The Heat is On

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January 25, 2016

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
And Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

2015 TIN FOIL HATTER POLL UPDATE!

Southern California Gas must badly want this tin foil topper (or its CEO is lusting for infamy as a 2016 nominee). Over the weekend, SoCalGas head Dennis Arriola told a CBS reporter that “Methane is not a toxin,” and then disingenuously blamed cases of local residents suffering with persistent nose bleeds, nausea, headaches and other health problems with the oderant in the natural gas.”The odorant that people are smelling, that’s unfortunately causing a lot of this inconvenience, is a short-term issue for people,” Arriola said. “Once we finish closing or solving the leak and closing the well, the issues go away.”

Arriola is technically, and cynically, correct: methane, is nontoxic. However it is an asphyxiant, which according to a must-read Scientific American article:

Methane can occupy the same place in blood cells that oxygen normally does. Symptoms of methane exposure include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness and loss of coordination.

Gee wiz, sounds vaguely familiar … In other words, breathing high concentrations of methane is dangerous, if not deadly.

Also methane is highly flammable, so depending on the concentration, a spark could cause one spectacular fireball that Darth Vader would be proud of.

So, we guess what Arriola really means is if the residents of Porter Ranch don’t breath or light a match, everything’s peachy.

And let’s not forget that methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and is 25 times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere. (Nothing wrong here, since Arriola didn’t mention anything about that!)

Little did we realize that this competition was going to be so fierce, so if you haven’t yet voted for your favorite 2015 Tin Foil Hatter of the Year, CLICK HERE! (Poll closed)

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S e e i n g  i s  B e l i e v i n g   ( U n l e s s  Y o u  A r e  w i t h  S t u p i d )

If you go to Google at this moment and punch in “space news,” what do you think is at the top of the list?  Hint – it’s a really vital breaking thunderbolt of discovery, spinning in newsrooms around the world!

Can’t guess? Ta-Dah! It’s astronaut Mark Kelly playing ping-pong with a glob of water on the space station.  Mind-bending!

It’s days like this when I see vividly clear why I hauled ass out of the mainstream media world…and went rogue.  (Please forgive the use of that word, which is so misused on Donald Trump’s current “I’m with Stupid Tour.”)

Every perky news anchor from New York to Australia is gaily reporting the ping-pong story.  And yet, what you won’t see in the headlines truly could change our world…or perhaps I should say potential worlds.

Kepler

Exoplanet bounty hunter Kepler.

Just a few weeks ago, the Kepler Space Telescope found its 1,930th confirmed exoplanet, and that is mind-bending when you consider the fact that scientists were squabbling over whether there even were any other planets besides those in our solar system a scant half-century ago.  It’s incredibly important if the ego of humans wants to survive beyond the eventual destruction of this planet.  I am not referring to the inevitable burnt crispy cinder Earth will become in 4 billion years thanks to a bloated dying Sun, but to the destruction wrought by greedy climate change deniers and plunderers of resources, which I unhappily believe will render this home of ours uninhabitable – sooner rather than later.

The far right’s battle cry: “Earth First!  We’ll mine the other planets later…” is becoming increasingly irritating and unfunny to many of us.

But back to Kepler.  This scrappy eye in the sky actually broke in 2013, four years after its mission began, when one of its three reaction wheels failed.  The wheels are vital to keep the scope centered precisely on target, and without them the craft could easily be knocked out of position by a micro piece of space junk or high-energy particles.  So scientists used the power of the Sun to keep the telescope steady, and it’s working.

Here’s how it works – the Sun on the Kepler’s solar panels is acting as

EarthLike-Planets

Three of Earth’s galactic siblings.

a third reaction wheel, pushing against the other two to keep enough tension on the magnificent eyepiece to steady it.  In fact, the data is coming in so rapidly that astronomers are having a hard time keeping up.  To date, the Kepler has actually found an additional 4,696 exoplanets that have yet to be confirmed.

