Category Archives: Planets

Fox News Contributor Steven Milloy Promotes Junk Climate Science On Twitter

Frequent contributor to Fox News Steven Milloy retweeted a Politico story about climate change to suggest that CO2 won’t kill Earth because Venus is made of CO2 — the only trouble is humans don’t live on Venus, as far as we know.

Milloy is no stranger to ignoring accurate and verified scientific truths. A lawyer and frequent commentator for Fox News, he refers to himself as a libertarian thinker and runs a twitter account called @JunkScience through which he ironically, but not facetiously, often peddles what mosts scientists would refer to as junk science. His close financial and organizational ties to tobacco and oil companies have been the subject of criticism from a number of sources going back to the early 2000s, as Milloy has consistently disputed the scientific consensus on climate change and the health risks of second-hand smoke. Having close ties to tobacco and oil, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Among the topics Milloy has addressed are what he believes to be false claims regarding DDT, global warming, Alar, breast implants, second-hand smoke, ozone depletion, and mad cow disease. This time, however, he attempts to equate planet Earth with planet Venus, saying that CO2 won’t destroy the Earth because Venus is largely made up of CO2.

The obvious problem to scientists (and most people with a high school science education) is that humans don’t live on Venus, and couldn’t since it is so darn hot, hailing an average temperature of 864 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s obvious that Milloy is being paid to promote bad science in an effort to persuade Fox News watchers into believing that climate change is a hoax. The trick he uses here is to make it seem like people who believe in man-induced global warming through greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide think the Earth will cease to exist with too much CO2. That isn’t what climate change scientists and activists think at all.

On the contrary, climate change scientists and activists are concerned about human and animal life will cease to exist — the way it doesn’t exist on Venus.

The danger in having to explain this to people is that it’s easier to look at things Milloy’s way. Despite it being wrong, lazy thinkers will read what he tweets and hear what he says on Fox News without doing anymore research or thinking on the matter. When people say convincing things with authority, it usually doesn’t matter if what they’re saying is true or not.

Cassini’s Last Moments In Space Before Landfall

For NASA’s Saturn explorer, the end will come all too quickly.

Cassini, NASA’s explorer of Saturn, remaining life is now measured in just a few days. Coming up on September 12, just three days before NASA’s veteran Saturn explorer takes a dive into the planet’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will whip around the hazy moon Titan in a slingshot maneuver that will seal its fate.

During these final days, Cassini will take one last look around. Onboard cameras will snap pictures of Titan and its hydrocarbon lakes, Saturn’s innermost rings, the bizarre hexagon-shaped jet stream at Saturn’s north pole, and other targets. On the evening of September 14, Cassini will send this last photo album to Earth, about 1.4 billion kilometers away, and the engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena will post them online.

After that, no more pictures will be taken. But seven other instruments will continue to gather data on the chemical composition of Saturn’s atmosphere, its gravity and magnetic fields, its innermost radiation belts, and its rings—for as long as they can. “We’ll be transmitting the science data back almost as fast as we gather it,” says Tom Burk, Cassini’s attitude control team lead.


It rains solid diamonds on Neptune and Uranus

Scientists forecast rain storms of solid diamonds on two of the solar system’s most interesting planets

The obvious question any entrepreneur might ask is how do you mine these diamonds? In short, you don’t. It would take highly advanced space drones, the likes of which not even SpaceX is ready for yet, let alone the cost of getting there and back.

But that doesn’t make the idea of diamonds raining down on a distant planet any less of a spectacular discovery, igniting space-nerd radars everywhere.

According to the scientists who ran the experiment, the diamonds form in hydrocarbon-rich oceans of “slush” found around the solid cores of these two gad giants. According to the Washington Post,

Scientists have long speculated that the extreme pressures in this region might split those molecules into atoms of hydrogen and carbon, the latter of which then crystallize to form diamonds. These diamonds were thought to sink like rain through the ocean until they hit the solid core.


