Rebirth and Recovery in the Shadow of Chernobyl

By Corey S. Powell | February 17, 2017 2:29 am
Contamination map of the Chernobyl region in 1996. 21 years later, the hottest zones remain off limits, but quasi-normal life has returned in less affected areas. (Credit: CIA Factbook/Sting/MTruch)

Contamination map of the Chernobyl region in 1996. Twenty one years later the hottest areas remain off limits, but quasi-normal life has returned in the less affected “unnamed zone,” including the Rivne Province at the west (left) end of this map. (Credit: CIA Factbook/Sting/MTruch)

Regular readers of this blog know that I normally focus on cosmic topics: comets, exoplanets, dark matter, the search for alien life, and the like. I don’t tangle so much with the everyday challenges of life here on the ground. I enjoy taking a break from the quotidian. But the truth is, the two sides are never very far apart. They are both–all–part of one universe, governed by one set of physical laws. The nuclear reactions that regulate the afterglow of a supernova explosion are the exact same ones that established the harsh consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

I’m not picking that example at random. I recently had the privilege of working with two historians (Kate Brown at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and her colleague Olha Martynyuk of the National Technical University of Ukraine) on their first-person exploration of the legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl incident on villagers living in the outer part of the contaminated zone. They returned from their trip full of unexpected stories about life in one of the most notoriously irradiated parts of the world. Their experience got me thinking once again about the juxtaposition of cosmic and terrestrial issues.

Read More

Taking the Measure of Nothing in the Universe

By Corey S. Powell | January 31, 2017 11:43 pm
The universe bristles with structure on all scales. But really, it is all punctuated nothingness. (Image courtesy of Cryhavoc)

The universe bristles with structure on all scales. But really, it is all just punctuated nothingness. (Image courtesy of Cryhavoc)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about nothing. Not just because focusing on nothing is a helpful, meditative antidote to obsessing over the recent barrage of anxiety-inducing news, but also because nothing is the most common thing in nature. After all, the overwhelming majority of the universe is not stars and planets; it is empty space. But empty space is not really truly completely empty. That’s what makes nothing interesting: Some places have a lot more of nothing than others, and even the emptiest places—the ones with the most nothing, you might say—still contain something. In fact, trying to figure out the nature of that something is one of the biggest unsolved issues in science.

Sorry. It does all start to sound rather mad after a while. I’ll back up and do some some explaining.

What started me down this path was a question on the site Quora: “If I went up into space, opened a jar for a few seconds, put the lid on tightly, and then came back down to my kitchen, what would be in the jar?” It’s a great thought experiment. Take a jar-size sample of different parts of the universe. What would you find inside it?

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Big Bang, nothing, Quora

January 1, 1925: The Day We Discovered the Universe

By Corey S. Powell | January 2, 2017 11:09 am
Andromeda nebula, photographed at the Yerkes Observatory circa 1900. To modern eyes, this is clearly a galaxy. At the time, though, it was described as "a mass of glowing gas." (From the book Astronomy of To-Day)

The Andromeda nebula, photographed at the Yerkes Observatory around 1900. To modern eyes, this object is clearly a galaxy. At the time, though, it was described as “a mass of glowing gas,” its true identity unknown. (From the book Astronomy of To-Day, 1909)

What’s in a date? Strictly speaking, New Year’s Day is just an arbitrary flip of the calendar, but it can also be a cathartic time of reflection and renewal. So it is with one of the most extraordinary dates in the history of science, January 1, 1925. You could describe it as a day when nothing remarkable happened, just the routine reading of a paper at a scientific conference. Or you could recognize it as the birthday of modern cosmology–the moment when humankind discovered the universe as it truly is.

Until then, astronomers had a myopic and blinkered view of reality. As happens so often to even the most brilliant minds, they could see great things but they could not comprehend what they were looking at. The crucial piece of evidence was staring them right in the face. All across the sky, observers had documented intriguing spiral nebulae, swirls of light that resembled ghostly pinwheels in space. The most famous one, the Andromeda nebula, was so prominent that it was easily visible to the naked eye on a dark night. The significance of those ubiquitous objects was a mystery, however.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: cosmology, Hubble

Shhhh…the Real Stars of “Passengers” are a Robot and a Spaceship

By Corey S. Powell | December 23, 2016 12:16 pm
The real stars of Passengers: the starship Avalon, and robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen, with Chris Pratt). Credit: 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries

Meet the true stars of the movie Passengers: the starship Avalon, with its plasma-shield generator sticking out like a stinger, and robot bartender Arthur, played by Michael Sheen (here with Chris Pratt). Credit: 2016 Columbia Pictures Industries

By now you’ve probably seen those soulful faces staring out at you from the ads for the new movie Passengers: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt playing Aurora Land and Jim Preston, two would-be interplanetary colonists who wake up from hibernation way, way too early. They drive the film’s plot and bestow the whole project with a glowy, Hollywood-blockbuster sheen. But the film’s real stars are less familiar, less visible, and distinctly more intriguing.

