Category Archives: Nerdy Science Stuff

Tonight’s Blood Moon: Nothing to Fear

Good morning bologna followers. I hope everyone had a good weekend. I sure did.

 

Let’s kick off this Monday with some science stuff.

Now, before I dive into the article, I feel the need to make a disclaimer, seeing as this is the internet & words can be taken to mean things that weren’t intended: I am in no way knocking any religion in this article. I am merely disproving ideas that certain people are spreading, in what I believe to be an attempt to make money off of the fear of those who believe in a higher power.

That being said, let’s get to it.

Very early tomorrow morning, if you go outside & look at the moon it’ll be a shade of deep red.

“A red moon?” you say.

Yes, a red moon, which many people, including a few Evangelist Christians & astrologers, call “blood moon.” Both groups claim that because there are going to be four of these in the next two years, the end of the world is coming. Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re all going to be fine & the absolute worst thing that can happen is that you’ll go outside at an outrageous hour & watch the moon turn a beautiful color. If that’s the worst that can happen, I’d say it’s a pretty sweet deal.

A lunar eclipse. The moon turns red.  Photo credit: Juan lacruz

A lunar eclipse. The moon turns red.
Photo credit: Juan lacruz

The concept of the “blood moon” was coined by Evangelical pastor, John Hagee, while his colleague, Pastor Mark Biltz helped popularize the end of days connection.  “Blood moon” is specifically a term for the four total eclipses which are due in the next two years & these pastors have both widely spread the idea that God is telling us that the world is coming to an end. You can read about Biltz’ theory here (before the end of the article disproves the entire idea). Basically, these two Evangelists cite a Bible verse from the Book of Revelation, which states that the moon will undergo some very similar changes, & that signifies the Apocalypse. After that, the idea just spirals out.

This is the verse, as written in the Book of Revelation:

Then I saw Him open the sixth seal. A violent earthquake occurred; the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair; the entire moon became like blood. –Revelation 6:12

Pretty eerie, huh? But wait; there’s more! The first of these lunar eclipses falls on the Jewish holiday, Passover, which is only a week ahead of Christianity’s most important one, Easter. The similarities are so striking that Hagee even wrote an entire book about it. It’s called Four Blood Moons: Something is About to Change.*

I won’t give astrology too much space here. You know how I feel about that subject. These guys, on the other hand are all screaming things like, “The moon is going to be red!”, “It signifies a dreaded change” & “A red moon lined up with the sun & Earth means misfortune, even though the notion that the positions of the solar system’s bodies in relation to us having any impact on our lives has been scientifically proven wrong, time & time again!” Okay, so I made that last part up, but I still stand by my point.

 

Anyway, In typical US news fashion, the networks picked up on the scent & in their standard ratings-driven form & made a bunch of light-toned reports which, of course, only fueled the end of the world theories. This is why I was impressed with this morning’s Today Show segment on the subject… at first. They gave an overview of what’s actually supposed to happen, which was refreshing. Then, they flushed all their credibility down the toilet after they used a picture of Mars & passed it off as the moon in their info-graphic. Oh, well; they tried. Either way, Carson Daily & crew (a phrase I’ll never take seriously because: TRL) did their best to explain that what will be happening during the early hours of tomorrow morning.

Without further ado, let’s get to the bottom of this.

We’re talking about nothing more than your standard lunar eclipse & because of the positioning & timing, over two years, there will be three more, which will come at regular six month intervals.

What explains the red color?

The moon, Earth & sun will be lined up, with the our planet sitting in between the other two. Sunight directed at the moon must pass through the atmosphere of the earth, & as it does so the gasses which make up our air scatter the scatter most of the wavelengths. Red light is let through. The same idea causes beautiful sunsets & sunrises, as the sun is low on the horizon. Depending on how complete the eclipse is (in some instances, the three bodies aren’t perfectly lined up, causing a partial eclipse), the light reflected off the moon ranges from an orange-red, through a deep “blood” red. The light reflected back from the moon all but disappears during a total eclipse. Look at these pictures from Universe Today’s article, “The Science Behind the ‘Blood Moon Tetrad’ and Why Lunar Eclipses Don’t Mean the End of the World.” Those are four lunar eclipses on four different dates, & every picture has some shade of red light reflected from the lunar surface.

 

What makes this one different than a normal eclipse?

Individually, it is no different, but this brings us to the word “tetrad.” The prefix “tetra” means four, just like the prefix, “tri” means three. In astronomical terms, a tetrad is a series of four lunar eclipses which happen during the span of a relatively short period of time. This one is two years, with each one taking place about six months apart. With the Revelation verse as their proof, they claim that the first red-colored moon will kick off the end of days. The coincidence is pretty striking…

Except when you look at it closely. Then it’s not so striking because tetrads aren’t that uncommon. The same Universe Today article, displays some very useful tables, which show the total number of lunar eclipses & tetrads dating back to the Eleventh Century & as far forward as the Thirtieth. The number of eclipses per century range from fifty-seven, in the Twenty-ninth, to eighty-seven in the Twenty-sixth. As for the actual groups of four, they span from zero in some centuries to as many as eight in others, so none of these things are really that rare in the scheme of things. Oh yeah, & the last one happened just ten years ago.

