kottke.org posts about space

Around the World in 92 MinutesOct 29 2014

Hadfield Venice

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield became a celebrity while aboard the International Space Station. Now he's publishing a book of photographs he took during his time in orbit: You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

During 2,597 orbits of our planet, I took about 45,000 photographs. At first, my approach was scattershot: just take as many pictures as possible. As time went on, though, I began to think of myself as a hunter, silently stalking certain shots. Some eluded me: Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, and Uluru, or Ayers Rock, in Australia. I captured others only after methodical planning: "Today, the skies are supposed to be clear in Jeddah and we'll be passing nearby in the late afternoon, so the angle of the sun will be good. I need to get a long lens and be waiting at the window, looking in the right direction, at 4:02 because I'll have less than a minute to get the shot." Traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, the margin for error is very slim. Miss your opportunity and it may not arise again for another six weeks, depending on the ISS's orbital path and conditions on the ground.

In an interview with Quartz, Hadfield says the proceeds from the book are being donated to the Red Cross.

Rocket launch viewable on the East Coast tonightOct 27 2014

An Antares rocket on its way to the International Space Station is taking off from a launch pad in Virginia tonight at 6:45 ET and the launch should be visible from South Carolina to central Massachusetts. Here's where you should be able to see the launch, if your skies are clear:

Antares Launch 10 2014

Cool!

Update: The launch has been scrubbed for today...some idiot boat was in the "hazard area". Same time tomorrow? (Smaller update: Not quite...launch is scheduled for 6:19 ET tomorrow.)

CosmigraphicsOct 17 2014

Cosmigraphics

From Michael Benson comes Cosmigraphics, a survey of many ways in which humans have represented the Universe, from antiquity on up to the present day.

Selecting artful and profound illustrations and maps, many hidden away in the world's great science libraries and virtually unknown today, he chronicles more than 1,000 years of humanity's ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space itself. He shows how the invention of the telescope inspired visions of unimaginably distant places and explains why today we turn to supercomputer simulations to reveal deeper truths about space-time.

The NY Times has an adaptation of the introduction to the book.

Among the narrative threads woven into the book are the 18th-century visual meditations on the possible design of the Milky Way - including the astonishing work of the undeservedly obscure English astronomer Thomas Wright, who in 1750 reasoned his way to (and illustrated) the flattened-disk form of our galaxy. In a book stuffed with exquisite mezzotint plates, Wright also conceived of another revolutionary concept: a multigalaxy cosmos. All of this a quarter-century before the American Revolution, at a time when the Milky Way was thought to constitute the entirety of the universe.

The squid and the geostationary satelliteSep 02 2014

Squid SatelliteTrevor Paglen speculates that human civilization's longest lasting monuments will be the satellites in geostationary orbits around the Earth.

Humanity's longest lasting remnants are found among the stars. Over the last fifty years, hundreds of satellites have been launched into geosynchronous orbits, forming a ring of machines 36,000 kilometers from earth. Thousands of times further away than most other satellites, geostationary spacecraft remain locked as man-made moons in perpetual orbit long after their operational lifetimes. Geosynchronous spacecraft will be among civilization's most enduring remnants, quietly circling earth until the earth is no more.

Geoff Manaugh attended a lecture of Paglen's, where Paglen suggested a possible discoverer of these artifacts:

Billions of years from now, he began to narrate, long after city lights and the humans who made them have disappeared from the Earth, other intelligent species might eventually begin to see traces of humanity's long-since erased presence on the planet.

Consider deep-sea squid, Paglen suggested, who would have billions of years to continue developing and perfecting their incredible eyesight, a sensory skill perfect for peering through the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the oceans -- yet also an eyesight that could let them gaze out at the stars in deep space.

Perhaps, Paglen speculated, these future deep-sea squid with their extraordinary powers of sight honed precisely for focusing on tiny points of light in the darkness might drift up to the surface of the ocean on calm nights to look upward at the stars, viewing a scene that will have rearranged into whole new constellations since the last time humans walked the Earth.

And, there, the squid might notice something.

Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...prints & more are available.

The Sweden Solar SystemAug 27 2014

Sweden Solar System

Spanning from comets in the south to the termination shock zone in the northern part of the country, The Sweden Solar System is a scale model of the solar system that spans the entire country of Sweden, the largest such model in the world.

The Sun is represented by the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, the largest hemispherical building in the world. The inner planets can also be found in Stockholm but the outer planets are situated northward in other cities along the Baltic Sea.

The 2017 total solar eclipse awarded to the United StatesAug 21 2014

2017 Eclipse

I do not officially have a bucket list1 but if I did have one, watching a total solar eclipse would be on it. Was just talking about it the other day in fact. Well. I am pretty damn excited for the Great American Eclipse of 2017!

In August 21, 2017, millions of people across the United States will see nature's most wondrous spectacle -- a total eclipse of the Sun. It is a scene of unimaginable beauty; the Moon completely blocks the Sun, daytime becomes a deep twilight, and the Sun's corona shimmers in the darkened sky. This is your guide to understand, prepare for, and view this rare celestial event.

It goes right through the middle of the country too...almost everyone in the lower 48 is within a day's drive of seeing it. Cities in the path of the totality include Salem, OR, Jackson, WY, Lincoln, NE, St. Louis, MO (nearly), Nashville, TN, and Charleston, SC.

Weather will definitely play a factor in actually seeing the eclipse, so I will be keeping an eye on Eclipser ("Climatology and Maps for the Eclipse Chaser") as the event draws near. Early analysis indicates Oregon as the best chance for clear skies. Matt, I am hereby laying claim to your guest room in three years time. So excited!!

  1. Also on this hypothetical bucket list: dunking a basketball, going to outer space, learning to surf, and two chicks at the same time.

Ambient space sounds playlistAug 13 2014

From YouTube, a playlist of 12- and 24-hour-long videos of ambient space noise, mostly of the sounds of spaceships like the Tardis, the USS Enterprise, and the Nostromo (from Alien). I think the Death Star is my favorite:

Or the completely unrelaxing 12 hours of Star Trek red alert sound:

Sadly, the list is missing my favorite spaceship sound, Sebulba's podracer from Phantom Menace. See also Super Mario Bros Sound Loops and Extended Star Wars Sounds. (via @finn)

A Spacecraft For AllAug 11 2014

Spacecraft For All

Oh man, this is great. A Spacecraft For All is an interactive video about the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, in which a group of scientists working out of an old McDonald's crowdfunded an effort to communicate with a nearly forgotten satellite launched by NASA in 1978 to observe the Sun and chase a comet. After the intro, click on "See the Journey"...it's well worth your time if you're at all interested in space or science.

For instance, did you know there exists several points between the Earth and the Sun at which a satellite can orbit around, enabling spacecraft to stay more or less in the same spot for observation purposes? So cool!

Interstellar trailer #3Aug 05 2014

Christopher Nolan + Matthew McConaughey + space + doomed Earth. Oh man, this is looking like it might actually be great. Or completely suck.

Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't s (via @aaroncoleman0)

Live TV coverage of Apollo 11 landing and moon walkJul 20 2014

Apollo TV teaser

45 years ago today, the lunar module from the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon. For the 40th anniversary of the landing in 2009, I put together a page where you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk, synced to the present-day time. I've updated the page to work again this year: just open this page in your browser and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here's the schedule:

Moon landing broadcast start: 4:10:30 pm EDT on July 20
Moon landing shown: 4:17:40 pm EDT
Moon landing broadcast end: 4:20:15 pm EDT
{break}
Moon walk broadcast start: 10:51:27 pm EDT
First step on Moon: 10:56:15 pm EDT
Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew: approx 11:51:30 pm EDT
Moon walk broadcast end: 12:00:30 pm EDT on July 21

Here's what I wrote when I launched the project:

If you've never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I've watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I'm struck by two things: 1) how it's almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

(FYI, I didn't test it, but I'm almost positive this will *not* work on mobile...it uses YouTube's Flash player to show the video. Sorry.)

Where to stand in solar systemJul 02 2014

xkcd solid Solar System

From XKCD, an illustration of the solar system's solid surfaces stitched together. Best viewed large (if only to find the "all human skin" label). Randall Munroe is just the best, isn't he?

What else is out there?Jun 26 2014

Great post on the Fermi Paradox, aka if there are so many potential intelligent civilizations out there in the universe (possibly 10 quadrillion of them), why haven't we heard from anyone?

Possibility 5) There's only one instance of higher-intelligent life -- a "superpredator" civilization (like humans are here on Earth) -- who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it's an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move -- because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

The Moon, closerMay 19 2014

If the Moon orbited the Earth at the same distance as the International Space Station, it might look a little something like this:

At that distance, the Moon would cover half the sky and take about five minutes to cross the sky. Of course, as Phil Plait notes, if the Moon were that close, tidal forces would result in complete chaos for everyone involved.

There would be global floods as a tidal wave kilometers high sweeps around the world every 90 minutes (due to the Moon's closer, faster orbit), scouring clean everything in its path. The Earth itself would also be stretched up and down, so there would be apocalyptic earthquakes, not to mention huge internal heating of the Earth and subsequent volcanism. I'd think that the oceans might even boil away due to the enormous heat released from the Earth's interior, so at least that spares you the flood... but replaces water with lava. Yay?

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is shrinkingMay 15 2014

Jupiter Spot Shrinking

Jupiter's Great Red Spot is becoming more of a Medium Red Spot. The gas giant's signature beauty mark was recently measured by the Hubble as spanning 10,250 miles across its widest point, down from a high of 25,500 miles across.

