Tag: Australia

Moonbow, Milky Way, meteor

By Phil Plait | October 21, 2012 7:00 am

If you’ve read this blog before, then all I really need to tell you is that Thierry Legault took a picture.


While in Queensland, Australia, Thierry took this shot of Wallaman Falls. While the Milky Way shone down, a meteor zipped past, adding to the drama. But what’s that at the bottom? A rainbow? At night?

Yup. Well, kinda. It’s a Moonbow, the same thing as a rainbow but with the Moon as the light source. Well, and it’s not raindrops that cause it, but aerosolized water droplets acting as little prisms, breaking the light up into the usual colors. Moonbows are very faint, but they show up in long exposures like this one.

Leave it to Thierry to not be satisfied with just our galaxy, a bit of interplanetary debris vaporizing, and a waterfall in his shot. Amazing.

He has more pictures from that trip, and yeah, you want to see them. His photos have been on this blog so many times I can’t even list them, but check out the Related Posts below, click the links, then click the links at the bottom of those posts (or you can use my search engine). It’s a journey that’ll widen your eyes.

[UPDATE: Thanks to pixguyinburbank on Twitter, I learned of a wonderful video about moonbows put out by the folks at Yosemite National park in the US. It’s so good I’ll just add it here so you can see it. Fantastic!


Image credit: Thierry Legault, used by permission.

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… I’m just on my way up to Clavius
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Time lapse: stunning Australian skies over a pathfinding array

By Phil Plait | October 3, 2012 9:58 am

In the Australian Outback, hundreds of kilometers from the noise and lights of any city, stand three dozen radio telescopes, each a dozen meters across. Working as a single unit, they patrol the skies looking at cosmic objects emitting low-energy light.

Photographer Alex Cherney visited this remote observatory and created a really lovely time lapse video of the telescopes at work:

[The video is also available on YouTube.]

The telescopes taken together are called the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP. The Square Kilometer Array is a project currently underway in Australia and South Africa to create the largest radio telescope in the world. ASKAP is a testbed for SKA, used to check out various technology and techniques that SKA will employ. But ASKAP is a full-fledged observatory in its own right, and will add to our arsenal of instruments peering into deep space.

The video is beautiful, and as always when I watch these from Australia, I’m overwhelmed by the southern skies. The stars are different than the ones we see up here, but it’s not just that. What always gets me is how, from my own experience, the motion is backwards! When I want to see Orion from my home I face south; it rises on my left, moving to the upper right. But in Oz, it rises on the right and moves to the left! Things are flipped when you’re upside-down relative to what you’re used to… and that’s driven home by seeing Orion standing on his head!

And the Milky Way. Wow. The center of our spiral galaxy never gets very high from Boulder, but in Australia it passes well overhead, freed from the haze and murk of the horizon. Blazing gloriously, in it you can pick out nebulae, dust clouds, and more as you gaze over tens of thousands of light years of interstellar space. Alpha and Beta Centauri, the Coal Sack, the Large Magellanic Cloud… all of these are easy to spot to the trained eye.

Every time I’m at a dark site and I look out into the sky, I soak up its beauty and am awed by it. But more than that, I know what I’m looking at. Knowledge adds another dimension to what you see, a profound sense of connection and understanding that warms the brain and the heart.

Learn everything you can. Not just about astronomy, but everything. Don’t be afraid of knowledge; revel in it. Far from taking away any beauty or art from the world, it makes life richer, and far, far more wonderful.

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

Victoria, Australia government wants to stop free pertussis vaccines

By Phil Plait | May 29, 2012 12:38 pm

[Note: Although I think it’s clear in the text below, I changed the title of this post to reflect the fact that it’s the Victorian government doing this, not the Federal Australian government.]

In Australia, pertussis — whooping cough — is at epidemic levels. There were over 38,000 cases last year, and it’s killed eight babies since 2008. Despite this, the Health Minister of Victoria wants to cut a program that provides free pertussis vaccines for caregivers and parents of babies. He claims (under advice of a panel of experts) that it isn’t providing sufficient clinical results, but many doctors are concerned what this will do to the already too-high rates of infection.

Even if the results aren’t as good as hoped, it would make sense to fund this program until infection rates are down, at least to where they were before the epidemic.

