One of my favorite aspects of astronomy is how it tackles the biggest questions we humans have. How did this all begin? What is the ultimate fate of the Universe?
Are we alone?
Oh, that last one. Such an interesting question, and one that for centuries has been essentially unanswerable due to a lack of solid data. But that’s changed very recently. We’ve started exploring other planets up close. We’ve been able to listen to potential signals from other civilizations. And we’ve begun to get a handle on how many habitable planets there might be in the Universe.
The BBC Future blog asked me to write up my thoughts on this for their clever series, "Will we ever…?", and so I did: "Will we ever… find life elsewhere in the universe?" is now online.
I’ll note this is an opinion piece, but it’s based on the best data I know about these three avenues of inquiry: physical inspection of other worlds in our solar system, listening for E.T., and observing planets around other stars. Given the current state-of-the-art, and where these programs are going, I predict which of these three I ...
The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks over the next night or two, so this is the best time to go out and look. I have a guide on how to observe the shower and a couple of links, too, but first indulge me a moment to talk about meteor showers.
The Earth orbits the Sun, as do comets. Comets are lumpy collections of gravel and dust held together in a matrix of frozen ice (usually water and/or carbon dioxide). As they get near the Sun, the ice turns into a gas, freeing the dust and gravel. This material follows in the same path of the comet like dirt flying off a dump truck on a highway. Over time – millennia – it spreads out into space.
The Earth plows into this stuff as it goes around the Sun. These tiny bits of cosmic jetsam burn up as they ram into our atmosphere at speeds of up to 100 kilometers per second, and we call them meteors.
Quick tip: a meteoroid is the solid bit of rock or whatever that travels through space. As it burns up in our air ...
My pal Annalee Newitz over at io9 asked me to come on her show "We Come From the Future" and talk about how Mars is treated in movies. The program aired on Friday, and is up on YouTube:
That was a lot of fun! I tried to think of a movie where Mars is actually depicted correctly as it is now: low gravity, cold, almost no air. I couldn’t think of a single movie where that happens. I went on Twitter and asked the folks who follow me what they thought, and got lots of suggestions. Unfortunately, no movie suggested that I had seen was entirely accurate.
"Mission to Mars" was close, but they had a dust devil pick up astronauts and even tear one in half. Granted, it’s implied that was an outcome of alien tech, but dust devils on Mars simply aren’t that strong. Also, that movie got so much science wrong I don’t really feel like cutting it much slack.
Most other movies forgo showing Mars’s 0.38 Earth gravity due to the difficulty in portraying it well. Some, like "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" – which I loved as a kid – gives Mars ...
I’ve been posting a lot about Mars lately – and stay tuned, there’s plenty more! – but let’s not forget the first planet we ever viewed from space: our own. Here’s another lovely time lapse video of Earth made from images taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, called Earth Illuminated.
Regular readers might recognize some of the clips used here; for example the opening shot shows the solstice Sun not quite setting over the limb of the Earth. Many of the other features you can see in this video I’ve explained before too, like air glow, aurorae, and cities from space. Still, it’s nice to see them again, some literally in a different light.
Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Dan Gillmor on G+.
- This Is Our Planet
- JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!
- Psychedelic space station stars and cities
Well folks, it’s been a while, so it’s time for a good ol’ fashioned BA debunking.
This morning I got an email from BABloggee Joshua Frost as well as a note on Twitter from scifi author Diane Duane telling me about a picture making the rounds on teh interwebz, purporting to be taken from Mars. It shows the Martian landscape at twilight, and claims that the three lights in the sky are Earth, Venus, and Jupiter:
Pretty, isn’t it? You can find endless copies of it online; just search on the term "mars skyline". It’s been picked up on tons of Tumblrs and other social media.
But yeah, there’s just one problem: it’s not real.
I knew right away it wasn’t legit, but it’s hard to say exactly how. I’ve run into this problem before; I have a lot of experience looking at space images, and you just get a sense of what’s real and what isn’t. This one screams fake. The landscape color is a bit too saturated for Mars*. The sky’s the wrong color. The clouds are too numerous, the wrong color as well, and they have ...
Space science is in a tight spot today. Much of it is funded by NASA and NSF, and both are facing very large cuts in the 2013 US budget.
So what’s a space and science enthusiast to do? If you’re Alan Stern – head honcho of the Pluto New Horizons probe and longtime scientific researcher- you start a new company that’ll fund space science by engaging the public.
So he did. The company is called Uwingu – Swahili for "sky" – and the team includes several top-notch scientists like Geoff Marcy, Andy Chaikin, Emily CoBabe-Ammann, Pamela Gay, Mark Sykes, and many others.
The idea is to create space-related products the public will like such as games, software, and merchandise. They’ll then sell them and use the profits to fund scientific research. People will be able to submit proposals for the funding, which will be peer reviewed to ensure high-quality work. And it’s not just research: they hope to fund space-based projects, education, and other science-supporting ventures.
Right now they’re just starting it up, and they need ...