Historic observations as far back as the late 1800s [2] gauged this turbulent spot to span about 41 000 kilometres at its widest point -- wide enough to fit three Earths comfortably side by side. In 1979 and 1980 the NASA Voyager fly-bys measured the spot at a shrunken 23 335 kilometres across. Now, Hubble has spied this feature to be smaller than ever before.

"Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations confirm that the spot is now just under 16 500 kilometres across, the smallest diameter we've ever measured," said Amy Simon of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA.

Amateur observations starting in 2012 revealed a noticeable increase in the spot's shrinkage rate. The spot's "waistline" is getting smaller by just under 1000 kilometres per year. The cause of this shrinkage is not yet known.

The truth of science with your own eyesMay 14 2014

Clive Thompson recently saw the moons of Jupiter with his own eyes and has a moment.

I saw one huge, bright dot, with three other tiny pinpoints of light nearby, all lined up in a row (just like the image at the top of this story). Holy moses, I realized; that's no star. That's Jupiter! And those are the moons of Jupiter!

I'm a science journalist and a space buff, and I grew up oohing and aahing over the pictures of Jupiter sent back by various NASA space probes. But I'd never owned a telescope, and never done much stargazing other than looking up in the night unaided. In my 45 years I'd never directly observed Jupiter and its moons myself.

So I freaked out. In a good way! It was a curiously intense existential moment.

For my birthday when I was seven or eight, my dad bought me a telescope. (It was a Jason telescope; didn't everyone have a telescope named after them?) We lived in the country in the middle of nowhere where it was nice and dark, so over the next few years, we looked at all sorts of celestial objects through that telescope. Craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, Mars, and even sunspots on the Sun with the aid of some filters. But the thing that really got me, that provided me with my own version of Thompson's "curiously intense existential moment", was seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.

We had heard from PBS's Jack Horkheimer, the Star Hustler, that Saturn and its rings would be visible and he showed pictures of what it would look like, something like this:

Saturn through a telescope

But seeing that with your own eyes through a telescope was a different thing entirely. Those tiny blurry rings, visible from millions of miles away. What a thrill! It's one of my favorite memories.

If the Moon was only 1 pixelMar 05 2014

Moon 1 pixelNice visualization of the solar system; the Moon is one pixel across and everything else is scaled to that, including the distances between planets. Get ready to scroll. A lot.

It would be neat to do this with a plutonium atom or something. Related: typographically speaking, what's the point size of the Moon?

The Moon's tiny art galleryDec 17 2013

There's art on the Moon, a small sculpture called Fallen Astronaut. Artist Paul van Hoeydonck made it. Commander David Scott of Apollo 15 placed it on the Moon in 1971. Instead of a triumph, the whole thing fell into scandal and was forgotten.

In reality, van Hoeydonck's lunar sculpture, called Fallen Astronaut, inspired not celebration but scandal. Within three years, Waddell's gallery had gone bankrupt. Scott was hounded by a congressional investigation and left NASA on shaky terms. Van Hoeydonck, accused of profiteering from the public space program, retreated to a modest career in his native Belgium. Now both in their 80s, Scott and van Hoeydonck still see themselves unfairly maligned in blogs and Wikipedia pages-to the extent that Fallen Astronaut is remembered at all.

And yet, the spirit of Fallen Astronaut is more relevant today than ever. Google is promoting a $30 million prize for private adventurers to send robots to the moon in the next few years; companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are creating a new for-profit infrastructure of human spaceflight; and David Scott is grooming Brown University undergrads to become the next generation of cosmic adventurers.

Governments come and go, public sentiment waxes and wanes, but the dream of reaching to the stars lives on. Fallen Astronaut does, too, hanging eternally 238,000 miles above our heads. Here, for the first time, we tell the full, tangled tale behind one of the smallest yet most extraordinary achievements of the Space Age.

The first video of the Moon orbiting the EarthDec 11 2013

In a fly-by of Earth on its way to Jupiter, NASA's Juno probe took a short movie of the Moon orbiting the Earth. It's the first time the Moon's orbit has been captured on film.

(via @DavidGrann)

Saturn without its ringsOct 17 2013

Over at The Planetary Society, Emily Lakdawalla highlighted an image taken by the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn separate from its rings.

This enormous mosaic showing the flattened globe of Saturn floating amongst the complete disk of its rings must surely be counted among the great images of the Cassini mission. From Earth, we never see Saturn separate from its rings. Here, we can see the whole thing, a gas giant like Jupiter, separated at last from the rings that encircle it.

Taking this idea one step further, I removed the rings completely, along with the "ringlight" lighting up the night hemisphere, creating a more-or-less pure look of what Saturn would look like without its rings.

Saturn Without Rings

Larger version is available on Mlkshk.

The moon rocket asteroidSep 26 2013

An amateur astronomer discovered asteroid J002E3 orbiting the Earth in 2002. By observing how the object was moving and measuring its spectrum, it was determined that the asteroid was man-made and probably the third stage of Apollo 12's Saturn V rocket.

In early September 2002, spectral and photometric observations of J002E3 were made at IRTF and Mt. Biglow in an effort to determine whether the object was an asteroid or a human-made. Early observations yielded a possible spin-rate and orientation. Additional spectral observations were completed in May 2003 at the Air Force Maui Optical Supercomputing (AMOS) site. Through the modeling of common spacecraft materials, the observations of J002E3 show a strong correlation of absorption features to a combination of human-made materials including white paint, black paint, and aluminum. Absorption features in the near IR show a strong correlation with paint containing a titanium-oxide semiconductor. Using the material model and the orbital information, it was concluded that J002E3 is a human-made object from an Apollo rocket upperstage, most likely Apollo 12.

Here's a cool animation showing how the Earth's gravity temporarily captured J002E3.

Long photograph of the MoonSep 16 2013

NASA created this lovely high resolution view of the Moon doing one complete rotation using footage from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

(via @Colossal)

The night lightSep 11 2013

Paul Bogard recently published a book on darkness called The End of Night. Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh interviewed Bogard about the book, the night sky, astronomy, security, cities, and prisons, among other things. The interview is interesting throughout but one of my favorite things is this illustration of the Bortle scale.

Bortle Scale

Twilley: It's astonishing to read the description of a Bortle Class 1, where the Milky Way is actually capable of casting shadows!

Bogard: It is. There's a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. The Milky Way becomes visible at 3 or 4 on the Bortle scale. That's not even down to a 1. One is pretty stringent. I've been in some really dark places that might not have qualified as a 1, just because there was a glow of a city way off in the distance, on the horizon. You can't have any signs of artificial light to qualify as a Bortle Class 1.

A Bortle Class 1 is so dark that it's bright. That's the great thing-the darker it gets, if it's clear, the brighter the night is. That's something we never see either, because it's so artificially bright in all the places we live. We never see the natural light of the night sky.

I can also recommend reading David Owen's 2007 NYer piece on light pollution.

In living memoryAug 28 2013

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The full title is important because the right words are important.

It's important because the Great March itself was a compromise, an evolution of the movement A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had forged decades before during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to force the government to desegregate the army and provide more economic opportunities to black Americans. Before 1963, each time the March was about to happen, the government made concessions and it would be called off.

Randolph was 74 when the March finally materialized, with him as its titular head. He was the only figure with the credibility to unify northern labor leaders and southern pastors: radical enough for the relative radicals -- the radical radicals saw the March as a distracting sideshow or were actively asked not to participate -- and institutional enough for the wary moderates.

Bayard Rustin was Randolph's lieutenant, and did the bulk of the work organizing the March. Rustin was gay, had been a Communist, and couldn't be the event's public face.

Everything that happened at the March, from the arrival of more than 100,000 people straight through all the speeches, all the songs, all the signs painted, all of the 80,000 cheese sandwiches made, distributed, and eaten -- each and every one of those moments -- happened in one day. Television stations were able to carry the event live. No one but Bayard Rustin could have pulled it off.

John Lewis was 23 years old and the March's youngest speaker. He is the only one of that day's speakers who is still alive. He had recently been made head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced "snick"): a new independent civil rights organization that had proven itself integrating lunch counters in Nashville, on the Freedom Rides with CORE protesting segregated busing and bus stations throughout the south, and working with the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Albany, Georgia.

If you're serious about the civil rights movement, you have to learn a lot of organizations' names and abbreviated titles. You have to learn that the leaders of these organizations rarely agreed with each other about goals, methods, or priorities. You have to know that even within each organization there were equal amounts of discipline and dissent.

They were organized not because they agreed, but because they had to be. They were disciplined because they had to be. They were allied because they had to be. It was all fragile. At any moment, it could all fall apart.

John Lewis had been part of both series of Freedom Rides and badly beaten during the second in Montgomery. The state highway patrol that had promised the riders protection -- at the insistence of the Kennedy administration and with the reluctant assurance of Alabama's governor, George Wallace -- abandoned them to a white mob waiting at the city's station house. Lewis was 21 years old. His friend Jim Zwerg was also 21. Zwerg bravely walked out the door of the bus first to meet the waiting mob, and was nearly beaten to death. He received a particularly savage beating partly because he was first and partly because he was white. Jim Zwerg is still alive. It's amazing any of these people are still alive.

Lewis was originally going to give a much more provocative speech at the March, singling out the supposedly liberal Kennedy administration for its lukewarm support of civil rights. (A less polite word than "lukewarm" would be "half-assed.") On behalf of SNCC, Lewis planned to argue that the civil rights legislation proposed by the Kennedy administration was (in Lewis' words) "too little and too late." But each of the March's major figures, including Rustin and Dr. King, urged Lewis to moderate his speech. They had a testy but evolving relationship with the Kennedys that they didn't want to jeopardize or aggravate. It was only A. Philip Randolph who finally swayed Lewis. Rustin went into the crowd to find Randolph, then brought the two men together.

