Category: Pretty pictures

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

A refreshing Shasta

By Phil Plait | November 11, 2012 7:00 am

The Cascade range of volcanoes is pretty impressive to see from the ground. Stretching from California up to Washington, it includes famous mountains like Saint Helens, Hood, and Rainier. I’ve seen many of these while driving in the area, and they’re even cooler from an airplane.

But I have to say, the view from the International Space Station might be best.

[Click to cascadienate.]

This shot was taken from the ISS on September 20, 2012, and shows the region around Mount Shasta, a 4300 meter peak in northern California. It’s technically dormant – it erupted last in 1786. In geologically recent history it’s erupted every 600 years or so, but that’s not a precise schedule, so geologists keep an eye on it, as they do many of the peaks in the Cascades. As well they should.

To the west of the mountain (to the right in the picture, near the edge) is the much smaller Black Butte. I only point that out because you can see a highway winding around it to the right. That’s I5, a major north-south highway, and a few years back when my family lived in Northern California, I drove it on our way to and back from Oregon. Black Butte was a pretty impressive lava dome, looking exactly what you expect a volcano to look like. And looming in the distance was Shasta, but more standard mountainy looking. That appearance is, of course, quite deceiving.

I love volcanoes, and I’m fascinated by them. I’m hoping to visit some more very soon.. and I’ll have some news about that, I think, in the near future.

Image credit: NASA


Do you like volcano pictures from space too? Here’s a bunch of ‘em!



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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Moon bounce

By Phil Plait | November 9, 2012 7:00 am

Of all the amazing pictures returned from the moon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – and I may include the Apollo landing sites among them – I think my favorites are the ones showing boulders that rolled down slopes.

Did I say rolled? I mean bounced!

[Click to enselenate.]

This shot from LRO shows the floor of crater Shuckburgh E, an impact crater about 9 km (~6 miles) across. The image shows a region about 655 meters (0.4 miles) across. The crater floor here is not level; it’s tilted up from left to right, and also has contours. Boulders dislodged for some reason (a seismic event, or a nearby impact) on the right have rolled down to the left… and some actually skipped along, bouncing and bounding as they did.

The two biggest trails are dashed, indicating the boulders had a bit of a rollicking time before coming to rest. You can see both boulders at the left of the trails, where they came to a stop. Note that the sunlight is coming from the bottom of this picture, which can play tricks on perspective. I see the boulders looking almost like craters and the skidding trails they left like little mounds. If you flip the picture over it may look better to you.

As always, pictures like this are a strong reminder that even on the Moon, where time stretches long and processes are slow, changes do occur. Maybe not often, and maybe not recently, but given enough time you have to think of the Moon as a dynamic place.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Wanna see the space station overhead? NASA will send you mail!

By Phil Plait | November 7, 2012 10:16 am

Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead is pretty cool. It glides soundlessly across the sky, getting brighter as it gets closer to you, whizzing by hundreds of kilometers above your head at 8 kilometers per second.

I usually go to Heavens-Above when I think of it to check when the next few passes will be. But wouldn’t it be nice if you get a text or email letting you know that a pass is about to happen?

NASA has set up a service to do just that: Spot The Station. You can give it your email or phone number, your location, and whether you’d like to see evening passes, morning ones, or both (because the station is lit by the Sun, you can only see it just after sunset or before sunrise).

That’s all there is to it. The next time the station is going to be visible from your location, NASA will send you a note. They also have a page describing what the message means, so you can go outside and figure out not just when to look, but where.

I’ll note there’s another service that does this as well: Twisst, which uses Twitter to let you know about good station passes at your location. It would be fun to compare them, actually. And useful, because they may have different criteria for what constitutes a good viewing opportunity. If you want to see the station, it might pay to hedge your bet.

And don’t forget to try to take a picture! The shot above is one I took a few years ago with nothing more than an off-the-shelf point-and-shoot camera set up on a tripod in my back yard. There are two streaks because one (on the right) is the station, and the other is the Space Shuttle Atlantis! I can guarantee you can’t get that shot again, but we do send other spacecraft to the station, so if you time it right you might get something like this. If you don’t try, it’s a sure thing you never will, so give it a shot!


Related Posts:

- Watch the skies for the Shuttle and ISS
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Time lapse: Helvetia’s Dream

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 2:19 pm

Oh my, another lovely night sky (and landscape!) time lapse video; this time from Alessandro Della Bella, and called Helvetia’s Dream:

[Make sure you set it to hi-def and make it full screen.]

