Arianespace Sets New Launch Record

Although we like to talk a lot about US space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance – today history was made by the French company Arianespace.

The heaviest and costliest commercial payload launched successfully at 7:46 PM Eastern time today in French New Guinea. The ViaSat 2 and Eutelsat 172B satellites, produced by Boeing and Airbus, were placed into a geostationary transfer orbit on time and without incident. Together, the combined payload was 10,865 kg and worth an insured value of $800 million – both new records.

This is actually a bit of a blow for SpaceX, which was originally contracted to deliver the ViaSat 2 on a Falcon Heavy rocket. Delays in the development of the Falcon Heavy led to this satellite being switched to the Ariane 5 rocket instead.

It’s a good reminder that progress in space technology isn’t limited to the United States – many other countries have active, robust space programs of their own. And that’s a good thing. However, SpaceX fans can watch a scheduled resupply mission to the International Space Station just after 5 PM on Saturday! Tune into NASA TV for live coverage – although the weather forecast isn’t looking very cooperative.

LIGO Detects New Gravitational Waves

In another win for Albert Einstein, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has observed its third merger of a pair of black holes. But this one’s a little bit special.

This time around, data on the spins of each black hole was gathered – and they were tilting away from each other in a way that defies explanation. Their behavior doesn’t really match up with models of how two wandering black holes that find each other would interact, suggesting they were possibly formed as a pair.

These black holes are 3 billion light years away, and so the gravity waves we are observing are from 3 billion years ago – when the universe was relatively young. Scientific American speculates that these primordial black holes may originate from the Big Bang itself, and may even have something to do with the origin of the universe’s mysterious dark matter.

The folks at Veritasium had a scoop on this release, and have a fun video explaining it that covers it nicely:

By the way, Frank’s Geekery is a patron of Veritasium – please consider supporting them as well.

Image credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State (Aurore Simonnet)

NASA’s Flinging a Probe into the Sun

Well, at least into the sun’s outer atmosphere. But still, that’s just as hard as it sounds – in fact it’s harder.

There are many firsts about the newly-renamed Parker Solar Probe:

  • The sun’s corona is hotter than the surface of the sun – this is the first time we’ll send a probe in designed to survive the 2,500-degree Fahrenheit temperatures that exist there, thanks to a 4.5-inch-thick carbon composite heat shield.
  • This is the first NASA mission named after a living person: Dr. Eugene Parker first proposed the “solar wind” that flows outward from the sun, and presumably other stars as well.
  • This will be the first time we’ve explored the region of space within the orbit of Mercury

This mission aims to answer many mysteries about the star we all depend on, and shed light on other stars as well. Why is the corona so much hotter than the sun itself? Where does the solar wind come from? There are still many mysteries about the sun, and this mission may reveal a few.

The Parker Solar Probe is set to launch in the summer of 2018 on a Delta IV Heavy rocket in Cape Canaveral. Using seven gravity assists from Venus over the course of seven years, the probe will ultimately make its closest approach to the sun at 3.9 million miles from its surface (Earth, in comparison, is 93 million miles away,) at a speed of 430,000 miles per hour. You can bet I’ll be watching the launch!

Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The Moon Landing was Faked.

Not really.

You may think it’s a fringe idea that the entire moon landing in 1969 was faked in a movie studio, despite the fact that it was televised live, you can go talk to Buzz Aldrin about it right now, you can go see moon rocks and an actual Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center today if you want to, and countless people watched Saturn V rockets launch first-hand who are still around. Believe me, if you’ve seen a large rocket launch (I have,) it’s not something you can forget, and it’s not something you can fake. And getting something that large to escape Earth’s gravity is the hard part.

Yet a 1999 Gallup poll showed that about 6% of Americans believe the moon landing was faked – and the evidence is the numbers have increased greatly since then, as more people have been born after it happened. A poll from last July showed that 52% of British people surveyed believe the moon landings didn’t happen – and it’s the 25-34 year olds where most of this support exists. This same poll also showed that 64% believe dinosaurs never existed. I take solace in the fact that this study had a relatively small sample size of about 1,000 people, but it’s still deeply disturbing.

Here’s the thing with conspiracy theories – you can’t disprove a negative. For example, you can’t prove that I’m not an evil shape-shifting alien lizard who is part of this whole moon landing conspiracy. Yet, 4% of Americans believe exactly that (see question #13). Or maybe you’re part of the 28% who believe Elites like me are part of some evil group planning to create a New World Order (question #4). You can’t prove we’re not!

