Starts With A Bang

Comments of the Week #96: from the living Universe to star-forming terror

Image credit: Ryan M. Hannahoe and Salvatore Grasso, of supernova SN 2014J in Messier 82.

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” -Zig Ziglar

What a week it’s been here at Starts With A Bang, where we’ve been proud to bring a number of stories to light for you. This past week, in case you missed anything, we’ve tackled:

There’s plenty in the works, including (next week) our next podcast, a live-blog event, more on the Future of Astronomy and even more science stories from the Universe. You’ve also (as always) had plenty to say, so let’s see what it all comes down to as we jump into our Comments of the Week!

Image credit: SN 1994D, High-Z Supernova Search Team, HST, NASA.

From Omega Centauri on a story I didn’t cover: “[T]he superluminus supernova has been
much in the news. Reportedly its brightness blows the usual suspects out of the water. I’m a bit skeptical, if its some sort of
compact object or black hole thing, might the radiation pattern be highly non spherically symmetric? perhaps we are in the path of a beam?”

So this is based on this story, and this is interesting for a number of reasons, but this isn’t unique! Here’s the deal:

Image credit: NASA / CXC / M. Weiss.

Supernovae like SN2006gy are thought to collapse under this mechanism, but the new supernova is even more luminous than that (although it’s more than 10 times as distant). Why? Are there collimated jets pointing at us? We don’t know, but the magnetar explanation is challenged by it. Another possibility includes the formation of quark stars, but this is one case where, to be frank, observationalists are leading the theorists. We have work to do!

Image screenshotted from Forbes.

From Kristofer Bergstrom on the living Universe: “I’m sorry to say I don’t access your full writings since they moved to Forbes. Forbes has a no ad-blocker policy which means users can’t use the site without exposing their browser to risk (and exposing themselves to ads). Probably not too many people are as decidedly anti-ad as I am, but I thought I should let you know there’s at least one of us that can’t access your writings since they’ve moved to Forbes.”

I seem to get these comments every week, and I don’t have a problem with it. Currently, I’m bringing hundreds of thousands of new visits to Forbes each month, which they’re very happy about. But there’s a limit to the pressure I can put on them. I continue to let them know about your frustrations (and I’m frustrated, too), and will continue to make recommendations. However, unless you have a platform for me that’s going to compensate me for all the writing I do as well as (or better) than what’s on the table, I won’t be moving. Wait the extra week if you don’t want to turn off your adblocker and then go to Medium. But I need to make a living, which I hope we all understand.

Image credit: NASA, of the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire.

From Art on Apollo 1: “In retrospect it seems intuitively obvious that the combination of oxygen, at a raised pressure, materials that had never been flame tested in an oxygen atmosphere, and a hatch that took an extended time to open would lead to tragedy.”

Everything is easier in hindsight. The tough thing was doing something that took five confounding mistakes to lead to tragedy, but the odds of each one wasn’t as low as it should’ve been. That’s the really hard part. The really difficult thing to realize is that each new tragedy — even if it leads to policy change — will only help prevent that now-previous tragedy from happening again. How do we anticipate the next tragedy? That’s something we’re still working on.

Image credit: three shots of the challenger during its last flight, with the hydrogen leak visible.

From Julian Frost on the Challenger disaster: “And 19 years and a day after the Apollo 1 launchpad fire, another, bigger disaster occurred: the Challenger exploded.”

I wrote about this in gory detail back in 2011, and still remember it vividly. Here’s a snippet:

Televisions were wheeled into our classrooms so we could watch the launch live on television. While these astronauts weren’t going to the Moon (which was — to my second grade mind — the coolest thing any astronaut could ever do), they were getting to ride into outer space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Watching ascending rocket closely, you could see that something might be wrong. The main tank appeared to catch on fire, and the flames from the rockets beneath seemed to rise up the spacecraft. But nobody was prepared for what happened next.

Although we had no way of knowing at the time, the entire crew of seven — Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Francis Scobee, and Michael Smith — most likely weren’t immediately killed by the explosion, but rather by either depressurization and freezing, or by impact with the sea below.

It was heartbreaking to watch, but these seven people gave their lives in pursuit of the exploration of the Universe they all loved. We keep exploring, despite our setbacks, even the ones that have their costs measured in human lives. The Universe and our pursuit of knowing more about it still goes on.

