Still from "Space Suite" Credit: Lucas Green

Space Suite

I don’t care how busy you are, take 90 seconds and be blown away:

“Space Suite” by Lucas Green

This video comes to us from Lucas Green, a video artist who is working on a project that requires stunning space visuals. Rather than create them from scratch, Green mined the publicly available imagery to be found on NASA’s many websites. In addition to being easy to come by and free of charge, these images have the added benefit of being, well, real.

To turn the images into real planets, moons, and craters, Green projected them onto 3D models. He also used some subtle animation techniques to really make the objects come alive in the video. My favorite examples are the swirling hexagon at Saturn’s north pole, the lightning in the storm clouds of Jupiter, and the icy geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Lucas Green documents more of the process on his blog, and I highly recommend checking it out. In the meantime, I’m hoping that we’ll see more of what Green has been up to!

A Sky of Fire Ice

Ice in the sky. Photo taken and provided by Joshua Thomas. Taken in Red River, NM the morning of January 9, 2015.
Ice in the sky. Taken in Red River, NM the morning of January 9, 2015. Credit: Joshua Thomas

Most people hate winter, but for those of us who watch the sky, there’s no better time to witness some of nature’s most dazzling optical displays, like the one you see here.

The image was taken by Joshua Thomas in Red River, New Mexico on January 9, 2015, at where I am guessing might be the Red River Ski resort. The arcs and halos are light passing through ice crystals, which act like tiny prisms of varying shapes. They refract and reflecting light rays into the patterns seen here. More often than not, viewing conditions only show perhaps just one or two of these patterns, but Joshua’s photo shows several rare patterns happening all at once.

Let me stipulate that I’m hardly an expert at this but with the help of the atmospheric optics site I’ve been able to identify – or at least make an educated guess – at some of these arcs. Let’s take them one at a time.

At the center is the Sun, washed out in this view., though perhaps there is a Sun Pillar formed by light reflecting off small, plate-like crystals. It is immediately surrounded by the 22° halo. These halos are fairly common, and you may have noticed them surrounding the full moon on a winter’s night. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll notice that there is a reddish color on the inside and a bluish color toward the outside. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if the light were being refracted by the ice crystals.

To the left and right of the Sun are Parhelia, or sundogs. We only see the right sundog in this photo, the left being obscured by the mountain range. Typically, these are teardrop-shaped, but sometimes they extend to form long streamers called Parhelic Circles. It looks like we have a nice Parhelic Circle going horizontally to the right. I imagine there would be one stretching outward from the left if the mountain wasn’t in the way. These circles run parallel to the horizon and can even wrap 360° around the horizon if you have a clear enough view!!

The gull wing-shaped structure is called the Tangent Arc which, as its name implies, is just grazing the 22° halo. Notice that the wingtips are connected by a “capping” arc, called the Parry Arc.

Piercing the Perry arc is a “V”-shaped sunvex Perry Arc, which is a very rare phenomenon. Sunvex Perry Arcs are caused by light passing through hexagonal column ice crystals in high and cold cirrus cloud. These ice crystals are suspended nearly perfectly horizontal in the sky,  as if that weren’t cool enough.

Surrounding the structures is what appears to be a giant rainbow. At first, I assumed this was the 46° halo, because it appears circular and seems to be about 46° across. But I learned that 46° halos are rare and typically very dim.  Now I’m thinking that this must in fact be a Supralateral Arc, which are brighter than 46° halos and show up at the same location. Supralateral Arcs are sometimes accompanied by Infralateral arcs, and at first I thought that may be what see poking up from the treetops on the left from the edge of the arc on the right at a 45° angle from the Parhelic Circle. But on further inspection, I’m not convinced that’s really what those are. Still stumped on this.

By way of illustrating my guesses, I color-coded the different arcs according to the types I think they are. Please let me know if I got any of them wrong!sky optics

Comet Lovejoy dancing in the night

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) has been making its way higher into the northern sky these last few weeks and is nearing its peak brightness. Already demonstrating a fully formed coma and an increasingly long tail, Lovejoy has been turning up on the interwebs in some spectacular photos.