Toni McCaffery — the mother of Dana McCaffery, one of those eight infants killed by pertussis — has created a petition to continue the program. If you live in Australia, I urge you to read it and sign it if you choose.

And please, please talk to your board-certified doctor and see if you need a shot or a booster.

Why? Because of this, and this, and dammit, because of this.

As long as antivaxxers spread their thin gruel of nonsense, as long as people think it’s OK to get a religious exemption from a life-saving vaccination, as long as people aren’t even aware that as adults they need to keep up with their TDAP booster shots (as I wasn’t), then I will continue to write about this.

As long as babies are dying, I’ll continue to write about this. Let’s hope I can stop very, very soon.

Related Posts:

Followup: Antivaxxers, airlines, and ailments
UPDATE: partial Complete success with American Airlines!
Whooping cough outbreak in Boulder
Stop antivaxxers. Now.

Dragon hunting above, dragon hunting below

By Phil Plait | May 27, 2012 7:10 am

On May 23 — the day after the SpaceX Dragon capsule launch — International Space Station astronaut André Kuipers snapped this shot of the Earth:

[Click to ensmaugenate.]

André — who’s Dutch — put this up with the caption "Er zit een draak achter ons aan!" — "There’s a dragon after us!". That’s a funny pun, given the name of the capsule that was already on its way there.

But he didn’t say what this feature was! I wanted to find out, and wound up with a fun story.

Because I was curious, I first read the comments on the Flickr page for this picture. Flickr use PC101 said it was Lake Puarun in Peru seen at an oblique angle. I looked on Google maps, and there’s a decent resemblance. But it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t get enough landmarks to match up between the two photos, so I investigated a bit more.

Looking at the picture header, it says the photo was taken at 05:58 UTC on May 23, 2012. Wolfram Alpha shows that’s when ISS was over Australia, way too far around the Earth to see Peru. And the landscape around the lake is red, as you might expect from western Australia…

So I went back to Google maps, looked over Australia, and within about a minute found a suspicious-looking dry lake bed called Lake Rason. I zoomed in, and, well, here be dragon!

[Click to komodenate.]

I rotated this screenshot to more or less match the orientation of the one from the ISS, and clearly this is it. Funny, too: the "tail" is even longer than in the ISS picture, making it look even more like a serpent!

Now think about that. All I had to go on was a picture taken on board the space station and the time it was taken. I didn’t know what direction André took the shot, what magnification he used, or anything like that. All I had was the time he took the picture, and access to the internet… and a bit of experience knowing where to go to get more information.

And within a minute I had my answer! I could see plainly where and what this was. Interestingly, if the timing in the header is accurate and it was exactly 05:58 UTC, then the ISS was nearly directly over the lake when this picture was taken! You can see that for yourself: click here to see the map of the area where I’ve added an arrow to mark the position of the ISS at the time. The lake is in the middle, and looks upside-down.

Keep in mind, the ISS is screaming around the planet at 8 km/sec, so being off by a minute can mean a different of 500 kilometers. Incredible.

So there you go. Seek and ye shall find! And nicely, the Dragon spacecraft found the ISS just a day later, and made history. André has lots of pictures of that as well, which you can find on his Flickr page. Go check ’em out… and if you find something you don’t understand, why, now you know what to do.

Image credit: ESA/NASA; Google Maps

Related Posts:

A puzzling planet picture from the ISS
Followup: City lights from space
A dragon fight in the heart of Orion
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Space Station star trails

Peering down onto an ancient Australian impact

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

When the first episode of Bad Universe aired, my Aussie friends complained about us choosing Sydney as the impact site of a small asteroid. We chose it because most other major cities have already been wiped out in TVs and movies, and the Sydney Opera House was so iconic we knew it would make a great visual (it did).

But as much as my friends complained, they had it easy. Check out this impact site just a few thousand kilometers west of Sydney:

[Click to impactenate.]

That’s Shoemaker (formerly Teague) Crater, an old impact crater about 30 km (19 miles) or so across. It’s a bit tough to see, but it’s the oddly wobbly circular shape right in the middle of this photo. Craters this big are hard to see from the ground, and are easier to identify from space; this shot was taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station. Like many large craters, it has multiple rings around it, probably formed as massive shock waves from the gigantic impact slammed through the ground. There’s a ridge at the bottom of the high-res photo that’s part of a heavily eroded outer ring. This crater is in the Outback, with mostly brown rock punctuated by colorful salty lakes.