Planet or dwarf planet: all worlds are worth investigating

Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

Pluto’s status as a “dwarf planet” is once again stirring debate. This comes as some planetary scientists are trying to have Pluto reclassified as a planet – a wish that’s not likely to come true. The Conversation

Pluto has been known as a dwarf planet for more than a decade. Back in August 2006 astronomers voted to shake up the Solar System, and the number of planets dropped from nine to eight. Pluto was the one cast aside.

There was some outcry that Pluto had been destroyed in an instant and was no longer important, and the reverberations were most keenly felt across America.

After all, Pluto was “their planet”, discovered in 1930 through the meticulous observations of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

At the time of the vote, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was only seven months into its nine-year journey to Pluto. There was concern that when it finally arrived, would people even care about a dwarf planet?

For many astronomers, the demotion of Pluto was a defining moment. It wasn’t a gesture of destruction and it wasn’t aimed specifically at Pluto. What it signalled was a major leap forward.

In that moment the world’s astronomers acknowledged significant progress in our understanding of the Solar System, an achievement to be proud of – even if everyone was not entirely happy.

What’s in a name?

The first step to understanding a group of objects is to classify them. We group like with like to examine the aligned characteristics or any significant differences between groups. With this insight comes a deeper understanding of how things work, form or evolve.

The planets were originally grouped together because the ancient Greeks saw them as “the wanderers”, travelling across the sky. Five bright objects – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – may have looked like stars, but while stars stayed fixed within their constellations, these planets moved independently from them.

The cause of this planetary motion was eventually established by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century, bringing with it a new revelation. Planets were more than wanderers, they were objects in orbit about the Sun and with this understanding Earth became a planet too.

Earth became a planet too, once the ‘wanderers’ were understood.
NASA/Reid Wiseman

Defining a planet in the 21st century

More than 400 years and many discoveries later, a new storm began brewing in our understanding of the Solar System.

Since 1992, astronomers had begun to find objects orbiting the Sun out in the realm of Pluto. Were they planets too?

Conversely, Pluto was a bit of an oddball. It was smaller than several moons of other planets, and it had a highly inclined orbit that made it stand out from the others. Was it truly a planet or was it part of a much larger family of objects?

With the discovery of Eris (originally known by its designation 2003 UB313) in 2003, a decision could no longer be avoided. Eris was about the size of Pluto and certainly more massive. Was Eris a planet? And if not, where did that leave Pluto?

Astronomers have a forum for such deliberations via the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Representing astronomers worldwide, the IAU is the recognised authority responsible for naming and classifying planetary bodies and their satellites.

The IAU formed a Planet Definition Committee to consider the scientific, cultural and historical issues at hand. A draft proposal was put forward, and during the 2006 IAU General Assembly in Prague, with the world’s astronomers gathered together, the Committee’s proposal was vigorously debated.

A revised proposal was presented to the IAU membership on the final day of the General Assembly and was passed with a large majority.

Astronomers raise their yellow cards and Pluto becomes a dwarf planet.
Martin George

For the first time, a planet was formally recognised as being “a celestial body that”:

(a) is in orbit around the Sun

(b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape

© has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

Since Pluto had not “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit”, it was not a planet but would be recognised as a “dwarf planet”.

A colleague of mine, Martin George, director of the Launceston Planetarium, was there when the vote was taken and captured the excitement and the nuance of the event.

There was quite a buzz in the room and we knew we were about to make history. Did everyone agree on the exact wording? Perhaps not. However, I think it would have been worse to see media headlines reading ‘Astronomers cannot decide what a planet is’.

Size matters and location too

The distinction of planet and dwarf planet brings a consistency to how objects are named across the universe. On the grand scale, there are galaxies and there are dwarf galaxies.

Within our Milky Way Galaxy, the Sun is a yellow dwarf star that in billions of years will evolve to become a red giant before ending its life as a white dwarf.

The Milky Way and its neighbouring dwarf galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds seen in the lower left.
ESO/C. Malin

These distinctions among galaxies and stars helps astronomers interpret and understand them, tracing their evolution.

Planets and dwarf planets are distinct because of their size and their location in the solar system. It provides a way to examine how planets and dwarf planets may have originated and evolved differently.

