Category Archives: Cosmos

Don't forget to look up tonight!

Auroras are amazing sites because they are, of course, impossible. When Amanda and I got married a year or so ago in northern Minnesota, there was an amazing Aurora, surpassing what anyone at the wedding had ever seen in the state. Big colored curtains of light.

Tonight, and over the weekend, the northern lights will be majorly large and extensive, and visible from very far away. The the graph above (from here) gives you an indication of where you might see them. Anywhere north of the solid green line has a chance, depending on local conditions.

That asteroid did kinda hit the Earth after all! Maybe.

Remember that asteroid that was supposed to pass harmlessly by the Earth on Sunday? Well, things didn’t go exactly as planned…

Apparently, a meteor hit Nicaragua late Saturday night, forming a 12 meter wide crater. This would be a small chunk to make a crater that little. It has not been confirmed yet, but there is a strong possibility that this meteor was associated with 2014 RC. NPR quotes AP which quotes a Nicaraguan government official as saying the meteor “appears to have come off an asteroid that was passing close to Earth.” NPR also quotes the BBC which quotes another astronomer: “Astronomer Humberto Saballos said the meteorite could have broken off from the 2014RC asteroid which passed Earth at the same time.”

The event was caught on a security cam*:

I await further analysis and consideration. It could be a coincidence. Or perhaps this somewhat larger asteroid, 2014 RC, was traveling in a pack. They are known to do that. If so, “coming off” 2014 RC may be too vague a statement. Perhaps it came off a gazillion years ago. Or perhaps a handful of chunks were traveling together because the were mutually attracted in antiquity (via gravity).

*If you go to that link you will learn that the Earth is doomed because we are about to be rained down upon by a large number of asteroids. But be careful, take it with a grain of salt. Phil Plait at Slate wrote a post that discusses this: No, We’re Not Facing an Onslaught of Asteroid Impacts. This rumor comes from the same source that told us that the “supermoon” was going to kill everyone (it did not).

There is an asteroid out there known as 2014 NZ64 that is at the root of that story. It was just discovered. The asteroid is expected to pass by the earth 399 times between 2017 and 2113, however, the asteroid’s exact track and location is unclear because it was observed for too short of time. The best estimate at the time, though, is that 2014 NZ64 has a very low probability of hitting the earth ever, and pretty much no chance in the nearish future. The 399 measured future passes sum to an impact probability of 0.0000021. Just out of curiosity I’d like to know the estimated probability of something else happening to this asteroid, like it hitting the moon or another asteroid or something. Probably also low.

Near Earth Object Will Be Near Earth

Phil Plait says “Don’t Panic!” and he should know because he is the Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World which is about things hitting the earth. The object is called 2014 RC and it was discovered on September 2nd. It will arrive on Sunday.

The object is about 20 meter across, and Phil told me on twitter yesterday that this is roughly the same size as the Chelyabinsk asteroid that made a pass over Russia last year.

Remember. Random events occur in clusters. Otherwise they would be called “regular events.” So there is probably no meaning to two similar objects coming near Earth in the same geological instant.

2014 RC will come to nearly within the zone that our higher satellites orbit, a fraction of the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Even though you can see some of those satellites, this object is not shiny so you’ll need a pretty good telescope to spot it.

In 2008 a 4.1 meter diameter asteroid named 2008 TC3 entered the atmosphere and exploded 37,000 kilometers above Sudan, creating 600 or so meteorites (that were recovered) weighting a total of 10.5 kilos. That was the first time astronomers spotted an object in outer(ish) space and predicted its impact. In 2014, 2014 AA, between 21 and 4 meters in diameter, was spotted by astronomers and 21 hours later hit the planet’s atmosphere. It probably hit the Atlantic Ocean near West Africa. The similar sized Chelyabinsk asteroid, the one that exploded over Russia, caused uncounted injuries (but several, probably over 1000) mainly from people running to their windows to see what the bright light was, and getting hit with glass when their windows blew apart; the bill for repairing damaged property came to about $33,000,000.

