Archive for September, 2011

Wanna work in space?

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2011 2:40 pm

Looking for a change of pace? Your day-to-day, 9-5 job making you feel like you’re glued to the ground?

Then maybe you need a new job. And maybe you should talk to NASA: they’re looking for more astronauts.

The astronauts of the 21st century will help NASA through the next phase of space exploration as we continue the work of U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station in cooperation with our international partners; build a new NASA vehicle to enable human deep space exploration; and partner with industry to foster development of a commercial capability for human space flight to low Earth orbit.


I know some people will snark about this, saying why bother applying when NASA doesn’t even have a rocket to take humans into space? But that’s not the right way to think about this for several reasons:

1) NASA is planning on building a new rocket system;

2) NASA can hitch a ride with other countries like Russia until then (just as other countries did with us);

3) Private companies are building rockets, and you can be pretty sure NASA will pay to ride with them.

And of course training to be an astronaut isn’t like training to deliver pizzas*. It takes years, so if you want to get into space later it means getting into training now. There are no guarantees, of course. But now you know where to start.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Damaris Sarria.

[UPDATE: October 2, 2011: Damaris has the timeline for the astronaut selection process on her site].

* … a job I had for several years, and which does have some superficial similarities to being an astronaut: you wear uncomfortable clothes, you’re away from your base a lot, and when you get home you smell vaguely of mozzarella.

MORE ABOUT: astronaut


By Phil Plait | September 30, 2011 12:00 pm

Via Ravyn Schmidt on Google+ comes this cute video about a man hoping to make a date to see a woman:


Adorable! But I have to wonder: why didn’t he just use Heavens Above instead?

[Edited to add: I almost forgot; the last bit in the video reminded me strongly of this.]


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Geekery, Humor

Arsenic and old posts

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2011 10:26 am

Last year, with much ballyhoo, NASA held a press conference about a team of biologists claiming that they had found microorganisms that could use arsenic instead of phosphorous as a basis for biological processes.

However, it didn’t take too long before the work was under serious attack by other biologists. Some were snarky, others more reserved, but the message was clear: not too many professional biologists felt the arsenic claim held up to scrutiny. In fact, some said the research paper was so shoddy it should never have been published.

This whole event comes to my mind from time to time, and I’ve been meaning to revisit it. I’ll admit I’m a little embarrassed by how I participated in it — I reported it straight, writing up a blog post relaying what I had learned from the press conference and from reading the paper itself. I am not a biologist, so the details of the paper were beyond me. But being a scientist myself I could glean what I needed for a blog post, especially coupled with the comments from the press conference.

Or so I thought. As the criticism came in, and I looked into it more, I found myself agreeing with those who disagreed with the original findings. I’ll note that I can’t say for sure if the research was done poorly or not, but it has become more clear that the work itself needed more outside commentary before being released in a press conference at the level it was. My own mistake was trusting NASA PR to have vetted this thoroughly before holding the press conference, and not getting an outside opinion myself. I wrote a followup a few days later with my doubts.

The reason I bring all this up now is that PopSci recently posted an article about the lead scientist in the arsenic story, Felisa Wolfe-Simon. I read it yesterday, and felt that it was coming from an odd angle — as a personality profile on Dr. Wolfe-Simon it’s interesting, but as a background piece on the arsenic story itself it read to me as if it were slanted to support her.

Both my Discover Magazine colleagues Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer have a similar opinion — Carl is actually pretty blunt in his opinion on the article, giving details (and a timeline!) on where it goes astray. Wired Magazine blogger David Dobbs also write an interesting piece where at first he says he likes the article, then updates his post later saying that after more thought a lot of doubts arose. Given the size and impact this story had last year, I suggest you read those links. They’ll give you something to think about.

There are many lessons to be learned here, but the one I’ve walked away with is that since this story came out, I’ve been more careful to check with sources if I’m not familiar with the science myself (and even if I am familiar with it). It’s impossible to prevent all mistakes in writing science articles — in writing anything — but a healthy dose of skepticism is required to minimize them.