The polarization of society and “fake news” isn’t helping, either. The surge of moon landing hoax support is coming from the InfoWars website, which I won’t reward with a link. The founder of InfoWars has been promoting the idea that maybe we did go to the moon eventually, but that first landing was staged. InfoWars, if you don’t know, is a leading “alternative” news source. But calling them “fake news” is ineffective, because they’ve trained their readers to believe that real journalism is the “fake news” and they’re the only ones who have access to the Truth.

It also plays into the temptation to not believe anything you haven’t seen with your own eyes – although somehow Deities get a pass on this test. By that logic, Donald Trump doesn’t exist, since I’ve never seen him myself. Hmm….

No! Let’s not go there.

The important question that’s relevant to Frank’s Geekery is what to do about this. Unfortunately, these sorts of worldviews are often so deeply entrenched I don’t think reasoning will get you anywhere. I think there are only a couple of approaches here:

Bring your favorite moon landing hoax believer to meet Buzz Aldrin and watch Buzz beat some sense into him.

– Shock and awe him with an abundance of physical evidence and debunking of the various hoax theories.

Since the former is of questionable legality, let’s go with the latter.

Let’s start by debunking all the “evidence” that the landing was faked:

The fluttering flag with no atmopshere! There was a wire inserted at the top of the flag to keep it taut, the “fluttering” resulted as the wire was adjusted.

But the radiation! They’d all be dead! No, the astronauts passed through the Van Allen radiation belt in about 4 hours, and received no more radiation than you get in a chest X-ray.

But shadows are going in different directions! That’s because they were on a hill, and the contours of the terrain caused the shadows to look that way. Without any atmosphere, there is no skylight on the moon, so you don’t have the usual visual cues you’d have on Earth about the shape of the terrain.

Film couldn’t survive on the moon! Yeah, it gets really hot on the moon when it’s in direct sunlight. But they landed during lunar dawn and dusk to avoid that problem.

How can you leave footprints on a moon with no water in the soil? Go dump some dry talcum powder on the table and walk your fingers through it, and get back to me.

Why don’t you see stars in the sky in the photographs? Go outside on a clear night, and take a photo of something illuminated by a spotlight (much like the sun on the moon.) The short exposure needed to capture the foreground isn’t enough to capture the stars.

There are countless examples of “evidence” from the moon landing conspiracy folks beyond these – but a quick trip to Wikipedia is all you need to debunk them.

Furthermore, around 400,000 people were involved in the Apollo program. That’s an awful lot of people to successfully keep a secret for this long, isn’t it?

Plus, there’s plenty of physical evidence of the moon landing. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of the landing sites just to shut everyone up (but they’re still going.) They even imaged every US Flag planted that’s still standing. (Unfortunately, the Apollo 11 flag was blown down by liftoff exhaust according to Buzz Aldrin, fueling the conspiracy theorists who believe that only that mission was faked.)

Maybe you trust the Mythbusters more than me. Go watch their episode on the moon landing, which they’ve made freely available just to shut everyone up. Or are Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman also shape-shifting lizard aliens?

At the end of the day, you can’t disprove a negative. But there is no valid evidence for the positive assertion that any moon landing, including Apollo 11, was faked. What you can do is educate yourself about the moon landing conspiracy theories so you can discuss them when the occasion arises, and hopefully bring someone around that you know.

Image credit: NASA/Neil Armstrong

Saturn’s Enceladus Moon Tipped Over

Newly published findings from NASA’s Cassini Mission reveal that one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, appears to have been knocked over at some point – presumably by an asteroid.

Cassini found geological features called “Tiger stripes” associated with this impact, which have caused Enceladus’s spin axis to shift by 55 degrees. That’s more than halfway toward tipping over completely on its side!

This discovery also offers an explanation for why Enceladus’ North and South poles are so different geologically – they aren’t really this moon’s original poles at all.

Can we talk a little about how cool the Cassini mission is? I mean, here’s an actual photograph it took of Enceladus, if you’re wondering what it really looks like (well, the color is enhanced, but still, it’s a photo.)

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini has captured some really weird things around Saturn, such as its tiny moon “Pan”, which is shaped like a space-ravioli:

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini probe has also captured strange “hexagons” at Saturn’s poles, which can be explained by sinusoidal waves moving along a circular path:

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Last month, Cassini passed through Saturn’s rings, providing new data on the composition of Saturn’s most recognizable feature (which are generally only about 10 meters thick!) It also snapped some close-ups of the Keeler Gap, with its wavy edge created by the tiny moon Daphnis:

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

These are just the most recent of Cassini’s accomplishments; two years ago, it gave us evidence that Enceladus contains a global ocean underneath its outer layer of ice. And this is the same mission that gave us the Huygens probe, which in 2005 landed on the surface of Titan and sent back this picture:

NASA/JPL/ESA/University of Arizona

Cassini’s long mission is drawing to a close now; it is currently in its “grand finale,” as it orbits closer and closer to Saturn, sending back images of Saturn’s weather systems in unprecendented detail. Cassini will plunge into Saturn itself on September 15.