Lewis was 51 years younger than Randolph. Lewis later said of Randolph that "if he had been born in another period, maybe of another color, he probably would have been President." Randolph had been an actor as a young man, and his voice has that deep, archaic, clear-toned, echoing-from-infinity quality that you imagine is the voice of history itself, the voice you imagine reading the Gettysburg Address and Declaration of Independence.

Lewis and the other young leaders of SNCC were quite rightly in awe of him.

He was 75, and here we were, you know, one-third his age and, you know, he was asking us to do this for him. He said, "I waited all my life for this opportunity, please don't ruin it." And we felt that for him, we had to make some concession. [Courtland Cox]

The day's speeches were already underway. This all happened in one day. Lewis was sixth on the program. So Cox and Lewis and James Forman went to the Lincoln Memorial -- no bullshit, they went and sat together at the foot of the Lincoln fucking Memorial -- and rewrote Lewis' speech. It's still pretty fierce.

To those who have said, "Be patient and wait," we must say that "patience" is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence...

The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a "cooling-off" period...

We must say, "Wake up, America. Wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient."

I was amazed recently to discover that Reverend Doctor Joseph E. Lowery, one of the co-founders of SCLC, is still alive at 91. He has three videos of interviews up at "His Dream, Our Stories," a site devoted to the March. Lowery was a pastor in Mobile and helped lead the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama -- which, people forget, went on for over a year after Rosa Parks' arrest. Lowery later, along with John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and others, led the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery march. Ten years after Emmett Till's murder and the Montgomery bus boycott, two years after the March on Washington, and a year after the Civil Rights Act, the Selma marchers were attacked by Alabama state and local police for asserting their right to vote.

In 2008, Lowery gave the benediction for Barack Obama's first Inauguration. He is still alive. He is 91 years old.

The March all happened in one day; the Movement happened over years and years and years.

Rosa Parks was 42 when the Montgomery bus boycott began. She was 50 at the time of the March (where she was honored along with Little Rock's Daisy Bates, SNCC's Diane Nash Bevel, Gloria Richardson of Cambridge, Maryland, and Mrs. Herbert Lee in a speech by Myrlie Evers-Williams, then listed as Mrs. Medgar Evers). Lowery was 34. King was 26, not much older than Lewis was when he was called to lead SNCC and speak in Washington. Randolph would live to be 90 years old, just a little younger than Lowery is now.

We've lost so much. We've forgotten so much. We've asked so few to stand in for so many. We're doing it still.

Copyright lawyer Josh Schiller recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, "Why you won't see or hear the 'I have a dream' speech," examining how the King estate's vigorous defense of his speech's copyright has prevented its popular reproduction.

One place you can both see and hear King's speech is on PBS's Eyes on the Prize website. Eyes on the Prize is a landmark documentary on the entire modern civil rights movement, from Emmett Till's murder through the 1980s, when it first appeared. Its producers know more than a thing or two about the thorniest issues of copyright: the documentary's rebroadcast and distribution were held up for years while rights were cleared for its music, photographs, and videos. (Eventually, some of the original media was replaced.) I'm pretty sure they've done their work and paid the right licensing fees to get King's speech on the website.

Watch Dr King's speech. It's not the entire thing, and it's a crummy little QuickTime video. But it includes footage of the marchers arriving, A. Philip Randolph's introduction, and footage of President Kennedy meeting with the March's leaders, plus Walter Cronkite's contemporary commentary.

Remember this is history, which means we are still within it, even when those for whom it has been living memory leave us. Remember that it is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Remember how fragile it all was. Remember A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, Joseph E. Lowery and Jim Zwerg.

Remember Martin Luther King, Jr., that thickly-built, still-young man, rooting his feet in our history and turning himself into a column of pure energy, like a beacon through time and space, a light so bright we can't look at him directly, but have to turn away and look only at his half-remembered shape, still impressed on us when we close our eyes. Remember that day, when he all-too-briefly became a single still point with the granted power to bend straight the crooked lines of history.

Remember that fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, A. Philip Randolph was organizing the Shakespearean Society in Harlem. Fifty years after that, he was meeting a President who now owed him more than he probably ever knew. Fifty years is a long time and yet not so very long. If so much can be done in just one day, how much more could we do, now that we know we have another fifty years?

Colorized King, Randolph, Kennedy et al.jpgImage colorized by Mads Madsen for NPR.

How many people are in space right now?Aug 26 2013

How many people are in space right now? is a single serving site that will give you the answer, along with the astronauts' names, ranks, nationalities, and how long they've been in space.

As of August 26, 2013, these six people have emigrated from Earth's atmosphere and not yet returned:

  • Pavel Vinogradov, Commander (Russia): 151 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Alexander Misurkin, Flight Engineer (Russia): 151 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Chris Cassidy, Flight Engineer (USA): 151 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Fyodor Yurchikhin, Flight Engineer (Russia): 90 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Karen Nyberg, Flight Engineer (USA): 90 DAYS IN SPACE
  • Luca Parmitano, Flight Engineer (Italy): 90 DAYS IN SPACE

When I was a kid, I always thought that by the time I was an adult, we would have town-sized colonies in space stations around Earth, even if nowhere else. But getting and keeping human beings in space is hard, and robots have gotten very smart. Still, when I think about the rise of commercial human spaceflight, part of me is like "I don't just want to shoot into space like a soda can and do one lousy orbit!" -- as if that wouldn't be the most magical experience of my life. It doesn't matter. What I really want is to do a semester abroad.

Hats tipped to Zach Seward, Melody Kramer, and Sharon Jacobs.

The Apollo Guidance ComputerAug 23 2013

A 30-minute documentary from the 60s on the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The Pioneer DetectivesAug 13 2013

If you're at all interested in the Pioneer Anomaly (and you really should be, it's fascinating), The Pioneer Detectives ebook by Konstantin Kakaes looks interesting.

Explore one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the Pioneer Anomaly: in the 1980s, NASA scientists detected an unknown force acting on the spacecraft Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to journey through the asteroid belt and study Jupiter, eventually leaving the solar system. No one seemed able to agree on a cause. (Dark matter? Tensor-vector-scalar gravity? Collisions with gravitons?) What did seem clear to those who became obsessed with it was that the Pioneer Anomaly had the potential to upend Einstein and Newton -- to change everything we know about the universe.

Kakaes was a science writer for The Economist and studied physics at Harvard, so this topic seems right up his alley. Available for $2.99 for the Kindle and for iBooks on iOS.

The Saturn V rocket, simplifiedJul 31 2013

Randall Munroe of XKCD drew the Saturn V rocket (aka Up Goer Five) annotated using only the 1000 most common English words.

Up Goer Five

See also Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less.

Waltz Around SaturnJul 25 2013

Fabio Di Donato made this fantastic short film about Saturn using hundreds of thousands of images taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft.

I love the editing technique employed here...the film feels like a silent short from the 1920s but also very contemporary. (via ★interesting)

ISS in transitJul 25 2013

Romanian photographer Maximilian Teodorescu recently caught the International Space Station in transit across the Sun.

ISS Sun

Teodorescu has also taken photos of the ISS in transit across the Moon.

ISS Moon

These photos make the ISS seem tiny and huge all at the same time. And be sure to click through on the links to see the full-sized photos.

Trailer for GravityJul 24 2013

The latest trailer for Gravity, starring Bullock and Clooney and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (who directed Children of Men).

Holy God, this looks terrifying. Can't wait. (via ★interesting)

The Sun telescopeJul 02 2013

Turning the Sun into a giant radio telescope through gravitational lensing will take some work, but it is possible.

An Italian space scientist, Claudio Maccone, believes that gravitational lensing could be used for something even more extraordinary: searching for radio signals from alien civilizations. Maccone wants to use the sun as a gravitational lens to make an extraordinarily sensitive radio telescope. He did not invent the idea, which he calls FOCAL, but he has studied it more deeply than anyone else. A radio telescope at a gravitational focal point of the sun would be incredibly sensitive. (Unlike an optical lens, a gravitational lens actually has many focal points that lie along a straight line, called a focal line; imagine a line running through an observer, the center of the lens, and the target.) For one particular frequency that has been proposed as a channel for interstellar communication, a telescope would amplify the signal by a factor of 1.3 quadrillion.

Personal pocket spacecraft to the MoonJun 27 2013

This is incredible: an outfit called Pocket Spacecraft are making paper-thin "spacecraft" the size of CDs, hundreds of which will be placed into a rocket and sent to the Moon. They're funding the project on Kickstarter and you can purchase your very own Moon-bound spacecraft for as little as £199.

A space telescope for everyoneMay 30 2013

Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company (no, really!), has launched a $1 million Kickstarter campaign for "a space telescope for everyone".

The ARKYD is a technologically advanced, orbiting space telescope that will be controlled by YOU, the crowd, through your pledges and community involvement! You can even direct your telescope time to non-profit science centers and universities for use in your communities!

How long before Reddit raises a bunch of funds to point the telescope at some venting gases on Uranus all day every day?

How does copyright work in space?May 24 2013

When Commander Chris Hadfield covered David Bowie's Space Oddity on board the International Space Station:

how were the intellectual property rights handled?

