M Thomas Apple Author Page

Science fiction, actual science, history, and personal ranting about life, the universe, and everything

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s an airplane! It’s…

February 4, 2023
MThomas

A Japanese telescope positioned on top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, captured video of an eerie flying spiral in the night sky on Jan. 18.

In the video, a small bright spot appears and slowly gets brighter and starts to dissipate into a spiral before getting small again and disappearing.

https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/japanese-telescope-captures-image-mysterious-180332172.html

In fact, it was the remains of a discarded Falcon 9 booster from the launch of a SpaceX satellite. And it isn’t the first time this has happened. Japanese TV talked about this, too (since it was a Japanese astronomy, at the Subaru Telescope, that first recorded it).

So, an Identified Flying Object!

Yay, more metallic junk.

(Thanks to Glen Hill for bringing this article to my attention.)

“Don’t worry,” they said, “the size of a truck,” they said…

January 26, 2023
MThomas

An asteroid is on its way to Earth, but don’t worry – the end is here Not here. The asteroid, named 2023 BU, is about the size of a van and is expected to miss our planet during Thursday’s flyby. However, according to a NASA scientist, it will be “one of the closest approaches of a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

https://newsbeezer.com/germanyeng/a-truck-sized-asteroid-will-come-extraordinarily-close-to-earth-tomorrow/

This thing is coming closer than even some satellites, but it’s still small enough for most of it to burn up in the atmosphere.

Most of it.

Yikes.

Turn off the lights, and you’ll be seeing stars!

January 25, 2023
MThomas

A new study that analyzes data from more than 50,000 amateur stargazers finds that artificial lighting is making the night sky about 10% brighter each year.

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/twinkle-twinkle-fading-stars-hiding-brighter-skies-rcna66692

Each spring in my Current Events and Global Issues class, I have students read about environmental issues.

Pollution is obviously related. But they almost never guess the “seven types of pollution” (yes, I know some people country eight, or ten, or even twelve…it all depends on how you categorize them).

They never consider Light Pollution.

Maybe it’s because most of my students (to the order of 90%) come from medium and large cities. To me, having grown up in a mostly rural area (in elementary school, my town had about 400 residents and in junior and senior high I lived in a “queen village” that had — gasp — an incredible 4,000 residents) — well, being surrounded by darkness was no big deal.

We could see stars from our backyard. Lots of stars. We learned all the major constellations (of the Northern Hemisphere, anyway, since that’s what we could see).

And more importantly we could see lightning bugs (or “fireflies” or “glowworms” or “candle bugs” etc). Decreasing water quality is thought to contribute to their declining numbers, but it’s far more likely that our insistence on lighting up the skies all the time are preventing them from finding a mate (hence the reason they “flicker” at night).

Turn off the lights!

What are you afraid of?

What is this “Cislunar” space?

January 24, 2023
MThomas

Though definitions sometimes differ, cislunar space generally refers to the space between Earth and the moon, including the moon’s surface and orbit. Any nation or entity that aims to establish a presence on the moon, or has ambitions to explore deeper into the solar system, has a vested interest in operating in cislunar space, either with communication and navigation satellites or outposts that serve as way stations between Earth and the moon.

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/space-earth-moon-get-little-crowded-rcna64333

There is actually a limited amount of orbital space available between the Earth and the Moon (note: capitalize it, NBC! grrr..).

So, expect more and more competition for satellites — communication, navigation, and way stations.

And of course military and spy stations.

And by the way, only eight nations signed the so-called “Artemis Accords” in 2020. Guess who didn’t?

Buckle up!

That’s what I want: A tall building with frickin’ laser beams on top!

January 17, 2023
MThomas

The feat, which involved firing powerful laser pulses at thunderclouds over several months last year, paves the way for laser-based lightning protection systems at airports, launchpads and tall buildings.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/jan/16/scientists-steer-lightning-bolts-with-lasers-for-the-first-time

Probably a little cost-prohibitive for most of us, but potentially useful for others!

Webb finds rocky Earth-sized planet

January 13, 2023
MThomas

The finding demonstrates how the observatory could be used to search for potentially habitable planets in the cosmos and examine the chemical makeup of their atmospheres.

