Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hot Jupiter Trojans! MOST finds exoasteroids?

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When putting together Mang gets a space telescope! I found an abstract of a paper at The Science of Most. I haven't read the full paper yet, but if I read this correctly the MOST team may have found a Trojan asteroid swarm accompanying HD 209458b an exoplanet orbiting a sun like star about 150 light years away.

This is especially impressive given that the actual telescope in MOST is smaller than many amateur scopes!

The paper can be found here Searching for asteroids around another star.

I may be missing something but, I've never heard of an exoasteroid discovery before. It never even occurred to me that it they could be detected with current telescopes.

Now why is this not very big news?

Given the conservative title of the article and a quick peek at it, I gather that the results are preliminary but promising. It sounds like they are still sorting out some details like trying to eliminate possible noise.

Still if it isn't conclusive yet, the game is definitely afoot.

Update: A quick check indicates that exosolar asteroids are new. Just not as new as I'd originally thought. Still, they've never made big mainstream news the way exoplanets have.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mang gets a space telescope!

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Last year the team responsible for Canada's very successful space telescope, MOST (Microvariability & Oscillations of STars), opened the door to the public to propose stars to be studied (see My Own Space Telescope).

MOST packs a lot of power in a very small package. It has the ability to detect the tiniest variations in the light of other stars and track them over long periods of time. It has been used for astroseismology and to detect planets and maybe even asteroids[1] orbiting other stars (see The Science of Most)! There is even a "singing star" called Eta Bootis.
Today the Science team announced two successful proposals (see Amateur Astronomers Win Time on Canada’s MOST Space Telescope ). These were Gordon Sarty a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) and myself! Congratulations Gordon!

I picked Betelgeuse (see this NASA Images page on Betelgeuse for more information). It's a celebrity. As one of the largest, brightest and best known stars in our sky, it holds a lot of fascination. All of our Cubs and Scouts know it!

Here are some Betelgeuse facts:
  • Betelgeuse is a monster, a Red Supergiant. If Betelgeuse were here, we'd be inside it!
  • It pulsates semi-regularly, swelling up and down vast distances (think of the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) over a 5-6 year period.
  • It was the first star outside our solar system to have its disk photographed.
  • It has had truly massive spots on its face.
  • Despite the vast size of Betelgeuse, it weighs less than 30 times our own Sun and has been described as a red hot vacuum (1/10,000th of an atmosphere on average).
  • Unlike our own Sun, it's chromosphere extends many times the diamater of its photosphere. Think of the orbit of Neptune!
  • It will likely die in a supernova explosion. Possibly in the relatively near future. It's too far away (> 400 LY) and pointed the wrong way to hurt us. But when it does explode, it will likely be brighter than the Moon and possibly visible in the day.
  • The now closed McLaughlin Planetarium had a scale model of a number of stars at the base of the stairs going to the theatre dome. The Sun was pea sized about 1/3". Betelgeuse (or a segment of it) was on the floor and over 15' in diameter!
  • Our little Sun would not be visible from Betelgeuse!
  • It would be easy to believe Betelgeuse is the largest star in our galaxy. It isn't. It's just the best known big star!
I'm sure Betelgeuse holds many secrets, what can we find out about them?
  • Could it have exoplanets and could we detect them?
  • What is the nature of its variability and massive spots?
  • Might we get a better idea of its mass, age and when it might explode?
  • What might we learn anything of about our own Sun and it's possible fate?
There are lots of reasons to study Betelgeuse and perhaps MOST can answer some of these questions. I'm excited to see if we can find out the answers. I'm sure the Cubs and Scouts will be too.

Update: If I read this correctly they may have found a Trojan asteroid swarm around HD 209458b see Searching for asteroids around another star. Why is this not very big news?

Other Related: Astronomical distances are .... (well) astronomical

MOST caught on camera!

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MOST is a very small package (less than 1 square metre) orbiting constantly near the boundary of night and day (800 km up). Unlike the International Space Station and larger satellites, you'll never see it by eye. And you'll find precious little about it on satellite tracking sites like Heavens Above.

But MOST is not so small that it cannot be seen - if you have the right equipment.

It turns out that a Toronto RASC member, Eric Briggs, photographed MOST passing overhead. He used a special computer controlled telescope about the same power as the large one I take to our camps but with faster optics (f2).

He posted this amazing video on You Tube:

Update: Some IE users are having trouble seeing the embedded video. If you can't see it above, try this link.

MOST is very hard to see early on. It appears almost as a ghost in the center of the video as the scope tracks by stars. Best to look about 4-5 minutes in.

h/t to Dr. Jaymie Matthews for this

Friday, August 22, 2008

2008 Scouts Registration

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A new Scouting year is upon us and the 433rd is getting geared up.

Check out Registration Night - September 9th!