Phases of a lunar eclipse... ending in the red light reflected off the lunar surface. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia user: QHyseni

Phases of a lunar eclipse… ending in the red light reflected off the lunar surface.
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia user: QHyseni

 

What’s significant about the first eclipse coinciding with Passover?
Actually, nothing. Most people don’t realize that Passover always falls on a full moon. Hey, guess what. Lunar eclipses always occur on full moons too. In fact, since the First Century CE, there have been eight tetrads which fell on Passover & some of these were years when Easter fell on the same day. All of these occurred without any problem.

Of course, in an astrological sense, the moon “turning red” means nothing. Let’s pretend for a second that the scientific data disproving astrology was invalid & that the gravities of the different planets & the forces of their magnetic fields did have significant impacts on our lives. Since an eclipse is just a trick of light, no physical characteristic of the moon changes during the process. No mass is gained, no mass is lost & its orbit remains the same. Its tug on Earth does not change. Astrologers: You have nothing to worry about.

 

All that said, I think that there are a couple of things we can learn two big things from this:

– Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, putting words in God’s mouth is never a good thing.
– Don’t pay attention to astrology. It doesn’t make sense.

So there you have it. Come tomorrow morning & the mornings of October 8, 2014, April 4, 2015 & September 28, 2015, we’re all going to wake up & go about our days. That’s good because I have a ton of records, phrases & sciency things to share with you.

I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the day & I’ll see you soon with another post!
Now you know; you’re welcome.

 

*In my opinion, this & many other public doomsday theories are ploys to make money. I don’t believe this book is here to warn people; It’s here to make wads of cash. Come on. The cover looks like a freaking sci-fi novel.

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Astronomy vs Astrology: Absolutely Not the Same Thing

About six months ago, I subscribed to a podcast called Astronomy Cast. It’s a wonderful popular science podcast about, you guessed it, astronomy & I highly recommend it. They cover anything & everything & their November episode on the zodiac inspired me to do some research & write this article.

But first, a small back story:

I’m a space nerd. It started my freshman year in college, when I needed to take a science course for my general education requirements. I’ve always liked science a lot, but there’s one problem. While I have no issue grasping the concepts, I’m terrible with numbers. Ask me to write an article on it & I’m fine, but ask me to prove theories with numbers &, well, I probably won’t prove them. I’ll probably just send you to a book or website that can. I only had to take an intro course, but even so, chemistry was out. So was physics. Even at their beginner levels, math is heavily involved. That’s when I came across Sacred Heart University’s listing of their introductory astronomy course.

I was a little apprehensive; I didn’t know what was in store for me, but it turned out to be the perfect one to take, kicking off my love affair with space. We learned about everything from the proposed history of the universe to names of stars & where they’re located in the sky.

I eventually got myself a pretty cool telescope with an eight inch mirror (I regret that I haven’t used it since my move to Boston), which can easily make out Jupiter’s cloud bands & moons, far away clouds of gas & distant galaxies. Now, I was ready to stargaze & to the dismay of others, from that moment on, I could talk anyone’s ear off about it. Pretty soon, though, I started to notice two very common responses from a concerning amount of people:

1) “It’s cool you’re into astrology, when did you get into that stuff?”
2) “Oh, cool. That’s like horoscopes & stuff, right? So, can you predict my future?”

Not to sound pretentious, but these are what I call, “head-desk” responses & soon, you’ll find out why. Before I explain it, though, I just want to say that I know people believe in certain things & while I explain this, I’m going to try to be sensitive to all the astrology lovers out there.

That’s funny. No, I’m not. Astrology is a gigantic pile of crap.  Seriously.

Okay, you get how I feel about it, so I’ll just get into the rest of the article. Astrology is a type of divination. It’s the “study” of how the locations of the different planets, sun & moon in the zodiac calendar influence your personality & daily life… blah blah blah…  There is absolutely no way any of this is true. There is plenty of evidence to support my stance, but for now, I’ll just go through the basics with you.

The positions of the constellations in the Zodiac calendar are not accurate:
This is one of the biggest points made in the “Zodiac” episode of Astronomy Cast.

The Zodiac calendar is centered around the solar ecliptic. For those of you who are wondering, the ecliptic is the line the sun appears to follow across the sky over the course of a year. In the same amount of time, the Earth travels in a complete circle, or orbit, around the sun. As we travel along the orbital path, the angle at which we observe the sun constantly changes. That means that the stars we see behind the sun change as we move through the year & your birth sign is the constellation where the sun was positioned when you were born. This is said to have a direct influence on your personality & what makes you, you.

Many of the other significant bodies in the solar system more or less follow the ecliptic as well. Astrologers believe if Mars or any other planet is in X constellation, your mood should therefore be Y. The same can be applied to the moon.

Here’s the problem with all of this. The people who invented this type of divination decided to divide up the year into twelve equal parts. Even if we disregard the fact that there are actually thirteen constellations through which the ecliptic passes, the constellations aren’t even remotely the same size & therefore don’t take up a convenient one twelfth of the ecliptic. The time it takes for the sun to appear to pass through each constellation ranges from just a few days to about forty. This means for most people, they weren’t even born under the sign they think they were & that, my friends, is just stupid.