I knew it was old just by glancing at it. Young craters look young: fresh, sharp rims, obvious outlines, sometimes surrounded by rays (long, straight features pointing away from the center of the crater, formed when plumes of ejected material collapse). This one is sloppy, vague, faded. Estimates of its age vary. It may be as young as 570 million years, or as old as 1.3 billion years! Some estimates put it even farther back along Earth’s timeline. Australia itself is ancient, with some parts having been around for 4 billion years. This crater dates back to the Precambrian age, when the most sophisticated lifeforms on Earth were soft multi-cellular microscopic creatures; the first true fossils of hard-shelled life were still millions of years in the future, even for the younger age range of the crater.

It’s hard to imagine that our lush green and blue Earth was once covered with craters like this. Heck, a few billion years ago this one would’ve been considered small! But two things have changed that: for one, the solar system had a lot more rocks to toss at us back then. Things have thinned out considerably in the past few billion years. Plus, the Earth isn’t static: it’s dynamic, with erosion and continental drift wiping out really old craters. Only a few survive now, the ones that happened to be in very stable locations like this one. Studying them is like having a direct line to the past, though muffled by time and change. Still, it’s an amazing look into what things were like before life took hold on land all those eons ago.

Oh, one more thing: if the name is familiar, it should be. It’s named after Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist who was a pioneer in studying and identifying impact craters like this one. He died in 1997 in a car accident in Australia, so it’s fitting a crater there was named in his memory.

Image credit: NASA

Related posts:

Raising an impact in Africa
New study finds giant impacts aren’t periodic
"Amateur" geologist finds a South American crater
Deforestation reveals an old scar
Terra spots an impact on, um, Terra

Time lapse: IRIDIUM

By Phil Plait | October 23, 2011 7:00 am

[Note: ROSAT fell to Earth last night; see this post for details and links to more info.]

Time lapse videos can be breathtaking, lovely, and a joy to watch… but they can also show you something you may not have thought about before. Before I even read the caption for Murray Fredericks’ video called "IRIDIUM", I knew it was filmed in the southern hemisphere. Can you guess how?

[Make sure to watch it in HD, and make it full screen.]

If you live in the northern hemisphere — and odds are very good that you do — then you may have noticed the motion of the Sun and stars looked a bit odd. For example, as you watch the Sun set at the beginning of the video, it does so at an angle moving from the upper right to the lower left. The stars do too. When they rise, they move from the lower right to the upper left.

To me that’s backwards!

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Down Under Milky Way time lapse

By Phil Plait | July 5, 2011 12:30 pm

As something of a palate-cleanser — along the lines of Boing Boing’s famous unicorn chasers — here is a magnificent time lapse video of the sky over Australia: Ocean Sky by Alex Cherney:

Due to the tilt of the Earth and geometry of the Sun-Earth-galaxy alignment, the Milky Way only gets high in the sky if you’re south of the Equator, and can set parallel to the horizon as seen in these shots. When I was in Australia many years ago I didn’t get a good look at it, and one day I swear I’ll be there on a clear night with it near the zenith. Sigh.

My favorite part of this video is at 2:15, when the clouds clear and Orion booms into view… upside down, as far as my northern hemisphere bias sees it. That really freaked me out when I was down there. Of course, it’s always good to get your complacent view shaken sometimes.

Tip o’ the Mintie to Wired Science.

Related posts:

Time lapse video: from North Carolina to the galactic center
Gorgeous Milky Way Time Lapse
Incredibly, impossibly beautiful time lapse video
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OK, because I like y’all: bonus aurora timelapse video
AWESOME timelapse video: Rapture

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Pertussis can kill, and you can help stop it

By Phil Plait | June 16, 2011 7:00 am

Pertussis, known commonly as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease. It’s bad for anyone to get, but in infants it can result in death.

We have a vaccine that inoculates people against the bacterium. Yet, because not enough people get this vaccine, we’re seeing pertussis (and measles) outbreaks in many, many places. And who suffers? Babies too young to be vaccinated.

