MESSENGER Departing Earth

Leaving home: Image captured from the MESSENGER spacecraft during its flyby past earth in August 2005. Image credit: Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Leaving home: Image captured from the MESSENGER spacecraft during its flyby past earth in August 2005. Image credit: Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

MESSENGER has been in orbit around Mercury since March of 2011, but it began its journey seven years earlier, way back in August of 2004. Getting to the innermost planet takes quite a bit of work, involving a series of flybys past Earth, Venus, and eventually Mercury itself before settling into orbit.

The first of these flybys was past Earth in 2005, and MESSENGER snapped images over a 24-hour period as it was departing. The result is a movie that shows what it’s like to depart our home planet:

Is that amazing or what? As MESSENGER departs, Earth completes a full rotation. When the camera started rolling on August 2nd, the spacecraft was 40,761 miles (65,598 kilometers) above South America. By the time it took its last image one day later, MESSENGER was 270,847 miles (435,885 kilometers) away from Earth – farther than the Moon’s orbit!

This is what it looks like to leave our home. We should do this more often.

Hat tip to Mike Brotherton for the video link!

Waltz Around Saturn

Around Saturn
‘Around Saturn’ by Fabio Di Donato

It’s hard to believe that the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn for nearly a decade now, returning one amazing image of the ringed world and its moons after another. The images are nothing short of breathtaking, but often only become so after some careful work has been done by humans here on earth to remove artifacts, add colors, and general image processing that must be done to make sense of astronomical data.

But there’s a kind of gritty beauty in the raw, unprocessed images as well, so when filmmaker Fabio Di Donato synced them to Shostakovich – Jazz Suite No.2: VI. Waltz 2, the result is a thing of beauty:

Around Saturn from fabio di donato on Vimeo.

I’ve been watching this video over and over again for the last several days and every time I do, I see something new in it. The intricate patterns of the ring system, it’s outer F-ring being deformed by Prometheus, Mimas floating by, the spongy texture of Hyperion, and the eye of Iapetus give the feel that the moons of the Saturn system are all in a kind of cosmic dance.

And what a beautiful dance it is! The whole thing looks like something directed by Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch using a silent film-era movie camera.

The whole video is a joy to watch, and a beautiful portrait of exotic, alien worlds right here in our cosmic front yard.

Talking Solar System at the Berks County Amateur Astronomical Society

UPDATE June 11, 2013: Due to the predicted severe weather in the Reading, PA area, tomorrow night’s talk has been postponed to September 12 (right in the middle of hurricane season!)


Hot off the heels of my guest lecture on the Solar System at the Community College of Baltimore County, I’ve been invited back to the Berks County Amateur Astronomical Society in Reading, PA to discuss the same thing, which is a good thing as I’ll probably be teaching it in greater depth at the upcoming Launchpad Astronomy Workshop in July. From their website:

Our Solar System – Exploring Strange New Worlds in our Cosmic Back Yard

Our understanding of our Solar neighborhood has fundamentally changed over the last few decades.  What used to be just the Sun and 9 planets is now a celestial city of gas giants, rocky planets, ice giants, dwarf planets, asteroids, water worlds, and primordial comets all in orbit around a single star, our Sun.  In this talk, astronomer Christian Ready will discuss the similarities and differences of these worlds and what they can tell us about the formation and history of our Solar System.

There really is a lot going on in our Solar System nowadays, with active missions to Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, Saturn, and spacecraft on their way to Jupiter and Pluto. So what used to be considered an elementary topic in astronomy is being updated at a pretty remarkable rate. And of course there’s the whole Pluto controversy that will probably need to be discussed.

I enjoy giving these talks and if you’re in the Reading area, please feel free to drop by the Reading Public Museum on Thursday, June 13 September 12 2013 at 7:30 pm.

And since we’re still talking about Pluto, here’s a video I made explaining the whole mess:

The Sequester, NASA, and BRAIN


Sequestration is having a horrific effect on Americans from one coast to another (except, of course, for those that enacted it) and it’s only going to get worse as time goes by. We’re watching it unfold before our eyes – cuts in funding for schools, airport towers shutting down, federal employees and contractors being furloughed, and some rather horrible cuts to NASA.

But the news is decidedly mixed.

The Bad News is that NASA has had to suspend its Education and Public Outreach funding, which is funding that the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop depended on for some time, followed by National Science Foundation funding, which also has been sequestered. There is much I could write about this, but the folks over at Sci Show have done a great job summing it up for me very nicely:

Ironically, there is some good news here. Despite the cutbacks to its EPO programs, NASA’s budget actually got an increase of $200 million to develop planetary exploration – including a possible mission to Europa!

Not mentioned in the video is an exciting new BRAIN Initiative announced by the White House today. This could bear some very beneficial fruit in understanding just how we’re wried and how we can treat traumatic brain injuries and possibly psychological disorders.

Such as who the hell thought sequestration was a good idea?


Lest I get too snarky, I have to say that the BRAIN program is exactly what government should be doing to promote science. If it can benefit all of us and/or no private enterprise can justify investing in it, government funding should get it started. Just ask any company that uses technology pioneered by NASA, for example.

I should also point out that my Launch Pad partner Mike Brotherton offers his take on the sequester as well.

Stardust: Voyager’s witness

Screen Shot from Stardust by Mischa Rozema
Screen shot from Stardust from PostPanic director Mischa Rozema.

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged (sorry about that, much has been going on in the last month but still), but I would be more than a little remiss if I didn’t share this amazing video:

This is Stardust from PostPanic director Mischa Rozema. It depicts Voyager 1, currently on its way out of our Solar System, “looking back” billions of years from now at our Sun as it becomes Giant, engulfing Earth, and dissipating as a Planetary Nebula. Earth and the Sun are returned to the Cosmos as stardust, while Voyager 1 carries with it a final message from the people of Earth: We were here.

Of course, the video has some inaccuracies takes some artistic license. The timeframe of the Sun’s demise will take place over a much longer time period than depicted in the film (as in millions of years longer). The Sun won’t become a planetary nebula until long after it has engulfed the inner planets and will span up to several light years across at the time. And Voyager 1 itself will have long stopped transmitting back to Earth, its Plutonium-238 power source having long since depleted by then.

But that’s ok, because that’s not the point of the film. Instead, it’s an artistic reminder that no matter how short our time here on Earth is, our real destiny is to return to the universe as the stardust that we are and to seed the next generation of stars.

When that time comes, Voyager 1 and the other probes will be out there, carrying a message for that next generation: We were here.