A zodiac chart from the 9th Century, showing the 12 months versus the 12 evenly spaced zodiac signs.

A zodiac chart from the 9th Century, showing the 12 months versus the 12 evenly spaced zodiac signs.
(Photo in Public Domain)

Constellations are just shapes made up by our imagination.
Nowadays, constellations serve a purpose. Astronomers use them to find & name stars & other astronomical objects. They’re locations in the sky where we can find things. Pretty practical, right? This wasn’t always the case, though.

We know that the concept of constellations go as far back as the Ancient Babylonians, & they probably go back farther. Back in the early days of stargazing, Babylonians believed that these shapes in the sky were the deceased heroes of their culture, floating in heaven. Eventually, the Ancient Greeks adopted these stories & added their own. The Romans then added to the Greeks’ work & so on.

I like to imagine that the conversations between citizens & wise men went like this:

Citizen: Oh great one, I have a question about the stars.
Wise Man: Go ahead, son.
Citizen: How did they get there? What is that shape?
Wise Man: Well, um… uhhh, they’re dead people in heaven. See that one? That’s a ummm- hunter. His name’s Orion.
Citizen: Wow really? That doesn’t sound like a name.
Wise Man: Yeah, but it is, & see those two stars in a line that don’t look like a dog at all?
Citizen: Yes, what do they make?
Wise Man: A dog.

Anyway, they’re just imaginative & since we now know the sky isn’t a two dimensional thing, we know that the constellations’ shapes would be drastically different, if we were to look from another part of the galaxy.

They’re meaningless, aside from modern cataloging.

The pull of gravity from the planets isn’t nearly enough to affect your mood.
Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system. Aside from the sun, it’s the most massive object & has the most gravity. Relative to the rest of the solar system, the moon is small, but it can pull oceans. Just think what Jupiter can do. Better yet, your body is two thirds water. Just imagine what that does to your brain chemistry & physical health!

Okay, everything I just said up there is complete garbage & it’s all because of Newton’s law of univesal gravitation. One thing I will concede is that the planets of the solar system are pretty massive. With mass comes gravity, & with gravity, come tidal effects. These are what cause the oceans to rise & fall with the moon’s position. Here’s the thing about that law, though. While more massive objects have more of a gravitational influence, that influence diminishes as it gets farther away. That’s why if you send a spaceship out to, say, the moon, it will have to hit 25,000 miles per hour. That’s called escape velocity The farther you are from an object, the less you’ll feel from its gravitational pull. As you head towards the moon, Earth’s gravity wants to pull you back, making you decelerate, but if you leave Earth at 25,000 mph, its gravity won’t slow you down enough. You’ll coast, slowing down, but eventually, you’ll be far enough from Earth that its gravitational influence won’t exert enough on you to keep you back. You’ll break free. The moon’s will become stronger as you get closer to it & you’ll start to be pulled moon-wards.

Why did I give that long winded example? Well here: It also works the same way with the planets. Jupiter’s mass is about 25 thousand times the mass of the moon’s, so it’s natural to think it’d pull us towards it without a problem. That’s not true. It’s so far away (at its closest, Jupiter is 365 million miles away, compared to the moon’s 240 thousand) & Earth is so close, the effects are unbelievably tiny.

Let’s get some perspective on how small this effect is. Mars is much closer to Earth than Jupiter, at an average of distance 140 million miles. If you’re standing on the surface of Earth, Mars has the same gravitational influence as three humans who are in the same room as you. That’s almost nothing, & therefore, by astrology’s logic, every time you pass three people at a close distance, your personality or mood should change.

Astrology also assumes that each planet stays constantly at the same distance from Earth. That’s not even close to true. The planets are constantly at different distances from you. I previously said Mars is at an average of 140 million miles away. Remember, everything in the solar system is in motion & that means that depending on when you look at it, a planet could be all the way on the other side of the sun. It could also be on the same side as you. At its greatest distance, Mars’ gravitational influence would be much less than it’s closest distance. So, there’s definitely that.

Astrology constantly needs adjusting.
Remember when I said that everything in the solar system is in motion? The same applies to the galaxy. That means that every star is in its own orbit around the center of the Milky Way. As a consequence,the constellations are going to disassemble & change over time. Check out this video. Watch the Big Dipper in the middle. The stars start to move away from their familiar ladle-like shape. It’s a slow process, but regardless, there is going to come a time when astrologers need to rethink the signs.

The Earth is protected from the solar wind.
Reactions which are influenced by electrically charged particles happen all the time. This could affect the electrical charges which are being fired in our brains all the time, therefore changing our mood, right?
Some planets have electromagnetic fields, but it boils down to the same problem as before: distance. Jupiter has a disgustingly huge magnetic field. It’s so large, that we can pick its sound up on our radio telescopes, but by the time it gets to us, it’s too weak to do anything.

