Category: Pretty pictures

A wind is rising

By Phil Plait | October 30, 2012 9:49 am

What is now the post-tropical cyclone Sandy, as seen by the NASA/NOAA weather satellite GOES-13 at 06:02 Eastern US time, on October 30, 2012:

[Click for a much larger version, or get the 3600 x 3000 pixel image.]

Like anyone not on the east coast, I have been watching this event unfold from the sidelines. Twitter has been an amazing source of information (and misinformation, in general quickly debunked). I saw links to a video of transformer exploding on 14th street, ubiquitous flooding, cars floating in water, and so much more. There were so many pictures, real and fake, that Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic wrote a great article on how to distinguish between them.

The pictures have been powerful, but the stories have been amazing. I’ve seen messages from friends who are safe offering – publicly – their apartments and houses for strangers who need a place to stay. People rescuing others from the flooding. Calls for watching out for neighbors, relatives, even pets, with responses. The most moving, perhaps, is of nurses at the NYC hospital carrying infants down nine flights of stairs in the dark after a generator went out.

That one will haunt me for a long, long time.

A question I’ve seen a lot is: what was the role of global warming in all this? Christopher Mims wrote a short, measured analysis of this that matches my thinking almost exactly. Basically, it’s hard to know the precise role of global warming in the formation, movement, power, and damage caused by Sandy, but what we do know is that the Atlantic had warmer temperatures for longer than usual – conditions consistent with global warming – and that is a source of both energy and water for the hurricane. There is some thought that the huge arctic sea ice melt this year may have contributed to the abrupt westward turn of the hurricane into the coast. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation; the details are difficult to calculate and we may never know.

But we do know that something looking very much like this has been predicted by climate scientists. This may be an unusual event – after all, the nor’easter timing was important, and the spring tides from the full Moon contributed as well – but it’s hard to say just how unusual it will be in the future. Warmer waters lead to an extended hurricane season which can stretch into the time when nor’easters are more likely to occur. These circumstances loaded the dice. And as Mims so aptly phrased it, the reality of global warming means "climate change, by definition, is present in every single weather event on the planet."

There has been some political opportunism with this storm as well. I am not a fan of such parasitism; latching on to an opportunity under the thinnest of pretense to trump a partisan view. However, let me be clear: we just had the world’s biggest metaphor come ashore in the United States. Years of outright climate change denial and faux skepticism will hopefully be shaken by this event. Sea ice melting happens far away; droughts, fires, shifting weather is unpredictable and difficult to grasp; statistical graphs are easily manipulated by special-interest groups and generally difficult to interpret anyway. But a hurricane a thousand miles across doing tens of billions of dollars of damage and causing untold chaos is more than a wake up call.

It should be a shot of adrenaline into the heart.

My own heart goes out to everyone who has had to deal with this storm, and I am uplifted by the stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. I am a skeptic and a realist, but there is also a streak of optimism in me. When faced with extraordinary challenge, I will always hope that humans will rise to match it.

Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

Looking up to Saturn

By Phil Plait | October 30, 2012 7:00 am

Just in case you’ve forgotten how brain-destroyingly big Saturn is:

[Click to encronosenate.]

This shot of the ringed wonder was taken by the Cassini spacecraft when it was well over 2 million kilometers from the planet. The spacecraft was south of the rings, looking "up" toward the north. The Sun is shining down on the rings from this perspective, so they look darker than you might expect, and the use of a near-infrared filter accentuates storms in the southern hemisphere cloudtops.

So why does this picture grind my mind to dust? Look at the the very top, near the center. Can you see that dot of light? You might need to click the picture to get the hi-res version to see it better; that’s how small it is.

Except it isn’t. That dot of light is Mimas, a moon of Saturn, and it’s 400 km – 250 miles – across! That’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri, and compared to Saturn it’s reduced to a mere pixel of light. And even then, Saturn’s rings are still too big to fit in this picture!

The scale of the solar system crushes me. And yet there we are, poking around and sticking our noses into it. We humans are pretty awesome.