Planetary resemblance

At present, the IAU has officially recognised five dwarf planets. They are Pluto, Eris, Makemake and Haumea, which orbit the Sun beyond Neptune, and Ceres, which is the only object in the asteroid belt massive enough to be spherical.

The dwarf planets compared to Earth.

Detractors and also supporters of the standing planet definition can point to problems with it. For instance, it only applies to objects orbiting the Sun. But what about exoplanets? And what is meant by “cleared its neighbourhood”? If Earth was located farther away from the Sun, would it be able to clear its orbit?

But, as astrophysicist Ethan Seigal explains, minor qualifications to the planet definition can bring it in line with exoplanets and allows the definition to work with renewed clarity.

Whereas the latest proposal to reinstate Pluto, advocates a geophysical definition of planet. Namely, that a planet should be large enough to be round, but not so big that it is a star. This broad definition casts the net wide, and not only Pluto, but also the Moon and more than 100 other Solar System objects would become planets.

There are many Solar System objects smaller than Earth.

Now wouldn’t that be a leap backwards in regards to structuring and understanding our Solar System? How much of it is driven by the notion that nothing but a planet is worth exploration?

There’s a plethora of “not-planets” in our Solar System that are worlds worthy of attention. This includes the fiery volcanoes of Io, the icy geysers of Enceladus, the reddish surface of Makemake, the crazy spin of Haumea and the mystery of hundreds of worlds unknown orbiting beyond Neptune.

So let the official word on planets and dwarf planets be as passed in 2006 and let our exploration of the Solar System continue to amaze us.

Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museum Victoria

Do no harm to life on Mars? Ethical limits of the ‘Prime Directive’

NASA’s chief scientist recently announced that “…we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” Such a discovery would clearly rank as one of the most important in human history and immediately open up a series of complex social and moral questions. One of the most profound concerns is about the moral status of extraterrestrial life forms. Since humanities scholars are only just now beginning to think critically about these kinds of post-contact questions, naïve positions are common.

Take Martian life: we don’t know if there is life on Mars, but if it exists, it’s almost certainly microbial and clinging to a precarious existence in subsurface aquifers. It may or may not represent an independent origin – life could have emerged first on Mars and been exported to Earth. But whatever its exact status, the prospect of life on Mars has tempted some scientists to venture out onto moral limbs. Of particular interest is a position I label “Mariomania.”

Should we quarantine Mars?

Mariomania can be traced back to Carl Sagan, who famously proclaimed

If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.

Chris McKay, one of NASA’s foremost Mars experts, goes even further to argue that we have an obligation to actively assist Martian life, so that it does not only survives, but flourishes:

…Martian life has rights. It has the right to continue its existence even if its extinction would benefit the biota of Earth. Furthermore, its rights confer upon us the obligation to assist it in obtaining global diversity and stability.

To many people, this position seems noble because it calls for human sacrifice in the service of a moral ideal. But in reality, the Mariomaniac position is far too sweeping to be defensible on either practical or moral grounds.

Streaks down Martian mountains are evidence of liquid water running downhill – and hint at the possibility of life on the planet.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona, CC BY

A moral hierarchy: Earthlings before Martians?

Suppose in the future we find that:

  1. There is (only) microbial life on Mars.
  2. We have long studied this life, answering our most pressing scientific questions.
  3. It has become feasible to intervene on Mars in some way (for instance, by terraforming or strip mining) that would significantly harm or even destroy the microbes, but would also be of major benefit to humanity.

Mariomaniacs would no doubt rally in opposition to any such intervention under their “Mars for the Martians” banners. From a purely practical point of view, this probably means that we should not explore Mars at all, since it is not possible to do so without a real risk of contamination.

Beyond practicality, a theoretical argument can be made that opposition to intervention might itself be immoral:

  • Humans beings have an especially high (if not necessarily unique) moral value and thus we have an unambiguous obligation to serve human interests.
  • It is unclear if Martian microbes have moral value at all (at least independent of their usefulness to people). Even if they do, it’s certainly much less than that of human beings.
  • Interventions on Mars could be of enormous benefit to humankind (for instance, creating a “second Earth”).
  • Therefore: we should of course seek compromise where possible, but to the extent that we are forced to choose whose interests to maximize, we are morally obliged to err on the side of humans.

