Did NASA “Bomb” the Moon? Kinda

NASA possesses Weapons of Moon Destruction, obviously.

There’s been a lot of criticism concerning the media’s ability to report science recently. After all, what is “good” science reporting? The tabloid press is well known for hyping up scientific endeavour, and although some news outlets deliberately fill their columns with hyperbole, it doesn’t necessarily mean the science is being misrepresented, it just means the column in question is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Take Friday morning’s NASA LCROSS impact with the Moon. Those of us that were following the action on the various news outlets and online feeds were astonished by the sheer amount of fear, misinformation, disinformation and general weirdness that was being banded about. To be honest, I was shocked.

[I actually have a theory about one of the reasons why LCROSS was a particular target for many conspiracy wingnuts and doomsday woo, but I’ll save that for another article I’ll be writing shortly.]

Although a lot of the stuff was total silliness (i.e. the Moon feels pain, LCROSS might knock the Moon off it’s axis, many moonpeople might die etc. etc.), many worried individuals were concerned by the reports from the mainstream press. Let’s have a look at one of the claims being disseminated by a wide variety of news outlets in the run-up to, and the days following, LCROSS: The Moon was being “bombed” by NASA.

Did NASA “bomb” the Moon or not?

A huge number of people have a problem with the word “bomb” when connected with the LCROSS mission (I’m not fond of the description either). Could this one word be indicative of bad journalism? For the scientifically-minded, “bomb” doesn’t sound very scientific and would rather use “impactor.” For the non-specialist, “bomb” conjures thoughts of war, violence and Al Qaeda.

Is it just creative writing? Is it an inaccurate term? Is it wrong? First off, let’s look at the definition of “a bomb.”

bomb. n. An explosive weapon detonated by impact, proximity to an object, a timing mechanism, or other means.

The LCROSS Centaur was certainly not manufactured as a conventional weapon (as in, it didn’t carry explosives and couldn’t “detonate”), but just by its mass, could it cause an explosion like a bomb? In the case of the above definition, I’m referring to the “or other means” part.

Energy is energy

The Centaur was empty of propellent when it was sent careening toward the lunar south pole, but it still had a mass of 2366 kg (the size of an SUV). At the time of impact, it was travelling at a velocity of 2.5 km/s (2500 m/s). From this information alone, we can calculate the kinetic energy of Centaur at the moment it slammed into the lunar surface.

Ekinetic = 1/2 mv2 = 1/2 × 2366 (kg) × 25002 (m/s) = 7.4×109 Joules

This is the total energy the Centaur had when it was speeding toward the Moon, and according to basic physics energy is always conserved. So, when the Centaur ate Moon dust, where did this energy go?

We know energy wasn’t lost through the production of sound waves, as there’s no atmosphere on the Moon — In space, no one can hear your rocket go *bang* (although seismic waves would have been generated, propagating through the Moon’s surface). Also, lots of chunks of rock (from the surface) and shards of metal (from the Centaur) would have been ejected from the crater, each piece carrying a little piece of that kinetic energy away from the impact (much like very high-energy shrapnel). A lot of rock was displaced too, creating a crater 20 meters in diameter and 3 meters deep. Much of the kinetic energy will have also been converted to heat and light (the “flash” of the impact was captured by the LCROSS infrared camera).

What with all this heat, light and shrapnel, the Centaur impact sure is sounding like an exploding bomb. If you convert the 7.4×109 Joules into units more synonymous with weaponry, we find that the energy released during the Centaur impact was the equivalent of 1.8 tonnes of TNT exploding. That’s the size of a small bunker-busting bomb.

What’s more, kinetic weapons are a well-known method to take out orbiting satellites, so this concept isn’t a new one.

As much as it pains me, using an inflammatory statement like “NASA Bombed The Moon” is a correct analysis of the effects of the Centaur dead-weight hitting the Moon. However, the press milked “the Moon bombing” way beyond what I’d consider to be reasonable, taking full advantage of the violent connotations associated with this incredible NASA mission to probe for water on the Moon.

I think that people are apprehensive about it because it seems violent or crude, but it’s very economical.” –Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for LCROSS (Feb. 2008)

2012 Movie TV Teaser Trailer Micro-Review


For context, you might want to read Want a Little Doom for Supper? first.

Give me some DOOM!

As scheduled, the extra-special 2012 teaser trailer appeared on the TV. Mildly excited, I flicked between the channels in the hope of catching a glimpse of what lies in store for November cinema screens. I tried to keep up the typing in real time… alas, it was too hard, the doom was moving too fast for my fingers, but this is what I remember…

We start off with John Cusack’s panic-stricken face warning his family on the phone while driving a stretch limo (stretch limo?) through LA streets, “When they tell you not to panic, that’s when you RUN!!!” Poetry.