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


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- The moon that almost wasn’t
- OMG! They killed Mimas!
- A trillion and five moons
- An unusual view of the Death Star moon

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Mimas, Saturn

Time lapse: Close to the Heavens

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2012 12:15 pm

[Personal note: With a hurricane bearing down on the US, I dithered over posting this now... but maybe some of you good folks could use more Moments of Calm.]

Astronomy PhD student Péter Pápics sent me a note about a time lapse video he made at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in the Canary Islands. I’ve been to this observatory, attending a meeting there many years ago. It’s a place of incredible beauty, so I was eager to see his video, and when I watched it I was thrilled to see it was even better than I hoped. Here is Mercator: Close to the Heavens. Make sure you set it to hi-def and full screen.

Many time lapse videos now use a small motor-driven rig to move the camera very slowly as it takes the pictures, but that limits how long a sequence you can shoot. Péter made two choices here: to use a steady tripod which allows longer shots, and to pick a frame rate that accentuates the magnificent grace of the motion depicted. The clouds flow like oceans, and the stars move serenely. His choice of Moonlight Sonata works well here, especially since the sequences are shown in time order, with the setting Sun leading to a night of observations at this important and heavily-used astronomical site.

I’ll have to bookmark this video; when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed with the need to save the world, this will help me remember what it is we’re trying to save.


Related Posts:

- While the Sun Was Sleeping
- My God, it’s full of star trails
- Time lapse: stunning Australian skies over a pathfinding array
- Emerald Isle time lapse

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Sandy’s Big Night

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2012 9:47 am

Last night On October 28, at 02:42 Eastern US time, NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite took this incredible picture of Hurricane Sandy, poised to strike the coast:

[Click to coriolisenate, or download the typhoonesized 3500 x3500 pixel version.]

Suomi-NPP has fantastic imaging capabilities, including a camera which can "see" across the spectrum from green light out into the infrared. City lights in the southeast are easy to spot from their own glow, while Sandy’s dangerous clouds are illuminated by the nearly full Moon. I recommend getting the super-hi-res image and simply scanning around. The detail is amazing.

I suppose this is how a mouse feels, staring into the eyes of snake. There is a simultaneous dread, paralyzing fear, and entrancing beauty to hurricanes seen from space. I marvel when I see these… and then I remember the dozen or so hurricanes I’ve lived and driven through; the adrenaline surges every time I heard a branch crash down; the lying in bed at night awake, wondering what I’d awaken to. There can be terror in beauty.

I escaped all that by moving to Colorado, trading it all instead for flooding, fires, drought… we all have our crosswind to bear, I suppose. But in this case, Sandy is clearly the front page news. If you’re in its path, stay safe and warm.

Image credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon/NASA/NOAA/DoD

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures

Unfurled aurora

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2012 7:00 am

Every time I think I’ve posted just the most sensational aurora picture I’ve seen, another one comes along that has me scraping my jaw off the floor. Check out this shot by photographer David Cartier:

[Seriously, click to enbirkelandate.]

I know, right? That spiral shape is fascinating. Aurorae are formed when charged particles from the Sun slam into the Earth’s magnetic field and interact with it. They’re channeled down into our atmosphere, guided by the Earth’s field, and the shape of the aurora reflects the underlying magnetic field lines. They take on fantastic shapes, including spirals like this, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen curled in a way so well-defined and crisp.

If you look carefully at the bigger version, you’ll see some familiar stars like those forming the constellation Auriga in the center, while the Pleiades are visible nestled in the spot right where the aurora starts to wind up. The bright "star" which is also reflected in the water is actually Jupiter. I had a hard time distinguishing it from the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus, but I think that’s lost in the brightest part of the spiral (though you can see it better in the water to the right of the stretched-out Jupiter reflection).

David lives in the Yukon Territory, not far from the southeast corner of Alaska, and I imagine aurorae are a fact of life there. He has quite a few devastating shots of the northern lights in his Flickr stream. Treat yourself and take a look. His shots of atmospheric phenomena are also incredible.


