Science Saturday: Mars Hoax + New Solar System + Plastic Oil + Astronaut Simulator + Musical Ale

Your humble science writer is on the road again, but I’ve still got you covered with this late edition of Science Saturday! This week, don’t believe the Mars hoax, discover multi-planet solar systems, turn plastic back into oil, and feel like a real astronaut. All this and more plus our gadget of the week: Tuned Pale Ale.


The Mars Hoax Returns
Have you received an e-mail recently stating that Mars will “BE AS BIG AS THE MOON ON AUGUST 27TH”? Don’t believe a word of it! The truth? Right now, Mars is currently just about as far away from Earth as it can get. The e-mail hoax has been circulating the internet every year since 2003, when Mars was truly unusually close to the Earth. Still, even in 2003, the red planet appeared only about 75 times smaller than the Earth’s moon. NASA has been trying to squelch the false rumors since they began, and they recently published another edition of Science@NASA explaining the origin of the myth. The original e-mail was written by a person with a poor understanding of optics. Because Mars would appear 75 times smaller than the moon, the author assumed that a modest backyard telescope with a 75x lens would allow Mars to show up the size of the moon. Not quite true. But, the e-mail began mutating and changing, eventually leaving out the part about using a telescope. When the year was erased from the e-mail as well, the hoax became immortal. See the Science@NASA article for more.

Don’t believe the Mars hoax e-mail!

Kepler Finds Multi-Planet Solar System
NASA’s planet finding Kepler spacecraft accomplished another first for itself when it spotted a multi-planet solar system. The Kepler-9 system includes two Saturn-class planets orbiting very close to the parent star as well as a possible third Earth-sized planet that whirs through a hellish “year” in just 1.8 days. “The Kepler mission has discovered two new planets orbiting the same star and actually there’s a third possible, or candidate, planet that may be transiting that star as well,” said William Borucki, the Kepler principal investigator. “It is the first discovery of (multiple) planets transiting the same star. Trailing the Earth in its orbit around the sun, Kepler’s 95-megapixel camera is aimed at a patch of sky in the constellation Cygnus that’s the size of an out-stretched hand, a target zone that contains more than 4.5 million detectable stars. For more info, see the Kepler website.

Kepler spacecraft discovers a multi-planet solar system

Man Invents Machine to Turn Plastic Into Oil
Plastic is made from oil, so how hard could it be to turn it back? That was the thinking behind a project that has led to the creation of a device that does just that. Using Japanese technology, one man has created an ultra portable machine that takes unsorted plastic garbage and converts it back into oil that can be used to power vehicles. He has spent time traveling around the world teaching people about the importance of proper disposal of plastic waste. He says that once people realize the plastic is oil, they collect it rather than throwing it on the ground.

Electrodes Simulate Astronaut Reentry by Tricking Your Brain
Have you ever wanted to experience what it feels like to plummet back down to Earth after becoming used to the weightlessness of space? Apparently all it takes is 5 milliamps of electricity behind your ears. The Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation (GVS) system, created by Dr. Steven Moore of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, is a device used during astronaut training that simulates the disorientation of Earth reentry during shuttle simulations. Astronauts who had no difficulty landing a shuttle without the device showed severe disorientation and drifted to dangerously high speeds while having trouble steering the shuttle when the GVS was used.

GVS astronaut training system

Gadget of the Week: Tuned Pale Ale
Tuned Pale Ale is the first and only beer that encourages your social drinking experience to become a musical one. The labels on the glass beer bottles are properly marked to let you know what notes you can play by blowing air across the bottle when your beer is at those levels. A small batch of the stuff was created and tested, and the creators found an overwhelmingly positive response, with people eventually making songs together. The side of the bottle is ribbed so that it can be played with the bottle cap, and the limited addition case is designed to be flipped over and used as a drum set! Check out the product’s website for more info and pictures. The beer is not yet widely available, but the creators are seeking distribution.

Tuned Pale Ale


If you are on Twitter, you know there are plenty of amazing people out there tweeting away. And, many of them are scientists! Every Friday I’ll be bringing you a new list of great scientists, techies, and trekkies to follow on Twitter. This week…

  • @RealNichelle: Nichelle Nichols (Uhura, TOS). Avid supporter of NASA, and the acceptance of all races and genders.
  • @maejemison: Dr. Mae Jemison: First woman of color in space, Physician, Scientist, Engineer, Explorer and Futurist. Someone who proves that daring makes a difference!
  • @ArcticMandy: Self-proclaimed polar bear with a travel addiction searching the globe for all things sci-fi!

Science Quickies
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a look.


TrekMovie’s Science Friday is an homage the the great NPR radio show Science Friday. Science Friday® is a registered service mark of ScienceFriday Inc.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

One Inportant question. Does the beer taste good. Music is fine but if the taste is bad then what does it matter. Lol. Wow. That email about Mars is still going around. Somebody needs a Mars Bar. So. If I zap the back of my ears I can get a feel for Reentry. Probly not a good Idea to try that while driving. Anthony. Great Article.

