June 7, 2013
Andrea, the first tropical storm of hurricane season is churning up the East Coast today and while it’s not expected to do much more than deliver a heavy drenching, it has kicked off the first wave of storm tracking.
Will it hug the coast or drift inland? Will it dump and inch of rain or three? Will it provide us with our first 2013 image of a TV reporter doing unintended slapstick on a beach?
Already we’ve been told that this could be one nasty season, with a prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of seven to 11 hurricanes, of which three to six could be major–that’s with winds of 111 mph or higher. And hurricane experts at Colorado State University are pretty confident–they put the likelihood at 72 percent–that at least one of those major hurricanes will make landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern seaboard. Keep in mind that Sandy was not considered a major hurricane when it swept in over New Jersey last fall.
Hurricane forecasting is much more science than crapshoot these days. Computer models have become amazingly accurate, considering how many variables need to be taken into account–temperature, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, topography–from many different locations at different times. All told, there can be hundreds of thousands of factors that need to be weighed. And the task is complicated by the fact that we only have about 60 years of good historical data to plug into the models.
Most of the real-time data that gets fed into the computers comes from dropsonde sensors that are dropped into the storms from big, heavy “hurricane hunters,” planes that are essentially flying laboratories. These are impressive machines. They also are quite expensive. One plane costs about $22 million.
Kamran Mohseni thinks there may be a better way to gather storm data. It’s about thinking small.
Mohseni, an engineering professor at the University of Florida, believes the next generation of hurricane hunters will be drones small enough to almost fit into the palm of your hand, but able to engage fierce hurricanes by riding the wind rather than trying to punch through it. Its weight–about as much as an iPod Nano–is an asset in his mind. “Our vehicles don’t fight the hurricane,” he says. “We use the hurricane to take us places.”
His take is that instead of relying on a few “super-duper” aircraft, why not use hundreds of little drones that through their sheer numbers, could make the data that much more accurate or, as he put it, “You get super duper on an aggregate level.”
Mohseni’s drones, with their sensors, would be launched with commands from a laptop, and then, with the help of mathematical models that predict where the best wind currents can be found, would be able to hitch a ride into the storm. Once there, the drones can be powered up or down as needed, with the goal of taking advantage of the wind’s power to explore the hurricane.
Riding the waves
But Mohseni is not just talking about flying drones. He also has developed underwater vehicles designed to mimic jellyfish as they move through the ocean. He envisions them as a tiny naval fleet working in tandem with a squadron of his flying drones, and that could allow scientists to also gather data from under the sea, which can be particularly difficult to collect.
He realizes, of course, that even though his drones–since they won’t resist the wind–aren’t likely to be blown apart, a lot of them will be lost once they take on a hurricane. But because they’re so small and light, they’re not likely to do much damage if they hit something. And he figures the data gained will be worth the expense.
Each of his drones costs about $250.
Eyes of the storm
Here are other recent developments in weather tech:
- It’s a wind win: The Canadian firm Aeryon Labs has developed an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) designed to do military reconnaissance in bad weather. It promises that its SkyRanger drone can remain stable in winds for 40 and survive gusts of 55 mph and also can function in temperatures from -22 to 122º Fahrenheit.
- It was a dark and stormy flight: Later this summer NASA will send a pair of large unmanned aircraft loaded with instruments out over the Atlantic to study more closely how hurricanes form and build in intensity. Last fall, the agency used one of these drones, called Global Hawk, but will add another as it expands its focus to wind and rain bands inside hurricanes.
- After all, why shouldn’t clouds be able to get that inner glow: With the goal of seeing how lasers might affect cloud formation, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany found that lasers can actually make a cirrus cloud glow. Unfortunately, lasers aren’t able to do this yet with real clouds; the scientists produced the effect on clouds created in the lab.