In fact, I’d say a healthy dose of skepticism is always required, in every situation. It’s a highly useful tool.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Skepticism

Clair de Mercury

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2011 6:30 am

I know I just posted a MESSENGER photo of craters, but this one is different and spectacular enough that I figure, why not? I love a big, splashy, wide-angle shot of a rayed crater! So here’s the lovely, 80-km wide impact crater Debussy on the surface of Mercury:

[Click to haphaestenate.]

Craters make rays when the ejected material blasted out forms long plumes which fall across the surface. On airless worlds, those trajectories are ballistic, heading straight out from the center of the impact. Deeper material tends to be a lighter shade than surface material, so the interior of the crater and the rays are lighter than surrounding surface stuff. You can also see what’s called the apron, the layer of material that falls immediately around the crater, surrounding it (that’s more clear in an earlier image of the crater looking more straight down on it).

Rayed craters are common (even on our Moon; take a look at Tycho!), and usually indicate the impact was recent (geologically), since the rays eventually get eroded by the solar wind, cosmic rays, and subsequent meteorite impacts. Debussy is therefore one of the younger features on Mercury. It still has that youthful shine.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Related posts:

Jaw-dropping mosaic of Mercury’s battered, beautiful face
More Mercury
MESSENGER’s family portrait
Watermelon planet (a personal favorite of mine)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

All these worlds are yours…

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2011 1:30 pm

I’ve known Dan Durda since college. We went to Michigan together, studying astronomy. He wound up getting into asteroids and exoplanets, and may yet be part of a team that will save the Earth from an impact.

A few years back, he started dabbling in art, and discovered he was good at it. In fact, I’d say he’s really good at it. His stuff has graced magazine covers and articles, and even this blog (see the Related posts section below).

See what I mean? His stuff is crazy beautiful.

And now you can own it. He’s created his own CafePress store where he’s got some of his work as prints. You can also get a 2012 calendar (yes, it goes all the way through December; Dan and I are both real astronomers) called "All These Worlds…", with some breathtaking artwork.

He also has a gallery of his work online you should check out simply because it’s fantastic. Through Dan I’ve met quite a few space artists, people whose work I have respected for many years. And they all get this look in their eye when they talk about Dan; they’re impressed by him.

OK, enough gushing. Go take a look, and enjoy. I’m pretty sure you will.

Related posts:

The Beauty of Space
Motherlode of potential planets found: more than 1200 alien worlds!
Hungry Hungry Asteroid
The galaxy may swarm with billions of wandering planets (maybe my favorite drawing by Dan)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Art, Dan Durda

You've come a long way

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2011 11:07 am

This week, women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to vote and to run for municipal office.

First off, this is fantastic news. Saudi Arabia is one of the more repressive countries for women, so to see them taking this major step is, well, wonderful! King Abdullah has been making small steps towards reform for years. While I want to see women have full rights everywhere on Earth, I understand the political need to take it slowly in Saudi Arabia. It’s a very conservative religious country, and the backlash if things move too quickly could be extraordinary.

There’s much left to do, of course. Women still have a long way to go there; they are not allowed to drive or to leave the country unaccompanied, for example. But this is the right way to move. I just hope that vector stays pointed true.

I also want to relate my own thinking when I first read this news. My initial thought was snark; Welcome to the 20th century was literally the first thing I thought. My second thought was what I wrote above about this being fantastic news.

My third thought was the most interesting to me. It was contrition: in the United States, a country where we pride ourselves on being modern and forward-thinking (usually), women didn’t get the vote until 1920 — nationally, at least; at the local and state level those rights were slowly being granted for years.

So 90 years ago, women here in the US didn’t have the right to vote, and we weren’t (officially) a religious kingdom. Just to put how big a deal this Saudi Arabia news is into perspective.

