Space news of the week

May 15, 2018| Categories: Planetarium News, Space Science, StarGazing

Hi all, thanks for joining me! The following is an excerpt from my weekly space news and astronomy newsletter, and I’d love it if you joined in and subscribed! You can do so here. I take everything space related from the Museum, like StarStruck, Skywatch Almanac, and Eye on the Night Sky and combine it here in addition to the news of the week. If you enjoy it (or even if you don’t), please get in touch! I love hearing from anyone who is as passionate about space as I am. See you in the stars! ~ Oliver Ames, Director of the Planetarium

When the government doesn’t fund astronomy, we all get left in the dark.

If there is only one thing you click through to this week, it should be this article. A few excerpts are below, but the entire thing is a masterpiece.

By viewing space as a marketplace instead of an opportunity for scientific inquiry, the Trump Administration might be setting humanity back decades. Instead of furthering the kind of shoe-leather, due-diligence science that we need, the Trump administration wants to push astronomy aside in order to militarize and privatize space. As with most things, President Trump doesn’t seem to understand what NASA does or what it even is, but he still wants to remake it with his patented brand of nonsense.

This is all particularlly poignant given NASA’s new director, Jim Bridenstine.

…a third-term congressman with no scientific background who, among other things, is iffy on the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause of climate change and has expressed a desire to exploit lunar resources for commercial gain (illegal under the as yet untested Outer Space Treaty that is enforced by international law). Though the space industry has come together to congratulate Bridenstine, the guy who will give them contracts, he seems to possess no vision for the program beyond crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, nor the expertise that could make him advocate for projects that the president wants to axe.

My favorite part though is the last paragraph, which really brings the point home.

Astronomy presents you with the piddling amount of power you have in a universe that is cold, nearly empty, incomprehensibly expanding, and in many ways unknowable. That is not something government officials like thinking about at night.

Biggest test yest shows Einstein was wrong about ‘spooky action at a distance’.

How could we not talk about this. The entire thing is so weird and cool

A groundbreaking quantum experiment recently confirmed the reality of “spooky action-at-a-distance” — the bizarre phenomenon that Einstein hated — in which linked particles seemingly communicate faster than the speed of light.

And all it took was 12 teams of physicists in 10 countries, more than 100,000 volunteer gamers and over 97 million data units — all of which were randomly generated by hand.

WASP-96b: The cloudless exoplanet.

Hot gas giants were long theorized to contain a lot of sodium, an extremely common element in the Universe. However, the thick cloudy atmospheres of planets like Saturn have shielded us from being able to identify much sodium in their elemental makeup.

An international team of astronomers has squashed speculation and detected the first strong sodium fingerprint radiating from a “hot Saturn,” which suggests the planet has a clear, cloud-free atmosphere. The research was published May 7 in the journal Nature.

The case against dark matter.

It was this article that most blew my mind this week. We’ve been showing a show in our planetarium titled Phantom of the Universe: The Hunt For Dark Matter which dives into how we look for something we cannot see or feel and relies entirely on the premise that dark matter is something that we have yet to discover. The alternate view that our show does not explore is that we simply do not completely understand existing concepts (specifically gravity).

Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity is just over 100 years old, and so far it has predicted the interaction between celestial objects and the space-time field very well. There are a few troublesome spots, however, in which the theory of general relativity doesn’t agree with quantum mechanics.

One particular issue is that stars on the outer edges of galaxies travel at the same speed that stars on the inside of galaxies do and with this much speed, gravity as we know it should not be strong enough to hold them there. Dark matter and dark energy are the two most popular answers to issues like these. Verlinde has another idea though.

“Emergent gravity,” as Verlinde calls it, is the idea that gravity is not a fundamental governance of our universe, but instead a reaction to the makeup of a given environment. Rather than thinking of gravity as a fundamental force, something that “just is,” is it possible that gravity is actually the result of the positions of quantum bodies, similar to the way temperature is derived from the motions of individual particles?

“Einstein’s theory can be viewed as being derived from a more microscopic picture,” Verlinde says. “In particular what we learned about black holes is that Einstein’s theory looked more like the laws of thermodynamics, and the laws of thermodynamics we know can be derived by thinking about the microscopic constituents that are describing matter.”

Verlinde focuses on quantum interactions to explain the dissonance between general relativity and quantum theories. His theory has a long way to go before completion, but so far it has held up well and has made some strong arguments, particularly against the idea of dark matter.

Earth’s orbital changes have influenced climate, life forms for at least 215 million years.

Every 405,000 years, gravitational tugs from Jupiter and Venus slightly elongate Earth’s orbit, an amazingly consistent pattern that has influenced our planet’s climate for at least 215 million years and allows scientists to more precisely date geological events like the spread of dinosaurs, according to a Rutgers-led study.

Congressman divulges unreleased study to win support for life-hunting mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

It’s a shame that the scientists themselves couldn’t make this announcement, but I’m glad it supports the Clipper mission to Europa.

A mission to sample plumes of gas shooting off of Jovian moon Europa appears to remain on track for a 2022 launch, after a meeting of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee in which Republican Congressman John Culberson shared unreleased scientific results with his colleagues. The new paper could contain findings based on data from the Galileo mission of the late 1990s.

At the May 9 markup, Culberson passed around a scientific paper with involving a new discovery about Europa and the existence of plumes that offer additional proof that the icy moon [has] a subsurface ocean of liquid water.

