Category Archives: Astronomy News

Future of Space Flight – Interplanetary Civilization

The final question is “Why are we doing this at all?”

  1. The Exploration Gene?
  2. Use of Resources on Earth is Limited?
  3. Protection of the Human Race?
  4. Growth.


  1. There will always be arguments of “Because it is there,” forever and ever. Humans are like that. But honestly, seeing Earth from orbit would be awesome, but the space between Earth and Mars is full up of NOTHING. Almost as bad as space between Earth and Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, the next star. 99.99999 % of space is nothing. The other 0.000001% is amazing views…which, since we can’t see them with the naked eye, might as well be seen with a camera.
  2. We can extract resources in space without digging up the Earth. Yeah, not so much. There are good reasons to dig up resources in space, but we can cleanly extract resources from Earth for thousands of years before we NEED anything from an asteroid. Especially considering the cost of delivering it to the Earth.
  3. Sure, I would feel “safer” with mankind an interstellar species…but if we can’t make it on Earth, we won’t survive long in space. Filtering Earth water is EASY compared to water rationing on a colony.

Colony: “What is our acceptable Cyanide level again, honey? I think we have a pressure leak in one of the grey water tubes. Well, don’t drink anything till I check for bubbles in the piss tank.” When THAT sentence is comparable to

Earth: “Gosh, I think we’ll need to start a billion dollar desalination plant again or our almond harvest may fail.”

So, 4. Growth.

Science is easy, but its really easy when no one is checking your answers. I can define a specific spectrum as a “Magnetostar, magnetic-spinning neutron star” and have people nod wisely, but … its just a model. Heck, almost everything in Astronomy is just a model. (Really, really good models, don’t get me wrong, this is science, but we can’t really check the answer, can we?)

Engineering isn’t like that. When we build something, you can kick the tires, or whatever it has, and determine if it is better than the previous model. But if you want something good in the future, start building in the present.

In time, humanity will move into space as a natural progress. We will find ways to survive in the big dark, we will extract resources – sunlight is the easy one – and build habitats. In time, we will have an Interplanetary Civilization. Each build is hard, each round of improvements will take decades. People will die. Habitats may fail. But, this is growth.

The development of one project for the International Space Station improved water reclamation from waste by over an order of magnitude. ECLSS.


Before, we only reclaimed less than 50% of water, now we reclaim 95%. A person used over a cubic foot of water a day, now that is down to cubic inches. Improvements will continue to be made, but they don’t happen automatically.

And those way-out science models drive some of these concepts. When we see a light curve that indicates something passing in front of a star, we get an idea of size. It blocks 20% of the sun’s light… wow, that’s big. It has weird gaps in it… it is cloud-like? It might be a meteor swarm, or it might be a habitat cloud.

Unfortunately, at over 1000 light years, it is unlikely that we’ll ever get answers of engineering questions from these aliens, if they exist. But, if the engineering is possible, we will do it and I’d prefer sooner to later.

Asteroids – Empirical Evidence

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Oddly enough, I heard that Asteroids was one of the most popular video games ever. Well, This is a real asteroid. The Rosetta mission is creeping up on it. What can you say? It sure doesn’t look like a planet.

Deeply WTF, ya know? I mean, you can predict “sphere” you can predict a lumpy potato… but this is … um kind of spiral lines like a pull fracture. Squarish craters… I’m baffled.

Remember last week when the sun was perfectly blank? I may have forgotten to post about it, but you all are keeping up with, right? Well, if you missed it, people were wondering if we were about to fall into some super minimum. nah

Now, the activity is mostly equitorial, which is appropriate behavior for the minimum, but there is more energy farther north and south than I’m comfortable with.

This false-color image looks at activity, not to add weird terms, but you can see how the wind is blowing.

Real activity seems to be mostly constrained under 30 degrees (and consistant with solar minimum) but there is a lot of activity all the way up to 60 degrees latitude.

“Thas jus not right.” – Redneck man. (He shows up sometimes) 

So, ya know, we predict and we get smacked sometimes. We keep trying. Pieces of asteroids have been recovered on earth, but the differences between comets, asteroids, and their meteors needs a lot of empirical data. Thanks to the European Space agency for Rosetta, and thanks to NASA for STEREO – which gives us these images.

Physics is Hard – or you don’t know what you think you know.

I got pinged on three interesting Physics Today articles this week.

1)   Focus: Electrons Not the Cause of Charged Grains
2)   Synopsis: Unexpected Impact from Medium-Sized Solar Flare
3)   Synopsis: Asymmetric Reconnections

There are actually interesting connections between these three papers, which only shows how weird my brain works.

1) We don’t actually know why rubbing a balloon on your head makes it charge up. SERIOUSLY. I’d assumed, as most people did, that it was something to do with electrons being pushed around… somehow. Ok, I gave it some serious thought some years ago when I was working lightning and found the theory lacking, but never had a good reason to push back. Raindrops do gather electricity, there are some good experiments to generate a charge.

