Monday night must’ve been a slow news night in California, and everywhere really… but what most media has been calling a “mystery missle launch” was probably just a jet airliner contrail. It’s all a matter of perspective, really.

The footage came from a news helicopter that was flying off the coast of Orange County, CA, Monday night. The footage is shot looking westward and the object appears to be a rocket rising from the ocean. But if a jet airliner is flying directly toward you from over the horizon, and leaving a contrail behind it, it will look as though it is rising from the ground going straight up. If the atmospheric conditions are right, the contrail will quickly get widened by upper-level winds, and vortexes left by the plane’s wings can cause a spiral-like appearance. The bright light at the tip of the plume is only visible for a short time, which would indicate that it’s simply the glint of the setting sun reflecting off the plane’s underbelly. After some blog-reading I found that in fact, contrails have been mistaken for missles from this very same area before, and the culprits are planes traveling from Hawaii to Phoenix. There’s also a small possibility that it was a small target rocket from an island west of LA and used to test the military’s new airborne laser defense system, but the company that conducts those tests has said that it did not have any launches that day.

I think what we have here is a case of sensationalist media capitalizing on the mistake of a helicopter news team. Normal people probably see contrails from this same flight path almost every night and may think it’s interesting, but they forget about it and move on. Because it happened to be a news helicopter team who were fooled by the illusion this time, it instantly became a media blitz and got blown waaaay out of proportion. I’m saying I’m 100% sure it was a jet airliner contrail, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. More detailed info on this particular incident’s explanation can be found at NewScientist. Also, a detailed explanation and comparison of this incident to other contrail incidents can be found at the Contrail Science blog.

Screenshot from Sasselov's talk

So there’s been a bit of a media buzz lately about the possibility that the Kepler space observatory may have discovered 100’s of earth-like planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. Recently at a TED talk, one of the chief investigating scientists on the Kepler team, Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, mentioned that the team had found “candidates” for “earth-like” worlds, “that is, having a radius smaller than twice Earth’s radius.” Many mainstream media outlets have twisted this into reports saying that we’ve found 100’s of earth-twins (having an atmosphere, liquid water, etc…) orbiting other stars.

First of all, we HAVE NOT confirmed ANY of these as exoplanets yet. It will take considerable follow-up observations by other telescopes to confirm these as exoplanets, and not glitches or other phenomena that look like a transiting exoplanet. Also, the phrase “earth-like” as he used it simply means that it’s similar in size to earth. Just because an exoplanet is similar in size and composition to earth does not mean it is habitable. In fact, most of the exoplanet candidates have fast orbits and are very close to their parent star (which is why they were detected so quickly). This would make them much more akin to Mercury or Venus- both of which are far too hot to sustain life. The true earth-like exoplanets (that are in the habitable zone, have a similar radius, and could potentially harbor life) will take at least another year to discover, simply because they have longer orbital periods- closer to 1 year. Most of this information was culled from Dr. Sasselov’s NASA blog post in which he clarifies what he was saying in his talk. For even more info, check out Universe Today.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly excited about this mission, but I’m not going to pop the champagne cork until those scientists issue an official press release saying something like, “YES, we have definitely PROVEN that planet earth is not unique, and our galaxy is filled with small, rocky planets orbiting within the habitable zone of their parent stars.” That is a day I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a little boy fascinated by astronomy programs on the Discovery channel and the X-Files. There has been tons of speculation on this matter, but until now there was no solid, observational evidence to PROVE it.

No aliens on Titan

June 9, 2010

Actual image of surface of Titan taken by the Huygens probe which landed on Titan in 2005.

Lately the media has been buzzing about the possibility of methane-based life on Saturn’s moon Titan. As usual, when scientists include the words “interesting,” “odd,” “life,” “extraterrestrial,” and “discovery” in the same press release, the media starts creating misleading headlines that make people think we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life. Chill out, folks, that’s not the case here. Basically what they found is that, in the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan’s surface, there is much less acetylene than expected, based on other measurements taken by the Cassini probe, currently orbiting Saturn. They also found via a computer simulation modeling the atmospheric conditions on Titan (not direct measurement) that there is also much less hydrogen at the surface than there should be. These are intriguing results, and deserve much further study, but methane-based life on Titan is just one of many possible explanations, the rest of which are non-biological. Good articles explaining this further can be found at Universe Today and Bad Astronomy, but the best explanation comes from Chris McKay at the NASA Ames Research Center. He’s one of the astrobiologists working with the Cassini mission, and states the facts very clearly (at least if you’re vaguely familiar with biology and/or organic chemistry. For a little bit more “laymen’s terms” explanation, I recommend reading either the Universe Today or Bad Astronomy articles.

