Video of the lunar far side from GRAIL/Ebb

By Phil Plait | February 3, 2012 10:49 am

This is so cool: NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft (now named Ebb and Flow) have cameras on board to take images of the lunar surface, and an animation has been put together of Ebb’s view of the Moon’s far side!

Pretty neat. I love the wide-angle view; the individual images were taken while Ebb was still over a thousand kilometers from the Moon. The huge circular feature you can see on the right 30 seconds into the video is Orientale Basin, an impact so huge it must’ve lit up the solar system a few billion years ago. That basin is nearly 1000 km (600 miles) across! See the LRO image below for a clearer view, and click it for more info.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what will be done with these cameras. As Principal Investigator Maria Zuber explains in the video, they were installed specifically for educational purposes, and kids all over America will get a chance to examine the data. I love this idea, since it means these children will be invested in the project itself, and remember it for their whole lives. It’s a fantastic idea.


Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Space

Where now, NASA?

By Phil Plait | July 3, 2011 11:21 am

This Friday, the last Space Shuttle launch is scheduled to take Atlantis into space. I’ve written a lot about the Shuttle over the years, as well as about NASA, private space companies, and where I think we as the human race should be headed.

I put a lot of these thoughts together for an article in today’s New York Post. Here’s a screen grab of the first part:

As for my other articles on this, I listed and linked to them in a recent post about debating space exploration. My opinion changes here and there over time as more data come in, but I think you’ll get a pretty good feel about what I think from those articles.

Related posts:
Debating Space
What value space exploration?
Give space a chance
Wait. How big is NASA’s budget again?
My NASA OpEd in the New York Post (from 2009)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Snowpocalypse 2011 from space!

By Phil Plait | February 3, 2011 12:15 pm

Just in case you haven’t seen enough snow this week, NASA and NOAA have released an amazing video made from GOES 13 weather satellite images. I present to you Snowpocalypse 2011:

[Set the resolution to 480p to see it best.]

The animation goes from January 31 to February 2, and you can really see how the wet air from the ocean and Gulf of Mexico gets slammed by incredibly cold arctic air that had screamed south, creating this enormous storm front that swept across the nation. I was in Nebraska when this hit; the night before it had been unseasonably warm, but then temperatures dropped a lot — like 40°C (65°F) — by the next day. Nebraska looked like another planet. Boulder didn’t get much snow (you can see from the animation that snow was mostly east of Colorado) but the temperatures were so cold they had to cancel schools; the fuel mix used in school buses wasn’t rich enough to start the engines!

The GOES satellites (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, just so’s you know) orbit the Earth over the Equator at a height of about 40,000 km (24,000 miles) above the surface. This makes their orbital period 24 hours, so they orbit once for every time the Earth rotates once. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

Pulsar SMASH!

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2008 12:15 pm
Illustration of a pulsar

It’s a (Bruce) banner moment for NASA’s new Fermi satellite: it’s found a pulsar that emits only gamma rays.

Brief background: when a massive star explode, its core collapses. If it has enough mass, the core shrinks down into a black hole. If it doesn’t have quite that much oomph (if it has about 1 – 2.8 times the mass of the Sun) it forms a weird object called a neutron star. As massive as a star but only a few kilometers across, a neutron star is incredibly dense, rapidly rotating, and has a magnetic field intense enough to give you an MRI from a million kilometers away.

OK, I made that last one up, but in fact it sounds about right. The point: neutron stars are seriously awesome, right on the edge of matter as we understand it.

The supercharged magnetic field channels a tremendously powerful flow of energy away from the star in twin beams like a lighthouse. And, like a lighthouse, as the star rotates these beams sweep around. If they’re aimed at Earth we see a pair of pulses every time the star spins around once. So, duh, we call these special neutron stars pulsars. You can see a way cool animation of this on NASA’s Conceptual Image Lab web page.

Usually, the beams from these pulsars contain light from all (or nearly all) across the electromagnetic spectrum. We seem them in radio waves, visible light, ultraviolet, even X-rays and some in gamma rays. The processes that create these beams are pretty fierce and weird, and the type of light emitted depends on the process. However, in general, if we see high energy light (like X- and gamma rays) from a pulsar, we tend to see it in lower energy light (optical and radio) as well.

But Fermi found an oddball! Located about 4600 light years away in the constellation of Cepheus, CTA-1 is a supernova remnant, the expanding debris from an exploding star. But that expanding junk is only from the outer layers of the detonated star: the core collapsed down into a neutron star, and that’s what Fermi detected. This newly discovered gamma-ray-only pulsar spins three times per second — think on that; an object with the mass of an entire star spinning at that rate! — and is blasting out gamma radiation with 1000 times the Sun’s entire energy output.

