So obviously I haven’t written much about space exploration in quite a while. Some of the projects I wrote about long ago have pretty much fulfilled their missions; the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope is now thousands and thousands of exoplanets deep, and the ice-cube neutrino observatory has found its high energy neutrinos. I haven’t lost my love for all-things space related, but I have had somewhat of a philosophical shift on this site that what I write about here is more focused on either my own creations or journaling for myself, rather than reporting the current news.
But there was one thing that happened recently which was pretty amazing: the New Horizons space probe finally reached Pluto! (talk about earning that “tremendous voyages” tag) Dwarf planet or not, this is a new achievement in the exploration of distant worlds. This mission’s a high water mark in terms of pure kilometers that, let’s be real, won’t be exceeded in my lifetime. And that’s awesome to think about. Seldom do we get to watch something happen and know within that very moment that history is being witnessed… but this is one of those times. These pictures are a kind of rebuttal against that refrain “born too late to explore the Earth, born too early to explore the galaxy.” Well here’s a new part of your galaxy to admire:
Still ruminating on the passing of Neil Armstrong. As my tiny tribute to him, I decided to take a photo of the first full moon after his death, which also happens to be the last blue moon until 2015. I added the blue coloration in post… the blues for one less moonwalker among us.
The first man to walk on the moon died yesterday. That’s a guy whose name will be printed in history books as long as humankind ever has them.
Will there come a time when all people who’ve walked on the face of another world are no longer alive? That’s a sad thought. I hope that we get some fresh boots back into deep space sooner than later. Armstrong would certainly want it no other way…
It’s the 43rd anniversary of the moon landing today, so I gotsta post this:
It’s coming. August 5th, 2012 at 11:30pm. The Seven Minutes of Terror:
I dig how the official NASA video builds it up like a movie trailer. Because really, this stuff is honestly more badass than any movie. This is the exploration of other worlds, happing in real life and we get to watch it! Unless the sky crane doesn’t work and it crashes. Which is possible… keep your fingers crossed everyone. It’s gonna be an edge-of-your-seat ride, coming soon to a planet near you!
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the budget cuts facing NASA, and indeed they are deep, and correspondingly tragic. I’m sure the space crowd around here is already well versed, so we’ll skip the rehash.
But I do want to remind us all that there are ultra-sweet projects nearing fruition: budget cuts can’t stop Curiousity, which is well on its way to the red planet. The biggest, baddest rover that ever was! That thing is going to get new high scores, starting in August.
And, despite gobbling up all the money that could have been used for myriad enticing small projects, the James Webb Space Telescope will be built and launched. One could make a very strong case that this was the wrong decision, in light of the opportunity costs in scrapped missions the Webb consumed, but I say hey, what recent space project has done more to raise public interest in astronomy than Hubble? I mean, I’d put Hubble at #2 behind the Apollo missions in terms of ability to get people fired up and fascinated with the sky. Having a brand new, next generation eye up in space is going to create better images than ever before. Pretty pictures are important, to capture the imaginations of new generations.
In the end, it is sad that our national priorities are what they are–jeez, on MANY levels! As the SETI infographic highlighted, there is a massive disconnect between planning for an inevitable future (ie space exploration/research) versus how our money/resources get burned away at the altar of short-term profit (war profiteerism/exploitation of natural resources with disregard to the planet/etc)
Out of everything I’ve done on this website, that infographic brought way more people through the door than everything else combined. Even almost a year later there is a steady trickle of visitors every single day who come here to look at that. What does that say? I’d venture it says there’s a large group of people out there who agree that our destiny, as an evolving lifeform, lies beyond the shore of the cosmic ocean, here on Earth. And by extension, it means that our survival depends on knowing the Universe. How well can we explore it, exploit its treasures and avoid its dangers? The answer to our ultimate fate lies in how much effort we are willing to devote into these things.
What would it take to shift our societal priorities away from petty conflicts and toward the next horizon? There’s no way of saying. But Curiosity and James Webb are two powerful steps toward raising public awareness that hey, there is this giant thing called the Cosmos; it’s all around us and inconcievably more vast, richer, and filled with more splendor than Earth alone could ever hold. Seriously. We should go check that out. We should be part of that. To the people already abundantly aware of it, it’s easy to feel like maaaan, why aren’t we doing this already? Why did we cancel Apollo? Why haven’t we set foot on Mars yet? Why does our brain power go to work on Wall Street, instead of at JPL? Don’t they understand that we have places to GO?
I definitely feel that myself. But I also remind myself that it’s still less than one century since the theory of “island universes” became an accepted idea. It takes time to build concensus. It took eons for life to evolve from the sea to the land, and it will take perhaps a long time for humankind’s larger consciousness to grasp what the revelations of the last century in astronomy actually means for us all. I have to admit, I feel it does say something dark and disturbing about our society that we should develop fusion bombs well before fusion powerplants. But I keep hope that as James Webb lifts the veil from the great cosmic metropolis stretching to infinity in all directions, and as Curiousity digs to find martian secrets in our veritable backyard, it will open more eyes.