We still have lots of progress to make here in the States, too. But it’s nice to know that even in places like Saudi Arabia, progress can be made.

However, just to be clear, keep in mind just how far we have to go: in Pakistan, a girl is making news because her family refuses to have her killed, as is customary, because she was raped. Honor killings, as these are called, are still quite common.

So. I’ll just leave you with this.

Related posts:

International Women’s Day
100 years of International Women’s Day
Women as planetary science role models
Space girl

New study: 1/3 of Sun-like stars might have terrestrial planets in their habitable zones

By Phil Plait | September 29, 2011 6:20 am

A paper has been accepted for publication in a science journal (PDF) where the author has analyzed data from NASA’s Kepler planet-finding observatory, trying to figure out how many Earth-sized planets there might be in the galaxy orbiting their stars in their habitable zones; that is, at the right distance so that the star warms the planet enough to have liquid water. In the paper, he estimates that on average 34% (+/-14%) of Sun-like stars have terrestrial planets in that Goldilocks zone.


I can explain how he got this number. But I can also explain why I think this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Let me be clear: it’s possible he’s right, and I suspect he may very well be. His math looks good to me. But a couple of assumptions he had to make need to be pointed out, and I want that to be clear before the media start running around saying there are billions of Earths in the galaxy based on this.

Here’s the deal. Kepler is an orbiting observatory that’s staring at about 100,000 stars, looking for dips in their light when an orbiting planet passes in front of them from our perspective. The length of time the dip takes gives us the orbital period of the planet, and the size of the planet (if the star’s size is known, generally true) can be determined by how much light is blocked. I talk about how this works in a little more detail in an earlier post.

The astronomer, Wesley Traub of Caltech, based his analysis on only the first few months (136 days) of Kepler data, what was available at the time. This introduces a bias into the calculations, because that length of time is too short to conclusively find planets in their stars’ habitable zones! Even being generous, the length of such an orbit is at least 200 days, much longer than the Kepler sample. So he was forced to look at only short-period planets (with periods of 42 days or less), much closer to their stars, and extrapolate the data from there. I’ll note that Dr. Traub was up front about potential biases in the data and his analysis.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Top Post

Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse

By Phil Plait | September 28, 2011 4:27 pm

Via Universe Today (and Fraser Cain’s Google+ stream) I saw this astonishing video of the aurora borealis as seen from Finnish Lapland.

[Make sure you set it to HD and make it full screen.]

Wow! That’s amazing. Did you catch the Andromeda Galaxy making an appearance at 1:25 in, at the middle left of the screen? Maybe you missed it because of THE GINORMOUSLY BRIGHT AND GORGEOUS AURORAE.


As a travel ad, this works pretty well (it was made by Flatlight Films, a Finnish company). Living in Boulder, I’m used to the cold, but we always seem to just miss being far enough north to see the light show. And we still have a couple of years before we even reach the peak of solar activity, so there’ll be plenty of chances to catch more.

[P.S. If you’re on G+, follow Fraser. He’s good people.]

Related posts:

Southern lights greet ISS and Atlantis
Wyoming skies
Another jaw-dropping time lapse video: Tempest
Time lapse: Journey Through Canyons
Down under Milky Way time lapse
Alps lapse

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Erasing false balance: the right is more antiscience than the left

By Phil Plait | September 28, 2011 12:31 pm

[Note: I’m anticipating some, um, interesting comments to this post. So, before you leave one, please read this post on my political thinking, and this one on political posts in general.]

I write quite a bit about how rabidly antiscience the political right in the US has become. From the attacks on science by the Bush Administration (and Newt Gingrich before that) to the political litmus test of needing to denounce evolution and global warming if you’re a candidate, the Republican party has planted its flag firmly in the ground of nonsense. At the bottom of this article is a section called Related Posts that has links to just a handful of the copious examples of this outrageous behavior.

