“There is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson
One of the most enjoyable videos that I’ve seen is watching is Stephen Colbert interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s a delightful romp through the mind of one of our most engaging scientists.
At one point, Colbert asks Dr. deGrasse Tyson about discoveries that have changed our point of view about the universe without us being aware of it. While he doesn’t actually answer Stephen’s question, Neil relates the incredible impact of what many today would classify as useless theoretical discovery that is little more than scientific masturbation: quantum mechanics. While the science was almost totally useless in the 1920s, it’s the foundation of our computer/smartphone/technological age.
His lesson: don’t believe that research is useless … because it isn’t.
On one of my favorite blogs – the Earth Science Picture of the Day – has this photo today of Hind’s Crimson Star, discovered in 1845 by John Russell Hind. Photographer Greg Parker (with links by blog host Jim Foster of NASA) explains:
The image above features Hind’s Crimson Star, a well-known carbon star in the constellation of Lepus. Carbon stars have stellar atmospheres that contain more carbon than oxygen. Hind’s star is too dim to see with the unaided eye except from very dark locations. It lies southwest of Rigel, the bright white star that represents Orion’s left knee. From my location in southern England, Hind’s star is pretty low in the sky. In fact, in order to view it from my observatory, I have to wait for it to move into the gap between two sets of trees on my southern horizon.
Hind’s Crimson Star is a variable type star. It fluctuates in brightness between an apparent magnitude of about +5.5 to +11.7 — with a period on the order of 418–441 days. Note the blue stars in close proximity to the red carbon star. Oddly, there always seems to be at least one bright blue star near a carbon star. Image taken on January 20, 2013 and processed by Noel Carboni in Florida.
The city of Chelyabinsk in Russia bore the brunt of the celestial fireworks. A piece of rock, about 50 feet across and weighing more than 7,000 tons, came crashing to Earth. Traveling at a blinding speed of over 40,000 miles per hour, it created a sonic boom and shock wave that shattered windows across the city: 1,200 people were injured, mainly by the flying pieces of glass, and 52 were hospitalized, 2 of them in serious condition. Chelyabinsk, once known as one of the most polluted places in the world due to its storage of nuclear waste, will now be known as “meteor city.”
The asteroid packed a huge punch, the power of 20 Hiroshima bombs. It was a “city buster,” capable of flattening a modern metropolis and reducing it to rubble. It was a miracle that the asteroid exploded roughly 10 to 15 miles above ground: had there been a ground burst, it would have caused tens of thousands of casualties. If that asteroid had hit just a few seconds later, it would have created a tragedy on Earth.
…Lurking in space are asteroids even bigger than the city busters—to wit, “nation busters” big enough to destroy Germany or England. The most dangerous one is called Apophis, which is 1,000 feet across and will come dangerously close to Earth in 2029 and again in 2036. The most recent calculations show that Apophis will barely miss Earth in 2029, but will actually graze our atmosphere. But because of the uncertainty of its path as it whizzes past, there is a small possibility that its orbit may be perturbed so it might actually hit Earth in 2036. NASA scientists are reasonably confident it will still miss Earth in 2036, but the head of the Russian space agency takes the threat of a collision seriously, stating that we have to prepare for the worst. If Apophis hits Earth, it would have the force of approximately 20,000 Hiroshima bombs.
Read on for more about this frightening subject that is also one of the most compelling arguments for a strong space program that I know of.
NASA’s Kepler Mission is a spacecraft observatory that scans a single large area of the sky in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It simultaneously measure variations in the brightness of over 100,000 stars every half hour, searching for the half hour to half a day “winks” in light output that happen when a planet transits, aka passes in front of its star. Transits are only seen when the star’s planetary system is nearly perfectly aligned with our line of sight. For a planet in an Earth-size orbit, the chance of it being aligned to produce a transit is less than 1%, and the change in light akin to the dimming of a flea crawling across a car’s headlight and viewed from several miles away. Check the videos for more of an idea of how this observatory works.
It was named in honor of Johannes Kepler, who described the motions of planets about the Sun in a precisely predictable manner. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has confirmed over 2000 planets. If you’d like to try your hand at sifting through the Kepler data, check out planethunters.org. Also check out the Kepler Mission on Facebook, where I learned that William Borucki, science principal investigator for the Kepler mission, received the National Academy of Sciences 2013 Henry Draper Medal for founding concept and visionary leadership of the project.
Image via the Planetary Habitability Library, who have a really cool collection of projects related to extra-solar life. Image Credit: The ‘X-mas Planets’ is a collage of computer generated images of habitable worlds by the Planetary Habitability Laboratory (PHL) over an image of a section of the De Mairan’s Nebula (Messier 43) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Earth is at the top right. This image was done to celebrate the first year of the PHL’s Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo (phl.upr.edu), ESA/Hubble, NASA.
I told someone about the amazement of the stars over Mt. Shasta and found this photo. I figured I probably better look up something about the Milky Way to justify it. What I found was NASA’s current missions page.
It includes a surprising number of diverse “missions” – satellites, probes and expeditions – that I found to be very reassuring and in several cases, very timely and each delivering some very cool data!
Coolest customer? SOHO – the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory.
I hope that we can please continue to find funding as a nation explore our universe … I’m sure that we can look at our priorities or maybe even some of us can afford a little more in taxes to pay for this.
Let me also say: “Well done NASA, you definitely know how to name a mission.”
When a rather large-sized (M 3.6 class) flare occurred near the edge of the Sun, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted over a 90-minute period (Feb. 24, 2011). This event was captured in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft . Some of the material blew out into space and other portions fell back to the surface. Because SDO images are super-HD, we can zoom in on the action and still see exquisite details. And using a cadence of a frame taken every 24 seconds, the sense of motion is, by all appearances, seamless.
The photo to the right shows the relative size of the flare using the Earth, and you can click to see a hi-res still from the event.