Category: DeathfromtheSkies!

Revealed: My tattoo

By Phil Plait | November 12, 2012 6:00 am

Folks, it’s time. And an appropriate time: for my penultimate post here at Discover Magazine, I’ve decided to show you my tattoo.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but there were a lot of behind-the-scenes issues getting permissions I won’t bore you with. But by the time I was able to post this it was so long after I got inked it seemed a little silly. Still, Discover Magazine was the reason I got it, so it seems fair and fitting to post this now. And I’ve dyeing to let y’all know anyway.

As a brief recap, a few years ago I made a bet with then-Discover Magazine CEO, Henry Donahue: if I got 2 million page views in one month, and the magazine got 5 million total, we’d both get tattoos. In March 2009 we did it! So Henry and I went about getting inked.

He got a pretty nifty Celtic fish on his shoulder. For mine, I decided to turn to you, my readers, for suggestions. And they poured in. I narrowed it down to a handful I liked, then made my decision. Henry and I thought it would be fun for me to try to get my tattoo on the TV show "L.A. Ink", so I applied. They accepted! Discover Magazine generously offered to cover my expenses, and so a little while later I was on my way to Hollywood to get myself some ink.

That’s the basic story. So, without further ado, here it is: my tattoo!

Cool, huh? It’s perfect, and just what I wanted! And how appropriate is it to get an asteroid burning up over the Earth? I know, the scale’s a bit off, but it’s a tattoo, not a scientific graphic in the Astronomical Journal. And I love the flames and the colors.

The actual clip never wound up getting aired on TLC, but they did create a fully-produced version and put it up on YouTube – they have a higher res version on the TLC site. For those of you too lazy to click, here is the YouTube video version:

The first thing to note in the video is that while I seem upbeat I was actually screaming in pain inside my head. The whole thing took just under four hours, and the last quarter of that was where Dan was going over the flames again and again, shading in all the reds and oranges. The pain was, um, astonishing.

Still, I love the end result! If you’re looking to get a full-color tattoo, you could do a lot worse than Dan Smith. He’s an excellent artist, and a friendly guy. If I were to get another tattoo – which will never ever happen – I’d want him to do it.

Thank you Henry, thank you Dan, and thank you Discover Magazine for supporting this bit of fun. It was quite a ride, and I have a nice piece of art to show for it that’ll last the rest of my life.


Related posts:

- Big news: Bad Astronomy is moving to Slate magazine
- My secret nefarious inky plan revealed
- We who are about to dye
- Tat two

MORE ABOUT: L.A. Ink, tattoo

Awkwardly Embraceable interview

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 12:57 pm

My friend, the geekeriffic Jessica Mills, interviewed me for her blog on Tech Republic (the second part is here). It was a lot of fun talking with her; we wandered over topics like Hubble, Star Trek, science, Doctor Who, black holes, Neil Tyson and Bill Nye, and what I would do if I encountered advanced aliens in a wormhole (answer: self-promotion).

Jessica is amazing. She is a writer, producer, and actress, and was the driving force behind the very funny web series Awkward Embraces (which I wrote about in a post a while back). If you’re a geek – and you are – you should watch it.

She’s also just cool and funny and smart and talented, and you could do a lot worse than follow her on Tumblr and Twitter. Hey. She was a Geek-A-Week, so you know she’s cool.

MORE ABOUT: Jessica Mills

Update: meteorite from California fireball recovered

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2012 2:00 pm

[Update to the update (Oct 25): Apparently, the rock found is not actually a meteorite. These things can be tricky to identify, and the first conclusion was mistaken. Bummer.]

[Update to the update to the update; that is, update 3: (Oct 26): OK, see if you can follow along, since I barely can. A rock was found that was thought to be a meteorite from the fireball, and then thought not to be. Well, guess what? It's back on the list! A second rock was found a few kilometers away and identified as a meteorite, which prompted Peter Jenniskens to look over the first one again. He has concluded it actually is a meteorite. At this point, I think I'll hold off re-dis-un-updating all this, and if there's more news, I'll start a new blog post. Thanks to BABloggee Mike McJimsey for the link.]

This is exciting: a meteorite from last week’s fireball over northern California has been found! NBC is reporting a small chunk, 4-5 centimeters across and weighing about 60 grams, struck a house in Novato, California shortly after the fireball was seen.