Then a scene that can only be described as hilarious silly gratuitous insane the most over-powering CGI I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

It was basically the Planes, Trains and Automobiles version of doomsday. Just without the trains. Add a crying child.

High-speed car sequences, palm trees snapping, ground cracking, houses folding… ooh look out for the obligatory exploding petrol tanker!!!! [extra !!! for effect] Then, buildings fall to the ground, people dying everywhere… but Cusack, plus brood, fly through the surprisingly uncongested LA streets at hyperspeed! Oh crap! Look out for the– PHEW! The car jumped through (jumped through!!) a disintegrating building (disintegrating building!!!), popping out the other end unscathed.

There’s more!

The Huge Massive CrackTM advances through California, with Cusack and co.’s car always in front of the impending doom that’s unfolding behind them.

Oh! There’s a plane! We’re now on an airfield… it’s okay, the family have an escape route! They fly off, Huge Massive CrackTM ripping through the asphalt as the pilot accelerates into the air. Buildings crashing down, toppling sideways (sideways!!!), crying child looks out the window, people are being squashed by cars down there!! That’s not for young eyes goddammit! They keep flying– NOOO!! More collapsing buildings!! Fly under them!!! YESSS!!! That pilot just flew UNDER a sideways collapsing building. Los Angeles is toast, looks more like the Grand Canyon than a city.

I’m tired… that was intense. Totally silly, too. Did it make me want to see the movie more? Not really, looks like it’s going to be very basic disaster pr0n, as predicted, with a very loose plot. Ah well.

Disclaimer: This in no way, shape or form indicates that I now think something is going to happen in 2012. All of the above is based on a trailer for a movie. A movie people! The theories about doomsday in 2012 are still nonsense. If you don’t believe me, have a read.

Image: Still from the awesome 2012 parody video 2012: It’s a Disaster!!! by Garrison Dean (io9)

Where Are The Protests Now?

Where's the protest?
Where's the protest?

In a discussion I seem to keep having these days when I mention that human spaceflight is actually a valuable endeavour for a nation, I’m usually met with a look of incongruity. Then the question: What has space exploration ever done for us?

I used to get a little angry about this question (of course space exploration is important!) but in actuality, I have to explain the answer because it isn’t necessarily obvious. By pushing into space, a nation can enrich its technology, improve education, boost employment in skilled areas, thereby improving the economy and generally improving a nation’s standing in the world. That’s the eco-friendly version. There are other applications such as military prowess, strategic advantage and business potential. Unfortunately, doing bold things in space requires money, and to get money you need to convince the government that it’s worth spending money on. Last time I looked, there’s no Space Race 2 going on, so we can’t rely on politics to see the necessity of space flight.

However, the US has invested billions of dollars in the exploration of space, and although NASA is a money-hungry entity, it produces results and has shaped the world as we know it. Granted, the US space agency was built on Cold War ideals and was hinged around the sole purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, but modern NASA is still relevant, if not more so.

Rockets and healthcare

From space, and back to Earth with a bump.

I watched a series of fascinating videos of the protests that went on in Washington D.C. on September 12th concerning President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. The Tea Party (not Twinnings, or Boston… some other tea party that didn’t have a lot of tea) exploded to life to the sound of tens of thousands of voices protesting “socialist” healthcare. Apparently, a nationalized healthcare system is a bad thing. The arguments against Obama’s plan seem rather outlandish to me, and a hardcore group of protesters (not all the protesters, just a few apparently missing a sanity gene) accused the US President of being a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist” and (most shockingly) a “Nazi.”

So, here we are, with a field-full of rabid protesters that have been whipped up into a frenzy by the media, special interest groups and political antagonizers. These geniuses see a nationalized healthcare system as a socialist agenda. Of course, this means communism is just down the garden path. Last time I looked, the UK wasn’t a communist state, and although the British National Health Service (NHS) isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the US health insurance insanity.

The point I’m trying to make is that tens of thousands of people descended on the US capital to protest a healthcare bill that actually seems quite sensible. Unfortunately, this huge group believe this bill is actually a government conspiracy intended to dupe the public, bankrupt the country and control the nation.

NASA losses

Now let’s wind back the clock to last year, when it was announced NASA would be shedding thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired. More recently, a task group was formed to discuss NASA’s options considering its budget isn’t going to grow any time soon — unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” can’t be done because the Constellation Program will cost too much. Now the Augustine Commission has set out some plans that may curtail NASA’s big projects, possibly even cancelling Constellation.

To top all this off, there is a 5-year gap (minimum) between the shuttle being retired and Constellation taking over (if that even happens), that means there will be at least 5 years the US will have without a manned launch vehicle. Yes, the US has gone through this before (between the end of the Apollo Program in 1970 and the Shuttle Program in 1982), but this time we could lose access to the space station, a $100 billion project the US is heavily invested in.