So the three comparative examples we have don’t help much if you want to know the answer to the question “what if an object this size hits the earth.” One went into the sea, one totally exploded leaving many fragments to fall on Sudan, and one blew up at a glancing angle. Chances are, if 2014 RC was aimed directly at the planet in a perpendicular angle, it would either blow to bits or become much smaller on the way down. Meteor Crater, in Arizona, is over one kilometer across and was probably caused by an object about 50 meters across (when it hit). A similar sized object created Tswaing crater, in South Africa. While these and similar impacts would have had very serious effects near the site, such as disintegrating nearby living things, the impacts were not sufficient to have left a record in the paleontology or archaeology of the regions. Or we’re not looking hard enough. It is safe to surmise that if a few-meters-wide object made impact with the Earth in a populated area, it would be a major disaster, but if it did so in the ocean it would probably not have large effects.

The interesting thing about 2014 RC is, of course, that it was only just discovered. So much for the idea of building a Destroyinator in time to stop an object this size that happens to be aimed at us from striking its target. That approach, apparently, is for larger objects. But still, as Phil Plait says, the science of keeping track of near Earth objects is underfunded.

…at the very least, we need bigger ‘scopes for asteroid searches. We’re doing pretty well in that department, with Pan-STARRS, and the LSST (which is still some years away from operating). But even then they can’t cover the whole sky, which is why I support the efforts of both the B612 Foundation and NASA’s NEOCam. A lot of science will come from these missions at the very least, and who knows? If they do spot a rock with our name on it, at least we’ll get the chance to do something about.

Do you want to see 2014 RC? No problem. Just follow the instructions from Universe Today:

Seeing it will take careful planning. Unlike a star or planet, this space rock will be faint and barreling across the sky at a high rate of speed. Discovered at magnitude +19, 2014 RC will brighten to magnitude +14 during the early morning hours of September 7th. Even experienced amateurs with beefy telescopes will find it a challenging object in southern Aquarius both because of low altitude and the unwelcome presence of a nearly full moon.

Closest approach happens in daylight for North and South America , but southern hemisphere observers might spot it with a 6-inch scope as a magnitude +11.5 “star” zipping across the constellations Pictor and Puppis. 2014 RC fades rapidly after its swing by Earth and will quickly become impossible to see in all amateur telescopes, though time exposure photography will keep the interloper in view for a few additional hours.

And remember, Amateur astronomers: pics or it didn’t happen!

The graphic above is from NASA, where you will find additional information.

Two Rings To Rule Them All: Amazing Space Discovery

We know know what the famous announcement by the European Southern Observatory is. They found an asteroid with ring! Two of them!

…the remote asteroid Chariklo is surrounded by two dense and narrow rings.

Telescopes at seven locations in South America, including the 1.54-metre Danish and TRAPPIST telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile were used to make this surprise discovery in the outer Solar System.

This unique finding has sparked much interest and debate since it is the smallest object by far to have rings and only the fifth body in the Solar System — after the much larger planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — to have this feature.

Astronomers think that this sort of ring is likely to be formed from debris left over after a collision.

Details here.

Amazing New Discovery In Outer Space by the ESO

UPDATED: THIS is the discovery.

The European Southern Observatory will make an announcement tomorrow (or later today depending on where you read this, but Wednesday) about an amazing new discovery they made in outer space.

I’m not going to tell you what they found because it is top top secret. But it is very interesting and cool. What I can show you is part of the hilarious twitter feed called #ESOrumors that sprung up today in the Astronomy community.

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That’s just a sampling.

Stay tuned!

#Cosmos with @neiltyson – The first episode is a win.

If you missed the first (or later any) episode of Cosmos 2014, you can get it on Amazon Prime streaming (for a fee). It’s worth it. Here are a few comments I jotted down (then lightly edited) while watching the first episode.

Neil does have his own spaceship, like Carl did. That’s important because it lets him fly to interesting places. It is one of those spaceships of the imagination. Everybody should have one.