- Not to mention, an awesome shield against flying beer: And now, meet the Rainshader, an umbrella that looks more like a motorcycle helmet on a stick. Designed to protect you from rain at sporting events, it promises not to blow inside out, poke people in the eye, or drip on those sitting next to you. And, best of all, because it can he held to sit low on your head, it shouldn’t block anyone else’s view.
Video bonus: Watch Kamran Mohseni’s little hurricane hunters taking flight.
Video bonus bonus: And for old time’s sake, the lighter side of big storms.
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June 4, 2013
Yes, the big red eyes are creepy.
Not to mention the bizarre 17-years-in-the-ground, six-weeks-in-the-trees, mad-trysting-and-death cycle. And the sheer volume–billions of them are expected to before the current invasion ends. (Last weekend, I stood under a copse of trees they had taken over and, though the wind was still, every treetop was moving.)
But really what fascinates U.S. Navy scientists about the brood of cicadas now infesting large pockets of the East Coast is their mind-boggling sound–a din that can climb over 90 decibels. That’s louder than a garbage disposal, food blender or a truck 50 feet away, and almost as loud as power mower or a 737 coming in for a landing.
A team of scientists at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island has been studying cicada cacophony for several years now and this week they will present what they’ve learned at the International Congress on Acoustics in Montreal. Their goal is to see if humans can devise a way to replicate the sound.
Bring on the noise
I know what you’re thinking…why? Why try to mimic a noise that can turn a summer day into an aural beatdown?
But that’s what intrigues the Navy scientists. They’re trying to figure out how it’s possible to make a sound that loud without using much power. And they think that devices that sound like cicadas could be used for remote sensing underwater, ship-to-ship communications, maybe even rescue operations.
They know why male cicadas make the sound. It’s all about the sex. They’re vying for the attention of female cicadas. If a female makes a clicking sound with her wings, she’s interested. The researchers say that when a male gets closer to a female that has clicked her interest, the male softens his sound–the insect equivalent of going Barry White on her.
And they have a good idea of how the bugs make the sound. They’ve been able to use lasers to simultaneously measure the vibration of the insect’s “tymbals,” the ribbed membranes on both sides of a cicada’s torso. When a male seeks sex, it contorts its body and that buckling causes the membrane to click, then click again when it snaps back into place.
So why does the incessant noise sound more like a massive Star Trek phaser than a series of clicks? Because the male cicada repeats this cycle for its left and right sides about 300 to 400 times a second. That’s a lot of contorting, but it has the desired effect. And it’s loud, even with one cicada, because the creature has air sacs in its hollow abdominal cavity that amplifies the sound. It’s been compared to a hammer striking a gong.
So far, the scientists haven’t been able to replicate it. The problem is that it’s not just one moving part making the sound. The buckling of the cicada’s body isn’t uniform–its two tymbals aren’t in sync with each other. And apparently it’s the combination of those out-of-phase vibrations that creates such a deafening noise.
Ingenious…and this from a bug that spends 17 years in the ground.
Here are other revelations from this week’s acoustics conference:
- Bringing harmony to families around the world: Researchers have devised a way to have your car speakers in the back play something different from what people are hearing in the front. This new system creates “independent listening zones” by using small, modified speakers to produce directional fields of sound, and has the ability to optimize the audio signals driving each of the speakers.
- Puff up the volume: Danish jazz and rock drummer Niels Adelman-Larsen has invented a means of shape-shifting concert halls so they can provide the best reverberation for whatever kind of music is played in them. His system is made of airtight plastic foil membranes attached to the walls that can be inflated or deflated with the flip of a switch. When the membranes are inflated, the foil vibrates and that lowers the reverberation time in the hall, which makes it more suitable for rock music. Deflate the membranes and you get the long reverberation times that enrich classical music.
- Because when did a text ever steer you wrong: Soldiers in the field have to deal with auditory overload, including what info or orders might be coming in over their headphones. So Canadian researchers wanted to see if visual cues could help them focus on what they needed to know. And sure enough, the research showed that soldiers performed much better when they received text messages reinforcing what they were told over a loudspeaker.