The song "Space Oddity" is under copyright protection in most countries, and the rights to it belong to Mr Bowie. But compulsory-licensing rights in many nations mean that any composition that has been released to the public (free or commercially) as an audio recording may be recorded again and sold by others for a statutorily defined fee, although it must be substantively the same music and lyrics as the original. But with the ISS circling the globe, which jurisdiction was Commander Hadfield in when he recorded the song and video? Moreover, compulsory-licensing rights for covers of existing songs do not include permission for broadcast or video distribution. Commander Hadfield's song was loaded onto YouTube, which delivers video on demand to users in many countries around the world. The first time the video was streamed in each country constituted publication in that country, and with it the potential for copyright infringement under local laws. Commander Hadfield could have made matters even more complicated by broadcasting live as he sang to an assembled audience of fellow astronauts for an onboard public performance while floating from segment to segment of the ISS.

We live in a world where sending a guitar into space is trivial while ironing out rights agreements is the tough part. (via waxy)

David Chang cooks space food for Chris HadfieldMay 17 2013

Momofuku's David Chang cooks up some gourmet space food for celeb astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work out so well. Who knew that gravity was so useful? But stay for the best part of the whole thing...right at the end, Hadfield feeds himself asparagus like a fish.

Meme star chartMay 16 2013

From XKCD, a chart of the memes that various star systems are just hearing from the Earth's light-speed communications.

Pop Culture Star Chart

This is the meme version of Contact's opening credits scene, which is one of my favorites:

The Soviets cloned the Space ShuttleMay 14 2013

How appropriate that at the height of the Cold War, in which the United States was attempting to spend the Soviet Union into collapse (a task at which they eventually succeeded), the Soviets cloned the buggiest, most inconsistant part of the US space program.

Russian Space Shuttle

Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA's space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union's dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.

A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and -- the reported reason for its inception -- to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.

And from Maciej Ceglowski's epic takedown of the Shuttle program, this little tidbit:

The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.

(via @Mike_FTW)

Life in spaceMay 09 2013

The quick progress of the US space program in the 1960s and 70s and the science fiction of the 70s and 80s seemed to point towards humans living permanently in space. What happened?

Ironically, our actual experiments in space living have largely reinforced this stark perspective. Real life in space is often cramped, unpleasant and even pointless. Some years back, I visited Star City near Moscow, the training centre for cosmonauts since Gagarin, where I had a chance to clamber inside a full-scale training mock-up of the Mir space station. The experience was more like residing inside a computer terminal than one of O'Neill's cylindrical islands, so proximate and abundant were tubes, wires, levers, buttons and unnameable gadgets.

More disorienting was the placement of controls and conveniences: because space was limited, these were distributed throughout the station without reference to Earthly gravity, thus making use of 'ceilings' as sleeping quarters, walls for toilet cubicles and virtually any other surface for any other activity. One could get used to such things (and you'd have to be a true cynic to tire of the view outside your window). But it's a far, far cry from strolling the wide corridors of the Starship Enterprise.

They promised us life in space, flying cars, and jetpacks but all we got were pocket-sized rectangles containing all human knowledge. FAIL.

It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's a bolide!May 09 2013

Since 861 AD, almost 35,000 meteorites were recorded hitting the Earth but only 1,045 were actually seen falling. This animated infographic is a good way to visualize the data. Bolides is the perfect domain name. (via @DavidGrann)

Wringing out a washcloth in spaceApr 18 2013

What happens when you wring a washcloth out in zero gravity? Something cool.

Commander Hadfield is the best. I love when he casually lets go of the wireless mic and it just floats there right in front of his face. (thx, dusty)

Trippin' to MarsApr 16 2013

Great article by Burkhard Bilger about NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars.

The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it's sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.

Perfect read if you've been curious about what Curiosity is up to on Mars but needed something a bit more narrative than the mission home page or Wikipedia page to guide you. Also features the phrase "a self-eating watermelon of despair", so there's that. Oh, and here's the Seven Minutes of Terror video referred to in the story.

How well did Galileo observe Jupiter's moons?Mar 13 2013

In the pages of Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo described the four large moons of Jupiter in a series of 64 sketches which looked a lot like ASCII art in the text:

Sidereus Nuncius

Using an online tool for computing the positions of Jupiter's moons, Ernie Wright compared Galileo's sketches to the moons' actual motions.

Galileo moons

Click through for an animated GIF of all the comparisons. Not bad for the telescopic state of the art in 1610. For a taste of how celestial objects actually appeared when viewed through Galileo's telescope, check out this video starting around 7:30. (thx, john)

Thar's platinum in them thar 'roidsMar 12 2013

It's science fiction for now, but two companies are betting that mining asteroids for minerals will be possible in the near future.

The potential bonanza is, well, astronomical. A single 500-metre metal-rich asteroid might contain the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals mined to date. Icy bodies could provide water to sustain astronauts or be processed into rocket fuel for future missions to Mars.

The vortex view of planetary motion around the SunMar 01 2013

Since the Sun moves relative to the other stars around it at about 45,000 miles/hr, if you change the frame of reference from the Sun to the surrounding stellar system, you get planetary motion that looks something like this:

I would take this video with a grain of salt though, especially when it says things like "the Sun is like a comet, dragging the planets in its wake"...the planets don't lag behind the Sun. Better to think of the thing as a conceptual schematic: resembling reality but not really accurate. (via @pieratt)

Update: There's a new version of the video that addresses some of the concerns raised about the first video:

(thx, john)

Update: Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy has posted a pretty thorough takedown of this video.

However, there's a problem with it: It's wrong. And not just superficially; it's deeply wrong, based on a very wrong premise. While there are some useful visualizations in it, I caution people to take it with a galaxy-sized grain of salt.

Photograph from the surface of TitanFeb 05 2013

So far, humans have taken photos from the surfaces of Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars. But I had no idea that a photo from the surface of Titan existed:

Titan Surface

The photo of the Saturnian moon was taken in 2005 by the Huygens probe, which was designed to land safely on the moon's surface. From Wikipedia:

After landing, Huygens photographed a dark plain covered in small rocks and pebbles, which are composed of water ice. The two rocks just below the middle of the image on the right are smaller than they may appear: the left-hand one is 15 centimeters across, and the one in the center is 4 centimeters across, at a distance of about 85 centimeters from Huygens. There is evidence of erosion at the base of the rocks, indicating possible fluvial activity. The surface is darker than originally expected, consisting of a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice. The assumption is that the "soil" visible in the images is precipitation from the hydrocarbon haze above.

And a special close-but-no-cigar award goes to the NEAR Shoemaker probe, which snapped this photo from about 400 feet above the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Eros:

Eros surface

The probe landed on the surface of Eros in February 2001 and transmitted usable data for about two weeks afterwards, none of which was photographic in nature.

What if: the Milky Way were visible in NYCFeb 04 2013

It would look something like this:

NYC with stars

That's from a series called Darkened Skies by Thierry Cohen; he photographed various cities (NYC, Paris, Tokyo, SF) and matched them up with starry skies from more remote places like Montana, Nevada, and the Sahara. New Yorkers can see Cohen's work at the Danziger Gallery starting March 28.

See also Imagining Earth with Saturn's Rings.

Can you fly a plane on Mars?Jan 30 2013

Another fine installment of XKCD's What If? series: What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different Solar System bodies?

Unfortunately, [the X-Plane simulator] is not capable of simulating the hellish environment near the surface of Venus. But physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

(via stellar)

Richard Feynman and the Space Shuttle Challenger investigationJan 28 2013

The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff 27 years ago today. Physicist Richard Feynman had a hand in determining the reason for the disaster.

I'm an explorer, ok? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Here's Feynman's appendix to The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in which he dissents with the majority opinion of the commission. His conclusion:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Clear thought, clear writing. Feynman was perhaps the most efficient mechanism ever conceived for consuming complexity and pumping out simplicity. (via @ptak)

A tour of NASA's fake lunar surface in ArizonaJan 23 2013

Cinder Lake NASA

At a training site in Arizona called Cinder Lake, NASA created a "simulated lunar environment" for the purpose of testing lunar rovers and other pieces of equipment.

At the end of a four-day period of controlled explosions, USGS scientists had succeeded in creating a 500 square foot "simulated lunar environment" in Northern Arizona -- forty-seven craters of between five and forty feet in diameter designed to duplicate at a 1:1 scale a specific location (and future Apollo 11 landing site) on the moon, in a region called the Mare Tranquillitatis.

If they faked the Moon landing, this is probably where they did it.

Apollo 16 lunar rover dash camJan 23 2013

I had no idea there was footage shot on the Moon from the perspective of a lunar rover passenger...basically a lunar rover dash cam. It's the second half of this short video:

Amazing. The first part shows the rover speeding off (at about 6 miles/hr), being put through its paces. From the transcript of the "Grand Prix":

124:58:52 Duke: The suspension system on that thing is fantastic!

124:58:54 England: That sounds good. We sound like we probably got enough of the Grand Prix. We're willing to let you go on from here. Call that a (complete) Grand Prix.

124:59:03 Duke: Okay. (Pause) Man, that was all four wheels off the ground, there. Okay. Max stop.

124:59:12 Young: Okay. I don't want to do that.

124:59:13 Duke: Okay. Excuse me.

124:59:16 Young: They say that's a no-no.

124:59:22 Duke: Okay, DAC off; Mark. Okay, John. DAC's off.

124:59:27 Young: Okay. I have a lot of confidence in the stability of this contraption.

124:59:30 Duke: Me, too.

124:59:32 England: Sounds great.

Also, we took a fucking car to the Moon! Three times!