They’re reporting Peter Jenniskens, a SETI astronomer and meteorite expert, confirmed the find. That’s critical: a lot of rocks are mistaken for meteorites by people (and the media) who aren’t familiar with them. This chunk is small, though, and given how bright the fireball was and how it was seen to fragment, I’d think bigger pieces must have fallen. That area is fairly well-populated – I used to live not far from there and cursed traffic every time I had to endure it – so hopefully more pieces will turn up.

The beauty of this is that because it was seen by several cameras and dozens of witnesses, the path across the sky can be well-determined. That can be backtracked in space to see where in the solar system it came from. And with an actual piece of that asteroid in hand, we can learn more about what conditions are like in parts of space we would otherwise have to send probes to explore.

It’s planetary science, and we get it essentially for free! And we got a really cool light show to go along with it. Everyone wins.

Image credit: Erin Murphy / NBC Bay Area


Related Posts:

- Bright fireball lights up northern California
- Q&BA: How do we know some meteorites come from Mars?
- Wisconsin meteor update: meteorite found
- I will rain iron and brimstone upon Texas…

MORE ABOUT: fireball, meteorite

The raw power of the Sun

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2012 11:00 am

Early this morning, while you were sleeping, or working, or reading Twitter, the Sun had different plans: it erupted, blasting an immense tower of plasma upward off its surface:

[Click to enheliosenate.]

This image was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory at 08:15 UTC this morning. The scale of it is staggering. The Sun is 1.4 million kilometers across – 860,000 miles – so this plume was at least 400,000 km long. Going back through the images, it had been brewing for hours, but really got its start around 05:00, meaning it erupted upwards at well over 100,000 km per hour. That’s fast enough to cross the face of our planet in less than 8 minutes.

By the way, did I mention the total mass of such a prominence is billions of tons? And the Sun does this kind of thing all the time.

We’re in no real danger from an eruption like this, especially this one: it’s on the Sun’s limb, so it was heading away from us. But these events can trigger storms like coronal mass ejections, where billions of tons of material is sent hurtling across the solar system at mind-crushing speeds. Those can interact with our magnetic field, creating havoc with our satellites and causing power outages.

But that’s why we keep an eye – many eyes, in fact – on our Sun. Never forget: our Sun is a star, with all the power and fury that implies. The better we understand it, the better we can protect ourselves from it when it gets angry.

Image credit: NASA/SDO. Tip o’ the welder’s glasses to Camilla SDO.


Related Posts:

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MORE ABOUT: prominence, SDO, solar storm, Sun

Bright fireball lights up northern California

By Phil Plait | October 18, 2012 9:03 am

On Wednesday evening, October 17, around 19:45 local time, a bright meteor blazed across the sky of northern California. Some reports say it was as bright as the full Moon, and there were reports of loud booming noises as well!

Wes Jones of Belmont got this spectacular shot using a fish-eye camera (posted on the NASA/Ames CAMS site):

For comparison, to the upper left of center is Altair, and to the lower right is Vega, two of the brightest stars in the sky! Clearly, this was an intense meteor.

The best video I’ve seen so far is from the Lick Observatory, though it’s out of focus because the camera was newly installed and hadn’t been adjusted yet:

As the meteor flares (possibly due to the main body of it fragmenting) you can see the dome of the telescope on the left in silhouette. Another video from the observatory only shows it for a moment, but you can see it fragmenting.

Local TV station ABC7 has spectacular pictures, but I haven’t been able to confirm them yet.

A lot of folks are speculating that this is part of the Orionid shower, which peaks this weekend. The direction and timing for the meteor are wrong for that though, so it’s certainly not an Orionid. Meteor showers generally don’t make fireball like this. Also, showers are pretty frequent, so any random bright meteor has a decent chance of occurring during one just by coincidence. So be wary of claims like that.

The noise reports appear to be real, though. Some people say their houses were shaken like in an earthquake. This means the meteoroid (the solid part ramming through our atmosphere) was of a decent size (like a beachball, maybe? Hard to say) and got low enough in the atmosphere to have the sonic boom carried by air. Most small meteoroids burn up 100 km or so above the Earth, so no noise is heard. The noise coupled with the obvious fragmentation mean that there may be meteorites that hit the ground from this event. It’s not yet clear if it fell over the ocean or not, so I’ll try to keep up with the news and update this post as I find out more.

If you live in the US and ever do see a fireball, it’s a good idea to note the direction it’s traveling and your location as best you can, and then report it to the American Meteor Society. If you get pictures or videos, send them to me! I’d love to post them if I can.

