It’s big. Really, really big.

Too many planets

One of the stranger arguments against counting Pluto as a planet is that if we were to include any object of its size and mass that doesn’t orbit a bigger planet, then our solar system would just have too many planets in it for our brains to handle.

The idea got a lot of play back when the International Astronomical Union was debating whether Pluto should be considered a planet. But evidently it’s become so widespread that even critics of the IAU’s decision are buying it:

In a sense, the IAU chose to cauterize a wound, a weakness in the definitions, that if left unchanged, would have led to who knows how many planets in our Solar System.

Mostly, that article goes to argue for a new set of definitions for celestial bodies that isn’t just haphazardly tailored to produce a specific set of planets in our solar system. But it still doesn’t explain how the discovery of a new planet would constitute a wound. Evidently, without official intervention, we should fear that a bunch of fuzzy pictures of small planets might start spilling onto high school astronomy charts, and freak out our impressionable youths who need to be able to count everything using their fingers.


Black holes and the trouble with science fiction

I should be really excited for the movie Interstellar. I think part of why I’m not has to do with my growing skepticism about movie plots in general, which I’ll have to get into later. But regardless, this sort of thing is really impressive:

 In short, in order to accurately create a visual for the story’s black hole, Kip Thorne produced an entirely new set of equations which guided the special effects team’s rendering software. The end result was a visual representation that accurately depicts what a wormhole/black hole would look like in space.

What really impressed me, though, is that apparently nobody thought to do this before. And that kind of says a lot about the state of both science and science fiction.


Our solar system is huge

In 1990, Voyager 1 used its camera for the last time and took a panoramic photo of the solar system, including that famous photo of the Earth as a tiny, pale blue dot caught in a sunbeam. (Or, technically, a lens flare.) At the time, the probe was about six billion kilometers away, or 40 times the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Now, after covering another 12 billion kilometers, it may have become the first human-made object to leave the solar system in early September. And despite moving faster (on average) than any other object we’ve ever built, it took 35 years to get that far.

I was born almost four years after Voyager 1’s flyby of Saturn, when its primary mission ended, so I spent my childhood assuming it was long gone already. The fact that it’s still racking up milestones well into my adulthood is a pretty good example of how hard it is to comprehend the scale of the universe we live in.


Dragon stares down Congress?

I spent way too much time trying to come up with a clever dragon title. Even spent a couple seconds thinking about Photoshopping a screenshot from this week’s Game of Thrones. You know, the one with the dragons?


While I was busy not seeing the transit of Venus, apparently Congress was actually seeing the light coming to its senses, sort of, when it comes to the space program. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA and the chairman of the House committee that oversees NASA’s budget, has reached a truce over Commercial Crew development program, in which he stops trying to gut the program and NASA agrees to do a bunch of stuff it was probably going to do anyway. The fact that it comes a week after one of the Commercial Crew contractors, SpaceX, successfully sent a spaceship (the Dragon) to resupply the International Space Station, probably isn’t a coincidence.

I’ll take good space news where I can get it, and this seems kind of overdue. Commercial Crew was such an obvious idea that I never really got why it was controversial in the first place. (more…)