The visuals are amazing and informative and seem to be scientifically accurate to the extent possible. There is quite a bit of attention to scale, and how perspective shifts with changing scales, throughout the episode.

The predominant metaphor is that of a journey, starting with Earth which Neil takes little time to leave, where he quickly covers the details of the solar system. He spends a lot of time on Jupiter but barely touches on Uranus. Uranus and Neptune are the outermost planets. Then “beyond the outermost planet there is a swarm of tens of thousands of frozen worlds. And Pluto is one of them.” (Made me laugh.)

Then Voyager One, which reminds me of a story. Neil notes that this spacecraft, the one that has gone farthest of any we’ve launched, bears a message to distant and future possible recipients that includes “the music we made.”

One day in the Ituri Forest, living in a camp with the Efe Pygmies, we had a tape player and a few cassettes (a pre-iTunes device using plastic ribbons on which sounds could be stored). The music was playing, and Happiness Is A Warm Gun by the Beatles came on. About the time Mother Superior jumped the gun, the Efe guy who was one of our main informants, who also turned out to be something of a shaman, came running over.

“Turn that off, turn that off,” he said. He was perturbed.

“Why?” I replied, switching off the machine, thinking that he had heard something out in the forest, perhaps a herd of elephants heading our way, which had been a concern lately since they were in the neighborhood.

“That music is evil. It will make it rain, really bad.”

“Oh, OK.”

“Thunder and ligtning and floods!”

“OK, Ok.”

“Don’t play that again!”

I never played that tape again while in the Ituri.

But it occurs to me now that something similar could happen a billion years from now when Voyager One is finally discovered by intelligent beings from some other planet. How do we know that what we think of as music, with all it’s meaning and lack thereof, a thing that expresses cultural depth but usually enjoyed with no reference to meaning at all, will be seen in the same way by the Blorgons, or whoever it is that discovers it? Maybe they will think it is powerful magic and they will want more. Maybe they fight with music and will see it as a challenge. Maybe to them it will be a mating call. Either way, we could be screwed.

OK, back to Cosmos.

I’ve noticed that so far Neil has used the terms “countless” and “numberless” and “trillion” but not yet Billions. Just sayin’

Wait wait there it is! Approximately countdown 34:33 from the end. Billions of something. Orts.

Now on to other stars’ planets, and the new post-original-Cosmos scientific fact: Planets outnumber the stars. Carl may have guessed that but he didn’t know. Now we know. Also, that there are rogue planets, that are not in orbit around any sun. There are billions of them in our galaxy. Another post-Sagan fact. Possible places for life.

Life: What is it? We only know about Earth Life.

And now on to the spectrographic analysis of the universe. This is a theme Neil has written about and that we chatted about in our interview in 2011 (here). How astronomers see. Very interesting stuff. I’ll bet he’ll do a lot of that in the series.

Eventually, we’re outside the Milky Way Galaxy, and looking at other galaxies. Helpful text overlays give us the key terminology. And more with scale; the tiny dots are stars, then the tiny dots are galaxies. Then all this wiggly wobbly stuff that is the stuff of the universe. Super mind blowing cosmic fact: There are parts of the universe that are too far away to see because there hasn’t been time for the light from those regions to reach us. So how do we see cosmic background radiation which comes from the entire universe? Aha. That will probably be covered later.

Then the Multiverse. Looks a bit like Niagara Falls.

Now back to a brief history of human thinking about the cosmos. All that wrong stuff that we eventually climbed out of. Giordano Bruno, back to earth, Neil is on the streets of Italy.

Here we see animated cartoon graphics. I love the fact that the basic style of the cartoons is a serious version of the Scooby Doo style.

Copernicus, Giodna Brno, Galileo, the search for a better understanding of the universe. Reference to Lucretius, “On the nature of things” which includes the metaphor of shooting an arrow out beyond the edge of the universe. That reminds me of a story.