In the past year, the reborn Kepler has found, among many other surprises, three “Super Earths,” all residing around a single star!

Science Recorder.com, however, now reports that a second reaction wheel is damaged, which might curb that information flow considerably.

James Webb Scope

James Webb “Super” Space Telescope

Nonetheless, at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting held earlier this month astronomers announced that they are certain alien life will be found in the next ten years, probably using space telescopes.  If one factors in the upcoming mission of the James Webb Telescope – which will be 100 times more powerful than the Universe-changing Hubble, the prediction seems almost like a certainty.  The James Webb is on schedule for launch in October 2018.

I shudder to think how the anti-science faction of the political spectrum will react to the news of alien life, even on a microbial level.  If they do not outright deny it, even when it’s shoved under their ruddy noses like global warming was, they will try to capitalize and monopolize it, no doubt.  It’s terribly important that projects like the James Webb and the Kepler get funded, so maybe if we let the deniers think they can make money off such discoveries, we can still get the votes for such science.

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C h a l l e n g e r  A n n i v e r s a r y

Note: This Thursday is the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the loss of its seven astronauts including commander Dick Scobee; pilot Mike Smith; mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair; and payload specialist Greg Jarvis, in addition to teacher Christa McAuliffe. The National Geographic Channel is airing a special documentary tonight featuring rare behind-the-scenes footage surrounding the tragedy, For more information on the NGC’s “Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes,” click here.

Also, check out the excellent  8-part series originally written for NBC News in 1997 by By Jay Barbree entitled “The Challenger Saga: An American space tragedy.”

T h e  H e a t  i s  O n

Screen shot 2016-01-23 at 4.01.59 AMIn a stunning display of one-upmanship to Space X’s failed Falcon 9 Death Star explosive landing test earlier this month, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin commerciall space venture announced Friday that it successfully launched and returned its recycled New Shepard booster for a second time. According to the aerospace company led by Amazon CEO tycoon Bezos, the rocket, which performed a similar maneuver in November, reached a maximum altitude of just over 333 miles (the International Space Station flies just under that height) before it was brought back to Earth for a soft upright landing.

One of the major breakthroughs demonstrated in last week’s test is with the New Shepard’s navigational software. Rather than having the craft perform a bulls eye touchdown, the system now targets the midpoint of the landing pad and then “intelligently” adjusts for the most convenient point, avoiding last second course corrections that could destabilize the craft. Blue Origin boasts that the new guidance system acts similar to an airline pilot who will land a pane a few feet off-center on the runway rather than dangerously swerving last minute to achieve an exact mid-tarmac arrival.

E n t e r  t h e  D r a g o n . . .

Screen shot 2016-01-23 at 3.04.07 PMNot to be left eating Blue Origin’s dust, Space X has posted footage from last November of its manned Dragon 2 spacecraft undergoing successful hovering tests of its “SuperDraco” thrusters. Designed to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station starting in 2017, the Dragon 2 will fly atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, and eventually will ferry humans back to Earth in a controlled descent with the accuracy of a helicopter. For the first few crewed flights, however, the Dragon 2 capsule will sport parachutes for an ocean splashdown.

I  C a n  Do  A n y t h i n g  B e t t e r  T h a n  Y o u

To cap off the most recent volley of technological muscle-flexing, Virgin Galactic’s head Screen shot 2016-01-23 at 2.14.44 PMhoncho Richard Branson bragged that his company’s SpaceShipTwo is superior to the competing Falcon-9 or New Shepard reusable craft. The disarmingly charming space-age raconteur, who was iintervewed by CNBC during last week’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland, trash talked his fellow gazillionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, stating that, “Our spaceship comes back and lands on wheels. Theirs don’t. Because ours is shaped like an airplane, we hope to do point-to-point air travel one day. Theirs is not,” he told the financial news network.

Branson did concede that Musk and Bezos would have good reasons to tout their crafts’ competitive edge over Virgin’s spaceliner. In fact, Bezos recently sung praises of his spacecraft’s old school upright design:

Though wings and parachutes have their adherents and their advantages, I’m a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because — to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space — we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well.