I want you to watch the following video. It’s a segment on the Australian 60 Minutes program, which deals with this issue plainly and truthfully. It’s an extremely difficult video to watch, as you’ll see (I had to turn my head several times, to be honest) but it’s also extremely important that everyone sees it.


Pay close attention to antivaxxer Viera Schiebner. Watch her demeanor, her manner, her attitude. This is a leader in their movement? To say her view of medicine, of reality, is skewed is to seriously understate the case. Barbara Holland Bronwyn Hancock, who works with Schiebner, justifies not getting vaccinated by making the outrageous statement that diseases can be beneficial.

I fail to see how exposing infants to potentially fatal infections is beneficial in any way.

Mia Freedman has written an excellent article about this. Apparently, only 11 8% of adults in South Australia, are vaccinated against pertussis [the 11% number is an average for all of Australia, my apologies for any confusion]. It’s tempting to blame the antivaxxers for this, but I wonder. I know a lot of my readers here are not antivax, but how many have had their Tdap booster?

I have. As much as I talk about this issue, I didn’t know I needed a booster shot for tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis until recently. As soon as I found out I went to my doctor and got the vaccination. Pertussis is spread by unvaccinated adults carrying the bacterium, so getting the booster shot will help lower the reservoir of hosts.

Getting the booster may not save your life, but it could very well save the life of an innocent infant too young to be otherwise protected. Go see your doctor, ask them about it, and if they recommend it, get the booster.

My thanks to Richard Saunders for the video, and to David McCaffery — who appears in the above video with his wife Toni — for the link to Ms. Freedman’s article. David’s daughter Dana would have been over two years old now if she hadn’t succumbed to pertussis at the age of just four weeks.

Related posts:

Pertussis and measles are coming back
The AVN falsehoods keep on a-comin’
More truth-based weapons against the antivaxxers
BREAKING: BMJ calls Andrew Wakefield a fraud

Pertussis and measles are coming back

By Phil Plait | June 1, 2011 12:00 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned antivax topics here, and a lot has happened in the past few weeks.. and it’s not good.

Our old nemesis measles is roaring back in the US, with the CDC actually issuing a warning for travelers. Americans visiting other countries are bringing the disease back with them, and places where vaccination rates are low are seeing outbreaks. We’ve had twice as many cases of measles so far in 2011 than we did all year in 2010.

As Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, points out, it’s interesting how there is a cluster of cases in Minnesota, where antivaxxer Andrew Wakefield and others have been targeting the Somali community. Seth also notes that of the cases we’re seeing here, 89% are from unvaccinated people, and fully 98% of the people hospitalized were unvaccinated. He goes on to show the real financial cost of the disease, on top of the devastating health problems it causes.

And we have some unwelcome company: In Australia, pertussis (whooping cough) is on the rise, with more than 4500 cases so far this year.

4500. Holy crap. And this horrible disease is particularly dangerous for infants, babies too young to be vaccinated. It can and does kill them. That is the plain and very, very hard truth. In the article linked above, doctors come right out and say it’s the antivaccination movement behind this; parents who do their research on the internet about vaccines instead of talking to doctors who have devoted their lives to science, medicine, and saving people. These parents, I have no doubts, want to do what’s best for their children, but by not seeking out a doctor’s advice they are putting these children — and others — at very grave risk.

It’s really very simple: vaccinations save lives. And the lives saved may be those of the most vulnerable among us. Have you had your TDAP booster? I have. If you haven’t, please please please talk to your doctor.

Tip o’ the needle to Thomas Siefert. Pertussis image from Microbiology2009.

Related posts:

The Panic Virus
Doonesbury tackles McCarthyism
Pertussis claims a ninth infant in California
Some vax facts

Skeptic Zone interview at TAM 8

By Phil Plait | August 9, 2010 12:00 pm

While I was at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 in Las Vegas in July, I was interviewed by my friends Richard Saunders and Rachael Dunlop from The Skeptic Zone, the premier critical thinking podcast in Australia.

We talked about TAM Oz, Minties, telescopes, WIMPs and MACHOs, the LHC, Brian Cox, and Gia Milinovitch, and my no-longer Sooper Sekrit Project.

You can grab the interview at the Skeptic Zone website, and here’s a direct link to the MP3.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Skepticism

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