Again, back to the Ituri Forest. My friend Steve Winn told me this story, while we were both in the Ituri. Most of the researchers who went there had a similar experience in that we were expected to tell the story of our journey from home to the forest. One of the elements of that journey is, for most, crossing the ocean in a plane. But in the Ituri, there are only tiny planes that are rarely seen and the largest bodies of water are medium size rivers and large swamps. It is almost impossible to convey the vastness of even a mid-sized ocean like the North Atlantic.

So one day Steve tried this, when talking about the journey across the sea.

“Imagine standing on the edge of the Uele river,” pointing down to the nearby, rather small, river. “And shooting across an arrow. That would be easy.”

Nods of assent from the Efe men listening to the story.

“Now imagine a larger river that most people couldn’t shoot across.”


“Now imagine the strongest archer with the strongest bow shooting the straightest arrow across the water and it can never reach the other side.”

Eyes widening.

“The ocean is much much bigger than that.”

Personally, I don’t think that conveys the size of the ocean, but it does serve to begin to break the barrier at the edge of knowable experience. Did the Efe men really understand the size of the ocean from that story? Do the watchers of Cosmos really understand the vastness of the Universe by Neil’s reference to some of it being so far away that the light from it has not reached us yet?

Anyway, Brno had a hallucinogenic dream that the sun was only one of many stars. Got in all sorts of trouble. I guess he didn’t expect the Italian Inquisition. Good version of the story of the first realizations of the nature of the universe.

And now, finally, the Cosmic Calendar, Neil deGrasse Tyson style. Here comes the Big Bang. Better put on sunglasses.

It would be interesting to do a day by day comparison between Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar and Neil’s to compare what we now know vs. then, what is emphasized, and the styles. Any volunteers?

Anyway, “We are made of starstuff.” Scrape that moment out and put it in Memeland.

Tides. Turns out you can explain them. Life. And sex is invented. It must be getting December.

The KT extinction event totally made me laugh. Contingently.

Sagan did not have the Laetoli footprints but Neil does.

And the introductory episode, which is bookended by appropriate references to Sagan, ends with a very quick summary of human history, the invention of astronomy, writing, and science. And finally the Sagan-Tyson link is made, which you would know if you read Neil’s autobiography but if you don’t you’ll enjoy hearing about it here. You’ll get all choked up.

Go Home Mars Rock, You're Drunk! (Interplanetary Rock Makes Selfie)

Look at the rock on the right, and the lack of rock on the left. (Our left.) It is being reported that this jelly-donut size rock appeared out of nowhere on the Martian surface between photographs.


There are several possible explanations for this.

1) It grew there.
2) It was ejected from a steam vent or something and flew there.
3) This is what a Martian looks like. It will eventually move on.
4) The robot that took the first picture tossed the rock up while driving by.
5) It is a jelly donut.
6) The rock was placed there to cover up a footprint.

What do you think?

I love it when stuff like this happens.

Earthlings, Prepare For The Arrival Of GOCE.

He who lives by gravity shall die by gravity. That’s what they say in the gravity biz, anyway. GROCE is the European “Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer” Satellite which is a flying spacxe robot that has done some amazing research:

GOCE has a gradiometer with three accelerometers to measure gravity very accurately, to the level of 1 in 10^12th of Earth’s gravity. In other words, if an X went to within Y meters of the detector, the detector could tell based on X’s gravity. I’m not sure what X and Y are (I’m hoping someone who knows will fill in the blanks for us) but something like a mouse and one meter, I suspect. It also has a very accurate GPS system so I assume it could tell which side of the mouse it is located on were it located on a mouse. It also has an amazing system of moving around in space using ion-propulsion, so that it can track an orbit very accurately (otherwise it could not really do gravity research because it all depends on where you are … in relation to the mouse). It has other stuff too.

And the whole thing is going to come crashing down to earth ANY SECOND NOW.

As usual nobody knows where. Perhaps you can track it here.

The fancy machinery that GROCE uses to stay in exactly the right orbit is out of fuel, and so, the satellite will be crashed into the earth. Too bad they can’t refuel it!

I’m sure you remember cold fusion, but do you remember gamma ray producing clouds?

