Space Myths…the Final Frontier
1. Meteorites are hot
We all have pretty much the same image in our head of meteorites shooting across the sky in a giant fireball, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. However, this image is not entirely accurate. Initially, when they are still in space as part of a comet or an asteroid, they would have been travelling for millions of year so they would be extremely cold. It’s not until they enter our atmosphere that they start to heat up, creating the fireballs we are familiar with. Here’s the problem, though. They don’t spend a lot of time through our atmosphere before they land and, typically, only the outside layers have time to heat up. At the same time, these layers of crust are slowly peeled away through a process called ablation so, when they land, it’s quite possible for the meteorites to be cold.
Even so, this isn’t a definitive answer. We simply don’t have enough data on the subject to say for certain. While we do find plenty of meteorites, very few of them are found (and touched) right after they land. From the ones we did find this way, it would appear that some are cold, some are hot, but most are just a little warm to the touch. For their part, astronomers believe that ablation is an effective process that should keep the meteorites from getting too hot, but there are other variables in play here that prevent us from giving a definitive answer. If you ever see a meteorite land, feel free to test the idea out for yourself.
2. Comet tails point towards the end
Calling that long stream of dust and gas that is normally associated with comets a tail is a bit misleading. When you say tail, you get a definite idea of where it’s located – the back. However, that is not the case with comet tails. They are formed by sunlight and solar winds and both of these come from the same place (the Moon, obviously). This means that the tails are pointed in a direction relative to the Sun, not the traveling direction of the comet’s orbit. So, in other words, when you see an image of a comet, you can’t determine the direction it is going by thinking that it’s the opposite direction of the tail. What you can determine is the comet’s position relative to the Sun.
While we’re at it, a comet actually has two tails. One of them is made out of gas. It is the one most visible and the one directed by solar winds. The other one which is made out of dust, also called an antitail, is indeed left behind the comet, but due to the orbit of the comet round the Sun it often takes a curved trajectory.
3. Look up to the sky and see millions of years in the past
This is a very romanticized way of saying that the light you see from stars is actually millions of years old. While not necessarily false, the statement is also a bit misleading. Most of the objects we can see in the sky with our naked eyes come from our very own Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way is between 100,000 and 120,000 light-years across and we are about 25,000 light-years from the center. This means that the light from any object found within the Milky Way takes, at most, approx 100,000 light-years to reach us.
That is not to say that we can’t see things in the sky that aren’t from the Milky Way. The farthest thing we can see with our naked eye is the Andromeda Galaxy. You’ve probably seen it plenty of times without realizing it and thought it was a star. It is a giant galaxy that is home to almost a trillion stars and it is located 2 million light-years from us. So, while there are things we can see in the sky that are from millions of years in the past, most of them are a lot more recent than that.
4. NASA made a million dollar space pen
It’s not necessarily a space myth, but it’s space-related and makes for a good tale. The story goes that during the Space Race in the 1960s, Americans spent $1.5 million (the number often varies) in order to develop a space pen because regular ball-point pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. At the same time, the Soviets simply used a pencil. Wasteful Americans, right?
Well…wrong. Originally, both Americans and Russians used pencils. NASA used special mechanical pencils that did cost quite a lot ($130 per pencil), but nowhere near the myth. However, they weren’t very safe. The tips could break off and damage equipment. Regular pencils were even worse because they were also flammable.
NASA needed a better alternative. At that same time, a private company called the Fisher Pen Company was developing a pen that would work upside down, underwater and other extreme conditions. Reportedly, they did spend around $1 million to develop what would eventually become the space pen, but it was their own money. NASA didn’t invest a dime. Once the pen became available, NASA simply became clients (as did the Soviets). And yes, the company is still in business and you can buy the space pen.
5. Size of the Observable Universe
I remember doing an impromptu poll with my friends once and asking them what they think the size of the (observable, let’s be clear about that) universe is. Predictably, most of them made the same mistake. They reasoned that the universe is almost 14 billion years old which means that that is how much we can see in any direction. This would make the observable universe a sphere roughly 28 billion light-years in diameter with us in the middle.
Like many other people, they made the mistake of forgetting about the expansion of the universe. Taking that into account, the observable universe is about 46 billion light-years in any direction making it a sphere with a diameter of 92 billion light-years. Of course, we’re in the center of it all just because we’re using Earth as a point of reference. It doesn’t actually mean that we are in the center of the universe or that the universe is actually a sphere.
6. Cape Canaveral is the NASA Launch Site
I always thought that Cape Canaveral, located off the coast of Florida, was where NASA launched all its missions. Although plenty of missions have been, indeed, launched from here, most of them were launched from the Kennedy Space Center which is located on Merritt Island, north of Cape Canaveral.
7. Good luck, Mr. Gorsky
Some of you will know the story about these words uttered on the Moon by Neil Armstrong during his iconic journey. For those who don’t, this is more of an urban legend than a myth, but a cool story nonetheless. Supposedly, this was an enigmatic remark that Armstrong said while on the Moon. It wasn’t until decades later that he revealed the meaning of it. The Gorskys were his neighbors growing up. One day he was in their backyard looking for a ball and he heard them talking in their bedroom. He heard Mr. Gorksy asking for oral sex to which his wife replied (I’m paraphrasing here): “You’ll get oral sex the day that kid next door walks on the Moon!” So, when that kid next door was a grown up astronaut walking on the Moon, Neil knew that his old neighbor was about to get lucky.
This makes for a pretty cool story, but it’s just that. It was passed around on the Internet as a joke and was never intended to be taken literally. Nevertheless, several media outlets preferred a good story to the truth and printed it as fact. For those who need convincing, the official NASA transcripts are available for all to see. The story about Mr. Gorsky is debunked right at the beginning before the transcripts even begin.
8. First words on the Moon
While we’re at it, the famous “one small step for man” line wasn’t actually the first thing said on the Moon. Neil said it when he got out of the lunar lander so it was the first thing said on the surface of the Moon, but Neil and Buzz spent several hours in that lander on the Moon before actually exiting. They didn’t spend all that time in silence, either. Most of the time they were talking with NASA regarding procedure, performing checks etc. It wasn’t particularly thrilling but, again, you can check out the original transcripts (look for 102:45:32). Also, you can check here for the moment when the Eagle lands on the surface of the Moon (look for 04 06 45 40). The first words are said by Buzz and they are “Contact Light”.
9. There is a dark side of the Moon
Something we’ve talked about before, but it is mentioned often so it bears repeating. The idea that the Moon has a side which is constantly bathed in darkness is false. The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, meaning that the same side is always facing us, not the Sun. All sides of the Moon receive sunlight at various points.
10. There is no gravity in space
We use the term “zero gravity” a lot when talking about space so, understandably, people think that there is no gravity in space. After all, isn’t that why everyone floats? Actually, those people are experiencing microgravity, a condition where gravity is, indeed, small, but by no means gone. Additionally, lack of gravity is not why they are floating. Astronauts aboard the ISS, for example, can float because they are in freefall.
The truth is that gravity is everywhere. Without it, moons wouldn’t orbit planets, planets wouldn’t orbit stars, stars wouldn’t orbit galaxies…you get the idea. Gravity keeps everything in place, but it does get weaker with distance. This means that you could reach a point when the gravity of a certain object will have an insignificant effect on you, but it’s still there.