Archive for September, 2012

Endeavour's last flight… seen FROM SPACE!

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2012 11:24 am

I didn’t say much about the last flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour here on the blog (though I did tweet links to some cool pictures, so follow me on Twitter to stay up on that sort of thing) mostly because I knew pictures would be coming in so fast I wouldn’t be able to keep up!

But then one very special image came along, and I just had to put it here: Endeavour and its 747 ride as seen from the DigitalGlobe satellite:

This image was featured on the Google Earth blog (which also provides a KML file so you can see it for yourself if you have the GE software installed). At the time, the 747 and the Orbiter were about 40 km southeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Note that I rotated the picture a bit to fit better here on the blog.

Here’s a zoom of the plane and Orbiter. The blue shadow is an artifact, created due to the satellite swapping out filters as it took pictures. Because the plane was moving, you get what’s essentially a double exposure. But you can see the real shadow in the big picture above.

Endeavour was on its way to Edwards Air Force Base at the time (and eventually to the Los Angeles Airport) in California, and will soon be transferred via surface roads to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. If you thought LA traffic was bad before…

I’ll note that a lot of people were sad to see this last flight of the Orbiter. I’ll admit my own feelings are mixed – I’ve written about this before. While the Shuttles were magnificent machines, they were only designed to go into low Earth orbit, and our destiny is in much deeper space. And it’s my strong fact-based opinion that we are still well on our way to that destination. It won’t be right away, but it won’t necessarily be too long, either.

The last flight of Endeavour may be bittersweet, but looking back only helps if you use the past as a basis to venture farther in the future. And we have the whole sky open to us. We just have to choose to do it.

I choose the future. I hope others do as well.

Image credit: Google Earth


Related Posts:

- Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
- Debating space
- NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space (NOTE: the title I chose for this was misleading, so I wrote an addendum to the post in the first paragraph)

Angling in on Saturn

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2012 7:04 am

Pretty much every picture of Saturn sent back home from the Cassini spacecraft is devastatingly gorgeous, but it’s confession time: I prefer the greyscale ones to the pictures in color.

Why? Because this:

Holy ringed gas giant awesomeness! [Click to encronosenate.]

This shot was taken earlier this year, in June, when Cassini was about 3 million kilometers from the planet. Saturn has a thick haze above its cloud tops, obscuring much of the details of the clouds below (one of the main reasons it doesn’t sport the same spectacular cloud bands as its big brother Jupiter), but this image was taken using a near-infrared filter – just outside the normal range of human vision (centered at 752 nanometers, for those who want details) – that can see some light that gets through the haze. The white spots and elongated features are the tops of clouds of ammonia, some of which are thousands and even tens of thousands of kilometers long.

I love the angle on this picture. Cassini was south of Saturn’s equator, looking north. The northern hemisphere of the planet is edging toward summer right now, so the Sun is shining down on the rings, projecting their shadow on the southern hemisphere. We see the rings here from the unlit side, so they look a bit darker than you might be used to. However, since they’re made almost entirely of water ice, they’re transparent and scatter sunlight, so you can see them even from their shadowed side.

As a bonus, you can also see the tiny moon Enceladus on the lower left. Of course, when I say "tiny", I mean the size of my home state of Colorado.

This picture is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and I think a big part of that is that it’s greyscale (what some people call "black and white", which isn’t accurate since we see lots of shades of grey). While color images can be stunning, there is something about the contrast and chocolaty smoothness of greyscale that makes pictures like this more magnificent, more dramatic, and more brooding. I don’t know what it is – it’s the same phenomenon that happens with old movies, too – but for me it’s certainly a powerful effect.

As if Saturn needs any help.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Related Posts:

- The scale of Saturn (and The Scale of Saturn, redux)
- Ice moon, ghost moon
- Saturn broods while a storm dissipates
- A shadow falls on the ice geysers of Enceladus

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Space Shuffle

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2012 3:32 pm

I’m not sure I want to trust plans for NASA from the same guy who wonders why airplane windows don’t open.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: Mitt Romney

Social gadfly

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2012 12:30 pm

I’m on a lot of social media stuff: Twitter (which I feed directly to Facebook), reddit, Fark, and so on. I get quite a few ideas for blog posts on these sites, and of course get lots of support. I also can simply chatter when I feel like it, making jokes, linking to things I like, and so on.

