: it keeps the heat shield centered in the screen, so you can follow the entire fall of the shield down to its impact on the surface of Mars.
I’ve been a scientist a long time, and I’ve worked on astronomical and space imagery since I was in high school. I’ve used film I loaded, developed, and printed myself; I’ve used giant glass plates sprayed with film emulsion and hand-guided a telescope for hours; I’ve used a digital detector that was less than a megapixel and felt like it was the greatest invention ever; and I’ve had a hand in building a camera with three digital detectors that went on board Hubble. So I’ve watched as – and ...
[The article below was originally posted on the BBC Future blog, and was titled "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" I'm reposting it here because, oddly, the BBC page is only readable for people outside the UK! It has to do with the BBC rights and all that. But they gave me permission to post it here, and since I thought it was fun and provocative, I figure y'all would like it. Enjoy.]
Will we ever… find life in space?
One of the reasons I love astronomy is that it doesn’t flinch from the big questions. And one of the biggest is: are we alone?
Another reason I love astronomy: it has a good shot at answering this question.
Even a few decades ago hard-headed realists pooh-poohed the idea of aliens. But times change, and so does science. We’ve accumulated enough data that makes the question less far-fetched than it once was, and I’m starting to think that the question isn’t "Will we find life?" but rather "Which method will find it first?"
There are three methods that, to me, are the front-runners for finding life on other worlds. And ...
Just a few minutes ago, engineers at JPL here on Earth commanded the Mars Curiosity rovers to make its first test drive! The rover rolled a few meters, stopped and took a picture of its progress:
[Click to enaresenate.]
Wow! This image was taken by the left NAVCAM (NAVigation CAMera) on Curiosity at 15:00:53 UTC (there’s a matching one by the right NAVCAM, too, and there’s already an anaglyph that’s been made). You can easily see where the wheels have disturbed the Martian surface, and where the rover made a bit of a turn as well.
I’m also fond of this picture, taken just a few minutes later at 15:03:56 UTC, also by the left NAVCAM:
Seeing the rover in the picture itself, ironically, brings home the idea that this machine is far, far away from home.
Actually, wait, scratch that. Curiosity was built to work on Mars.
It is home.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
- Curiosity spins its wheels
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
- Watch as ...
[BAFacts are short, tweetable astronomy/space facts that I post every day. On some occasions, they wind up needing a bit of a mathematical explanation. The math is pretty easy, and it adds a lot of coolness, which I'm passing on to you! You're welcome.]
Today’s BAFact: Jupiter is so big you could fit every other planet in the solar system inside it with room to spare.
Volume is a tricky thing. Our brains are pretty good at judging relative linear sizes of things: this thing is twice as long as that thing, for example. But volume increases far more rapidly than linear size. Take a cube where each side is one centimeter. It has a volume of one cubic centimeter (cc). Now double the length of each side to 2 cm. It looks twice as big, but its volume goes up to 8 cc! The volume of a cube is a the length x width x height, so there you go.
Spheres are the same way: the volume increases with the cube of the radius. Specifically, volume = 4/3 x π x (radius)3. So one sphere ...
I’ve been stuck in some epic traffic jams, but I think this one wins:
Those are the Space Shuttle orbiters Endeavour and Atlantis [click to embiggen] at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour has just finished being processed for travel, and will soon be on its way to California to eventually go to the California Science Center in LA. Atlantis is staying at Kennedy Space Center itself at the Visitor’s Center.
Funny – a year ago I posted a similar picture Endeavour and Discovery, saying it was the last time we’d see a shot like that. I guess I was wrong.
Either way, there won’t be too many more like this… but soon we’ll be launching humans back into space once again. My hope is that when we do it’ll be easier, less expensive, more reliable, and the beginning of not just tentative toes-in-the-water, but plunging full into the ocean of space.