Chances are you don’t live in a location with zero light pollution and a powerful telescope, but Lovejoy is bright enough that a decent pair of binoculars will easily reveal the coma (the “head” of the comet). Here’s a pic to give you an idea of what to look for:

Comet Lovejoy, January 9, 2015 by Tom Wolf. Click to embiggen.
Comet Lovejoy, on January 9, 2015. Credit: Tom Wolf. Click to embiggen.

My friend Tom Wolf took this image last night from his home in southern Pennsylvania with his camera and tripod. Cameras are great for picking up details and colors that we cannot see with our eyes. Binoculars or even a small telescope won’t reveal a greenish color, nor will the comet appear quite so bright (unless, perhaps, you have a really nice set of binoculars). But this does give you an idea of the comet’s shape and relative “size”, depending on your binocular’s/telescope’s field of view.

Best of all, the comet is relatively easy to spot in the early evening after dark, making its way from Orion into the constellation of Taurus.  It will soon be passing by some bright stars which will make it even easier to locate in the next couple of days. Sites like Sky and Telescope and Earth Sky have some handy viewing guides. In fact, I’ve been making use of this finder chart published by Sky and Telescope to find the comet each night:

Finder chart for Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). Credit: Sky & Telescope . Click for full size.
Finder chart for Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). Credit: Sky & Telescope . Click for full size.

So bundle up, grab your binoculars, and find this comet. It will take a few tries but believe me, it’s a very cool feeling when you finally “bag” it in your binoculars. Enjoy Lovejoy!

Still from the video for Dance of the Planets by the Chromatics

Dance of the Planets

My friend Padi Boyd is an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. She’s also a  singer, songwriter, and founding member of The Chromatics, an A Capella group who sing about, among other things, astronomy. So I was happy to hear their latest number, Dance of the Planets, got made into a nice little video. Check it out:

Dance of the Planets by The Chromatics

It’s a lovely song and a reminder of how much of our perception has  changed in such a short amount of time. Just 25 years ago, there was not a single known exoplanet – instead, we could only speculate about them and take a guess as to how what percentage of stars have planets, their number, and whether or not any of them might even have potentially habitable worlds.

Today, it’s a completely different story. We now know of more than 1800 worlds orbiting other stars, with thousands more waiting to be confirmed. We can confidently state that every star, regardless of its type, likely has at least one planet orbiting it.  The Kepler Space Telescope showed us that planets do in fact orbit other suns in their host star’s habitable zone, can have stable orbits in binary star systems, and come in a variety of sizes around stars very different than our Sun. The upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will identify even more interesting targets for future telescopes, and get us started down the path of understanding what their atmospheres are made of.

It’s an exciting time to be discovering new worlds beyond our solar system, and Padi sums it up best with these lyrics:

At the dawn of the twenty-first century,
The dream has become a reality
We’re not quite as alone as we used to be,
There are planets around the stars

Artist’s concept of Hayabusa 2 collecting samples from asteroid 1999 JU3. Credit: JAXA

Hayabusa 2 heads off to an asteroid tomorrow

On Wednesday, December 3 at 1:22 p.m Japanese Standard Time (Tuesday, December 2, 11:22pm EST),  the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Space Agency (JAXA) will send a spacecraft to an asteroid to collect a sample and return it to Earth. Launch coverage should be available online, but here’s a link to their LiveStream feed.

There’s a lot about this mission to be excited about, not the least of which is that this is the second asteroid sample return mission for JAXA. That’s important because asteroids come in several varieties, each with their own chemical and mineral compositions, so a sample from just one asteroid is hardly enough to get a full picture of what the early solar system was like.

Like its predecessor, Hayabusa2 is in for the long haul. It’s mission will require six years, largely due to the complex dance around the inner solar system, which includes an Earth flyby next autumn, required to pick up enough speed to get out to the asteroid itself. JAXA has an animation which describes the path it will take to the asteroid and back to Earth.

Hayabusa 2’s orbital trajectory. Credit: JAXA

Hayabusa2’s target is asteroid 1999 JU3, which is a C-type asteroid. That is, one that is composed of older, more primordial materials (including water and organics) that are believed to have “seeded” the Earth during its formation. Once there, Hayabusa2 will orbit the asteroid for a year, detonate a small bomb to create a crater, descend to collect a sample from underneath the crater, and deploy four – count ‘em, four! – landers.