The Kelvin Water dropper will generate a spark gap  – Wikipedia
 Drawing of a typical setup for the Kelvin Water Dropper

But water itself responds to positive and negative charge.

Seriously, the real effect in a thunderstorm isn’t a bunch of electrons jumping from raindrop to raindrop, but large electric fields generated by alignment of water molecules. So, in general, when talking about climate and 100 year models – people didn’t even have a good model for lightning.

2) Since we’re on the subject of Global Warming. The Human-Caused folks haven’t really dealt with how much influence the sun’s cycles have on the atmosphere. Major increases in ionization from even a relatively small event. I was expecting – around the auroral oval – that we’d see higher levels of heating and ionizing, but this paper seems to indicate strong charging as far south as England (I’d like better numbers here) as well as a significant influence in cloud formation. (At 20 km?) Well, I’ll take their word for it until I see their data.

Source – – gallery of images

3) What it the connection between the two papers? Electron Dynamics

The real problem with electrons is that they interact with everything, so they’re a buggar to study. One long-standing problem is assuming that they are tiny. Electrons are as large as their interaction width, which (according the the scientist at TRIUMF) he’s gotten to a mile wide in a superconductor.

This lets them do all kind of “spooky action at a distance” things, when we assume they can’t be in two places at once. They also generate magnetic fields, which influences group actions. Looking at electrons in space, we can start to see how they interact with magnetic fields, how groups of them interact with each other, etc. Seems easy enough, but it turns out we had it wrong all the time.

SO: In conclusion, Physics is hard. We learn a lot each year, but the hardest part is un-learning what we’re sure we knew last year.

Very Rare Occurance

Folks, the fact is that we can’t really see a lot of human activity from orbit. Human eyes at least. Google has made it clear that we can see our house from “there,” wherever there might be. But we really don’t see human activity on other planets very often. This is a Very Rare Occurance
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So, what are you looking at? Mars. See the little tire tracks? Those were left by Curiosity. And the little blue dot at the center is the rover itself.  This was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. So, technically speaking, you’re sitting on the Earth, looking at an object on an alien planet. Congradulations, modern world.

Practical Astronomy – More tales from the dumb engineer

Below you see the future of astronomy… the 32 foot RV. Yeah, not really. But one year we decided to go there.

As I mentioned before, we had a big array of image-intensifying cameras, attached to videorecorders. The goal here was to look at meteors, determine the spectra of the plasma they emitted, then determine what the meteor was made of. (Having a landed meteor to compare results with was imperative.) HEY LOOK, we know what the Stardust spacecraft is made of, we can measure its spectra and use that as a starting point.

SO, we flew to Reno, loaded up an RV, and drove 2.5 hours into the desert. (According to the timeline, it was January 2006, I remember it being October and earlier, but obviously my brain is corrupted by caffiene and meetings.)

Exterior View

Projected landing zone (seen below) middle of nowhere.


Battle Mountain, NV-750px.JPG

Seriously, we drove to the town of Battle Mountain, our “staging area” which is as close to BFE as you want to go, then we drove 15 miles south of town and turned off into the desert. (It is a bunch of sage brush, not a foot tall, in every direction.) after five or ten miles of sage-brush and dirt road, we stopped at a little turn-around, which let us turn the RVasaurous around.

(picture below is just plain stolen.)

We were expecting a re-entry around 2 am, time may be mistaken, it has been at least most of a decade. We got out the cameras and set them all up a couple hours ahead of time. 1 am sharp, the sky went from clear from horizon to horizon, to utterly blocked. By 1:30, there were snowflakes the size of silver dollars falling everywhere.  Visibility was exactly 1 star, which seemed a plausable enough direction to point the camera.

As an added bonus, we turned off the RV so that the infrared camera could take clearer pictures. The battery (which we had tested pre-mission) suffered a sudden and traumatic end-of-life event. The wide-spectrum cameras all went dark. I overrode objections and re-started the RV. Running on RV power, they labored to get the wide-array back on line. I used the pointing camera to stare at a very lonely star, and soon enough we had word that the mission had ended.

The mission wasn’t actually a complete failure, there were some guys flying around in a big ole jet plane with an identical array. They got some good photos…but never shared the data.

We spent a few hours packing all the gear back up and storing it for flight back to Huntsville. We were all exhausted and mad, but it all got packed. Then, the sun coming up, we looked for the road. 

Ok, I went outside and kicked stuff. The fluffy snow was sagebrush, the flat snow was dirt and occasionally road. I aimed the hundred-thousand dollar contractor-supplied equipment (The RV) between the piles of fluffy snow, ran the windshield wipers against more fluffy snow, and pounded Red Bull to keep my eyes open. 