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/james-webb-telescope-finds-first-exoplanet-rcna65374

LHS 475b is 41 light years away, orbiting a red dwarf star in the Octans constellation (one of a few “modern” constellations only seen in the deep southern hemisphere).

Webb can even detect the presence of atmospheres, though given LHS475b has an orbit of two days and is a “few hundred degrees warmer than Earth,” it’s unlikely it’ll find much with this exoplanet.

Still, it’s a first. The first of many, I hope.

The 2022 Year of Space Exploration

January 2, 2023
MThomas

Lots and lots and lots of space stories occurred in 2022.

From DART to Landsat, Sagittarius A* black hole to CAPSTONE, the Korean Pathfinder to SpaceX, and to the ISS, Moon, and Mars, here’s a summary of major space exploration projects last year.

Looking forward to 2023 and beyond!

What does a dust devil on Mars sound like?

December 21, 2022
MThomas

It was “definitely luck” that the dust devil appeared when it did, said the study’s lead author, who estimates there was just a 1-in-200 chance of capturing the audio.

https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/mars-rover-captures-first-sound-dust-devil-red-planet-rcna61642

Perseverance has been on Mars for almost two years now, and already recorded wind on Mars for the first time in February 2021.

This dust devil was recorded in late September 2021 (wonder why only now it’s being revealed?). The dust devil was “average size,” which is described as about 400 feet / 122 meters tall and 80 feet / 24 meters wide, traveling at 16 feet / 5 meters per second (≈ 11 mph / 18 mph).

UPDATE. NBC incorrectly reported in the above linked article that the dust devil was recorded by Perseverance. It was actually recorded by InSight, which has just fallen silent after four years of operation. Sigh. I should get science news directly from the source and not from unreliable “news” sites.

Click on the link below to hear the dust devil

https://jirafeau.isae-supaero.fr/f.php?h=2JWSkdJR&p=1

There are a lot of dust devils on Mars. A whole lot. Any settlement would have to be extremely prepared to deal with dust all the time, everywhere. If it ever got into equipment that regulated, say, breathable air inside habitats…

From nothing to Mars in 6 years

December 20, 2022
MThomas

In 2020, the UAE’s space agency launched its first Mars mission, less than a decade after it was created. How did they manage it?

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20221206-how-the-uae-got-a-spacecraft-to-mars-on-the-first-try

This is a great story about how true international cooperation rather than competition can result in scientific progress.

Thanks to their efforts, despite nearly being derailed thanks to the pandemic, we will soon have a complete picture of an entire year of Mars weather.

Not bad for a country whose space agency is so small “you could probably lose it in the car park of Nasa’s giant Johnson Space Centre in Houston.”

(Of course, the project’s findings may mean I have to rewrite some of my novel in progress, but why not? All in the name of science fiction…)

ChatGPT: Is this really the “death of the essay”?

December 17, 2022
MThomas

I’ve been testing ChatGPT over the last couple of days. (If you don’t know what this chatbot is, here’s a good NYT article about ChatGPT and others currently in development.)

The avowed purpose of ChatGPT is to create an AI that can create believable dialogues. It does this by scouring the web for data it uses to respond to simple prompts.

By “simple,” I mean sometimes “horribly complicated,” of course. And sometimes a little ridiculous.

Somehow, I doubt that people in the US said “livin’ the dream” in the ’50s…

As has been pointed out, chatbots only generate texts based on what they have been fed, i.e., “garbage in / garbage out.” So if you push the programs hard enough, they will generate racist, sexist, homophobic etc awful stuff — because unfortunately that kind of sick and twisted garbage is still out there, somewhere online in a troll’s paradise.

So far, I have asked the program to:

  1. Write a haiku about winter without using the word “winter”
  2. Write a limerick about an Irish baseball player
  3. Write a dialogue between God and Nietzsche (I just had to…)
  4. Imagine what Jean-Paul Sartre and Immanuel Kant would say to each other (see above) but using US ’50 slang
  5. Have Thomas Aquinas and John Locke argue about the existence of God (that one was fun)
  6. Write a 300 word cause-effect essay about climate change
  7. Write a 300 word compare and contrast essay about the US and Japan
  8. Write a 1000 word short science fiction story based on Mars
  9. Write a 1500 word short science fiction about robots in the style of Philip K Dick

OK, and the verdict is:

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