I love the opening shot! Unless it was just digitally zoomed, it must have taken some planning; you have to know just where the Moon is going to rise to catch it that accurately.

A couple of other things to watch for, too:

At about 45 seconds in, a bright meteor leaves a long persistent train, a glowing trail that gets blown away by the thin but rapid winds 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. I actually gasped when I saw that!

At 1:30 you see the stars of Orion setting behind the Matterhorn, zoomed in. The big bright pink blob is the famed Orion Nebula, but just above it is the star Alnitak with a bit of nebulosity around it; the bright patch is the Flame nebula, and barely visible is the much fainter but iconic Horsehead Nebula.

I also love how the clouds – more like fog – flow through the valley. The study of how things flow is called hydrodynamics, and physicists use the word "fluid" to describe the stuff that’s flowing. In common vernacular that means liquid ("Have you been drinking enough fluids?") but in science air is a fluid. So is the thin gas in a nebula, since it can carry sound waves and be shaped by supersonic flow.

Whenever a doctor asks me if I’ve been taking my fluids, I always want to respond, "WHAT? And ionize my cardiovascular system?!"

I’ve never had the guts.

Anyway, one more thing: the Moon setting at the end is actually not full! The long exposure times makes it look that way, but when it nears the horizon you can see it’s really a thin crescent, but the dark part of the Moon is being illuminated by Earthshine: light from the Earth itself softly illuminating the nighttime moonscape, which is then reflected back to us.

There’s poetry in the heavens, if you know where to look.

Tip o’ the lens cap to MichaelPeterson on Twitter.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: time lapse

Breaking up is easy to do. If you’re a comet.

By Phil Plait | November 5, 2012 7:00 am

So there’s this comet named 168P/Hergenrother. It’s one of a bazillion such iceballs orbiting the Sun, but this one turns out to be more interesting than most. For one thing, it has a short period, orbiting the Sun once every 6.8 years or so. Its orbit goes out to about that of Jupiter’s, and reaches down into the inner solar system about as far as Mars. It never gets closer than about 80 million kilometers (50 million miles) to us, so it’s usually relatively faint, and you need a big ‘scope to observe it.

It was discovered in 1998, and made a second pass down our way in 2005. This year, 2012, it came by again, and folks around the world observed it as they do any comet. But then, in September, it gave us a surprise. A big one. Lots of observers were reporting that practically overnight the comet grew hugely in brightness, getting as much as 700 times brighter than expected! Not only that, but observations showed the shape of the comet had changed, going from fairly point-like to much fuzzier.

That could mean only one thing. The comet was breaking up.

The picture above is from the Faulkes Telescope North, located on the Hawaiian observatory on Haleakala. It’s a composite of lots of separate exposures that were added together; you can see the stars are trailed (actually stippled; each exposure was short but then shifted to line up on the comet). The comet is the bright fuzzy blob in the upper right, and if you look just below the main part you can see a second fuzzy blob, much fainter.

That’s proof positive the comet calved, or had a big chunk break off. In fact, observations using the huge Gemini telescope show that the main body has broken up into at least four pieces! So what does this mean?

First, don’t panic. We’ve seen this happen to comets before, and this one is so far away from us we’re in no danger at all. It literally cannot get near us.

Second, it’s very interesting scientifically. Comets are basically big frozen snowballs peppered with rock. Imagine scooping up a handful of gravel and snow and then packing into a loose ball. That’s a comet, if your snowball is several kilometers across and the ice is actually frozen water and carbon dioxide. When they are far from the Sun comets stay frozen and are exceedingly dim. When they get closer, the ice goes directly to a gas (called sublimation), and escapes from the solid part (called the nucleus). It expands and can form a big fuzzy head around the solid nucleus that can be tens of thousands of kilometers across, bigger than planets! This is also what gets blown back by the solar wind (and the pressure of sunlight) to form the tail(s) of the comet.

This means that every time a comet gets closer to the Sun and starts to sublimate, it dies a little bit. Material leaves the comet and never comes back. But that ice is what holds the comet together! So sometimes enough ice turns into a gas and escapes that the comet gets substantially weaker, and big chunks of it can dislodge, falling away. That’s what appears to have happened to Hergenrother.