- But beware of a powerful attraction to singing male crickets: The unique directional hearing ability of a parasitic fly has inspired scientists to design a microphone that could make hearing aids much more effective. The females of this type of fly use their auditory skills to locate singing male crickets, upon which they deposit their larvae. And that never turns out well for the crickets.
- That’s one small explanation frrr(uh) man: Researchers from Ohio State and Michigan State have come to the conclusion that Neil Armstrong’s Ohio accent may have been responsible for the confusion over what he said when he took his first steps on the moon. While just about everyone on Earth thought they heard Armstrong say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he always insisted that he said “for a man,” which would have made more sense. But the latest study points out that people in central Ohio, where Armstrong grew up, tend to blend together words like “for” and “a,” resulting in a phrase that “sounded something like ‘frrr(uh).’”
Video bonus: Watch a cicada come to life after 17 years in the ground. If you want a taste of cicada din, skip to the four-minute mark.
Video bonus bonus: Okay, these are not the 17-year cicadas. They’re from the 13-year-brood. Still, it’s worth watching David Rothenberg try to play his sax as they swarm around him.
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The Cicadas Are Coming and So Are the Terrifying Spores That Eat Them Alive
May 24, 2013
Summer in America unofficially begins this weekend, and with it come the late afternoon and middle-of-the-night thunderstorms that are Nature’s version of shock and awe. But as common as they are, much about thunder and lightning remains a mystery. In fact, scientists are still debating what actually causes those amazing flashes across the sky.
Here are eight recent findings related to storm-watching:
1) Come to the dark side: The dazzling thunderbolts get all the attention, but within each thunderstorm are invisible intense bursts of gamma rays, which have become known as “dark lightning.” Scientists recently discovered that the two types of lightning seemed to be connected, that there’s a gamma ray discharge immediately before a bolt shoots through the sky, although no one’s quite sure what that connection is. The good thing about dark lightning is that it dissipates quickly so it can’t really hurt anyone on the ground. But if you should be so unlucky and fly through a thunderstorm, a release of dark lightning nearby could expose you to a significant dose of radiation. Which is just one more reason for pilots to fly around them.
2) When planes go bump in the night: By the middle of the century, transatlantic flights could get a whole lot bumpier if a team of British scientists is right. They’re projecting that, because of climate change, the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase by between 40 and 170 percent. Most likely, they say, the amount of airspace where nasty turbulence occurs will double. But wait, there’s more. They predict that the average strength of turbulence will also increase by 10 to 40 percent.
3) The pain in rain lies mainly in the brain: A study published earlier this year concluded that lightning could actually trigger migraines and other headaches. The researchers asked 90 chronic migraine sufferers to document when they developed migraines during a three-to-six month period, and then tracked that data against lightning strikes within 25 miles of the migraine victims’ homes. Their analysis found a 28 percent increased chance of a migraine and a 31 percent chance of a non-migraine headache on days when lightning struck nearby. So what’s the connection? Not absolutely clear. Some have suggested that high pressure increases the risk of migraines, while others have argued that low pressure can increase the risk. And still other research has failed to show that there even is a definite connection.
4) Hi, I’m Big Data and from now on I’ll be doing the weather: IBM obviously is big on Big Data–it’s pretty much building its future around it–and not long ago it launched a weather analysis project it calls “Deep Thunder.” Using complex algorithms and massive computing power, the company is compiling data around the physics of the atmosphere over a number of major cities. With the resulting mathematical models, the company says it should be able to predict up to 40 hours ahead of time how much rain will fall in a particular location—with 90 percent accuracy.
5) Now if it could only get the lightning to charge your phone: In case you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s now an app that tells you when lightning is nearby. Called Spark, it’s a product from WeatherBug, available on Android and iPhones, that tells you where the nearest lightning strike is, based on data from the Total Lightning Network and your phone’s GPS. And this isn’t just about getting the lowdown on lightning near you. It also allows you to check on what’s happening at GPS locations you’ve saved on your phone–such as your favorite golf course.