Fortunately, US companies are seeing business opportunities in space, so given enough funding, start-ups like SpaceX could start ferrying NASA astronauts into LEO sooner rather than later. There are also other nations involved in the space station and they can give us a lift into space. Unfortunately, apart from the Shuttle, there’s only one other spacecraft that’s human-rated in the world. That’s Soyuz.

Russian Roulette

Soyuz is great, it’s a sturdy vehicle and it’s received little complaint from the astronauts and cosmonauts that have been ferried around in it (well, most of the time). The Russian space agency will basically be offering NASA taxi rides into space so the US can still use the International Space Station.

The cost? $50 million per seat.

Wow, what a bargain. The space shuttle costs the best part of a billion dollars to launch every time. Compare that with $50 million, it almost seems as if this 5-year gap is a good thing. It might save NASA some money!

However, in the process of retiring the shuttle, skilled US jobs will be lost. Even the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation will cause a re-shuffle of NASA employees. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson pointed out that shedding jobs from the US space agency, only to rely on a Russian launch vehicle, will have the effect of generating jobs in Russia. This might seem like an over-exaggeration, but it may indirectly be the case.

The added concern is that the $50 million value per Soyuz seat could increase. After all, US-Russia relations aren’t exactly toasty, the Russian space agency could set its own price for taxi rides to the space station. NASA money will be spent, not on advancing US spaceflight capabilities, but on another nation’s spaceflight capabilities. Sure, NASA and Roscosmos are co-operating now, but both are government-backed entities and that co-operation could turn south during the next East-West political upset.


In summary, until US spaceflight companies develop human-rated space vehicles, or until the Constellation Project (or equivalent) is finished, the US will be wholly dependent on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA will be paying a premium rate for that privilege.

So when I see thousands of individuals crowding on Capitol Hill, angrily protesting about the idiotic belief that the President of the USA is on the verge of creating a communist state, I think about NASA and the fact that the US space agency has been forced to pay for seats on board a spaceship maintained by an ex-communist state the US government is having problems with.

Where are the protests now?

#DefyingGravity Eats #FlashForward Dust


Oh dear. Just when I was actually beginning to care about the cast of Defying Gravity, it was cancelled half-way through the first season. I was a little annoyed about this as #DefyingGravity on Twitter was fast becoming a weekly ritual; a group of us die-hard sci-fi viewers scoffing at the science atrocities the ABC show was inflicting on us. In fact, the bad science, when coupled with a spaceship full of horny crew mates (a.k.a. friends with benefits… why not?) almost made it compelling viewing (almost).

Apart from hammering home the inevitability of astronauts having sex in space, I almost stood up and cheered when, in the last episode (called “Love, Honor, Obey“), the cast did a great job at explaining the quantum physics thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat. As the crew was stuck inside a shielded compartment to protect themselves against an impending solar flare (it turned out to be a false alarm), mission control had no way to communicate with the crew. Steve Wassenfelder, the out-of-shape physicist, likened the crew to Schrödinger’s cat; to mission control, as they had no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead, the crew were in fact alive and dead. Clever.

The show also handled the solar flare event pretty well, although they avoided a lot of the details (but kept it within the realms of possibility, as opposed to some movies I won’t mention).

Then, after some fractal tomato plants (I didn’t say all the science was kosher), the crew opened mysterious Pod 4 to see…

…I don’t know what they saw as that was the cliff-hanger of the last episode. I’m sure I’ll end up watching it on Hulu.com, but I don’t think it will be the same without mocking it live on Twitter with the #DefyingGravity contributors (you know who you are).

Then, as quickly as Defying Gravity dropped off our screens, another compelling sci-fi series appears on ABC featuring a competent-looking cast (led by Joseph Fiennes and John Cho). It’s called FlashForward, and after only the first episode, I’m hooked. It’s actually the same feeling I had when I watched the very first episode of Heroes.

In FlashForward, we start off in Los Angeles, looking into several people’s lives, when suddenly the entire planet blacks out for 2mins 17seconds. During that time, everyone has a vision of 6 months into the future.

The series is based on the 1999 novel Flashforward by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, and the premise is pure sci-fi joy. In fact, I was lucky enough to be sent a behind the scenes video by Times.com science comedian Brian Malow (be warned, there’s a fairly huge spoiler, but it’s an awesome spoiler that will get you nodding with joy… but you’ve been warned):


Robert J. Sawyer calls himself a “hard science fiction writer,” so it will be very interesting to see how the show deals with the speculative quantum-conciousness link. Still, it has to be better than that silly mag grav idea in Defying Gravity.

In other news: The lovely Eliza Dushku will live-tweet during the season 2 premier of Dollhouse (on FOX) if she gathers 100,000 Twitter followers before it airs… in 20 minutes on the West Coast. She’s only on about 92,000 at the moment, so it’s not looking likely. Still, I’ll be watching!

