“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
Would you take a one-way trip to Mars? Think about that for a moment: would you leave your family, friends, the entire planet Earth behind to live out your days forever enclosed in a sealed habitat on a distant planet, entirely dependent on your fellow colonists and resupply ships from Earth? Here are some people who say they will:
It’s a thought-provoking short film which gives insight into the type of people who are willing to undertake such a journey. All of them applied to Mars One, an ambitious program to select and train the first human colonists to live out their lives on Mars. There are many reasons why this would have to be a one-way mission, but the short version is that by the time humans get to Mars, there would be no way they could survive a return to Earth. Mars’ gravity is less than ½ of Earth’s. Even if we could somehow simulate that environment on the journey to/from Mars, their muscular/skeletal structures would atrophy far too much to make survival in Earth’s 1g environment possible. That’s why the trip would have to be one-way: permanent exile on Mars.
And yet, for these people, such exile would give their lives tremendous purpose, one far different from those of us who would remain behind on Earth. It’s important to consider this because it shows that in a very real sense, humanity is going to have to change in a fundamental way if we ever become a true multi-world species.
When you have one-thousand thirty eight confirmed exoplanets. you get to do some pretty cool things with all of that data. The Open Exoplanet Catalogue put together a really cool bubble chart of these planets’ sizes and temperatures.
Pretty, isn’t it? And there’s a whole lot of information packed into each bubble. The size of the bubble corresponds to the relative size of the planet and its color corresponds to its equilibrium temperature. We can think of a planet’s equilibrium temperature as an idealized case where the planet is only heated by its parent star, and there is no warming or cooling due to the planet’s atmosphere. Of course, that’s never the case in real life and that’s why the the folks at the Open Exoplanet Catalogue were careful to point out that “green might be right.”
Take a look at the visualization yourself and spend a few minutes (or hours) hovering over the planets. Visualizations like these are a great way to explore large sets of data like these all at once. And with another 1,073 (and counting) unconfirmed exoplanets, there’s going to be an ever-expanding dataset to explore.
For any graduate student or postdoc, teaching is a rite of passage. Lucky for me, I got to experience teaching early on as an undergraduate at Villanova University starting in the late eighties as a teaching assistant for the core undergraduate astronomy lab.
That also happened to be the last time I actually taught astronomy lab until now. I’ve done my fair share of public outreach, informal educational activities, school partnerships, and even a weeklong cram astronomy workshop, but formally teaching for realz for a full semester at a university is something I haven’t done in over 20 years, until now.
Last night I taught the first of 12 labs for Astronomy 161 at Towson University. Now, I don’t plan on telling any war stories, but if last night is any indication, there may not be any war stories to tell anyway (I know, famous last words.)
As a subject, astronomy is one of the most counterintuitive to us. It requires to contemplate the greater universe far beyond the trappings of our day to day world. Consider these “simple” questions:
Which direction is East?
Which direction is West?
Where is the highest star in the sky?
Right off the bat, we’re faced with questions that have no bearing on our everyday experience, yet are fundamentally important to understanding our place in the cosmos.
Unsurprisingly, some people were stumped by these questions at first. But it wasn’t long before the light bulbs started going off and one by one, connections to the cosmos were made right in front of me in that lab.
It feels great to be teaching again and I’m kind of kicking myself for not thinking to do this sooner, seeing as I loved it so much going back to my undergrad days. Oh well, I’m here now at Towson and I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester.
To any of my students who might be reading this post, welcome! Feel free to grab a Astr.161 Syllabus in case you didn’t get it from the school’s Blackboard site (which is something else I’m trying to figure out – these new fangled computer internets and all…)
Oh, and feel free to leave your answers to the above questions in the comments below
We had some time to kill today, so Tom Wolf and I made a little video to explain today’s launch postponement. Since making this video, we learned that launch is GO for tomorrow, so yay! My full post is below, but in the meantime…
I woke up this morning in my hotel to a beautiful, albeit cold, morning on Chincoteague Island, VA. I glanced at my email only to discover that today’s launch had been postponed. It wasn’t a problem with the Cygnus spacecraft, nor the Antares rocket, nor (thankfully) a new problem on board the International Space Station. Everything was perfect down here on earth.
