think back to the summer of 2007. umbrella was bumping everywhere, transformers - the first! or rather, the first one by michael bay! - came out, and at some point, you probably walked out of spiderman 3. the universe debuted to approximately one million stoned college kids with their proverbial gauntlet “THE SUN”, which led us all down a confusing rabbit hole beginning with exultation for our breathtaking universe and ending in total existential crisis over our inevitable demise.
i, for one, met my first NASA employee working the cash register at an overcrowded cosi in downtown philly (yes, the one near the methadone clinic). as i expect is common to all NASA employees, he had a bunch of space shit on his credit card, which is obviously how i recognized him. lucky for you, i held up the line for five minutes in the middle of a lunch rush to ask him whether or not hubble shot in color or black and white.
why is this important? for starters, hubble has shot some of the singularly most spectacular images that have ever been seen, anywhere, in the history of earth. not only that, but hubble has actually allowed astrophysicists to make incredibly precise estimates of the expansion rate of the universe. but how much of these images are entirely fabricated by NASA employees hoping to get a little more funding before they’re all out of a job? are these overwhelmingly beautiful colors just a fucking marketing tool, NASA guy trying to buy coffee??
as the bureaucratic nightmare as old as time goes, hubble was funded in the 70s, a launch proposed in the 80s, stymied by funding/technical/challenger/etc. problems until the 90s, sent up to space with a broken mirror that was repaired in 1993 - and voila. hubble astounds. it astounds, and astounds again. hubble proves itself to be one of the most prodigious achievements in human history.
so, what did NASA guy say? basically (and i’m paraphrasing a little here), he said this: human beings perceive objects in specific ways because they have evolved as such. (he was obviously a very nietzschean NASA guy.) what we see as a rock or a box of kleenex is, strictly speaking, interactions between particles and a lot of empty space. we see it as a rock or a kleenex box because it is advantageous for us to do so. thus, the images we see from the hubble telescope are specifically tailored to homo sapiens - the way we engineered the telescope, how we transmit images, how our brain interprets those images we do see - this whittles away at our stick of perception until it is a fine point by which we can see this. and so technically, hubble does shoot in black and white - through several different filters. humans on earth then use the filters to create extremely realistic depictions of how these phenomena would appear to us earthlings, should we ever have the chance to travel millions of light years. so the answer, as always, is yes, and it is no - depending on your brand of metaphysics.
so what does a galaxy really look like? what does a building? in other words, who cares? humans have molded and meddled and chipped and whittled - we put ourselves and an enormous telescope in space. not only can we restructure the framework through which we view our existence (hint: it’s smaller), but we are party to some of the most absolutely jaw-droppingly insane stuff that probably nothing else in all of space and time can see like we do. holla, humans!
okay, okay, here it is: the “false color” image released this week by NASA of saturn’s north pole (“the rose”), taken by the cassini spacecraft
it’s been a long time, readers (reader?). in fact, it’s been over a year. in honor of this momentous(ly boring) occasion, i’ve made the decision to stop all this wasteful “working” and “studying” i’ve been doing and show my space blog some el oh vee ee by writing a good old-fashioned tl;dr. but - what should we talk about? quasars, pulsars, nebula, dark matter, anti-matter, asteroids, russians, gravity, anti-gravity, strings, gender imbalance in the sciences, dimensions, what???
lest we get carried away… the point is, having a blog about space is probably the best thing to have a blog about, since it affords me a totally infinite supply of mind-blowing blog fodder, kind of like how gawker does with stupid people. but - but! - it has been a year, so let’s all ease back into these cold, murky waters slowly, together. let’s start with NASA’s plan to appropriate the plot of armageddon by snagging an asteroid and dragging it over to the moon. the good old drag-and-drop (TM, apple). (spoiler alert: i will spend the rest of this post making mixed metaphors using the plots of armageddon and deep impact.)
so, i’ve put together a little FAQ for those of you thinking of utilizing similar maneuvers in your daily lives, like when your roommate throws you a beer from the fridge or an enormous rock weighing roughly 60 million metric tons is hurtling towards your home planet, or like, whatever else could happen. who knows? things get crazy here on earth!
1. so… what’s the point?
NASA’s “asteroid retrieval and utilization mission” (no seriously, that’s what it’s called, way to be relatable) entails slingshotting an unmaned spacecraft around the moon, grabbing an asteroid, and hauling it back. thanks for this, michael bay. as for the point… well, it seems pretty unclear. buzz phrases like “telling my grandkids we’re almost there” and “unprecidented technological feat” have been thrown around, but it looks like this boils down to three things:
sadly, all three of these scenarios don’t change the fact that we have to live on a planet with elijah wood but hey, at least we have a quick and easy way to heat up our leftovers.