And all of it in super-high energy invisible gamma rays. The Hulk has nothing on this pulsar.

Actually, let’s pause for just a sec. Is it sunny outside? Good. Go outside, and hold your hand up. Feel the warmth? That’s just a bit of optical light warming your hand. Now think about how much energy is falling over the entire Earth itself, a gazillion times the size of your hand. Now think about how much energy the Sun is emitting in all directions; the entire Earth only intercepts about one-two billionths of that light. Now think about one thousand times that much energy. Now think of all that energy being only in the form of DNA-shattering gamma rays.

Yeah, now you’re getting it. This object is seriously freaky.

We know of about 1800 pulsars, and all of them emit radio waves. All but this guy. It’s a brand new category of object (well, a sub category, but still), a new character on the cosmic stage. But why does it only emit gamma rays? Hey, good question. I don’t know the answer (and the press release doesn’t say, in fact). I suspect the answer right now is, we don’t know. This object was only discovered a little while ago, and worse, gamma rays are really difficult to study. That’s why we launched Fermi in the first place! Worse even than that, without being able to look at this object in radio, optical, or any other form of light really hobbles our ability to study it.

For now, I think we’ll have to rely on Fermi’s observations and then look at theoretical models. I imagine there will be astronomers all over the world pouncing on this, trying to figure out how the magnetic fields of the star can be so choosy (maybe they’re elitist).

But until then, as usual, I have to wonder: if we only just now found this object, what the heck else is floating around out there just waiting for us to find?

Pulsar image credit: NASA.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Rename a NASA satellite

By Phil Plait | February 10, 2008 8:18 pm

The naming of names for astronomical satellites is a funny game. Most are weird acronyms (WFPC, STIS, NICMOS are all Hubble cameras), which many times are puns on the mission itself (FAST). Some are named simply, after astronomers who contributed to the field of study (Chandra, Spitzer). The Swift satellite is not an acronym or named after anyone. It’s just a swift satellite.

Right now, the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope is very close to launch. But "GLAST" is not the best name. I worked on the education and public outreach for the mission for years, and sometimes the hardest part was using that name (though it made for some fun puns; I wrote articles like "The GLAST Resort"). Because of the picture we used a lot for GLAST, shown on the left, I called it the "flying cheese block".

It’s time to rename GLAST into something cool. And NASA wants you to help.

Got an idea for a new name for GLAST? Send it to NASA (through Sonoma State University)! There are some things you need to know, though. For example, it’s a gamma-ray observatory, so if you want to name it after some gamma ray pioneer, they can’t still be alive (that’s a NASA tradition). The name should be catchy, but not too silly (it’s a $350 million mission that’s managed by both NASA and the Department of Energy, so some modicum of decorum is necessary). It needs to be simple, and easy to say (so Mxyzpltlk is out, even if you try to say it backwards).

I actually don’t have too many ideas. Jan van Paradijs was a beloved astronomer who worked on gamma-ray astrophysics, but his name is too hard to spell for most Americans. Maybe some variation on it?

Please, no Mr. Spaceypants. It doesn’t matter anyway; this isn’t a vote or a contest, just a way to suggest cool names for the mission.

To get you started: GLAST will look at high-energy radiation from black holes, active galaxies, gamma-ray bursts, antimatter annihilation, and even from solar flares. If you go the acronym route, GR is not a bad combo for some good words (can we get GROK out of it? OGRE?). Gamma rays are Super High Energy, too. Also, it’s not a traditional telescope, either.

The deadline is March 31, 2008. So get thinking! Post your suggestions in the comments. Let’s see what we can come up with!


Speaking of dumb Mars claims…

By Phil Plait | January 21, 2008 3:00 pm

Welcome Farkers! Well, everyone but aerojockey.

Wow, some antiscience claims are so weird it’s a wonder anyone can take them seriously.

Take this blog post about the image here, for example. In just a few words, it manages to get nearly everything wrong. A lot of it is in Japanese, but some is in English:

A man is in the photograph which the Mars explorer Spirit (it stopped transmitting data in 2004) sent.

First, puhlllleeeeze. A man? It’s a tiny rock only a few inches high. It’s only a few feet from the rover! Here’s the image from NASA. As usual for antiscience nonsense, they point to a press release image with no indication of when it was taken, or what the original image is. There are thousands of Spirit images, and I have little desire to comb through them looking for this one (though it appears to be early in the mission; it’s still on the landing accouterments).

Second, Spirit stopped transmitting data in 2004? Well, kinda. It did stop, but then it started again. We’re still getting good stuff from both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. The blog post seems to phrase it that way on purpose, to make it sound like Something Mysterious Happened.