But in space, the weather was absolutely horrible. Here’s why:
Holy mother of all sunspots, Batman, those are HUGE! To give you an idea of just how large we’re talking about, let’s make a little comparison for scale:
Those sunspots are the reason for today’s postponement. Sunspots are regions of angelic instability on the “surface” of the Sun. They mark the locations of magnetic field lines that rupture, unleashing a storm of charged particles into space at speeds of up to 2 million miles per hour. Those particles strike Earth’s magnetic field, giving us aurorae at the north and south poles:
Unfortunately, that means a lot more radiation in the near-Earth environment, and this poses a problem for launch. The Cygnus spacecraft is “hardened” against radiation, but the Antares rocket isn’t, and the launch team were concerned that it might play havoc with the rocket’s avionics, hence the postponement.
Yesterday, Orbital Sciences rolled out the Antares rocket to the launch pad, hoping for a launch of Orb-1 to the International Space Station tomorrow. I’ll be heading down to Wallops Island tonight and will be out in the cold watching the launch (yes I know, I’m really taking one for the team here.)
As the trajectory for tomorrow’s launch hasn’t changed, I updated my launch viewing guidewith the planned launch window.
Launch is scheduled for tomorrow, January 8 at 1:32pm EST. Hope you get to see it from where you are!
On Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 were in orbit around the Moon and became the first human beings ever to witness the Earth rising over another world. Using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we now have a incredible recreation of what they saw from inside their Apollo spacecraft. Be sure to go to high definition and full screen:
Quoting their description on YouTube:
In December of 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to leave our home planet and travel to another body in space. But as crew members Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders all later recalled, the most important thing they discovered was Earth.
Using photo mosaics and elevation data from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), this video commemorates the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8′s historic flight by recreating the moment when the crew first saw and photographed the Earth rising from behind the Moon. Narrator Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon, sets the scene for a three-minute visualization of the view from both inside and outside the spacecraft accompanied by the onboard audio of the astronauts.
The visualization draws on numerous historical sources, including the actual cloud pattern on Earth from the ESSA-7 satellite and dozens of photographs taken by Apollo 8, and it reveals new, historically significant information about the Earthrise photographs. It has not been widely known, for example, that the spacecraft was rolling when the photos were taken, and that it was this roll that brought the Earth into view. The visualization establishes the precise timing of the roll and, for the first time ever, identifies which window each photograph was taken from.
The key to the new work is a set of vertical stereo photographs taken by a camera mounted in the Command Module’s rendezvous window and pointing straight down onto the lunar surface. It automatically photographed the surface every 20 seconds. By registering each photograph to a model of the terrain based on LRO data, the orientation of the spacecraft can be precisely determined
Another day, another rocket launch out of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. This time it’s an Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo ship up to the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences corp launched a Cygnus to ISS back in September as a demonstration flight, giving NASA and Orbital the experience to take on regular resupply flights to the station, beginning with this week’s launch.
Antares was rolled out to the launch pad last night and there’s a really nice photo set on Flickr you can check out. Launch is currently scheduled for 9:19 pm Eastern time on Thursday, Dec 19, and yours truly will be there to cover it because they gave me press credentials (does happy dance).
Now keep in mind that NASA are currently working a cooling pump problem aboard the space station. They’re not sure if they can limp along with a backup system or if they will need to do a spacewalk to make repairs. If they decide to go ahead with an EVA, this launch could be postponed again, so stay tuned.
Be sure to check out their page as they have several visualizations from New York, Philly, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Norfolk VA, among other places. They also have a Google Earth KMZ file which you can download and use to get an idea of what the launch trajectory will look like from your location. Here’s a few I created:
What you should expect to see, and when
Antares is a liquid-fuel rocket, which means it should produce a yellow-white colored exhaust arcing quickly across the southeastern sky like what you see in the images above (except at night).
