Cosmosesque – Saturn’s Hexagon

I had made a resolution this year to post an inspiring space picture on Facebook every day. I’m trying to spend less time on Facebook, so I am moving some of the best to my blog, dated to match my original posts. I may combine a couple here and there and I may leave one or two off to start, but here is post number one!

My goal for 2106: to deliver an inspiring/awesome (original meaning intended) cosmic image every day and share my love of the universe with the social mediaverse. Up first: Saturn!

Saturn was the first really cool thing I saw in a telescope. In the 6th grade, Colorado public school students spend a week at “outdoor lab.” We hike and make dream catchers (because you always make dream catchers) and learn a thing or two about nature.

One night, we had an astronomy session. The lecturer had a decent-sized telescope and offered to show us Saturn. I was expecting to see a fuzzy dot. What I saw literally brought me to my knees.

I was looking at a whole planet. With my own eyes. And I could tell it wasn’t a tiny little thing. I saw the shadows that the planet’s sphere cast across its rings. My whole perspective shifted in that one moment. I felt tiny. I became aware of that planet going around the sun, of our planet doing the same. I felt the earth spin beneath me. It made me dizzy and I stumbled to the ground.

I can’t offer that same experience here, but I can show you something cool. This is Saturn’s hexagonal storm. Its a hexagon! It’s real and it’s cool and it’s over 20,000 miles across! It’s been around for as long as we have been taking high resolution pictures of Saturn- probably a lot longer. Rings and a hexagon hat? Saturn rocks some awesome geometry bling!

I said one image a day, but wait! A bonus “barely still New Year’s Day” bonus image! Bonus! A false color image of the storm adds to the coolness. Happy new year!


Science and Television

Ah, Futurama! One of the few things on television that actually fact checks their science references… and takes great pleasure in ripping apart things that don’t.

The recent meteor event in Russia has made me wish that newscasters and blog writers had Morbo sitting next to them whenever they made some lame joke or speculation about some scientific phenomenon.

I suppose the news stopped being objective and checking their facts a long time ago, and about more than just science, but the confidence with which newscasters and writers present their scientific “facts” really irritates me.

I don’t claim to be a science expert, but it is a passion of mine. I studied astronomy and physics for a while and almost made a career out of it. You don’t have to get that far into science, though, to know how to do a quick cross-referenced Google search. And if you are about to explain some scientific phenomenon to a worried public, you should consult a scientist. Otherwise, you end up saying stupid things like this:

(Please ignore the fact that this video clip is coming from a UFO playlist- it is a very much identified falling object.) First of all “I tracked those meteors…” No you didn’t. You simply did a Google search to see if there were any meteor showers that happened to be taking place when the footage was captured. Also, meteors don’t actually come from constellations, they just appear to. Constellations are apparent arrangements of stars many light years away, not throwers of fireballs. And while the name “Quadrands Muralis” is obsolete, constellations do not “go extinct.” We just decide we don’t like them anymore. Then we have “they are often hard to see because the northern sky is usually cloudy.” That’s right. Clouds like to gather in the north… for… strategic… science purposes. Forget that “The Northern Sky” is relative to where you are standing and… you know what, I’m not even going to dignify that statement with further commenting.

Actually, the women who were joking around were absolutely right! This was, in fact, a Russian rocket body that entered the Earth’s atmosphere, broke into pieces and fell to the ground. I suspected it was something like this the first time I saw this footage. First of all, it is moving pretty slowly. Meteors streak and burn up quite a bit faster than this. Secondly, if you compare the colors and the shapes of the fragments to actual man-made objects burning in the atmosphere (sadly, the Columbia footage comes to mind), this what it looks like.

Then the facepalm moment. “I mean you know it all, Tomer. YOU’RE OUR METEOROLOGIST?!” A. Meteorology is not astronomy. B. Please see my comment about “northern clouds.” An actual weather scientist should know better.

The reason the recent Russia event reminded me of this was that I am getting sick of every streak of light being attributed to a “meteor shower.” I wish the above footage is what a meteor shower looked like! It would make those chilly early morning trips to the mountains so much more exciting than the 10-15 quick streaks you actually end up seeing.

Early reports of the Russian meteor were that it was a meteor shower or even… meteor rain? I’m sure everyone has seen the footage a million times at this point, but here it is again:

Okay, some quick vocabulary (from NASA):

Asteroid: A relatively small, inactive, rocky body orbiting the Sun.

Comet: A relatively small, at times active, object whose ices can vaporize in sunlight forming an atmosphere (coma) of dust and gas and, sometimes, a tail of dust and/or gas.