Illustration credit: NASA.

From Denier on the James Webb Space Telescope: “Are you sure about the potential for refueling? I have been unable to get a definitive answer on that. Seemingly every time someone says the potential exists, someone else says the JWST doesn’t have refueling ports and the technology to pull off such a mission would be more expensive than simply putting a new and better telescope out there. Both stories sound plausible. Do you have details on which is the straight scoop?”

You have a lot of questions, and there’s right on both sides of what you’re asking. No, JWST isn’t really built for refueling; they didn’t make it easy with an accessible port or anything. It would be expensive for sure: roughly $100-150 million for the launch and possibly another few hundred million for the mission and supplies itself. But the technology to pull off such a mission:

  1. exists,
  2. is estimated to be no more than 5% the total cost of JWST,
  3. and could extend the mission’s lifetime by a factor of 2 (or more, since there’s no need to re-deploy all the equipment).

So the potential exists, but it would take some reverse engineering. Still, people wanted to de-orbit both Hubble and the ISS by now, and both are still going. It’s a lot easier to get the will to extend the lifetime of something after it’s been succeeding for 10 years. Yes, WFIRST will be in the works then, and based on how NASA politics are going, an even larger UV/visible/IR telescope is probably going to fly in the 2030s, but keeping JWST alive for another decade for ~5% its initial cost — if it’s operating really well after the first decade — is a no-brainer.

Image credit: Andrew Z. Colvin of Wikimedia Commons.

From Ragtag Media on how we don’t need NASA: “Society is generating Billionaires daily to the point where technology and finance no longer need nation states to fund them.”

And what is the largest project a billionaire has donated to that funds pure astrophysics/astronomical science? You find the answer to that, and see if you still reach the same conclusion. (Which you will, if you completely don’t value astrophysics/astronomy research.)

Image credit: ESO/F. Comeron.

From Naked Bunny with a Whip on “Monstrous cosmic gas cloud set to ignite the Milky Way”: “Now that’s a headline!”

The “big gas cloud” I’ve shown you above is pretty big: tens of light years long and containing enough gas to create hundreds of new stars. The one I wrote about in the article is nearly a thousand times longer in every dimension, and contains enough gas that if all of it formed stars, we’d create close to 100 million of them. Because of the way star formation quenches, we’ll “only” get about 2 million out of the cloud, but that’s not bad for 30 million years from now! Now about the headline itself: sometimes I write them, sometimes Forbes writes them. (This one was my doing.) What should be the goal of a headline, though? In my opinion, it’s this:

Image credit: Alex Knapp; screenshotted from Google News.

It’s generating traffic and eyeballs, so long as you don’t have to resort to a headline that’s untrue or that you’re ashamed of. Yes, I will use sensationalized phrasing in the title of an article to bring all the boys and girls to the yard. I could teach you, but I’d have to charge.

Image credit: K. Batygin and M. E. Brown Astronom. J. 151, 22 (2016), with modifications/additions by E. Siegel.

From jon on planet nine, kind of: “So we’re meant to be skeptical about a possible planet, but some strange exotic “dark” matter that’s completely undetectable but makes up most of the universe is somehow believable?”

There is one set of observations that points to planet nine, and it’s a very incomplete set (you know, the properties of six objects). There are about 20 sets of observations that point to dark matter, including:

just off the top of my head in 30 seconds.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UCDavis/W.Dawson et al; Optical: NASA/STScI/UCDavis/W.Dawson et al.

My point is that there is a ton of indirect evidence for dark matter, and there is a tiny amount of indirect evidence for planet nine. Now if there is a planet nine, it will be much easier to directly detect than dark matter, because of the nature of planets and the nature of dark matter. You don’t have to like it, but if you’re going to talk about it like you know what you’re talking about, you owe it to yourself to be informed. And finally…

Image credit: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

From PJ on how you might think of behaving online: “We (most) come here to learn something, or to offer further reinforcement of a topic. Most of us try to avoid the friction that occurs from time to time, but put up with it to receive the good bits. If you feel offended by someones negative comments, just ignore, rather than rattle the cage further.”

This is good life advice in general: choose your fights wisely, or you’ll wind up wasting your energy on the useless bits rather than the parts that could really benefit from your passionate energy.

Thanks for a great week, everyone, and looking forward to what next week and the start of February has to offer!