Bad Astronomy Newsletter #3

Issue #3 April 23, 2018

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As Dave Barry said, “Poli” = many and “tics” = blood-sucking parasites

So last week the Senate confirmed Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be the new NASA Administrator. The vote, unsurprisingly, was strictly along party lines.

I’m pretty unhappy about this, for a few reasons. But let me give a bit of background. I’ll note I have links and more info in an article I wrote about Bridenstine back in September of 2017.

[Credit: NASA / US Congress]

NASA has been without an Administrator since January 2017, the longest period in its history. That’s when Charles Bolden stepped down (which is standard operating procedure for agency heads when a new President steps in). But it took months for Trump to nominate someone, and when he announced it was Bridenstine that caused a stir. Bridenstine has no scientific background (which is unusual but not without precedent for NASA) but he is also a politician with no real experience running an agency. He did run a science museum, but it came out recently that he used the charity for personal benefit, which is icky, at the very least.

He’s also a climate science denier, and a vocal one. He’s recently backed off that a bit, but I think I have reason to be skeptical of that; for one thing it looks bad to deny overwhelming science when you want to run a science agency, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not like Trump’s nominees have been overwhelmingly honest about their histories. Back in 2013 Bridenstine sponsored a bill that would have gutted NOAA’s ability to do climate science, too.

He’s also vocally anti-LGBTQ, which is troubling. NASA is a big agency, and a lot of LGBTQ people work there. What must it feel like knowing that your chief thinks your lifestyle is “wrong”? He has lots of other problematic stances as well.

He is pro-space exploration, in some sense. He wants us to go back to the Moon, and appears to support private commercial space. I like that, but again to be blunt I have no trust in this administration at all. So many of the people involved are grifters; look no further than Scott Pruitt at the EPA or Ryan Zinke with the Department of the Interior to see this.

We should be very, very skeptical of anyone Trump supports, and who supports him. Bridenstine was confirmed 50-49 (Sen. McCain was not present for medical reasons), so I hope the Democratic side of the Senate keeps a wary eye on him. I will as well.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday, April 16: Everything you need to know about TESS, NASA's new planet-finding space observatory

Tuesday, April 17: Are we overlooking a lot of nearby brown dwarfs?

Wednesday, April 18: Air-breathing space engines: A last-minute reprieve for decaying orbits?

Thursday, April 19: The extinction of starlight

Friday, April 20: Hubble’s 28th anniversary: Silt in the Lagoon (yeah, you really wanna click that)

Pic o’ the Letter

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

Is this a huge crater on Mars, or a supervolcano? [Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin]

Planetary scientists aren’t sure. The feature (seen here in a Mars Express image) is called Ismenia Patera (“patera” is a large bowl-like depression) and it’s about 75 kilometers across. There are plenty of craters that big or bigger on Mars that are clearly impact in origin. There are also whopping big volcanoes there too. Ismenia has features of both.

The flat region in the middle could be from the flow of ice long after the crater formed; there are gullies near the rim that support this idea. Ice built up, then collapsed, forming the irregular terrain.

Or… it could have been a supervolcano, with a tremendous magma chamber under the surface that exploded, sending out magma in vast quantities. Once the chamber was emptied the caldera collapsed, forming what we see now. We see such supervolcano features on Earth, too. The region Ismenia sits in also shows signs of being volcanic.

At the moment, we just don’t know. I am intrigued by this; when craters were discovered on the Moon centuries ago no one knew what formed them. Volcanoes were a leading hypothesis, and while it became clear in the 20th century they were impacts, that wasn’t conclusively proven until the Apollo missions.

And here we are again. We’ve been studying Mars a long time, and we’ve been peering at it from up close for a couple of decades now. Yet there are still some major mysteries hiding in plain sight there. Hopefully as we send more and more varied instruments to the Red planet, we’ll be able to piece this together and better understand one of nearest neighbors in the Universe.

Link o’ the ‘letter

Just a fun link I found or someone told me about

This is welcome: My pal Joe Hanson (from It’s OK to Be Smart) has started a new video series called “Hot Mess”, and it’ll have information about global warming for the average person who doesn’t know that much about it. It takes a welcoming stance so as not to alienate people who most need to hear about this topic.

Here’s the first episode:

I like it! I also think it pairs well with “Global Weirding”, done by climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who also happens to be an evangelical Christian. She’s doing great work, getting the science to people who might otherwise be more swayed by the politics of it.

We’re in trouble when it comes to global warming, especially when our current government is literally dismantling our ability to deal with it (see “Politics”, above) and lying through their teeth whenever they talk about it. A nice, easygoing introduction to climate change and its effects can go a long way to showing people why they should be paying attention to it.

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.

In July 2015, the New Horizons probe shot past Pluto and its moons, showing us humanity’s first up-close view of them in history. Astronomers quickly ran into an issue: What to name all the new stuff seen? There were craters, plains, mountains, valleys, and more, and not just on Pluto but on its big moon Charon, too. These features were given nicknames, but only the International Astronomical Union has the pedigree to make them official. [Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute] 

In 2017 Pluto got some of those official monikers, and now in April 2018 Charon got its share too: an even dozen features were given names by the IAU. Different themes are used for different objects, and for Pluto and Charon the theme is exploration — explorers, their vessels, and their destinations. So we now have Argo Chasma (after the ship sailed by Jason in Greek legends), Butler Mons, after scifi writer Octavia Butler, and Clarke Montes for Arthur C. Clarke. My favorite? Dorothy Crater, after Dorothy Gale. And yes, you know who that is.

I love this sort of thing. It makes these distant, forbidding destinations a little more real, a little more like places. And that’s fitting, since in a sense that’s what explorers do.

Et alia

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