Bad Astronomy Newsletter #13

May 28, 2018 Issue #13

If you subscribe to this newsletter you’ll be the first to hear about the new Star Wars movie, “Dianoga: A Trashy Star Wars Story”! 

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday, May 21: First light for TESS!

Tuesday, May 22: So, about that 'interstellar asteroid' announced yesterday… (this one got picked up by a few news orgs; what I had to say was substantively different than other articles)

Wednesday, May 23: Science + Cards Against Humanity = another young woman getting a full ride to college

Thursday, May 24: Good (?) news: The Sun will form a planetary nebula when it dies after all!

Friday, May 25: A teal blob attacks the North Sea!

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here.

[Credit: Orbital ATK]

So this is pretty cool: The Cygnus spacecraft S. S. J. R. Thompson was berthed to the International Space Station on May 24, carrying supplies for the astronauts on board. It’ll stay for about two months, release some CubeSats, then do a final burn to send it plunging into Earth’s atmosphere where it will burn up.

Before it goes, though, it’ll be used to do something never done before: While still attached to ISS it will undergo an engine burn for one minute to boost the ISS orbit. This is done periodically to compensate for atmospheric drag which very slowly steals energy from the station’s orbit, dropping it down. It’s usually done by a Russian Progress spacecraft, so this is a first for Orbital/ATK, which makes the Cygnus spacecraft.

It’s also a test to make sure that, if it should ever be needed, the ISS can be dropped in a controlled re-entry itself. I sure hope we never have to do that, but you never know, and given it’s 100 meters across and has a mass of nearly half a million kilos, I’d rather be safe than sorry.

Is it hot in here, or is it just anthropogenic global warming?

Climate change is real, y’all

Modern global surface temperature measurements have been kept now for the past 138 years. That’s a long time, enough to get some serious statistical significance when looking for trends.

You have to be a little more careful when looking at specific records, because sometimes weird rare events can make an area warmer or colder, and also because beating a previous record by, say, 0.01° isn’t that big a deal. So when I say that April 2018 was the third warmest global month on record, that is interesting, even provocative, but maybe not enough to convince you the planet is warming.

[Credit: NASA / GISS] 

But then what if I tell you that the hottest April on record was in 2016, and the second hottest in 2017? That is a much clearer example of what we’re seeing. If the three hottest Aprils were all the three most recent Aprils, then yeah, that’s a trend that’s telling you the planet is getting hotter in general.

And hey, apropos of nothing, please register to vote, vote in the primaries (VERY important!), and then vote in the midterms come November. 

Pic o’ the Letter

A cool or lovely or mind-bending astronomical image/video with a short description so you can grok it

On May 5, 2018, an Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars InSight lander and a pair of very cool CubeSats launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A lot of people went to see the launch…and saw nothing. The launch was in the very early morning, and as happens in that area quite often a thick marine layer blanketed the sky — essentially a dense fog that is quite opaque. I had friends who went to the launch and said it was weird not to even see the glow of the rocket as it went up, but to hear its rumbling from a distance.

However, photographer Sam Sun was flying a light aircraft near the area (but well outside the restricted zone; he is careful to coordinate with air traffic control) and was able to capture an incredibly dramatic shot of the launch:

[Credit: Sam Sun] 

Wow. I love too that this was his very first tweet. What a way to join up!

My friend Emily Calandrelli (see more about her below) also tweeted that a friend of hers took some pretty amazing video of it. I can’t embed it here, but here’s the link to the video on Instagram. Yeah, you want to see that.

I’ve seen a few rocket launches in my time (a Shuttle carrying a camera to Hubble I helped build, a Delta that just happened to go up when I was in Florida, and — just bragging a bit here — a Saturn V carrying the Apollo 15 mission (I was a little kid at the time). You can never see enough launches. Someday I hope to see a Falcon Heavy or a BFR go up. That would be something.

You can see more of Sun’s launch photography on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter.

Follow o’ the Letter

Someone you should follow on social media

My friend Emily Calandrelli is a lot of things: science communicator, TV show host, author, correspondent for “Bill Nye Saves the World” *, and just a really good person. She did a TEDx talk a few years back called “I don’t do math”, which is a tongue-in-cheek title about the importance of STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) literacy.

She just did another one on a similar topic, this time on how science is important when it comes to the coal industry in West Virginia, her home state. It’s really good. Watch!

I love this. A huge problem in science communication is getting the message to the audience who needs it most, and in many cases people like me are shut out from that. Emily is from West Virginia, and so citizens of that state are far more likely to listen to her about this critical topic.

Emily’s star is rising, fast, and you should keep your eye on her. Follow her on Twitter: @TheSpaceGal.

* When I was interviewed to be head science writer for the show, they asked me if I had people in mind who would make good correspondents. Emily was one of the first people I thought of, and when I mentioned her name the interviewer laughed, telling me they had already contacted her. She was great on the show, and just delightful to work with.

Et alia

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