Open more eyes to the unavoidable truth that the Universe is beyond our vocabulary for Ancient, Boundless, and Beautiful. It has existed for longer than the word Epochs can articulate and it will continue unaffected when we are gone. An extension of our word for “nature,” the cosmos is equally stuffed to the brim with magnificence as it is with impartiality toward the folly of its minor tenants. The sooner we awaken to our own frailty and societally grok the rarity, the sacredness of life, the better our chances to gain that lucky opportunity to be part of this cosmos, to savor it and chronicle it.
To me, that’s the truth that Webb will awaken in more people. Curiosity is the other prong; doing. Being able to know what’s out there and prepare to go ourselves. That’s the part where the “homo” genus get to, you know, not become extict someday. But in order to get there, we need to prioritize it. We need the vision to see. Fortunately we’re going to get the most powerful set of eyeglasses yet, launching around 2018………
As Microcosmologist turns one, today is Johannes Kepler’s 440th Birthday. Happy 440th, ya old coot!
This week I saw a headline at Ars Technica (one of my favorite sites to read): “This week in Exoplanets” which added the subtitle “with a side dose of the rest of science”. I had to laugh at this.
I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that my readership is already well informed about the latest findings (go ahead and peruse the above link if not) so I’ll skip out on rehashing these latest news bytes. Indeed, one could run a whole blog solely devoted to chronicling the Kepler team’s findings.
What fascinates and delights me at this moment is standing back and observing the fact that this project is completely dominating the headlines. To the point where other very interesting scientific discoveries are taking a backseat to Kepler. It underscores the universal desire to know this cosmos around us. And the yearning to answer that nagging question ‘are we alone?’ (spoiler alert: we’re certainly not!) It’s a natural question to ask. But it’s an exceptional group of people who begin the undertaking to concretely find it and prove life exists, which is what we’re all talking about here.
So Kepler has found Earth-sized exoplanets, and exoplanets within the habitable zone of their star. It’s simply a matter of time before a world is located satisfying both of these criteria. As much as Kepler has grabbed the headlines, the project is still in the ‘warm-up’ phase, in the sense that if they need 3 transits to verify a planet, and the mission launched in 2009, next year will be the year in which they could start verifying planets with the exact size and position of Earth, orbiting around other stars. The best is yet to come!
I firmly believe they will find their Earth-twin. Probably tens or even hundreds of them. To me, this is a foregone conclusion, but one that will nevertheless be monumental when it’s announced. It’s a major stepping stone on the path to finding more life as-we-know-it. When I think about the cosmos, think about its vastness, it occurs to me that if there is a non-zero probability of life arising (and here we are), then in a universe as inconceivably expansive as ours, life MUST abound. It simply must. The realist in me doubts that I will live to see its existence scientifically verified, but as a nerd-type I deeply envy/revere the people who are conducting this search. Going a step further, as a human being, a self-aware consciousness, I know it is in our nature and our very destiny to seek connection with whomever else shares this universe with us. It is a quest upon which we are compelled to embark.
One thought that keeps reoccurring to me as the Kepler data gets dissected, is that our search is so ‘geocentric’. That is to say a lot of the analysis I read is focused purely upon the assumption that life can only arise on a goldilocks planet with Earth mass, Earth gravity, Earth atmosphere, and Earth chemistry. That’s a sensible and proper extension of the scientific though-process: we go with what we know. One thing I am very hopeful to see in my lifetime is the shattering of this geocentric view on life. Maybe even as early as this time next year when the Mars über-rover curiosity touches down on the red planet and kicks off its search for life there.
We humans think of ourselves as impossibly complex organisms, but really we are nothing more than collections of microbes that have had long time scales to build up into spiffy configurations. If we find microbes in the soil of Mars, or deep underground in Martian caves or aquifers, or somewhere beneath the icy surfaces of Europa’s oceans, then it follows that given adequate timescales, these microbes can build up their own spiffy configurations in the form of Europa-pean super-intelligent dolphins or whales, or fox-like Martian creatures that exist in complex networks of subterranean caves. Consider the fact that the number of microbes which live inside your digestive tract is greater than the number of humans ever born. Intricate organisms grows from microbes, and the more extremeophiles that pop up, the wider the playing field grows.