Why the Moon landing wasn't fakedJan 22 2013

Filmmaker S.G. Collins argues that in 1969, it was easier to send people to the Moon than to fake the landing in a studio. Technologically speaking, it was impossible to shoot that video anywhere other than the surface of the Moon. Which sounds crazy.

(via devour)

NASA's Smart SPHERES, floating robot drones on the ISSJan 14 2013

NASA is testing something they call SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) on the International Space Station...they are spherical robots that can fly around the station and perform simple tasks. They were inspired by the floating droid remote that Luke trains with in Star Wars. The most recent test was in December.

The Smart SPHERES, located in the Kibo laboratory module, were remotely operated from the International Space Station's Mission Control Center at Johnson to demonstrate how a free-flying robot can perform surveys for environmental monitoring, inspection and other routine housekeeping tasks.

In the future, small robots could regularly perform routine maintenance tasks allowing astronauts to spend more time working on science experiments. In the long run, free-flying robots like Smart SPHERES also could be used to inspect the exterior of the space station or future deep-space vehicles.

They are outfitting the Smart SPHERES with Android phones for data collection:

Each SPHERE Satellite is self-contained with power, propulsion, computing and navigation equipment. When Miller's team first designed the SPHERES, all of their potential uses couldn't be imagined up front. So, the team built an "expansion port" into each satellite where additional sensors and appendages, such as cameras and wireless power transfer systems, could be added. This is how the Nexus S handset -- the SPHERES' first smartphone upgrade -- is going to be attached.

"Because the SPHERES were originally designed for a different purpose, they need some upgrades to become remotely operated robots," said DW Wheeler, lead engineer in the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. "By connecting a smartphone, we can immediately make SPHERES more intelligent. With the smartphone, the SPHERES will have a built-in camera to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, a powerful computing unit to make calculations, and a Wi-Fi connection that we will use to transfer data in real-time to the space station and mission control."

Here's some video from a past test:

A tour of the International Space StationJan 02 2013

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who has spent almost a year in space, gives us a 25-minute tour of the International Space Station. AKA the nerdiest episode of MTV Cribs.

(via @durietz)

Timeline of the far futureDec 26 2012

The timeline of the far future artice is far from the longest page on Wikipedia, but it might take you several hours to get through because it contains so many enticing detours. What's Pangaea Ultima? Oooh, Roche limit! The Degenerate Era, Poincaré recurrence time, the Big Rip scenario, the cosmic light horizon, the list goes on and on. And the article itself is a trove of fascinating facts and eye-popping phrases. Here are a few of my favorites. (Keep in mind that the universe is only 13.75 billion years old. Unless we're living in a computer simulation.)

50,000 years: "Niagara Falls erodes away the remaining 32 km to Lake Erie and ceases to exist."

1 million years: "Highest estimated time until the red supergiant star Betelgeuse explodes in a supernova. The explosion is expected to be easily visible in daylight."

1.4 million years: "The star Gliese 710 passes as close as 1.1 light years to the Sun before moving away. This may gravitationally perturb members of the Oort cloud; a halo of icy bodies orbiting at the edge of the Solar System. As a consequence, the likelihood of a cometary impact in the inner Solar System will increase."

230 million years: "Beyond this time, the orbits of the planets become impossible to predict."

Timeline Future

800 million years: "Carbon dioxide levels fall to the point at which C4 photosynthesis is no longer possible. Multicellular life dies out."

4 billion years: "Median point by which the Andromeda Galaxy will have collided with the Milky Way, which will thereafter merge to form a galaxy dubbed 'Milkomeda'."

7.9 billion years: "The Sun reaches the tip of the red giant branch, achieving its maximum radius of 256 times the present day value. In the process, Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth are destroyed. During these times, it is possible that Saturn's moon Titan could achieve surface temperatures necessary to support life."

100 billion years: "The Universe's expansion causes all galaxies beyond the Milky Way's Local Group to disappear beyond the cosmic light horizon, removing them from the observable universe."

1 trillion years: "The universe's expansion, assuming a constant dark energy density, multiplies the wavelength of the cosmic microwave background by 10^29, exceeding the scale of the cosmic light horizon and rendering its evidence of the Big Bang undetectable."

1 quadrillion years: "Estimated time until stellar close encounters detach all planets in the Solar System from their orbits. By this point, the Sun will have cooled to five degrees above absolute zero."

10^65 years: "Assuming that protons do not decay, estimated time for rigid objects like rocks to rearrange their atoms and molecules via quantum tunneling. On this timescale all matter is liquid."

10^10^56 years: "Estimated time for random quantum fluctuations to generate a new Big Bang, according to Caroll and Chen."

Read the whole thing, it's worth the effort. (via @daveg)

Note: Illustration by Chris Piascik...prints & more are available.

What would realistic space battles look like?Nov 21 2012

This impressive 7,000 word essay written by user Memphet'ran on the appropriately named Spacebattles.com forum attempts to answer that question.

There are only a handful of engines that allow a combination of high thrust and low mass ratio. The most promising are Orion nuclear pulse propulsion and the nuclear salt water rocket. Some nuclear thermal designs also have thrust high enough to possibly be useful, although only for a small ship. The user "RJP" on Spacebattles also suggested something called a fission fragment drive which works by throwing high-velocity fuel fragments out the back of the ship, but other sites I've researched suggest it would be a low-thrust high-ISP [in-space propulsion] system more suitable to an explorer than a warship. Orion works by the (seemingly insane, but actually quite effective) method of throwing nuclear bombs behind the spacecraft and having it ride the blasts. The hot gasses from the detonations hit a heavy pusher plate at the back of the ship and drive it forward. NSWR [nuclear salt water rocket] is similar, but it instead uses a solution of fissionables in salt water that spontaneously explodes as it leaves the rocket nozzle. Both systems cleverly shift the propulsive reaction outside the spacecraft, eliminating the need to deal with most of the heat it produces and allowing it to be made much more energetic.

And previously on kottke.org:

For the same reason that we have Space Shuttle launch delays, we'll be able to tell exactly what trajectories our enemies could take between planets: the launch window. At any given point in time, there are only so many routes from here to Mars that will leave our imperialist forces enough fuel and energy to put down the colonists' revolt.

If you've got a hankering to go hands on, the video games EVE and FTL approach realistic space battles in their own ways.

(via @BenKuckera)

Earth-sized planet found only 4.3 light years awayOct 16 2012

A European team of exoplanet hunters has discovered a planet about the size of Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri B, which is in a group of stars closest to the solar system, a mere 4.3 light years away. Lee Billings explains the significance.

At a distance of just over 4.3 light years, the stars of Alpha Centauri are only a cosmic stone's throw away. To reach Alpha Centauri B b, as this new world is called, would require a journey of some 25 trillion miles. For comparison, the next-nearest known exoplanet is a gas giant orbiting the orange star Epsilon Eridani, more than twice as far away. But don't pack your bags quite yet. With a probable surface temperature well above a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, Alpha Centauri B b is no Goldilocks world. Still, its presence is promising: Planets tend to come in packs, and some theorists had believed no planets at all could form in multi-star systems like Alpha Centauri, which are more common than singleton suns throughout our galaxy. It seems increasingly likely that small planets exist around most if not all stars, near and far alike, and that Alpha Centauri B may possess additional worlds further out in clement, habitable orbits, tantalizingly within reach.

Photos of the Space Shuttle being driven through Los AngelesOct 15 2012

On Saturday, the Space Shuttle Endeavour was driven 12 miles through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to the California Science Center. It was a tight fit at times.

Space Shuttle LA

1850s poster of the planetsOct 05 2012

I love this poster:

Solar System Poster 1850

(via @ptak)

The boomerang meteorOct 03 2012

While driving a couple weeks ago, I happened to catch a meteor shooting across the sky:

Saw one of the coolest things ever tonight: a meteor burning up in the lower atmosphere. Super bright, exploded at the end like a firework.

It turned out that "one of the coolest things ever" wasn't hyperbole. You see, earlier that day over the UK, a meteor streaked across the sky for about 50 seconds:

And then the one I saw happened about two-and-a-half hours later. Spurred by this unlikely coincidence, mathematician Esko Lyytinen of the colorfully named Finnish Fireball Working Group of the Ursa Astronomical Association did some calculations and determined that the two events were actually the same meteor.

He believes a large body grazed the upper atmosphere, dipping to an altitude of 33 miles (53 km) over Ireland before escaping back to space. Because it arrived moving at only about 8 miles (13 km) per second, barely above Earth's escape velocity, it lingered for more than a minute as it crossed the sky. (This explains why some witnesses mistook it for reentering spacecraft debris.)

Lyytinen says the brief atmospheric passage took its toll. As the meteoroid broke apart, its velocity dropped to just 5.7 miles (9.2 km) per second, too slow to make an escape back to space. Instead, it became a temporary satellite of Earth, looping completely around the globe before reentering the atmosphere -- this time for good. "It looks now that the fireball witnessed 155 minutes later in U.S. and Canada, may have been one fragment of the British fireball, most probably the biggest one," Lyytinen explains.

Boomerang Meteor

These earth-grazers are not common but they do happen from time to time. But a visible Earth grazing meteor that enters the atmosphere twice? Unprecedented. So cool! (thx, alex)

In which Mars Curiosity finds a river bedSep 27 2012

Earlier this month, the Curiosity rover photographed a dry stream bed on the surface of Mars.

Mars Curiosity River Bed

That's the Mars river bed on the left and an Earth river bed on the right. Note the flat smooth rocks in the Mars pic. Pretty cool.

