delara news Delaware Amateur Radio Association, Delaware OH   VOL 37 NUMBER 5

Joe Fischer


Dear News Media: Please Hire a Scientist

Being an engineer, I have more than a passing interest in mathematics and science.  It is not an uncommon occurrence that I read something in the newspaper that makes me groan.  Simple problems with percentages, general lack of understanding of simple physics – I’ve gotten used to it. SpaceX and their top dude, Elon Musk, make the news once in a while.  There has been a fair amount of coverage of something SpaceX has been developing called the Falcon Heavy.  This is large rocket for carrying heavy loads into space with the goal of getting humans to Mars, eventually.  SpaceX made a test launch and in a brilliant promotional move, Musk put his cherry-red Tesla Roadster in the capsule that was launched from Earth. All well and good, so the day after the launch, I read the following opening sentence from a newspaper article about the launch: “The world’s first space sports car is cruising toward the asteroid belt, well beyond Mars.”  Wow, barely off the Earth for 24 hours and it has already zoomed by Mars? Oh boy, where to begin with this one.  Mars is not exactly close to us.  Mars’ orbit and Earth’s orbit are separated by 78 million kilometers (49 million miles) on average (they are both elliptical, Mars more so).  By comparison, the Moon is 384,400 kilometers (238,800 miles), on average, away and it took the Apollo astronauts about three days to get there. The spacecraft that have been sent to Mars so far usually take four to eight months to make the trip, depending on how big the launch vehicle is.  A larger rocket (such as Falcon Heavy) can get there faster.  In fact, with Falcon Heavy (and the Roadster) being launched in early February, it was projected that it would reach Mars’ orbit sometime in June. Here is a bit of drama elsewhere in the article: “The original plan had the car traveling only as far as Mars, coming close to the red planet but hopefully not nicking it.”  OK, so the “car” was supposed to reach Mars’ orbit but (this is significant) not impact Mars.  For whatever reason (this is an interesting question) the orbital burn that sent the rocket from Earth will cause it to settle into a helio-centric orbit with its apogee (the point furthest from the Sun) somewhere between Mars’ orbit and the inner edge of the asteroid belt (there was talk that it might reach the dwarf planet Ceres; it will not). Some sometimes assumed stuffy and serious researchers at universities, such as the University of Toronto, wrote a paper giving a statistical projection of the car’s orbit over several million years.  This paper shows almost no chance of the car crashing into Mars and a 6% chance of ending its life in Earth’s atmosphere in about a million years.  Unlike what some news sources reported (billions of years), this simulation showed that the half-life of the car is a few tens of millions of years before it might get ingested by the Sun, like many near-Earth asteroids. How about the asteroid belt in that salacious opening sentence?  In the same sentence quoted above we read: “if it survives the swarming asteroid belt.” This is one of the most misunderstood and “urban legend” type of myths about space.  If you have seen Star Wars movies, you might remember Han Solo deftly navigating through some distant asteroid belt supposedly similar to our own.  It is imagined that the asteroid belt is so packed with stuff that it would take a miracle to get through it. Although infrared surveys have found well over one million objects in our asteroid belt, the total volume that those objects inhabit is huge.  So huge that the distance from one asteroid to another generally exceeds several million miles.  If you stood on one asteroid, you could not see any others.  To actually hit an asteroid takes very careful aiming.  Several robotic probes have been sent through the asteroid belt and have not come close to an asteroid.  If humans were regularly ferried through the asteroid belt, they would be disappointed to never see an asteroid. In a way, Mr. Musk’s car stunt was bad for science.  To be fair, Musk engaged in a bit of hyperbole and writers, such as the one who wrote the article I’m dissing, get all giddy and write something more suited for TMZ or the entertainment section.  But, for an article included in the main news sections, should not the facts be a little more accurate?  If we know that we cannot trust a few facts in these articles, how do we know which ones we can trust?  Hopefully, main news writers do not always trust just the word of the primary source but check out the facts.  Of course, you can always implicitly trust what I say, just ask everybody who knows me. TU es 73 de Joe AA8TA dit dit