Threats from Little Bodies Inside and Outside

Of course the inside threat are those little bodies of coronavirus causing Covid-19. We cover them a lot here. But there are also threats from little bodies outside, way outside. Like asteroids impacting us. And that was the news yesterday when NASA announced improved data from a mission to the asteroid Bennu allowed it to refine its orbital model.

And we have reason to ever just so very slightly worry. Because there is a very slight chance that Bennu will impact Earth. In 2182. The New York Times article where I read the news included a motion graphic produced by NASA to explain that the determining factor will be a near pass in 2135.

Too many keys

Essentially, the exact course Bennu takes as it passes Earth in 2135 will determine its path in 2182. But just a few slight variations could send it colliding into Earth. Though, to be clear, it’s only a 1-in-1750 chance.

NASA used the metaphor of keyholes to explain the concept. The potential orbits in 2135 function as keyholes and should Bennu pass into the right keyhole, it will setup a collision with Earth in 2182. Hence the use of little keyholes in the motion graphic that accompanied the article.

But who knows, if we’re lucky the United Federation of Planets will still be formed in 2161 and the starship Enterprise will gently nudge Bennu back into a non-threatening orbit.

Credit for the piece goes to NASA.

A Visual History of the International Space Station

When I was in high school, the United States would regularly spend space shuttles into orbit to help build this new thing: the International Space Station (ISS). In the aftermath of the Cold War, the nations of the world joined together to commit to building an orbital space station.

There was of course a time before the ISS, and I can recall many jokes being made about Mir, the Soviet then Russian space station. And before Mir there were other, though none as long-lasting. But I digress, we’re here today because recently Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted a graphic made by Peter Batenburg that visually captures the history of the International Space Station.

Space, the final frontier…

I think my favourite element is the graphical representation of the expansion of the ISS in terms of its volume. I’ve seen similar sort of graphics showing the addition of modules and new components, but I can’t recall seeing the amount of space where people can live and work being captured.

But really, the whole piece is worthy of sitting down and enjoying. After all the ISS is only about 22 years old. But there are questions of how much longer it will remain in orbit. I’m not aware of any concrete plans to fund it beyond 2030 nor any plans for an eventual replacement.

We can only hope that the ISS and its successor remain an area that fosters international cooperation for the next thirty years.

Credit for the piece goes to Peter Batenburg.

But What About Pluto?

Damn you Neil deGrasse Tyson (but not really though)!

Because, you know, he advocated for de-planet-fying Pluto back in the oughts.

Which I mention because of this post from xkcd, which corrects common images of planets in the solar system accounting for their population.

Still, though, no Pluto?

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

The Mars Rovers

Perseverance landed on Mars on 18 February, almost a month ago. The video and photography the rover has already sent back has been stunning. We all know she is the most capable rover yet landed on the Red Planet, but what we all want to know is how cute is Perseverance compared to her predecessors?

Thankfully for that we have xkcd.

Still a big fan of Spirit and Opportunity. Designed to last 3 months, it trekked on for over 14 years.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

All the Little Spacecraft

Early tomorrow morning, weather permitting, NASA’s Perseverance rover will blast off from Cape Canaveral on a six-plus month trip to Mars. There, hopefully it will land successfully and join all the rovers that have come before.

And so this piece from the New York Times feels appropriate. It’s a great illustration of all the spacecraft we have sent into space, including the active and inactive, with some notable exceptions.

What spacecraft are in orbit of Earth and headed to Mars.

I really like how it pays attention not just to the planets and their satellites (like the Moon), but also the comets, asteroids, and even the Lagrange points. And it does this all with small illustrations of the spacecraft.

Credit for the piece goes to Jonathan Corum.

Missing Planets

In science news, we turn to graphics about planets and things. Specifically we are talking about exoplanets, i.e. planets that exist outside our solar system. Keep in mind that we have only been able to detect exoplanets since the 1990s. Prior to then, how rare was our system with all our planets? It could have been very rare. Now we know, probably not so much.