2. okay, seems reasonable enough. how do they actually plan to do this?
well, here’s where our big old human brains get wild (brainz gone wild!!). first of all, NASA is totally jumping on board with this whole “environmental sustainability” crap by creating an asteroid probe with advanced solar electric propulsion technologies. (what about my dodge caravan, you ask? let’s not get too crazy.) so, retrofitted probe travels towards moon for 2.2 years, slingshots around moon for added propulsion (TM, michael bay), travels another 1.7 years towards asteroid, captures asteroid inside giant bag, cruises back towards earth for 2-6 years, places asteroid in stable orbit around moon. easy peasy!
3. wait, they’re capturing the asteroid in a bag?
yeah, but this isn’t your mom’s sandwich bag. for starters, it doesn’t fold over at the top in that annoying way that makes it hard to get your sandwich out. NASA doesn’t cut corners on bags like your mom! this is a 50 foot capture bag (bag-like snare, to be exact) with multiple “draw strings” that would snap shut in order to ensnare the asteroid. to get back to the beer-throwing scenario i made up earlier, this would be tantamount to you catching it in an opened grocery bag to avoid injury/cold hands/minimize impact. don’t ask me what it’s made of, because i have no fucking clue. polytarp? dacron? elijah wood’s skin? (perchance to dream…)
4. okay, so it’s in orbit around the moon. now what?
well now, the possibilities are endless. sort of. mostly, the manned orion crew can get to it, walk on it, and do some tests, possibly confirm/deny this whole “the building blocks of life came to earth from an asteroid” thing biologists have been chatting about for a few decades now.
so, there it is. everything you ever needed to know but probably didn’t want to about NASA’s asteroid retrieval plan. all joking aside, i think it’s exciting to see our country set aside somewhat substantial funds for scientific pursuits, even when they seem superfluous or exclusive to michael bay movies. from what i know about science, it’s the trying that leads to the great discoveries, not the “being right”. trying opens up the possibility of making mistakes, which pave the way for real breakthroughs. as i’ve said before, the first cause of genetic variation is mutation; this is as true for us as it is for what we create. sometimes this so-called mutation gives us hemophilia or kills elephants with LSD; sometimes it gives us heterochromia or penicillin. and all you need is human ingenuity (stupidity?) and something to mutate!
now that we’re submersed in this cold, murky pond, i think we’ll talk about something with a little more meat to its bones next time - possibly the multiverse, if y’all can handle it…. th-th-that’s all, folks!
(astronauts open the exciting asteroid bag!)
zomg it’s been a crazy long time! coming back here feels great, like finally doing laundry after you have been wearing bikini bottoms for underwear the last three days. what we were even talking about? oh yeah, venus!
as evidenced from the picture i posted of our exalted neighbor — venus is the second planet from the sun and the brightest natural object in the night sky besides our moon. back when we didn’t know very much about the world and science was still stuck playing step-sibling to that annoying and intolerant brat religion, we were thoroughly confused about the identity of venus. it’s a morning star! it’s an evening star! wait, it’s a planet! it is similarly shaped and sized to earth! is it earth’s sister planet?
venus afforded science fiction authors with an endless supply of imaginative folly - luscious rolling hills, formidable waterfalls, a climate slightly hotter than earth, and most certainly humans, basking in the sun. alas, like the moment you find out that famous person you kind of liked is actually a scientologist, so too did our dreams of venus turn cold. or in this case, insanely hot. turns out venus is actually the most hellish planet in the solar system - its dense atmosphere grants the planet its own version of the green house effect, trapping the stifling heat and allowing temperatures to reach roughly 870 F. hey, isn’t that enough to melt lead? yeah, it totally is!
not only does that make it the hottest planet in the solar system, but since its atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide peppered with clouds of sulfur dioxide, its surface pressure is 90 times that of earth. those gasses are hella heavy! sad news for S.E.T.I. lovers everywhere - there is no liquid water on the surface of venus since pretty much everything except lava exploding from one of its thousands of volcanoes gets scorched away in the calidity (including all the probes we send there). lava carves canals on the planet that are over 3,000 miles in length, and i’m sure the regular bouts of acid rain don’t help much either.