Related Posts:

- Aurora, in the pink (explaining aurora colors, and this followup)
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- Shimmering purple aurora after a powerful solar storm
- Up, up, and aurora!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Hurricane Sandy intensifies as it grows

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 10:51 am

The NASA/NOAA weather satellite GOES-13 is capturing images of Hurricane Sandy, and the animation below shows the growth of this massive storm over the time period of October 26 to today, Sunday the 28th, ending just after 16:00 UTC (10:00 a.m. Eastern US time):

[You may need to refresh this page to see the video.]

Wow. You can see it forming a clear eye again toward the end. If you live in the northeast US, you’ve probably already been hearing the news and been given advice on what to do to prepare. My take on it? Heed it. This sucker is a big one, and the current forecast looks like it will come ashore in the Delaware/New Jersey region, but will affect the coast for hundreds of kilometers north and south of there, as well as pretty far inland.

For updates and such, try the National Weather Service Hurricane Center. The sidebar on that page has lots more info, including advisories.

Image credit: NASA GOES Project. Tip o’ the poncho hood to NASAGoddard on Twitter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Pretty pictures

Namibian quiver trees and the glow of a galaxy

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 7:00 am

Florian Breuer is a mathematician who teaches in South Africa. He’s also a photographer, and created this spectacular panorama of the Quiver Tree Forest near Keetmanshoop, Namibia.

[Click to embiggen and see the whole shot; I had to crop it a bit to fit here.]

Isn’t that gorgeous? The arch of the Milky Way behind the trees is beautiful, and when I look at this picture I can’t help but think of an array of radio telescope dishes turned toward the heavens.

By eye, the Milky Way is easily visible on a dark night from a dark site. The diffuse glow of the distant stars is interrupted by the accumulated absorption by clouds of dust between them and us, splitting the glow along its middle. In photographs like this, of course, those features leap right out.

Do you want to take pictures like this? Florian wrote up a pair of essays (first and second) describing how he made this and a few other images from his trip to Namibia. Of course, I suspect the first step is travel to Namibia, which may prove difficult for some of us. Still, there are plenty of places to take devastating pictures of the sky. Maybe even near you! So give it – haha – a shot.

Image credit: Florian Breuer, used by permission


Related Posts:

- Raging clouds, near and very, very far
- Time lapse: stunning Australian skies over a pathfinding array
- Milky Way Down Under
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

The return of Sauron’s planet

By Phil Plait | October 27, 2012 7:00 am

First it was there, then it wasn’t, and now it just may be back again: the first exoplanet directly observed orbiting a normal star, Fomalhaut b, has had quite a ride.

[This post has a bit of detail to it, so here's the tl;dr version: new analysis shows an object orbiting the star Fomalhaut may actually be a planet, enveloped in a cloud of dust. We can't for sure it exists, but we can't say it doesn't, either! Earlier claims of it not existing may have been premature. Also, at the bottom of this post is a gallery of direct images of exoplanets.]

First a brief history. In 2008, astronomers revealed huge news: they had successfully taken images of planets orbiting other stars. Up until then, the only evidence we had of exoplanets was indirect, either by their tugging on their stars which affects the starlight, or by having them pass between their stars and us, dimming the starlight.

But, along with Gemini telescope pictures of a family of planets orbiting HR 8799, Fomalhaut b was the first planet ever seen directly, as a spark of light in a picture. Here is that historic shot:

It’s Sauron’s eye! [Click to embiggen.]

The object is labeled. It doesn’t look like much, but the important thing to note is that it moved between 2004 and 2006 (see picture below), and it was definitely in both images taken two years apart. That means it wasn’t some bit of noise or detector error. Moreover, the movement was consistent with what you’d expect from a planet. Not only that but the star Fomalhaut is surrounded by a vast ring of dust – Sauron’s eye – and the inner edge of the ring is sharp. That’s what you would expect if a planet was orbiting inside the ring; its gravity sweeps up the dust on the inside of the ring. Given the brightness, we were looking at an object with a few times Jupiter’s mass, much smaller than a star, so definitely a planet.

