February 28, 2013 at 19:21 pm | 1 Comment
Science is about Discovering Things
One of the misconceptions that people uneducated in science often hold is that “science knows everything”. Yet, the very nature of science — which is an exploratory discipline — means that scientists are constantly finding new things and re-examining older knowledge in the light of new discoveries. That’s exactly what science is supposed to do.
Take the discovery of a third radiation belt around Earth, just announced today. For 50 years, we’ve known that Earth has two zones of trapped radiation surrounding our planet. They’re called the Van Allen Belts, and without them, our telecommunications (for one thing) would be nearly (if not completely) impossible. They’re affected by solar storms, and the interactions between those belts and incoming swarms of energetic particles from the Sun can affect our GPS, communications, and other technologies. I’ve written about this before, and a few years ago worked with MIT’s Haystack Observatory to produce a series of video podcasts called Space Weather FX that explains the complexities of the Sun-Earth connection and the role that our ionosphere and magnetosphere play in that connection.
Atmospheric researchers continually study those regions to characterize how the change over time, particularly during solar events. Of course, we don’t know everything about them yet, but increasingly more sensitive probes of that region (including studies done with ground-based atmospheric radars) tell scientists a lot about this constantly changing region.
The newly discovered third radiation belt was found by a set of spacecraft called the Van Allen Probes, and they will be critical in helping researchers understand the variability of all of Earth’s radiation belts, particularly as they respond to the variable activity of the Sun.
This finding shows us that there are still things to discovery, to study, to understand, and predict. Scientists knew quite a bit about the radiation belts before, but discoveries like this one are showing them that advances in technology are always going to uncover new and wondrous things! To learn more details about the Van Allen Probes and this discovery, check out today’s NASA press release about it.
February 28, 2013 at 6:00 am | Leave a Comment
My friend and colleague Rick Fienberg, who is vice president of Galileoscope, LLC , has a cool project he and colleague Doug Arion of Carthage College started for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. It’s called the Galileoscope, and they have sold many, many of these easy-to-assemble telescopes at cost.
If you run a gift shop in a museum, planetarium, or other institution, you might want to think about stocking these useful and popular telescopes. When I first saw one of these scopes I was really impressed at how easy they were to put together and how well they allowed people to see things like lunar craters, the Jovian moons, the phases of Venus, and the Pleiades. These guys are donating all their labor and are only charging to cover the costs of the project.
The Galileoscope comes as a kit that takes only a few minutes and no tools to assemble. It’s perfect for classroom activities, group projects, etc.
Interested? Read what Rick has to say about terms and prices.
February 27, 2013 at 11:28 am | Leave a Comment
Light Pollution Video Released
All right! I can finally talk about this project Loch Ness Productions has been working on with the International Dark-Sky Association. It’s a video called Losing the Dark and it went live today for download today! It tells the story of light pollution and how we can work together to mitigate it, all in 6.5 minutes. If you run a domed theater (either fulldome or classic), there’s a file for you! Just visit here at the Loch Ness Productions page for the show to get the version you need (or arrange to get frames if your theater needs very high-resolution frames).
Educators, outreach professionals and others who want to show this program in their classrooms and other venues can download a flat-screen version at the IDA’s Losing the Dark page.
It’s been an amazing project to produce. We worked with visualizers, animators, and photographers from around the world, and both Mark and I did some photography for the show as well. I also wrote the script and supplied the narration for the show, and worked closely with the International Dark-Sky Association on the science behind the script. Mark C. Petersen did the soundtrack and provided his GEODESIUM space music, supplied some time-lapse and still photography, and did the final compositing of the video.
Our support team was huge: I can’t thank Scott Kardel, Dr. Connie Walker, and the members of the IDA Education committee enough for their help and support. We also thank Starmap and the Fred Maytag Family Foundation for their generous support of the project. The International Planetarium Society supplied a seed grant to start off the project, and IDA members have also helped underwrite the costs of production.
Help spread the news about mitigating light pollution and using light only where it’s needed. Otherwise, we are, as the show says, losing the dark of night at the speed of light.
February 23, 2013 at 13:26 pm | Leave a Comment
2018 to Mars???
I see in the news that the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito (a guy with a lot of money and an urge to push the business of space exploration) wants to send a mission to Mars on a quickie flyby as early as the year 2018.
Five years from now.