I finally have my sci-fi schedule back on track!

The Fear of God Could Reverse Global Warming. Oh Yes

The Flying Speghetti Monster. I wonder if this is what Lord May had in mind? (Church of the FSM)
The Flying Speghetti Monster. I wonder if this is what Lord May had in mind? (Church of the FSM)

This one comes direct from the UK’s Department for Wacky Ex-Chief Science Advisors, and I’m not too sure which I’m more shocked with; the fact that Lord May actually suggested that religion (i.e. fear of the All Mighty) could save the world from a climate meltdown or that the Telegraph reported May’s views so candidly.

Ex-government officials certainly are not afraid to share their views with the world, and that’s fine, but sometimes they sound a little crazy in doing so. Take last year’s discussion between Prof. Brian Cox and Sir David King.

King, Chief Science Advisor for the UK government from 2000-2007, came out with the astonishing statement that the Large Hadron Collider was “more navel searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind.” He made this astounding point during a discussion on the BBC’s Newsnight, on the day the LHC was switched on. Buzz kill. Fortunately, Cox offloaded a round of common sense in the direction of Sir King, proving that it probably should have been a practising scientist, not a guy with a knighthood, advising the Prime Minister about UK science between the years of 2000 and 2007.

Unfortunately, a Lord might not be up to the task either, judging by this most recent statement by the UK Chief Science Advisor who reigned from 1995-2000.

Given that punishment is a useful mechanism, how much more effective it would be if you invested that power not in an individual you don’t like, but an all-seeing, all powerful deity that controls the world,” he said

It makes for rigid, doctrinaire societies, but it makes for co-operation.”

And how would this supernatural being help modern society? We’ll all be so scared to avoid getting struck down by “God” that the whole planet will band together, human cultures would stabilize and cooperate to find a quick solution to carbon emissions and climate change.

Yeah, ‘cuz that’s how religion works: scare the crap out of the commoners! Tell them that if they don’t recycle, or use public transportation, they’ll piss off God so much that he’ll fry them with a thunderbolt from heaven. That will solve all our climate woes!

The odd thing is that May is apparently an Atheist, so I’m even more confused as to where his faith in religion comes from. Sure, religion is integrated into society, and yes, it’s provided a structure to people’s lives for thousands of years. But this is not a solution for the international community to suddenly become best of friends. I’m not even sure how May thinks believing in a “supernatural punisher” will change a thing. Who’s going to evangelize this God? How do you drive the fear into the hearts of billions in an effort to save the planet? He does point out that fundamentalism isn’t good either, and that he’s not a big fan of the Pope.

This sounds more like a description of some conspiracy-driven New World Order than an answer to rising carbon emissions.

No, don’t confuse the world’s inability to coordinate an effective plan to slow (or reverse) the effects of greenhouse gases with a world without a “supernatural punisher.” Besides, shouldn’t Lord May be promoting good science rather than thinking religion might save us all? As, let’s face it, religion isn’t the best catalyst for world collaboration (no matter how moderate it is).

My belief is that science is our best bet at finding a solution. Unfortunately it’s international politics that often lets us down, not a world that doesn’t have the fear for a divine being.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

2012 Has Become the Tweed Jacket of Doomsday Scenarios

Palenque Museum Mayan glyphs (wyattsailing.com)

In a little over three years time, December 21st 2012 will be upon us. For every reason under the Sun, 2012 will be a normal year, with its fair share of trials, tribulations, disasters, deaths, political unrest and pretty much every other setback we’ve been facing this year, last year and all the other years we’ve lived through. Some years are better than others, some are downright bleak, but we can never predict what the year 2012 is going to be like. And no, the Mayans, astrologers, secret government conspirators or tea leaves don’t have a clue either.

No vague doomsday prophesy predicted since the dawn of time has happened, and that’s not going to change.

It’s a little thing called causality. No future event can be seen before it happens, otherwise the whole cause-and-effect thing gets completely screwed up. It’s the way time works, no amount of believing otherwise will change that…

*yawn* Sorry, I fell asleep. Is it me, or is this 2012 bunkum already getting out-dated? Has it become the doomsday equivalent of the tweed jacket of fashion?

I bring this up as the doomsday hype is leaking into every facet of reporting, and today I read an Examiner post that is trying desperately hard to get attention. This time, it’s not about crop circles predicting killer solar flares, it’s the LA Science and Tech News Examiner who couldn’t resist dropping in a mention for the Mayan calendar when reporting about the recent Large Hadron Collider (LHC) woes.

The report goes into some detail about recent LHC problems, pointing out that the particle accelerator probably won’t be operating at full energy until… wait for it[cue doomsday alert!] …2012.