I find myself spending more time on Google+ lately. I like it better than all the other stream-based media; it gives me more room than Twitter, isn’t as all-fire irritating as Facebook, and with some minor exceptions I like the interface. I’ll sometimes even drop into the video hangouts, like chat rooms where you can actually see the other folks involved. Speaking of hangouts, you should circle Fraser Cain no matter what anyway. He runs the Live Star Party hangout with live feeds from telescopes around the world, which is awesome.

I post things on G+ I wouldn’t put here on the BABlog for a variety of reasons; simple musings, crowd-sourced stuff, ideas dealing more with online life. If you’re on G+, here’s my page.

Speaking of which, I still have two Facebook pages; my personal one, and my "fan" page (note: due to the limit FB puts on the number of friends a personal page can have, I can no longer accept friend requests there. The fan page has no such limit, however). And I’m still blurting away on Twitter, of course.

I’ll note that sometimes, when things get busy and I don’t have time to write a full-blown blog post, I’ll use these media to link to cool stuff others are doing, too. So I’d recommend following me on these social sites if you want to see things you won’t see here on the BA blog.

If you’re social, come find me. I’m kinda social too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog

Uwingu: how *you* can directly fund science

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2012 9:58 am

Scientific research is facing a funding crisis, and you can help.

A group of top-notch research scientists got the idea that we need a way for people to directly fund space and scientific research. They created Uwingu – Swahili for "sky" – a project where they provide services and goods for people, and the money made goes toward furthering exploration. The project needs $75,000 to get started (server costs, salaries, and so on), and so an IndieGoGo funding drive (much like KickStarter) was started.

The fundraising drive ends at midnight Pacific time tonight, Monday night (08:00 Tuesday morning UTC). As I write this, it still needs about $7500 to meet the goal.

Full disclosure: I am officially on the Board of Advisors (a volunteer, unpaid position) for this project. At the current time, we don’t want to reveal everything we have planned to raise money for research once the seed money is achieved, but the ideas I have heard are solid and worth pursuing. Also, the people involved really are good folks, and personal friends of mine: Alan Stern (head cheese of the New Horizons Pluto probe, former Associate Administrator of science for NASA, and someone who has experience getting grass-roots projects for funding science off the ground), planet hunter extraordinaire Geoff Marcy, educator Pamela Gay, space historian and author Andy Chaikin, and other seriously talented folks. You can see the list of everyone involved on the Uwingu IndieGoGo page.

I met with Alan Stern yesterday and we talked some specifics, and again while I cannot reveal anything here just yet, I’m confident the ideas behind Uwingu are good ones, and can help scientific research. We already have groups involved like SETI, Planetary Resources (the asteroid mining people), Lockheed-Martin, Ball Aerospace, and XCOR Aerospace. And once Uwingu is up and running the first planned funding will go to the SETI Allen Telescope Array.

If you want more info, Dr. Stern is scheduled to be on Coast to Coast AM radio tonight to talk about Uwingu, while there’s still a couple of hours left in the campaign. I’ve also written about Uwingu in an earlier post if you need more.

Thanks for your help. We need it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space
MORE ABOUT: Uwingu

A whole star exploded, and no one told me?

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2012 7:00 am

One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is look at astronomical images. They are a source of great beauty, insight into our Universe, and wonder that we can understand them.

As it happens, I spent a solid chunk of my professional research career looking at supernovae remnants, the expanding debris after a star explodes. Everything about them is cool: the extraordinary energy released, the amazing beauty and symmetry they posses, the fact that many of the elements necessary for life are created in them.

So I’m pretty familiar with images of these things. Which is why I got a good surprise when the European Space Agency posted this picture of the supernova remnant G272.2-03.2, taken with the XMM-Newton observatory:

[Click to corecollapsenate.]

This is actually a composite image; the starry background is from an optical telescope, but the remnant itself is seen in X-rays by XMM-Newton. X-rays are emitted by very hot gas – heated to a million degrees or more – so you know right away this was an energetic event. I mean, duh, a star exploded.