Now, I don’t read Japanese, so this may be a misunderstanding on my part. Are they just pointing out something funny looking? Maybe. FWIW, the site appears to be about weird images and such. But I see so much of this, and there is no lower limit to the dumbosity of such claims, that it just makes sense to figure on the lowest common denominator.

Anyway, the image itself is, of course, yet another example of pareidolia, our ability to see patterns in random shapes. That does look like a guy hanging out on Mars, enjoying the 0.01 Earth atmospheric pressure, the 98% CO2 air, the subfreezing cold, and of course, just being four inches tall. Martians are pretty short, it seems. And patient, given its pose.

Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to BABloggee piotr slisz.

MESSENGER takes aim at Mercury

By Phil Plait | January 12, 2008 1:10 pm

I posted a few days ago that NASA’s MESSENGER probe is headed toward a rendezvus with Mercury on Monday. In the comments, BigBob noted that the first image has been returned!

This was taken on January 11, when the spacecraft was still 1.7 million kilometers from the planet. On Monday, it will pass about 200 km over the surface (yikes!). It will fly on, making two more passes of Mercury over time before settling into orbit, and making a detailed map of this planet. That’ll be in 2011, so the images we see from this first of three flybys will have to do you for now.

AAS #12: Einstein’s Double Bulls-eye

By Phil Plait | January 10, 2008 9:03 am

The picture above shows a cosmic bulls-eye of epic alignment. But before I can tell you about it, I have to tell you about how the dart got thrown.

One of the more amazing aspects of looking into deep, deep space is that the path there is tortured and twisted. Space itself can be distorted by mass; it gets bent, like a road curves as it goes around a hill. And like a truck that must follow that road and steer around the hill, a photon must follow the curve of space.

Imagine a distant galaxy, billions of light years away. It emits light in all directions. One particular photon happens to be emitted almost — but not quite — in our direction. Left on its own, we’d never see it because it would miss the Earth by thousands or millions of light years.

But on its travels, it passes by another massive galaxy. This galaxy warps space, and the photon does what it must do: it follows that curve in pace, and changes direction… and it just so happens that the curve is just right to send it our way.

The intervening galaxy is essentially acting like a lens, bending the light. If the more distant galaxy is exactly behind the lensing galaxy, we see the light from that more distant galaxy distorted into a perfect ring, a circle of light surrounding the lens. We call this an Einstein Ring. If the farther galaxy is off to the side a bit, we see an arc instead of a complete ring. Gravitationally lensed arcs and rings are seen all over the sky, and they can be used to determine the mass of the intervening galaxy! The more mass, the more distorted the light from the farther galaxy. So the Universe has given us a nice method to let us weigh it.

In a surprising twist, astronomers have found a new type of lensed galaxy: a double ring! In a rare alignment, there are two distant galaxies aligned behind an intervening lensing galaxy. They’re like beads on a wire, lined up just right such that both more distant galaxies are lensed by the nearer one. In this case, the lens is about 3 billion light years away, and the other two are 6 and 11 billion light years away, an incredible distance.

This image is amazing, but it is also a powerful scientific tool. It allows us to measure not just the mass of the lensing galaxy, but also the amount of mysterious dark matter nearby. We cannot see the dark matter, but it too bends light, and contributes to the lensings. By observing lenses like this, we can take a sample of dark matter in the Universe, and that’s a crucial first step in understanding it. Even better, these double rings allows us to measure the amount of total mass not just in the nearest galaxy, as is usual, but also in the middle galaxy as well, since it distorts the light from the galaxy behind it (turns out it’s a rather lightweight one billion solar masses; our own Galaxy has more than 100 times that mass, so the middle galaxy is considered a dwarf).

This is a beautiful happenstance; it gives us a measure of the Universe at two points, with one being for free. In fact, Tommaso Treu, the astronomer at U.C. Santa Barbara who investigated this lens, points out that if we can find as few as 50 of these double rings, we can get a much better idea of the distribution of not just dark matter, but also the even more mysterious dark energy in the Universe. That’s one of the biggest goals of modern astronomy… and we may get a handle on it due to a coincidental ring toss.

AAS #6: Lonely stars between galaxies

By Phil Plait | January 8, 2008 5:00 pm

M81 and M82 are bright nearby galaxies; you can spot them with binoculars easily in the northern sky, and they are a mere 12 million light years from us (for comparison, the Milky Way Galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so if you think of the Milky Way as a DVD, M81 and M82 would be about 14 meters away). These two galaxies interacted a couple of hundred million years ago, and the gravitational interaction drew out long tendrils of gas (which is very common in colliding galaxies).