My Morning Jacket @ Bonnaroo 2008 Credit: Steve Cross

My Morning Jacket @ Bonnaroo 2008 Credit: Steve Cross

It’s that time of year again in Tennessee. The hot days and humid nights have settled in for good, and that only means one thing: Bonnaroo is upon us. I’m covering it again for the Scene this year and I’m ready to make my 2nd experience even better than the 1st. I’ve been told that the Village Voice may be using some of my images for other blogs/papers under their umbrella. (For a list of their papers go here.) Normally I would never attend Bonnaroo. Don’t get me wrong- the bands are great, the outdoor setting is great, but the people are generally not so great. Having to constantly deal with mud-caked hippies who’ve done waaay too many drugs and smell like a combination of bad patchouli, port-a-john, and feet is not my idea of fun. Being a member of the press, however, alleviates that concern because you spend a minimal amount of time actually out in the crowds, and NO time in the camping/parking area. Press parking is right behind the stages, and there’s a nice air-conditioned tent with complimentary water, as well as media trailer with wi-fi. Look for my photos on Nashville Cream, and possibly those other papers’ blogs mentioned above. Speaking of Bonnaroo, Nashville’s own music blogger superstar Janet Timmons has been hard at work (along with some help from a few other local bloggers/writers) posting a preview for every artist playing Bonnaroo. Check it out. Will she make it in time?

The Tennessean/Metro Mix is hosting another edition of its annual Toast of Music City poll. Last year some of the top restaurants ended up being Olive Garden, Shoney’s, and Golden Corral. SERIOUSLY?!?!?! WTF?!?!? Get your ass over to the poll and make sure such a travesty doesn’t happen again. Thanks to Nashvillest for reminding me of this.

Improv Everywhere comes up with some of the best pranks/social experiments I’ve ever seen. Their latest was one of their best yet: they gave one lucky NYC couple getting married at the clerk’s office a surprise wedding reception in Foley Square. Check it out.

Speaking of couples, the first weightless wedding is being planned. Though not actually happening in space, it’s the next best thing: the famed “Vomit Comet.” Let’s hope they don’t end up puking on each other during their vows. “I do… BLEGGGHHH!”

Part of the problem with the public image of NASA and space exploration in general is that astronauts aren’t viewed in the same light now as they were back in the 60’s. Back then, media coverage of NASA and its missions was MUCH more extensive than it is now. Those astronauts were literally treated like movie stars. The public adored them and they helped to make people actually care about space exploration. Nowadays coverage of the shuttle launches barely gets onto the bottom of I found a tiny glimmer of hope this morning, though: this new Louis Vitton ad photo taken by Annie Leibovitz on i09. It’s astronauts Sally Ride, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell. For more info go here. This is totally awesome and I hope to see NASA start caring more about PR and creating a bigger, more positive public image for itself.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz

Photo by Annie Leibovitz


No not really. But the dissolution of their science/space/technology division is just plain stupid. CNN, why did you do this? Yes, you say that your science coverage is being absorbed into the general editorial department, but in order to keep the same quality of science coverage we’ve enjoyed, you need a dedicated team to focus on it. I don’t see how that your science coverage won’t suffer as a result of this. I found this article via this post on Bad Astronomy, and I have to agree with Dr. Plait that right now is a time when we need more science and technology coverage in the mainstream media, not less. Miles O’Brien, I will miss your coverage of the shuttle launches. Best of luck in your future Endeavors. (pun intended)

Another trailer:

This is for the new David Fincher/Brad Pitt movie, the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I’m pretty excited about it, I must say… not only because they used an Arcade Fire song in the trailer, but because I’m a fan of all movies involving that director/actor combination. Via You Ain’t No Picasso.

Richard Avedon’s portraits of power. I’ve always been a big fan of his work. I can’t really put my finger on why, I just have.

According to this AP article, yellow will be the color of 2009. The Pantone Color Institute says that yellow, specifically a vibrant shade of it called Mimosa, will represent the hope and optimism that will be pervasive in the public consciousness next year. The article quotes PCI director Leatrice Eiseman as saying, “It’s invariably connected to warmth, sunshine and cheer — all the good things we’re in dire need of right now.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Remember a few years ago when people were talking about that huge tower planned for downtown Nashville? The one that was gonna be taller than anything in Atlanta… and second only to New York and Chicago? Well, fahgettaboutit. This article on WRKN explains how the current economy has caused the tower to shrink… to being smaller than the batman building. Sadness… I had been looking forward to that building for a few years. I like tall buildings.