Picture credit: Wes Jones and the NASA/Ames CAMS site.


Related Posts:

- VERY bright and spectacular meteor seen over northern UK! (and this update)
- Video of the daylight California fireball
- Best video of Soyuz rocket burning up so far
- … and a real meteor over Georgia

Veronicarmageddon

By Phil Plait | October 10, 2012 2:01 pm

My pal Veronica Belmont hosts a show on TechFeed called Fact or Fictional, where she investigates the science of a movie based on viewer suggestions. She recently took on the wonderful fantastic gawd-awful piece of festering offal "Armageddon", talking to scientist Joe Hanson, who writes the terrific It’s OK to Be Smart blog.

Let’s just say they agree with me about the movie:

Yay! That was fun. This pretty much follows my own recent thoughts on the movie, as well as my original review of it when it came out in 1998.

If you want to learn how we’d really prevent an asteroid impact, and why we need to take this seriously, I gave a TEDxBoulder talk about it. It’s a real threat, but one we can prevent if we choose to do so.


Related Posts:

- Astronomy Veronica Anemone
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The song of killer electrons

By Phil Plait | October 1, 2012 12:15 pm

Light and sound are two fairly different things. They’re both waves, but their similarity ends there. Sound is a compression wave: something happens (like a tree falling in a forest) that compresses air a little bit, and that wave travels outward at – shockingly – the speed of sound. Your ears detect it, and your brain translates it into sound.

Light is an electromagnetic wave. The whole story is fairly complicated, but it’s an oscillation of electric and magnetic fields, and doesn’t need a medium (like air or water) through which to travel.

But because they’re both waves, light and sound have a frequency and an amplitude. If you’re clever – and we humans are – you can convert one to the other… well, more like translate one to the other. It’s not like it’s a real conversion, with physical meaning (like converting feet to meters). But it can make for an interesting, and lovely, experience.

In August 2012, NASA launched a pair of satellites called Radiation Belt Storm Probes. They are designed to detect the electromagnetic radiation (also called EM for short) emitted as charged particles bip and bop around Earth’s magnetic field, high above the surface. Various phenomena in the geomagnetic field produce radio waves – which are a form of light, but too low energy for our eyes to detect. These waves can have the same frequency as sound waves we can hear – a few Hertz, or oscillations per second – so they can be directly translated into sound. Scientists did that using RBSP data, and it sounds eerie and beautiful.

Here’s the sound file of these waves. It’s… odd. Like birdsong, but unearthly. You can understand why scientists call these waves "chorus".

And they’re handy, too. Translating light to sound in this way can be helpful in understanding it, much like creating color pictures helps astronomers understand data better. The folks at NASA put together this video to explain all this:

This is actually pretty important stuff. Electrons blown from the Sun in the solar wind get trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, like bugs in a net. Usually these are low energy particles, which eventually follow the magnetic field lines to the Earths poles, where they are deposited safely into our atmosphere. But sometimes, something caffeinates these electrons, pumping them up to very high energies. They travel so quickly that if they hit one of our satellites, they can damage the electronics! The reasons benign particles can turn into "killer electrons" isn’t well understood, but it may have to do with these chorus waves. Understanding them better means we can protect our satellites better, and since we spend trillions of dollars on satellites, there’s some decent motivation to make sure they work well.

Also? It’s just cool. If you like the killer electron song, then you’ll get a kick out of other sounds created the same way, from the aurora to meteors burning up in our atmosphere! You’ll find links to those listed in Related Posts below.

Image of my good friend Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, aka Noisy Astronomer, used totally without her permission. Won’t she be surprised?


Related Posts:

- Hear the Sun’s roar
- Listen in on the Perseid meteor shower
- Saturn, the Forbidden Planet
- Phoenix sings
- Laying down the pulsar beat

Two talks in the Old Dominion!

By Phil Plait | September 26, 2012 12:30 pm

This week sees me returning to the state I grew up in: Virginia.

I’ll be at James Madison University Thursday, September 27 to give my "2012: We’re All (not) Gonna Die!" talk – basically destroying the Mayan December 21, 2012 apocalypse nonsense – at 7:00 p.m at the Wilson Hall Auditorium. Admission is free and open to the public.