Zero gravity yo-yo tricksSep 20 2012

It turns out that yo-yos work pretty well in space. Astronaut Don Pettit demontrates from the International Space Station.

(via explore)

The story of Mars Curiosity's gearsSep 07 2012

From Our City, Our Story, the story of a Rockford, Illinois gear factory that made all of the gears for the Mars Curiosity rover.

What might be more remarkable than creating crucial equipment destined for Mars? For a second time? Well, creating a thriving motivated company culture with a team of career employees -- the kind who lie in bed at night thinking, "what can I do in the morning when I get there?" The kind who take on responsibility, impose their own high standards and like Amy Sovina, have the "mindset something I touched is now on the surface of Mars."

I would love to have seen a live feed of these gear shop employees watching the landing.

Neil Armstrong, RIPAug 25 2012

Neil Armstrong RIP

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, died today at the age of 82.

Although he had been a Navy fighter pilot, a test pilot for NASA's forerunner and an astronaut, Mr. Armstrong never allowed himself to be caught up in the celebrity and glamour of the space program.

"I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer," he said in February 2000 in one a rare public appearance. "And I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession."

A sad day; Armstrong was one of my few heroes. In my eyes, Armstrong safely guiding the LEM to the surface of the Moon, at times by the seat of his pants, is among the most impressive and important things ever done by a human being.

Beautiful view of the Perseids meteor showerAug 15 2012

Perseids Composite

There's nothing like a composite photo of the Perseids meteor shower to hammer home the realization that the Earth is hurtling through space like the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run. Photo by David Kingham.

Why does Mars Curiosity have such a small camera?Aug 09 2012

The main imaging cameras on the Mars Curiosity rover have only 2-megapixel sensors with 8 GB of flash memory -- compare that to a maxed-out iPhone 4S with an 8-megapixel sensor and 64 GB of flash memory (not to mention 30-fps 1080p video). Planning timeframes and communications bandwidth contributed to the chosen camera size.

'There's a popular belief that projects like this are going to be very advanced but there are things that mitigate against that. These designs were proposed in 2004, and you don't get to propose one specification and then go off and develop something else. 2MP with 8GB of flash [memory] didn't sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn't compare well to what you get in an iPhone today.'

The cameras were also supposed to be outfitted with zoom lenses but that part of the project was scrapped.

The Mars OlympicsAug 02 2012

On Twitter right now, Neil deGrasse Tyson is imagining how various Olympic events would work on Mars.

Women's Beach Volleyball on Mars: No protective ozone layer there. Solar UV would irradiate all exposed legs, buns, & tummies

Gymnastics: On Mars, with only 38% of Earth's gravity, the Vault & other spring-assisted leaps would resemble circus cannons.

(via @jaycer17)

The view from Earth of different planets replacing the MoonAug 01 2012

What if Mars orbited the Earth at the same distance as the Moon...what would that look like? How about Neptune? Or Jupiter? Like this:

See also what the Earth would look like with Saturn's rings. (via @stevenstrogatz)

Landing on Mars next week: the Curiosity roverJul 31 2012

The rest of you can have your Olympics, but the early August event I'm most looking forward to is the arrival on Mars of the Curiosity rover. But NASA has had some problems in the past delivering payloads to Mars, so this is going to be somewhat of a nail-biter. If you haven't seen it, Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror is well worth watching to see the logistical challenge of getting the rover down to the surface.

Curiosity will hopefully land on the surface on Aug 6 at about 1:30 am ET.

Live TV coverage of Apollo 11 landing and moon walkJul 20 2012

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed on the surface of the Moon 43 years ago today. For the 40th anniversary of the landing in 2009, I put together a page where you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk, synced to the present-day time. I've updated the page to work again this year: just open this page in your browser and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here's the schedule:

Moon landing broacast start: 4:10:30 pm EDT on July 20
Moon landing shown: 4:17:40 pm EDT
Moon landing broadcast end: 4:20:15 pm EDT
{break}
Moon walk broadcast start: 10:51:27 pm EDT
First step on Moon: 10:56:15 pm EDT
Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew: approx 11:51:30 pm EDT
Moon walk broadcast end: 12:00:30 pm EDT on July 21

Here's a post I wrote when I launched the project.

If you've never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I've watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I'm struck by two things: 1) how it's almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

Thanks to Dave Schumaker for the reminder.

Rocketless launchesJul 09 2012

I love McLean Fahnestock's series of modified photos of rocket launches without the rockets:

Rocketless Launch

Fahnestock also did the video of all 135 Space Shuttle launches at once.

All 135 Space Shuttle launches at onceJul 06 2012

This is a video showing all 135 launches of the various Space Shuttle at once.

Turn up your sound. I've seen this done with episodes of the Simpsons and Star Trek, but this is way better. The fade out on the tiny Challenger square is surprisingly affecting. Created by McLean Fahnestock.

Contents of the Voyager Golden RecordJun 14 2012

When they were launched in 1977, the two Voyager spacecraft each carried with them a 12-inch gold-plated copper record containing multimedia pertaining to life on Earth, the idea being that if an extraterrestrial ran across one of these records millions of years from now, they could play it an learn something about our planet. This site has a listing of some of the music, images, and sounds contained on the records. Here are two of the images included...the first is a rudimentary mathematics primer and the second is a family portrait:

Voyager Record 01Voyager Record 02

I wonder when we'll see these records again. I mean, it seems more plausible that Elon Musk's grandson will mount an expedition to retrieve a Voyager probe in 2077 than some alien running across the thing.

How to measure the size of the UniverseJun 13 2012

From The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, a short video explanation of how scientists measure the size of the Universe.

This is science for the layperson done right...PBS or the Discovery Channel would have inflated this into a 30-minute show. (via ★interesting)

Time lapse video of the transit of VenusJun 06 2012

Venus passed in front of the Sun yesterday for the last time until 2117. The transit took almost seven hours but this NASA video shows it in under a minute.

The Pioneer Anomaly has been solvedMay 29 2012

I missed this last July when the news came out, but since I've been following the Pioneer Anomaly for the past eight years, I wanted to mention it here for closure purposes. First, what the hell is the Pioneer Anomaly?

The Pioneer anomaly or Pioneer effect is the observed deviation from predicted accelerations of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft after they passed about 20 astronomical units (3×10^9 km; 2×10^9 mi) on their trajectories out of the Solar System. Both Pioneer spacecraft are escaping the Solar System, but are slowing under the influence of the Sun's gravity. Upon very close examination of navigational data, the spacecraft were found to be slowing slightly more than expected. The effect is an extremely small but unexplained acceleration towards the Sun, of 8.74±1.33x10^-10 m/s^2.

A team at JPL has tracked the problem to uneven heat emissions from the probes' fuel source.

For their new analysis, Turyshev et. al. compiled a lot more data than had ever been analyzed before, spanning a much longer period of the Pioneers' flight times. They studied 23 years of data from Pioneer 10 instead of just 11, and 11 years of data from Pioneer 11 instead of 3. As explained in their new paper, the more complete data sets reveal that the spacecraft's anomalous acceleration did indeed seem to decrease with time. In short, the undying force had been dying after all, just like the decaying plutonium.

A more recent paper by the same researchers offers even more support for their theory. Case closed, I say.

Quantum propulsion system for spacecraft inventedMay 29 2012

Aisha Mustafa, a 19-year-old Egyptian physics student, has invented a promising new quantum propulsion system for spacecraft.

Mustafa invented a way of tapping this quantum effect via what's known as the dynamic Casimir effect. This uses a "moving mirror" cavity, where two very reflective very flat plates are held close together, and then moved slightly to interact with the quantum particle sea. It's horribly technical, but the end result is that Mustafa's use of shaped silicon plates similar to those used in solar power cells results in a net force being delivered. A force, of course, means a push or a pull and in space this equates to a drive or engine.

Alien still hasn't listened to all of Voyager's Golden RecordMay 18 2012

Eighteen months on, the alien who discovered Voyager's Golden Record still hasn't gotten around to listening to the whole thing.

"The wind, rain, and surf sounds are pretty cool, but I usually sort of zone out when it gets to the crickets chirping, and then I just end up turning it off," said Ellinger, adding that he will sometimes put the record on as background noise when he's cleaning his electro-biological habitat.

Current status of The Onion: still really pretty good.

My God, it's full of galaxiesMar 26 2012

The VISTA telescope in Chile recently took a photo of the sky that contains over 200,000 galaxies. For reference, the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image shows only about 10,000 galaxies (but sees further back in time, I think).

I've spent years studying all this, and it still sometimes gets to me: just how flipping BIG the Universe is! And this picture is still just a tiny piece of it: it's 1.2 x 1.5 degrees in size, which means it's only 0.004% of the sky! And it's not even complete: more observations of this region are planned, allowing astronomers to see even deeper yet.

Here's a full view of the image that looks sorta unimpressive:

Vista Deep Field

You can download the original 17,000 x 11,000 pixel image here (250 Mb, yo) for the full effect. As a preview, this is several levels of zoom in...just a tiny part of the full image.

Vista Deep Field 2

What the Space Shuttle booster sawMar 15 2012

You've likely seen other videos taken from cameras attached to the Space Shuttle and its boosters, but this is one is exceptional in two regards: it's in HD and the sound has been remastered by Skywalker Sound.

Watch, and more importantly, listen to the whole thing...at the very end, you can see the second booster land a few hundred yards away from the first one. Who knew that being in space sounds like being trapped with a whale underwater in a tin pail? (via ★mouser)

Martian twisterMar 08 2012

On a recent pass, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this dust devil dancing its way across the surface of Mars.