Artist's impression of Hayabusa2 launching the Minerva lander.Credit JAXA
Artist’s impression of Hayabusa2 launching the Minerva lander.Credit JAXA

Talk about one hell of an ambitious mission! JAXA has a really nice 12-minute video which explains the mission in greater detail:

Hayabusa 2 mission. Credit: JAXA

Go Hayabusa2!

Blue sunset on Mars, from Erik Wernquist


Many of us look at images of the planets of our solar system and see magnificent landscapes and stunning views of other worlds. But filmmaker Erik Wernquist sees humans living there. Go to full screen, HD, and turn up the sound:

Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist

I’ve watched this film about a dozen times now and I still cannot get over how incredibly amazingly cool this is! Wernquist takes us on a journey through time from nomads wandering the desert 10,000 BCE (underneath a sky filled with planets, no less) to future humans hiking on Europa, receiving shipments on Mars, to domed cities on Iapetus, and finally to clouds lit by ringshine as seen from a dirigible in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. All set to a heart jumping soundtrack, and narrated by Carl Sagan reading from Pale Blue Dot.


Best of all, the imagery Wernquist chooses are not only sourced from actual NASA and ESA spacecraft, but he accurately imagines the realities of living elsewhere in the solar system. For example, with a surface gravity of just 0.14g, you would be light enough on Titan to strap on some wings and fly through the methane atmosphere. And sure enough, that’s exactly what we see:

Flying over Legia Mare, Titan. Credit: Erik Wernquist

Or how about base jumping off the tallest cliffs in the solar system, which happen to be  on Uranus’ moon Miranda? With a surface gravity of just 0.018g, you’d have plenty of time to enjoy the view and could safely land on your feet with some simple retro rockets.

Base jumping off Verona Rupes, Miranda with Uranus in the background. Credit: Erik Werrnquist

Or just enjoying a pleasant day inside a pressurized rotating asteroid lit by an artificial sun.

A hollowed out asteroid is pressurized with air and filled with water to create lakes. It rotates about its long axis to create 1g acceleration via centripetal force. Credit: Erik Wernquist

Wernquist takes us on a journey that, for now, exists only in our dreams and speculations. But he manages to make these scenes seem so real that maybe, one day, they will be. Nothing that is depicted in this film is outright impossible, we only have to have the will to make this happen.

Update: I was initially going to offer a scene-by-scene breakdown to help explain what’s being depicted in each scene, but Erik has already done that here so by all means check it out!

The little lander that could

Rosetta's view of Philae as she descends to Comet 67P. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Rosetta’s view of Philae as it descended to the surface of Comet 67P on November 12, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae now lies somewhere in the dark on Comet 67P. Its batteries drained, it has gone into hibernation, probably for the last time. Its story was nothing short of dramatic, exciting, and seemingly tragic for so many of us here on Earth unable to do anything but watch the little lander die from 300 million kilometers away.

And yet, it was one of humanity’s finest hours.

If you were to stop reading this post right now and head on over to phoenixpic’s post about Philae’s brief, but highly successful race-against-the-clock mission, I’d be totally cool with that. It’s a well-told tale that puts a lot of the events into its proper context.

But I remain in awe of just what an amazing success the Philae lander was. Despite its failed downward thruster, bouncing not once but twice away from its planned landing site, its harpoon system not being fired, a lens cap not coming off its spectrometer, ending up in the shadow of a cliff, deprived of the sunlight it badly needed to recharge its batteries,  despite all of those things….Philae still managed to fulfill its mission.

Think about that for a second. Against all odds, all of the available science instruments on board Philae were able to sample a 5 billion year-old relic from the formation of the solar system. Ok sure we’re not going to be able to go into an extended mission with Philae. We’ll never be able to see a beautiful panorama of the surface and watch it gently erupt as it draws nearer to the Sun.

But there is a ton of data already gathered and much, much more to come from the Rosetta orbiter itself. We’ve come a long way, and there is much to be learned. This is what Ambition looks like.


