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Putting Facts about Outer Space into Context
William Faulkner sarcastically said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” Sometimes facts can be very impressive to the reader, but in reality fairly unimportant, or misleading. When you hear that the NASA budget for 2010 is almost 19 billion dollars, you may think - wow -this money could be better used here at home. But, compared to the Pentagon budget of 664 billion, it’s just a drop in the bucket. So we should always put facts into context as a general rule.
But as Freud said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". Facts can just be what they are, sometimes enlightening, and sometimes just fun. I am going to give you a few interesting outer space facts that you may enjoy. Have fun, and feel free to share them as you will.
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Best Weight Loss Plan in the Solar System is the Sun
Our sun is massive. It weighs in at 1.9891×1030 kg or about 2 x 10×1027 tons. That’s 1,300,000 Earths! This is BIG, really BIG. But here is where nuclear fission kicks in, helping it win hands down, or hydrogen down, the Biggest Loser contest of the solar system. Hydrogen is of course its fuel. The hellish oven at its core continually turns hydrogen into helium in huge quantities. Each second it converts over 600,000 tons of hydrogen into helium. Due to that reaction, huge amounts of energy is released. Bikini Atoll for anyone? It's like 1 million H bombs going off every second. Each conversion of H into He produces energy and that energy is mass lost by the Sun. So, every second the Sun looses 4 million tons of its self as it is burning. No, burning not a good word, fire is too cold to describe what is happens at the core of the Sun. The 27 million degree fusion furnace at the Sun's core is responsible for the weight-loss the Sun experiences.
But fear ye not! The Sun is not in danger of going anorexic any time soon. After about 5 billion years it still accounts for 99.86% of the Solar System's mass. At its current rate of shrinkage, it will keep us on the Earth warm and well fed for the next 5 billion years, give or take a week. So no worries, you have time to get that really great tan you’ve always wanted.
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The Earth Should Read the Book, "Fast Food Nation"
Moving ahead, we go from weight loss to weight gain. As the sun is experiencing a weight decrease, its 3rd rock neighbor, the Earth, has a real appetite. Whether it’s empty calories or not, is up to you to decide, but expansion is the order of the day for good old Terra Firma. In actuality the Earth is getting fatter by the rate of 40,000 tons a year. WOW! This is a case where the old saying, "the more Firma the less Terra", has it wrong.
But what could account for the Earth’s mass increasing? It isn't from the mega creation of Facebook and Twitter accounts is it? No. Nor is it from the new collider at CERN making exotic particles. So what gives? Pardon the pun. Well actually it's the universe that is the enabler this time. See, there is a lot of stuff in our solar system left over from planet building. It has not been all sucked up by Jupiter, and it’s not all in the asteroid belt. There still is a massive amount of debris scattered trough out our solar system. Much of it is from the flotsam and jetsam which come off comets as they make their lonely trek across the heavens and around the sun. By the way, that’s what makes the wonderful meteor showers we astronomy buffs look forward to each year.
Now these particles are mostly really small, but there are lots and lots of them. And know they don't all burn up as they hit the atmosphere. Most wind up finding their way down to Earth, or floating around the upper atmosphere. How do we know this beside the educated assumptions based on our experience in space, and seeing as Thomas Jefferson said, "stones falling from the sky"? Well, did you ever see the movie, or better yet read the book “The Andromeda Strain”? Yes, it was a great book, and maybe the best of the Crichton movies, but the premise in that story deals with how we understand the debris that the Earth is being bombarded with.
You may remember that the deadly Andromeda Strain was brought to Earth by the Scoop 7 Satellite. A device specifically engineered to sample stuff above the atmosphere. Well NASA has done something in the same vain. Since 1982 NASA has been conducting high-altitude missions to collect stratospheric dust. They use the ER-2 aircraft (yes it's the modern version of the famous U-2 Garry Powers plane). It has a reported max altitude of 70K+ feet. And they continue to hit pay-dirt.
One mission specifically was very interesting. In April 2003 an ER-2 collected some space dust. It was later examined (2005) under a new and powerful transmission electronic microscope at the Johnson Space Center. The head researcher, Keiko Nakamura-Messenger had his suspicions confirmed. The cosmic dust they found was from the tail of comet 26P/Grigg-Skjellerup. That comet was originally discovered in 1902, and makes a visit to our neck of the woods every 5 years. What's amazing about the analysis was that the "grains" found were only 1/10,000 of an inch in size. SMALL! So how many of them does it take to equal 40,000 tons? You go figure.
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What I hope you get from this short article is just how amazing the most trivial fact about our cosmos can be. Nothing is simple, nothing is plain, nothing fully understood. Mystery and wonder abound. And in this age where massive amounts of information are at our finger tips, take the time to explore some of the things you wonder about. Check out some of the things you have heard or been told. Don’t just take in information as tidbits of trivia, or unimportant minutia. Sometimes small facts can grow larger in our eyes. They can open us up to possibilities and understandings rich, rewarding, and unexpected.
Tom Asacker once said, “Facts don’t persuade, feelings do. And stories are the best way to get at those feelings.” Hopefully, wrapping up some cool facts with connective tissue, and presenting them in an interesting way can help us appreciate the majesty of "all things great and small".
Stay tuned - many more interesting facts to come.
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Pentagon Budget: http://www.defense.gov/Releases/Release.aspx?ReleaseID=12652
ER-2 Aircraft: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/research/AirSci/ER-2/index.html
Comet dust: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080612194945.htm
Photo from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sun_parts_big.jpg