They have also become masters at spinning this, going on the attack against science they don’t like and using the media to sow doubt. One of the most aggravating of these tactics is the one of false equivalency. For example, in a post I might lambaste yet another Republican candidate saying creationism should be taught in schools, and someone in the comments will say, "Well, people on the left are antiscience as well!"

This is a common claim, but at best it’s a gross mischaracterization of what’s going on, and in reality it’s beside the point. Sure, some people on the left have issues (mostly anti-corporate or alt-med stuff like being against GMO, vaccines, and so on), but those are not the main planks of the left. And those issues are a drop in the bucket compared to what’s going on in the right. To say you think evolution might be true is political suicide if you’re a Republican candidate right now. It’s that simple, and that bad. I think that, like on the left, the majority of voters on the right are not antiscience, but if you look to the leaders in Congress, in State legislatures, and at the Presidential candidates, that’s all you see.

And that’s why you need to read an article by my friend Chris Mooney, "Unequivocal: Today’s Right is Overwhelmingly More Anti-Science Than Today’s Left". He lays out just how big this problem is, why the right has gone this way, and why they have solidarity among their candidates.

The chief reason the political right is anti-science is because it contains the Christian Right (and Tea Party, which is kind of the same thing). There is no force in American politics generating anywhere near so much unreality, in science or in other spheres, as this one. It is not just evolution, or the age of the Earth… When it comes to science, it is also anything having anything to do with abortion, reproductive health, and sexuality. Moreover, we are talking here about the willful advancement of dangerous falsehoods, and the clinging to them in the face of all evidence and refutation—because this is about unwavering certainty, and ultimately, about faith.

This is one of the most important political articles I’ve read in quite some time. Chris lays out the political reality of antireality in a stark way. The article is frustrating and infuriating, because it shows just how the right’s leaders have lost their grip on reality, and is a grim reminder of just how important the elections next year are.

To be clear: I am not saying that anyone who calls themself a Republican is antiscience. I am saying the leaders of the party and their mouthpieces are, and Chris does a good job of showing that this is now the mainstream thrust of the party. If you are a conservative person who is pro-science, it is up to you to talk to your leaders about this issue. The GOP used to be pro-science, but was hijacked by the antiscience fringe many years ago. I can talk about this all I want and try to raise awareness, but your voices must be heard. Speak up.

Related posts:

Republican candidates, global warming, evolution, and reality
The increasingly antiscience Republican candidates
Michele Bachmann needs to check her ID
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA): on climate change, makes wrong even wronger
Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity
Antiscience party
Another climate scientist responds to Rep. Joe Barton’s false claims
Vaccines on the left, vaccines on the right

MORE ABOUT: left, Republicans, right

Apollo 11 descends to the Google Moon

By Phil Plait | September 28, 2011 10:16 am

This is pretty neat: an Apollo enthusiast who goes by the handle GoneToPlaid has created a video comparing the Apollo 11 footage of its descent to the Moon with images from Google Moon:

That’s very cool. You can see the same features in the Apollo 11 film footage and in the newer view from Google Moon, which uses images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as well as Japan’s Kaguya mission. The lighting was different so sometimes it makes features hard to spot in both — direct sunlight changes shadows, and also creates a spotlight effect which can hide craters and such — but you can see how well everything lines up. GoneToPlaid provides a link to the KMZ files you can use for Google Moon to check this out for yourself as well.

This won’t convince people who think NASA faked the landings, of course, nor do I really care. What I do care about is how this brings home what the astronauts did all those decades ago. Going to the Moon was hard; it’s another world, with all the dangers and unknowns and difficult terrains that made it necessary to explore it before we went, and to do so once again in preparation for going back. Hopefully sometime soon.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Scott Hall. Image credit: NASA.

Related posts:

One Giant Leap seen again
Apollo 17, then and now
LRO spots Apollo landing sites in high res

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Apollo 11, Google Moon, LRO

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