T o p  o f  t h e  C h a r t s

For the first time in its 11-year history, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks ReportScreen shot 2016-01-23 at 2.57.42 PM has ranked an environmental risk – climate change – as the most severe economic peril facing the world.  According to the ranking by nearly 750 experts, “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation,” led the pack of the greatest economic dangers including weapons of mass destruction, water crises, large-scale involuntary migration, and severe energy price shock. In terms of the likelihood of occurring, climate change held its own at third place behind large-scale involuntary migration and extreme weather events.

E T  n o t  H o m e ?

A new study published in the journal Astrobiology suggests that while the ingredients for Screen shot 2016-01-23 at 4.22.22 PMlife in the universe are plentiful, the common default is extinction, thereby explaining the paradox of why we haven’t seen any evidence of life outside our planet even though the cosmos should be teaming with biological activity. Authors Aditya Chopra and Charles H. Lineweaver explain this “Gaian bottleneck” in which life rarely evolves quickly enough to “regulate greenhouse gases … thereby maintaining surface temperature compatible with liquid water and habitability. ” Hmm, is it us, or does this sound a little too close to home?

L u c y  i n  t h e  S k y

Screen shot 2016-01-23 at 1.27.06 AMThe Hubble Space Telescope’s latest portrait unveils  the most populous – and youngest – star cluster in our Milky Way Galaxy, featuring a stunning display of diamond-like massive white-blue stars. The area, known as Trumpler 14, is a cosmically infantile 500,000 years old, with its stellar inhabitants spending their hydrogen fuel so quickly that it will only be a mere few million years before they go out with a bang as supernova bursts.

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Straw Man Poll

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By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large and Agnett Bonwit, Galactic Sandbox Managing Editor

January 20, 2016

It’s 2016, and what a year this past one has been for space endeavors!  If we are to learn anything from 2015, we can expect the political tenor this year to be, once again, bat crap crazy, punctuated with a noisy boom in space privatization.

Falcon 9 on its way to launch Jason-3

Space-X’s Falcon 9 rocket rolling out for launch last week.

The most prominent among those in the space enterprise scramble, at the moment, is Space X.  Elon Musk’s rocket company keeps making headlines: it had a big finale flourish last year with the first successful launch and landing of the Falcon 9 rocket from, and back to, Cape Canaveral. Musk’s firm then jumped right out of the gate in the new year with a fat contract to resupply the space station with their Dragon cargo capsule (along with Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus), and for a brief moment on Sunday, January 17, the firm was poised to add an additional feather in its cap as the Falcon 9 touched down on an ocean barge 200 miles west of San Diego after successfully launching and depositing

SNCs-Dream-Chaser-Spacecraft-a

Sierra Nevada’s proposed Dream Chaser space taxi.

into orbit an ocean surveillance satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA,

Unfortunately, the Falcon 9 rocket narrowly missed its mark, and during the wobbly touchdown the $60 million-rocket broke one of its landing legs and the craft toppled over on the deck of the barge instead of resting upright, and then kablooyed into a fiery explosion.

Still, launching vehicles into orbit to deliver payloads, guiding them back to a specific point on Earth, and landing them safely and reusing them is a tremendous victory only Space X has accomplished so far.  It’s a major advancement that will cut costs in space exploration.

Continuing to look on the bright side, the successfully-launched Jason-3 sat, a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency, will take measurements of ocean wave heights using radar altimetry, tracking essential information about rising sea levels encroaching coastal communities.

And as we know, that’s sure to make Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and his Screen shot 2016-01-19 at 10.03.53 PMclimate-change denying Baby Hermans on the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee go ape.  Perhaps the committee will try to subpoena ESA’s emails and phone calls – as they tried to with NOAA and NASA Earth scientists, an intrusive unreasonable demand to which the agencies refused.  Whaaahh!