The engineers and scientists at JPL released the first color panorama of Mars taken by Curiosity today! Here it is:
This view is made up of hundreds of small (144 x 144 pixel) thumbnails, so it’s not as high res as the images we’ll see soon, but it’s still very cool. I had to shrink it massively to fit the blog, so click it to see the full-blown 3600 x 750 pixel picture.
You can see parts of the rover around the bottom (remember that this is a bit oddly formatted since it’s showing the entire 360° view unwrapped into a rectangular frame), including a wheel at the right. In the middle bottom is the shadow of the mast where the NAVCAMs are (the cameras that took this panorama); that was raised yesterday and appears to be working great. You may be able to see that the surface of the planet is a bit brighter around the mast shadow; that’s an optical effect called heiligenschein – literally, "halo" or "holy shine" – and is common when you look at rough, sandy surfaces. Basically, the sand and ...
Film critic and film maker Brandon Fibbs used JPL animations and actual footage from the Curiosity rover to create an inspiring video called Dare Mighty Things:
Productions like this are great. And what I love about the sentiment is that it’s true. This isn’t propaganda, it isn’t pablum that sounds good but is empty of actual content, and it isn’t hyperbole. It is, simply, true. The proof is in the video itself: we have a one-ton nuclear-powered chemistry lab on the surface of Mars.
When we dare mighty things, we achieve mighty things.
Tip o’ the heat shield to Jodi Lieberman
The wonderful astrophotographer César Cantú takes amazing pictures of the sky, and his shots of the Sun are truly cool. On Wednesday, August 8, 2012, he took this image of the Sun and a sunspot called Active Region 1524:
The Sun is a 1970s orange shag carpet!
Actually, César used an Hα filter, which blocks almost all the light from the Sun except for a very narrow slice of color where hydrogen emits light, and in fact this is preferentially given off by hydrogen under the sway of magnetic fields on the Sun, so this image accentuates magnetic activity. You can see lots of structure like the sunspots and the plasma flowing along magnetic fields – especially along the Sun’s edge, where they’re called prominences.
The Sun looks amazingly different depending on how you look at it. Far from being a featureless white disk, it actually has detail all the way down to the resolution of our best telescopes. The surface of the Sun is fiendishly complex, and the amount to understand is equally daunting. And, as usual with astronomy, with this complexity comes astonishing ...
As the rover Curiosity descended to the surface of Mars, the heat shield that protected it from the heat of atmospheric entry was ejected while still high above the rusty plains. Cameras pointed downward captured images of the heat shield as it fell away, and folks at JPL put together this short video of it:
How cool is that? Mind you, that’s flippin’ Mars in the background! And we also have a shot of the heat shield lying on the ground a few hundred meters away from the rover’s landing spot, too.
I’ll have more stuff from the rover soon, too. It’s getting hard to keep up with all the news coming from Mars!
- Curiosity landing site: the whole mess
- VIDEO of Curiosity’s descent… from the rover cam itself!
- Curiosity update: Heat shield spotted!
- Mars orbiter catches pic of Curiosity on its way down!
- Humans send their Curiosity to Mars!
Just a quick reminder: there are still some tickets left for the pre-Dragon*Con Atlanta Skeptics Star Party on Thursday evening, August 30.
I have details in an earlier post. The proceeds go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I’ll be speaking there, as will Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, and there will be spacey music by Marian Call and George Hrab!
I hope to see lots of BABloggees there. It’ll be a great time!
Let me be clear right off the top: global warming is real. There is vastly overwhelming evidence for it and scientific consensus about it, and the only people still sowing doubt about it appear to be motivated more by ideology and corporate interests than scientific evidence.
Having said that, one thing I’m careful about when I talk about it is linking specific weather events to the worsening climate. We humans like to connect events if they occur at the same time, whether they are actually connected or not. So when huge storms spawning tornadoes ravaged the midwest last year, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When a huge glacier calved off Greenland a few weeks ago, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When Greenland got a tremendous burst of warm air that caused unprecedented ice melting, I was careful not to say it was caused by global warming. When wildfires erupted over the US and Russia this summer, I was careful not to say ...
A new picture returned from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows an overview of the Mars Curiosity rover landing site, showing all the hardware that took it safely to the surface!
Coooool. Click to barsoomenate.
It’s like an episode of CSI: Gale Crater. You can see the Curiosity rover itself (labeled MSL for Mars Science Laboratory, the official name), sitting in a circle of dust disturbed by the landing rockets in the sky crane at final moments of descent. The sky crane impact site is to the upper left, several hundred meters away. The crane lowered the rover to the surface, disconnected the cables, then flew off to a safe distance. Note the plume of disturbed material pointing away from the direction to the rover, indicating the crane hit the ground at a low angle and not straight down (in which case the splash pattern would be more circular).
The parachute and backshell are off to the left. The backshell was literally that: a protective shell on the back of the rover and crane assembly to which the parachute was attached. That disconnected while the crane and ...