Meteoroid: A small particle from a comet or asteroid orbiting the Sun.

Meteor: The light phenomena which results when a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes; a shooting star.

Meteorite: A meteoroid that survives its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands upon the Earth’s surface.

So, an asteroid or a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere where it become a meteor. It either burns up or it makes it to the surface as a meteorite. OR in the case of the Russian event, it’s a bolide, or fireball or in this particular case, a “detonating fireball.”

Pretty cool, right? Contrast that with a meteor shower. Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through clouds of debris from comets. Yes, you can have all of that excitement in a meteor shower, but usually what you have is tiny streaks across the sky over several hours. Still cool, but not quite as spectacular as either of the two videos above. They are also global events (you can’t have a Russian meteor shower, for example) and come like clockwork every year- not just randomly.

And meteor rain? That… doesn’t exist, actually. At least, not in scientific terms.

So the next time a newscaster attributes some weird thing in the sky to a meteor shower, I want Morbo there to tell them:

Scientific Mysteries – Rain in Los Angeles

Recently, “winter” started in Los Angeles. What this means is that for about four days, I had to break out my winter coat (read: hooded sweatshirt) and think about maybe carrying an umbrella around with me. I had to weather-proof my apartment, mostly by taking the fan out of the window and verifying that the heater I had never used actually works. My sunglasses were rendered nearly useless as I only needed them about 40% of the time I was outdoors. Despite all of that, me and my fellow Angelinos managed to make it through.

I heard on the local news that this weather was responsible for countless traffic problems. Being from Colorado, where I had to drive my 1988 Honda Civic while dealing with weather phenomena such as hail storms, tornado warnings, blizzards that dump a foot or more of snow,  sub zero temperatures and black ice on a fairly regular basis, I found it hard to relate, initially. I assumed the problem was psychological. Upon further study (and my gradual SoCal acclimatization), however, I have come to the conclusion that the weather- and probably science- is clearly to blame. Here are some of my findings:

1. Turn signals no longer work. How else can we account for the complete lack of them? I hypothesize that either the precipitation seeps into most vehicles’ electrical systems and attacks only the turn signal functionality, or that the rain droplets somehow refract the light from  turn signals so that they go unseen by the drivers behind or around them. Both of these explanations satisfactorily explain why visual signals are rendered useless, but horn-honking functionality remains unaffected.

2. Braking can only be applied forcefully and suddenly. Gradual braking is not an option, possibly due to the coefficient of friction approaching zero when there is moisture on the road. Sudden and forceful braking must be applied to overcome this. Another possibility is that the rain droplets refract light around objects and intersections, making them essentially invisible to drivers until they are literally right there and have to turn or stop.

2. Drivers can no longer see lines on the road, read road signs, or see traffic signals. I believe this is due to the refraction of light through the rain droplets.

3. The laws at intersections no longer apply. This isn’t as much of a scientific problem as it is a legal one. I still haven’t learned what the alt-weather laws are at four way stops, so this is probably just my fault. That or refracted light through rain droplets either cloaks vehicles completely, or alters our sense of time and space, making us unable to determine who arrived first and has the right-of-way.

4. Perspective changes and varies dramatically from person to person. An acquaintance claimed that he couldn’t see ten feet in front of his vehicle while going seventy miles an hour down the highway on his way in to work. This cannot possibly be the case, as visibility was not limited and it is impossible for any vehicle to move at seventy miles an hour on an L.A. freeway during rush hour. Yet he believed it so fervently and dramatically, that altered perspective (possibly due to refraction of light waves by rain droplets) is the only explanation.

5. Wifi and cell phone signals no longer work. Okay, this one isn’t related to traffic, but a guy in a hotel was explaining to me that this was the reason the internet service that I was paying $9/day to use wasn’t working and he couldn’t refund me. And also my calls like NEVER go through and sometimes my tweets get held up for ages. What the hell, science? The only thing I can think of is that the signals used in such devices are some how “refracted” through the rain droplets and re-routed to people who don’t have AT&T or Time Warner Cable.

6. The world essentially ends. Seriously. I didn’t feel like going to the beach, people had to cancel their flying trapeze and paddleboard classes and I totally didn’t feel like eating at Pinkberry. This is most probably due to the refraction of joy out of life by rain droplets.

You might detect some sarcasm in this post (and a lot of refraction). It’s not that I don’t appreciate that relatively speaking, a couple of days of rain is a monsoon and forty degrees is freezing, it’s just that, well come on, SoCal. You are where the weather forecaster stands when talking about weather happening in the rest of the country.