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)
- The rocket, the laser, and the northern lights (still one of the best aurora pix ever)
- Shimmering purple aurora after a powerful solar storm
- Up, up, and aurora!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Splashdown!

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 9:56 pm

Because why not: raw (that is, shaky) footage of the splashdown of the SpaceX Dragon capsule from Sunday morning, taken by the SpaceX dive team:

SpaceFlightNow is reporting the capsule was recovered and will soon be on its way first to NASA, and then the SpaceX facilities in Texas.


Related Posts:

- The Dragon returns to the nest
- Frankenstorm and the Dragon
- SpaceX Falcon 9 lost an engine on the way up; Dragon on its way to ISS
- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, SpaceX

The Dragon returns to the nest

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 1:38 pm

As I write this, moments ago, the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a two week mission to the International Space Station. Splashdown occurred at 19:22 UTC. Yay!

[UPDATE (20:30 UTC): SpaceX has a picture of the Dragon floating in the Pacific:

Click to ensmaugenate.]

This ends the first operational mission of the Dragon. It’s the first of twelve contracted by NASA to bring supplies up to and back from the ISS. There was no live coverage of the splashdown, unfortunately (and no, I don’t know why; I imagine that’ll come out soon) but NASA did get footage of the Dragin un-berthing from ISS. Here it is, sped up 15x:

I should add the "Enterprise leaving drydock" music from Star Trek II in there.

Anyway, congrats to everyone at SpaceX and NASA. I’ll note that while most of this mission went smoothly, there is still the issue of the engine that failed during launch, resulting in the loss of an ORBCOMM satellite secondary payload. Hopefully SpaceX will discuss this more during the mission wrap-up.

Image credit: SpaceX


Related Posts:

- Frankenstorm and the Dragon
- SpaceX Falcon 9 lost an engine on the way up; Dragon on its way to ISS
- History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space

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
- The Milky Way and the Mashed Potatoes Mountain

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

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

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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