Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

REPOST: Martian Jesus

January 13, 2011

A recently released picture of the Martian surface has ignited some controversy in the most widely circulated newspaper in the UK (“Has Jesus Christ Been Spotted On Mars?”). The question mark in the headline apparently means they’re not quite sure if there was an alteration of the Martian surface in order to make it sort of kind of look like Jesus:

Jesus had 3 visible boobs.

Jesus had 3 visible boobs.

Some possible explanations:

  1. After his resurrection, Jesus flew around the solar system to preach at organisms on other worlds. He couldn’t find any, so he decided to make a self-portrait on the surface of the planet to which humans would probably first travel. It was too much work, and Jesus gave up after a few years.
  2. Jesus was really a giant Martian buried underground, and when he punched his way out of his burial-place (like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill 2), he left behind an outline of a vaguely human-ish figure on the Martian surface.
  3. Intelligent life on Mars which has since gone extinct heard about Jesus on Earth by being very quiet and listening in on the Middle East region 2000 years ago and then just decided to alter the surface of their planet to make it look kind of like a human, just for the fuck of it.
  4. Mars is a big planet on which erosion happens. There are no oceans on the surface, so that leaves a lot of possibilities for geological features which might kind of sort of look like a human. Since we’ve evolved in a way to recognize faces, it is not surprising that we would sometimes mistakenly perceive a face. There’s even a name for this phenomenon.

I wonder which is the most likely.

If it really were a face, then it should look that way from all angles. For example, here is a rotated picture of a human face which is still easy to identify as a human face:

Even though this is not how we normally see other humans, it is still easily recognizable as a face. And here’s a rotated shot of the same photo of the Martian surface:

Unless you’re already looking for Jesus here, you won’t see it. You have to want to see it. That should have given pause to whichever Daily Telegraph editor OK’d this story. On the other hand, ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue ad revenue…


Corot-7b is apparently my favorite exoplanet

September 7, 2010

A few months back I wrote about some recent findings about an exoplanet called Corot-7b and added some of my own uninformed speculation on it. And now there’s a new paper for me to pretend I understand. Hooray!

If you remember, Corot-7b is supposed to be a decent candidate in the early search for extraterrestrial life due to its density being vaguely similar to that of Earth. On the other hand, it orbits so close to its star that it only takes 0.85 Earth days for one revolution. And it’s locked into this rate of rotation where one hemisphere is always facing its star, much like our Moon is to Earth. So it’s incredibly hot on half of its surface and the other half of its surface never gets sunlight and is unbelievably cold. Oh yeah, and it rains rocks there because the heavier elements on the surface melt and then go up into its atmosphere, where they then cool down, condense, and fall back down.

This new paper by a team of astronomers at the Italian Institute for Interplanetary Space Physics in Rome is saying that some of those melted elements escape the atmosphere, creating something like a comet’s tail. Apparently Mercury is in a similar situation in our own solar system. From Wired’s Science Blog:

“The planet appears to be more like a ’super-Mercury’ under much extremer environmental conditions,” the researchers write.

The researchers at the Institute for Interplanetary Space Physics

So hopefully soon these astronomers or others will get some actual pictures of this awesome planet/comet/Mercury-ish tail thing.

Pic of the day

August 22, 2010

This is galaxy M87 as observed by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the creatively titled Very Large Array. It’s about 50 million light years away, which is 293,931,268,659,180,416,736 actual miles. If you wanted to drive there at 60 miles per hour, it would take you a little more than 559 trillion years, but probably your car would explode and you would suffocate long before you got even close to it. So don’t try it, in case you were considering it.

Anyway, what’s happening here is something called a galactic super-volcano. Very high energy particles produced by a black hole are interfering with the normal cooling process of hot gases which normally start to coalesce to form new stars. But instead all these gases are getting ejected in a way that’s apparently similar to how volcanoes here do when they fuck up European air travel. Except here that’s happening on a scale of something like a few trillion times larger than that.

The anthropic principle

April 25, 2010

There are really two different anthropic principles; the ‘strong’ one and the ‘weak’ one. The latter is pretty much a tautology. If the most basic laws of the Universe would different, then the Universe itself would look differently. There’s not much controversy there, it’s pretty straightforward. So here I’ll be focusing on the ‘strong’ anthropic principle.

As you might’ve guessed, the strong anthropic principle goes a bit further than the weak one. Lurking behind it is this assumption that the balance of natural laws in such a way as to produce life (specifically our own lives) must be maintained by some intelligent entity with a plan for humanity, as if it somehow knew we would exist some 13.7 billion years before our time when the physical constants were established. The physicists/cosmologists John D Barrow and Frank Tipler expressed this in their 1986 book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle:

There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’

Now we know that even just with materials found here on Earth and without any intelligent input whatsoever, natural processes can produce things which look very much like they have a purpose or a goal. For example:

That looks like it was designed by humans in order to accommodate travel from one area to another. But the reality is that it formed naturally without any intelligent input. The point here to remember is that we should be careful to avoid being deluded into seeing a goal or a purpose where there isn’t any. The fact that there are living things in Virginia which can use the natural bridge pictured above doesn’t necessarily mean that it was created for that specific goal. Similarly, we can’t assume that our existence was presupposed just because we happen to exist.