This triggers another doomsday ‘tweed jacket,’ the nonsensical LHC-induced Earth-eating-black-hole pseudo-science theory popularized by Walter “I need some attention” Wagner after he tried (and failed) to sue CERN for endangering the planet with its scary physics.

I’d understand if the report was commenting about real science behind the various silly doomsday scenarios that are being thrown around like confetti, but it isn’t. Fred Gober decided that the LHC wasn’t interesting enough to stand on its own merits and threw in some doom to jazz it up a bit.

It’s true that Gober was just airing opinions, which is perfectly fine, but at least poke fun at the 2012 doomsday hype rather than using it as a reason to try to add some fear to LHC science (although I suspect he might be trying to be funny, didn’t work). Gober also finds it necessary to link to a ridiculous ‘2012 believer’ site (apparently Mel Gibson ‘believes’, shocker).

I also understand that many readers won’t pay much attention to the doomsday reference, but as we found out in the run-up to last year’s first attempt to get the particle accelerator started, some people take this kind of reporting seriously, occasionally with tragic (and bizarre) consequences.

Unfortunately, 2012 will continue to be overused for the next 40 months, so expect more science-based articles like this Examiner post that decide to add some doom to their reporting.

Pluto Could Still Be A Planet! (Who Cares?)


All right, that title was a little harsh, but I think you get the point. It’s not that I don’t love Pluto, Pluto is a fine little planet… dwarf planet… hold on, plutoid. It holds a certain charm and mystique, plus we have the mother of all NASA missions (New Horizons) gliding its way to the outer icy reaches of the Solar System — the Kuiper Belt to be precise — to take a look at Pluto, up close, for the first time. I can’t wait for 2015 when the spacecraft starts taking snapshots, it will be awesome.

But what of the small planety-thingy’s status? Is it still a planetary outcast, destined for a life on Cosmic Skid Row? Or is Pluto about to get the mother of all reprieves and be re-classified as a planet? Does it really matter?

The reason why I ask is that the whole “demotion” thing was seen as bad news. I actually saw it as an exciting development in Solar System exploration (but hoped it wouldn’t tarnish the little rock’s popularity all the same). In actuality, Pluto is 27% less massive than the recently discovered dwarf planet Eris, so how could Pluto still be called a planet? Should Eris be classified as a planet, then? In light of new dwarf planet discoveries, Pluto became a rounding error and had to be re-classified. The International Astronomical Union drew up some planetary rules and found that Pluto didn’t have the gravitational clout to clear its own orbit and so was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2006.

Suddenly, Pluto had “fans” that took the re-classification personally and got angry at the IAU for throwing Pluto out of the planetary club. Their reason? Only 4% of IAU members were present for the re-classification vote, they saw it as a personal slight against the “9th planet.” Even the nutty state of Illinois was FURIOUS and reinstated Pluto as a planet… (just in the state of Illinois).

We’ve heard this emotional story of planetary bullying over and over, so I won’t go over the details again. The whole Pluto story has been widely covered, many people pointing the finger at the evil IAU 4%, some have even gone as far as saying this is evidence that there is a growing rift between the public and scientists (let’s take national votes on scientific decisions! That would be fun). But what does it really matter? Really.

Is the Pluto re-classification a breech of our human rights? How about planetary rights? Is it indicative of the number of idiot scientists who voted in the 2006 IAU poll? Is this an indicator of poor scientific thinking? Could a war be sparked over this atrocity? Was it really a ‘bad’ decision?

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. It’s a consequence of scientific endeavour, despite the perceived “controversy.” As the legendary astronomer Patrick Moore said, “…you can call it whatever you like!” Pluto is still Pluto.

However, it looks like Pluto might be re-classified again… big yawn.

This time, heavy hitter Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission, weighed in with his opinion on the matter. “Any definition that allows a planet in one location but not another is unworkable. Take Earth. Move it to Pluto’s orbit, and it will be instantly disqualified as a planet,” Stern said.

This implies that if Earth was moved to the Kuiper belt, as things move a lot more sluggishly out there, a planet with the gravitational pull of the Earth couldn’t clear its orbit, therefore the “must clear its own orbit” criteria is a bad location-based definition for a planet. (I would argue that there’s every possibility that Earth could clear it’s own orbit at that distance given enough time, but what would I know, I’m no planetary physicist, but everyone seems to have an opinion about Pluto, so there’s mine.)

This analogy is a bit like saying a car driven down a country lane is a car. But a car driven on a freeway is a bike.

There is the counter argument to this case; if there was something as big as Mars, or even Earth, it may have tunnelled out a path through the Kuiper belt, thereby clearing its orbit. Alas, there appears to be no solid consensus as to the nature of this littered volume of space (at least until 2015), hence all the fuss.