This almost sounds like a case of life imitating art, except in Geoffrey Landis’s wonderful book Mars Crossing, actual human explorers DO land on Mars only to find themselves having to trek across the planet for survival. It’s a bit of a drama, but many of the details in the story are scientifically right on target and this could make for good reading for anyone who buys into Dennis Tito’s idea. I’ve read that his Inspiration Mars Foundation has not said there would actually BE any humans on board the ship, so I kind of wonder what the point of the mission would be? However, others have reported that there WILL be crew members. I guess we’ll all find out on Wednesday, February 27th, when the foundation holds its media event to present its ideas to the rest of us.
I suspect the crew will be young guys. I’d love to go. Heck, I’d love to just get to the Moon, but that’s looking like a fainter prospect every day. The lunar and Mars explorers are probably still in high school, maybe in college. It’ll take a while to get things going, but once they do, maybe there’ll be some hope for a trip for those of us who have supported, dreamed, and paid taxes all these years with the idea that maybe someday, somehow, all that support would translate into a chance of a lifetime to visit another world as a tourist.
This Mars trip has me intrigued because I’ve been writing about space travel and exploration for years, wondering when the exploration of the other worlds will branch out. Now we have somebody who’s making the effort to get us to Mars — finally! However, I think it needs to be a touchdown mission. And, perhaps it will be — we’ll find out next Wednesday. But, the ferment on the Web is growing. As others have asked, why go all the way to Mars just to fly by? That’s like going to Florida, driving right past Disney World and taking a few pictures before heading back to the airport for the flight home. And, if Mr. Tito DOES send people, he will be sending them into some pretty dangerous territory, as many are pointing out.
Back in the “Case for Mars” conference days (before there was a book of the same name), we all got together and discussed the dangers and snags inherent in a trip to Mars. There are plenty of them: radiation, psychological hangups, physical deterioration (astronauts’ bones are damaged by long stays in space, for example). Making a habitable spacecraft that crew members can survive in for the YEARS it will take for the mission to complete is a worthy challenge. Figuring out how they will eat, sleep, drink, explore… it’s a complex task. These hurdles will be overcome, but I imagine the first ones to head to Mars (whether through Tito’s efforts or a mission sent by a space agency) will be our “canaries in the coal mine” for extended space travel. They’ll be risking their lives. They’ll be heroes, and the exploration of Mars will be worth the risks they take to get there and come back home.
So, keep a lookout in the news on the 27th to see how it’s all going to play out. Maybe after all this time, we’re finally going to send people to Mars!
February 11, 2013 at 14:22 pm | 2 Comments
Dumb Questions? NO.
I’ve been following the latest kerfuffle over a CNN anchor asking Bill Nye if a near-Earth asteroid swinging close to Earth had anything to do with global warming. In watching the video of the question, it’s pretty clear to me that the anchor doesn’t really think that climate change and the asteroid have anything to do with each other. She’s trying to make a transition from one story to the next in a crowded broadcast. But, it was a pretty clumsy segue. Nye’s response was a nice educational linkage between words that astronomers use (like meteors and meteorology, and so on). I thought he handled it pretty well.
A lot of commentators online have really come down on the anchor for asking what seemed like a dumb question. You know what? There’s no such thing as a dumb question. There are ill-thought-out questions. There are uninformed questions, and loaded ones and sarcastic ones, but they’re not dumb. This question led to a teachable moment in science for the anchor and presumably for the audience members watching the show. So, it’s all good. Maybe next time the anchor will think twice before asking once. And, maybe somebody in the audience learned something about how scientists should answer questions (even loaded, awkward ones).
There are a lot of really misguided things that people say, particularly when it comes to science. And, they deserve to get called out on whatever misunderstanding they have that led to the questions. They also deserve rational answers from scientists. I am not for one minute defending the creationist claims about biology or evolution. Those are indefensible because they come from a position of wilful ignorance (and sometimes wilful lying) by those who preach them. Nor am I defending the ideas espoused by the oil and gas companies that are paying scientists to denounce human involvement in global warming and pollution. Those come from people who have a stake in maintaining the status quo at the expense of the planet and have little to do with the actual science they are deriding.
I am saying, however, that learning involves asking questions. And, that’s why there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Good, honest attempts to find out about our planet, our life forms, the scientific discoveries that inform us about the cosmos are never dumb. And, for those of us who bring science to the public, there’s always a teachable moment ? even when a TV anchor asks an awkward question. I like how Bill Nye handled it. We should all be so quick to use our knowledge to teach.
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Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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