So long, Cassini, and thanks for all the great discoveries.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Let’s Re-Animate Egyptian Mummies!

Well, let’s not jump the gun. But a recent article in Science Magazine reports that DNA from Egyptian mummies has been successfully recovered for the first time!

This is a big deal, because previously it was believed that no DNA from this era survived. However, Johannes Krause, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, came across a collection of 151 mummy heads (that must be a sight) and successfully extracted mitochondrial DNA from them.

The mummies originated from the ancient settlement of Abusir el-Meleq south of Cairo, which was dedicated to Osiris, god of the dead, and a popular burial location. These remains represent a wide range of 1300 years of ancient Egyptian history.

It’s an embarrassing fact that we didn’t really know what ancient Egyptians looked like, but this DNA is giving us concrete information about the ancestry of these people once and for all. Interestingly, early results show that ancient Egyptians had no sub-Saharan African ancestry at all, while modern Egyptians do. So at some point, a shift in the population took place. These mummies demonstrated remarkably consistent ancestry, closely related to Near-Eastern areas – notably Levant, which encompasses modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon.

Nobody’s talking about cloning a mummy head just yet! But what we’ve already learned from this genetic material is exciting stuff.

(Image licensed from iStock.com/Nomadsoul1)

Science is a Liberal Conspiracy

Not really.

We continue this week’s theme of science denial and skepticism with a look at “fake news,” and the politicizing of science.

A friend sent me a link to this gem of an article at viralground.com: THE ALIEN MEGA STRUCTURE HAS STARTED SENDING STRANGE SIGNALS. AGAIN!

Whatever. We covered this last week – there’s no evidence that it’s an alien megastructure. It’s just something we can’t explain yet. Sensational tabloid-style news like this has been around since the printing press.

But, there are two things in this article that really stick in my craw.

First is the big pull-quote that declares, in large italic letters,

“this could be the discovery of something HUGE, and something which the Elite cannot deny!”

Part of me likes the thought that scientists are part of some elite conspiracy that have all the secrets of the universe, but are keeping it to themselves just to retain their own power. There’s a definite evil super-villian vibe there that’s a little bit appealing.

But no. This isn’t a good thing.

Let me set the record straight – if scientists did find evidence of an alien mega-structure, they would love nothing more than to tell the world about it! The truth is that even if SETI finds a verifiable signal, there is no International protocol to consult with politicians, leaders, or any secret societies before announcing anything. The most recent interesting signal, which could not be verified by others, was widely reported. Nothing’s being hidden – scientists are driven by seeking the truth.

But what’s really troubling is the implication that scientists are part of “the Elite” – that evil tribe of people who live in cities who think they’re smarter than everyone else. Or at least, that’s how half of the country views them.

This is a real problem – when science becomes an “us versus them” thing like this, it spurs anti-intellectual movements and a distrust in science as a whole. Sure, science has its share of problems – but good scientists acknowledge them and are trying to fix them. But left unchecked, trends like this are how dark ages begin.

It is on the shoulders of scientists and technologists to try and break free of this “elite” classification. I recently watched an interview with John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, who thinks a lot about the politicization of science. His advice was for every scientist or technologist to “tithe” 10% of their time to talking about science and technology with others. That’s why I created Frank’s Geekery. Just get out there, and show people – regardless of the tribe they identify with – that scientists are people too, and generally have good intentions.

I also help organize a local star party every month for the same purpose. If you own a telescope, this is a great way to get the people in your neighborhood excited about science, instead of fearing it. I’ve had people from all walks of life see the moon or the planets for the first time through my telescope, and I could tell it changed them in a way. Many of them couldn’t even identify the moon in the sky before they stumbled across this group of nerds with telescopes in a city park. Local outreach such as this is a great way to start.

The second big problem is the whole “fake news” aspect of this article. In particular, they misrepresent Michio Kaku’s interview on the subject. “He also believes that has to be proof of an advanced Alien civilization!” the article declares. But although Dr. Kaku is sometimes inclined toward the sensational, he’s still a real scientist and would make no such claim. All you have to do is follow the link in the article to his actual interview and read it, to see that all he says is that it can’t be ruled out.