Scam psychology, Whack-a-mole and the next 2012 hoax

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The stream of nonsense predictions about the upcoming doomsday in 2012 never seems to end. It's driven by people who use fear and doubt to make money and gather attention. It's spread by normal people who can't debunk things or lack confidence in their own critical thinking. The first group are con artists and fraudsters. The second don't know any better.

I'm not talking about the relatively harmless nonsense like the "mars appearing as big as the moon emails" (see Mars as big as the Moon: it’s baaaaack) that have been making rounds since 2003. I'm talking about harmful lies and fabrications.

These scams pop up like a whack-a-mole at the amusement park. The problem is there seems to be no off switch. A number of well respected and knowledgeable people have spent time and effort to debunk this nonsense. These include the Bad Astronomer and recently Dr. Ian O'Neill at Astroengine who has written a fine set of articles debunking various 2012 scams. Please read his article "2012 Doomsday Fabrication: Abusing Science and Making Money".

I've said before that critical thinking is an important life skill (see "Greenwash, Security Theatre, and Skepticism - Critical Thinking"). One tool that can help you do this is to think about the language being used and who the person is supposed to be writing to. A hallmark of many scams is pseudo-scientific language aimed at lay people! If an author is trying to honestly communicate they will speak to their audience. While talking above your audience can be a mistake, it's not one experienced communicators make often. It's also another hallmark of a scam.

Con artists rely on people not to ask questions. Perhaps adults feel embarrassed that they might appear stupid by not knowing something. Any three year old can "why?" an adult to distraction in a few moments, yet somehow many of us loose this as we mature. If they can't explain it to you in terms you can understand, then they should be able to direct you to someone who can. If they can't do either, it's their problem and not yours! A friend of mine once described the ability to pick up on misleading pseudo-scientific and pseudo-technical language as his "BS (aka Bad Stuff) detector". Some of the current crop of bad stuff making the rounds are:
  • "Barycenter Sleeves" (No such thing - see the Astroengine debunk)
  • "mapped by a polynomial function of the third degree" (misleading misuse of math - see the Pseudolympics debunk at Bad Astronomy)
And my prediction for the next 2012 scam is the recently announced discovery of a comet-like object called 2006 SQ372 on a long 22,000 year orbit that brings it about as close as Neptune (for more see Astronomers Find a New "Minor Planet" near Neptune). This is simply too small and too far away to hurt us.

Get your hammers ready and keep asking questions!

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Scouting possibilities in Hut 33?

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I got to thinking about how Scouting and Guiding worked into the plot of several Hut 33 episodes. That led naturally to thoughts of future possibilities and connections.

All of this depends on the biographies of the main characters, which haven't been published. Writers need some kind of biographical outline of their characters but unless they're writing a complex novel it doesn't make sense to make them too detailed. In fact too much detail could stifle creative possibilities. What we need is to get an idea of the age of the characters to see if they could have fit into early Scouting. So let's see if we can read between the lines ...

We know Gordon is 17, born in 1924, and his involvement in Scouting is alluded to in "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" and firmly established in "Royal Visit". But the facts about the other characters are not so well established.
  • My first thought was that Charles was probably too old to be in Scouting. We know from "Careless Talk" that he had travelled to the Balkans in 1914. However, assuming he was at least 18 and probably in his early twenties at the time, that would make his birth before 1897 and leaves him about the right age (11-16) to become a Scout in 1907. Charles might be older, but he could still have been involved even if he was born as early as about 1890. That would put him between 44 and 51 in 1941. My guess is that he was born in 1892. This leaves the possibility of a 50th birthday party in 1942 and that he could have been one of the first Scouts at Brownsea Island! Both possibilities could provide fertile ground. Where would he sew on all those language strips?
  • We know Josh is a Capricorn, but beyond that we have few clues as to how old he is. We know he's younger than Charles who was a professor when Josh attended school. We know a bit about his military family and father, the General, all of whom got to their positions without merit. I'll guess the General is very close to retirement age and that Josh was born in the few years just before WW I, say around 1911-1912. We know from "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" that Josh is familiar with the Jungle Book; although, this is meager evidence. In any event, his Scouting experiences could be hilarious. Besides the series really could use a variety of other Josh gaffs.
  • When Archie applied to Cambridge, he was rejected by Charles. I seem to recall this was given as 1927 (but I could be imagining it) 1928 (as we find out in "Where Boffins Dare"). This would put Archie's birth around 1907 or later which would give him ample time to be a Scout. There is the issue of Archie's atheistic or agnostic non-belief and if it would have been a problem in early Scouting. However; he could easily have come to that after he started Scouting.
  • We know virtually nothing about Winstanley's background. In fact, have we seen him since series one?
  • Mrs. Best must be close to Charles in age. But is she younger or older? We know she was in Berlin in WW I and in Paris in the twenties. An early date for her birth would be about 1890. Girl Scouts came in 1909 but there was experimentation with (or at least debate around) girls in Scouting during the early years. I'd guess her birth was between 1890 and 1898. For her to be involved in the Girl Scouts, she'd need to have been born later in this time frame. Somehow, part of me wants to see that she and Charles share a birthday. While there are hilarious possibilities here, we've already had a reference to Mrs.B and BP.
  • Lastly we have Minka. On one hand she doesn't seem all that familiar with Scouting having seen them as a junior defence league. But that could just be her tilted perspective. We know that Poland had a healthy pre-war Scouting movement. And there is a possible heroic role model for her in Olga Malkowskamay. Again, frighteningly hilarious possibilities exist.
Of course, I've been thinking of the characters direct involvement as youth or young assistant leaders. A broader canvas is available if their potential roles as adult leaders is considered.