The two colors (green and orange) tell you the gas is at two different temperatures. The outer rim is probably a thin shell of gas compressed as it slams into the very thin material between stars, while gas heated by shock waves fills the shell. My eye went right away to the bright bit at the right. That’s very common in objects like this when the expanding gas rams into a slightly denser part space (like some other floating cloud of gas) – you get a "dent" in the shell and it gets a bit brighter.

What surprised me most about this particular object is that I had never heard of it! That’s a little unusual; I try to keep up with such things. Then I found out this image was taken in 2001! So it’s not like I ever had a chance to see it. Weird.

So I did what I always do in these situations: looked for references to it in professional journal research papers. And what I found was… almost nothing. There’s a good paper analyzing it by my friend Ilana Harrus, but not much else. Her paper came out a few months before this XMM-Newton observation though, and I couldn’t find a paper with these observations in it.

So I don’t have a lot of information about it. It’s probably about 5000 years old, and may be somewhere between 6000 and 16,000 light years away; pinning down these numbers is very difficult. The star that blew up was probably 8 – 10 times the mass of the Sun, actually a bit of a lightweight for a supernova progenitor. The nebula itself is clearly a shell with hot gas in the interior, but it’s hard to know much more about it. From Ilana’s paper I read that it has some features that make it look old, others younger. But the lack of deep observations keeps this object something of a mystery. I’d love to see some long exposures from Hubble or the Very Large Telescope in Chile. There really aren’t very many good examples of moderate age supernova remnants, and this looks to be a pretty nice example of one.

But geez, next time, someone let me know before a decade passes, OK?

Image credit: XMM-Newton/ESA


Related Posts:

- Cannonball star blasts away from the scene of the crime
- The closest supernova candidate?
- Happy 25th annniversary, Supernova 1987A!
- Blast site blastocyte

That's not what the Batsignal is supposed to look like!

By Phil Plait | September 23, 2012 7:00 am

The dark night rises?

[Click to stimulatedemissionate.]

Nope. This way cool picture is actually the Very Large Telescope observatory in Chile, though that really is a laser being shot into the sky. Our atmosphere boils and writhes, distorting the view of the stars. There’s a layer of sodium atoms in the atmosphere far above the ground, and the laser is designed to make them glow. This creates a very bright point-like source of light that the telescope can view, and measure in real time how the atmosphere is messing up the observation. This can then be compensated using very fast computers and adjustable mirrors, and the result is a far sharper image than could be obtained otherwise.

During this 30 minute exposure, the Earth rotated enough to trail the stars, and the laser was moved to stay on target. That’s why the stars are curves, and the normally pencil-thin laser looks like it does. It makes for a pretty slick effect! Shorter exposures are pretty amazing, too, and I have several linked in the Related Posts section below for your amusement.

Image credit: ESO/J. Girard


Related Posts:

- Beam me up!
- INSANELY cool picture of Comet Lovejoy
- Very Large Telescope, Very Stunning Time Lapse Video
- Oh great. Now we have lightning equipped with lasers.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

The puzzle of dogma

By Phil Plait | September 22, 2012 7:00 am

reddit user jerfoo created a lovely and simple photo series demonstrating the difference between experimental science – testing data and finding things out based on evidence – and dogmatic faith – belief in something rigidly and without wavering.

Read the whole thing; it’s wonderfully done. It’s been making the rounds on the net, and I like the way it’s set up and the message it delivers. Not everyone is so unwavering in their dogma, but enough people are (especially those who run this country) that this should be required reading by the time every US citizen reaches elementary school.


Related Posts:

- Natural born scientist
- Tennessee passes law allowing creationism in the classroom
- A win for reality in Texas!
- Texas creationist McLeroy spins the educational disaster he created

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Religion, Science, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: creationism

VERY bright and spectacular meteor seen over northern UK!

