As imagined by SF authors: the Celestial Spiral

This amazing Hubble image, showing a strange spiral to the left of the bright star, is not of a galaxy. Instead, it is a binary star system where the material from one star is being sucked away from it by the other, thus producing the spiral pattern.

celestial spiral

What is most fascinating about this discovery is that this kind of phenomenon has been predicted for decades, by both astronomers and science fiction writers. Consider for example this quote from Larry Niven from his short story, The Soft Weapon, where he describes what he thinks the binary star Beta Lyrae might look like:

There was smoke across the sky, a trail of red smoke wound in a tight spiral coil. At the center of the coil was the source of the fire: a double star. One member was violet-white, a flame to brand holes in a human retina, its force held in check by the polarized window. The companion was small and yellow. They seemed to burn inches apart, so close that their masses had pulled them both into flattened eggs, so close that a red belt of lesser flame looped around them to link their bulging equators togehter. The belt was hydrogen, still mating in fusion fire, pulled loose from the stellar surfaces by two gravitional wells in conflict.

The gravity did more than that. It sent a loose end of the red belt flailing away, away and out in a burning Maypole spiral that expanded and dimmed as it rose toward interstellar space, until it turned from flame-red to smoke-red, bracketing the sky and painting a spiral path of stars deep red across half the universe.

A question for the baby boomers

If you are a baby boomer who grew up in the 1960s, such as myself, there are some very safe assumptions that anyone can make about your history and political views, both during the 1960s and the decades that followed.

For example, in the 1960s you were almost certainly against the Vietnam War. You were also likely to oppose President Lyndon Johnson and his Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. You cheered Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for President, and you probably also despised President Nixon and passionately wished that George McGovern had won the 1972 Presidential campaign.

Almost certainly you participated in some anti-war protests somewhere during the 1960s. Some of you were in Chicago for the protests during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, while others were likely to have participated in the numerous university sit-ins that were rampant throughout the country in the late 1960s.

Sadly, many of you at that time would have probably considered the police “pigs” and the military “evil” (even if those insults seem totally unfair, disgusting, and almost unforgivable to you now).

On a personal level, you probably experimented with drugs, had fun with rock ‘n roll, and even more fun with sex. Many of you also probably participated in the hippie culture at events like Woodstock and places like San Francisco and the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.

Above all, you abhorred authority. You were raised to be very independent-minded and » Read more

Danish cartoonist honored

Profile in courage: Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was given an award in Germany yesterday at a freedom of the press conference. Key quote:

“It does not matter if we think his cartoons are tasteful or not, if we think they are necessary and helping or not,” [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel said at the ceremony in the city of Potsdam. The question, she said, was, “Is he allowed to do this? Yes, he is.”

Westergaard’s drawing is below. Though it might offend some, the drawing of a cartoon is never justification for violence. That so many Muslims seem to think their religion justifies such violence, however, tells us a great deal about the nature of that religion.


Campus administrator shuts down conservative group

Freedom of speech alert: Despite having gotten permission to be there, campus officials ejected students and members of the Young American’s for Freedom from the Palm Beach State College campus during club rush, apparantly because the officials disagreed with the students’ literature. Key quote:

On the day of club rush, officials approached the group and after seeing information about the organization and its ideals criticizing Barack Obama’s economic policy, Ms. Ford-Morris was visibly disturbed by the material presented, published by the Heritage Foundation, criticizing President Obama’s administration. College officials then called the campus police to assure the group left campus. Ms. Ford-Morris denied having ever talked to Ms. Beattie about giving permission to the organization to be a part of PBSC club rush.

Update: The name for Young American’s for Freedom has been corrected. Thank you, readers!

Opportunity’s journey continues

On August 18, 2010, the Mars rover Opportunity took this panorama image of the Martian terrain. Up close, patches of bedrock can be seen where the sand had blown clear. In the far distance the rim of Endeavour Crater, the rover’s long term destination, pokes up over the horizon.

Endeavour Crater on the horizon

Update: A press notice from JPL today notes that Opportunity has now traveled about half of the 11.8 mile distance to Endeavour Crater. As it took two years to go this far, the journey still has two years to go, assuming the rover survives that long.

The September monthly sunspot graph

The Sun continues to show a reluctance to come out of its solar minimum. Today NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center published its monthly graph, showing the sun’s developing sunspot cycle in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009. As you can see below, actual sunspot activity remains far below what was predicted by the red line.

September 7, 2010 Solar Cycle progression

As I noted when I posted the July and August graphs, the Sun’s ramp up to solar maximum continues to be far slower and weaker than predicted. After two hundred years of watching a vibrant and strong solar cycle, it appears increasingly likely that we are heading towards some quiet time on the Sun.

Natural Bridge, on the Moon

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has released another lunar cave image, this time showing a double pit entrance with a natural bridge between them. [Thanks to reader James Fincannon for the tip.]

Natural bridge

From the caption: “The bridge is approximately 7 meters wide on top and perhaps 9 meters on the bottom side, and is a 20 meter walk for an astronaut to cross from one side to the other.”

More evidence that the solar cycle is changing

A preprint paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph website shows further evidence of the decline in the strength of the Sun’s magnetic field over the past ten years. Extrapolated into the future, this data also suggests that the next solar maximum will be the weakest in 200 years, and that the solar maximum after that will have no sunspots at all. You can download the paper here [pdf].

Bart Gordon responds to Nobel laureates

The space war continues: On Friday the chairman of the House committee of Science and Technology responded negatively to the letter by 30 Nobel laureates demanding the House revise its budget authorization for NASA and accept the Obama administration’s plans for the agency. Two key quotes from Gordon’s response:

The hard reality is that the Administration has sent an unexecutable budget request to Congress, and now we have to make tough choise to the nation can have a sustainable and balance [sic] NASA program.

Reluctantly, the Committee came to the conclusion that the president’s new human space flight program, much like the current Constellation program, was unexecutable under the current budget projections and other NASA priorities we all agree must be addressed.

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