Image credit: NASA
- Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
- Two Shuttles, nose to nose
- The last views of Endeavour and ISS
As a prelude to actually hitting the road, engineers at JPL commanded the Mars Curiosity rover to move its wheels, testing to make sure everything worked.
Everything worked! Here’s a fun little animated GIF showing the rear right wheel wiggling:
Sweeeeet. Countdown to someone adding a dubstep audio track in 3… 2… 1…
Note the sundial at the top right; you can see the shadow of the rover moving as time elapses. If you watch the ground you can see the perspective of the camera changing a bit as the rover rocks, too; the wheel movement is causing the rover to move slightly with each frame of the sequence.
In more good news, yesterday the engineers extended the 2-meter long boom arm. The arm has a set of tools at the end, including a camera, a scoop, a drill, a sifter, and a spectrometer (to determine the composition of samples). So it looks like Curiosity is about ready to start poking around Mars!
Bon voyage, you laser-eyed nuclear-powered extraterrestrial explorer. Go do science!
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
- Now you will feel the firepower of a fully armed and operational Mars rover
My friend Cara Santa Maria is a scientific researcher and educator. She’s also Senior Science Editor with The Huffington Post, where she does a video show called "Talk Nerdy To Me". She contacted me recently because she wanted to do an episode on solar storms – how they work, and how they can affect us here on Earth. She interviewed me about them, and the episode is online at HuffPo:
[Note: If the video doesn't appear directly above this sentence, refresh your screen.]
The Sun has been a bit feisty lately, spitting out some decent flares and coronal mass ejections. So far, none has been both strong enough and aimed at us to do any damage (there was a fairly powerful CME in July, but it was on the other side of the Sun, directed away from us). And while they can’t hurt us directly due to our protective atmosphere, as I say in the video solar storms can disrupt our power grid and our satellites, creating havoc. The more we study the Sun the better we understand it, and the more likely we’ll be able to protect ourselves should it ...
[Note: At the bottom of this post is a gallery of more amazing pictures of volcanoes taken from space.]
Sometimes, the best way to observe the Earth is to get off it. It really helps if you want to solve some mysteries.
And scientists had a good one on their hands in recently. You should really read the journal of science journalist Rebecca Priestly, who reported on all this first hand, but here’s a summary. On August 9, the crew of the HMNZS Canterbury were on a scientific voyage in the Pacific when they got word to change course. A huge anomaly was reported near their position, and it looked like it might be a gigantic floating "raft" of pumice, possibly from an undersea eruption. They got samples, and sure enough it was pumice. Such rafts have been seen before from other volcanic eruptions.
But what volcano was at the root of this one? Early guesses were that it was from Monowai, which had recently erupted in early August. But satellite imagery taken on July 19 – weeks earlier – pinpointed the location of the raft’s origin:
What the heck is in the air this past week? First we see a simulated image of the sky from Mars go massively viral because people thought it actually showed Earth in the Martian sky, then a clearly Photoshopped pic of two "Suns" setting on Mars gets passed around.
And now a new slice of oddness enters the field: a picture of a planetary alignment over the Giza Pyramids, saying this only happens once every 2737 years. Because planetary alignments and the pyramids play such a large role in New Age/astrological beliefs, there is clearly some sort of spiritual message implied here.
Well, I hate to be a thricely-bursting-bubble person, but here we go again, again. Let me be clear: while there will be an event more-or-less like this in December, and it should be pretty and quite cool to see, the claims being made are somewhat exaggerated. The picture itself isn’t real, and the planets won’t really look like that from Giza. Also, alignments like this happen fairly often, though to be fair getting them spaced out to fit over the pyramids in this way probably is relatively rare.
Busting your Cheops
Here’s the picture making the rounds:
[I wrote this article for my friend Amy Roth, aka SurlyAmy, who has asked leaders in the field of skepticism to write about the recent surge of anti-women rhetoric. She posted my article on the Skepchicks site, and you can find links to the whole series of articles at the bottom of that post. I'm posting my piece here on my blog as well because this is a very important topic, and I want as many people to see it as possible.]