The launch window is from 9:19 – 9:24 pm EST on Thursday (02:19 – 02:24 am GMT Dec. 20) . 1:32-1:37 pm EST on Wednesday (18:32-18:37 GMT).They’ll try to launch on time at 9:19 1:32 but keep in mind that the farther you are from the launch site, the longer it will take for the rocket to clear the horizon. The images I show above assume a flat horizon all the way to Wallops, and we know that’s not the case. Fortunately, Orbital created a first sighting map to give you some idea of when you should expect to see the rocket clear the horizon (keep in mind though that it would have already moved slightly eastward by the time you pick it up).
Antares is a two-stage rocket, so it will appear to dim and then light up again a little further to the east as the expended stage is jettisoned and the next stage ignites.
Monitor the launch on your smart phone, but watch the timing
You can also monitor NASA Wallops on Twitter and Facebook as well to stay on top of the countdown and make sure nothing has been postponed so you can time your viewing just right.
…keep in mind that everything coming down to your tablet or cell phone is probably going to be a minute or so after the fact. If you wait until you hear them say “liftoff” to go outside and look, the rocket may already have reached orbit. Instead, listen to / follow the countdown to make sure the launch time hasn’t changed, and then use your cell phone’s clock to make sure you’re really at L-0, *then* look toward Wallops!
Watch with friends to increase your chances of actually seeing it
Even at night, the rocket may be hard to spot, especially if this is your first time. Haze, aircraft, and all kinds of things can be in the field of view to confuse you even more. If you’re with a small group of people, chances are that one of you will be able to spot it and point it out for the rest. Watch with friends to increase your chances!
Watching and tracking rocket launches is challenging and fun, especially at night. Hopefully the weather from your location will cooperate and you get to see an amazing show. Good luck!
Some cool bits to note: At 2:50, the spacecraft begins to rotate itself so that it’s underside points downward toward the lunar surface. At 5:00, the descent stops and hovers above the surface. At 5:30, you can see the spacecraft has adjusted itself to avoid an obstacle and then continues its descent. A little while later, we’re picking up some dust and we’ve landed!
What’s really amazing is that all of this was accomplished autonomously, with no assistance from the ground. How cool is that?
Today, the Chinese Space Agency’s Chang’E-3 spacecraft successfully touched down on the surface of the Moon. A few hours later, a small rover called Yutu (Jade Rabbit, in Chinese) successfully set foot onto the lunar surface.
Chang’E-3 and Yutu aren’t alone at the Moon. Orbiting above are the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the recently-launched Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). That means that as of today, we have multi-national, peaceful, scientific exploration of our Moon.
As Sean Carroll noted, the Chinese certainly deserve credit for this accomplishment, becoming only the third nation in the history of humanity to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon. But I admit to a certain twinge of frustration that this accomplishment comes at a time when the United States is seriously considering a budget that slashes funding for NASA, particularly its planetary exploration program. There’s simply no sensible reason the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nation – the only one to ever send humans to the Moon, for crying out loud – to be considering such a cut in funding like this.
Who knows, perhaps China’s lunar landing will spurn public pressure on Congress and the administration to reconsider the proposed budget for NASA. In the meantime, I’m glad that other countries like China are stepping up and advancing the frontier.
Yes, the Chinese are proud, and they deserve to be. But we should all be proud because this is first and foremost a human endeavor. This is what we are capable of when we choose to do great things. This is humanity at its best.
Last night I went to my local astronomy club meeting and came home with something I’ve been meaning to get since I was about 5 years old. Behold, my own personal time machine:
My amateur astronomer friends will recognize this as a classic – a Celestron 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. I’m told it’s a 1990′s model and it will need some TLC to be sure, but I’ve already had a look at the Moon, Jupiter, the Orion Nebula, and Venus without any major problems.
I came to owning this completely by accident. When I arrived at the meeting, there were several small telescopes and tripods set up. It turns out that a friend of one of our club members is an antique collector and happened to have some telescopes in his rather large collection of…stuff. He told our club that he’d be happy with whatever he could get and wasn’t interested in selling it online. And so, with the recommendation of my fellow club members who know a lot more about amateur telescopes than I ever will, I snagged this for a hundred bucks.
I’ll post some more pics and tell a little bit more about my progress with the telescope in future posts. I’m sure I’ll be learning a lot as I wade through the money pit that is amateur astronomy, but for now I’m pretty happy to finally come through for 5-year old me.