By Phil Plait | September 21, 2012 5:27 pm

Twitter just exploded with reports, pictures, and videos of an extremely bright fireball moving over the northern part of the UK at around 22:00 UTC. I’ve seen tweets from folks in Ireland, Manchester, and more. It was traveling east-to-west, and broke up into many pieces as it fell. No reports of it hitting the ground yet, though some pieces may fall all the way down.

Here’s the best video I’ve seen so far:

Other videos are not as clear but do show the same object (note the positions of the individual pieces as they move). Here’s one from Ross Shankland:

and another by Rowan Kanagarajah:

Here’s a picture from @Mr_Danger:

It’s too early to tell, but this may be a actual meteor – that is, a rock burning up – or it may be space debris, a piece of a satellite re-entering. Meteors tend to move quickly, zipping across the sky in a few seconds; they are moving at 20 – 50 kilometers per second and sometimes more. Orbital debris is slower, moving at less than 10 km/sec. Both have been known to break up (like the Peekskill meteor did, or the re-entry of an ATV in 2011).

I’ll update this as I get more info. But I have to say how jealous I am of everyone who saw this! And if you did witness it, you should file a report with the IMO, so they can collect all the info – it may help lead to finding meteorites, pieces that have made it all the way down to the ground!

My thanks to everyone who tweeted links to the pictures and videos.

MORE ABOUT: fireball, meteor

7000

By Phil Plait | September 21, 2012 9:32 am

According to my software, this blog post you are reading is the 7000th article I have published on the Bad Astronomy Blog.

Wow.

That’s a lot of words. It’s also a lot of astronomy, geekery, science, antiscience, web comics, puns, embiggenates, and "Holy Haleakala!"s (61, to be exact, plus this one to make 62).

I am generally not one to wade into maudlin celebrations of arbitrary numbers, so instead I’ll celebrate this milestone by showing you something appropriate: the North America Nebula, taken by Mexican astronomer César Cantú.

[Click to encontinentenate.]

Why is this appropriate? Because the New General Catalog of astronomical objects – familiar to and used by astronomers across the planet – lists it as entry number 7000.

And it should be obvious why it’s named as it is.

Of course, I can’t leave you with just a pretty picture. This nebula is something of a mystery; we don’t know how big it is or how far away it lies. In the sky, it’s very near the star Deneb – which marks the tail of the swan constellation Cygnus – and Deneb is a massive, hot, and luminous star. It’s possible the gas in the nebula is glowing due to the light from Deneb; if so NGC 7000 is about 1800 light years away and over 100 light years across.

It’s the site of furious star formation, too, with stars being born all along the bright sharp region which look like Mexico and Central America. The "Gulf of Mexico" region – the darker area with fewer stars – is actually the location of thick interstellar dust that blocks the light from the stars behind it. Visible light, that is; the dust glow in the infrared, so if you look at it with a telescope that sees IR like the Spitzer Space Telescope, what is invisible becomes ethereally visible:

This mosaic shows the North America Nebula in different wavelengths of light: in the upper left is visible light; the upper right is visible plus infrared, so you can see the two together; the lower left shows infrared light from 3.6 to 8 microns (roughly 5 – 11 times the longest wavelength the human eye can detect), and the lower right is similar but going out to 24 microns, over 30 times the wavelength we can see. The visible light images show the gas, while the infrared show not only the dust, but the warm spots where stars are being born, their new light penetrating the surrounding cocoons of material, reaching across space, and finally ending its journey here on Earth where we can detect it and learn from it.

I’ve struck upon many ideas for this blog over the past seven years, six months, and one week I’ve been writing it, but one of the most important is this: not everything is as it seems. Whether it’s someone’s opinion, a "fact", a picture, an argument, or even a vast sprawling cloud of gas and baby stars a thousand trillion kilometers across, this much is what astronomy and critical thinking has taught me: What you see depends very much on how you see it. And if you want a more complete picture, something that ever-approaches reality, you must view the Universe with different eyes and with an open, but trained mind. Only then will you not get fooled, and not fool yourself.

Thank you honestly and sincerely to everyone who’s been along with me this far into the ride, here on my 7000th milestone. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but it’s the journey itself that’s so much fun!

Image credits: César Cantú; NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Rebull (SSC/Caltech)/D. De Martin

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »