The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘planet’

“Mysterious Planet-Sized Object” Is… A Planet!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2011

A couple of days ago I came across this article titled “Mysterious planet-sized object spotted near Mercury” and it contained some shocking images.  I reproduce some of these images and related commentary from the article below…

The mystery image of a “cloaked alien ship”… the Romulans, perhaps?

… Theorists have seized on the images captured from the “coronal mass ejection” (CME) last week as suggestive of alien life hanging out in our own cosmic backyard. Specifically, the solar flare washing over Mercury appears to hit another object of comparable size. “It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked,” YouTube-user siniXster said in his video commentary on the footage, which has generated hundreds of thousands of views this week. Now, how this user was able to determine that the object was “obviously” a cloaked spaceship with no other natural explanation remains as much a mystery as the object itself. …

Note the staggering level of argumentation from ignorance here.  I like to call this sort of reasoning (if you can call it that) from various UFOologists the “alien-of-the-gaps”, because much like the related “god-of-the-gaps” argument from ignorance, what they do is find some kind of strange image and/or phenomenon for which they do not have en explanation and then they immediately give it an explanation unsupported by evidence.  In short, because they don’t know what it is, they know it’s aliens!  Huh?!

This, of course, is a direct contradiction and points out just how ludicrous the general argument from ignorance can be.  If the object is an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), then by definition it is unidentified – which means that you admit right off the bat that you don’t know what it is!  So if you don’t know what it is then how can you suddenly turn around and, seemingly without any kind of scientifically-valid or evidence-based reasoning, state that it is an alien spacecraft?  Using such loose argumentation, I could just as easily claim the object in question is Santa Claus (but no, that would be silly).

Of course, a little more research shows that astronomers actually have figured out what this “mysterious planet-sized object” is hanging around next to the planet Mercury.  It seems the answer is that the object is… the planet Mercury itself.  Here’s a fuller explanation from the article…

Of course, there’s another scientifically sanctioned explanation for the curious images, though we’re not certain that skeptics and UFO enthusiasts such as SiniXster will endorse it. Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries put the question to scientists in the solar physics branch at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). They’re the people who analyze data from the Heliospheric Imager-1 (HI-1)–better known in this context as the camera that shot the footage in question.

Head NRL group scientist Russ Howard and lead ground systems engineer Nathan Rich say the mysterious object is in fact Mercury itself. And what we’re seeing in the footage is the equivalent of Mercury’s wake, “where the planet was on the previous day,” as it travels through the solar system on its natural gravitational path:

To make the relatively faint glow of a coronal mass ejection stand out against the bright glare of space—caused by interplanetary dust and the stellar/galactic background—the NRL scientists must remove as much background light as possible. They explained that they determine what light is background light, and thus can be subtracted out, by calculating the average amount of light that entered each camera pixel on the day of the CME event and on the previous day. Light appearing in the pixels on both days is considered to be background light and is removed from the footage of the CME. The remaining light is then enhanced.

So there you have it.  The object in question is basically an artifact that results from the combination of taking multiple images of that region in space over multiple days, the planet Mercury moving in that time, and processing the light in the image to enhance the coronal mass ejection to make it more visible.

What stuns me about situations like these is just how quickly so many people are willing to invoke magical thinking and jump to conclusions (the “cloaked alien ship” explanation) in the absence of any real evidence.  What is it about openly and honestly admitting that sometimes the most truthful answer is simply “we don’t know” that disturbs so many people?  That, to me, is the real mystery.


Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Asteroid Apophis to Hit Earth in 2036? Calm Down, the Sky is NOT Falling

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 9, 2011

In recent days, one of the more popular news stories flying around the Internet has to do with a supposed “doomsday” asteroid called Apophis. And, according to some idiotic journalists who seem to want to push a sensationalistic “news” story, this asteroid is going to hit the Earth in 2036 with devastating consequences – in short, they say this is going to happen…

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is, to use the scientifically-accurate phrase, a complete load of crap. That’s because the original story, which came via a Russian “news” outlet, has been completely and thoroughly refuted by NASA and scientists worldwide…

Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? NASA Rejects Russian Report

In 2004, NASA scientists announced that there was a chance that Apophis, an asteroid larger than two football fields, could smash into Earth in 2029. A few additional observations and some number-crunching later, astronomers noted that the chance of the planet-killer hitting Earth in 2029 was nearly zilch.

Now, reports out of Russia say that scientists there estimate Apophis will collide with Earth on April 13, 2036. These reports conflict on the probability of such a doomsday event, but the question remains: How scared should we be?

In answer to that question, I think we shouldn’t really be scared at all.  When you crunch the latest numbers, the probability that Apophis will actually impact the Earth in 2036 is about 1-in-250,000.  If you work that out to a percentage, it comes out to a 0.0004% chance the asteroid will hit Earth.  That’s a pretty slim chance, and certainly nothing to get all upset about, in my opinion.

Let’s think of it this way: compare the probability that Apophis will hit Earth in 2036 with the chances of other unfortunate events (as reported by Popular Science magazine)…

Lifetime odds of dying from:

Any accident: 1 in 36

A motor vehicle accident: 1 in 81

A firearm: 1 in 202

Poisoning: 1 in 344

A falling object (terrestrial): 1 in 4,873

Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 10,455

Being caught in or between objects: 1 in 29,860

Suffocation by a plastic bag: 1 in 130,498

So that means that you are about twice as likely to die by being suffocated in a plastic bag as compared to the chances that this “killer” asteroid Apophis will wipe out planet Earth.  Stop and think about that for a moment… now, are you suddenly going to start demanding the recall of all plastic bags from society in order to protect humanity?  No?  Good.

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I think the issue of tracking & cataloging near-Earth objects (NEOs) is a very important one, precisely because we have solid evidence that NEOs such as asteroids & comet fragments can and do hit the Earth.  In fact, this happens all the time, but the regular impacts are from smaller objects; the big, “planet-killer” type objects are fewer in number so the chances of one coming our way is comparatively small.  But it could happen, and with the implications being what they are (i.e., the destruction of human civilization on Earth being among the worst-case scenarios) it would be prudent for us to invest at least some resources into these questions.  And we have invested such resources into NASA’s NEO Program.

So, in conclusion, is the sky falling with regards to Apophis?  No.

Should you go buying your own “asteroid apocalypse” bunker?  No.

Should we then turn a blind eye to the potential threat of NEOs?  No.

Should we invest a reasonable amount of money into researching this issue?  Yes.

Interestingly enough, one thing we really can do when Apophis makes its closest approach to Earth in 2036 is use the opportunity to learn more about asteroids and the early solar system.  In fact, some scientists already have plans to use Apophis as an amazing research opportunity!

If you’d like to know more about Apophis, and the related physics & astronomy behind it, I suggest taking a look at this entry over at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.

Posted in doomsday, media woo, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

The Pale Blue Dot — An Alien View of Earth

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 24, 2010

Recently we celebrated the 20th anniversary of a remarkable photograph that was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it began its long, slow exit from our solar system.  That photo was of the Earth, and the image was immortalized by astronomer Carl Sagan in his book called Pale Blue Dot. For a fuller story on this image, I suggest reading up on it all at this excellent NPR story.

Here’s the photo, and Sagan’s eloquent words about it…

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Posted in space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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