Now there’s some big noise that the IAU will reconvene and discuss the Pluto hoopla again, giving a vague glimmer of hope to pro-planet plutonites that the 2006 decision will be overthrown. Alas, I very much doubt that as, quite frankly, there are more pressing (and more interesting) matters to discuss such as: what the hell hit Jupiter?! We should re-classify Jupiter as ‘the inner Solar System’s gaseous protector’!

Source: New Scientist

Mare Vaporware: The Lunar Advertising Joke


When choosing a good April Fools joke, it must have several key attributes. But the priority is that it needs to be revealed on April 1st (obvious, right?). It is for this single reason why I suspect this isn’t a joke; the news was released in July.

Before I get stuck into this article, let’s revisit a real April Fools joke I wrote for the Universe Today back in 2008, in which I talk about a fictional NASA press release that details the space agency’s plans to etch corporate logos into the Martian regolith (BTW this is a joke, just so there’s no confusion):

My pretend Doritos logo photoshopped next to a Mars crater (NASA/PepsiCo, Inc.)
My pretend Doritos logo photoshopped next to a Mars crater (NASA/PepsiCo, Inc.)

Today, the space agency has announced an offbeat plan of their own: to burn sponsor logos into the surface of Mars. It’s not quite as reckless as it sounds, but existing technology on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will be used to etch sponsor logos into the top layers of the Martian regolith. The stunt is expected to have minimal effect on the planet, as winds and dust storms will erase the ads within a couple of sols (Martian days).Universe Today, April 1st, 2008.

In this April 1st article, I went into some detail about cash-strapped NASA reaching out to companies to invest in advertising campaigns. Advertising revenue from this could then be ploughed back into NASA science. It’s a win-win scenario, and what’s even better, the laser etched regolith (not an ability the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter possesses, by the way) would be weathered away in a matter of sols (appeasing any Mars conversationalists). However, laser etching wasn’t the only idea I came up with. What about the Mars Expedition Rovers? Their tire tracks can be seen from space, why can’t they be used to sketch corporate logos in the red dirt?

Mars rover Opportunity's tiretracks as viewed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)
Mars rover Opportunity's tiretracks as viewed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)

I had a lot of fun writing this, and I think it was convincing enough to be called a “good” space April Fools joke. Let’s put it this way, I had to think up an even more nefarious idea for the 2009 April Fools, but settled with the Brian Bat – NASA lawsuit story (which pissed a lot more people off than I thought possible. Score!).

So, right at the peak of the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing celebrations, a company that was founded in 2008 (apparently) called Moon Publicity unveiled its plans to sell advertising space on the Earth-facing side of the lunar surface, with this mouth-watering offer:

Exclusive transferable licensing is being made available for 44 regions of the visible side of the Moon. Bidding begins on July 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of man’s first step on the Moon. Bidding will run for three months, closing on October 20, 2009. The winning bids will be announced in early November, 2009. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Minimum bids start as low as $46,000 (USD).

$46,000? Holy crapcakes! That’s not the half of it, if you want your ad to be placed in the dead-centre of the lunar disk (Mare Vaporum), be prepared write a $602,000 cheque.

Right… so how does Moon Publicity hope to succeed in this “once in a lifetime” marketing ploy? They are going to use their amazing “Shadow Shaping” technology (patent pending, obviously), otherwise known as ‘a moon rover with grooved grass rollers for wheels.’ Have a look:

As can be seen from the promo video, it certainly looks believable, but investing in a nice-looking bit of computer graphics is great if you consider there might be a minimum 5-figure return from an investor without a clue.

UPDATE: Just a thought. Since when was the lunar surface as flawless as a carefully smoothed golf sand trap? The ‘Shadow Shapers’ design obviously doesn’t cater for any obstacles (like, I don’t know… rocks) and is more accustomed to smoothing out the golden sands of Santa Monica beach. The lunar surface is covered in rocks of all sizes, ensuring the ad-making rovers will have a tough obstacle course at best. Most likely, these cumbersome rollers will get stuck, jammed or break down before they travel a couple of meters. What a great investment opportunity!

But what about the technical issues with this first-class money-making scheme? Actually, the company addresses quite a few on their “Shadow Shaping Challenges” page, that reads like a high school paper titled “Why Space Travel Is Really Hard” and describes every reason why there will be no investors in this project. Some of the best challenges are as follows:

  • Gravity – It currently costs thousands of dollars per pound to move payloads from the Earth to the moon. Most of this is spent overcoming the Earth’s gravity.” Yep, right on, that’s rocket science 101. Call SpaceX, you’ll need them.
  • As the moon is so far away, the ads will need to be very big. “…images would need to be millions of square kilometers in size.” Yikes! “…a fleet of Shadow Shaping robots would be needed…” A big fleet, with at least a gazillion robots I reckon!
  • Fire and Ice – Temperatures on the Moon range from 107°C during the day to -153°C at night…” Sure. “During the lunar nights, the Shadow Shaping robots can put themselves in hibernation mode to protect themselves from the cold. But during the days the robots need to be fully operational.” Sounds like standard phantom ad-making robot operating procedures to me.
  • The wheels will also need to be hard so they do not wear out.” That sure would be useful.
  • [Shadow Shaping] “has no impact to the lunar environment, and it only creates images during partial lunar phases, leaving the full Moon unchanged.” I’m pretty sure the lunar aliens wouldn’t agree with you on this point.