I don’t know how to combat blatant misreporting in an era where anybody, including me, can publish news on the Internet and make it look real. Until people develop critical reasoning skills and are willing to research the more sensational claims they see, that’s a tough one. But again, getting out and talking to the community about the known facts and misconceptions, is a start. If enough of us do it, it will make a difference.

(Image licensed from iStock.com/intueri)

The Earth is Flat.

credit: istock.com/Mike_Kiev

Not really.

But there are people who really believe this still. What do you do when confronted with one?

Let’s talk about Matt, the flat-earther, just so we have a name. Matt rhymes with flat. No offense if you’re named Matt.

What you don’t do is say “ha ha Matt you’re a moron. Everyone knows that’s wrong.” If you really want to educate Matt, you need to come at it from a place of understanding and respect. A flat-earther is just the end result of our hyper-polarized society taken to its extreme. You can blame cable news, echo chambers in social media, income inequality, urbanization, religious fundamentalism – whatever. But Matt is just making a reasonable conclusion given the information he’s exposed to. Matt isn’t necessarily dumb. He’s just following his tribal instincts, and the tribe he has fallen into subscribes to the “scientists, like most coastal elites, are the enemy” camp.

If you attack these beliefs head-on, then you’re just putting yourself into the “other” tribe, and you can expect a defensive reaction as a result. We like to think humans are special, but in many ways we’re still animals driven by these sorts of instinctive urges. Protect the tribe, find food, have sex. That’s pretty much what we’re made for. And be honest, you think of Matt as part of an enemy tribe at some level yourself.

So here’s what you do:

  • Demonstrate you understand Matt’s position
  • Find common ground
  • Explore that common ground to find the right conclusion together

Here’s what a conversation could go like:

Matt: The Earth is flat, you know. This round-Earth stuff is all a liberal conspiracy to justify wasting money on space stuff.

You: Yeah, I’ve been hearing more and more people say that on the Internet. It’s kind of interesting. What sort of evidence have you heard about it?

Matt: Well, all you have to do is go in a plane and look out the window! Looks pretty flat to me.

You: So, you’d expect to see some curvature at really high altitudes, right?

Matt: Yeah, and you just don’t! I mean WTF man.

You: You know, I’ve looked out the windows of planes before too, and wondered why the horizon doesn’t look more curved too. If you look really close you can kind of see it, I think. But that got me wondering why there’s a horizon at all.

Matt: I guess it’s just how far you can see with smog and stuff.

You: Yeah, that can totally happen. But when it’s perfectly clear, you see a very crisp horizon line in the distance, and new cities and scenery will appear over it as you travel. Makes you think, yeah?

Matt: Uh… hm. Can’t really explain that one.

You: And the higher you go, the farther away the horizon is. Here, let me grab this really conveniently-placed beach ball I have here and demonstrate how that works, without sounding condescending in the process.

Matt: Huh. But what about that guy who took a carpenter’s level on a plane and saw that it never moved as the plane flew “around” the Earth? That proves the Earth is flat!

You: I know! If the Earth were flat that’s totally what you’d expect to see.

Matt: Yeah! Get me another beer.

You: I saw that video too, and it made me think. We agree gravity exists, right?

Matt: Well duh.

You: Gravity as we understand it pulls toward the center of mass of large objects like the Earth, right?

Matt: Sure, I think my physics teacher said that once.

You: So if you have a round Earth, its center of mass is in the center of the Earth – so gravity always pulls “down”, and keeps the level straight, no matter where on Earth you are. But here’s the kicker – in a flat Earth, the center of mass is in the center of the disc or wherever. Where exactly is the edge of the Earth?

Matt: California. They’re all gonna fall off into space in the next big earthquake. Those libtard snowflakes deserve it.

You: OK, so gravity would be pulling people in California toward the center of mass of the flat Earth, which I guess would be in Africa somewhere. They’d all be falling sideways, right? In fact, that level on the plane really would change as you moved if the Earth were flat – it’s completely opposite of what you’d expect. Mind blown! Boom!

Matt: Well how do we know gravity works that way? Maybe it just pulls in the same direction no matter what.

You: Hm. I have to admit that would explain it.

Matt: Yeah! Get me another beer.

You: But gravity also explains things like how the planets move really well. I mean, if you watch the sky over time, you can see the planets move differently from the stars because they’re orbiting the solar system’s center of mass in the sun. Hang on while I get my conveniently placed telescope; oh look, it happens to be a crystal-clear, dark night. OK, take a look at that star just over that tree. Remember where it was.