Mars Tornado

The active dust devil displays a delicate arc produced by a westerly breeze partway up its height. The dust plume is about 30 yards or meters in diameter.

The image was taken during the time of Martian year when that planet is farthest from the sun. Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the sun's rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

Space is closer than you might thinkMar 07 2012

Space always seems so far away and much of it actually is. But space is actually quite close to where we are all sitting right now. The Kármán line, the commonly accepted boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and space, is only 62 miles above sea level.

The line was named after Theodore von Kármán, (1881-1963) a Hungarian-American engineer and physicist who was active primarily in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics. He first calculated that around this altitude the Earth's atmosphere becomes too thin for aeronautical purposes (because any vehicle at this altitude would have to travel faster than orbital velocity in order to derive sufficient aerodynamic lift from the atmosphere to support itself). Also, there is an abrupt increase in atmospheric temperature and interaction with solar radiation.

A distance of 62 miles can covered by a car on the interstate in less than an hour. Stable Earth orbits are achievable at only 100 miles above the Earth, with the ISS and Space Shuttles usually orbiting at a height of ~200 miles. To show how small a distance that really is, I made the following image...the orange line in the upper left represents 200 miles away from the surface.

Low Earth Orbit

Pretty crazy.

On the occasion of your going into spaceJan 19 2012

Scott Carpenter was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts and the second American to orbit the Earth. Just before he went into space, his father wrote this wonderful letter.

And I venture to predict that after all the huzzas have been uttered and the public acclaim is but a memory, you will derive the greatest satisfaction from the serene knowledge that you have discovered new truths. You can say to yourself: this I saw, this I experienced, this I know to be the truth. This experience is a precious thing; it is known to all researchers, in whatever field of endeavour, who have ventured into the unknown and have discovered new truths.

Comet time lapseDec 29 2011

A short time lapse of Comet Lovejoy appearing in the pre-dawn sky over the Andes. Wait for the last sequence...it's the best one.

Lovejoy was only discovered in Nov 2011 by an amateur astronomer. (via ★interesting)

Amazing HD time lapse taken from the International Space StationNov 12 2011

Perhaps you've seen the recent videos of the Earth at night taken from the ISS...they were a bit rough. This? This is five minutes of gorgeous HD:

You can watch it embedded here but what you'll really want to do is head over to Vimeo so that you can watch it in fullscreen HD. (via colossal)

Earth orbit time lapseSep 19 2011

Time lapse movie composed of photographs taken from the International Space Station as it orbits the Earth at night.

This movie begins over the Pacific Ocean and continues over North and South America before entering daylight near Antarctica. Visible cities, countries and landmarks include (in order) Vancouver Island, Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles. Phoenix. Multiple cities in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. Mexico City, the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Lightning in the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and the Amazon. Also visible is the earths ionosphere (thin yellow line) and the stars of our galaxy.

(via stellar)

Solar eclipse...by SaturnSep 12 2011

The Cassini spacecraft caught this remarkable photo of Saturn eclipsing the Sun in 2006.

Saturn eclipse

Click through for the big image and the massive image. If you look close can see the Earth in the image, for reals!

Flowing water on Mars?Aug 08 2011

From late last week, news that NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found possible evidence that there's flowing water on Mars.

Dark, finger-like features appear and extend down some Martian slopes during late spring through summer, fade in winter, and return during the next spring. Repeated observations have tracked the seasonal changes in these recurring features on several steep slopes in the middle latitudes of Mars' southern hemisphere.

"The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. McEwen is the principal investigator for the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and lead author of a report about the recurring flows published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.

A history of the Space Shuttle in picturesJul 08 2011

From earlier this month at In Focus, a photographic look at the "dizzying inspiration and crushing disappointment" of NASA's Space Shuttle program. (via @robinsloan)

Year-long Moon timelapseJun 15 2011

This is a timelapse animation of the surprisingly wobbly Moon over a period of one year.

Note: this is an animation, not a timelapse video...i.e. there's CG involved. More info here.

Rough spaceJun 03 2011

Space photography and videography all looks pretty much the same: high contrast, lots of black backgrounds, smooth, and often sterile. Designer Chris Abbas took a bunch of photos from the Cassini Mission (to Saturn) and made them into something that is definitely not your usual NASA video.

(via stellar)

Tour of Earth from orbitJun 02 2011

This is a wonderful seven-minute HD video tour of Earth using video shot from orbit.

Look at this neat picture of Great Salt Lake in Utah. And the variation in color? That's due to an almost a complete blockage of the circulation of the lake by a trestle for a railroad that crosses from one side to the other. It stops the circulation and things get a little bit saltier and certainly saltier at the north end of the lake.

Never knew that about the Great Salt Lake, but you can see the effect on Google Maps as well. (via ★interesting)

Night sky timelapse...with a twist!May 31 2011

This will be the hundredth night sky timelapse video you've seen but probably the first one that shows the Earth rotating instead of the stars.

Best viewed full screen. (via stellar)

SETI project on hiatusApr 26 2011

Due to a lack of funding, SETI Institute shut down the radio telescope array they were using to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life outside our solar system.

The timing couldn't be worse, say SETI scientists. After millenniums of musings, this spring astronomers announced that 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite. They predict that dozens of these planets will be Earth-sized -- and some will be in the "habitable zone," where the temperatures are just right for liquid water, a prerequisite of life as we know it.

(via ★genmon)

Saturn fly-by videoMar 15 2011

There is no 3-D CGI involved in this amazing Saturn fly-by video...it's made from thousands of hi-res photographs taken by the Cassini orbiter.

Wait for the full-frame full-color video starting at around 1:00. (thx, sam)

Moon cave!Mar 08 2011

Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 has discovered a large cave on the Moon. Aside from the hey, cool, there's a cave on the Moon factor, the other big feature of the cave is its constant and temperate temperature.

Temperatures on the moon swing wildly, from a maximum of 262 degrees Fahrenheit to a minimum of -292. The cave holds steady at a (relatively) comfortable -4, since the moon's weather can't penetrate its 40-foot-thick wall. It could also protect astronauts from "hazardous radiations, micro-meteoritic impacts," and dust storms, according to paper published by the journal Current Science.

(via @juliandibbell)

Sex in outer spaceDec 15 2010

From a paper published in the Journal of Cosmology entitled Sex On Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development, and Sex In Outer Space:

Humans are sexual beings and it can be predicted that male and female astronauts will engage in sexual relations during a mission to Mars, leading to conflicts and pregnancies and the first baby born on the Red Planet. Non-human primate and astronaut sexual behavior is reviewed including romantic conflicts involving astronauts who flew aboard the Space Shuttle and in simulated missions to Mars, and men and women team members in the Antarctic. The possibilities of pregnancy and the effects of gravity and radiation on the testes, ovaries, menstruation, and developing fetus, including a child born on Mars, are discussed. What may lead to and how to prevent sexual conflicts, sexual violence, sexual competition, and pregnancy are detailed. Recommendations include the possibility that male and female astronauts on a mission to Mars, should fly in separate space craft.

NASA study of arsenic-based life flawed?Dec 07 2010

Carl Zimmer in Slate:

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

(thx, anil)

Planetary sci-fiDec 03 2010

Matt Webb of BERG shares some of his favorite sci-fi about each of the planets. And the Sun (sort of)...no solar system sci-fi list would be complete without a mention of Sunshine.

In 2057, the Sun is dying, and the Earth is freezing. So the ship Icarus 2 goes on a mission to reignite it with a massive bomb. This is the movie Sunshine, and if you get a chance to see it, watch it on a big screen. The crew themselves watch the Sun close-up, awestruck, from a view-port the exact dimensions of a movie screen, so the Sun fills your picture too and you spend half the film bathing in powerful yellow light. Like some kind of church.

Although I didn't, Matt, appreciate the diss of Pluto. Never forget, my friend.

SpacelogDec 01 2010

Spacelog is taking the original NASA transcripts from early space missions and snazzing them up with a more compelling presentation. Here's the famous moment in the Apollo 13 mission:

Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a MAIN B BUS UNDERVOLT.

Wonderful stuff. The site is looking for help with getting more missions transcripts up...go here and scroll down to "Getting involved without technical knowledge". Although I think they'd get more people involved if they didn't just dump people into GitHub. (thx, the 50 people who sent this to me this morning)

Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?Nov 29 2010

Here's a curious press release from NASA:

NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

I did a little research on the news conference participants and found:

1. Pamela Conrad (a geobiologist) was the primary author of a 2009 paper on geology and life on Mars

2. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (an oceanographer) has written extensively on photosynthesis using arsenic recently (she worked on the team mentioned in this article)

3. Steven Benner (a biologist) is on the "Titan Team" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they're looking at Titan (Saturn's largest moon) as an early-Earth-like chemical environment. This is likely related to the Cassini mission.

4. James Elser (an ecologist) is involved with a NASA-funded astrobiology program called Follow the Elements, which emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves (and not just looking at water or carbon or oxygen).

So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I'd say that they've discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements). Or something like that. (thx, sippey)

Update: According to Alexis Madrigal, the answer to the hyperbolic question in the headline is "no".

I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that.

What's it like on the International Space Station?Nov 02 2010

For one thing, sleeping is more troublesome than you'd think, considering the remote location:

The onslaught of apparent days and nights would play havoc with astronauts' body clocks, so a shutters-down and bedtime schedule is imposed by mission controllers. Each of the crew has a closet-like cabin where they can hook a sleeping bag to the wall and settle down for the night. Some strap pillows to their heads to make it feel more like lying down. The lights don't go out completely, though. People dozing in orbit see streaks and bursts of bright colour caused by high-energy cosmic rays painlessly slamming into their retinas. Fans and air filters add to the distractions, so some astronauts wear ear plugs to block out the constant hum.