Took most of an hour to get 5 miles, another 30 minutes to get back to the hotel. I just went to my room and died.
p.s. There are NO bathrooms on that road between Reno and BM. dang. 

I-80 near Battle Mountain, Nevada
from Walkoverstate

Dark Matter

The Characterization of the Gamma-Ray Signal from the Central Milky Way: A Compelling Case for Annihilating Dark Matter

New paper came out which is extremely compelling. They are observing a 1 GeV gamma ray signal out of the plane of the Milky Way… from no specific source. This is troubling and needs to be resolved by looking at some of the dimmer galaxies – which have been rotating too fast for their matter. I’m not sure I understand how there could be a spherical expanse of dark matter, but it does match some equations. More importantly, excess 1 GeV signal does NOT match the products of annihilation for a 31 GeV particle. There should be a tail of reactions which go all the way up to 62 GeV. No sign of that has been seen.

Alien x

Ok, so we should be able to detect dark matter Annihilaaargh  (Ben 10 joke) annihilations in our solar system. But not everything has to exist, just because its on some super-hero’s costume.

Does Dark Matter Exist?
+1) it is necessary for gravity to work at Galaxy scale    -1) So our equations/understanding of Gravity is wrong.
+2) It might be one of the cool super symmetry particles. -2) yeah, I love string theory – but I don’t believe it.
+3) It explains a high GeV gamma signal    -3) The universe is a weird place, I can’t explain everything.

Other concepts?
Actually, since Hawking’s Radiation may have been removed, micro black holes may be a more serious candidate again. Interactions between Micro black holes are probably similar to dark matter…and the 1 GeV signature is much more believable. Of course, they are my favorite hammer … so this is a job for Nail!

So, I personally discount my theory. Frankly, I’d prefer String Theory to pull out a win here. Finding WIMPS would do wonders for multi-dimensional theory. The anihilation would be perpendicular to our 3-space, so we only get 1 GeV of leakage in a 60 GeV reaction. There are some particles “created” which cease to exist a nano-second later, each with a convenient shower of lower-energy x-rays, electrons, protons, photons. The “clean” signature we’d expect from an electron/anti-electron event 0.51 MeV assumes all dimensions of an electron exist in this universe. (String Theory is the bomb, but creates all kinds of misery for those who claim to understand its math.)

I wish them luck – and thank God that I’m an engineer who gets to point and laugh at their misfortune. (Up till the time they actually build a Brane Engine and I’m required to operate it in a safe manner and not destroy the multiverse.) yeah, the Risk report is gonna take a while on THAT one.

Ya’ll have a good weekend.

Pratical Astronomy – more tales of dumb scientists (me)

So here I am working for NASA. Now, I never turned a wrench on a rocket…though I approved parts which went on rockets plenty. Mostly I’m a “Natural Environments” guy.

Normal Human: “What the heck does that mean?”
Me: “I’m a space weatherman.”

Ok, so sometimes it storms. Meteor storms.

So a buddy of mine invented Video Meteography. This is the process of pointing a light-intensified camera at the sky and video taping for a few hours. Digitize the video and pick out things that change. You have to get rid of the bugs, the planes, the satellites, but sooner or later you are down to meteors. It helps if there is a storm going on, you get better results. 

I’ve gone to Spain, I’ve gone to Reno, I’ve worked in the Lunar Observatory, I’ve been at the Von Braun. None of these have gone as planned- though many have worked out fine.

One of the most memorable events was working at the Von Braun Observatory for a Leonid meteor shower back… oh probably 2001. Now the camera we mounted up on the roof was so sensitive that we were constantly worried about burning it up. There were a lot of people gathered out on the lawn to watch the meteors with us and we warned them against using flashlights or any bright lights.

Three o’ clock in the morning. I’ve had a thermos of Columbian coffee pitch black and I’m having trouble staying awake. I can’t work outside anymore, since it is nice and quiet and the people working counting are lying on their backs…well… I’d just fall asleep.

SO, Leigh has me working with her inside the VBO, watching the monitor. We’re only seeing a few degrees of sky, but we get more meteors than the people on the grass, since we can see tiny & faint meteors that the groundlings can’t.

Suddenly, the screen goes completely white. I’m out of the chair and heading for the door. I’m going to find the A$$#*!& who decided to destroy our camera, drag him out of his car and beat him do death with the charred metal frame of the image intensifier.

“ooooohhhhhh” I hear the crowd outside applauding the biggest meteor they ever saw. I hit the off button on my temper and walk outside. The light of the meteor is bright enough to see by. There is still a giant S curve in the sky from the meteor trail and a crackle hiss like a breeze, though the air is still. It was amazing.