But, in all of that discovery, we are missing entire types of planets. This article published by Forbes does a nice job explaining why. But one of the key types of planets that we have been unable to discover heretofore have been: intermediately distant, giant planets. Think the Jupiters and Saturns of our system. Prior to now we could detect massive Jupiter-like planets orbiting super near to their distant stars. Or, we could detect super massive planets orbiting very far away. The in-betweeners? Not so much.

There's still a pretty wide gap out there…
There’s still a pretty wide gap out there…

The above screenshot does a good job of showing where new detection methods have allowed scientists to begin to fill in the gaps. It shows how there is an enormous gap between what we have discovered and how they have been discovered. And the article does a nice job explaining how the science works in that only now with our longer periods of observation will help resolve certain issues.

From a design standpoint, this isn’t a super complicated graphic. It does rely upon a logarithmic scale, which isn’t common in non-scientific or academic papers. But this graphic comes from that environment, so it makes a lot of sense. The article is full of graphics from third-party sources, but I found this the most informative because of that very gap it highlights and how the new work (the stars) begin to fill it in.

Credit for the screenshotted piece goes to E. L. Rickman et al.

The M87 Black Hole in Context

Last week we looked at the amazing news that astronomers had finally photographed a black hole. Or, technically, the shadow of a black hole since the black hole itself cannot be seen. I want to return to that news, because it’s awesome. And because xkcd published a piece that annotated the image to show the size of things by comparison.

I had mentioned that it was a supermassive black hole, some of the biggest of the bigs. And M87 is a beast.

Voyager 1 is barely at the event horizon…
Voyager 1 is barely at the event horizon…

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Blackholes and Revelations

On Sunday night I went to see the English rock band Muse perform here in Philadelphia. The concert was to support their latest album, but of course they played Starlight, a song which gave us its respective album’s title: Blackholes and Revelations.

Then on Wednesday, scientists announced that for the very first time, we have actually been able to take a photograph of a blackhole. This one is a supermassive black hole at the heart of the M87 galaxy, some 500 million trillion kilometres distant.

Hopes and expectations?
Hopes and expectations?

The bright light, or ring of fire, is the heated gas before falling beneath the event horizon, which here is the black disk. Beyond that point, the gravitational force is so strong that not even light can escape. And of course without light escaping to be seen, a black hole cannot be directly imaged. Instead, we have to look for its accretion disc.

It’s just cool.

Credit for the piece goes to the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.

Opportunity Lost

Last summer NASA’s Martian exploration rover Opportunity went dark as its solar panels, needed to power the golf-cart sized explorer, were covered in dust from a planet-wide dust storm. Everyone hoped that over the following months the light Martian winds and dust devils would wipe clean the dust from the solar panels and the rover could recharge its batteries, turn on its heaters, and resume contact with Earth. It hasn’t. Consequently, on Wednesday NASA called Opportunity’s mission complete. And thanks to xkcd we have a proper little farewell.

So much science
So much science

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Walnut Pancakes in Space

One of the really neat things about space exploration has been the New Horizons probe that raced past Pluto, giving us the image of the now famous heart shape on the dwarf planet. But as it raced past a Kuiper Belt object named Ultima Thule on New Year’s, we received some tantalising first images of a snowman in space. Basically, two spheroid bodies fused together like a snowman or a peanut.

Except it’s not.

It probably doesn't taste like a walnut pancake, though…
It probably doesn’t taste like a walnut pancake, though…

This is a fascinating graphic produced by the science research teams that show how the latest downloaded photographs from New Horizons—it will take many more months for the full set—show Ultima Thule is not very snowman-like in its shape. Instead, it is far flatter and more, in their words, shaped like a dented walnut and a pancake.

The article has some additional material that show how that spin axis changes the view. They are short videos, but if you are interested in space things, it is neat to see. We are accustomed to seeing spherical objects in orbit around the sun. Not pancakes.

Credit for the piece goes to NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Southwest Research Institute.