While we’ve seen this before with other comets, it’s not like it happens every day, so any chance to see this occur is fascinating. In 2006 we watched as comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 literally disintegrated. Even more amazing, in 2007 the run-of-the-mill comet 17P/Holmes suddenly erupted, getting hugely brighter, and a huge shell of dust was seen to be expanding around it. Now we think Holmes collided with a small asteroid, and the violence of the event blasted off the material. I saw Holmes with own eyes when this happened, and even though it was past the orbit of Mars, the shell of dust was easily visible to the naked eye. It was awesome.

No two comets are ever really alike. They have different sizes, shapes, compositions, and orbits. And each will behave slightly differently as they round the Sun and head back into deep space. If there’s a lesson from Hergenrother, it’s this: it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on everything in the sky. Just because something looks routine now doesn’t mean it won’t try to pull a fast one later.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to AsteroidWatch NickAstronomer. Image credits: Hergenrother: LCOGT/Giovanni Sostero, Nick Howes, Alison Tripp & Ernesto Guido; Holmes: Tamas Ladanyi


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

The single greatest vacation picture ever taken

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2012 6:00 am

On Halloween 2012, when people were assembling their costumes and candy, the Mars Curiosity rover was assembling something truly spectacular: a jaw-dropping high-definition self-portrait that has to be seen to be believed:

[Click to enjohnny5enate. And yes, oh my yes, you want to.]

This incredible picture is a mosaic made up of 55 hi-res images taken by the MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager. That’s a camera designed to be able to take close-up shots of nearby rocks and other feature, but can also focus all the way out to infinity, allowing it to take pictures of distant geographical features as well.

Or, in this case, itself! Now get this: MAHLI is located at the end of the two-meter robotic arm. That was extended and then aimed back at the rover so it could take the pictures (think of every Facebook pic you’ve seen of party revelers holding a camera up and taking a snapshot of themselves). So why don’t you see the arm in these shots? It’s because it was edited out! The camera took several pictures which overlapped. So you’d get two shots of, say, the main body of the rover, each with the arm blocking a different part of the rover’s body. By combining the parts of each picture that don’t show the arm, you can edit it out of the final product. [UPDATE: What I said is technically possible, but not in fact what happened! Emily Lakdawalla has - haha - the scoop on this.]

In the end, you’re left with a pristine (if somewhat distorted) view of the rover as if you were standing there. And there’s so much more than just the rover! The rocks and sand covering the ground, the wheel tread prints in the surface, the small plain the rover sits on. And you can see the layered hills in the distance; those rise up to become the central peak of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s home… and also the rover’s eventual destination. Remember, it’s a rover. It roves.

Pictures like this also let engineers assess the rover’s status. They can look over the different parts and make sure everything’s OK, and also use it as a baseline in case something goes wrong later. It’s far more than just a pretty picture.

But oh my, it’s such a pretty picture!

You can get more info at Universe Today, and Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog points out some fun stuff to look for in the shot, too.

And, I suppose, the title of this post is somewhat misleading. It may look like Curiosity is sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, taking its own "Wish you were here!" picture. But in reality, it’s no vacation. Curiosity is there to work. And it has just two Earth years to unravel a few billion years of Martian history.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Purple shag Sun

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2012 10:05 am

The great astrophotographer Andre van der Hoeven sent me a shot he took of the Sun a few days ago. Looks like either Barney or the Grape Nehi folks paid it a visit:

[Click to envioletenate.]

Pretty cool. First, of course, the purple color is not real. It’s just the color Andre chose for this picture when he processed it. Second, he used an Hα filter, which lets through a very narrow slice of light (actually in the red part of the spectrum). This color is emitted by warm hydrogen, and is preferentially under the influence of the Sun’s magnetism. You can see arching prominences – huge towers of gas – off the edge of the Sun. The long stringy bits on the face of the Sun are called filaments, and are actually the exact same thing as prominences! Prominences are filaments we see from the side, instead of looking down on them. The terminology is a holdover from when astronomers first started observing the Sun, and we’re kinda stuck with it.

Also, Andre inverted the picture, so what looks black is actually very bright, and what looks bright is very dark. Those bright white blotches? Sunspots. For some reason, our brains can pick out detail better that way, and it also gives an eerie 3D sense to the image. He made a close-up mosaic of his pictures, too, which is actually a bit creepy. It’ll keep the Halloween spirit going for another day, at least!

Image credit: Andre van der Hoeven, used by permission.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Look! Up in the sky! It’s…it’s… it’s an amazing optics display

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2012 7:00 am

It’s funny what tiny little ice crystals can do. Floating high in the air, suspended by air currents, they hang there… and then a ray of sunshine enters them. The light gets bent due to complicated physics, the interplay of that beam of light passing from air to a solid crystal and out again. But once that beam leaves, the sky can light up with a wizard’s pattern of colors and shapes. And if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll see something that you’ll remember the rest of your life.