Astronomers examined this bridge of material using Hubble, and found clusters of stars in it. That was totally unexpected; the gas was thought to be too thin to form stars! Amazingly, many of the stars are blue, indicating they are young (blue stars burn through their fuel much more quickly than redder stars. This means that the gas is still forming stars, even 200 million years after the collision!

In the image below, almost all the stars you see are young blue stars formed in the aftermath of that titanic collision. The reddish stars are stars in our galaxy, and the bigger objects are distant background galaxies.

Most likely, the stars formed when turbulence in the tendril caused local regions of denser gas, which could collapse to form stars. Before these observations, it wasn’t really thought it was possible to form stars in the regions between galaxies, so this is an interesting new find.

Hoagland = lose

By Phil Plait | December 17, 2007 12:12 pm

Richard Hoagland, perhaps long ago sensing failure in his "Face on Mars" scheme, started downplaying it in favor of the ridiculous (and easily debunked) "City" on Mars, which then led to his totally over-the-top dumbosity of hyperdimensional physics. All of this, of course, fits (although "jammed-in-to-make-it-fit" would describe it better) into his over-blown conspiracy theory that NASA is Doing Nefarious Things.

RCH’s latest silliness is a book called Dark Mission. In the book, he and his cohort Mike Bara are making the same tired and painfully silly claims that NASA is hiding evidence of alien bases on the Moon, artifacts on Mars, conspiracies that go All The Way To The Top, yadda yadda. He also has a website describing it. Now, if I were to make a website to promote a book, I would take some of the best bits of the book and put them on the site.

Well, if the stuff on the site indeed represents the best examples from the book, I have to assume the rest of the book should have a toxic waste warning. It’s so profoundly goofy that it’s difficult to know where to start. Happily, Hoagland and Bara give me an excellent place to start debunking their goofiness: right on the very first page of the site.

If you go to the Dark Mission website (WARNING: extreme danger for brain cells!), the first image you see is this one:

This image shows astronaut Al Bean from Apollo 12 carrying the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package). Hoagland cranked the contrast way up to show fainter features. See the pentagonal-shaped glow around Bean? On his website, Hoagland claims that this is actually "a massive tier of ‘glass-like ruins’", indicating — in his mind — that there is evidence of alien artifacts on the Moon. Bara makes this same ridiculous claim elsewhere.

Ignoring for a moment the overwhelmingly obvious problem of being able to see the lines of the pentagon in front of the astronaut — how massive can it be, if it’s between Bean and Pete Conrad (who took the picture)? — and also ignoring the obvious problem that this claim is bug-nut crazy, there is maybe a simple explanation.

The Hasselblad cameras used on Apollo had an iris inside, much like the one in your eye. It can open and close an aperture to let in more or less light. Guess what shape that aperture was? Yup: pentagonal.

That’s no glass ruin. It’s an internal reflection, inside the camera itself.

Mind you, this is the very first picture on Hoagland and Bara’s Dark Mission website. This gives you an idea of just how ridiculous this stuff is. They literally can’t even get the first thing right.

Note added December 18: Some commenters below have noted that in the book, it’s the vertical streamers in the background of the image that Hoagland and Bara cite as evidence for structures on the Moon (and also they do say the pentagon is an internal reflection). That is not at all clear from the page on RCH’s site to which I link, but that’s fine: the streamers are no more evidence of a structure than the pentagon is. Think of it: any structure bigger than a few hundred meters across is easily visible in a telescope, and it escapes me how a giant structure miles across would not have been seen hundreds of years ago by eager astronomers. Oh wait, it doesn’t escape me: Hoagland and Bara are wrong, and are amplifying defects in the images well beyond what is reasonable. This is their standard MO for such things. I stand corrected on the pentagon, but I still say they are dead wrong on just about everything else. And as I note near the bottom of this page; Hoagland is capable of actual image analysis when it suits his cause, but then turns around and does the most ridiculous image manipulation when it suits him as well. I leave it to the reader to draw their conclusions about him from that.

I could go on (and on and on and on), but why bother? Hoagland and Bara, as usual, never come within a glancing blow of reality. Going through the website (gah, the things I do for you BABloggees) is a seemingly endless mind-numbing journey through antiscience claptrap and truly awful claims. Not that I need to tell anyone here, but reading it is likely to melt your brain. You’d be closer to reality watching a few hours of Jerry Springer.

Did you know Hoagland and Bara actually held a press conference for the book? According to Dwayne Day at The Space Review, not only was it a flop, but it showed just how egregious these guys are. You should read Dwayne’s article; it’s great for a schadenfreude laugh or three.

I’m quite sure Hoagland and Bara will do a tour, going to UFO conventions and psychic fares to peddle their bunkum, just as I am quite sure there will be an eager audience lapping it up. Nonsense never ends, my friends. Happily, though, the truth really is out there.


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