6) And now, time for a cosmic interlude: Two Russian researchers say they have more evidence that lightning is caused by the interaction of cosmic rays with water droplets in thunderclouds. Their theory is that cosmic rays–which are created in deep space by star collisions and supernovae–zoom across space and the ones that pass through Earth’s upper atmosphere create showers of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation. And that, the scientists contend, causes lightning when it passes through a thundercloud. The other popular theory is that lightning occurs when collisions between ice crystals and hailstones in storm clouds separate enough electric charge to cause a high electric field. The debate goes on.
7) Now that’s shock and awe: The U.S. Army is developing a weapon that allows it to shoot lighting bolts along a laser beam directly into a target. So, basically, they’ve figured out how to fire lightning. Called the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, it can be used to destroy anything that conducts electricity better than the air or ground surrounding it.
8) Just don’t name the kid “Flash:” And just in case you wondered, 70 percent of Americans who responded to a survey by Trojan Brand Condoms said that they’ve had sex during a nasty storm.
Video bonus: You’ve never seen lightning quite like this, slowed down so that one flash is drawn out to last six minutes. You can watch every incredible step of the way.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s what it’s like to have lightning strike next to you.
Video bonus bonus bonus: That’s right, a bonus bonus bonus because you can never watch enough lightning strikes. Here’s a collection of lightning shooting upward.
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April 5, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.
You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.
Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)
Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)
And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.
But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.
Lose the spin
That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.
It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.
It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.
Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.
Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.
These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.
The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Catching the breeze
Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.
1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.
2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.
3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.
4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.
5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”
Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.
Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.
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February 19, 2013
Last Friday was, astronomically speaking, one of those days that comes along every 40 years. Actually, a lot less frequently than that. That’s how often, according to NASA estimates, an asteroid the size of the one that flew by Friday gets that close to hitting the Earth–it passed 17,000 miles away. But when you throw in the considerably smaller meteorite that exploded over Russia the same day and injured more than 1,000 people–that’s never happened before–you’re talking about one extremely unique moment in space rock history.
Most of us have moved on, taking comfort in the belief that that’s not happening again any time soon. But there was something sobering about seeing how much damage could be done by rock about as big as one and and a half school buses. Also, that if the flyby asteroid, which was three times that size, had been on target to hit our planet, we really couldn’t have done much about it–the giant rock was spotted by a team of amateur astronomers in Spain only a year ago.
All of which prompted two basic questions: “How much warning will we get before a monster asteroid collides with the planet?” and “What’s the plan for stopping it?”
Beware of “city killers”
The good news is that NASA, which really didn’t start tracking near-Earth objects until the mid-1990s, believes it has charted almost 95 percent of the 980 asteroids more than a half-mile wide that are orbiting in our part of the universe. These are known as “planet-killers,” space rocks so large that if they collided with Earth, it would pretty much end civilization as we know it. None, I’m happy to say, are headed our way.
But move down a bit in size to asteroids roughly between 100 feet and a half mile wide and it’s a very different story. NASA figures it’s located only 1 percent of the near-Earth objects that small. They may not sound very menacing, but keep in mind that the rock that missed us Friday was roughly 150 feet wide and it would have had a cataclysmic impact if it had exploded over or landed on a populated area. And the one that did blow apart over Russia and hurt so many people was only 55 feet wide.
Scientists at the University of Hawaii, with NASA funding, are developing a network of telescopes designed to find the smaller ones. It’s called ATLAS, which stands for the ominous-sounding Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, and its creators say they’ll be able to provide a one-week warning of incoming ”city killers”–rocks about 150 wide–and three weeks notice of “county killers”–ones three times as large.
Seek and you shall find
The truth is, though, infrared telescopes surveying from space are better suited for the job, particularly when it comes to spotting asteroids orbiting close to the sun. NASA’s WISE telescope identified 130 near-Earth asteroids, but it’s been shut down for two years. Instead of replacing it, NASA is reviewing proposals for a sensor that could detect asteroids as small as 100 feet wide, while attached to a communications satellite.