Rendition of Jupiter's magnetic field, or magnetosphere. Note how Jupiter's moons are surrounded, but Earth is not. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user, Volcanopele

Rendition of Jupiter’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere. Note how Jupiter’s moons are surrounded, but Earth is not.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user, Volcanopele)

The only object that can influence us with its particles is the sun, by constantly emitting the solar wind, which is a stream of charged particles. These flow out in every single direction. Guess what planet sits in one of the every single directions. That’s right, Earth. When an extra big solar flare that is aimed at us occurs on the sun, it has the capability to knock out communications satellites & power grids.
Down here, we have protection from it. That comes in the form of our own magnetic field. Our magnetic field deflects the majority of the sun’s charged particles, UV & other harmful radiation. So, aside from sunburn, dehydration & skin cancer it’s unlikely. Let’s pretend that most astrologers’ arguments are valid. There are still two things that astrologers don’t take into consideration here:

1) Even if the sun did influence our personalities, there is no reason to think that it would only influence us in the womb. We have more exposure to the sun after we’re born, so at the very least, depending on whether or not we wear hats or sunscreen, our personalities would still be changing constantly.
2) The website, Bad Astronomy’s article, “Misconceptions: Astrology” brings attention to astrologers’ tendencies to give the sun way less importance than the planets, despite the fact that the sun has much more of an influence on us in every way possible. It has 99% of the solar system’s mass. If it were to have an impact on your personality, it would be astronomically (all pun intended) larger than that of the planets’ effects combined.

So, as you can see, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence is stacked against astrology. That’s just the surface; there are countless other facts. Look, if you have fun pretending to predict the future, I won’t hold it against you at all. Just don’t expect me to follow along.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the week. I’ll be back with more records & useless information next week!

Now you know; you’re welcome.

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The Funny Bone: Why Do We Call it the Funny Bone When it’s Not… Never Mind

The funny bone. We’ve all hit it a number of times in our lives. It’s not a nice feeling, to say the least.

Before we dive in, I’m going to stop here for a second. This is your cue to make your jokes about why people call it the funny bone when hitting it isn’t funny. I’ll leave you a few seconds worth of space:

Alright, that’s enough.
Now that you got that out of your systems, let’s get started.

Your upper arm bone which runs from the shoulder to the elbow is called the humerus. At the elbow, it comes into contact, via a hinge joint, with the two bones of your forearm, called the ulna & radius. Yes, I know you’re all thinking, “We all learned this back in 6th grade.” Well, how many of you thought that the humerus is the funny bone? It’s not.

It’s not even a bone at all. It’s actually a big nerve in your arm called the ulnar nerve. It runs right through the joint in the elbow, & because there isn’t much more than skin & bone there, once it crosses the joint, it runs very close to the surface.

Nerves_of_the_left_upper_extremity[1]

Here’s a view of the arm, complete with the Ulnar Nerve, as originally seen in Gray’s Anatomy. (No, not the show. Stop it.)

When you hit your elbow just right, the nerve gets squashed inbetween whatever you bumped & your humerus. This causes the shooting pain & tingling.

Gray1236[1]

Check it out. The nerve runs right across the elbow.

There are two widely accepted reasons for calling the ulnar nerve the “funny bone”. The first is very straightforward; it’s a pun. Humerus, or umerus is Latin for shoulder. Humerus is a homophone of humorous, so someone decided to make a pun out of humerus & funny.

The second has to do with the old definition of funny versus the modern definition. We know that when we use it today, it means something that causes laughter, but back before the Twentieth Century, funny meant odd or strange. I’d say the tingling sensation  you get when you smack that nerve into a table makes feels more strange than hilarious.

There it is. The ulnar nerve, or funny bone actually is funny, if you go by the definition. This means the joke is wrong & we can stop making it. Right?

So for now, now you know. You’re welcome.

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Voyager’s Incredible… Uh… Voyage: Saturn & Beyond

Hello folks.

Last week, we were talking about the Voyager 1 spacecraft & its long trip around the universe. We looked at its stop at the Jupiter system, which is made of the Solar System’s most massive planet & the 60+ moons which circle it. We spoke about the moons Europa & Io & what makes them so unique & important to our solar system.  So, let’s continue.

It took almost two years for Voyager 1 to travel to Saturn and its moons. On November 12, 1980, it arrived. It wasn’t the first to get there; those were the Pioneer probes.

Both Voyagers were vastly superior to Pioneer in many ways, but the most specific thing that set Voyager apart from the Pioneer  probes was the ability to take  high resolution photos. Most of the images taken by Voyager wouldn’t be considered high resolution by today’s standards, but for 1980, the difference was night & day. Take a look at these two photos.

AC81-7004_a

Saturn & its moons as photographed by Voyager 1.
(Photo courtesy of NASA)

P11F81

Saturn & its moons, as photographed by Pioneer 11.
(Photo used courtesy of NASA)

As you can see, the photograph taken by Voyager 1 has much more detail. This allowed scientists to scrutinize photos with ease, & lead to a number of new discoveries.

One of the most important things scientists used the new photos to study was the ring system. They came across a surprising find.  If you take a look at the image above, you’ll see that the rings are split up into many different sections, as opposed to just two or three.  Voyager also concluded that the rings change over time.

Saturn has many moons. It has 150, to be exact & 53 which are big enough to be named (including one that might actually be the Death Star). I’m only going to touch upon two of the most important, but you can read about all 53 named moons here.