Cold Fusion was first reported in 1989. The original experiment was supposed to have produced extra heat that could not be explained wiht chemistry or electronics, so naturally, fusion was considered. Contrary to popular belief, that original experiment has been replicated successfully. The problem isn’t that the first experiment produced actual extra heat and no one doing the same experiment could match that result. Rather, none of the attempts at using this experimental set up worked, including the first one. So, yes, the experiment was successfully replicated, and in all cases, nothing happened. The bits and pieces that would have been relevant to cold fusion had it existed have been used and reused in a small, but global, cottage industry of cold fusion experimenters, since the original experiment and continuing to today. Very little cold fusion work since the first Fleischmann–Pons experiments has followed those original protocols, and in fact, they are quite different experiments, often looking for very different things. It is a little like this: Someone claims that Bigfoot lives in a certain forest. So, lots of people show up to find Bigfoot. Over a period of a year or so everyone realizes that the Bigfoot claim was bogus. But, there are still people looking in the forest, and some of them come back with blurry pictures of what they claim is Chupacabra. Someone else finds that the lake in the forest has mermaids, but again, the photos are blurry. And so on.

I’m mostly glad they have been doing this research though. The possibility of a “nuclear” kind of thing happening with basic chemistry is too important to totally write off just because, well, there is no evidence for it. As long as a) the total budget for this research stays below 0.00001% of the total physics and chemistry research budget for the world, and b) after a while we just stop looking if nothing is found, then that’s OK.


Unfortunately, while condition A has been met, condition B has not. They should probably stop now.

Anyway here’s an interesting story. I remember when Cold Fusion was a thing, and I remember how stridently the anti-cold fusion masses swarmed Pons and Flieishman and how unequivocally they were driven into the swamp. The whole idea of stuff that can only happen in a nuclear reactor or inside a star being done in a test tube was outrageous! We’ve finally gotten over that; we now know that tiny theoretical black holes are forming all the time in the upper atmosphere because of cosmic rays running into our earthly molecules, for example. (And people probably knew that back then. If it is true.) The point is, if someone came along within a short time after the initial unveiling and rapid beheading of Cold Fusion with anything that looked even a little like nuclear physics happening in a setting where chemists (or any other scientists) operate, stern looks ensued.

So, in 1991, when the open festering wound of cold fusion was just starting to scar over, an interesting observation was made. Previously, it had been noticed by spy planes, astronauts, etc. (people who were really really high) that blue streaks or flashes would sometimes come flying out of the tops of the larger thunder heads. In 1991 someone flying over a storm system with a gamma ray detector picked up gamma rays flying out of the clouds. As I remember this, it was in association with blue flashes. I also remember the observation being treated gingerly. Reactions from “Oh, interesting, someone should look at that maybe” to “Well, obviously you can’t get gamma rays from lightning, that’s impossible, but well, whatever, cold fusion ugh” were to be found at that time.

Since then, slowly but surely, the gamma ray bursts have been observed and confirmed and it is real. It turns out that this happens because a particularly energetic bit of lightning totally wastes some atoms and gamma rays come flying out (upwards, mainly). Indeed, if Pons and Fleishman had produced a small amount of extra heat after ablating some matter with a giant laser, that may have been believable. (but it would not have been cold, so who cares?) These gamma rays, coming out of the clouds, are not cold fusion. They are high energy reactions to high energy actions.

Anyway, there is some new research on the gamma rays that you might be interested in. Here’s the abstract:

We present the very first simultaneous detection from space of a terrestrial gamma ray flash (TGF) and the optical signal from lightning. By fortuitous coincidence, two independent satellites passed less than 300 km from the thunderstorm system that produced a TGF that lasted 70? ?s. Together with two independent measurements of radio emissions, we have an unprecedented coverage of the event. We find that the TGF was produced deep in the thundercloud at the initial stage of an intracloud (IC) lightning before the leader reached the cloud top and extended horizontally. A strong radio pulse was produced by the TGF itself. This is the first time the sequence of radio pulses, TGF, and optical emissions in an IC lightning flash has been identified.