The only reason we can even think about an anthropic principle is because we’re already here. If different physical constants could also produce life in different Universes, then they’d be wondering the same thing. It’s only by necessity that we only hear about how great our Universe was to produce us. Other Universes in a multi-verse could also produce life by saying how awesome their own particular physical constants were to produce them.

The late British science fiction author Douglas Adams had come up with one of the best responses along these lines:

“[I]magine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

The point that Adams got to towards the end of that quote is what makes the strong anthropic principle not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. If the Universe or a God or whatever had us in mind as the lead in some epic cosmic plan, then we don’t really need to worry about environmental destruction or extinction by meteors or anything like that. It takes that responsibility out of our hands – and we as a species seem to like not having much responsibility in general.

Even against our own interests, we’re predisposed to accept the strong anthropic principle (or anthropo-centric principle, as Carl Sagan put it). We’d like to be special and the pinnacle of existence, and at the same time we’d like for a Big Brother to protect us from dangers, even dangers we might inflict upon ourselves. We’re so compelled by this combination of protection and self-aggrandizement that even unscrupulous leaders in politics, religion, and economics who might not have even heard of the anthropic principle make some crude use of it for their own purposes.

For more on the history and problems on these issues, I’d reccommend Massimo Pigliucci’s recent writings on the subject.


Martian avalanches

April 8, 2010

It gets so cold during the Martian winter that carbon dioxide freezes and sometimes accumulates on fault lines. Then when Martian spring comes, it melts away and sometimes causes an avalanche. And sometimes the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter gets a picture or two of the avalanche.

The scarp is apparently about 700 meters high, and the avalanche cloud rises about 50 meters. More pictures of Martian avalanches taken by HiRISE are available here.

Neil deGrasse Tyson at University at Buffalo

April 1, 2010

So I went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson last night at UB. He spoke for about 2 hours, doing his normal talk about basic physics and astronomy, then did a pretty long Q&A afterwards.

The talk didn’t really have new information, but it was cool to see in person. I got to ask a question about SETI but I don’t think I phrased it quite right. It was about whether or not what they were doing was falsifiable and if not, whether that made it unscientific. He answered by giving what seemed like a prepared response for questions about SETI in general, which was all very interesting and all, but didn’t really get to my point.

At first he made an analogy to searching for life in the ocean by studying it little by little. That’s basically what SETI does for possible radio signals from the closest stars. And then after finding no results, you can continue searching. So it was like he was framing the SETI hypothesis as a set of smaller hypotheses. He was talking about falsifying a hypothesis like “Is there a radio signal in X direction at Y frequency?” which can be easily falsified or verified by direct observation while I meant the larger hypothesis of “Does intelligent life exist on other worlds?” which I don’t think really can be falsified.

And that’s I think where his analogy fell apart because the ocean – global warming aside – is not expanding. It’s finite, and we have a pretty good idea of where it begins and ends in a practical, day-by-day sense. At least it’s not expanding at an accelerating rate which can continue for trillions of years, like the Universe.

So if the truth of our situation is that Earth really is the only place where intelligent life evolved (which is possible), we couldn’t really know for sure because by the time we’ve accumulated all the data and analyzed it, the Universe has already expanded by a lot, revealing even more possible places to search for intelligent life. It could be that what he was getting at was that maybe someday we could have technology that could really act that quickly, but I don’t see how that could be possible given the limitations on things like the speed of light and that sort of thing.

UPDATE: Here is a short clip UB posted on the YouTube:

An even more Earth-like exoplanet

March 19, 2010

Corot-9b (artist's impression)

This is a follow-up on an earlier story about Corot-7b. This more recently discovered exoplanet is more temperate than the one I wrote about last January because it has a much larger orbit. It’s also a gas giant, unlike the rockier 7b. So we can rule this one out for possible places to send humans after the nanobots take over and then destroy the Earth because we need a rocky surface to avoid being sucked down by gravity into the core and then crushed by the planet’s own mass.

Astronomers are only able to observe this exoplanet for 8 hours at a time every 95 days because they are using the transit method of observation. So some other details they’ve found so far are that its orbit is about the same as Mercury, the star it orbits is slightly cooler than our’s, and estimates of its average temperature range between -23°C and 157°C (That’s between -9.4°F and 314.6°F in American).

It’s located about 1500 light years away in the constellation of Serpens, which is also known as the snake. You know how that one constellation looks a lot like a snake in that it’s kind of like a line but with it curves around randomly? Yeah, it’s that one.

It's around here somewhere.

Scientists coming to Buffalo

March 11, 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson is speaking at the Center for the Arts for UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series on Wednesday, March 31.

