NASA, Ur Doin’ It Wrong

Although I’ve been neck-deep in Ares I-X launch news today, I’ve had some time to see what else has been going on in the Universe. I really hope I’ll find the time to get to this stack of blog post ideas over the weekend, one of them is a particular peach.

But before I turn in for the night, an interesting little debate has been sparked over at Keith Cowing’s NASA Watch. Keith, the ever watchful eye over all things NASA, somehow stumbled across the NASA 360 blog and pointed out that the agency might be trying too hard to be “hip.”

I think that one of the hardest things NASA has to do is to communicate their incredible science to the general public — no one said outreach was easy. Every day I am challenged with this issue on Discovery News. On the one hand I want to talk about the quantum effects of Hawking Radiation at the event horizon of a black hole, but on the other, I have to realize that most of my audience didn’t take Advanced Quantum Mechanics at school.

Realizing how to approach an audience with science is a bit like approaching a crème brûlée with a blowtorch; you have to do it slowly, with enough distance between the caramelizing sugar (audience) and the flame (science). You get too close and the mix gets burned (confused), get too far away and the mix is undercooked (bored).

This by no means is equivalent to “dumbing down,” it’s simply a method to find analogies and examples that can connect the mind-bending science with a tangible reality (like comparing the curvature of space-time with the curvature of a rubber sheet when a heavy ball is placed on top of it). If you start over-simplifying the science, you end up sounding like a tool and your audience thinks you’re lame/boring/condescending.

If analogies and examples aren’t forthcoming, try humour. One example of this is “5 Frightening (But True) Space Stories,” a guest blog post for Space Disco Robert Lamb posted today. Robert is an expert at blending science and humour. So much so, this blog post teaches some spaceflight history without you even realizing it.

So, back to NASA Watch and the comments about the NASA 360 blog post written by presenter Jonny Alonso:

I am certainly all for trying to connect to a broader audience but this NASA 360 post by Johnny Alonso (the MTVish on-air host) is just silly with its attempt at teen Twitter and SMS lingo i.e. “hai guyz” and “that would totally suck. lol”, “it was hawt :)” and “These cats Mike and Barry”. –Keith Cowing, NASA Watch

Running the risk of sounding a little long in the tooth, Keith is obviously a little riled about the standard of writing on this particular post. At first, I was mildly amused, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized NASA’s outreach style might be flawed. Using text-speak to convey his work presenting for NASA makes Alonso sound limited (which I’m sure he’s not, although I haven’t seen him in action, so I might be wrong), but worst of all it knocks the credibility of NASA outreach.

This might be one form of communication, but there must be some kind of editorial control? Are there standards? Granted, I think the content produced by NASA online is second to none, which is probably why NASA 360 is standing out like a sore thumb. Also, this blog post is the personal angle written by an enthusiastic young guy in a conversational, loose tone who probably has a lot of fans.

Perhaps I’m just old fashioned in agreeing with Keith, but “outreach” doesn’t mean NASA should be publishing blogs like this to try to appeal to a younger/trendy audience. As sad as it may be, if the younger generation isn’t interested in NASA, I doubt a presenter saying “hai” all the time is going to change that.

What do you think? Am I being picky? Is this just a symptom of what we can expect from blogs in the future?

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Prof. Brian Cox Accidentally REVEALS the TRUTH About the LHC!!!!

(Note the clever use of CAPS and excessive exclamation marks in the title. It speaks volumes.)

I guess this confirms I was wrong. Consider this an apology to all the crackpots, doomsayers, cranks and Walter Wagner. I’m sorry I got it all… so… wrong.

While out on the town in London, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait pulled Prof. Brian Cox out of a pub and subjected him to some intense interrogation. Obviously caught with his guard down, Cox folded under the pressure and briefly told the world what we can expect when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) recommences experiments in November. Wow, just… wow.

This made me giggle. Looks like TAM London was a tonne of fun, hopefully next time I can go.

But for now, sorry Walter, you’re still wrong.

Late to the Doomsday Party: NASA Denounces 2012

nemesis

As we have probably all guessed by now, the Institute for Human Continuity is a viral campaign designed to generate a huge buzz around the upcoming November 13th movie called 2012.

Ever since I started writing about 2012 (way back in May 2008 with “No Doomsday in 2012“), I’ve been inundated with emails, tweets, comments, even phone calls about the 2012 doomsday phenomena. These messages have ranged from mild curiosity to outright panic. I’ve also had many crackpots trying to convince me that my scientific reasoning is not valid (which it is).

There’s also been a few bonuses, including guest appearances on the outstanding “Apocalypse” episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and most recently, the upcoming Discovery Channel documentary on the same subject.

However, in the run-up to a perfectly timed movie about the “Mayan prophesy,” Sony Pictures kick-started the mother of all viral campaigns in January. The movie 2012 will be a huge event, but basing an entire marketing ploy on fear and disinformation left a lot to be desired. So for the last 10 months, I’ve been busy writing not so much about the bad science being used in these wacky 2012 theories (check out my 2008 “No Doomsday in 2012” series for the science), but about the various advertising campaigns for the movie.