“It’s worth noting that the scientific journal Nature Astronomy just reported that the Galileo mission, back in 1997, flew through a water plume on Europa a thousand kilometers thick. So, the ocean of Europa is venting into outer space. The science community has wanted to go there for years, Mr. Chairman, and this bill makes that happen,” said John Culberson, Republican representative from Texas.

The study is now out and you can read about it in The Atlantic’s The Solar System’s Icy Secret Keeper.

The material science of building a light sail to take us to Alpha Centauri.

We’ve talked about light sails in the past (one has even been featured in Star Wars) and lots of developments are being made in this field from the Planetary Society’s lightsale cubesat to NASA’s breakthrough propulsion architecture for interstellar missions. The biggest missing piece is that we still haven’t figured out what material the sail should be made from. A team of Caltech scientists are on the case, but this is what they’ve got to figure out:

Light sails work because photons carry momentum, and they’ll impart a bit of that to reflective surfaces as they bounce off. Starshot proposes to sync up a large collection of lasers on Earth and focus this on the light sail in order to accelerate it rapidly. That means the lasers will have to be at a wavelength that can pass through the atmosphere without being absorbed or scattered; the authors suggest that the near-infrared (with a one- or two-micrometer wavelength) would be a good choice.

Managing light isn’t just a matter of tackling the problem of reflecting light; it’s a series of interlinked problems. Even if we could make thin films of these metals a few atoms thick on a sail, the relatively high weight per-atom means that we could easily blow past the sail’s weight limit. And, even more problematic, while these metals reflect most of the light in these wavelengths, a lot of what doesn’t get reflected is absorbed. At the intensity of the lasers involved in accelerating the craft, the heat from those absorbed photons would quickly destroy the sail.

A spectacular destination for astronomy fans is being built in rural Norway.

We love our planetarium but always love to see what other people are doing with theirs. This new planetarium being built 45 miles north of Oslo is designed to blend into an untouched landscape. The dome itself will be “covered in grass, wild heather, blueberry and lingonberry bushes,” all native species to Norway. Weirdly the Solobservatoriet campus used to be a US military spy facility during the Cold War. My favorite part about the architect’s design:

Mars’s lumpy-potato moons, in fact, inspired the shape of Solobservatoriet’s visitor cabins. Surrounding the planetarium are several imperfect-sphere rooms for stargazers who want to spend the an evening in the forest—perhaps to catch the spectacular Northern Lights. Designed to accommodate groups of two to 32, the cabins will be loosely scattered around the planetarium, by design.

The disc of the Milky Way is bigger than we thought.

We already knew the Milky Way was big, but it is discoveries like this that remind me that many of our ideas really are just hypothesis that need constant testing and readjustment.

A team of researchers at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and at the National Astronomical Observatories of Beijing (NAOC) have published a paper which suggests that if we could travel at the speed of light it would take us 200,000 years to cross the disc of our Galaxy.

See the evolution of SpaceX’s rockets in pictures.

We’ve come a long way from Falcon 1

Designing a spaceship for the Guardians of the Galaxy

Those that know me know I love technology, design and spaceships! That all comes crashing to a head in this post about designing the displays on the Milano. Not really space news but hey, I think you’ll enjoy this!

SpaceX is coming to gentrify LA

The company just got written approval to use a 19-acre plot in the Port of Los Angeles to build the Big Falcon Rocket, which Elon Musk will supposedly use to take people to Mars by 2022. However, the SpaceX construction facility will located in a part of Los Angeles that’s experienced some serious gentrification and displacement issues in recent years. As illustrated by an account published in the Los Angeles Times last year, some working class people are forced to commute for as long as six hours each day just to balance a well-paying job with affordable real estate.

Spaceport America: New Mexico’s protracted gamble on commercial spaceflight.

Just over a decade ago, Spaceport America promised great things to two of New Mexico’s poorest counties. Today, that promise remains unfulfilled.

One awesome dad creates a fiberoptic star field in his daughter’s bedroom.

This is so cool! What a great idea for a home improvement project.

What Stephen Hawking’s final paper really means

Do you understand this quote from Stephen Hawking’s final paper? “Exit surfaces with significant patches of negative scalar curvature are strongly suppressed in a holographic measure in Einstein gravity.” If you didn’t, you aren’t alone. I found it almost impossible to summarize.

Hawking’s final paper, titled “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?” which was published in the Journal of High Energy Physics this past week, has been called everything from his “Final Theory of the Universe” to “mind-bending” to proof that “the universe is a hologram”, none of which it really is. Media reports about physics are usually overblown because no one wants to read about papers that build incrementally on scientific knowledge between breakthroughs. But this being Hawking’s final bit of science and all, there exists an incentive to read deep meaning into this bit of what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn would call “normal science” — that filling-in-the-blanks that fleshes out the consequences of theories, rather than something worthy of causing a paradigm shift or even a fit.

The paper might be too complicated and nitty gritty for most, but it is undeniable that Hawking’s work through the years was influential.

Whether they were groundbreaking mechanisms or just theoretical baubles, Hawking’s astrophysical ideas fleshed out some the central questions that plague cosmologists: “What happens in a black hole?”; “How was the universe born?”; “What is time?”. Sure, many people want to trap the truth of the universe in their mind as some kind of Infinity Gauntlet power trip, but so few people have the skills and humility to face those questions and chip away at them, day after day, without being overcome with hubristic theories that overpromise and underdeliver. Hawking wasn’t afraid to fail under the brightest scientific spotlight, and for that, he should be celebrated. His final paper doesn’t need to be an overarching theory of everything, anyway. After all, the title ends in a question mark.