Jane Goodall is speaking at Canisius College’s Koessler Athletic Center on Wednesday, April 14.

Pic of the day

February 4, 2010

That’s Saturn from Cassini. There’s also a relevant update here for Obama’s proposed science budget, which is that some of the additional funding is going to go to extending Cassini’s mission through 2017 to further explore Saturn and its moons. And this extension will allow for a seasonal study since the period is proportionally a Saturnian 6 month period.

Pic of the Day

January 26, 2010

These are the tracks left by the Spirit rover on Mars.

Pic of the day

January 17, 2010

There was a solar eclipse over parts of Africa and Asia this past week.

You can see more here.

“Super Earth” not so super after all

January 15, 2010

At least not for life, that is.

CoRoT-7b is the first rocky exoplanet to be discovered. It’s only 480 light years away, which is about 2,821,740,179,128,132 miles.

OK, that’s kind of boring since all stars are really fucking far away. But is reporting some new interesting details about CoRoT-7b.

For one thing, it’s in an orbit only about 1.6 million miles from its parent star. To put that in perspective, it’s six times further away from its parent star as the Moon is to Earth, and it’s six times closer to its parent star than Mercury is to the Moon. For now, we are stuck only able to identify exoplanets with a very short orbit because the methods of detection depend on a planet’s subtle interactions with its parent star, either through a wobble due to gravity or from a planet’s transit as in the Kepler Mission.

Of course, the whole idea of finding an Earth-like exoplanet is to either find life on other worlds or to find a place where someday we might be able to migrate. And it turns out that CoRoT-7b is not a very good candidate for either of these goals. Since it orbits is so small, temperatures in the daytime get up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The thing is that daytime never really ends on CoRoT-7b unless you move to the opposite side of the planet. Like our Moon, CoRoT-7b is tidally locked so that one side is always facing the star while the other side inspired Pink Floyd albums. So the “dark side” of CoRoT-7b which never sees sunlight is perpetually at around 350 degrees Farenheit below zero.

Obviously I have little to no clue what I’m talking about here, but it seems to me that there must be some slices of CoRoT-7b which are somewhere in what’s called the “Goldy Locks Zone” where the temperature is such so that water can exist as a liquid. Maybe somewhere on CoRoT-7b you can find some place stuck in a perpetual sunrise or sunset where life could exist. It doesn’t seem plausible that there would be direct boundaries between extreme cold and extreme heat. There should be a spectrum of gray area going from one to the other. But that’s probably just the nanobots talking again.

Oh yeah, rocks also rain down on the planet, apparently. So yeah, probably no life here. That is all.

Pic of the day

January 12, 2010


This is a plateau on Mars. The bright parts are bits of opaline silica and iron sulfates, and the brown parts are the actually the mantle. You can click through to get to the full-sized image straight from NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

The known Universe

December 18, 2009

Watch this in HD / full screen mode:

LiveScience also has a very cool video of a computer simulation of how black holes contribute to how matter is distributed in the cosmos.


Hubble’s newest deep field image

December 9, 2009

A while back, some astronomer working with Hubble decided to use some of the time to try an experiment. The way I understand it is that it’s like using an SLR camera (wow, remember  those?) where the aperture is open for a longer amount of time. And what would happen if you did that would be that anything moving during the time the aperture was open would show up as a blur representing the motion of the object from the time the aperture opened to the time it closed, while everything stationary would just be normal.

So if you did that with a camera on an Earthbound telescope for a long time, say an evening, you would see the planets remain stationary in their orbit relative to the Earth while the stars would rise and set as a result of the rotation of the Earth throughout the night.

But now think of doing this with an orbiting space telescope (like, for example, Hubble) which could focus on a particular point in the sky independent of the Earth’s rotation. Then the more distant objects would remain constant since that’s the focus, while the closer objects would be blurred due to the rotation of other solar systems and galaxies. Somehow they found a way to omit the blurring from the images to observe objects very far away in space/time.

So they did this with a very small point in the night sky and just focused on it for days with the hopes of capturing an actual image of the very early Universe some 13 billion years ago and as many light years away from us. It’s probably as close to traveling through time as we’re ever likely to get.

Anyway, this was all done a while ago, but there is a new one which just came out in the past few days. So here it is (click for the larger, more hi-res pic):

Each one of those little dots are entire fucking galaxies. They’re not stars. They’re billions of stars lumped together by gravity. Fuck.

The galaxies which appear to be red are apparently the farthest away, while the ones that appear blue are closer. But they’re all way further than anyone will ever travel, so it’s safe to just say that they’re all really far.

And remember, this is just a tiny piece of the night sky, stared at by Hubble for 48 hours straight. Other images pointing in different directions look similar, so it’s safe to assume that this is a constant of the Universe and it looks like this in every direction – which kind of makes it difficult to believe that life on Earth is especially important, except insofar as we’re able to even understand this kind of stuff.