BAN #111: Mercury, Congressional science

May 6, 2019 Issue #111

[Saturn image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute / Gordan Ugarkovic]

Subscribers are like quicksilver: shiny and cool and, um, able to be used in old-style thermometers.

Pic o’ the Letter

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

Mercury is an amazing place. It’s easy to shrug it off for some folks; it’s hard to see since it never gets far from the Sun in the sky, and telescopic views from Earth are blurry at best.

But that’s we have a space program! The MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft entered orbit around the tiny world in March 2011, and began mapping the surface. No other probe had ever been as close or seen the planet in such high-resolution, and earlier space probes (due to a quirk of orbital mechanic) only saw one hemisphere of it.

MESSENGER revolutionized what we knew about the planet. The images alone were amazing, showing a battered and scarred world, saturated with craters. It also mapped the minerals on the surface. You can see this for yourself in this exaggerated color video composed of thousands of images from MESSENGER, showing a complete rotation of Mercury:

[A complete rotation of Mercury in exaggerated color. Credit: NASA/JHU Applied Physics Lab/Carnegie Inst. Washington via APOD.]

Whoaaaaa. You could literally spend a lifetime learning about everything in this short video (the MESSENGER website can probably speed that process up a bit)… but you don’t have that long. In 2025, the ESA’s BepiColombo spacecraft will pick up where MESSENGER left off, entering orbit around Mercury and continuing our exploration of this dense, hot planet.

Still… have you ever seen the smallest planet for yourself? Starting in mid-June it’ll be well placed in the sky in the west after sunset, and on June 23rd it’ll be up about as high and far from the Sun (about 25°) as it gets. And a HUGE bonus: On June 18th it’ll pass an astonishing ¼ of a degree from Mars! That’ll be quite a sight. Mars will relatively dim at magnitude 2 (about as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper) and Mercury will be about 6 times brighter at magnitude 0. I expect we’ll see lots of amazing photos of them together.


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

Some interesting news out of Washington, DC: Democrats in the House of Representatives have set aside $6 million in a nearly $4 billion spending bill for 2020 to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment. The OTA was established in the 1970s as an advisory arm of Congress to help Congresscritters better understand science-related issues. It was a very valuable asset to the process of making informed legislation on scientific topics.

So of course, once Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they killed it. This was spearheaded by Newt Gingrich, who for a while seemed pro-science, but who eventually showed his true stripes. The GOP felt it was a waste of time and money, which when translated into non-propaganda talk, means the reports filed by the OTA were constantly at odds with the GOP party platform. Think fossil fuels, environmental protection, environmental health,and so on, and you’ll see the GOP’s problem with it.

But the good news is that the GOP lost control of the House in 2018, and now the Democratically-controlled House Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee has a draft funding bill reinstating the OTA.

But it’s a draft, and has to be voted on both in the House and the Senate. I expect it will pass the House easily, but the Senate? We’ll see. Mitch “Grim Reaper” McConnell has been obstructing just about every bill from the House that has even a whiff of partisan leaning — or anything based even remotely on reality.

Which, after all, is the goal of science to understand. So, yeah. We’ll see.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[From Tuesday’s post: When the spin axis of a black hole is tipped relative to the plane of the material coming in, it drags the material out of that plane as the fabric of spacetime warps around the black hole. Credit: ICRAR]

Monday April 29, 2019: Scientists witness the rarest event in the Universe yet seen

Tuesday April 30, 2019: Astronomers watch an active black hole dragging spacetime around it

Wednesday May 1, 2019: UPDATE: The lunar eclipse impact was from a beachball-sized rock moving at 61,000 kph!

Thursday May 2, 2019: Mars InSight sees a sunrise and sunset on the Red Planet

Friday May 3, 2019: The legacy of Hubble: One image, a quarter million galaxies

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!