Unsurprisingly, falling asleep can take some getting used to. Just as you are nodding off, you can feel as though you've fallen off a 10-storey building. People who look half asleep will suddenly throw their heads back with a start and fling out their arms. It gets easier with time. One Russian crew member is renowned for doing without a sleeping bag and falling asleep wherever he ends the day. Anyone still awake after bedtime would see his snoozing form drift by, slowly bouncing off the walls, his course set by the air currents that gently pushed and pulled him.

Whoa! The whole thing is worth a read.

Gliese 581g, we hardly knew yeOct 13 2010

That habitable exoplanet discovery? Maybe not.

Astronomer Francesco Pepe of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, who spoke Oct. 11 at an International Astronomical Union symposium on planetary systems, reported a new analysis using only HARPS data, but adding an extra 60 data points to the observations published in 2008. He and his colleagues could find no trace of the planet.

Potential Earth-like exoplanet discoveredSep 30 2010

A team of scientists has discovered a potentially habitable planet located about 20 light years from Earth.

The paper reports the discovery of two new planets around the nearby red dwarf star Gliese 581. This brings the total number of known planets around this star to six, the most yet discovered in a planetary system other than our own solar system. Like our solar system, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly circular orbits.

The most interesting of the two new planets is Gliese 581g, with a mass three to four times that of the Earth and an orbital period of just under 37 days. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with a definite surface and that it has enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, according to Vogt.

Gliese 581, located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra, has a somewhat checkered history of habitable-planet claims. Two previously detected planets in the system lie at the edges of the habitable zone, one on the hot side (planet c) and one on the cold side (planet d). While some astronomers still think planet d may be habitable if it has a thick atmosphere with a strong greenhouse effect to warm it up, others are skeptical. The newly discovered planet g, however, lies right in the middle of the habitable zone.

Sam Arbesman's prediction of May 2011 might have been too conservative. And 20 light years...that means we could send a signal there, and if someone of sufficient technological capability is there and listening, we could hear something back within our lifetime. Contact! (thx, jimray)

New Apollo 11 footageSep 29 2010

Due to the Moon's relative position in the sky as Neil Armstrong started his moonwalk, Australia was able to capture the first few minutes of his descent down the ladder before NASA was able to find a signal. But it was lost until recently; the restored footage will be shown next week at an event in Sydney.

When will the first Earth-like planet be discovered?Sep 17 2010

Using the properties of previously discovered exoplanets (that is, planets outside of our solar system) and their dates of discovery, Sam Arbesman and Greg Laughlin predict that the discovery of the first Earth-like exoplanet will likely occur in early May 2011.

Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, but here's an overview of what we did. Using the properties of previously discovered exoplanets, we developed a simple metric of habitability for each planet that uses its mass and temperature to rate it on a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 is Earth-like, and 0 is so very not Earth-like. Plotting these values over time and taking the upper envelope yields a nice march towards habitability.

The authors don't address this directly in their paper, but I wondered what the Moore's Law for planetary discovery might be -- e.g. every X years (or months?), the habitability of the most habitable planet discovered doubles. So I emailed Sam Arbesman and he said that his quick back of the envelope calculation would be "half a month or so"...which is an astounding pace.

There's a hole in the MoonSep 16 2010

From a typically excellent selection of photos taken from space curated by Alan Taylor over at The Big Picture, there's this:

Moon hole

I don't know why, but that freaks me right out. THERE'S A FREAKING HOLE IN THE MOON!!

Helvetica! In! Space!Sep 09 2010

Back in July, Ben Terrett wrote a post about how many instances of the word "helvetica" set in unkerned 100 pt Helvetica it would take to go from the Earth to the Moon:

The distance to the moon is 385,000,000,000 mm. The size of an unkerned piece of normal cut Helvetica at 100pt is 136.23 mm. Therefore it would take 2,826,206,643.42 helveticas to get to the moon.

But let's say you wanted to stretch one "helvetica" over the same distance...at what point size would you need to set it? The answer is 282.6 billion points. At that size, the "h" would be 44,600 miles tall, roughly 5.6 times as tall as the Earth. Here's what that would look like:

Helvetica, from the Earth to the Moon

The Earth is on the left and that little speck on the right side is the Moon. Here's a close-up of the Earth and the "h":

Helvetica and the Earth

And if you wanted to put it yet another way, the Earth is set in 50.2 billion point type -- Helvetically speaking -- while the Moon is set in 13.7 billion point type. (thx, @brainpicker)

Original Apollo 11 CBS News broadcastJul 20 2010

I had so much fun with this last year, I'm doing it again: watch the original CBS News coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing and first Moon walk, reported live by Walter Cronkite exactly 41 years after it happened.

Apollo 11 on TV

Just leave this page open in your browser and at the appointed times (schedule is below), the broadcast will begin (no manual page refresh necessary).

Schedule:
Moon landing broacast start: 4:10:30 pm EDT on July 20
Moon landing shown: 4:17:40 pm EDT
Moon landing broadcast end: 4:20:15 pm EDT
...
Moon walk broadcast start: 10:51:27 pm EDT
First step on Moon: 10:56:15 pm EDT
Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew: approx 11:51:30 pm EDT
Moon walk broadcast end: 12:00:30 am EDT on July 21

If you've never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it.

Please note that schedule times are approximate, based on your computer's clock, and that the syncing of the videos might not be perfect. You need to have JS and Flash 8+ to view. This is just like real TV...if you miss the appointed time, there's no rewind or anything...the video is playing "live". I have not done extensive browser testing so it may not work perfectly in your browser. If you run into any problems, just reload the page. Thanks for tuning in.

CSS3 solar systemJun 30 2010

Gorgeous CSS3 animation of the solar system. But here's what it looks like in IE (tee hee).

Video of a man exposed to total vacuumJun 03 2010

Remember the boiling tongue water story from yesterday's post about how long a human can last in the vacuum of space? Here's the video of that depressurization event, with the participants taking about it:

(thx, brad)

Music for spaceflightsJun 02 2010

From NASA, an extensive listing of the "wake-up" music heard by astronauts on their missions in space. For Apollo 17's first wake-up call on the Moon, they played Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries while the second Space Shuttle mission crew got stuck with "Pigs in Space comedy routine #1 by The Muppets". (via girlhacker)

How long can a human live unprotected in space?Jun 02 2010

The answer, straight from NASA.

At NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (now renamed Johnson Space Center) we had a test subject accidentally exposed to a near vacuum (less than 1 psi) in an incident involving a leaking space suit in a vacuum chamber back in '65. He remained conscious for about 14 seconds, which is about the time it takes for O2 deprived blood to go from the lungs to the brain. The suit probably did not reach a hard vacuum, and we began repressurizing the chamber within 15 seconds. The subject regained consciousness at around 15,000 feet equivalent altitude. The subject later reported that he could feel and hear the air leaking out, and his last conscious memory was of the water on his tongue beginning to boil.

Boiling tongue water! (via acts of volition)

Apollo 11 slow-motion launchApr 26 2010

The view is from one of the cameras close to the engines. The narration is great; you really get a sense of how many things had to be considered to make it to the Moon (like the launch pad paint that burned and charred in order to protect the underlying materials). (via df)

Voyager's playlistApr 06 2010

The playlist sent out into space with the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft include songs by Bach, Stravinsky, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson.

Beautiful planetary postersFeb 08 2010

All nine of the planets in our solar system are represented in these wonderful posters by Ross Berens.

Pluto poster

Pluto. Never forget.

The fake colors of Hubble photographyJan 25 2010

Those wildly colorful Hubble telescope photos...how do they get them to look like that?

The colors in Hubble images, which are assigned for various reasons, aren't always what we'd see if we were able to visit the imaged objects in a spacecraft. We often use color as a tool, whether it is to enhance an object's detail or to visualize what ordinarily could never be seen by the human eye.

See also this informative Reddit thread.

On the moon without being on the moonJan 19 2010

Vincent Fournier has made a series of photos of astronauts training and of the interiors of the Chinese, Russian and US space agencies.

Vincent Fournier

Looks alien, doesn't it?

Planet StyrofoamJan 05 2010

The Kepler space telescope has found a planet with the density of Styrofoam.

The physics of space battlesDec 22 2009

The logistics of fighting wars in space is a little different than the movies have lead us to believe.

For the same reason that we have Space Shuttle launch delays, we'll be able to tell exactly what trajectories our enemies could take between planets: the launch window. At any given point in time, there are only so many routes from here to Mars that will leave our imperialist forces enough fuel and energy to put down the colonists' revolt.

The Known UniverseDec 17 2009

The Known Universe zooms out from Tibet to the limits of the observable universe. Dim the lights, full-screen it in HD, and you're in for a treat.

Like Powers of Ten, except astronomically accurate. It's not a dramatization, it's a map; the positioning data was pulled from Hayden Planetarium's Digital Universe Atlas, which is available for free download.

Since 1998, the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium have engaged in the three-dimensional mapping of the Universe. This cosmic cartography brings a new perspective to our place in the Universe and will redefine your sense of home. The Digital Universe Atlas is distributed to you via packages that contain our data products, like the Milky Way Atlas and the Extragalactic Atlas, and requires free software allowing you to explore the atlas by flying through it on your computer.

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