 

H a t t e r B u z z

That provides a nice segue to our next announcement….Drum roll / fingernails running across blackboard, please!…. Introducing a very special Galactic Sandbox first:

Ta Da!

The 2015 Tin Foil Hatter’s Contest!

Awards season is upon us, so we’ve decided to join the pomp and splendor, and conduct our own “people’s choice” extravaganza in which our intrepid readers get to pick which headline grabbing entity in space news gets to wear the dubious crown of being the biggest, greediest, galactically destructive moron of all time (at least for 2015).

The Galactic Sandbox team at one time reserved its special Tin Foil Hatter of the Week award to “true believers” of very refutable UFO assertions.  Then we realized that certain political factions and corporations were operating on far far worse assumptions that outdid anything a harmless typical Tin Foil Hatter could come up with.  With that in mind, here are 2015’s three top contenders:

Hatter #1:  Greedy asteroid miners, in particular, Chris Lewicki, the CEO of Planetary Resources, for defying the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1986.

asteroid harvestor

Deep Space Industries’ proposed asteroid harvester

By the end of the year, Congress deregulated any obstacles for corporations to mine objects in space with abandon.  A few legal scholars have tried to remind lawmakers that this flies in the face of the U.N. Outer Space Peace Treaty of 1986, which precludes any nation or entity from “owning” heavenly bodies – to no avail.  The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act passed in November paves the way for companies to demolish any asteroids they can get their hands on, and last one there is a rotten egg.

And if you think this is going to be an orderly, responsible manifest destiny romp to infinity and beyond, one should chew on the following quip from Lewicki:

“You look at the Old West, and it wasn’t just miners that had success going out to pan for gold,” he says. “You had saloon operators popping up because there was an opportunity to serve those miners, and towns expanding. And you have to think of it that way that the expansion of an economic industry in space is going to support a lot more than just us. There are going to be people capitalizing and thriving off of what the industry will create.”

YEE HAW!  Let the plundering begin.

Screen shot 2016-01-19 at 10.22.25 PM

Aerial shot of Southern California catastrophic methane leak.

Hatter #2:  Southern California Gas, for telling the L.A. Basin and thousands of residents of Porter Ranch, CA to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  When families complained of constant migraines, nose bleeds and dire sickness, the energy conglomerate insisted a tiny gas leak could not be causing the problems.  Then it was discovered that a ruptured casing in a gas well was letting loose massive amounts of the gas methane and cancer-causing benzene and toluene into the atmosphere, 24-7, since at least October – some residents say much longer, making it the second largest environmental disaster since the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Sheryl Goldfarb, 27-year resident at PR at town hall

Porter Ranch resident’s simple plea.

And the greenhouse gas is still pouring out, causing schools to close down and the evacuation of 30,000 people in the Porter Ranch area – turning the community into a virtual ghost town.  The leak has taken up one-fourth of California’s greenhouse emissions cap, the equivalent of 7 million more cars on L.A.s freeways or six coal-burning plants.  The company says the well cannot be fixed until April at the earliest (now it’s saying late February, but unlike Porter Ranch residents, I wouldn’t hold your breath).  NASA had to get special permission from the FAA to fly over the mess to assess the catastrophe, since the area was declared a no-fly zone!

The topper to it all is that we all know no one in Southern California Gas (or its parent company Sempra Energy) will be held accountable for destroying a sizable chunk of the state’s environment.  Putrid.

Hatter #3:  Congressman Lamar Smith and his House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, for their witch-hunting against Earth climatologists at NOAA and NASA for allowing the public to see their data affirming that global warming is real.

Screen shot 2016-01-20 at 12.51.37 AM

Lamar Smith and U.S. House Committee on Space, Science and Technology perform witch hunt on environmental scientists.