as the theory goes, once upon a time there actually were sprawling venusian oceans, but the runaway greenhouse effect caused them to violently boil away. perhaps there were some weird little humanoids, enjoying their sunrises in the west and sunsets in the east (venus’s rotation is retrograde - cool!), thinking about what funny creatures existed on that strange pale blue dot - until, of course, their atmosphere thickened, crushed their fragile little bodies, and boiled away all their oceans.
next time: MARS!
in the 4th century BCE, ancient greek astronomers noted that the two celestial bodies they observed - one they named “apollo”, visibile only at sunrise, and the other “hermes”, visible only at sunset - were actually the very same celestial body. at the very least, part of the confusion was because it was 4th century BCE and people had a lot of stupid ideas about gods and male superiority and a geocentric universe. ptolemy, one of the champions of geocentricity, had a lot of trouble rectifying this particular celestial body in his calculations for three reasons: 1) it is really, really close to the sun, 2) it moves really, really fast, and probably 3) he just wasn’t ready to accept that he was dead fucking wrong.
yes, that’s right, we’re talking about the tiniest planet in the solar system, the one with the shortest, weirdest orbit and rotation, craziest range of temperatures, and thick iron core – mercury! who better to kick off an exciting week devoted to the planets of our solar system?
the genesis of mercury is one fraught with speculation, indecision, and overwhelmingly misguided conclusions. did a comet or asteroid hit it and blast off a bunch of its matter? has constant solar radiation slowly degraded it over time? who knows? because mercury is, on average, a measly 36 million miles from the sun, it’s extraordinarily difficult to obtain data on its composition and features because our giant, obstreperous sun is kind of in the way. essentially this would be like trying to listen for a cricket while standing next to a wall of speakers at a manowar concert. oh hey man, i lost my cricket, have you heard it? um, what?
mercury whips around our sun once every 88 days, making it move 31 miles per second faster than any other planet in the solar system. interestingly, its rotation takes just about 59 days – which means for every “year” occurring on mercury, there are roughly 2.5 “days”. because of the sun’s proximity, mercury has no atmosphere. thus its temperatures range from 800 degrees F during the day, to -280 degrees F at night. 75% percent of its composition is its fat, iron core, and the rest is composed of a wrinkly crust that is continually bombarded by solar wins and other galactic crap.
mercury is a pretty hostile place considering – but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! tune in tomorrow to learn all about arguably the most hostile planet, that raging uncontrollable bitch venus!
in today’s final chapter of STAR DEATH we open with a look at one of the most violent, energetic, and especially important ways a star’s life can end - supernovae! to expand from yesterday, one of the awesome things about fusion is that it helps maintain a star’s shape and size by providing a constant outward pressure that exists in tandem with the inward gravitational pull exerted by the star’s mass. this perfect balance, like a bagel with just enough cream cheese, persists happily until fusion slows. well, shit. fusion is slowing, the outer pressure it exerted is abating, and now the core begins to condense.
while the core becomes denser and hotter, the star begins to grow. but like that green day song taught us as we sadly approached our high school graduation - all good things must come to an end. the star’s core contracts to a critical point and the star lets off a series of nuclear reactions as its last dying gasp, attempting to stave off its imminent demise.
now shit gets crazy - the core reaches upwards of billions of degrees C. at this point, the star has exhausted all of its atomic resources and is now attempting fusion with iron… who do you think you are, superman? repulsion of iron atoms’ nuclei crushed closely together would create an implosion as the star collapses under it’s own weight - but instead neutrons halt the implosion, matter bounces off the hard iron core, and BOOOOOOOM! a fucking gigantic, superhot shockwave catapults its way through the cosmos jettisoning matter at 9000-250000 miles per second!
since fusion can’t create anything heavier than iron, the heavier elements are born of this blast. thanks for everything after atomic number 26, supernovae!
after all the chaos, if there isn’t simply the dark, rotating depths of a black hole, the only thing left is a super dense neutron star. and super dense is an understatement - one sugarcube of these babies on earth would weigh one hundred million tons. put another way, if you crammed all of humanity into a sugar cube you would approach the kind of density witnessed within a neutron star. plus, they have the strongest magnetic fields in the known universe, a million or so times stronger than the magnetic field on earth. dang, chill out neutron stars!
it’s pretty boring common knowledge that humans spend a great deal of time studying the life-cycles of self-organizing entities like baboons, or honey bees, or bonsai trees. it may be our inherent curiosity, or just a selfish desire to know more about our favorite self-organizing entities, and self-ascribed superheroes, us. either way, stars are no different. they are born in nebulae from collapsing clouds of interstellar dust and spend their lives smashing elements together in a process we’ve coined “fusion”. usually this entails smashing hydrogen atoms together to form helium, but larger stars can convert helium atoms into carbon and oxygen, or even carbon and oxygen into neon, sodium, magnesium, sulfur and silicon. (if you’ve figured out here that all the elements afforded to us on earth have come from stars - great job!) yeah, okay, but what happens when there’s nothing left to burn?