Something like this:

Holy diffractionation! [Click to heliocanesenate.]

Mind you, this picture is real. David Hathaway – appropriately enough, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – took it using a wide-angle lens to get the whole thing. It’s a High Dynamic Range shot, meaning he combined pictures with 3 different exposure times to see both faint and bright things simultaneously. He took the shot on October 30, 2012.

Everything you’re seeing here is pretty well understood: they all have a name and a specific set of circumstances under which you can see them.

The Sun is the bright blob near the horizon. It’s circled by the 22° halo, a fairly common optical effect in the winter; I see dozens every season. On either side of the Sun are parhelia, nicknamed sundogs. Those are the teardrop-shaped rainbows. Sometimes, as seen here, these stretch out into long streamers called parhelic circles. They are parallel to the horizon but in this wide-angle shot the shape is distorted, bending them up.

Directly above the Sun, dipping down to touch the halo (the math term for this is osculating, which means kissing) is a gull-wing curve called the tangent arc. Above it, connecting the "wings", is the Parry arc.

As an aside, I’ve seen tangent arcs only twice in my entire life. One was at a University of Virginia football game in the winter when the Sun was setting. It was so bright and looked so much like a V that I joked that it was a sign we’d win the game. Georgia Tech trounced us. So much for divination using signs in the sky.

Above the tangent and Parry arcs is a faint rainbow (well, it’s not caused by raindrops, but it’s broken up into colors and has the familiar rainbow-shape) called the Parry supralateral. Faint and off to the right, nicking the supralateral, is a tightly-curved rainbow called the Parry infralateral.

Amazingly, there are still two more to go! The upside-down rainbow at the top is called a circumzenithal arc, because it’s centered on the zenith, the point directly above your head.

Finally, the last thing I can see is a very faint white vertical oval on either side of the the 22° halo and going off the top of the frame, past the circumzenithal arc. That’s the heliac arc, something I’d never even heard of before looking it up here. That’s a new one for me.

Amazing, aren’t they? And get this: there are lots more kinds of phenomena like this, and they’re all caused by ice crystals in the air! The crystals have different shapes – some are flat, some barrel-shaped, so they bend light differently, and their orientation to us causes all these fantastic displays.

By coincidence, just a few days ago BABloggee Joe DePasquale (who works at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) also saw an aamazing display. Here’s one of the shots he sent me:

Wow. You can see a lot of the same features as in David Hathaway’s picture, too (in fact, Joe made a diagram so you can see what’s what). BABloggee Alan French let me know that there’s a fine gallery of them on Flickr, too.

It’s possible some of this was due to ex-Hurricane Sandy getting moisture high in the atmosphere where it could freeze into crystals. But I’ll note again that I have seen many of these same haloes myself. Most are not rare at all, and all you need to do is keep your eye on the sky. Seriously, one of the first things I do on any day where there are high clouds is look near (not at!) the Sun and see if there’s anything to be seen.

Usually there isn’t. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get that amazing display that makes all the fruitless searching totally worth it.

Look up! There’s a whole Universe out there. And some of the coolest stuff is really close to home, literally just over your head.

Image credits: David Hathaway; Joe dePasquale, used by permission. Tip o’ the Snell’s Law to SpaceWeather.com and to Elwood Herring for pointing it out to me.


Related Posts:

- Halo, how ya doin’ (a picture I shot myself, and one of my very first blog entries!)
- Ring around the Moon
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Top Post

They Came From Outer Space

By Phil Plait | October 31, 2012 6:00 am

Space is scary.

Supernovae explode, flooding their neighborhood with deadly high-energy light and blasting superheated matter outward at a large fraction of the speed of light. Black holes gobble down everything around them, and they’re sloppy eaters, spewing out deadly radiation and belching vast winds of gas. Galaxies collide, asteroids impact, entire worlds are chewed to dust by their violent stars.

And since ’tis the season, here’s a gallery of spooky pictures of nature: moaning nebulae, screaming stars, ghastly volcanoes, and more. Y’know, we humans love to make up stories about vampires and goblins to scare ourselves, knowing they’re just stories… but the Universe is real, and really, really terrifying. Mwuhahahahahaha!

Happy Halloween from the BA Blog!


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