Goodbye to 2011, Hello to a Wild 2012



December 31, 2011 at 15:07 pm | Leave a Comment

End o’ Year Thoughts

Today I got a nice jolt of pleasure when I listened to the “top 12 podcasts for 2011, year in review” on the popular 365 Days of Astronomy podcast site.  The podcasts are always pretty interesting, given that they come from people who are all interested in astronomy.  I’ve contributed a number of podcasts throughout the years to the effort (you can see a list here).  What pleased me greatly is that the producers included a clip from one of my podcasts from March 2011. It featured an interview with Geodesium, a space artist whose work I’ve always admired greatly (and I married him, too!).  So, if you have a moment, click on over to the podcast and have a listen to clips from some of the greatest ‘casts of 2011.

The Flipping of Calendar Pages

Now that we’re on the last day of the year (and in fact, folks in Sydney and Hong Kong have already flipped over to the new year), I notice with great glee that the world hasn’t ended.  It IS the end of the calendar.  Yes, it is. Take a look at that calendar on your wall.  It ends on December 31, 2011.  What’s gonna happen tomorrow when it flips over to January 1, 2012?

Well.

Actually, nothing special is going to happen, unless you count the Broncos suddenly developing a decent passing game in their matchup with Kansas City on January 1.

And, sure, it will be the first day of a new year, but that’s about it.  Time moves ever on.

The Mayans Said It, so It Must Be True, Right? Right?

Why would I even make a fuss about this? There’s a well-known “prophecy” floating around out there that has to do with the end of the Mayan calendar and the end of the world.  Yes, there really ARE people who think that since the Mayan calendar is supposed to end on December 21, 2012 the world will also end because, “Hey, the Mayans predicted it. They’re all downhome tribal and prescient and stuff and it says so right there on their stone calendar that the Baktun will end!”

And that, somehow mysteriously will mean the end of the world?  I mean, they are attributing this idea to people whose civilization ended centuries ago and they didn’t foresee THAT happening?  The descendants of the Maya (and yes, there are some left), are laughing their butts off at these “prophecies” that were apparently dreamed up in the 1970s.  That is, when they’re not trying to debunk this silly myth that the end of the Baktun (one of their cycles) means more than the end of December 31 of any given year.

Seriously?  I mean, I want some of whatever these conspiracy theorists and prophets are drinking over there in DelusionLand.  Because, that’s the only way it’s gonna happen—in their dreams.  You see, the actual date of the end of the Baktun is just the end of a cycle. In fact, the date isn’t really accurately known. It’s probably not December 21, 2012, but since it lines up with the solstice time, it probably sounded mysterious enough for whoever dreamed up this idea (apparently in the 1970s) and so the “world’s gonna end” folks grabbed it and ran with it. But, correlation is not causation. Even if the two were lined up, so what?  January 1st falls on a Sunday this year, which is also the day a lot of American football games get played.  Call the press! There’s a conspiracy!

I think Bizarro sums the whole thing up pretty well here.

Death by Gigantic Unseen Mysterious and Immeasurable Forces That Nobody Has Yet Detected

Well, you no sooner debunk the whole “the Mayan Calendar is ending so the world must be ending” delusion and another one pops up. How about the “there’s a death ray coming from the middle of the Milky Way and we’ll emerge from it on December 21, 2012″?  Again with the coincidences on the solstice.  The winter solstice doesn’t have any special powers. It’s simply the day that the Sun reaches its farthest north point in the sky during the year.  Other than that, it’s a calendrical thing.

About that beam. If it’s a death ray and we’re going to emerge FROM it in December, shouldn’t we be getting harmed RIGHT NOW????

Oh. Wait.  It’s got some magical powers or something.

Well, I haven’t read anything anywhere about a sighting or measuring of a beam coming from the center of the galaxy, crossing some 26,000 light-years of space. But, I’d guess that a) it has probably attenuated somewhat (gotten weaker as it travels, see Inverse Square Law), and b) if it was supposed to be harming us, it would have to be humongously strong at its source so that there’d be some power left over to fry our collective behinds after it traveled across all that space. Oh, and we’d be seeing its effects on objects (nebulae, stars, planets, etc.) that lie on the line of sight from us to the center of the Milky Way.

We don’t see any of that.  And, by “we” I mean anybody who looks at the sky with a telescope or spectroscope… and that includes a LOT of amateur astronomers around the world who have good scopes and spend a LOT of time looking at the sky. If THEY all saw something, it’d be pretty tough to keep hundreds of thousands from talking about it.  Just watch the news any time a comet is discovered–the images start flowing almost immediately onto Websites, Astronomy Picture of the Day, and so on. If there was a beam out there frying stuff, the effects would be obvious.