On August 22, 1980, Voyager 1 flew by Enceladus (My spell check is trying to make me change it to enchiladas, but I’m not going to listen), which orbits within Saturn’s E ring. The reason Enceladus is so interesting is because of its similarity to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. It’s made of ice & the images taken by Voyager, lead scientists to believe that instead of under-crust oceans, there are pools of water, which erupt as geysers. The geysers have since been confirmed by NASA’s Cassini, which in turn confirms interior heating.  Because of this, as with Europa, Enceladus is decent a candidate for microbial life.

enceladus732X520

Voyager image of Enceladus. Note the stretch marks like Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
(Photo courtesy of NASA)

Now to Titan. Before they could even start the Saturn phase, the flight controllers had to meet with the scientists in order to make one big decision. Choice A skiping the flyby of Titan & after exploring the other large moons of Saturn,  using the planet’s immense gravity to slingshot the craft to the outer reaches of the Solar System. It would then be on a path to make close flybys of Uranus, Neptune & Pluto. Choice B was to include Titan in the flybys. However, sending Voyager to Titan would place the craft onto a trajectory which would make it miss the other gas planets & Pluto. While it would have been cool to go see Pluto, the investigation of Titan was deemed scientifically more important.  Here’s why:

The spacecraft Pioneer 11  had reached Saturn the year before Voyager 1. During its flyby, the probe detected that Titan had unusually thick atmosphere for something the size of a natural satellite. Scientists wanted to find out what types of gasses made up Titan’s atmosphere, so Voyager was sent to find out.

It turned out that Titan’s atmosphere was not only extraordinarily thick (about 1.2 times the mass of Earth’s), but hazy. Voyager 1 discovered that the yellow haze was because the atmosphere was full of organic matter, nitrogen & methane (In 2004, the Cassini probe would discover methane rain & lakes). The condition of the atmosphere on Titan is apparently very similar to Earth’s when it was very young,  so Titan became a tool used to study what the early Earth was like.

Titan's_thick_haze_layer-picture_from_voyager1

Titan’s limb, as snapped by Voyager 1. Note the haze & the blue of the outer atmosphere.
(Photo courtesy of NASA & the Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

On December 14, 1980, Voyager 1 said, “Goodbye,” to Saturn & started its extended phase of its life. Since passing Titan meant that it wouldn’t see any of the other planets. It reached the Solar System’s escape velocity, or velocity it needs to get to so it won’t slow & fall back towards the Sun. This means, we’re not getting it back. The spacecraft was now on its way to explore the rest of the Universe.

Almost ten years went by before anything significant happened (Yes, space is that big), but on February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 turned to take a quick photo. It has since been nicknamed “The Family Portrait” & it’s the first picture of all 8 planets together. Included in the photo is a little speck, which was dubbed by Carl Sagan as “The Pale Blue Dot”.  Check out the image because it’s quite moving. If you have a hard time seeing it, click on it to make it bigger. The speck is circled for you, so you can find it.

pale_blue_dot

The Pale Blue Dot as taken by
Voyager 1
(Photo Courtesy of NASA & the Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

That tiny blue speck you’re looking at is Earth. In his book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, this is what Sagan has to say about it:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love…  in the history of our species lived there… – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi

This absurdly beautiful quotation really puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? You can read the entire passage here.

Eight years later, Voyager 1 overtook Pioneer 11 as the most distant object from earth, then a whole lot more nothing- well, nothing to which the general public would give their attention. However, during these long periods of travel, the JPL scientists took measurements of temperature, solar particles & cosmic rays. All this time, they continually searched for the heliopause, or the area where the solar wind is overpowered by the interstellar medium.

Voy1_8feb2012

Distance & velocity of Voyager 1 as of February, 2012. Yes, that’s almost 20 BILLION kilometers.
(Photo Courtesy of NASA)

Between 1998 & 2012, scientists announced different landmarks for Voyager 1, such as entering the heliosheath (the area in which the solar winds slow to sub sonic speeds), which were largely misunderstood by the media. Each time NASA made an announcement, at least one magazine or news company reported that Voyager exited the solar system. This is why you heard the same news report over & over.

It wasn’t until July 14, 2014, that the craft actually entered the heliopause & not until August 25 of the same year that it fully crossed it. NASA took a year to comb through the data before officially releasing it to the public. They wanted to make sure they released correct information, in order to avoid any more media confusion. Voyager 1 was officially the first man made object to exit the solar system. Let’s face it, it’s a pretty big announcement.

So, for now, Voyager is going to keep going & going… & going. Assuming it doesn’t smash into something or get picked up by some other civilization, it’ll keep on going forever, as a messenger from mankind. All we can do is keep watching & listening until the transmitters die. Until then, now that it’s in interstellar space, it will most definitely teach us new things about the Universe ever day.

Well, now you know; you’re welcome. Thanks for listening to my space nerdiness.

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Voyager’s Incredible… Uh… Voyage: The Road to Jupiter

Well, it’s that time again. Here’s this week’s Bill’s Bologna.

I’m sure all of you have read the mass of articles about NASA’s announcement that Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space.

I know I spoke briefly about the Voyager probes in my 2 part You Won’t Believe How Fast it Goes post, but I’ll go into more detail here & in next week’s post. I’ll give you a little history of Voyager 1’s 36 year journey & what it has done along the way.