Smith and his Republican-heavy Committee (which oversees the budgets for both NASA and NOAA) has long been beating the drum against scientists who monitor the planet’s atmosphere and environments for several years, but 2015 saw an out and out war waged when Smith attempted to subpoena emails and internal documents of Earth scientists in both agencies.  Smith held special closed-door hearings against the heads of Earth monitoring divisions, and so far, the agency heads have told Smith to go stuff it, refusing to comply with the demands.  Smith is threatening to withhold federal funds for Earth monitoring, and has gone so far as to say that NASA and NOAA  have “doctored” their climate warming findings.

One question we have about this cauldron of bile:  When are Smith and the Committee going to be sued for libel?

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And there you have the top contenders for the Galactic Sandbox Tin Foil Hatter Contest of 2015.  We know it’s a tough, agonizing decision choosing between such heavyweights, all of who righteously deserve the honor of wearing the tin foil crown with pride!  But please folks, make your voices heard and VOTE (or at least write in your personal favorite). Our poll below will be open 11:59 pm EST on February 5th! (Poll closed)

I know whom I’m voting for…

H i t  o r  M i s s

I assume you all paused to cast your vote in the Tin Foil Hatter of the Year Contest, so you can now don your titanium-encrusted hard hat as we celebrate the fact that NASA has finally created a formal office where the sole mission is to protect Earth from incoming asteroids.  It’s called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, and the head of this effort, the “planetary defense director,” will basically manage the traffic of info between government agencies to determine where, when and how big the threat may be, and will have the power to call in FEMA if need be.

No, the office will not prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth, which is scary when one ponders the 1,500 near-Earth objects that are detected, mostly by NASA, each year.  Surprisingly, NASA did manage to get $50 million dedicated for the detection and observation of such space chunks for fiscal year 2016 – up tenfold since 2010.  (How that escaped Lamar Smith’s Eye of Sauron gaze is another wonder.)

asteroid redirect mission

NASA’s envisioned Asteroid Redirect Mission.

The real hero that will probably end up saving this planet is NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will use a gravity tractor method by placing a big boulder in front of an asteroid to pull it slightly off trajectory.  Unfortunately, there is no launch date yet and estimates for that is perhaps “several decades.”

By then we may all be fried like the dinosaurs, with the Earth sporting a Montana-sized hole in it.

N e w  K i d  O n  t h e  B l o c k?

Two Caltech astronomers announced Wednesday in The Astronomical Journal they have Screen shot 2016-01-20 at 9.53.14 AMthe strongest evidence yet that an elusive “Planet X” resides in the boondocks of our Solar System far beyond Neptune. According to Science, planetary scientists Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown were ready to deflect the inevitable ridicule for championing the existence a ninth planet orbiting the Sun (Pluto debate aside). “If you say, ‘We have evidence for Planet X,’ almost any astronomer will say, ‘This again? These guys are clearly crazy.’ I would, too,” Brown says. “Why is this different? This is different because this time we’re right.”

According to Batygin and Brown, the yet unseen planet is nearly as large as Neptune, and orbits the Sun every 15,000 years. Ironically, Brown is infamously known as the “Planet Slayer” and author of the book, How I Killed Pluto, discovered the planetoid Eris in 2005, which led to Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet. “Killing Pluto was fun, but this is head and shoulders above everything else,” Brown quipped.

C a t c h i n g  S o m e  R a y s

Juno

Jupiter-bound solar-powered Juno probe.

NASA’s Juno probe broke a record last week in becoming the farthest traveled solar-powered craft when it surpassed the space agency’s Rosetta craft’s odometer of 493 million miles, as Juno “putts” it’s way on to Jupiter.

Launched in 2011, Juno is slated to arrive at the gas giant on July 4th, where it will go on to orbit the planet 33 times and gather data about Jupiter’s origins and atmosphere.  The craft is equipped with three 30-foot-long solar arrays and 18,696 solar cells.

W a k e – u p  C a l l

Philae on landing site

NASA’s Philae craft beached on comet.

Speaking of the Rosetta spacecraft, NASA made a final attempt to revive its Philae lander – which is not responding, and is currently stuck on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

JPL operators tried to send commands to Philae to spin its internal flywheel, hoping to dislodge the gizmo, which has been marooned on the same spot, apparently dead, since November.