To put it bluntly, there ain’t no mysterious beam. Just the usual optical, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, radio, and gamma-ray emissions that normally stream from objects in the galaxy.  Perfectly normal and nothing to be worried about.

The Return of the Nonexistent Rogue Planet

There are some other weird predictions that the Gullible Ones are tossing around out there, like a mysterious planet that conspiracy theorists claim (without any proof, of course)  is on the way toward Earth.  How a planet does that without getting spotted by people with telescopes is beyond me. Whoever “discovered” this one was, I suspect, using the infamous Bongscope that allows the user great insights into hitherto unseen realms of bravo sierra.

I had a run-in once online a long time ago with the person who first came up with this planet, and it was an exercise in fantasy talking to her.  She’s still out there, I guess, still pimping her “Planet X  is gonna getcha” theory, and the last time I looked, it had been hooked it into this whole Mayan calendar fantasy.  Well, if one improbable idea isn’t enough, then let’s string together a whole bunch of them! It’s a convergence of conspiracy thinking run amok!

Relax with a Corona

And, so it goes. Real science is showing us lots of really cool and measurable and provable things in the cosmos. But, let a few wild-eyed seers publish books and Web pages based on often-erroneous or made-up calculations linking together things that aren’t really related, and suddenly—wow, it’s the end of the world!  (Which, of course, various wild-eyed folks have been predicting since humans first evolved… )

In the “Real Science” department, there’s going to be a total solar eclipse in November 2012 that will sweep across parts of Oceania.  If you’ve never seen one, it’s a good chance to relax and check out something we don’t get to see every day (at least not easily):  the Sun’s corona.  If you can’t go to the path of totality, then you will be able to watch it “in real time” on the Web.  Keep an eye peeled for news about that.

Earlier in the year, on June 5, the last transit of Venus in our lifetimes will occur. This will be a chance to see Venus as it sweeps in its orbit between us and the Sun. Of course, it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: whether you observe the transit or the eclipse, NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITH YOUR NAKED EYES, WITHOUT PROTECTION. IF YOU DO, YOU CAN AND WILL INJURE YOURSELF. BADLY.  SO DON’T DO IT. REALLY.

That being said, there will be all kinds of information on the Web, at your local planetarium, and in the news about how to view these events safely. So, don’t miss them.

As for the December 21, 2012 madness; well, maybe I’ll head to the Mayan pyramids next December and have a few Coronas with all the other folks who are taking these “end of world” predictions for what they really are: a big joke and an excuse for a vacation in the Yucatán to enjoy some mid-winter warmth as the Sun reaches its solstice point.  By that time, I’m sure we’ll all need a break.

There’s a lot of stuff on the Web about the Mayan end of the world nonsense, but if you want the best debunking of this mess of illogic, check out Dr. Edwin C. Krupp’s writings about it. He’s one of the most qualified folks I know to talk about astronomy and the Maya, and he knows whereof he speaks. And, he’s a nice guy, too; director of Griffith Observatory, one of my favorite places on the planet. (If you live in Los Angeles/SoCal, you probably know about this place and their support group, Friends of the Observatory—a great and worthy place to park some money to support astronomy and science literacy  in return for a membership or a tax write-off).

So, in closing, sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdities of life. I often say that “you can’t make this sh*t up” when I see and read about things like the so-called “end of year prophecies”.  But, I’ve been proven wrong.  People ARE out there making this stuff up—which is going to make 2012 a very comical year. Go ahead and enjoy the conspiracy theory show as it unfolds. Just do so with your Cap of Logic and Common Sense firmly seated on your head.  You’ll be “in” on the joke.

I hope that every one of you who reads my blog has a healthy, happy, and above all, sane and logical new year.  Be kind to those you love and go out of your way to help somebody with something. You’ll both be better for it.

Happy New Year! Keep Looking UP (or start looking up)!





Give to Help Space and Science Outreach



December 23, 2011 at 16:52 pm | Leave a Comment

Support Science Literacy and Education

This is the time of year when many of us have our thoughts turn to gift-giving in the form of donations to organizations whose goals we agree with or support in some way. The best organizations are those that make it a point to support science education or in some way bring astronomy to everyone. So, if you’re looking for someplace to park some cash where it will do some good, here are MY recommendations.

First, you can’t go wrong with supporting the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. I’ve been a member for a long time and support the group’s educational outreach efforts and support of science literacy through astronomy and space science. They have members from around the world, and if you’re interested in astronomy outreach, they are the “go to” place!  You can read more about them at their Web site.