Daydreaming of what must be out there, I imagine there must be species which exist in far heavier gravities than a human could withstand, species that dine on arsenic-seasoned dishes, and organisms that swim through seas of radiation which would kill us almost instantly. When asked whether he looked forward to the first contact with an alien lifeform, Stephen Hawking expressed his belief that the encounter would likely parallel the meeting of Christopher Columbus and the American Indians. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more formidable intellect than Stephan, but the alien Christopher Columbus parable only holds true if Earth had some uncommon resource or a hospitable environment. Perhaps it does; oxygen atmospheres and vast oceans of liquid water. But look at our own search: singlemindedly seeking Earth-twins. Aliens from a gas giant would be singlemindedly searching for a planet like our Jupiter. How common would it be, for other intelligences to arise whose environmental requirements are incompatible with our own? And perhaps a more fascinating question: what would we learn by communicating with them? Even if we could never physically meet in person, what would their cultures have created? What truths would they see in the universe we share?
Among the awe-inspiring discoveries ongoing in our lifetimes, the chronicling and cataloging of exoplanets is right up there at the top. The other prong of this search is the expansion of our science’s boundaries on where life can exist. That includes extremeophiles living in volcanos and deep sea trenches here on earth, as well as the planetary science missions underway and forthcoming. Both of these are metaphorical digging in our own backyard that will change the way we look at what we see through the mirrors of our greatest telescopes. As Kepler blows up the newspaper headlines, my mind floats out to the Curiosity rover, traveling fast and silent through the coldness of space, racing towards a higher plateau in our search to find the next door neighbors beyond the thin blue shell of Earth’s skies…
The latest and greatest Mars rover, Curiosity, lifted off successfully for the red planet. I’m guessing all my fellow space geeks were abundantly aware of this already, and knew that this puppy has a footprint the size of a humvee, carries 10 times the scientific payload of any previous rover, and has more sophisticated analysis tools than any previous mission to mars. This baby is the biggest, baddest, and sexiest rover ever to depart for another world. It’ll be landing in August of next year. That’s pretty friggin exciting.
This weekend I attended a Star Party (aka an astronomer hangout session) with the North Houston Astronomy Club and took along my timelapse setup. I got to meet some cool people who are way into the stars, and got in some solid time staring at the heavens during the Orionid Meteor Shower. I’m pretty psyched about the resultant video below because it combines a whole bunch of techniques and tricks that I have never tried before.
Public service reminder: hit the 1080p and fullscreen it. We’re looking at stars. They’re small!
For anyone who’s wondering, those 4 tall poles in the timelapse where the sun is still going down are actually a radio telescope, set up to listen to the sounds of Jupiter as it passes southernly-overhead in the middle of the night. Bonus points for exotic telescopes!
I had done “star trails” images before by using this simple, free program called StarStaX, but I hadn’t realized that the same program can save a picture at every step during the composite-making process, which gives these really neat star trails videos. I also found a photoshop actions file as blogged about on Owen Scharlotte’s site that let me do the fading-startrails effect. This is my first time using either of those techniques. (UPDATED…TWICE!: Owen had a broken link, which is now fixed! His actions are now more sophisticated as well, so click here to download the version I used, which I’ll leave posted as it was requested of me via email from a reader. Please note: I can’t provide technical assistance with this actions file. You’ll have to read Owen’s website and figure out on your own how it works. You should check out his site anyway, as it’s good.)
As with my last attempt, I did a batch process on all 1,145 photos before compiling them into the video. I figured out how to remove hot pixels from the dark parts of the sky (using a subtraction layer on a noise reference image), but I still haven’t mastered removing them from lighter regions near the horizon. There’s definite room for improvement. Another very cool thing: I learned a few neat, new tricks with Shadow/Highlights in Photoshop as well as Curves; two functions I use all the time. Hah! And I arrogantly had assumed I knew all there was to know about these functions! Enlightening and humbling in the same moment. This whole deal was certainly a beneficial learning experience.
But stepping back from the technical aspect of all this, and speaking of humbling, have a look at those stars. Wowzers.
Something that really knocked me out that night was seeing “the great nebula in Andromeda”, aka M31, aka the Andromeda Galaxy. Maaan. I mean… every star you see in the sky is an incomprehensible distance away from us. Jeez, really I can’t even genuinely comprehend the distance from Earth to Venus, let alone the distance from Earth to Proxima Centauri… But holy %*#^ Andromeda, that’s 2.5 million light years from Earth. And you can see it with your naked eye if the sky has clear “seeing”. Hanging out with a bunch of astronomers and having them point out all these fascinating things in the sky was really inspiring. There’s certainly more sensational things to be seen in the sky (Jupiter and it’s four Galilean moons was truly a sight to behold) but looking up and spotting another galaxy, well that blew my mind. I checked it out through both binoculars and a pretty excellent telescope as well. No matter how you see it, it’s dim. But it’s there, and one of the top mind-boggling sights of my year.