What the hell is going on in the online community?
If you’ve been reading or paying attention at all to any of the online cultures like skepticism or general geekery (scifi, gaming, convention-going, and so on), you’ll have seen astonishing and depressing displays of sexism. That’s been true for a long time. But recently some sort of sea change has occurred, and what we’re seeing now is a marked increase in outright misogyny and thuggery.
The examples are so distressingly ubiquitous I hardly need point them out. A woman gamer wants to make a documentary showing misogyny in video games, and she gets rape and death threats. Rebecca Watson calmly and rationally tells men not to hit ...
The James Webb Space Telescope – NASA’s successor to Hubble – recently reached a pretty big milestone: all of the segments of its primary mirror have completed construction, and are ready to be handed over to NASA.
JWST isn’t your average ‘scope. Instead of a single, monolithic mirror, it will have 18 hexagonal segments that will fit together, working as a unit to focus infrared light from distant astronomical objects. Each segment is about 1.5 meters across, and will have actuators behind them (think of them as very accurately tunable pistons) to control exactly how the submirrors are aimed. On the front, each mirror is coated in a very thin layer of gold, which is an excellent reflector of IR light.
The mirrors were made at the Ball Aerospace facilities in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Ball threw a celebration to mark the mirrors’ completion, and invited a few press folks along. That included me! We went on a tour, and saw one of the mirrors – it was in a "clean room" to keep dust and other contaminants out. But we could see it through a door… and here it is:
Yes, that’s me reflected in one ...
The Mars Curiosity rover unleashed its laser beam eye today, zapping a nearby rock dubbed "Coronation".
[The "Before" picture of the hapless rock. I await the "After" eagerly. Click to endeathstarenate, or grab a 10,000 x 2400 pixel image.]
[UPDATE: Here's the "After" picture!
The background image is from the Curiosity NAVCAM and shows the region around Greedo Coronation (you can see the rover's shadow on the left). The zoomed region in the circle shows the area of the rock targeted by the laser just before the laser hit it (you can see the edge of the rock on the right side of the zoom). The final zoom at the top shows the pit zapped into the rock by the laser pulse.]
This isn’t mad science! It’s cool science.
OK, well, hot science.
Here’s the deal: when atoms and molecules absorb energy, they can re-emit that energy as light. The nifty part is, each type of substance emits a different color of light, making it possible to identify them. This is called spectroscopy, and we use it in astronomy all the time. Many ...
At James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting this year, my friend and fellow astronomer Pamela Gay made a speech that covers a lot of ground, but essentially boils down to two ideas: do great things, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.
The JREF put the video of her talk on YouTube, and it’s simply fantastic.
She also paraphrased it for a post on her blog that’s well worth your time to read: Make the World Better.
There’s lots I could add, but there’s no real reason to. Just watch this, and be happy there are people like Pamela out there in the world.
Now go out and make the world better.
Some amazing videos are still coming out from NASA about the Mars Curiosity rover’s descent to the planet’s surface. This one is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-but-still-totally-freaking-cool: the heat shield slamming into the surface of Mars and blurting out a cloud of dust:
Not only that, but the high-resolution pictures from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI – a camera pointing down that took shots as the rover was lowered to the ground by the sky crane) have been sent back to Earth, and Spaceflight101 made this incredible video from them:
I love love LOVE the swirling dust set into motion at 00:41 by the sky crane’s rocket thrusters once it got close enough to the ground. And you can see when one of the rover’s wheels snaps down into place as well!
These videos are honestly astonishing to me. When I was a kid we had to wait forever to get (sometimes pretty cruddy) images from our space probes. Now we get flippin’ color video of hardware slamming down and/or settling gently onto another planet! The pace of technological advancement may be most popular when it comes to things like cell phones and computers, but as a scientist I ...