Friends of the Observatory, the support group for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, is a non-profit group dedicated to helping the observatory teach about astronomy and space.  Their funds go toward bringing school children to the observatory, creating new programs, and supporting public education in astronomy. Even though I don’t live in Los Angeles, I make it a point to re-up my membership each year because I think those folks at Griffith are doing a wonderful job.

Next is the International Dark-Sky Association. This group is dedicated to the idea that we CAN protect and preserve the nighttime environment while at the same time fostering wise use of lighting.  Their Web site is a veritable treasure trove of information about safe lighting, energy savings, and other useful facts.  They are well worth your donation!

Many people live in areas that have science centers or planetariums.  Many of these are non-profit organizations, and they often offer memberships (just like museum memberships). Why not consider chucking a few bucks toward the one closest to you?  With science and science education under attack in the U.S. from people who are proud of their ignorance, places like these often face budget cuts or close-downs. Your donations can make the difference.  Look around your community and see where you can make a difference in science literacy and education. Want to know where they are?  Check here to see what’s near you.





Cosmic Consciousness



December 7, 2011 at 6:30 am | 1 Comment

We are a Way for the Universe to Tell Its Story

Galaxy history, as seen by Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA, Windhorst, S. Cohen, M. Mechtley, and M. Rutkowski (Arizona State University, Tempe), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia), P. McCarthy (Carnegie Observatories), N. Hathi (University of California, Riverside), R. Ryan (University of California, Davis), H. Yan (Ohio State University), and A. Koekemoer (Space Telescope Science Institute).

Occasionally I’ve written about what I think of as the scientific history of the universe. That’s the story of the mechanics of the cosmos starting with the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago and tracing the creation of the first stars and galaxies and eventually the planets, and then on to life. It’s a compelling history and astronomers and cosmologists are still inking in the details as they learn more about things like dark matter, dark energy, and so on. I like the story, mostly. What I don’t like about it is that it seems to put humans at the top of the evolutionary chain that stretches back all those billions of years. And, that’s most emphatically NOT what cosmic history is about. There is bound to be other life out there, other planets teeming with biota of some kind–and each of those is also part of the evolutionary tree.

There’s another way to look at this bounding evolutionary story, and that’s from the standpoint of something that the late Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”  I don’t think he meant just you and me and the tree on the corner.  He meant Earth and all the structures it contains and the life it bears.  “We” in this context are part of a living, breathing construct that encompasses Earth and all the stuff it contains. And, in our DNA, in the structure of the rocks and trees and lakes and continents and seas and deserts and microbes and all the life that surrounds us, is encoded the story of the universe. Our bodies contain elements first created in the Big Bang, and others that were created and cycled through one or more stars. Our planet has the same makeup. That makes us part of the cosmos that I’m not sure we fully appreciate yet. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be treating each other and our planet as if all were disposable.

What brought all this to mind tonight was a program currently appearing on PBS called the Journey of the Universe. It is billed as an epic story of cosmic, Earth, and human transformation, and it is a very nicely done exploration of the evolution of the universe and our place in it,and the evolution of our consciousness along with everything else. It’s both a film and book project, hosted by evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme and historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker.  Their story is nicely woven, bringing together scientific discoveries in astronomy, geology, and biology and infusing them with humanistic insights concerning the nature of the universe. I found it a very poetic and compelling program to watch, and as I did, I wondered just what sort of universe has evolved that allows us to use the miraculous consciousness we’ve all evolved with to do great things like explore the cosmos, create art and music, create families, and learn to live with other living beings on the planet. Unfortunately, some people among us also use that same consciousness to do things like trash the planet, exploit animals, kill other humans, use spiritual beliefs to foster hate, and use political power to foster misogyny, ignorance, and fear.

When I look at the stars, I see where we came from. I see where we’re going. And, I often wonder (as the authors of this lovely program do), what we are going to become—and I see what we will have to overcome in order to move forward in step with the evolution of the cosmos.

If you’re interested in a spirited, open-minded look at the cosmos, us, and our place in it, check out this program. The web page I linked to above has a list of screenings on PBS and in various towns and cities. It’s worth checking out. It might just give you some pause for thought.





Kepler’s Hits Just Keep Coming



December 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Leave a Comment

A Near-Earth-sized Planet in the Goldilocks Zone

This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

The search for extra-solar planets that the Kepler mission is doing just keeps cranking out discoveries. The latest one is special: the first planet that is close to the size of Earth that orbits its star in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”. Essentially, that’s the region around almost any star where liquid water could exist on the surface of a planet that happens to be orbiting ‘in the zone’.