Matt: OK

You: OK, have a look at Jupiter here. Damn, right?

Matt: That sure is purty!

You: You can even see the great red spot!

Matt: Oh yeah! Nice. I know you’re gonna say “look Jupiter is round” – but maybe it’s just a flat circle facing us! How would we know?

You: Hold that thought. Hey look, that star we looked at earlier has moved higher in the sky.

Matt: Yeah it did. Well maybe the stars just spin around us. That seems like the simplest explanation. What do you people call that? Occam’s razor or something?

You: Yeah, but it just doesn’t explain why planets like Jupiter move differently. The Earth would have to be center of everything for that to work. But if the Earth were round and spinning, that’s also a pretty simple explanation for why the stars move in the sky at night. Here, look at Jupiter again.

Matt: Yup, it’s still purty.

You: In the half hour that has somehow elapsed since we last looked at it, you can see its spot has moved a little. That’s because Jupiter spins pretty fast, once every 9 and a half hours.

Matt: Maybe it’s just moving across a flat disc.

You: But when it falls off the “edge”, it’ll come back at the other edge 4 hours later. Every. Time.

Matt: Hm. OK, maybe Jupiter is round. Still doesn’t prove Earth is.

You: And what about all those photos taken of the Earth from space?

Matt: Yeah, well we all know the moon landing didn’t happen, so those photos are fake.

You: We’ll get into that one later. But it’s not just the moon landing – you can look at pictures from the ISS and clearly see the curvature, pictures from satellites we launched – I mean, it would have to be a pretty huge conspiracy if they were hiding that the Earth is flat. You just have to get high enough (not that kind of high) to see it, since the Earth is really really big.

Matt: Ah fine. Maybe you’re right. Get me another beer.

You: It’s on me! Oh look, the International Space Station, which is orbiting the round Earth, just passed overhead. If that’s a conspiracy, it’s a pretty elaborate one. What were you saying about Occam’s Razor?

Matt: You can stop now.

Now in reality, Matt would probably have tried to change the subject quite early on in this conversation in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. People don’t like having their worldviews challenged – and this is quite literally a world view! But if I can imagine a successful conversion of a flat-Earther, I think it would go something like that. Many of them actually have an open mind; the fact that they’re willing to accept a theory like “the Earth is flat” demonstrates they have the skepticism and ability to embrace new ideas that make a good scientist. It’s just a matter of using those qualities in the right way.

(Image licensed from iStock.com/Mike Kiev)

Frank’s Geekery: Episode 1

Welcome to our very first video and audio podcast! Every week, we’ll cover the latest science and technology news, and science fiction fandom isn’t off-limits either. In this episode, we’ll talk about:

  • Tabby’s Star, or the “WTF” Star is at it again – is it really an alien superstructure?
  • Can Bitcoin save the planet?
  • Google’s AlphaGo beats the best player in the world
  • How do flamingos sleep on one leg?
  • Is chocolate really good for your heart?
  • The world’s most sensitive dark matter detector is on-line
  • Disney World’s Pandora – The World of Avatar is open
  • Findings from the Juno mission at Jupiter
  • Report from the Megacon convention in Orlando

Jupiter Sure is Purty.

This week’s issue of Science magazine features publication of the findings of NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter. While I read through it yesterday, nothing really caught my attention that wasn’t reported earlier about its findings. But talk of giant weather systems caused by huge plumes of ammonia swelling up from the planet’s interior, or the newly discovered strength of Jupiter’s magnetic field (10X that of Earth) certainly captures the imagination.

But what really captures the imagination are the stunning pictures Juno gave us of our solar system’s largest planet. Especially the close-ups of its polar regions that we’ve never seen before. This may be the biggest benefit of Juno – just getting more people interested and curious about planetary science!

I mean, just look at these images NASA released:

It’s just plain art.

If you want to do more to support planetary missions like Juno, consider joining The Planetary Society – they are not only funding their own research, but are very effective at lobbying Congress to continue funding missions like Juno. I’m a proud member myself.

You’d also be surprised at how well you can see Jupiter right from your own backyard. On a clear night, you can make out details in Jupiter’s cloud bands and its Great Red Spot quite nicely, and in full color, in a modestly-priced telescope. Here’s an image taken from my own 8-inch telescope, right from my driveway in light-polluted suburbia:

OK, Juno’s pictures are just a little more impressive. But there is something special about seeing Jupiter with your own eyes. If you don’t own a telescope, find a local star party and take a peek through someone else’s! It’s quite a sight.

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