However, up until this point, there’s been little official comment from NASA about all the nonsense that has been stirred up. This seems surprising as most doomsday theories involve butchered astronomical objects, surely the US space agency should take a stance on the whole matter?

Now, NASA astrobiologist Dr David Morrison has gone on the record to say the 2012 doomsday theories are bunk. It turns out that Dr Morrison has also been flooded with messages from people worried that all the hype might be real.

Interestingly, in response to accusations that Sony Pictures’ viral campaign was irresponsible, Sony’s publicity director said, “It is very clear that this site is connected to a fictional movie. This can readily be seen in the logos on the site.”

However, in January when the Institute for Human Continuity went live, indications that the site had anything to do with a fictional movie could only be found if you dug very deep into the well-polished Flash website depicting Planet X causing death and destruction on Earth. I don’t recall any logos.

In an attempt to allay any doomsday phobia in the run-up to November (and for the next 3 years), Dr Morrison has issued a nice guide about every reason why you shouldn’t be concerned about 2012 (and that it’s just a movie).

Source: Telegraph. Special thanks to Fraser Cain at the Universe Today for pointing me to David Morrison’s publication.

To A Ufologist, The Answer Is So Obvious

For a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a conspiracy theorist’s brain, check out this hilarious explanation of the super-duper-hyper-speed-top-secret-military-drone that was captured in this video of an Iranian missile test on October 8th. There’s some spooky music added to the edited FOX News coverage to get you in the mood:

So do you see what the conspiracy is? Something really fast shot through the clouds just after Iran launched their Shahab-3 rocket. Obviously there is something weird about that, right?

It’s OK, Nick Pope is on the case.

One theory is that it’s a secret American drone. At any time there are prototype aircraft and drones being operated that won’t be shown in public for years.

Stealth aircraft flew for many years before their existence was acknowledged.

But the speed and acceleration seems phenomenal. I’m not convinced we’ve got anything capable of such manoeuvres.”

Oh come on Nick, you can’t fool us! You know it’s not a classified military aircraft don’t you. In your expert opinion, you’re “not convinced we’ve got anything capable of such manoeuvres.” Don’t leave us hanging, just say it. We won’t judge you. Much.

Obviously leaning toward the extraterrestrial argument, Pope — who was once a UFO advisor to the British Ministry of Defence — appears to have numbed all the reasoning functions of his brain. He’s taken one look at the video footage — probably with an amazed look on his face, mouth open wide — and when asked by reporters what he saw, he responds with a smug look of knowing. There be aliens in them clouds.

As you might have guessed from the video, it’s certainly not a UFO. Hell, it’s not even a flying object. It’s a shadow. For observers in the space community who see rocket launches all the time, shadows of rocket smoke trails often fall on clouds. In the case of the Iranian missile launch (which, in actuality, is the real concern in this footage), the sunlight is coming from the right of the picture. As the missile passes through the altitude at which the Sun lines up with the cloud, a shadow dissects the cloud. It really is that simple. Any confusion about the altitude of the cloud is down to the angle of the camera view and the opacity of the cloud.

For his continuing UFO studies, I think Pope should be doing more research on how to recognize shadows rather than letting his imagination run rampant. However, it is interesting to see how the brain of a prominent ufologist works; zero skeptical thought, oodles of imagination and conspiracy theories behind every cloud.

“Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan…”

The Reliant Robin Space Shuttle from the BBC's Top Gear.

A better chance of making it to Saturn: The Reliant Robin Space Shuttle from the BBCs Top Gear.

An ad on Craigslist has just appeared: Astronaut Needed (Northern Alberta). Sign me up!

Oh, hold on…

Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan. I have been working on this project now for near 40 years and am afraid I’m no longer fit enough to go. My secret space craft is the result of my professional experience and imagination while serving the U.S. military in advanced aeronautics as a scientist. The craft harnesses a revolutionary propulsion system and its fuselage is fabricated with the most advanced material. While considerably safe, I am certain you will make it safely to Titan but there will not be enough fuel to get home. This is for someone unique that has always wanted to see the universe first-hand and has perhaps a terminal view on life here at home. Here’s your shot at romantic history.” –Mad Rocket Scientist from Canada (emphasis added by me).

I was almost convinced I had a stab at flying to the Saturnian moon. What put me off? The fact that there won’t be enough fuel to get me back to Earth? Or was it the fact that I’m not stark raving mad? Nope, it turns out I’m too tall. “[The applicant] must be no taller than 5’10 and relatively slim.” Curses.

Thank goodness the spaceship is “…is largely cpu controlled,” I was getting worried that this ad was sounding a little too reckless…

Wow.

Thanks to @absolutspacegrl for the heads up!

What REALLY Happened to the LCROSS Centaur?

<conspiracy mode>

In the early hours of Friday morning at 4:31am, the spent Centaur rocket from the NASA LCROSS mission slammed into the surface of the south pole of the moon. What was the point in that?