Plastic back into Oil. Hmm. That would solve a lot of problems. A planet ecperenceing a year in just 1.8 days. Wow. We all would be pretty old right now on that planet.

Mars needs women!

Wow, another system with planets! That is sooo cool! :)

Yep, I got that Mars email. And I’m delighted to say I didn’t believe it.
One for me! ;-))

*sigh* The galaxy seems like such a violent place. Will we ever find another habitable planet, let alone alien life?

A device that turns plastic into oil!. Reminds me of the Mr. Fusion home energy reactor from the end of Back to the Future that used garbage to create 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity for the Delorean to travel through time.

Remember that there’s a significant bias with the current Kepler findings. The way the technology works, the planets it detects have to be placed between the Kepler telescope and the star it’s currently observing. This alignment lasts for a minute amount of time, and only occurs once during the orbital cycle of the planet. These large fast moving planets are easily detected because a window of opportunity opens up every couple of days. And because they are so large, it’s easy to spot them. An earth sized planet in the optimal orbit to support life as we know it on the other hand would likely have an orbital period of roughly one year, assuming a star similar to our own. Thus the very small window of opportunity comes around only once a year, and is considerably harder to spot because it’s such a small target. As time goes on, however, the odds of Kepler finding a planet more in line with what we see in our own solar system increase. It’s a slow, tedious process to be sure, but it’s already taught us so much about what other stellar systems are like that it’s hard to imagine the best isn’t still ahead of us.

I got that email several years ago. Too bad it’s not true, it would be pretty cool to have a planet fly by and look that big in the sky–which has been done on alien planets in many SF movies…

I do enjoy looking at Venus in the night sky. It is the brightest “star” in the night sky…

Space agents? What’s the commission, and how soon till I see a space booth at the county fair?


“What the hell is a gigawatt?!!!”

#11. Watch Back to the Future and even on Tng Epps Relics with Scotty.

NPR’s Science Friday had Okuda and them gents that made all tha’ TNG displays and such talkin’ aboot’ sci-fi tech and today’s tech…

It’s got an MP3 on tha’ top left ta’ listen ta’ tha’ interview.

Otherwise… bet enough o’ them musical brews will make me imagine what re-entry feels like…



Yeah, I’ve seen BTTF a few thousand times. “What the hell is a gigawatt?!!!” is a line Marty says in the movie. But thanks for the heads-up anyway. :)

Re: #8 – Thanks for the additional details on Kepler, Joseph. You’re right: with more observation time, we’ll start adding more Earth-sized, and habitable zone planets to the found column. The question then becomes, what do we do with that knowledge?

I’m glad someone finally made a tabletop plastic-to-oil machine. I do wonder how much energy it takes to convert and then separate the grades of oil. I imagine it’s more energy and labor efficient to make oil from waste than it is to recycle plastic waste into reusable plastics. I’d love to know for sure though.

Scott B. out.

Mars the size of the moon? Behold the end of the world is at hand or is it Bellus! Pass that musical beer to drink with it as I play a drunkin melody of doom!

PLASTIC BACK INTO OIL, THAT IS BRILLIANT!!!! Looks easy to build one of those with a pressure cooker, too!

@8: Joseph (or anybody else who knows), do you happen to know what the schedule of stars to be examined is for the Kepler mission, the results of stars already examined, and where I might have a look at the list?

#1 The beer tastes okay, the music is lousy at first, but after the fourth beer, it starts to sound better…

If Mars really were going to pass that close to earth, wouldn’t the gravitational forces have a seriously bad effect on both planets?

Reminds me of Asimov’s article about “Space: 1999”, when that explosion of nuclear waste on the far side of the moon sent it hurtling out of the solar system at warp speed (or something like that); Asimov wrote that such an orbital shift would have destroyed the moon almost instantly.

i hope that plastic bottle machine really works!!!!!!!!!!!!

we have too many plastic bottles filling our land fills.

#19. You are right. With Beer almost any song starts to sound good.
#14. I do not know the power of the Gigiwat. I think it is a measure of Energy. Im a Trek Geek but not a Math Geek. Lol.


Yeah, me neither. I just know Doc flipped out when he heard it takes 1.21 of them to break the time barrier. Must take a lot of energy to power that little flux capacitor if they had to resort to a lightning bolt to get Marty back! Interestingly enough, I seem to remember a mention on the DVD commentary that the original story involved an atomic bomb test range in the desert, sort of like was later used in the DS9 episode “Little Green Men”—one of my favorite Trek episodes btw.

Also, it’s funny in BTTF how they mispronounce the word ‘gigawatt.’ It’s actually pronounced with a J sound—jigawatt. Oh well, it’s still a great movie!


Oh wait, I might have that backwards. Maybe it’s with a G sound and they did the other way around. Ah, I need to watch it again!

#24. I know that in the Tng Ep Relics that Scotty told Geordi that he could get a few more Gigawats out of the U.S.S Janolan for the Shields. So yes it is a lot of power for sure.

