Five Astro-Misconceptions about Space

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin on Lunar Surface

People have some odd ideas about astronomy and space exploration. They range from long-time hoaxes to stories that almost seem like conspiracy theories. Let's look at some interesting and amusing "astro-nots".

People Never Landed on the Moon

Some people continue to make an old and thoroughly debunked claim that men never landed on the Moon. Yet, it keeps coming back. In point of fact, there is complete and detailed photographic evidence proving that 12 men did walk on the Moon and did bring back lunar samples for testing here on Earth. The first was Apollo 11, which occurred on July 20, 1969. For one thing, millions of people around the world watched the landings in the years of the Apollo missions, seeing the missions in real time. Nobody at NASA faked those landings. The biggest pieces of evidence are the rocks the astronauts brought back are not from Earth. Continued studies by geologists and planetary scientists prove that they came from the Moon. Geology cannot be faked, nor can the science.

The idea that NASA could somehow "fake" a series of Moon landings and keep it secret among the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who worked on the missions is pretty silly when you stop to think about it. Yet, that hasn't kept a few charlatans from writing books and making money off of gullible people. Don't be one of those people. 

The Stars and Planets Somehow Tell Your Future

Throughout time there have been people who think that a look at the stars and the position of the planets will foretell their future. This is what the practice of astrology claims it can do and it has very little to do with astronomy. Astrology is a parlor game that has been around for centuries, and its main claim to fame is that it makes assumptions about a person's life based on where planets are in their orbits, and the so-called influence of a planet on a person at the moment of their birth. However, it turns out that there is NO measurable force or effect by a planet on a person, other than the force of gravity on Earth (where all people (so far) have been born)). Actually, when you think about it, the forces that are strongest on a baby at the moment of birth are those applied by the mother and the doctor and/or midwife as they work to bring the baby out. Earth's gravity acts on the baby. But, the gravity or some other mysterious force from planets that lie millions (or billions) of kilometers away) just don't apply.

They can't. They're not strong enough.

Astronomy is the study of the physical characteristics, motions, origins, and evolution of stars, planets, and galaxies. It's true that the earliest astronomers were astrologers (and they had to be if they wanted their kings and noble patrons to pay them!), but none are today. They are scientists using well-known applications of the laws of physics to guide their scientific exploration.

Planet X is On Its Way to Hurt Us/Smash Into Earth/Bring Aliens or Whatever...

Some variation of this old tale crops up pretty often, particularly in the media.Whenever astronomers talk about what exists in the outer solar system or even around other stars, somebody writes a story about a giant planet headed our way. It's usually accompanied with a number of unproven claims about how NASA/the U.S. Government/the TriPartite Commission/some other conspiracy group is hiding that information from people. To put it plainly: there is NO planet headed toward Earth. If there were, many astronomers (both professional and amateur) would have seen it and commented on it by now.

Astronomers have used an ultra-sensitive telescope called WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer) and ground-based observatories such as Gemini, Keck, and Subaru to search out distant objects in the solar system, as well as asteroids that might stray too close to Earth. They have found tantalizing evidence that there are some larger bodies orbiting "out there". So far, however, NO large object that fits the sketchy descriptions of Planet X or Nemesis or Nibiru or whatever they want to call it has been found. Whatever those objects are "out there", they appear to be following normal orbits around the Sun. None are making a beeline for us. So, next time you read about Planet X coming our way, read it with a grain of salt. No, a block of salt.

Astronomers Have Found Life Elsewhere And They're Hiding It

Every once in a while, the press just buzzes with claims that astronomers have found another Earth-like world and "LIFE HAS BEEN FOUND!!!" headlines ensue. When astronomers try to clarify the story and explain that "Earth-like" does not equal "has life", the conspiracy theory crowd gets all suspicious and cries "Coverup!"

How can this happen? A number of things could explain these stories. Sometimes a non-science-savvy reporter gets a story wrong. Or, a scientist doesn't completely explain what "Earth-like" or "Earth-similar" means. Or, in the rush of getting a scoop on a story or to publish first, a reporter will cut a few corners in his or her story.

When astronomers refer to Earth-like planets, they are talking about those similar to Earth in some way: maybe the newly discovered world is roughly the same size or mass as Earth. It could be in about the same place in its system as Earth is in ours. It might have water. But, and this is important, this does NOT mean it supports life. Think of it this way: there are moons in our own solar system that have oceans of water. Do they support life? We have NO idea. We won't know if they do until we can take the kinds of measurements that would prove life exists in those places. 

Life and its existence on other worlds is a complex issue. So, next time you read about how astronomers have discovered LIFE ON ANOTHER WORLD!!!!! have a well-filled salt shaker nearby as you read carefully.

The Sun's Gonna Explode as a Supernova!!!!!

What kind of star blows up as a supernova?  Not the Sun.

To understand that, you have to know a little about the masses of stars. The more massive a star, the more likely it is to die in what's called a Type II supernova explosion. Stars with more than 7 or 8 times the mass of the Sun can do this. However, the Sun cannot. That's because it just doesn't have enough mass. Stars such as Betelgeuse or the bloated hypergiant in Eta Carinae are supernovae waiting to happen. How do they do this? By collapsing in on themselves, and then rapidly expanding out in a gigantic conflagration.

Our little Sun will die a different way. It will eventually begin to expand its outer layers to space (gently, not explosively). What's left of the Sun shrinks down to become a white dwarf star. Eventually, the white dwarf will cool down (taking billions and billions of years to do so). 

By contrast, the leftover central "stuff" from a supernova explosion is compacted into what's called a neutron star, or even a black hole. So, the Sun ​will die, just not in a terribly exciting way. Its end will happen in a slow, cosmic sort of way. That won't start for a few billion years yet, so you have a little time to look for another planet to live on. 

So, if you read something that claims the Sun is about to explode or do some other weird thing, do take it with a big grain of salt. Just as these other stories prove, there are some funny ideas out there about astronomy. Science understanding is the key to realizing what can and can't happen in the universe.