One of the standout characters is Arthur, a robotic bartender played with Turing Test verve by Welsh actor Michael Sheen. The other is the ship itself: the Avalon, an automated interstellar cruise liner bringing 5,000 settlers to a new world…assuming they arrive intact. Arthur and the Avalon explore well-worn ideas about space exploration, machine autonomy, and artificial intelligence in fresh and engaging ways. As a result, there is a lot more to Passengers than meets the eye.

Read More

The Human Footprint on Mars is Expanding…Sometimes Faster Than We’d Like

By Corey S. Powell | November 30, 2016 11:45 pm
The Schiaparelli crash site was observed on November 1 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The long arc at the crash site might have been a hydrazine explosion. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The Schiaparelli crash site was observed on November 1 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The long arc might have been caused by an explosion of hydrazine propellant. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UAz)

It will be a long time until humans put boots on Mars–at least until the 2030s and possibly a lot longer, depending on what the incoming Trump administration thinks about NASA’s unfunded exploration plans. But through our robotic emissaries, we have already made quite a mark on the planet. The newest one, on October 19, was the sad and unexpected splat from the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe. Apparently, betrayed by an errant altitude reading from one of its instruments, the lander crashed into the surface at about 300 kilometers per hour and gouged out 2.4-meter-wide (8-foot) crater surrounded by a debris trail, probably from a fuel explosion.

This was hardly the first time that an attempted Mars touchdown ended the wrong way. Russia’s Mars 3 and Mars 6 landers made it to the surface but failed immediately (a shame, they were very cool designs). NASA’s Mars Polar Lander had a catastrophic crash that prompted an overhaul of the agency’s whole Mars program. The British Beagle 2 probe never phoned home after reaching the surface. They all still sit there on Mars, gathering dust and slowly fading away, along with a whole other set of probes that survived the journey.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, ESA, rover

On TV: A Tale of Two Red Planets

By Corey S. Powell | November 15, 2016 10:14 am
Are we there yet? Astronauts discover that landing on Mars is only the beginning of their journey in the dramatized half of the show. (Credit: National Geographic Channel)

Are we there yet? Astronauts discover that landing on Mars is only the beginning of their journey in the dramatized half of the show. (Credit: National Geographic Channel)

I’ll confess, I came to Mars, the new National Geographic miniseries that debuted last night, with a good dose of skepticism. First of all, it is a half-drama, half-documentary blend, a hybrid mix that often ends up combining the weakest elements of both. Second, there is the matter of timing. The drama part focuses on the intense survival challenges facing the first crew of astronauts to land on Mars. Um, didn’t we just see that in The Martian? The documentary part seems out of step as well, focusing on high-minded ideas about human spaceflight right at a time when the United States is being tossed about by dark political currents.

So I’ll come right to the point: Mars is a success. It paints a portrait of two Red Planets, a distant aspirational target in 2016 and an immediate world to explore and overcome in 2033. It explicitly embraces Elon Musk’s vision of humans as a two-planet species (Musk is a frequent presence in the documentary portions), and it takes a long-horizon view of technological progress that we could really use right now.

Read More

Living and Dying With a Comet

By Corey S. Powell | September 30, 2016 11:42 pm
Comet 67P on April 28, 2015, as it was nearing closest approach to the sun and starting to really cook. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam)

Comet 67P on April 28, 2015, as it was nearing closest approach to the sun and starting to really cook. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam)

Like many other space enthusiasts around the world, I woke up today in a bittersweet mood as I read the reports about the death of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet probe. Its demise was carefully planned and long foretold but was sad all the same, putting a period at the end of a story that rolling out for more than 12 years. During that time, Rosetta made three passes by Earth, one by Mars, visited a pair of asteroids, and spent more than two years scrutinizing Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (typically shorted to “Comet 67P” for obvious reasons). It was the first spacecraft to orbit a comet. It also deployed the first-ever comet lander, Philae.

Now all that is over. No way around it, the end of a great adventure is bitter.