But now private groups have started floating their own ideas for finding rocks flying through space. One, called the B612 Foundation after the fantasy asteroid on which the Little Prince lived, has ambitious plans to launch a deep space telescope named Sentinel. From a vantage point as far away as Venus, it should be able to look back at our planet and see the heat signatures of objects that come near the Earth’s orbit.
It’s no small undertaking–the estimated cost is $450 million–but among those driving the project are two former astronauts, Russell Schweickart and Edward Lu, who’s now a Google executive and has been able to stir up interest for the mission in Silicon Valley. Lu sees last week’s double asteroid display as a wakeup call. Sure enough, his group was getting calls all day Friday from people wanting to know when it will have its telescope up. Most likely it won’t be until 2018.
And two companies hoping to make a fortune by mining asteroids will also soon be in the business of tracking them. Planetary Resources, which includes among its investors filmmaker James Cameron, Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and X-Prize Foundation head Peter Diamandis, plans to launch its own asteroid-charting space telescope late next year. The other, Deep Space Industries, has proposed a kind of sentry line of spacecraft circling the Earth that would evaluate and, if necessary, intercept incoming asteroids.
Taking care of business
Okay, but then what? Can an asteroid moving at 18,000 miles an hour be stopped, or at least steered away?
Forget about the Armageddon approach. Blowing up an asteroid with a nuclear bomb–good for a movie, bad for Planet Earth. The resulting debris shower might do almost as much damage.
Instead, here are five ideas that have been proposed:
1) A shout out to our old friend gravity: This would involve what’s referred to as a “gravity tractor.” Actually, it’s a large spaceship that would be maneuvered as close as possible to the orbiting asteroid. In theory, the gravitational pull of such a large object would be strong enough to change the asteroid’s path. Unfortunately, some scientists say we might need a decade’s notice to pull this off.
2) Prepare for ramming speed!: The European Space Agency is working with scientists at Johns Hopkins University on a plan that would involve sending a spacecraft to bump an asteroid off course. Called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection misson, or AIDA for short, it would actually involve sending up two spacecraft. One would be there to observe and gather data while the other does the ramming. The goal would be to alter the asteroid’s spin and ultimately, its direction.
3) Okay, so there is a nuclear option: But it hopefully wouldn’t involve blowing up the asteroid to smithereens. Instead, scientists would prefer to detonate a device close enough that it would change the rock’s orbit. This is always referred to as a last resort.
4) Would you like something in an eggshell? Or perhaps a tasteful pearl white?: Then there’s the white paint strategy. According to this plan, a spacecraft would approach the asteroid and pummel it with white paint balls. The new white coat would more than double the rock’s reflectivity and, over time, that would, in theory, increase solar radiation pressure enough to move it off course. You scoff? This plan, devised by an MIT graduate student, won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition sponsored by the United Nations.
5) You knew there had to be lasers in here somewhere: And just in time for last week’s space rock event, two California scientists outlined a strategy in which they would use the sun’s power to create laser beams that could be aimed at an asteroid. They would start small, creating an array in space about the size of the International Space Station. The laser beams it created would be strong enough to push an asteroid on to a different path, say the plan’s inventors. But they wouldn’t stop there. They foresee building out the array until it’s as large as six miles wide. And then it would be able to produce laser beams powerful enough that , within a year, could vaporize an asteroid.
Sure, it sounds like a George Lucas fever dream. But the scientists say it’s eminently feasible. Besides, says one, physicist Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, it’s time to be proactive instead of reactive. As he put it, “Duck and cover is not an option.”
Video bonus: In case you forgot how bad a movie Armageddon was, and that it featured Steve Buscemi as an astronaut, here’s the over-the-top trailer.
Video bonus bonus : Or if you want to stick to the real thing, here’s a collection of videos of Friday’s asteroid flyby.
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