Most Meteor showers are pretty boring, but it is worth it to keep checking them out in the hopes you see something like this. I couldn’t recover a picture, but I have one from the same day, same shower. Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD)


Explanation: This dramatic four-frame animation shows a fireball meteor and its developing persistent “smoke” train, recorded two weeks ago in skies near Salvador, Brazil. Indeed similar sights are astonishingly familiar world-wide to witnesses of this November’s fireball-rich Leonid meteor storm. A few skygazers even discovered that some bright Leonid fireballs made faint, gentle, hissing sounds(!), a surprising effect only recently appreciated and understood. Accounts of fireball meteors making noise have long been viewed with skepticism, particularly because sounds were reportedly heard just as the meteor was seen overhead. But light travels much faster than sound so, like delayed thunder from a distant lightning stroke, a meteor produced sound should only be heard long after the meteor streak was seen. A sound explanation supported by laboratory tests is that turbulent plasma created by the meteor’s passage generates very low frequency radio waves. Traveling at light speed the radio waves reach the ground simultaneously with visible light where they are strong enough to induce oscillating currents and audible vibrations in common objects like grass, leaves, wire-frame glasses, and perhaps even dry, frizzy hair.


Busy Week in Astronomy

Three interesting things I found today: Ain’t you lucky I got snowed in this morning?

1) Cassini Solstice Mission :
    I’ve been watching – and confused by – Saturn’s Aurora for years. Yes, I study aurora and I know a ton about them, but Saturn is still odd. Also beautiful. Red, Purple, gorgeous.

Saturn's aurora

There is a movie on the site, it is interesting. Note the upper air cloud pattern of Saturn is in a constant Hexagram around the north pole around the edges of the aurora. In the infrared it looks circular, but I think it is constant. Again, some astronomer might need to correct me. Weird.

2) Awaiting Jade Rabbit’s Call:
    The Chinese have a lunar lander, the Yutu or Jade Rabbit. It didn’t shut down properly at the last sunset, so its instrumentation may have frozen up and … well … it may be a deader. We’ll find out soon.

3) Oldest Star in the Milky Way:

     For this one I have to defer to my more experienced astronomy buddies. Apparently, they can determine a star’s age by the composition. I get how this is possible, assuming a consistent mix of elements from each subsequent nova. Slowly, the galaxy is poisoned by heavy metals. A star containing no iron, didn’t “see” all the nova which occurred in the last 10 billion years.
    However, it seems like there should be pure (reasonably) hydrogen clouds which have avoided interacting with the dirty dozen nova types like us. For a star to be alive for 13 billion years… seems far fetched. Yes, we can see galaxies which are 13 billion light years away, dating back to the first few hundred millennia of the universe. But the light is 13 billion years old! Those galaxies were full of stars, now are dead husks which have been consumed by other galaxies or … God only knows. They aren’t still putting out like 13 billion years later. I mean, stars are efficient but a billion years is a long time.(Maybe they have a few, newer, stars which have formed from the corpses of their elders, but for a star to survive 13 billion years seems … against physics.)  Our sun is a long lived fellow, but 5 billion is probably his limit. What kind of star lives 10 billion years?
    Well, maybe Naz or Steph will tell me where I go wrong here.

Solar Storm Alert – Exciting Times

An X-class flare is the big dog. Of course, x 1 – 10, the flux can go a long way from where it is, but this is the first x-class in a long time.

I’m stealing pictures from, support them!

The 10 MeV proton flux got up to 1E3 protons/cm2-s-sr. This is a solid storm flux. It appears to be dropping already after only a few hours, so the region of danger is already passing for many things, but – looking at the stair step – the main body of the storm could still be coming with yet more 10 MeV flux. That could lead to “real” storming levels.

There will be a geomagnetic storm, however, the Kp levels today are so low that Thursday’s storm will be mild. Probably only reaching the highest latitudes. (Alaska, Canada, maybe Washington – Illinois, but I’d doubt Ohio)

The really interesting thing is how correlated this is to the magnetic inversion event. I’d say that the south-pole flip of the sun led to this set of Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) and X-ray flares. How? Heck if I know. I’m not sure I know why the sun’s poles flip every 12 years. I don’t know much more than the solar “jet stream” has been stalled out in the middle latitudes for months and now the streams should move back to the poles.

From the Green Sun Plot ( the real color can’t be seen by humans, it is 94 angstroms – extreme ultraviolet – which is caused by hot flare gasses with a temperature around 0.5 keV or 6 million degrees Celsius) The excitement is still on the equator, but the “general messy areas” are spreading back toward the poles. A month or so ago, the whole sun was a plain green ball. Now it has a lot of action. This indicates that there is a lot of high-altitude magnetic field line action, which is heating the surface of the sun.

Is this common for the decent from solar max to solar min? Yes. Big events occur during this process every time, but we might now be able to get a better grip on the why. (not me of course, real solar physicists with better models of the solar layers than an old textbook.) Exciting times, folks, exciting times.