Planetary scientists have successfully used the Hubble Space Telescope to find two Kuiper Belt objects for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. After the marathon probe zooms past Pluto in July 2015, it will travel across the Kuiper Belt — a vast rim of primitive ice bodies left over from the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. If NASA approves, the probe could be redirected to fly to a Kuiper Belt object and photograph it up close.
I’m looking forward to seeing clear pictures of Pluto and Charon next year!
When Cosmos showed the asteroid belt Sunday night, I noticed that, taking some artistic license to quickly get a point across, they showed it as crammed with asteroids. Anyone familiar with the real asteroid belt knows that’s not accurate. Even in the belt, asteroids are lonely rocks.
When you think of the asteroid belt, you probably imagine a region of rock and dust, with asteroids as far as the eye can see. Such a visual has been popularized in movies, where spaceships must swerve left and right to avoid collisions. But a similar view is often portrayed in more scientific imagery, such as the artistic rendering above. Even the first episode of the new Cosmos series portrayed the belt as a dense collection of asteroids. But the reality is very different. In reality the asteroid belt is less cluttered than often portrayed. Just how much less might surprise you.
I finally watched the movie Gravity last night. Despite a number of flaws, I enjoyed it immensely. I think it sets a new standard for movies set in space (at least I hope it does). The visuals were stunning and the story had me on the edge of my seat. I now really regret not having made the time to see it in the theater.
The characters moved around in zero G realistically. There were no sounds transmitted through space, at least aside from the muffled ones that characters would feel through vibrations of attached equipment. We watched mayhem and destruction silently (aside from mood music), and I think it heightened the sense of dread and surrealism in the story. From everything I’ve read about what being in space is like, this movie captures the feel of it far better than anything that’s come before.
That said, from a scientific perspective, the movie still has a lot of flaws. I’m not going to attempt to catalog all of them. I think Phil Plait and Neal deGrasse Tyson did excellent jobs of that when it first came out. But I think I will mention a couple that, as a space nerd, I felt were needlessly egregious.
The first, and most glaring, is the complete indifference to the realities of orbital mechanics. I get that the story was made a lot more interesting by having scenes in or near the Hubble telescope, the ISS, and the (fictional) Chinese space station.
The problem is that the Hubble and the ISS are in very different orbits, at very different altitudes, and moving at very different velocities. The idea that someone in a space suit is going to maneuver between them is roughly equivalent to a skydiver falling out of a plane over Miami and maneuvering to land in a park in Los Angeles. It’s not only implausible, it’s not even coherent.
The story could have been made more plausible by introducing a fictional scientific satellite intentionally near the ISS for some reason, and maybe positing a visiting Chinese spacecraft. Yes, these would be questionable themselves, but no more questionable than a medical doctor working on the Hubble, and it would have made it much easier for space nerds to keep their suspension of disbelief intact.
The other (SPOILER ALERT) was the death of Clooney’s character because he had to be let go because his weight threatened to tear Bullock away from the ISS in a sort of mountain-climbing-cut-one-loose-to-save-the-other situation. The thing is, his forward motion had already been stopped. He was saved. Indeed, even unhooking the line as he did, he would have merely continued to float right there. There was no reason for him to die.
Of course, the writers introduced this scene to heighten the drama. A far better solution, and just as dramatic, would have been for Clooney to have missed the station, but be floating slowly away as Bullock tried various things to save him, with him finally convincing her to give up as the distance gradually became too great.
All that said, this was an incredible movie, and I do very much recommend it. I also recommend watching it on the biggest or most immersive screen you have available.
A while back, I became interested in the history of science, particularly the early history, including people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Johanne Kepler, Andreas Vesalius, and many others. In reading about them, one of the things I was struck by was how small scale science was back then.
In its beginnings, modern science was mostly conducted by polymaths, men who had a general all around knowledge and, while it did require some resources such as Vesalius’s need for cadavers, those resource requirements were not exorbitant. Science before the 19th century was conducted largely by amateurs, often gentlemen with free time on their hands and the resources for a personal lab.
Today however, science is the purview of teams of professionals, usually conducted in sophisticated labs using sophisticated equipment. Or it’s done in the field by expeditions of geologists, archaeologists, or other specialists using expensive equipment. Why is science today so different than science in the early modern era?
Is it maybe because we now understand its benefits and so budget it accordingly? That may have something to do with it, but I don’t think it’s the main reason. The main reason is that the low hanging fruit, the relatively easy empirical investigations, were done centuries ago. As science has progressed, the observations have moved from the easily accessible, to the realm of the more exotic and expensive to obtain.
A good example is particle physics. The early breakthroughs were made with relatively modest equipment, but as we’ve learned more, the scale of that equipment has grown so that today, we have the Large Hadron Collider. As I understand it, when we’ve learned everything we can with the LHC, we will need an even larger, more powerful, particle accelerator.
Or take astronomical observation. It used to be that new discoveries could be made by amateurs sitting at night with a telescope. But today, new groundbreaking discoveries need a sophisticated telescope in space, such as the Hubble telescope. We’ve learned a lot with Hubble, but to learn more, we will need to deploy the James Web telescope, a bigger, much more sophisticated (and expensive) instrument, which will be positioned much deeper into space.
This escalating need for equipment and resources makes me wonder whether science will eventually reach a point where society is no longer willing to invest the resources for further progress. That maybe, at some point far in the future, the return on investment might not be there anymore.
This wouldn’t necessarily be because a future society had become anti-scientific, or that all possible knowledge had been acquired, but because the resources needed to make further progress might simply be judged too costly. There most likely wouldn’t be a sudden point where scientific investigation ended, but a long slow tapering of progress due to the increasing resources necessary to continue it.
In other words, scientific progress might be an S curve, with accelerating progress that goes on for a while, but eventually levels out. We might be in the steep upslope of that curve, imaging that it will never end, but with an end nevertheless on its way.
Predicting the end of that upslope is very difficult when you’re in the steepest part. Many futurists in the early 20th century predicted that we’d be traveling much faster today, perhaps casually traveling in space. But after the 1970s, progress in transportation seemed to level out. Planes, cars, and general transportation aren’t really faster than they were back then. Most of the progress since then has been in efficiency.
Of course, we’re most likely centuries away from from any scientific leveling off. But it’s interesting to ponder that, someday, thousands of years from now, historians may look back and marvel at the optimism once held for never ending progress, and how much humanity owed to the Age of Science.
Weather forecasters on exoplanet GJ 1214b would have an easy job. Today’s forecast: cloudy. Tomorrow: overcast. Extended outlook: more clouds.
That’s the implication of a study led by researchers in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago who have definitively characterized the atmosphere of a super-Earth class planet orbiting another star for the first time.
The scrutinized planet, which is known as GJ 1214b, is classified as a super-Earth type planet because its mass is intermediate between those of Earth and Neptune. Recent searches for planets around other stars (“exoplanets”) have shown that super-Earths like GJ 1214b are among the most common type of planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Because no such planets exist in our Solar System, the physical nature of super-Earths is largely unknown.
It’s pretty amazing that the Hubble telescope, which it should be remembered is 1980s technology, is being used to detect atmospheric features of a planet 40 light years away. Seeing exoplanets, planets around other stars, is profoundly difficult since they’re relative specks of reflected starlight which, from our perspective, is so close to their parent star that they might as well be part of it.
When I think about this, I get pretty excited about what we’ll learn when the James Webb telescope finally goes online. It’s capabilities will far surpass Hubble’s, enabling us to see exoplanets much better, to see the early universe much closer to the big bang, and who knows what other marvels that are beyond the resolution of Hubble.