Okay let’s start with the basics. This is Voyager 1:

Painting of one of the Voyager probes passing Jupiter. Currently. Voyager I is the farthest man made object in the solar system & it's moving at about 39,000mph.

(Photo used courtesy of NASA)

It’s part of the Voyager program, which includes 2 spacecraft.  The other one launched, as you can imagine, is named Voyager 2. The ultimate goal of the Voyager Program was to conduct the Planetary Grand Tour, or the exploration of the outer planets &the documentation of what can be found beyond that.  Both are equipped with an array of instruments built into the spacecrafts for the scientific teams to use. You can find a list of the 5 biggest ones here, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s site. Because both Voyager spacecrafts were designed to travel to distances where information could take immense amounts of time to reach Earth, the data they collect are recorded onto a magnetic tape & transmitted later, when it’s convenient for the scientists.

Since the Voyager probes were designed for deep space travel, a committee headed by Carl Sagan included golden phonograph records with each. The records contain friendly greetings, recorded in 55 different languages, traditional & popular music from around the world (including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”) & various sounds from nature. Along with the record, is a diagram instructing any being who might find it how to play it back. Carl Sagan’s view on this was that any other civilization smart enough to figure out the instructions & listen to our messages with interest is a civilization intelligent enough to find us on the map & contact us back.

Voyager_Golden_Record

The Golden Record from the Voyager probes  .
(Photo used courtesy of NASA.)

Sagan’s group also included over a hundred images of plants, animals, natural wonders from around the world & the for our fellow space travelers to study.

So, now that you have a grasp on what the actual craft was about, let’s talk about the trip.

Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977. The launch took place 16 days after the launch of Voyager 2, which may not sound like it makes sense, but it does. Voyager 1 was sent to Jupiter on a quicker trajectory, meaning it could overtake its counterpart’s path & on December 19 of the same year, it did just that. A little over a year later, in January of 1979, Voyager 1 reached Jupiter, when it started the its mission with the planet.  Voyager 1 immediately started snapping  amazing photos of the planet & its moons. It regularly discover new things, from the onset of its exploration, up to its closest approach to the planet, at 220,000 miles (closer than our Moon is to Earth). After taking a photo of Jupiter’s moon, Io, the craft transmitted evidence of something previously unknown to anyone: Io is actively volcanic.

Vulcanic_Explosion_on_Io

When scientists studied this photo, they noticed a white splotch on the surface of the planet. Upon taking a detailed look, they realized it was a giant volcano.
(Photo used courtesy of NASA)

Jupiter, being the most massive planet & second most massive object in the Solar System has a lot of gravity. You know how the Moon’s gravity pulls on the oceans to create tides? Well, scientists have since figured out that Jupiter’s gravity acts on Io’s crust in the exact same way. Since Jupiter is vastly larger than our moon, it’s gravity exerts tidal forces which stretch & compress Io as it nears & draws away from the planet. In fact, the surface of Io can be pulled by over 300 feet. This stretching of the moon creates a lot of friction, which, in turn, creates heat. That leads to Io being the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. It’ll never cool, because it’s stuck being stretched like a rubber band in Jovian orbit.

Although it didn’t spend too much time there, Voyager 1 made another important discovery about another moon, Europa. Scientists have since figured out that Europa is undergoing some of the same tidal forces Io is. Europa is thought to be made of water ice, frozen to about -260F or -160C . The theory here is that if the tidal forces are strong enough to melt rock on Io, then they should be able to warm up & melt the ice on Europa. Why is that significant? Liquid water leads to life. Even after being warmed to melt, the water is going to be extremely cold, but life is resilient. Organisms on Earth live in the coldest depths of Antarctic oceans & lakes, so just maybe on Europa…
We’ll just have to wait to land there someday first.

PIA01970

Europa as photographed from Voyager 1: Note how it isn’t cratered. This suggests that liquid water regularly resurfaces the moon. Those lines are thought to be stretch marks from the tidal forces that melt the ice.
(Photo used courtesy of NASA)

After discovering a wealth of information about Jupiter & its moons during the flyby, Voyager 1 headed out on its almost two year trip to Saturn.

This feels like a good place to put a bookmark. Next week, we’ll cover Saturn & what’s been happening since then. I can’t leave you without showing you that famous picture of Jupiter’s massive storm system, the Great Red Spot though, so here you go:

Great_Red_Spot_From_Voyager_1

Voyager snapped this shot of the Great Red Spot, a storm so big, the entire Earth could fit inside…
3 times.
(Photo used courtesy of NASA)

For now, though, now you know; you’re welcome.

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Cloud 9: The Most Comfortable Cloud of All

It’s Monday again, & that means it’s time for another installment of Bill’s Bologna.

Cloud 9 is a popular expression we use to describe feelings of euphoria. It’s such a popular phrase, even the great George Harrison released a song called “Cloud 9” as the title track to his 1987 release.

george-harrison-cloud-nine-seal-422480

Cloud 9. You know, the one where George looks all cool with his shades & Gretsch Duo Jet on the cover.

A few weeks ago, I started reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It’s exactly what the title says it is: a book full of facts about the history of the entire Universe, & what transpired down here on Earth that allowed us humans to be here today. It’s an amazing book & if you’re a science nerd like I am & love facts & concepts, but would wind up blowing up a billion dollar NASA rocket because you forgot to carry the 2, then this is the book for you. Even if you can pull off the math, unlike yours truly, I think you’ll love this book.