This computer-generated art shows the launch abort system still attached and the jettison of the service module fairing panels.
Image Credit: 

Going to the NASA Social for Orion’s First Launch!

Woo-hoo!!! I’ve been accepted to cover the first launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on December 3rd! The event is a NASA Social - much like the one I attended last year to cover the LADEE launch from Wallops Island, VA. This time the spacecraft is Orion and it will be launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the good folks at NASA have arranged meetups at NASA centers around the country to get an inside preview.

Lucky for me, I’ve been selected to cover the event at my old stomping grounds at  NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD. It will be cool to get back there and see what’s new, tour the facilities, and hopefully get a good look at the James Webb Space Telescope under assembly.

But the main event is the maiden flight of the Orion spacecraft itself, which actually won’t be until early the following morning.  As you probably know, the United States has been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011. NASA has been developing a new manned spacecraft – Orion, which looks an awful lot like the Apollo spacecraft last flown nearly 40 years ago.

But whereas Apollo was designed to take astronauts to the Moon, Orion is designed to take astronauts to the Moon, an asteroid, Mars, or anywhere Congress decides to pony up the dough for. But like any new vehicle, it eventually has to be tested in actual spaceflight, and that’s where the Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1, mission comes in.

EFT-1 will launch Orion atop a Delta-IV Heavy launch vehicle, boost it an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space Station, return to Earth in a high-speed re-entry, and parachute to a splashdown landing in the Pacific ocean. To give you a better idea of the mission, check out this video:

Orion: Trial By Fire. Credit: NASA

The mission is pretty ambitious for a first outing. Not only will the spacecraft’s re-entry and thermal protection systems be tested, but it will do so from a much higher altitude and at a far steeper angle than current spacecraft. The Space Shuttle and Soyuz return from the International Space Station from low-Earth orbit at the relatively “low” speed of 17,500 miles per hour. Orion will eventually be returning from the Moon (or beyond) at much higher speeds. To simulate that, EFT-1 will send Orion much higher up to re-enter at a considerably higher speed.

I’m sure I’ll be getting more into the weeds on this later, but for now I’m jazzed about visiting Goddard again and attending the NASA Social. Hopefully we’ll wake up the next morning and see Orion liftoff for the first time. Go Orion!

Philae’s view from Comet 67P

The good folks on the Rosetta mission have been working hard to figure out exactly where the Philae lander ended up after yesterday’s landing, and this morning released the first images taken from the surface of a comet. Most of the images don’t reveal much, but this one shows a fair amount of detail:

Surface of Comet 67P, taken from one of Philae's landing leg cameras. Credit: ESA
Surface of Comet 67P, taken from one of Philae’s landing leg cameras. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

How amazing is that??? When combined with the other images on cameras mounted on the lander, we have the first panorama of Philae’s landing site:

The first panoramic image of Philae's landing site. Credit: ESA Rosetta / Philae / CIVA
The first panoramic image of Philae’s landing site. Credit: ESA Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

As you can see, most of the image is pretty dark, and that’s a problem. Philae was supposed to land in a well-illuminated landing site. Not only would that have given better imagery, but crucially, it would have provided power to Philae’s solar panels.

Instead it bounced, sending the lander about a kilometer back into space. For about an hour, it slowly drifted back down in the comet’s low gravity, eventually landing a considerable distance from its planned location. At this point, it seemed to have bounced again, though not quite as much.

Philae's planned landing site (red) and the area where it most likely bounced to (blue). Credit: ESA
Philae’s planned landing site (red) and the area where it most likely bounced to (blue). Credit: ESA

Space blogger Jason Major was able to visualize this a little better by mapping the planned and actual landing regions onto an image:

To make matters worse, only two of Philae’s three landing feet are in contact with the comet’s surface – in other words, Philae seems to be knocked to one side.

All of this means that Philae won’t be able to get the power it needs to do all of the planned science. But the good news is that it’s still talking to the Osiris Rosetta orbiter and is otherwise in great shape. That means that some science can and will be done, but right now it’s a matter of prioritizing what science can be done with the power they have left.

None of this is to take away from an incredible accomplishment – we landed on a comet, and there is much to be learned. Way to go, Rosetta!