So, apart from their patent pending we’re-going-to-dig-grooves-in-the-moon-using-our-make-believe-fleet-of-super-duper-roving-robots technique, I can’t see any real plan that this fanciful idea will ever see the light of day. And just in case you don’t believe me, Moon Publicity agrees, in a round-about way, in the disclaimer (I’ll emphasise the funniest bit):

Disclaimer: Investing involves risk. Licensing Shadow Shaping technology is no different. There are a number of identified challenges as well as unknown risks. Consult with professional advisers before registering to bid. The licensing offer is only available to accredited investors where permitted by law. Information provided is for educational purposes and is not guaranteed for accuracy or applicability. No warranties or guarantees, neither written nor oral, are provided with this offer. —Moon Publicity, LLC

To add insult to injury, in their blog, Moon Publicity says that they’re not really doing this for the money, they’re doing it for the sake of humanity.

However, consider the big picture. What is the biggest problem in the world? Is it hunger? Is it illness? Is it war? No. The largest problem is the inevitable extinction of the human species. The other problems don’t matter in a universe without people. Any number of global catastrophes could and eventually will end live on Earth. It could be a collision with an asteroid, a deadly virus, a nuclear war, a supervolcano, a hypernova explosion or our own sun eventually swallowing the Earth […] Creating images on the Moon provides a commercial incentive for turbo charging space travel technology. Shadows are only the beginning. These advancements will eventually place robots on other worlds building space stations and planting crops.

The Apollo 14 landing site as viewed from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The astronaut footprints have remained for 40 years, imagine what that could do for advertising! (NASA)
The Apollo 14 landing site as viewed from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The astronaut footprints have remained for 40 years, imagine what that could do for advertising! (NASA)

Apparently, the largest problem is the inevitable extinction of the human species. No shit Sherlock! I’ll tell you what, throw in some 2012 rubbish and you’ll start to sound like one of the nutjobs with a doomsday book to sell.

It turns out Moon Publicity is a humanitarian operation too, jumping on the coattails of legitimate commercial spaceflight ideals in an attempt to profit from an idea that will never materialize. There’s also the argument that even if you did make the investment, and this company had the ability to etch ads in the dirt, would they even be allowed to? After all, who would have rights over the land they were etching?

I really do hope this is a poorly-timed joke, because it reads like one. If it’s not, it’s a rather stupid attempt at making a fast buck, using the 40th lunar landing anniversary as an opportunity to gain some publicity.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the Moon Publicity founder is a reader of the Universe Today, if so, I might start claiming I came up with the idea over a year ago

Thanks to @DrLucyRogers for pointing me in the direction of Nancy Atkinson’s Universe Today article “Company Looks to Etch Advertising on the Moon.”

Bloggers Must Fill the Public-Science Gap


So, there appears to be a growing fissure between what public opinion considers to be “science” and what “science” really is. I could start making some huge proclamations that this might explain modern pseudo-science (like this, this or this) or this gaping hole is a new one causing a frenzy of media hype (like this, this or this), but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.

Although I love statistics, and a recent poll gives me plenty of ammo, I seriously doubt we can start making any conclusions about scientific advancement and the inverse correlation with public intelligence. No, pseudo-science, fear of science, mad scientists, scientific misinformation, outright lies of science claims and I Just Made This Up™ have always been around, it’s just that media is propagating faster than ever before; and as information spreads quickly, misinformation spreads faster.

Public-science is a weak link

If a physics researcher can set up a blog, so can your average crazy doomsday theorist with a brand new theory about the universe being driven by a galactic hamster on a treadmill. Actually, as physics researchers are very busy, crackpots probably have more time to set up their text-heavy, science-lite websites.

Crazy websites to one side, another factor to consider is that there’s a stronger public-media relationship than a public-science relationship. This is why quality, specialist reporters are needed, to communicate science to their readers in a rational, relevant way. Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest link for science communication in this world of ultra-fast media.

As the “old media” behemoths start to suffer, trying to make profit while sinking in a tide of free online content, cutbacks are inevitable. I’ve seen this first hand at a recent conference, where the press room was occupied by bloggers, podcasters and vidcasters. Only one New York Times correspondent was present; a politics correspondent. This was an astrophysics conference. He was only there for a few hours, looking perplexed.

