Sept. 20, 2016

Common Misconceptions about Space

There is no mistaking that space is awesome. It's home to the greatest genre of books and movies (in our humble opinion).

Part of the reason why it makes for such enjoyable media is that so much of it is unknown. Now don't get us wrong, we know a great deal about how this "space" thing works. Everything from why planets are round, yet galaxies are flat, or what happens if two black holes collide (spoiler: it's real scary). 

Despite our growing understanding of the cosmos, misconceptions still persist. Because they're reinforced by old science fiction stories (and old text books for that matter–sorry Pluto), these ideas tend to stick around. We've compiled a short list of common misconceptions we've heard about Space that just aren't true.

1) Astronauts experience zero gravity on the International Space Station.

This has got to be our favourite, and something we remember being taught as a child. I mean, that's why videos of astronauts are always floating, right? Well, not quite. On the subject of learning to fly, sci-fi and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams explains, "The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."

His statement is surprisingly accurate in describing what happens to astronauts aboard the space station. They are in fact being pulled back to earth due to gravity, but their angular momentum causes them to "miss" the earth, and thus, orbit. It’s like those perpetual falling dreams where you never actually hit the ground. Yikes! Major props, astronauts.

2) Mars would be the best candidate for colonization

Okay, so this is kind of an unfair misconception. I mean, NASA has been planning a very public mission to do just this. But there has been a rise in the legitimacy of another planet that may be more suitable for human life: Venus. 

Now, we know what you are asking - "Isn't the average temperature on Venus, like, 462 degrees or something and the surface pressure something like 9.2MPa?" To which we respond, "That is some fine Googling there."

We'll agree, if you consider that the surface of Mars can reach 20 degrees Celsius during the day (we won’t talk about the nights), Mars seems like a perfect Canadian snowbird destination. But wait, who said anything about the surface? 

There is a rising movement spearheaded by Scientist and science fiction author Geoffrey Landis, who presented a paper called "Colonizing Venus" which describes floating blimps 30 miles above the surface. At this level, temperatures and barometric pressures closely resemble that of earth. But the biggest improvement over Mars would be the gravity. It would equal almost 1:1 that of Earth’s, allowing would-be colonists to keep their much desired bone density. Something Martian colonists would have to work very hard to retain.

There are a lot of factors that go into measuring the colonization potential of a planet. If you'd like to learn more, we'd suggest you check out the excellent video SpaceTime has done on the subject. 

3) Shooting stars are meteorites

You hear this one a lot, but in order for a falling rock to be classified as a meteorite, it has to survive entry through our atmosphere. Chances are, you've never seen a meteorite in person, but you've likely seen them captured on film.  For example, this one that fell near Edmonton in 2008:

4) You would < insert grizzly demise here> if you were exposed to the vacuum of space

This one is going to a bit hard to clear up without getting a bit morbid, so we apologize in advance. Basically, you won't explode or go full insta-popsicle if you happen to be exposed to the vacuum of space. 

However, all the air in your body would expand, but not with enough force to make you pop. Just don't take a lungful of air with you... those will. Although it can be cold in space, there’s nothing to conduct heat away from your body, so you would cool off slower than you think. 

Plus, all of that doesn’t really matter since you'd lose consciousness after about 15 seconds due to oxygen loss and decompression sickness, but not before you start feeling the moisture on your tongue boil. All in all, not a pleasant way to go, but not nearly as extreme as you might have thought!

5) The sun is on fire

Although it shares many of the characteristics of that warm, glowing campfire, the sun is not on fire. Yes, it’s hot. And yes, it gives off light, but the sun is actually a giant ball of gas in a constant state of nuclear fission. No fire required. Although it would still make quick work of your s'mores.

To learn more about space, science and our universe, head to the 2016 Jasper Dark Sky Festival running from October 14-23!


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