Obviously, there are a great many subtleties I don’t consider here. For example, many ethicists question whether human beings always have higher moral value than other life forms. Animal rights activists argue that we should accord real moral value to other animals because, like human beings, they possess morally relevant characteristics (for instance, the ability to feel pleasure and pain). But very few thoughtful commentators would conclude that, if we are forced to choose between saving an animal and saving a human, we should flip a coin.

Simplistic claims of moral equality are another example of overgeneralizing a moral principle for rhetorical effect. Whatever one thinks about animal rights, the idea that the moral status of humans should trump that of microbes is about as close to a slam dunk as it gets in moral theory.

On the other hand, we need to be careful since my argument merely establishes that there can be excellent moral reasons for overriding the “interests” of Martian microbes in some circumstances. There will always be those who want to use this kind of reasoning to justify all manner of human-serving but immoral actions. The argument I outline does not establish that anyone should be allowed to do anything they want to Mars for any reason. At the very least, Martian microbes would be of immense value to human beings: for example, as an object of scientific study. Thus, we should enforce a strong precautionary principle in our initial dealings with Mars (as a recent debate over planetary protection policies illustrates).

For every complex question, there’s a simple, incorrect answer

Mariomania seems to be the latest example of the idea, common among undergraduates in their first ethics class, that morality is all about establishing highly general rules that admit no exception. But such naïve versions of moral ideals don’t long survive contact with the real world.

By way of example, take the “Prime Directive” from TV’s “Star Trek”:

…no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture…Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship…This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

Hollywood’s version of moral obligation can be a starting point for our real-world ethical discussion.

As every good trekkie knows, Federation crew members talk about the importance of obeying the prime directive almost as often as they violate it. Here, art reflects reality, since it’s simply not possible to make a one-size-fits-all rule that identifies the right course of action in every morally complex situation. As a result, Federation crews are constantly forced to choose between unpalatable options. On the one hand, they can obey the directive even when it leads to clearly immoral consequences, as when the Enterprise refuses to cure a plague devastating a planet. On the other hand, they can generate ad hoc reasons to ignore the rule, as when Captain Kirk decides that destroying a supercomputer running an alien society doesn’t violate the spirit of the directive.

Of course, we shouldn’t take Hollywood as a perfect guide to policy. The Prime Directive is merely a familiar example of the universal tension between highly general moral ideals and real-world applications. We will increasingly see the kinds of problems such tension creates in real life as technology opens up vistas beyond Earth for exploration and exploitation. If we insist on declaring unrealistic moral ideals in our guiding documents, we should not be surprised when decision makers are forced to find ways around them. For example, the U.S. Congress’ recent move to allow asteroid mining can be seen as flying in the face of the “collective good of mankind” ideals expressed in the Outer Space Treaty signed by all space-faring nations.

The solution is to do the hard work of formulating the right principles, at the right level of generality, before circumstances render moral debate irrelevant. This requires grappling with the complex trade-offs and hard choices in an intellectually honest fashion, while refusing the temptation to put forward soothing but impractical moral platitudes. We must therefore foster thoughtful exchanges among people with very different conceptions of the moral good in order to find common ground. It’s time for that conversation to begin in earnest.

The Conversation

Kelly C. Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy & Biological Sciences, Clemson University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kepler Confirms 1,284 Exoplanets Outside Solar System

A study published yesterday in the Astrophysical Journal by a group of researchers confirms an additional 1,284 exoplanets have been spotted by Kepler, NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft. That brings the total number of verified exoplanets from Kepler to more than 2,000 — more than doubling the amount spotted by the spacecraft.

“We have more than doubled the number of known exoplanets smaller than the size of Neptune,” Tim Morton, an associate research scholar at Princeton University.

For the complete study, visit The Astrophysical Journal.

Astrobiologists Use Biosignature Gases To Search For Aliens

Professor Sara Seager of Massachusetts Institute of Technology says her team of scientists is looking for biosignatures from gases emitted by alien life forms on habitable extrasolar planets. Many of these gases could be detected remotely by telescopes, but could end up having quite different compositions from those in the atmosphere of our planet.