All in all, it looked good, and it looked real.

Then, in early 2012, some astronomers threw a Pluto-esque wet blanket on the news. A planet that big should be bright in the infrared. Fomalhaut is a youngish star, only a few hundred million years old. Any planet more massive than Jupiter should still be hot, radiating away the heat of its formation. They looked for it in the infrared, and it wasn’t there.

Uh oh.

To make things worse, they found that if you extrapolate the orbit of the supposed planet using its movement, it should cross the ring. That’s bad, because its gravity would disrupt the ring after a few million years tops. The ring is there, so that planet means the planet must not be.

Their conclusion: this object is a clump of dust, a cloud, orbiting the star. That fits the data, and a planet doesn’t. Cue the sad trombone.

But wait! We’re not done!
Read More

Frankenstorm and the Dragon

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 3:01 pm

Holy wow, check this out: I grabbed a screenshot from footage on October 26 of Hurricane Sandy from the International Space Station:

Yegads. Look at the storm center; you can see it towering above the cloud deck and feeder bands of the storm. As if that’s not cool enough, that bit of hardware on the left is actually the SpaceX Dragon capsule, berthed to the ISS since October 10. It is expected to undock and return to Earth on Sunday, splashing down in the Pacific ocean at 12:20 PDT.

Looking at this, I’m not sure if I should be awed or terrified. I think I’ll take a little of both.

[Update: Just to be clear, I am not making light of this hurricane. It's already killed over 20 people in the Caribbean, and I noted how dangerous it is in my earlier post. As I said in a post about Hurricane Isaac: "Pictures of hurricanes from space are amazing. As always, there’s a fascinating dichotomy to pictures like this, a simultaneous ethereal beauty and repellent violence. Hurricanes are magnificent, and terrifying."]

Image credit: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures, Space

Hurricane Sandy looms over the US

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2012 11:16 am

Hurricane Sandy is currently churning up the ocean of the United States’ southeast coast. As the core hit landfall over Cuba yesterday, NASA’s Suomi-NPP satellite took this image of the monster storm in the infrared:

[Click to coriolisenate.]

Holy crap. That’s a big hurricane. It’s being nicknamed Frankenstorm due to it size, and I’m seeing lots of predictions that it’ll be bigger and more damaging even than The Perfect Storm of 1991. This is because Sandy is a hurricane in its own right, but there is also a nor’easter, a low pressure system, off the coast farther north. Together, these two systems can produce a much larger storm capable of dropping a lot of rain and flooding inland areas. On top of that, of course, there’s also high winds.

The system is also slow moving, potentially making things a lot worse. That gives it more time to do damage, of course, but we’re also approaching the full Moon on October 29. It’s not the Moon’s phase that matters, but the position: when it is aligned with the Sun in the sky (either at full or new phase) the tidal force from the Moon aligns with that of the Sun, adding together. The tides from the Sun are about half the strength of the Moon’s, but together (called Spring Tide) they can increase the chance of flooding because high tide is slightly higher than normal.

The storm is expected to strengthen on Monday or Tuesday, and a lot of models show it moving north and then west, over the east coast. I urge everyone to keep your eyes on the news to see what’s what.

Also, I heard an interesting piece of advice that seems sound to me: rake your leaves! Leaves get clogged in drains and can aid flooding. By getting leaves up out of your yard, it lowers the odds of flooding – though by how much I couldn’t say. Still, it sounds like something that can’t hurt, especially given some of the predictions I’ve seen for more than 20 centimeters (8-10 inches) of rain!

Keep safe, everyone.

Image credit: NOAA/NASA


Related Posts:

- Mosaic of home
- East of the Blue Marble
- Hurricane Isaac menaces the Gulf coast
- The pressure of living on a spinning planet

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures
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