A Bevvy of Doom

On the red carpet: John Cusack tells me what he'll be doing on Dec. 21st, 2012. Skiing (credit: Debra O'Neill/Discovery News)

On the red carpet: John Cusack tells me what he'll be doing on Dec. 21st, 2012. Skiing (credit: Debra O'Neill/Discovery News)

Currently sitting in the departure lounge in LAX before I fly out to Washington D.C. to meet up with the Discovery News crew ahead of the launch of our brand new site (keep an eye on Discovery Space, it will soon be integrated into the Discovery News redesign — the beta version looks awesome).

Before I fly, I just wanted to post the news that the Discovery Channel will be airing the documentary I was interviewed for by KPI Productions in August. According to my DVR, the show “Surviving 2012” will be showing on Sunday (Nov. 8th). I’m not certain when it will be showing internationally, but in the US it will be on at 9pm PDT — so check your local listings for any slight changes in schedule. I think it’s going to be a great show as science is the focus, not the hype (unlike the idiotic History Channel-esque Nostradamus nonsense). However, I think fellow interviewee Dr. Alex Young and myself arrived at a very interesting conclusion as to the realities of being hit by an aggressive solar storm. Although our conclusions are far from the rip-roaring, solar blowtorch popular in sci-fi, we do point out that solar physics research is horribly underfunded considering our dependence on vulnerable power and communications systems.

In other news, on Tuesday night I attended the 2012 premier red carpet event in Downtown Los Angeles. I met some bloke named John and another called Roland. Apparently they’re quite famous, but what would I know. For more on my A-list adventures, have a read of “What Will John Cusack be Doing on Dec. 21, 2012? Skiing.” and check out some of the photos from the event via my Facebook account.

Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia. Spirit Suffers Another Bout of Amnesia.

"Oh, that's a nice view, I hadn't noticed that hill before. Hey, that's a pretty-looking rock!"

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is suffering from amnesia, again.

This is hardly surprising if we consider that the lifespan of Spirit should have been 3 months, the fact that it has lasted 69 months (so far) is nothing short of miraculous. In rover-mission-lifetime years, doesn’t that make Spirit and her twin sister Opportunity 1380 years old? (I decided that a “lifetime” is 60 years, in case you were wondering.) Perhaps that’s not how it works, but for NASA to build a robot that has lived 23 times longer than the mission specified is pretty damn impressive. No wonder Spirit is losing her memory. I’m surprised she hasn’t lost the will to live.

Spirit has lost the use of one of her wheels and remains stuck in the sand… so she is showing her age. But still, 23× longer than planned? When I’m 1380 years old, I hope I’m only suffering amnesia every now and again.

Source: Physorg.com

What Will It Take To Blow Up Pluto?

“25 billion of your biggest bombs please. I’ll pay credit, thanks!”

"I love the smell of venting volatiles in the morning..."

"I love the smell of venting volatiles in the morning..."

The Pluto debate frustrates me, as you may have noticed. It’s not that I have particularly strong views about whether it should be called a planet or a dwarf planet or a plutoid or pygmy planetoid, it’s that I really don’t care; I actually see Pluto’s “demotion” as exciting progress in the field of Solar System science rather than any derogatory gesture aimed at Pluto. Pluto is still Pluto; it hasn’t been knocked out of orbit, it hasn’t even been “bombed” (unlike our poor old Moon), it’s just being filed under a different category.

A King Amongst Dwarfs

In my opinion, calling Pluto a “planet” was unworkable, especially after a bigger dwarf planet was discovered in 2005 by a team of astronomers led by Dr. Mike Brown. This dwarf planet was named Eris (or 136199 Eris) and at first it seemed like we had gained a tenth planet.

The “ten planets” thing was short lived, however. In recognition that Eris probably represented the beginning of a spate of discoveries of welterweight worlds, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) took a vote in 2006 and decided to redefine what constitutes a planet. Pluto was in the firing line, became a rounding error and was dropped from the planetary club.

Kicked out and nowhere to go.

Kicked out and nowhere to go.

But it wasn’t all bad for the little guy. Pluto was designated king of all “plutoids” (trans-Neptunian dwarf planets) in 2008, meaning another three dwarf planets now orbited the Sun with this designation (Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in addition to Pluto).

In a previous Astroengine article, I made the point (and I’m going to quote myself because I can):

Just so my opinion is known, I don’t care what Pluto is called. If NASA decided to explode Pluto as part of a Kuiper belt clearing project, then yes, I might be a bit annoyed; I’d even start a blog titled “Save Pluto.” But calling Pluto a dwarf planet (or the rather cute plutino) really doesn’t bother me.