The sweet part is the extraordinary science Rosetta has conducted along the way. Early results confirmed the presence of diverse organic compounds; showed that comets alone could not have provided the water that fills Earth’s oceans; mapped the surprisingly complex magnetic environment around Comet 67P; and catalogued enormous eruptions of gas and dust–roughly 100,000 kilos [200,000 pounds] at a time–that show how comets disintegrate under the force of solar heat. Much of Rosetta’s dataset has yet to be fully analyzed. Planetary scientists will be mining new insights from it for many years to come.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: ESA, Philae, Rosetta

The Race to Proxima Centauri (Part 1)

By Corey S. Powell | August 31, 2016 11:52 pm
An invisible planet beside the tiny dot of Proxima Centauri may be the key to understanding Earthlike planets across our galaxy. (Credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2)

An invisible planet orbiting the pale red dot of Proxima Centauri (seen here alongside its much brighter neighbors, Alpha Centauri A & B) may be the key to understanding Earthlike planets across our galaxy. (Credit: Digitized Sky Survey 2)

Sometimes it takes a while for the meaning of a new scientific discovery to really sink in. In the case of the planet Proxima Centauri b, announced last week, it may take decades or even centuries to fully grasp the importance of what we have found. You see, this is not just any planet: It is similar to Earth in mass, and it orbits its star in the “habitable zone,” where temperatures could potentially allow the existence of Earthlike bodies of liquid water. Proxima Centauri is not just any star, either: It is the very nearest one after the Sun, and it is a small red orb whose feeble light makes it relatively easy to study the planet close beside it.

The science at stake here is enormous. Proxima Centauri b will surely become the archetype for understanding more distant Earth-size, and possibly Earth-like, planets all across our galaxy. The effort needed to study it will be enormous, too, however. At present the planet cannot even be glimpsed directly through the mightiest telescopes on Earth. Nevertheless, the race is on–a thrilling but maddeningly slow-motion race to bring Proxima Centauri into view, to figure out if it could (or does!) support life, even to visit it with an interstellar probe.

Read More

How Astronomers Plan to Solve the Mystery of the “Alien Megastructure Star”

By Corey S. Powell | July 31, 2016 11:10 pm
In the constellation Cygnus, one faint star displays enigmatic changes in brightness. Something huge is passing in front of the star–but what? (Credit: Stellaruim, Boyajian et al)

In the constellation Cygnus, the faint star formally known as KIC 8462852 displays irregular, enigmatic changes in brightness. Something huge is passing in front of the star and blocking its light–but what? (Credit: Stellaruim, Boyajian et al)

If you look in enough places, eventually you’ll find something profoundly strange. That’s been a reliable rule of thumb through the history of science, and last year it proved dramatically true again for astronomer Tabetha Boyajian. While digging through data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which has been monitoring 150,000 stars for signs of orbiting planets, she realized that one of these things is not like the others. A single star in that set, formally catalogued as KIC 8462852 but informally known as Tabby’s Star, flickers in an inexplicable way: unlike the shadows produced by planets, unlike any known type of stellar pulsation, simply unlike anything seen before.

Tabby’s Star is so unusual that a few scientists, including Boyajian’s colleague Jason Wright, raised the possibility that its flickering is not natural but is due to the presence of an enormous artificial construct. That speculation quickly lent KIC 8462852 another nickname, the “alien megastructure star,” and prompted a flood of breathless news stories; it even got a shout out on Saturday Night Live. Boyajian’s subsequent TED lecture drew even more attention to her star. [Update: A week after I posted this interview, Tabby’s Star star got weirder still: A new study shows that it has been inexplicably getting dimmer over the past three years.]

Read More

Getting Under the Alien Skin of the New ‘Independence Day’

By Corey S. Powell | June 24, 2016 4:01 pm
Aliens arrive with everything cranked to 11 in Independence Day: Resurgence. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

The aliens are back and everything is cranked up to 11 in Independence Day: Resurgence, a 20-years-later sequel. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

If you are looking for cerebral science fiction stories that meticulously explore the outer limits of known science, Roland Emmerich is not your guy. The auteur behind the 1996 alien-invasion movie Independence Day and its new sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, is all about spectacle over subtlety. (2012 and The Day After Tomorrow are also his handiwork.) Blowing up cities? Check. Sciencing the sh*t out of things? Not so much.

Taken on its own terms, though, the first Independence Day was a lot of fun and—beneath the popcorn-chewing action—smarter than it looked. Emmerich’s best idea was not trying to give his aliens convoluted, ludicrous motivations. Instead he envisioned them as a rapacious swarm, roaming instinctively from planet to planet in search of resources. The sequel maintains that premise and supersizes it, in the inevitable Hollywood style.

Read More


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar