Posts with «science» label

Russian crew returns from shooting the first feature film on the ISS

Shooting for the first feature-length movie in space has wrapped. Space.comreports Russian actress Yulia Pereslid, producer Klim Shipenko and cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy have returned to Earth after the first two spent 12 days filming their movie The Challenge aboard the International Space Station. The three left the ISS in a Soyuz spacecraft at 9:14PM Eastern on October 16th and landed in Kazakhstan just a few hours later, at 12:35AM.

Pereslid and Shipenko arrived on October 5th through an agreement between the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the TV network Channel One and the production studio Yellow, Black and White. Novitskiy had been there since April 9th as part of his regular duties, although he also played a key role — the movie has Pereslid play a surgeon who makes an emergency visit to the ISS to operate on the cosmonaut.

The filming required significant sacrifices for some of the ISS crew. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov were originally slated to return aboard the Soyuz capsule, but both have had their stays extended by six months to accommodate the film producers. Vande Hei will set a record for the longest spaceflight by a US astronaut as a result, spending exactly one year in orbit. Pereslid also broke ground as the first professional actor to visit space, beating William Shatner by roughly a week.

It will be a while before The Challenge is ready to watch, and it's safe to say the production is aimed primarily at a Russian audience. It's a major milestone for private uses of space, though, and hints at a future when Tom Cruise and other stars are frequently blasting off to produce shows in orbit.

A Russian trio said farewell to the station crew and closed the Soyuz MS-18 crew ship hatch at 4:41pm ET today. They undock at 9:14pm this evening. More...

— International Space Station (@Space_Station) October 16, 2021

NASA launches mission to explore Solar System 'fossils'

One of the more important missions to study the early Solar System is now underway. NASA has launched Lucy, a robotic spacecraft that will be the agency's first to explore the Trojan asteroids trapped near Jupiter's Lagrange points. They're considered "fossils" of planetary formation that will help understand the Solar System's evolution, much as Lucy the australopithecus helped humans understand their ancestors.

The spacecraft detached from a ULA Atlas V rocket about an hour after liftoff, successfully deploying its two 24-foot solar arrays. The vehicle is currently charging its batteries as it begins the first leg of its journey, an orbit around the Sun as it prepares for its first gravity assist around Earth in October 2022.

To call this a long mission would be an understatement. Lucy will return to Earth for another gravity assist in 2024, and won't see any asteroids until it swings by the Donaldjohanson asteroid (near the main asteroid belt) in 2025. The probe first visits its first swarm of Trojan asteroids, ahead of Jupiter, in 2027. It will then make four flybys before visiting Earth for a third gravity assist in 2031. It will finally visit the second swarm of asteroids in 2033.

You won't have to be quite so patient for every asteroid mission, at least. NASA will launch another explorer, Psyche, in 2022. The vehicle will arrive at the metallic asteroid (16) Psyche in 2026 and spend 21 months determining whether it represents the exposed core of an early planet or 'just' unmelted material. Lucy is the more ambitious of the two projects, though, and it may pay extra dividends if it sheds light on how the Solar System came to be.

Surprise Soyuz thruster firing tilted and turned the ISS

The astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station had to initiate emergency protocols after the spacecraft tilted and turned by 57 degrees on Friday. All is well now, but the Roscosmos and NASA ground teams had to spring to action and alert their personnel in space after noticing the change in orientation. According to The New York Times, the incident happened while cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky was testing the engines aboard the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft that's currently docked with the station. 

NASA spokesperson Leah Cheshier told the publication that "the thruster firing unexpectedly continued" when the engine testing was scheduled to end. By 5:13 AM Eastern time, the ISS lost control of its orbital positioning. Russian controllers in Moscow immediately told Novitsky that the station turned 57 degrees, while NASA's mission control in Houston told its astronauts to begin emergency procedures. Flight controllers were able to regain control of the station around 30 minutes later. The Soyuz spacecraft that caused the incident is expected to fly a Russian fillm crew — that same one that flew to the ISS to shoot the first feature film there earlier this month — back to Earth.

"During the Soyuz MS-18 engines testing, the station’s orientation was impacted. As a result, the International Space Station orientation was temporarily changed. The station’s orientation was swiftly recovered due to the actions of the ISS Russian Segment Chief Operating Control Group specialists. The station and the crew are in no danger," Roscosmos said in its announcement.

As The Times notes, this is the second such emergency on the station. Back in July, the thrusters on Russia's Nauka module fired "inadvertently and unexpectedly" causing the ISS to tilt by about 45 degrees. At the time, NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said the ISS lost "attitude control," which is also what happened in this case, and that the event was quite rare.

Planet orbiting a dead star previews our own solar system's fate

Scientists have spotted a Jupiter-like exoplanet orbiting a dead star that was once like our Sun, The New York Times has reported. According to a paper in the journal Nature, the white dwarf star and planet around 6,500 light years away provides a preview of what will happen to our own solar system in approximately 5 billion years. 

When a yellow dwarf star like our sun exhausts its helium supply, it expands into a red giant and incinerates its inner planets (bye-bye, Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury). It then contracts from its own gravity into a white dwarf, a dim Earth-sized star with about half its original mass. Though the fate of inner planets is sealed, scientists aren't exactly sure what happens to planets farther away, like Jupiter and Uranus.

Using the Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck observatory in Hawai'i, a team of researchers spotted a planet around 1.4 times the size of Jupiter orbiting a dim white dwarf star (about 60 percent the size of the Sun) in a Jupiter-like orbit. They discovered it using a technique called gravitational microlensing (thanks, Einstein), possible when a target and a nearer star align with Earth. The nearer star bends the light from the subject, allowing scientists to observe it with a telescope.

The team tried to find the planet's associated star, but eventually concluded that it must be a white dwarf too faint to directly observe. Scientists previously discovered a different Jupiter-like planet around a white dwarf, but its orbit was much closer — so it wasn't a great analog to our own solar system. 

The finding indicates that planets with wide orbits are probably more common than inner planets. It also shows that some of our solar system's worlds may survive the Sun's death. "Earth’s future may not be so rosy because it is much closer to the Sun,” co-author David Bennett said in a statement. "If humankind wanted to move to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn before the Sun fried the Earth during its red supergiant phase, we’d still remain in orbit around the Sun, although we would not be able to rely on heat from the Sun as a white dwarf for very long."

Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride will appear on a limited-run US quarter

It's not just countries like Canada paying tribute to space exploration on their currency. The US Mint has unveiled the first coins in its American Women Quarters Program, and one of them features the late Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut. The quarter depicts Ride staring down at Earth, as she was fond of doing during spare moments aboard the Space Shuttle.

The quarters will be issued between 2022 and 2025. The other quarters celebrate similar women who pushed cultural and political boundaries, including Maya Angelou (the acclaimed writer), Wilma Mankiller (an advocate for Native American and women's rights), Nina Otero-Warren (a New Mexico suffrage leader) and Anna May Wong (the first Chinese-American Hollywood star).

Ride's place in American history is well-established. She's best known for smashing NASA's gender barrier with her first Space Shuttle flight in 1983, but she also founded the agency's Office of Exploration, led the California Space Institute and played key roles in the investigations of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. She fostered interest in space among kids, and girls in particular. Ride also broke new ground for the LGBTQ community as the first lesbian in space. It's no surprise Ride will have a quarter, then — she had an outsized influence on spaceflight and society at large.

Boeing's next Starliner test flight moves to first half of 2022

Those murmurs of lengthy delays for Boeing's next Starliner test flight turned out to be true. Space.comreports Boeing and NASA are now targeting an Orbital Flight Test-2 launch sometime in the first half of 2022. Engineers have narrowed down the likely causes of the oxidizer isolation valve problem that forced the team to scrap the August 2021 launch, but it remains a "complex issue" that requires a "methodical approach" to solve, according to Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich.

Boeing has several possible solutions in the works, ranging from small tweaks to the existing crew capsule through to modifying a capsule still in production. The exact launch timing hinges on both the readiness of the hardware itself as well as the rocket manifest and access to the International Space Station.

While this does suggest Starliner is moving forward, the delay further hurts Boeing's chances to compete with SpaceX in crewed capsule missions. SpaceX has already sent two crewed missions to the ISS, and it may have sent two more by the time the Starliner OFT-2 mission lifts off — Elon Musk's outfit will be a seasoned veteran before Boeing is cleared for its first occupied Starliner flight. It could be a long while before the two companies are taking turns ferrying people to orbit.

Perserverance rover pinpoints its best chances of finding ancient Mars life

NASA landed the Perseverance rover in Mars' Jezero Crater knowing it had the potential for signs of ancient life, but now it's clearer where the rover should be looking. Scientists have published a study (the first from Perservance since landing) providing insights into where the rover can "best hunt" for traces of past microbial life. The findings and images confirm that Jezero once had a lake and river delta, and that certain patches (the fine-grained material at the bottom of the delta, plus the boulders at the top) are ideal targets for the search.

The breakthrough moment came when Perseverance captured images of "Kodiak," a rock outcropping that would have been at the edge of the delta. It represented the best-preserved stratigraphy (the layering of geological deposits) ever seen on Mars, confirming the existence of the lake and river delta. The imagery gave the Perseverance team an idea of where to search months in advance of the rover reaching the area.

Scarps northeast of Kodiak also provided a surprise. Boulder-laced layers suggest flash floods reshaped the otherwise slow, relatively still river. It now appears that Jezero's waterways were considerably more complex than previously thought. The lake's water levels must have changed wildly over the years before eventually disappearing.

The discoveries should save researchers valuable time as they collect samples for an eventual return to Earth. However, they might also help scientists understand why Mars dried out. In that light, Perserverance should be useful even if there are no hints of past life to be found.

A Russian crew is shooting the first feature film on the ISS

Filming is underway on the first feature-length movie to be shot in space after Russian actor Yulia Sherepild and director Klim Shipenko docked at the International Space Station. Their movie, The Challenge, will feature around 35-40 minutes of scenes filmed on the space station, according to The New York Times. The film is about a surgeon (Sherepild) who goes on an emergency ISS mission to save the life of a cosmonaut (Shipenko).


Welcome to the International @Space_Station, @Anton_Astrey, Yulia and Klim! We have already prepared dinner for you))

— Oleg Novitskiy (@novitskiy_iss) October 5, 2021

The two cosmonauts who were already on the ISS captured a shot as Peresild (or her character) emerged from the capsule and entered the station. Sherepild and Shipenko will film scenes over the next couple of weeks before returning to Earth on October 17th.

Other projects have been filmed on the ISS, including documentaries, virtual reality projects and a short called Apogee of Fear. Tom Cruise hoped to make the first feature film in space with the help of NASA and SpaceX, but the Russian team beat him to the punch. Russia's Roscosmos agency announced a plan to send an actor to the ISS soon after word emerged about Cruise's movie in May 2020.

Time will tell whether The Challenge is any good. Regardless, the creatives behind the project have carved out their own little slice of history.

Hitting the Books: Why that one uncle of yours continually refuses to believe in climate change

The holidays are fast approaching and you know what that means: pumpkin spice everything, seasonal cheer, and family gatherings — all while avoiding your QAnon adherent relatives like the plague. But when you do eventually get cornered by them, come prepared. 

In his latest book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, author Lee McIntyre examines the phenomenon of denialism, exploring the conspiracy theories that drive it, and explains how you can most effectively address your relatives' misplaced concerns over everything from mRNA vaccines to why the Earth isn't actually flat.

The MIT Press

How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Other Who Defy Reason, by Lee McIntyre, published by The MIT Press.

Belief in conspiracy theories is one of the most toxic forms of human reasoning. This is not to say that real conspiracies do not exist. Watergate, the tobacco companies’ collusion to obfuscate the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, and the George W. Bush–era NSA program to secretly spy on civilian Internet users are all examples of real-life conspiracies, which were discovered through evidence and exposed after exhaustive investigation.

By contrast, what makes conspiracy theory reasoning so odious is that whether or not there is any evidence, the theory is asserted as true, which puts it beyond all reach of being tested or refuted by scientists and other debunkers. The distinction, therefore, should be between actual conspiracies (for which there should be some evidence) and conspiracy theories (which customarily have no credible evidence). We might define a conspiracy theory as an “explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.” Crucially, we need to add that these tend to be “highly speculative [and] based on no evidence. They are pure conjecture, without any basis in reality.”

When we talk about the danger of conspiracy theories for scientific reasoning, our focus should therefore be on their nonempirical nature, which means that they are not even capable of being tested in the first place. What is wrong with conspiracy theories is not normally that they have already been refuted (though many have), but that thousands of gullible people will continue to believe them even when they have been debunked.

If you scratch a science denier, chances are you’ll find a conspiracy theorist. Sadly, conspiracy theories seem to be quite common in the general population as well. In a recent study by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood they found that 50 percent of Americans believed in at least one conspiracy theory.

This included the 9/11 truther and Obama birther conspiracies, but also the idea that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is deliberately withholding a cure for cancer, and that the Federal Reserve intentionally orchestrated the 2008 recession. (Notably, the JFK assassination conspiracy was so widely held that it was excluded from the study.)

Other common conspiracy theories — which run the range of popularity and outlandishness — are that “chemtrails” left by planes are part of a secret government mind-control spraying program, that the school shootings at Sandy Hook and Parkland were “false flag” operations, that the government is covering up the truth about UFOs, and of course the more “science-related” ones that the Earth is flat, that global warming is a hoax, that some corporations are intentionally creating toxic GMOs, and that COVID-19 is caused by 5G cell phone towers.

In its most basic form, a conspiracy theory is a non-evidentially justified belief that some tremendously unlikely thing is nonetheless true, but we just don’t realize it because there is a coordinated campaign run by powerful people to cover it up. Some have contended that conspiracy theories are especially prevalent in times of great societal upheaval. And, of course, this explains why conspiracy theories are not unique to modern times. As far back as the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, we saw conspiracy theories at work, when the citizens of Rome became suspicious over a weeklong blaze that consumed almost the entire city — while the emperor Nero was conveniently out of town. Rumors began to spread that Nero had started it in order to rebuild the city in his own design. While there was no evidence that this was true (nor for the legend that Nero sang while the city burned), Nero was apparently so upset by the accusation that he started his own conspiracy theory that it was in fact the Christians who were responsible, which led to the prevalence of burning them alive.

Here one understands immediately why conspiracy theories are anathema to scientific reasoning. In science, we test our beliefs against reality by looking for disconfirming evidence. If we find only evidence that fits our theory, then it might be true. But if we find any evidence that disconfirms our theory, it must be ruled out. With conspiracy theories, however, they don’t change their views even in the face of disconfirming evidence (nor do they seem to require much evidence, beyond gut instinct, that their views are true in the first place). Instead, conspiracy theorists tend to use the conspiracy itself as a way to explain any lack of evidence (because the clever conspirators must be hiding it) or the presence of evidence that disconfirms it (because the shills must be faking it). Thus, lack of evidence in favor of a conspiracy theory is in part explained by the conspiracy itself, which means that its adherents can count both evidence and lack of evidence in their favor.

Virtually all conspiracy theorists are what I call “cafeteria skeptics.” Although they profess to uphold the highest standards of reasoning, they do so inconsistently. Conspiracy theorists are famous for their double standard of evidence: they insist on an absurd standard of proof when it concerns something they do not want to believe, while accepting with scant to nonexistent evidence whatever they do want to believe. We have already seen the weakness of this type of selective reasoning with cherry-picking evidence. Add to this a predilection for the kind of paranoid suspicion that underlies most conspiracy-minded thinking, and we face an almost impenetrable wall of doubt. When a conspiracy theorist indulges their suspicions about the alleged dangers of vaccines, chemtrails, or fluoride — but then takes any contrary or debunking information as itself proof of a cover-up — they lock themselves in a hermetically sealed box of doubt that no amount of facts could ever get them out of. For all of their protests of skepticism, most conspiracy theorists are in fact quite gullible.

Belief in the flatness of the Earth is a great example. Time and again at FEIC 2018, I heard presenters say that any scientific evidence in favor of the curvature of the Earth had been faked. “There was no Moon landing; it happened on a Hollywood set.” “All the airline pilots and astronauts are in on the hoax.” “Those pictures from space are Photoshopped.” Not only did disconfirming evidence of these claims not cause the Flat Earthers to give up their beliefs, it was used as more evidence for the conspiracy! And of course to claim that the devil is behind the whole cover-up about Flat Earth could there be a bigger conspiracy theory? Indeed, most Flat Earthers would admit that themselves. A similar chain of reasoning is often used in climate change denial. President Trump has long held that global warming is a “Chinese hoax” meant to undermine the competitiveness of American manufacturing.

Others have contended that climate scientists are fudging the data or that they are biased because they are profiting from the money and attention being paid to their work. Some would argue that the plot is even more nefarious — that climate change is being used as a ruse to justify more government regulation or takeover of the world economy. Whatever evidence is presented to debunk these claims is explained as part of a conspiracy: it was faked, biased, or at least incomplete, and the real truth is being covered up. No amount of evidence can ever convince a hardcore science denier because they distrust the people who are gathering the evidence. So what is the explanation? Why do some people (like science deniers) engage in conspiracy theory thinking while others do not?

Various psychological theories have been offered, involving factors such as inflated self-confidence, narcissism, or low self-esteem. A more popular consensus seems to be that conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism that some people use to deal with feelings of anxiety and loss of control in the face of large, upsetting events. The human brain does not like random events, because we cannot learn from and therefore cannot plan for them. When we feel helpless (due to lack of understanding, the scale of an event, its personal impact on us, or our social position), we may feel drawn to explanations that identify an enemy we can confront. This is not a rational process, and researchers who have studied conspiracy theories note that those who tend to “go with their gut” are the most likely to indulge in conspiracy-based thinking. This is why ignorance is highly correlated with belief in conspiracy theories. When we are less able to understand something on the basis of our analytical faculties, we may feel more threatened by it.

There is also the fact that many are attracted to the idea of “hidden knowledge,” because it serves their ego to think that they are one of the few people to understand something that others don’t know. In one of the most fascinating studies of conspiracy-based thinking, Roland Imhoff invented a fictitious conspiracy theory, then measured how many subjects would believe it, depending on the epistemological context within which it was presented. Imhoff’s conspiracy was a doozy: he claimed that there was a German manufacturer of smoke alarms that emitted high-pitched sounds that made people feel nauseous and depressed. He alleged that the manufacturer knew about the problem but refused to fix it. When subjects thought that this was secret knowledge, they were much more likely to believe it. When Imhoff presented it as common knowledge, people were less likely to think that it was true.

One can’t help here but think of the six hundred cognoscenti in that ballroom in Denver. Out of six billion people on the planet, they were the self-appointed elite of the elite: the few who knew the “truth” about the flatness of the Earth and were now called upon to wake the others.

What is the harm from conspiracy theories? Some may seem benign, but note that the most likely factor in predicting belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in another one. And not all of those will be harmless. What about the anti-vaxxer who thinks that there is a government cover-

up of the data on thimerosal, whose child gives another measles? Or the belief that anthropogenic (human- caused) climate change is just a hoax, so our leaders in government feel justified in delay? As the clock ticks on averting disaster, the human consequences of the latter may end up being incalculable.

Elon Musk says Blue Origin is trying to sue its way to the Moon

Elon Musk isn't fond of Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, and he just made that patently clear. CNETreports that Musk told Code conference attendees Bezos should put more effort into "getting into orbit than lawsuits," and that you couldn't "sue your way to the Moon" as Blue Origin allegedly tried when it lost its lunar lander bid. He was also less-than-flattering to Virgin Galactic, describing its first passenger flight and Blue Origin's as "a step in the direction of orbit" that fell short of SpaceX's efforts.

While Musk is known for being harsh, he might have some support in this case. The Verge has obtained NASA legal documents showing that the space agency felt Blue Origin "gambled" with its originally proposed $5.9 billion lunar lander price. Bezos' company allegedly set the price far higher than necessary as it expected NASA to award the contract and negotiate for a lower cost. Blue Origin also reportedly assumed NASA would get the full funding from Congress needed for that initial price, even as the Senate made clear NASA wouldn't get the necessary amount.

You know what happened next. Rather than haggle the price, NASA picked the $2.9 billion SpaceX bid. Blue Origin challenged the award and even made a last-ditch $2 billion offer, but by then it was too late. The Government Accountability Office rejected Blue Origin's claims, saying NASA didn't violate regulations in picking SpaceX. Bezos' outfit took NASA to court roughly two weeks later.

In an interview, Blue Origin VP Megan Mitchell told The Verge the company rejected NASA's views. She felt Blue Origin made a "great offer" and that it disagreed with NASA's gambling characterization. The GAO separately said NASA partly botched its safety review requirements for the proposal, although it still sided with SpaceX on grounds that Blue Origin didn't explain how the move provided an unfair edge.

This isn't to say Musk and SpaceX are innocent. SpaceX sued the US in 2019 after it lost an Air Force rocket contract to Blue Origin and other competitors, for example. It's just that Musk's trash talking appears to carry some weight in this modern Moon race.