Anyway, while I’d love to rave about it a little more, that’s not why I’m here.

While I was reading, I came across his passage about weather systems & he explained one of the origins of the term.

Bryson writes about a man named Luke Howard. Howard was an amateur meteorologist who wrote the first edition of the Cloud Atlas at the turn of the 19th Century. If you Google Cloud Atlas, you’ll no doubt get a bunch of info on the recent novel & movie, which have absolutely nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. Actually, you know what? Don’t even click the link.

Anyway, The Cloud Atlas that Howard started still is used as an extensive catalog of different types of clouds & what they do. It’s been greatly expanded & updated since Howard started it, but the original names he coined (cumulus, cirrus, nimbus & stratus) for these clouds have remained the four main families into which the types of clouds are sorted.

One of the additions to the atlas was the cumulonimbus cloud. It was added sometime in the 1880’s.

Cumulonimbus_cloud

Cumulonimbus: See how comfortable it looks? Too bad you’d fall right through & be struck by lightning on the way down…

These clouds lie in the layer of the Earth’s atmosphere called the Troposphere, which extends from the ground, up to about 50,000ft. Cumulonimbus clouds can have bodies reaching all the way to the top of the Troposphere, but aren’t strong enough to break through the Tropopause, or the boundary between the troposphere & the next layer, called the Stratosphere. Because of this, the top of the cloud hits the Tropopause & flattens out, giving it its familiar anvil shape. It looks like a soft platform, which you could stand on or comfortably stretch out on, right? Well, guess what number cumulonimbus is in the Cloud Atlas.

It’s number 9.

Cumulonimbus_cloud_over_Africa

Cloud 9: Cumulonimbus as seen from above. “Cumulonimbus” comes from the Latin words, “cumulus” & nimbus”, which mean “heap” & “rain” respectively.

Another accepted explanation is given on Amazon.com . It hypothesizes that the expression comes from Dante, author of the Divine Comedy. The final volume, The Paradiso, or The Paradise, describes the 10 levels of Heaven. According to Dante, humans can only reach the 9th level of Heaven because the 10th & best is reserved for God. When most people think of Heaven, they think of clouds. Boom: Cloud 9.

In his book, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Nigel Rees claims that the phrase didn’t actually become popular until a radio show in the 1950’s found out the US Weather Bureau was using the Cloud Atlas system & combined it to make a quick joke referencing Dante’s Paradise. In the broadcast, the hero became knocked out & woke up on Cloud 9.

Another explanation involves Buddhism & how according to that belief, Cloud 9 is one step away from reaching Nirvana. Most think this isn’t true because Buddhist monks tend to view Cloud 9 as no more important than any other step along the path to Enlightenment.

So there you have it. There are more than a few possibilities as to how the term, “Cloud 9” made it into pop culture. You decide which one is right.

Now you know. You’re welcome.

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You Won’t Believe How Fast it Goes… Part 2

Alright, it’s Monday & that means we’re back with another installment of Bill’s Bologna.

Let’s continue where we left off on the topic of speed.

Alright, so last week, I stopped writing when I hit the speed which currently holds the record for the fastest any human being has ever gone. That’s what happens when you fly in the Saturn V rocket at the absurd speed of 25,000 miles per hour.

When rocket scientists make changes to something so it can be safe for human flight, they call it man rating. Many things come into play here, like acceleration, the amount the vehicle can shake, G forces & acoustics (Yes sound can kill you. Check out the Sound Suppression Water System on NASA’s manned flight launch pad, 39A). The thing is, if you aren’t launching living things, you don’t have to worry about killing them. To an extent, you can do away with some of these requirements. This means that the limit of G forces can increase, especially after leaving the atmosphere. Since there’s no air, there is no atmospheric drag holding the craft back & threatening to rip it apart. This means the rocket can accelerate faster.

I’ll talk about distances in another post, but in short, space is unimaginably big. To get from point A to B might be billions of miles. You need to go fast to get there in any kind of timely manner & timely is definitely a relative term. Let’s start with the New Horizons spacecraft. You can find some interesting information about it here. It’s going to Pluto, & holds the record for the fastest object launched. By the time it left Earth’s orbit, it was moving about 10,000 miles per hours faster than the Saturn V, at 36,373 miles per hour. Here is the launch, if you’re interested.
Voyager was launched in the 70’s. Its mission was to explore the gas giant planets & make its way out of the solar system, into interstellar space. It’s the farthest man made object from the sun & is also the fastest man made object moving away from the sun. It’s only traveling a few thousand miles per hour faster, at about 38,610 miles per hour.

Painting of one of the Voyager probes passing Jupiter. Currently. Voyager I is the farthest man made object in the solar system & it's moving at about 39,000mph.

Painting of one of the Voyager probes passing Jupiter. Currently. Voyager I is the farthest man made object in the solar system & it’s moving at about 39,000mph. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Okay let’s move away from man made objects. Let’s talk about things that occur naturally, & if you think the things we’ve talked about are fast, you have no idea what’s coming.