man what a great question, with an even cooler answer! the fate of a star depends ultimately on the type of star it was throughout its life. was it the janis joplin of stars, living huge, burning huge, and dying young in a giant explosion? was it the yogi berra of stars, just quietly plugging away all these years until you try to play him in “dead celebrities” and you wikipedia him just to check and you’re all, damn, that guy is still alive?!
let’s start with the yogi berra of stars. since our own sun falls in this category, it seems especially topical. in about 5 billion years, our sun that’s been so faithfully fusing hydrogen to helium, will run out of hydrogen. um, shit, what now? like when we stop feeding our bodies, our bodies just start breaking down other stuff (first protein, then fat, then our own DNA) – as is the same with stars. the star starts burning helium instead. this process takes so much energy the sun expands. now for the fun part: in becoming a “red giant”, our sun will expand so much it will engulf every planet in the solar system up until jupiter. bye, bye earth! the sun will spend 1 billion years of its life as a red giant, but since it won’t reach a temperature great enough to burn the heavier elements its created (mostly carbon), it will ultimately condense and leave only its core – a white dwarf. eventually all that will be left is a lump of unburnable carbon called a “black dwarf”, chilling in the depths, quietly smoldering.
we’ll save the janis joplin of stars for tomorrow’s exciting culmination of STAR DEATH, where we discuss neutron stars, supernovae, and recap on black holes!
*above is the cat’s eye nebula. the center star is in the process of burning the last of its hydrogen, and in doing so, has created a planetary nebula. eventually it will become a white dwarf.
to recap from yesterday’s delightful erudite romp, active galactic nuclei are thought to be powered by supermassive black holes lurking at their centers. in fact, scientists believe that most if not all galaxies have extant SMBHs at their core. cool story, bro… who cares?
glad you asked! black holes are like sandwiches - they come in all shapes and sizes. some are as small as an atom, and others have the mass of 10 billion suns. SMBH fall into the latter category, generally weighing in between hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses. (a solar mass is how we measure really heavy shit in the universe, and is equivalent to the mass of our own sun. loyal readers will remember this is approximately 2 nonillion kg.) the SMBH in the center of our own galaxy, sagittarius A (or the “sleeping giant”), is considered relatively small at 4 million solar masses. this is comparable to 1,331,800,000,000 earths. yo, that is pretty fat, have you even heard of diet and exercise??
generally speaking, when sufficiently compacted mass deforms spacetime (occurring most frequently after a supergiant star goes supernova and collapses in on itself), a black hole is born - a place where gravity is so unyielding that even light cannot escape, where spacetime curvature and density are infinite, where the capacity of our known physical laws completely disintegrates. (what does that even mean? it’s hard to say since humans can’t really cognize it! le sigh.) the genesis of SMBHs is not fully known, but thought to occur in one of the following ways:
SMBHs ain’t nothin’ to fuck with: a year ago today scientists were investigating a sudden flash of high-energy gamma radiation and discovered that a SMBH shredded, warped, and then swallowed a giant star. hey man, lay off. we all get hungry.
tomorrow we discuss all the great ways our favorite luminous balls of plasma meet their demise in an exciting chapter i call STAR DEATH!
*the above images are all galaxies containing SMBHs at their core
in approximately 4.5 billion years, the milky way will collide with its closest neighbor galaxy, andromeda. and it’s only fair. our very own galaxy is participating in some voracious galactic cannibalism as we speak by engulfing the large and small magellanic clouds, two dwarf galaxies visible in the southern hemisphere. our bad!
1.2 billion years ago, back when multicellular organisms were first appearing on earth, these two galaxies, known as the “antennae galaxies”, were entirely independent. alas, their mutual attraction proved too much to resist and these two lovebirds have spent the last 900 million years in a somewhat slow but aggressive courtship.
in another 400 million years, the antennae galaxies will become the world’s most annoying couple, and the brangelina of our galactic neighborhood, by fully merging to become one (spice girls reference!). when this happens, the galactic nuclei of both galaxies will merge and their consummation will create what is known as an active galactic nuclei. AGNs produce more radiation and luminosity than the galaxy they reside in, and are thought to be home to supermassive black holes raging at their centers. yowza!
on the next installment: supermassive black holes!