The planet is called Kepler-22b, and it is about 600 light-years away from us. While the planet is larger than Earth, its orbit of 290 days around a Sun-like star resembles that of our world. The planet’s host star belongs to the same class as our Sun—a G-type star which is actually slightly smaller and cooler.

Now, this discovery of a planet in the right place around its star is interesting because—as we all know—water is one of the three requirements necessary for life to exist: water, warmth, and organic material (food). So, finding a planet in the sweet spot is a big first step in locating life on other worlds.

It does NOT mean that Kepler has found life. It just means it has found a planet in the right place to support conditions that might allow life. That sounds hand-wavy, but this is the way discoveries work. You have to figure out if the environment is right for life, and then go about trying to understand that environment. Now, we have to study the planet further to see if water exists there.  It could be done by watching as the planet orbits between us and the star, and studying the star’s light as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere.  That is a technique called spectroscopy, and it means that astronomers detect the light, let it pass through a “super-prism” that breaks up the light into its component wavelengths, and then study the data to see if it indicates that water is present.  It would most likely be the presence of water vapor.  The amount you find, along with some other characteristics, tell you about the amount of water in the system.  So, Kepler’s discovery is  a big first step.

Kepler is an interesting observatory. It doesn’t take pictures.  It’s mainly interested in something called “light variation”.  That is, it discovers planets and planet candidates by measuring dips in the brightness of more than 150,000 stars.  If a it sees a periodic dip in the light intensity coming from a star, then there’s a very good possibility that a planet is crossing in front of the star (from our point of view), or “transiting” it.  Kepler requires at least three transits to verify a signal as a planet. (And, by signal, we mean “a dip in the light intensity”.)

Once these candidate planets are announced, then a series of ground-based telescopes and the infrared-sensitive Spitzer Space Telescope look at them and provide data that helps astronomers verify that these things are planets. It’s a long-term task and one that’s keeping astronomers busy. Kepler finds many candidate planets, and each one needs to be meticulously checked out.  Kepler has found 2,326 planet candidates. Of these, 207 are approximately Earth-size, 680 are super Earth-size, 1,181 are Neptune-size, 203 are Jupiter-size and 55 are larger than Jupiter. Today’s announced discovery is one of only 48 stars (of the many thousands  that Kepler has studied) that have planets in their habitable zones. It is the first planet in a habitable zone that is near-Earth-sized, and that’s exciting. I hope it also means that there are many more of them out there, just waiting to be detected!  Stay tuned.





The Undiscovered Country of Small Bodies



November 18, 2011 at 18:35 pm | Leave a Comment

What We can Learn from Near Earth Objects

This radar image of asteroid 2005 YU55 was obtained on Nov. 7, 2011, at 11:45 a.m. PST (2:45 p.m. EST/1945 UTC), when the space rock was at 3.6 lunar distances, which is about 860,000 miles, or 1.38 million kilometers, from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Click to enlarge.)

A couple of weeks ago many people were startled to learn that a space rock—an asteroid called 2005 YU55—was about to pass just inside of our Moon’s orbit. This tumbling piece of debris is big enough that a decent-sized ocean liner could fit inside it, and its 1.22-year orbit occasionally brings it close to Earth. This time, we were in no danger of an impact from it during the November 8th flyby.

Scientists took the opportunity to study the asteroid in great detail. The radio astronomy community was all over it. The Arecibo radio telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, the Green Bank Telescope, and the Goldstone telescopes all focused on 2005 YU55. The Herschel Space Telescope also looked at the asteroid in far-infrared light, which helps us understand the temperature of the asteroid and what it’s made of.

In particular, astronomers used the Goldstone Deep Space Antenna to bounce radar signals off the asteroid and then examine the data to see what this baby looked like. The movie below shows a series of the highest resolution radar “images” ever taken of a near-Earth object. The movie consists of six frames made from 20 minutes of radar data, and is a work in progress. Word is there will be another, more detailed movie released here after astronomers get through analyzing all the data—perhaps in a week or two.

2005 YU55  rotates on its axis once every 18 hours, so what you see below is five repetitions of the same loop, and the loop shows the rotation faster than in real time.

What About NEOs?

So, I’ve had people ask me what NEOs mean. The close passage of this one raised concerns again about what we would do if such a rock were headed straight toward our planet. Obviously if it had hit Earth, 2005 YU55 would have dug out a crater about six kilometers across (nearly four miles) if it had impacted on solid ground. The consequences could have been pretty severe. Of course, the asteroid didn’t hit, for which we all breathed a sigh of relief.