@21: About 4.6% of US petroleum is transformed into plastic. Not just plastic bottles. But PLASTIC. The guy in that video is right. We are sitting on an oil field of plastic/garbage/fuel.

The conversion of plastic to oil looks very interesting, and the conversion ratio looks very impressive. But the first question that come sto my mind is, “What’s the energy COST to do the conversion?” Remember, this thing is consuming electricity to do its work.

In other words, how much oil do we burn to generate the electricity that’s needed to If we burn a litre of oil to reconvert a kilogram of plastic into half a litre of oil, that’s a bad deal. If we burn a millilitre to do it, that’s a good tradeoff.

A gigawatt is equal to 1 billion watts. To put that in perspective, a normal light bulb uses about 100 watts of energy.

Blest says it takes app. 1 KW of electricity to produce 1 liter of oil (which I don’t understand; since the machine can’t process plastic into oil instantaneously, it’s going to take time, so it should be in kilowatt hours, not kilowatts, so that probably is just a citation of how much wattage the machine consumes to operate). About 20 cents they say. (Okay, the average US price of electricity is under 10 cents per kilowatt hour, so if it costs 20 cents then it’s probably taking a little over 2 hours to process a kilogram of plastic into a liter of oil based on the national average).

Those numbers make it feasible to run on solar power for anyone who has the cash to dedicate an array to the job. It won’t be cheap because semiconductor solar cells aren’t cheap, but as thin film technology improves, prices will drop, and it isn’t far fetched to imagine interested people turning their garages into homestead refineries without using fossil fuels to convert waste plastic into necessary fossil fuels.

Throw away those filthy germ carrying reusable grocery bags, and start asking for plastic again!

Watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a month we start seeing tabletop hacks of this technology on YouTube, using a Cuisinart electric pressure cooker to boil ubiquitous low melting point plastics like HDPE and LDPE.


Wow! Thanks for the info. Now that really puts the power needs of the flux capacitor in perspective. Also, has anyone (since Ben Franklin) ever tested just how much electrical power is in a bolt of lightning. I’m sure it varies with each bolt, but there has to be some data out there on the average power output.


Yes #28 is correct that 1 gigawatt is equal to 1 billion watts. A watt is itself a measure of electrical energy, which can be calculated by the relationship between the current of the circuit, and the voltage. Or P=VI

Not to be a doubting Thomas (Riker, that is) but if the oil-from-plastic machine works so well, why isn’t BP drilling in a landfill?

Can I put a $200K space flight on my Visa? Uh, that would be ‘no.’

Thanks, Kayla!

Musical beer? There’s a much better beer out there for this website. Dogfish Head’s “Wrath of Pecant” – an homage to Star Trek II.


In the old days, V would be replaced by the symbol “E” and the formula would be as easy to remember as pie:



Does that mean your real name is Kenneth Mars?


When I drink beer, eventually I can toot without the bottle.

@29. dmduncan

Thanks for throwing me a bone here. Need the info.


@33. CmdrR “… why isn’t BP drilling in a landfill? ”

There are several aspects I can imagine.

First of all is the separation problem. Separating the plastic from all the other materials in a landfill is a non-trivial matter, especially on an industrial scale

Second, there’s a subset of separation, which is cleaning. I know the video indicates that the plastic doesn’t need to be prepared, but it all looked to me like drink containers and such that are inherently fairly clean when used. It’s not at all clear exactly how much left over kung-pow chicken and how many stale french fries can go into this contraption along with the styrofoam clamshells.

For the kind of company BP is there probably isn’t enough money in it to make this attractive. But for us, as consumers, this might make sense as a way to dispose of our plastics if the table top tech becomes affordable.

I’m guessing the machine uses 500 to 1000 watts of electricity, which is in the range of a coffee maker. Totally within the scope of being powered by solar cells at home.

Thanks for the info, dmduncan, but I’m curious if anyone has an answer to my question up at #15 – do you think it’s better/cheaper/easier/smaller carbon footprint to make oil from undifferentiated plastics … or is it better to separate the grades of plastic and recycle them into materials that can be remade into new bags, bottles, etc?

Currently in our county, those of us who care about this stuff put our plastics (and glass, metal and paper) on the street for recycling. Does it make more environmental sense to cart off all the plastic waste to a plastic-to-oil refinery … or to a separation plant where the plastics are (presumably) recycled into new plasticky things?

I do like your idea of a solar powered home distillery, though. I think your car would probably need a diesel engine to burn whatever comes out the end, like those that have been converted to burn used cooking oil.

Scott B. out.


I could say my real name is Pluto, but that would be Goofy!

@40: Well if you can make fuel that you need out of waste that you are going to acquire no matter what, why buy it, and from Saudi Arabia?

Some interesting trends are developing: desktop 3D printing, desktop CNC machining. Desktop fuel production fits right in to that trend.

This is Awesome! Recently I saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. This kind of thing takes it to the next level. Of course it’s not as good as eliminating oil altogether but it will help get rid of some of the waste for now. I hope they do well.