Well, NASA was hoping that the tumbling chunk of metal the size of a small bus would kick up a huge plume of dust. Following 4 minutes behind was the shepherding LCROSS spacecraft, also on a kamikaze dive, hoping to drop through the plume, sensitive instruments ready to analyse the dust for water.

I know what you’re thinking: what right does NASA have to BOMB the Moon? They have NO RIGHT AT ALL!!

It turns out that they are actually waging a top secret war against the population of peaceful extraterrestrials that live on the far side of the Moon. This “experiment” was in fact a reckless attack against a superior alien civilization, intended to strike fear into the hearts of the aliens.

If you were to believe the NASA promo video of the event, this should have been spectacular, vast quantities of lunar regolith blasting into space… it should have been akin to the biggest Fourth of July firework detonating. This “shock and awe” tactic is typical of the US space agency. The huge mass of the Centaur (a little under 2400kg), combined with its break-neck speed (1.5 miles per second) should have unleashed the equivalent energy of a tonne of TNT exploding. However, what NASA didn’t tell us was that Centaur was also carrying plutonium, so the explosion should have been a LOT bigger, easily visible to the naked eye.

But what did we see? Nothing. What did NASA see? Nothing. So what happened? Well, the answer to that is a little more compelling than what NASA is telling us.

Yes, they can show us images of a meagre “flash” as the Centaur hit inside a lunar crater, but I don’t think Centaur hit the Moon at all… the Centaur rocket was swallowed by the Moon.

Don’t believe me? Moments before impact, NASA’s lunar satellite — the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — was approaching the location and it took this photo. What you see here will shock you. It will astound you. And what’s more, it’s REAL.

Aliens DO live on the Moon, and they were prepared for the NASA bombing…

lcross-conspiracy

</conspiracy mode>

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. In the run-up to the LCROSS impact, the sheer amount of crazy conspiracy theories hit fever-pitch (I blogged about it on Space Disco 2 hours before impact). Some of my favourite theories involved alien civilizations on the lunar surface, plutonium on LCROSS (to destroy the Moon), the “fact” that it was all just a publicity stunt and the LCROSS mission didn’t exist at all… and the strange theory that the Moon feels pain.

Yawn.

A polite message to the conspiracy theorists: Come on people, stop making stuff up and understand the real science. You might find reality more interesting than your twisted fantasies.

Image: The Sarlacc pit monster from Star Wars, Copernicus lunar crater and the LCROSS Centaur rocket. Photoshopping: Me.

Oops… I really geeked out this time, didn’t I.

@Astroengine Got CNN’d (and other epic things)

cnn-banner

I’ve been pondering a word that could describe today.

I drew a blank.

It’s a very hard day to sum up in one word. In fact, this entire week has been something of a unique one. From a space point of view, it’s been busy, largely due to the endless supply of space science research spewing from the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Puerto Rico.

However, last night (and early this morning) is what topped it all off. The NASA LCROSS mission slammed into the lunar south pole at 4:31am (PDT) and I was there tweeting away, keeping abreast of all the juicy LCROSS news. That was until Time Warner Cable decided to pull the plug on my internet connection 10 minutes before the main event (I’m certain they did it deliberately, it’s the only explanation). Panic-stricken — and really peeved that I’d spent the whole night excited to see the glorious end to this Moon mission, only to be foiled by my ISP — I checked the TV, and it was working, plus a local channel was covering the event. Phew.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to see. Oh well.

Anyway, on waking up this morning, I was shocked to find my inbox was stuffed full of Twitter follow messages and notes of congratulations from my team at Discovery News. CNN had picked me, with four heavy-hitters on Twitter as their #FollowFriday. But it wasn’t an ordinary #FollowFriday, the guys at CNN Technology posted this #FollowFriday on their site!

Editor’s note: In this new weekly feature, we highlight five recommended Twitter feeds about a hot topic in the news. Today’s list focuses on space-related tweets and NASA’s plan to crash two spacecraft on the moon Friday in a search for water in lunar soil.CNN Tech

So despite my internet woes, CNN had chosen me (@astroengine) with @BadAstronomer, @Astro_Mike, @LCROSS_NASA and @NASA_AMES. So I was in the company of an entire NASA facility (Ames), a NASA mission that had just hours before slammed into the Moon (LCROSS), the first astronaut to tweet from space (Mike Massimino) and the one, and only, Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait.

Wow.

They also added this very flattering description of @astroengine:

4. astroengine — Astroengine is the Twitter name of Ian O’Neill, a British-born physicist with a long resume and a healthy sense of humor. It’s also the name of his blog, which gathers articles and posts on such light-reading topics as quantum mechanics, solar physics, relativity, cosmology, space flight science and “some of the more bizarre theories that drive our universe.”

Number of followers: more than 1,700

Sample tweet: “Europa, Jupiter’s Moon, Could Support Complex Life http://bit.ly/3n6iKL (I, for one, welcome our alien Jellyfish Overlords)”

So, I’d like to take this opportunity to say “hello” to my hundreds of new followers!

And did I think of a word that describes today? Actually, I think I just did:

Epic.