The talk is sponsored by the John C. Wells Planetarium, JMU Department of Physics & Astronomy, College of Science & Mathematics, and the JMU Center for STEM Education & Outreach. They even made the awesome poster seen here! [Click to Kukulkanenate.]

Then, the next day – Friday, September 28 – I’ll be at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, to be the keynote speaker for the 2012 Forum for Interdisciplinary Dialogue called "Fact, Fiction, and Supposition"! I’m honored to be a part of this event sponsored by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and the Jefferson Graduate Fellows at the University of Virginia.

That talk is also open to the public, and will be at 16:00 at The Jefferson Scholars Foundation Hall. They’ve set up a Facebook page for the event if you like that sort of thing. My good friend Dr. Nicole Gugliucci (and UVa alumna) will be speaking the next day there, too!

I haven’t been back to central Virginia in a good long time, so it’ll be nice to see it again. I hope the trees are turning now! And I hope to see some of you Wahoos there, too.


Related Posts:

- If the Mayans were right, it was probably about Internet comments
- Re-cycled Mayan calendar nonsense
- MSNBC interview: 2012, the year the Earth doesn’t end. Again.

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

Jupiter gets rocked by an impact again

By Phil Plait | September 17, 2012 10:00 am

By now you’ve probably heard that on September 10, Jupiter got whacked by an asteroid or comet again. It was seen directly by amateur astronomer Dan Peterson, and video was taken by George Hall, who kindly posted a fairly awesome a four-second clip on Flickr:

[You may need to refresh this page to see it.]

You can read more about it at Scientific American.

I tweeted about this shortly after it happened (I was returning from the UK and didn’t have time to write about it here), and got a lot of people wondering how big the flash was. On the video it looks like it’s thousands of kilometers across! But that’s not real; the size you see is due mostly to the optics of the telescope and video camera Hall used (plus other factors like atmospheric blurring). Given the brightness I guessed the object was a kilometer or so across, but I heard a radio interview the other day (I missed the guest’s name; sorry) where an astronomer said it may have been only 10 meters across – the size of a large truck.

I was surprised at first when he said that, but then realized something critical: Jupiter is a lot bigger than Earth.

The energy released by an asteroid upon impact depends primarily on two things: how big it is and how fast it’s moving. For a given asteroid, that means it’ll explode with far more energy if it hits Jupiter, because Jupiter’s gravity is much stronger than Earth’s, and pulls the rock in faster. Simply because of this, impacts on Jupiter can be greater than 20 times more energetic than on Earth. There are other factors (like orbital speeds, what direction the asteroid was moving, and so on), but in general and pound for pound Jupiter impacts are bigger than on Earth.

A 10-meter rock hitting the Earth will release roughly as much energy as a 0.1 megaton bomb, whereas on Jupiter that same rock will release about 2 megatons. A rock twice that size will have 8 times the mass (volume increases with the cube of the radius) so even if it were 20 meters across, the explosion could’ve been in the 15 – 20 megaton range, which is starting to get to the size of the largest nuclear weapons ever detonated on Earth.

So yeah, that’s a lot of power. It doesn’t take a big rock to make a bright flash when you’ve got Jupiter pulling the strings.

And the big planet gets hit a lot. The last one seen was on August 20, 2010, and it got whacked in June 2010 as well as in July 2009 (not to mention the ferocious series of impacts in 1994 from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9). That’s pretty close to one biggish impact seen per year, and remember we only see half of Jupiter at a time, and it’s not observed constantly! So the real rate is probably far higher.

I also got a lot of people asking why we call it an impact when Jupiter has no solid surface. That’s because the rock will still explode as it rams through Jupiter’s dense atmosphere; I wrote an explanation of this for an earlier impact. The 1908 Tunguska event here on Earth was an air blast, as well.

It’s amazing we can see these planetary at all, but that’s due to the digital revolution: amateur astronomers take video of Jupiter and other objects to maximize the number of frames they get, which they then can combine into amazing images. A nice side-effect from this is the collection of rapidly-taken data providing long coverage of the planets, which means significantly increasing the odds of seeing something like this. That is precisely why we’re seeing more impacts now than ever before. They’ve always been happening, we’re just a whole lot better at seeing them.

Which is a sobering thought. The Universe is worth investigating, if only for our own self-interest.


Related Posts:

- ANOTHER Jupiter impact?
- FOLLOWUP: Jupiter impact video and a color picture
- Jupiter: bringing the hammer down
- Hubble pix at Jupiter’s scar

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