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Here and There
CHAPTER 113 A Tiny Virus, Monstrous Black Holes and Other Matters
It seems like an eternity since I last set foot outside my house. Let me begin with a quote from my column posted April 24, 2003, seventeen years ago: "Last week I sallied forth to begin my annual quest to break a hundred. Thankfully, my usual golfing buddies were not present to witness the horrific trashing of that seemingly impossible dream. The next day I joined my wife’s Wednesday matinee theater group to see “Man of La Mancha” on Broadway. In contrast to my golfing experience, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” rendered by Brian Stokes Mitchell’s Don Quixote was glorious, eliciting a wildly enthusiastic audience response."
Today, April 17, 2020, as I begin this column, one of those golfing buddies is in a rehab center, where he contracted the COVID-19 virus. At age 96, he is doing well and may be going home in a couple days, two weeks after his test for the disease. He is in the rehab center because of a broken hip from a fall about a month ago! What about the other individual mentioned in the above quote? Yesterday, on the TV news there was a clip of Brian Stokes Mitchell singing "The Impossible Dream" from what I assume might have been his residence out onto the streets of COVID-19 ridden New York.
Today, April 30, as I finally get back to this column, my friend is back home and doing well. Things are not going well here in New Jersey, with a death toll second to that in New York. I may have mentioned some years ago that my wife and I had plans to move into a large retirement community across the street from Bell Labs, where I was employed for many years. We canceled the plans when we were told that she would have had to reside separately in an assisted living section of the community at a very high cost. Today, there have been 9 deaths in the assisted living and 3 deaths in the independent living sections of the community! The town I live in just three miles from Bell Labs currently has over 160 cases of the virus.
Well, enough of this depressing stuff. Let's turn to some news from outer space. After for some reason being dropped from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab list of recipients of their news releases, I got back on the list and now receive many emails, such as the one this past week noting that a large asteroid 1.5 miles wide just passed about 3.9 million miles from Earth. That's more than 16 times farther away from us than our moon. The asteroid, called 1998 OR2, was discovered by the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking program at JPL in July 1998 and has been tracked since then. As a result, astronomers are confident it won't strike Earth for at least a couple hundred years. It will, however, pass by in 2079 only about four times the distance from Earth to the Moon. In astronomical terms, that's pretty close and over millennia it might not take much change the asteroid's path to put our planet in danger. Remember the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago.
Let's switch to another topic, the Holy Grail of all topics, the search for possible life on another planet. We haven't given up on the possibility that there may be some form of life (or evidence of past life) on Mars or some moons of other planets in our own solar system. Over the past decades, the most ambitious effort has been to find planets outside our own solar system that exist under conditions that conceivably could harbor life. Actually, just finding planets of any sort, supportive of life or not, was a challenge. We've discussed various means and missions devoted to this challenge in these columns, notably the Kepler mission that employed a space telescope to initially look at one patch of sky for years to pick up any dimming of the light of a star by a planet passing between the planet and the telescope. A monumental amount of data was acquired and a program was written to assist the astronomers to identify likely candidates for the observed dimming of light to be associated with a planet. Obviously one clue that it was a planet would be to observe a dimming of light on a regular basis as the planet circled its star.
I can see how this might get complicated Let's assume that some astronomer in a distant solar system is staring at our Earth through his telescope and sees light of our Sun dim as we pass between his telescope and the Sun. He would have to wait a year before the same pattern of light dimming was completed and two years if he wanted to confirm his finding more reliably. Now, we have nine planets and I assume that all nine will dim the light. Things can get really complicated! Well, the Kepler team came up with an algorithm to assist them in sorting out real planets from false positives. When they wrote the program they knew there could be mistakes. The Kepler mission was retired in 2018.
Well, when a team of scientists looked at one set of data the algorithm had rejected as a planet, they found the contrary and Kepler-1649c was born. Not only did they conclude it was a planet but it was a special one indeed. Of all the planets found by Kepler, 1649c is the most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature and in a habitable zone. It's only about 6 percent larger than Earth and, orbiting close to a red dwarf (a common type of star), gets about 75% of the heat that we do from our sun. There are other planets closer in size and others closer in temperature than Earth but none found to date closer to both size and temperature together.
One thing that has surprised me since I got back on the NASA JPL distribution list is the number of reports on missions related to our own planet, notably things related to climate change/global warming. One very recent release had to do with the ICESat and ICESat=2 missions devoted to measuring changes in the elevations of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets over a period of 16 years. NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat-2) launched in 2018, while the original ICESat gathered data from 2003 to 2009. The two missions have provided researchers with a comprehensive view of how ice sheets have changed and a likely scenario for what lies in the future for the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.
The studies must have generated truly massive amounts of data. ICESat-2's laser altimeter sends 10,000 pulses of light a second down to Earth's surface and measures how long the pulses take to return to the satellite. The timing is to within a billionth of a second! This remarkable precision makes it possible to calculate changes in an ice sheet over a year to within an inch. By overlaying tracks of the earlier ICESat measurements with the tracks of ICESat-2 measurements from 2019 from the tens of millions of sites, the researchers could calculate elevation changes and how much ice was lost. They found Greenland's ice sheet lost an average of 200 gigatons of ice per year, and Antarctica's ice sheet lost an average of 118 gigatons of ice per year. If you, like me, have trouble visualizing a gigaton of ice, my NASA JPL press release notes that a gigaton of ice is enough to cover New York's Central Park in ice more than 1,000 feet thick, reaching higher than the Chrysler Building!
The results show that small gains of ice in East Antarctica are offset by massive losses in West Antarctica. The scientists found the net loss of ice from Antarctica, along with Greenland's shrinking ice sheet, has been responsible for 0.55 inches (14 millimeters) of sea level rise between 2003 and 2019 - slightly less than a third of the total amount of sea level rise observed in the world's oceans.
I was going to end this column here but how could I resist the subject of another press release from NASA JPL, a black hole with a mass over 18 billion times that of our sun in a distant galaxy! This black hole is orbited by another black hole a mere 150 million times the mass of our sun. Two times every 12 years the smaller black hole crashes through the huge dense cloud of gas surrounding the much bigger black hole. The result is a flare of light brighter than the light of a trillion stars, brighter than our whole Milky Way galaxy!
Because the orbit of the smaller black hole around the larger one isn't circular the time between the two flashes of light can vary from a year to 10 years and it was a challenge for astronomers to predict when a flash would occur. They did have success when they came up with a model in 2010 that predicted a flare within three weeks of its appearance in December of 2015. In 2018, some scientists in India came up with a model they claimed would predict the appearance of a flare within 4 hours! Sure enough, they recently published a paper that showed they correctly predicted a flare that occurred last year on July 31, 2019.
The detection of that flare was far from straightforward. The galaxy containing the black holes was on the other side of the Sun from Earth and not visible to telescopes on Earth. Luckily, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope was out in space 158 million miles from Earth and the galaxy would be visible to Spitzer from July 31 to September in 2019. It was sheer coincidence that July 31 was the day of the predicted flare! Hey, sometimes luck plays a role.
Well, I'm calling it quits. Good luck to all of you. Stay safe in what promises to be an eventful month as states loosen the regulations and the virus responds.
Allen F. Bortrum