I hope that James Cary will further explore Scouting connections in season three. I think there are some very funny possibilities here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Economist Has No Clothes ... Why Economics is failing the environment

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Robert Nadeau wrote an opinion piece titled "The Economist Has No Clothes: Unscientific assumptions in economic theory are undermining efforts to solve environmental problems" for Scientific American in March. This is a hugely insightful article and well worth a read.

Basically, he points out that the core of neo-classical economics is a sham. It's creators adapted their equations from the physics of the day and then arbitrarily and without justification reassigned the meaning of variables to suit their own purpose. And despite the fact that the creators were warned that what they were doing was unjustified - presto! Economics suddenly became scientific and rigorous - what complete and total hogwash!

It doesn't matter that the equations they borrowed were shortly to become obsolete themselves, the foundation was flawed from the start. His article looks at the flawed background of economics and key assumptions which are endangering our environment. He says:

Unfortunately, it is clear that neoclassical economics has also become outdated. The theory is based on unscientific assumptions that are hindering the implementation of viable economic solutions for global warming and other menacing environmental problems.

Paraphrasing and commenting these:
  • The market system is a closed circular flow between production and consumption, with no inlets or outlets. (Where do raw materials come from and waste go to?)
  • Natural resources are separate and distinct the market system, and value of these resources are determined by this system. (Doesn't this sound like a recipe for delusion and denial?)
  • The costs of damage to the natural environment lie outside the market system. (The system does not account for the true cost of environmental damage).
  • Natural resources are largely inexhaustible or have alternatives. (No acknowledgement of limits or feasibility).
  • There are no biophysical limits to the growth of market systems. (Doh!)

He concludes that these underlying flaws in economic theory are a major obstacle to addressing climate change and environmental issues. Again, from the article:

Because neoclassical economics does not even acknowledge the costs of environmental problems and the limits to economic growth, it constitutes one of the greatest barriers to combating climate change and other threats to the planet. It is imperative that economists devise new theories that will take all the realities of our global system into account.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Missed it by that much ...

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No this is not a review of the "Get Smart" movie. Nor is it a discussion of another asteroid near miss.

Rather, it's an eclipse near miss. Now I'm sure some of you are thinking, a what near miss? Let me explain.

Earlier this week, I was up early and noticed a post about the August 1st Total Eclipse at Visual Astronomy, here. Now I'd completely forgot about the eclipse because I knew about it and dismissed it months ago (because I would be in the wrong place). But when I read the times on Sean's site, I briefly thought there might be a chance to see one of these rare events. A quick check (see below) dashed that small hope.
  • NASA maintains eclipse web pages, here. A map projection of today's eclipse is here.
  • And there is a wonderful eclipse calculator that will tell you if you can see an eclipse, here.
Right now, I'm on vacation in Maine about a 2 hour drive south of Waterville which will see a partial eclipse (about 25%) at sunrise for 59 seconds! Such a brief glimpse and the weather forecast don't justify a 4 hour return commute. Pity.

I should say a word about why solar eclipses are rare. In one sense they are not. They tend to group with lunar eclipses like the one last February, see Snow Moon Eclipse - simple astrophotography about every 5-6 months. The reason we don't get eclipses every month is that the orbit of the moon is slightly inclined to Earth's orbit around the Sun. Consequently, during most months the Moon is off center and the shadows fall in the wrong places to be seen.
  • Lunar eclipses, where the shadow of the Earth falls on the moon, are visible from anywhere on the night side of the Earth. They also last several hours.
  • Solar eclipses, where the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth, last only a few minutes and are only visible across a limited geography (as can be seen in the eclipse map above). The shadow of the total eclipse is visible across an extremely narrow track across the daylight side of the Earth. Solar eclipses are also dangerous to view unless you have proper equipment.
This article was post dated. Right now, I'm asleep dreaming of a day at the beach and seeing a Portland Seadogs game tonight. Sadly, I missed David Ortiz's sell-out appearance last week.