B l o o m i n g  P r o b l e m

Lake Erie toxic algae bloom shot by NASA.

People living in Ohio should be glad to hear that NASA is stepping up to save their drinking water from a massive and toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie.  The NASA Glenn Research Center – known for tackling aquatic problems with new water technologies – will not only monitor the bloom closely but also propose specific methods to actually fix the poisonous problem.  After the Erie Lake turned bright green in the summer of 2014, Toledo had to issue a ban on drinking water for two days, and the crisis is far from over. The poison is caused by phosphorus run-off from Big Ag fields during heavy rains.

NASA Glenn has already equipped a plane to assess the water quality of the great lake – or lake thereof – which has the advantage of flying under cloud cover, unlike Earth monitoring satellites.The center has already built a portable device that can kill micro-organisms by injecting plasma into the water with bursts of electricity. NASA is also looking into biological methods such as planting prairie grass in strips on the edges of farm fields.  Prairie grass likes to eat phosphorus, and can cut the phosphorus run-off by 90 percent.

C e l e s t i a l  L i n e – u p

Grab your Newtonian, Dobsonian, opera glasses, etc, because beginning today, the brightest planets from Earth’s perspective will be be visible in the night sky at the same time for the next month. The best view of the fab five (Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter) is expected to occur on the morning of February 5 (see below).Screen shot 2016-01-20 at 1.08.19 AM

Z i n n i a n a u t

And to end on a sweet note, we take you to the International Space Station, where it was announced that the first flower has been grown in outer space: a zinnia.  It hasn’t been easy, according to the ISS astronauts.  Zero gravity is hard on plant growth, and the flower crops were over-saturated with water and then dried out too fast with fans.

first flower grown in outer space

First flower bloom in space.

But the third flower attempt was the charm, and astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted a photo of the bloom to the world on Monday.

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Bellyflop

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January 11, 2014

Editor’s Note: Kate is looking forward to return in a week or two as she recovers from the debilitating effects caused from high levels of magnesium sulfate in her drinking water. Please stay tuned, as Kate sets her sights on the nominees for Galactic Sandbox’s 1st Annual Tin Foil Hatter Award, as well as the nutty economic implications of the newly-passed Commercial Space Competitiveness Act that gives the green light to interplanetary asteroid mining..

Since the universe (and Kate’s stomach) continues to churn with activity, we’ve chosen a few space news goodies that you can savor by clicking on the hyperlinks below. – Agnett Bonwit

Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 7.57.52 PM

Astronomers witness rare galactic-sized pig-out in real time.

Triple Golden Globe laurels go to The Martian in Best Comedy category [really]

While NASA sees red, commercial space firms see Lunar oasis as next phase of space exploration

NASA’s super-sized space telescope passes half-way development mark

Gimpy Kepler scope continues to spot hundreds of new exo-planets

Space agency christens new asteroid detection program

 

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Happy New Year’s Revolution

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H A P P Y  N E W  Y E A R ‘ S  R E V O L U T I O N

January 4, 2016

Editor’s Note: The team at Galactic Sandbox would like to wish all a very happy new trip around the Sun! We’re still recovering from the holiday hoopla, and Kate should be back next week with her picks for Tin Foil Hatter of 2015!! — Agnett Bonwit

In the meantime, here are some links to recent captivating galactic tidbits:

Screen shot 2016-01-03 at 1.42.20 PMHave fun with one of the many “2015 top space events” lists.

Space-surviving “water bears” may be losing home as Antarctic ice sheets melt.

Mysterious “space balls” crash land in Vietnam.

SpaceX chief gives green light for recyclable rocket’s next mission.

British astronaut phones home to wrong number.

Details of 1960s Cold War space station revealed.

3D printers to be used to build proposed Moon / Mars “cities”

ESA puts final flourishes on ExoMars craft for planned March launch.

 

 

 

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