I haven’t really thought much about this statement until, today, @PlutoKiller himself (Mike Brown) tweeted, “Seriously, what just happened? The entire discussion is on placing explosives in the solar system. Pluto has not even been mentioned.” I then fired off a reply saying something about building a New Horizons 2 and packing it with plutonium to which @PlutoKiller said, Evil Santa-style: “Just in time for Xmas.”

And then the penny dropped.

Kuiper Belt Cruelness

To be honest, I’m astonished I haven’t thought of this before. Looking at Mike’s Twitter feed should have been enough inspiration, but until I wondered down the bombing Pluto => plutonium enrichment => lets fly a shedload of plutonium to Pluto path, that I asked the question: How much energy is needed to completely destroy Pluto?

Now we’re talking! Time for some Kuiper belt mayhem!

It might seem quiet now...

It might seem quiet now...

I’m not talking about simply bombing Pluto and making a big crater, I’m not even talking about fire bombing all the volatiles out of its frozen surface, I want to remove Pluto from existence. Why do I want to do this? Well, for fun, and because @PlutoKiller himself said so. And it’s Halloween, so why not?

So how much energy is required to do this?

For this gargantuan task, I cheated and looked up the method used by Matt Springer over at Built on Facts to derive how much energy was required by the Star Wars Death Star to shred Earth. In that case, 2.2 × 1032 Joules was needed to totally erase our planet (that’s a week’s-worth of solar output). That’s a lot, right?

Plutoid Killing Equation

Now, energy is energy and mass is mass, let’s give Pluto the same treatment. Using the following equation (known henceforth as the “Plutoid Killing Equation”, or simply PluKE), we can find out how much energy we need to erase Pluto:

The equation that can turn a dwarf planet into dust, as derived by Matt Springer.

This equation is the total gravitational binding energy of a sphere of mass, M and radius, R. G is the Gravitational Constant. For Pluto, a sphere, its vital statistics are:

MPluto = 1.305 × 1022 kg

RPluto = 1.153 × 106 m


G = 6.673 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2

Plugging the numbers into PluKE, we can derive the total energy required to kill Pluto, literally:

EPluto(dead) = 5.914×1027 Joules

Oops, who put those WMDs there?

Oops, who put those WMDs there?

But what does this number mean? This is the bare minimum energy required to match the gravitational binding energy of Pluto. If you want to rip the dwarf planet apart (plus pyrotechnics and speeding debris), you’ll need a lot more energy. However, nearly 6×1027 Joules (that’s a 6 followed by 27 zeros) delivered into Pluto in one second should give the little world a very bad day.

Tsar Very Much

But how can we “deliver” this vast quantity of energy in one second? I suspect that any super-advanced civilization hell-bent of wiping out planets will have a better idea of this than me, but using weapons that are available to modern man might be a good place to start. Forget the uber-powerful death ray emitted by the Death Star, that’s sci-fi. It may not be sci-fact, but how about sending some nuclear bombs to the Kuiper belt?

How many bombs will we need? Ten? Ten dozen? A thousand?

The most powerful nuclear weapon tested was the Soviet 58 MT Tsar Bomba in 1961. So if we know how much energy is released by one of those beasts, we should be able to work out how many we’ll need to send to the unsuspecting Pluto.

1 MT = 1 megaton of TNT = 4.184×1015 Joules

therefore, a single Tsar Bomba has the potential to release an energy of:

58 MT = 58 × 4.184×1015 Joules = 2.427×1017 Joules

We needed 6×1027 Joules to wipe out Pluto, obviously the 2.4×1017 Joules a single bomb can deliver is woefully short of our goal. So how many Tsar Bomba weapons do we need?

(6×1027 Joules) / (2.4×1017 Joules) = 2.5×1010

We need to build 25,000,000,000 nuclear bombs. 25 billion. Ouch.

Obviously, looking at this estimation, it is impossible to destroy a dwarf planet as puny as Pluto using the most powerful weapon known to man. Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is the bare minimum of energy that needs to be applied to Pluto to match its gravitational binding energy, so to destroy it, you’ll need a lot more bombs.

There’s also the question of how to distribute the weapons. Would you put them all in one place? Distribute them all around the globe? Perhaps burrow into the centre of the body? I suppose putting all the bombs in one place might be impressive, kicking a chunk of plutoid into space.

Now I must report these findings to @PlutoKiller himself, I fear he won’t be happy with the outcome of my calculations

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?

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


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.