The disconnect widens

So the traditional media has to make cutbacks, so what? That’s business. Unfortunately, there are few science reporters, so when cutbacks happen, reliable reporting of science is lost, and reporters who probably haven’t studied any science in their lives find themselves being sent to report on the next great Hubble discovery or… the LHC (we all know how that went).

So it is little wonder we start seeing statistics like this surfacing:

On the whole, scientists believe American research leads the world. But only 17 percent of the public agrees, and the proportion who name scientific advances as among the United States’ most important achievements has fallen to 27 percent from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the survey found.

Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.

The report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only “fair” or “poor” the coverage of science by newspapers and television.

(emphasis added by me)

Playboy science

So why is there a growing disconnect between the public and science? I think it’s a combination of factors (fast online media, a lack of good quality science journalism etc.), but the result is pretty worrying. When you see celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy spewing her dogma about the link between child autism and vaccines, alarm bells should be ringing. McCarthy has decided to battle against science (and the BigPharma overlords, of course), and she’s gathered quite a following; parents who have decided to turn their back on science and trust an ex-Playboy model instead.

This is just one example of the impact of science distrust. Using this slack in the public-science communication, there’s been a huge surge in conspiracy theories and individuals using science as a means to “prove” their “belief.” This is an uncomfortable situation where you have large groups of people who are willing to promote their pet theory as science fact (I’m not talking Creationism here, there are a fair few odd physics theories knocking around too). And when you have a very polished theory that sounds reasonable on the surface, but fails after a small bit of scientific rigour (despite the fact they use out of date science to point the finger and say, “I told you so!”), it can be hard for the public to understand what is “science” and what is bunkum.

Science blogging standard

So, as trusted media sources — such as major newspapers and news channels, traditionally the ‘ground zero’ of reporting — desperately try to grasp this new world of free and fast media, science journalism falls by the wayside, watering down the facts. To “go viral,” often stories will be of very low science merit, but headline grabbing. This could be the key reason why we have this current bout of public misunderstanding of science, allowing cranks some room to manoeuvre their next insane theory into position.

This is where science bloggers are flourishing. In fact, science blogging is almost like the Internet’s immune system (that’s an analogy, not scientific ‘proof’), and because bloggers can knock out articles very quickly, they can often be the first on the scene to fight off the next flawed conspiracy theory or crackpot ramblings. Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to blog, but there is a huge, wonderful infrastructure of skeptical websites that make a very healthy existence debunking false claims and pseudo-science.

Although many skeptical bloggers view debunking nutty theories to be an enjoyable pastime, it turns out they are doing something the mainstream media cannot: they are connected with their audience, they are usually professionals of their field and they will highlight the abuse of science, exposing these theories for what they really are (crap).

So if you’re ever confused about a website’s claims, keep in mind Carl Sagan’s famous (and very relevant) quote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If a website is telling you that the Sun is actually driven by a magical force, other than gravitational pressure and nuclear fusion, ask ‘where’s your proof?‘ — you’ll find there will be no satisfactory answer to that question.

A special thanks to ace Norwegian science reporter Geir Barstein for inspiring this post after a recent chat we had during his visit to LA…

If I Was A TV-Loving Alien, I’d Live In 40 Eridani


16.5 light years away, a revolution in sci-fi television programming is about to explode to life… Yes, it really is that exciting. Almost like a tsunami approaching a peaceful shore, island inhabitants totally unaware of its impending arrival, the triple star system of 40 Eridani is about to be bathed in a very special terrestrial signal…

So why am I getting so excited for this random star system? Well, 15 years ago, the awesome five-season show Babylon 5 aired in the US and the UK. For me, B5 formed a watershed of my love for sci-fi. In fact, you could say I was a teenage Babylonoholic, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Today, I see the superb graphic on Obtuse Goose (after being pointed to Phil’s Bad Astronomy post by Greg “Weird Things” Fish), showing the local star systems to the Solar System and what they are watching.

Watching? Yes.

As we transmit electromagnetic signals over the airwaves for our television viewing pleasure, we’ve also been leaking it into space. As the signal travels at the speed of light, the maximum distance our TV signal would have travelled is about 80 light years (we started leaking in the 1930’s). By that reasoning, our TV shows should have reached Aldebaran by now.

Unfortunately, the aliens of Aldebaran have a rather limited choice of TV shows… at the moment they’re probably putting up with Nazi Germany’s propaganda broadcasts (like in Jodie Foster’s Contact). Things are far more exciting in 40 Eridani… they’re about to get flooded by the first season of Babylon 5! Sure, there’s lots of other things to watch in the expanse of 80 light years, but if I had to choose, I’d be prepping my TV aerial and stocking the fridge in time for 5 years of awesome sci-fi on a world orbiting one of the three 40 Eridani stars…

Source: Obtuse Goose, via Bad Astronomy, via Greg.