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The NASA Effect

Question: How would you advise NASA moving forward?

DeGrasse Tyson:    My advice is not to NASA, my advice is to the general public and congress.  That there is no greater force of nature than NASA in stoking a pipeline of interested students who, one day, want to become scientists and engineers.  It’s that simple.  You walk into an 8th grade classroom and the kids, 8th grade science class, not one of them will ever say to you, when I grow up, I want to be an NIH researcher or I want to be an NSF researcher.  They may, one day, be that but those 2 agencies, as important is the science that they do, do not have a force.  They don’t come along with a force that operates on the ambitions of students.  NASA does because NASA is visible far beyond the budget is allocated.  You know this because if you ask people who’d say, why we’re spending money up there and not down here, asking how much you think we’re spending up there… Here’s your tax dollar, how much?  The same 10%, 15%, maybe only 5%.  And then, you say, we spend six-tenths of one penny out of your tax dollar up there.  They say, I didn’t know that.  That’s the visibility factor.  This much money buys this much visibility.  And it’s that visibility that operates on students within the educational pipeline.  And what you need is not NASA doing the same ol’ same ol’, all right?  You want NASA with a grand vision in front of it.  That everybody can look at [IB] that’ll help stimulate an entire nation to dream about tomorrow as we all once did but, now, no longer do.  Nobody makes that happen the way NASA does.  So I would say I want to fully funded NASA.  Every… All the dreams we have put on its plate that, now, can’t accomplish because the funding is incommensurate with the mission statement.  You fully flush out the mission statement with the money as well.  You will stoke a pipeline of engineers and scientists as never before. 

Question: What space initiatives most excite you?

DeGrasse Tyson:    Normally, we think of NASA as what is your mission today, where you’re going.  And I think, well, I don’t want to make the same mistake we made in the Apollo era where Kennedy said, “We’re going to the moon.”  Well, then we got to the moon.  And then, you say, okay, what’s next?  And there is no other plan.  There was… will stay on the moon for… Where else we’re going?  Well, no one thought about that because all of the hardware, the engineering, the science streamlined the moon as a target.  So, to do this right, what you want is not a target, what you want is an enterprise.  An enterprise is we are space fairing.  And if we’re space fairing, then all these destinations are in the portfolio.  First, with robots… First, telescopically, then with robots.  And then, if necessary or if there’s some value to it, we send people after the robot.  But don’t include the moon, Mars, asteroids.  Some asteroids have us in their sights.  Be nice to sort of go near them and find out what they’re made of, possibly tag their ears so they’re always broadcasting to us their location.  In case one of their trajectories head straight for us, we’ll know well in advance to do something about it.  There’s a lot to do in space.  I want to learn more about the greenhouse effect on Venus, about whether there was life on Mars, about the environment in which Earth and the Sun is immersed, the behavior of the Sun.  We still can’t predict the day-to-day behavior of the Sun.  We have something called space weather now, which monitors particles that stream off from the Sun.  That’s a whole frontier, didn’t exist a few decades ago.  We knew about it but we couldn’t measure it, couldn’t do anything about it.  So I see NASA as our… the extension of our senses into space.  ‘Cause Earth is not an island, Earth is a participant in our cosmic environment.  And the more you think… I only have to look down, the more doom you are because of the environment in which we’re embedded.  You look down, all the asteroids coming behind you and you miss it.  By the way, NASA and its programs includes, now, astrobiology, astrochemistry, planetary geology.  Look at that.  In our space frontier, we have geologist, chemist, and biologist, 3 of the 4 traditional sciences all represented in the NASA portfolio.  So you’re going to get all the scientists there are, that there can be coming out of school.  You’re going to get the best ones… In fact, because NASA will have the coolest projects and the best students are attracted to the coolest projects.

Due to its high visibility, NASA has a far greater impact than what its budget might suggest. Fully funding NASA will stoke a pipeline of scientists and engineers as never before, and stimulate an entire nation to dream about tomorrow.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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