Blog Series: Countering misconceptions in space journalism

As a lover of all things space I enjoy reading a wide variety of perspectives. The more different the origin, the more likely I am to learn something new! Even in articles which contain errors or elements of confusion, there’s still a good chance that I’ll encounter a new way of thinking about an issue.

rocket-launch-across-the-water

This is important. Space is hard, and it’s also hard to reason about. Humans often prefer reasoning by analogy, but with very few exceptions, reasoning by analogy in space is always wrong. So we need to find other ways to reason about space systems, architectures, mission concepts, and past history in a way that lets us derive the full learning value while avoiding the traps of lazy thinking. A robust commentariat is an essential part of training to think deep thoughts in space.

On the other hand, I am increasingly troubled by the persistence of a variety of common misconceptions in space journalism. So rather than complain or just feel bad about it, I’ve decided to write a series of blogs on each topic, the better to understand the issues myself and to function as a handy reference for others. Each blog represents my opinion only, but will be accessible to a general audience and rigorous enough to adequately support that particular viewpoint.

This post will remain pinned for some time and be updated to link to the posted topics below as they are published. I’m open to suggestions for new topics.

These posts can broadly be lumped into categories depending on how much harder or easier they make living in space. For example, I have bad news about Lunar water mining, but good news about radiation.

Good news

Bad news

General posts

14 thoughts on “Blog Series: Countering misconceptions in space journalism

  1. Hi. I am a geologist and Enviromental engineer. I am reading ( and writing) from Florence, Italy. It is a pleasure for me to read something as competent and indipendent as your posts. So I decided to let you know about a post of mine you could ( possibly) find interesting. Obviously is about Mars and (also) Nasa work, down there. And life. Unluckly it is in italian. I can only hope that Google makes a good enough work to let the self humouristic tone in my language pass in english. I love, as you do, be seriously fun o funny serious, the more the more rilevant is the su je t. Peer reviewed articola tend to be dull or simply Boeing. I think i could have reached something with it. Let me know what you think about it and thanks for your great and greatly inspiring posts! Pietro
    This is the original link

    http://www.crisiswhatcrisis.it/2017/03/29/cera-vita-su-marte-e-non-solo-il-sabato-sera/

    And this is the mille-long link Google translator produced…

    https://translate.googleusercontent.com/translate_c?depth=1&hl=it&nv=1&rurl=translate.google.it&sl=auto&sp=nmt4&tl=en&u=http://www.crisiswhatcrisis.it/2017/03/29/cera-vita-su-marte-e-non-solo-il-sabato-sera/&xid=17259,15700022,15700186,15700191,15700256,15700259,15700262,15700265,15700271,15700283&usg=ALkJrhjJF1Yu4updvf-l0xF4zqt9WB7Csw

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My guess for the missing ingredient of a warm ancient Mars? Nitrogen.

      An atmosphere heated from the bottom by sunlight, and cooled by thermal emission of infrared, maintains a temperature profile determined by the temperature change that results from compressing or expanding a gas without any gain or loss of heat. This is called the adiabatic lapse rate. If the same amount of greenhouse gas is distributed through a thicker atmosphere, it should have a higher temperature at the bottom.

      To see the principle, imagine that there’s just one height at which radiation is emitted to space: radiation emitted below that height is all reabsorbed by greenhouse gas higher up, and a negligible amount is emitted higher because there isn’t any appreciable amount of greenhouse gas to emit it. (This is an over-simplification, which will give qualitatively wrong conclusions in some contexts, but I think it’s adequate to illustrate the idea here.). In this simplified atmosphere, the emission layer is at the same temperature no matter how much non- greenhouse gas there is. With more atmosphere below, there’s more temperature difference between the emission layer and the ground.

      The atmosphere of a Mars has been losing nitrogen for billions of years. I haven’t attempted any quantitative analysis of the effect, but it seems more likely than the production of large amounts of methane by Martian life as a way of maintaining a temperature warm enough for liquid water.

      Like

  2. Another geologist and space enthusiast here. Your page on Starlink sats ended up in my push notices, so I found your blog. The more scientific and thoughtful analysis I can find, the happier I am. My current pursuits are more earthbound, as I raise working llamas. And I will be delighted when the promise of fast, reliable rural access to the Internet is finally achieved.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. It seems as though spin gravity is not being seriously considered, either by NASA or SpaceX, for long space missions. Right now it’s accepted as fact that long periods of time in microgravity (such as a trip to Mars) is quite unhealthy for humans. We don’t even know how much constant gravity is required to prevent bone density loss, etc. And we don’t have a way to learn more sbout this – and won’t until somebody developes a way to povide artificial gravity. Is there something obvious to those in the space science/aerospace engineering community that I’m completely unaware of?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have no idea how far along you are on any of the listed articles under “Good” and “Bad”, but I noticed the last one you have under bad is about TANSTAAFL is not an instruction manual.. It might be simpler (or not) to expand that to be “fictional works are not instruction manuals”. “The Expanse” is on SciFi/Amazon and the books it is based on is fairly rigorous scientifically. So is “Artemis”. But I certainly wouldn’t want to use them (or “The Martian”) for anything other than ideas to discuss with my fellow colonizers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Unpublished topics are placeholders for stuff that annoyed me once. In this case I think I was planning some light hearted dunking on libertarians who miss the point Heinlein was trying to make. Very happy to get topic requests.

      I split them by good and bad to try to make sure that I wasn’t all doom and gloom.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome blog! I have a topic request: is there enough elemental nitrogen on Mars to sustain an Earth-like biosphere? Could this turn out to be a show stopper? I would love some good news on this front.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Here’s some nitpicking for you – If you grew up in the 60’s, head lice were a ” thing” – definition:”To pick nits (lice eggs) from someone’s hair.”

    Now, with better hygiene and insecticides, they’re not as much an issue. You’ll want to tune up the “What it would be like to work on Mars” section that talks about knit picking…

    Liked by 1 person

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