You can see it, as my camera saw it on the left. I drew in purple dashed lines connecting some of the nearby stars in the Andromeda constellation that make it easier to spot. The galaxy itself is circled in green. As you can see it’s not much more than a faint blur. But man oh man, did those photons ever come a long way before, by sheer random chance, happening to land upon the image sensor of my camera. At the time that those photons left the Andromeda Galaxy, the genus Homo had literally just begun. Homo Habilis was the species. Definitely still very very ape-like. By contrast, Homo Sapiens emerged 250,000 years ago; an order of magnitude more recently. Wow.
Even though there are fantastic pictures out there of such objects as Andromeda, it’s still so very powerful to see it with your own eyes–to have your own retinas collect some photons that traveled 2.5 million years to reach them. Seeing that is ….. well it’s breathtaking.
Meeting other people who are jazzed about the sky was a highlight of the evening as well. One thing I had hoped to do was learn a bit about telescopes since it’s somewhat of a long-term goal of mine to acquire one. I met a guy named Rusty who had just gotten a brand new Orion model off eBay. It was his first real night out with it, so he was still getting things dialed in, but overall he had it in pretty great form. Seeing his excitement over the new instrument was infectious and definitely made me want to go do some further research. But talking to him at length also made me realize that I have 100% no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to ‘scopes. It’s going to be quite some time before I know enough to even consider a purchase. In the meantime, I think I might invest in a good, lightweight, comfortable pair of binoculars. I had read people saying that this was a great first step into astronomy online, but I sort of scoffed at the idea, thinking, naahh, what I want is a badass telescope! And yes, that IS what I want, but still, a good pair of binoculars is certainly a fun, portable, and instantly-maneuverable way to check out the sky. I think I will be getting a pair.
It’s been a hot minute since I wrote about anything space-related on here, and we’re due. In the words of the late great James Brown, awwwww, git on UP!
#1 news item: SETIstars succeeds! They raised their $200k and will use it to reactivate the Allen Telescope Array. That, my friends, is news sweeter than yams with extra syrup. Their website is curiously brief about the this victory and what comes next. Maybe I might email the people from SETI I had been talking with and see what they say. Inquiring minds want to know; what now?
#2: The Juno probe has been launched to visit Jupiter in 2016, where it will orbit for 1 year in a highly elliptical path, dipping into the atmosphere repeatedly to make measurements. There’s two especially fascinating things about this probe: one, it will be subjected to radiation more harsh than any other space probe, EVARRR. This craft will serve as a test-bed for future missions into the most unforgiving environments; It’s even got a titanium vault for the electronics to withstand all those deadly alphas betas gammas and whatnot. And two: it runs on solar power, at a distance from the sun where the photons are 4% as bountiful as here on Earth. Therefore it must be very power-efficient, and uses special solar cell designs to derive the juice it’ll need way out there. Stunningly cool.
Also, another awesome tidbit: the name is derived from the wife of the Roman god Jupiter, who was able to see through the veil of clouds that Jupiter drew around himself. Poetically done, guys! Popular Science has a solid roundup of the details here.
#3: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has mapped Mars in greater detail than Google Earth’s satellite imagery shows our own planet, has spat out some eyebrow-raising images that seem to convey liquid water moving down some slopes on the red planet (see the streaks in the images above?!). You can maybe file this under ‘knew it was coming eventually, but still über-rad to have real evidence now!’
#4: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has reached the asteroid Vesta, where it will orbit for a year before progressing on to Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. Now that it’s nice and close, the Dawn team made an eyeball-poppin’ movie showing the asteroid spinning. That’s pure spaceporn and I love it. Vesta is the brightest object in the asteroid belt and thought to be the source of many meteors that reach earth. If I read correctly, Dawn is done snapping pictures for now, and is commencing it’s “science orbits” where the many other instruments will check out all the asteroid’s vitals. Awww git it!
#5: Mars Rover Opportunity has almost reached Endeavour Crater, its target since 2008. This crater is more than 25 times bigger than Victoria Crater, which Opportunity spent two years checking out. Endeavour has some exposed ancient rocks to study, spotted by the aforementioned Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Note that Opportunity’s primary mission ended in 2004, and they’ve been continuing on “bonus, extended missions” since then. That’s like… mega friggin’ triumphant. If the rover had beats for its mission, I bet it would be the second half of Ewan Pearson’s Ride A White Horse Disco Odyssey remix. That thing is out in the wilderness scoring so many points right now.
All this stuff is so sweet. Seriously. It’s things like this that really help me maintain a positive outlook on us humans. As I said in my previous post of this same title, the people who are conducting these missions and operating the satellite dishes that recieve these images are called heroes. While the majority of us are concerned with daily operations on a tiny backwater outpost known as planet Earth, or the small quests like groceries and entertainment for the evening, these badasses are studying the timeless questions, about how the larger universe ticks–The larger universe that will be there still moving onward, long after the genus homo sapien is a minor footnote in the annals of what once was. Hopefully, due to the knowledge gained in these quests, an evolutionary descendant will be able to look back and think, ‘nice one ‘sapiens!’