But, that’s not to say that Earth is safe from a collision with one of these orbiting space rocks. It turns out the solar system is peppered with them, and in particular, the region we inhabit (the inner solar system) has a good-sized population of these rocks. They’ve BEEN around since the earliest history of the solar system. In fact, populations of such objects were spread out across much of the proto-solar nebula. They were the precursor “worldlets” that combined and collided to form the larger bodies such as Earth, the Moon, and so on. What we have now are the ones that didn’t participate in that early solar system tango to create worlds. They still zip around in their own orbits, and occasionally get close enough to another world (like Earth) to pose a collision threat.

There are communities of scientists who track these objects (once they’re discovered) and do a good job of assessing the chances of impact, near misses, and close encounters. You can read their work at the Web page for NASA’s Near Earth Object Program , the Minor Planets Center , and at the European Space Agency’s NEO’s pages here and here.

There are a number of search programs called asteroid surveys that constantly watch the sky and catalog just about everything that moves. They are scattered around the world, and you can see a list of the major ones here.  These surveys aim to find as many NEOs as possible, down to the limits of what they can see. Planned future surveys will need to use ever-more sensitive detectors to find smaller and dimmer objects with orbits intersecting Earth’s.

So, what can we learn about these NEOs as they whiz by? The radar imaging you saw in the movie here tells scientists something about the surface characteristics of an object. That is, is it cratered, does it have other surface features like hills or outcrops? What is its shape? Sometimes they can figure out what its surface is made of—that is, the minerals that make up a rocky asteroid, for example. And, by sussing out the composition and “look and feel” of these asteroids, we learn more about the raw materials that made up Earth and other worlds. We find out what conditions were like in various parts of the solar system during the early days when these types of objects were forming, colliding, and contributing themselves to build larger worlds. So, in a sense, these asteroids are historical treasure troves that give us a look at the early history of the solar system. In another sense, the ongoing discovery of NEOs also tells us about their distribution—that is, how many of them there are and WHERE their orbits are in the inner solar system.

NEOs have always been there, folks. As I mentioned above, the solar system was born with an inventory of these guys, and over time they collide with planets and Sun. The inner solar system’s collection of NEOs is constantly being replaced by asteroids that migrate from the main Asteroid Belt, or from objects that are bumped from their orbits out near Jupiter and Saturn and sent inward toward the Sun.

Currently we’ve discovered most of the larger ones. In recent decades, we’ve developed much better detectors to find the smaller near-Earth objects (the size of city blocks, for example). Most are so small and so dim (their surfaces can be as dark as charcoal, which makes them hard to spot, particularly when they’re little guys).

Once a NEO is discovered, scientists have to make many observations of it to pin down its orbit very accurately. This is like watching a plane land: the more observations you have of that plane, the more accurately you can figure out its path to its landing site. In the days after a NEO discovery, scientists are very careful to point out that their calculations of the object’s orbit and trajectory are preliminary AND that the orbital parameters will change as more observations come in. This is completely normal and nothing to worry about. Yet, I often see people, particularly in the media or as part of the conspiracy theory crowd ignoring that fact and getting all upset because they think scientists are hiding information or aren’t telling the truth.

The truth is that calculating orbits, particularly when you want to figure out whether or not something will impact us, requires observations over a long period of time, and those observations should be very precise. It’s not an overnight job— it’s like any other quality work—it reflects the amount of time and effort put into it. We pay our scientists well to do their jobs, and so it’s only fair to LET them DO their jobs without having people screech about it.

I’ve also seen a lot of nonsense on the Web about how NEOs can change our magnetic fields or shift our polar axes or how they are being hidden by NASA/ESA/whoever. Such speculations are the work of people who either don’t know much about the reality of NEOs (or about the laws of physics for that matter) or don’t care to know because they can get more attention by making stuff up and then posting their “fantasies” on the Web. That’s the politest way I can term such nonsense. There’s good, solid science behind the discovery and characterization of NEOs, and I wish people would pay more attention to THAT. The universe is always much more fascinating and wondrous than our imaginations can dream up.

So, to sum up: NEOs are fascinating rocks from space. Sure, they can pose a threat, and we should be looking for ways to mitigate that threat. But, in the larger sense, NEOs hand us a unique chance to learn more about our neck of the woods, by giving us a look at what was once the undiscovered country of small bodies of the solar system.

(Special thanks to Dr. Paul Chodas at NASA/JPL for his insights on these NEOs. If you want to read more commentary about NEOs, check out David Ropeik’s discussion of impact risks here , and Alan Boyle’s comments on CosmicLog at MSNBC. Both of their blog entries were written after a workshop about communicating risks of NEO impacts, sponsored by the Secure World Foundation that I and a number of other scientists and writers attended this past week.)





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