Prof. Seager and her colleagues explained,

“Thousands of exoplanets are known to orbit nearby stars. Plans for the next generation of space-based and ground-based telescopes are fueling the anticipation that a precious few habitable planets can be identified in the coming decade. Even more highly anticipated is the chance to find signs of life on these habitable planets by way of biosignature gases.”

Seager’s team proposes in their paper published online in the journal Astrobiology that all stable and potential volatile molecules should be considered as possible biosignature gases, laying the groundwork for identifying such gases by conducting a massive search for molecules with six or fewer non-hydrogen atoms in order to maximize their chances of recognizing biosignature gases. They say they promote the concept that “all stable and potentially volatile molecules should initially be considered as viable biosignature gases.”

The scientists created a list of about 14,000 molecules that contain up to 6 non-H atoms. About 2,500 of these are CNOPSH (C – carbon, N – nitrogen, O – oxygen, P – phosphorus, S – sulfur, and H – hydrogen) compounds.

This means that instead of the costly and controversial method of netting strange creatures from the bottom of the sea, these scientists have decided to search and find thousands of curious, potentially biogenic gas molecules.

Mars and Earth are getting closer together

On May 30, our cold, red sandy neighbor outside Earth’s orbit is getting very close to us, at least for a short duration of time.

Scientists say Mars will be closer to Earth than it’s been since the past eleven years. At about 46.8 million miles away, it’s still a rather distant journey away, but the planet can typically be about 250 million miles away.

According to NASA, from May 18th until June 3rd, the great red planet will be bigger, brighter and hopefully more visible, weather permitting.

Skywatchers should expect to see a reddish star in the mornings at dawn or slightly before, if you are in the UK. United States watchers should look for it around midnight.

For a better view, look up your local astronomy club where members are likely to have powerful telescopes. If you’re looking for a telescope yourself, check out the Celestron C9.25 and get ready for some mindblowing astronomy at home.

Disturbing Mars Weather Concerns NASA About Affects of Sun Spots On Earth

Recently, NASA revealed about some sensitive details concerning massive storms that destroyed Mars’ atmosphere. They went on to enquire how ready are we to accept and combat such a “high impact event.” This announcement comes after NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which spotted how the massive storm that, stripped away the planet’s atmosphere.

Commenting on this activity, Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN’s project scientist said that solar storms and wind corrosion is the key reason for atmospheric loss, and was the main cause for the major changes in the Martian climate.

Post September 2014, MAVEN has pointed out this storm to be the largest. The most important reason why it has become a cause of concern is that such abnormal weather activity can hamper technology-based infrastructures and give rise to many unforeseen accidents.

In 2012, a coronal mass ejection (CME) solar storm just missed a possible collision with earth, due to a sudden eruption in sun. Associating, the current situation, scientists say if such thing is repeated today, the human kind is all set to witness a massive a technological disaster like destroyed satellites, non-functional GPS system.

As far as the costs are concerned Llyod’s pointed out that to prevent from such solar storm will cost somewhere between $600 billion and $2.6 trillion.

Stripped Hot Super-Earths Discovered by Astronomers

Astronomers from the University of Birmingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy in the United Kingdom have recently identified “hot super-Earths” with stripped surfaces. They identified this with the help of data coming from NASA’s exo-planet hunter spacecraft named Kepler.

The exo-planets are made up of rocky core and gaseous outer surface. The host stars of these exo-planets appear to be very close due to which the surfaces of these exo-planets get violently stripped. This is because of being violently hit by a torrent of high energy radiation. This surprising revelation comes from the study published in journal- Nature Communications.

The continuous persistent erosion of atmosphere by high radiations comparatively affects the original size of the planets. As per the results disclosed by the astronomers, the planets with hot stars close to their surfaces had different appearances in terms of size and looks, originally.

Researches and astronomers use asteroseismology in order to study the internal properties of these planets and their host stars. The results of studies play an important role in implying the evolution of stellar systems- our solar system, its planets and their host stars.

New generation satellites including the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Goal are in a process of being launched to extract and gather additional information about these stripped exo-planets.