The important finding here is that the lightning bolt that makes the gamma ray is ginormous and propagates from a very low altitude compared to what they were previously assuming.

There is also a write-up that I think is not behind a paywall HERE.

First thought to be generated at high altitudes, researchers have recently pinned down the origin of the fleeting lightning-linked bursts—one of the most energetic surges of natural electromagnetic radiation on Earth—to altitudes below 20 kilometers, in the layer of the atmosphere where most weather happens.

If only we could harness this energy!

Østgaard, N., Gjesteland, T., Carlson, B., Collier, A., Cummer, S., Lu, G., & Christian, H. (2013). Simultaneous observations of optical lightning and terrestrial gamma ray flash from space Geophysical Research Letters DOI: 10.1002/grl.50466

Photo Credit: Striking Photography by Bo Insogna via Compfight cc

Cosmic Bombardment of the Earth ca 2.2 Million Years Ago?

There are bacteria that use Iron (and other elements) to make tiny magnets that they carry around so they don’t get lost. (I anthropomorphize slightly.) There are isotopes of Iron that are not of the Earth, but are found only elsewhere in the universe.

Suppose an event happened elsewhere and spewed some of that cosmic Iron isotope, say Fe-60, onto the earth, and the bacteria who were busy making their tiny compasses at that time used some of it. Then the bacteria died and were trapped inlayers in seafloor sediment and later examined by scientists looking for … well, looking for evidence of cosmic events trapped in bacterial compasses!

Well, that happened.

A bit of sea floor was found to have Iron-60 in it a few years back. Iron-60 is radioactive and decays into Cobalt-60, with a known (but only recently known as it turns out) decay rate. That bit of rock was taken as possible evidence of an ancient supernova. The event was tied, conjecturally, to human evolution as all things must be whenever even remotely possible:

Cosmic fallout from an exploding star dusted the Earth about 2.8 million years ago, and may have triggered a change in climate that affected the course of human evolution. The evidence comes from an unusual form of iron that was blasted through space by a supernova before eventually settling into the rocky crust beneath the Pacific Ocean.

The team has now analysed a … piece of ocean crust, where the supernova detritus is concentrated into a clear band of rock that can be accurately dated. The researchers found small but significant amounts of an isotope called iron-60 in the rock, which could only have come from a supernova.

“We’ve looked at all the possibilities and we can’t find anything else that could produce such quantities,” Korschinek says.

The human evolution impact idea comes from a possible cooling effect the exploding star would have had on the earth. Back in 2004 it was estimated that the earth would have been bathed in extra cosmic rays for about 100,000 years which would have, it was said, created condensation in the atmosphere which would have cooled the earth. There was a cooling event around that time (but quite possibly well after this date, so don’t hang any hats on this) so I suppose this could be. But, I’m not going to assume that the cooling effects of cosmic rays are a thing at this point. I do know that people have gotten the effects of upper level vapor wrong a few times so I’m going to avoid making any assumptions about that here.

Anyway, last April, a paper was given at the American Physical Society conference giving preliminary findings related to some follow up research. Shawn Bishop and his team obtained a core from the Pacific dating to between 1.7 and 3. 3 million years ago. They sampled it at 100K intervals and extracted and separated out Iron in a way that would show Iron-60 if there was any. And …

“It looks like there’s something there,” Bishop told reporters at the Denver meeting. The levels of iron-60 are minuscule, but the only place they seem to appear is in layers dated to around 2.2 million years ago.

And, the iron was concentrated in the target layers by the action of compass-using bacteria.

Notice the change in date from 2.8 to 2.2. This is, I think, because the half life of Iron-60 was refigured based on some intervening research. Now, the date is probably too late for a significant cooling event. But really, there were a whole bunch of cooling events from somewhere over 5 million years ago to about 2 point something million years ago, and there is a long list of candidates for what caused them, including numerous big volcanoes, continental movements, and now, a supernova.

I don’t think anyone is claiming to know what star exploded.

Photo Credit for picture of fancy science machine: Gottfried not Bouillon via Compfight cc