Asteroids. They’re space rocks & they’re hurdling through space at fantastic speeds. 65million years ago, one the size of a small island decided to hurl itself into the Gulf of Mexico, killing the dinos, while leaving a 110 mile wide crater. To do that, it needed to smack into the Earth at 44,600 miles per hour. That’s 20 times faster than a bullet. To stop something that big, which was traveling that fast, unleashed an amount of energy equivalent 100 teratons of TNT going off at once. That’s 2 million times more powerful than the largest man made explosion. Speed & mass equal lots of power. No wonder they’re all dead.

Let’s keep moving. We all know the Earth orbits the Sun. It takes 365.26 days to make one orbit of about 585 million miles. If we do the math & divide by 365.26 to get how far it travels in a day & then divide that by 24, we can get the speed in miles per hour. That comes down to 66733.28 miles per hour around the Sun. That’s about 18.5 miles per second. If it takes two seconds to read that last sentence, you’ll be 37 or so miles further into your yearly circuit.

You never really stand in the same place twice. This little ball where you live is moving at more than 65,000 mph.

You never really stand in the same place twice. This little ball where you live is moving at more than 65,000 mph. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Okay, moving up. Did you know the Sun is actually in orbit as well? You know that white splotchy thing you can see in the sky, on a clear night? That’s the Milky Way & it’s the center of our galaxy. Behind all that gas & dust you see is what astronomers call a super-massive black hole. That’s exactly what it sounds like & everything in our galaxy, from dust to the 400 billion possible stars, are moving around it. The time it takes for the Sun to complete one orbit is called a cosmic year. Because the Sun is 2/3 of the way to the edge of the galaxy, it orbits at a slower velocity than stars which are closer. It takes 225 million Earth years to equal one cosmic year. The last time the Earth was here, those dead dinos were just starting to show up. The velocity of the Sun around the galactic center is 137 miles per second. Multiply by 60 to get miles per minute & multiply by 60 again to get miles per hour. That’s staggering 493,200 miles per hour. We’re all absolutely flying & we can’t even feel it.

Speaking of the Milky Way, did you know it’s moving too? Kind of. See scientists consider galaxies to be the largest reference points for velocity. The only reference points for velocity we have are other galaxies. If the Milky Way was the only thing out there, we’d have no idea. Thank God there are are billions of others because we know the Universe is expanding. Using the other galaxies as a point of reference, relative to where you are, nearly everything is moving away from you. I say nearly because this is where it gets a little complicated… again. Because of this constant expansion, most of the galaxies are moving away from each other at 600 miles per second. That is- Are you ready for this?- 2,160,000 miles per hour. However, all matter has mass & with mass, comes gravity. This causes galaxies which are close to each other to fall towards each other. For example, while the Milky Way is flying away from other galaxies, it’s also moving around with respect to its galactic neighborhood & that makes its expansion speed significantly lower. It’s still unbelievably fast speed of 1,404,000 miles per hour, though. This is a lot of typing. If you want to get a general idea, head over to Wikipedia.
Just don’t use it in a paper. That’s bad.

There are trillions of different things in the Universe, traveling at breakneck speeds. I’m going to spare you every single one of these things, & head straight to the the most massive, yet most compact thing in the Universe. Black holes. Just like the one in the middle of our galaxy. Remember the term “escape velocity,” which I mentioned in Part 1? A black hole has such a gigantic gravitational pull, the fastest thing in the known Universe doesn’t even have enough speed to reach escape velocity. That would be light, & believe it or not, so far, after all my ramblings about speed & velocity, we’ve only reached .002 times its speed. Want to know how fast that is? Of course you do.

Okay, sit down.

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per……

second.

That’s just about equal to 670,000,000 miles per hour. Yeah, that’s 670 million, but humans will never get there. You know why? Mass & time distort, that’s why. You’re going so freaking fast that everything you experience around you effing changes. You know what else? If someone was at a dead stop watching you careen away from them, they’d have a completely different experience watching you as you’re having, as the one doing the careening. If your crossed the event horizon, (that’s the invisible boundary where the gravitational pull of the black hole becomes so strong, it not only pulls matter in, but it pulls space, itself, but I digress.) & started falling, you would experience what scientists like to call spaghettification. That’s exactly what it sounds like. See, a black hole has so much gravity, its pull would be much stronger at your friend’s feet than at his head. That means that your feet would be falling insanely faster than your head, which is just about 6 feet away. So much, in fact, that you would be pulled into a single line of atoms… like spaghetti.

That’s what you’d experience falling in. If you were outside watching a friend fall towards a black hole, you would see your buddy fall closer & closer to the black hole, accelerating the whole time. This is where the whole “time distorts” thing comes into play. Time actually slows down the faster you go. Eventually time will slow down enough &  he’ll get to a point where he’s accelerating faster than the light he’s giving off. It will start to look like he’s falling slower & slower until he gets just before the surface. Then he. just. stops. Even at 670 million miles per hour, his light can’t escape anymore. You’ll never see him hit the surface. You can read more about this here.

Einstein says you can never accelerate past the speed of light. Presumably because if you the above scenario happens, you’ll create some rift in space time & everything will just blow up or something because 2 things are happening at once. Hey, I’m not a scientist, but I have a feeling I’m right.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with that thought to sleep on. Now you know. You’re welcome.

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