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kottke.org posts about space

The first photo of a black hole

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 10, 2019

The first photo of a black hole

Ok, this is pretty cool. We have the first photo of a supermassive black hole, from imagery taken two years ago of the elliptical galaxy M87 (in the constellation Virgo) by the Event Horizon Telescope project. The EHT team is a group of 200 scientist that has been working on this project for two decades. The image was created using data captured from radio telescopes from Hawaii to the South Pole and beyond using very long baseline interferometry.

The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of the galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from here, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.

Now is a good time to (re)read Jonathan Lethem’s early novel, the absurdist physics love story As She Climbed Across the Table.

Update: Vox’s Joss Fong has a good 6-minute video that explains how the photo was taken:

And this video by Veritasium is even more meaty (and this one too):

US Postal Service Unveils 50th Anniversary Apollo 11 Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2019

Apollo 11 Usps

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the USPS is releasing a pair of stamps with lunar imagery.

One stamp features a photograph of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his spacesuit on the surface of the moon. The image was taken by astronaut Neil Armstrong. The other stamp, a photograph of the moon taken in 2010 by Gregory H. Revera of Huntsville, AL, shows the landing site of the lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility. The site is indicated on the stamp by a dot.

These pair nicely with the US Mint’s Apollo 11 commemorative coins.

Apollo 11 Mint Coin

(via swissmiss)

A Huge Collection of Apollo 11 Press Kits

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2019

When Apollo 11 landed two men on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth, thousands of people at NASA were joined in the effort by dozens of companies that did everything from building the spacecraft to providing the cameras for the mission. Each of those companies was understandably proud of their involvement and wanted to use the mission to drum up interest in their products and services. Marketing strategist David Meerman Scott has been collecting the press kits produced by the Apollo contractors and has made them available online for free download in PDF format.

What a trove! Here are a few of my favorites. First is the kit from Fisher, who provided the pens that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins wrote with during the voyage.

Apollo Press Kits

The final requirement was to see if the pen could still write after all that torture. NASA required that each pen write 1,653 feet of continuous traces, or for about 4 1/2 hours. The three pens were placed in an automatic writing machine and far out passed the qualifications. The first pen wrote for 54 hours and 50 minutes and 15,346 feet. The second finished after 18,303 feet. The third, writing on a new, highly absorbent paper, still wrote for 7,484 feet.

Fisher still sells a version of the original Apollo 11 space pen.

After the astronauts came back from the Moon, they were quarantined for 21 days to ensure that the crew had not returned with any harmful Moon germs. Stouffer’s, the frozen foods company, was contracted by NASA to provide some of the astronauts’ meals in quarantine.

Apollo Press Kits

A typical astronaut dinner will consist of short ribs of beef, potatoes au gratin and tossed green salad. Stouffer’s has been selected to provide from its retail line a major portion of the entrees and side dishes for the astronauts. Ease of preparation, purity, quality and variety as well as taste and appearance were the main reasons for NASA’s selection of Stouffer’s foods.

Hasselblad provided the cameras for the mission.

Apollo Press Kits

Grumman made the Lunar Module, the capsule that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to and from the surface of the Moon.

Apollo Press Kits

I could keep going on these all day. What a terrific resource. Scott, along with Richard Jurek, is also the author of Marketing the Moon, a book about how NASA sold the Apollo program to the American public. (via steven heller)

Stacey Abrams, Star Trek Superfan

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 08, 2019

Data-Stratagema.jpg

Georgia politician, almost-Governor, and Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams has a secret to her success: she loves Star Trek. In particular, she loves my favorite Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In explaining her approach to politics as a black Democratic woman in a state controlled by white Republican men, she devotes several pages to a pivotal scene from “Peak Performance,” an episode from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In the episode, Data, the preternaturally pale android with a greenish cast to his skin, is playing Strategema, a game that appears to be some incredibly complicated form of 3-D holographic chess, against a humanoid grandmaster named Kolrami. Data cannot defeat Kolrami, he discovers, but he can outlast him, drive him into a rage and force him to quit the game, which is itself a kind of victory.

Ms. Abrams writes that this has helped her focus her own thinking. “Data reframed his objective — not to win outright but to stay alive, passing up opportunities for immediate victory in favor of a strategy of survival,” she says in the book. “My lesson is simpler: change the rules of engagement.”

Stacey Abrams

This sparked some predictably joyous reactions among Star Trek fans:

And the following thoughtful thread from Manu Saadia (@trekonomics) on the history of progressive politics, as modeled in the Star Trek universe:

It actually is possible to overthink this. All of this about politics and the imagination and utopian possibilities is true. But at the same time, ultimately, it’s just a really cool show. It’s one we grew up with. And as politicians get younger, it’s one we’ve always had with us, framing our background on entertainment, war, morality, politics, economics — everything.

The world the original Star Trek entered was one where space was only beginning to open, as a direct consequence of the nuclear and geopolitical crisis than enveloping the planet. Now, we have all new geopolitical crises to deal with. Star Trek offers a surprisingly resilient fictional framework for understanding most if not all of them. That’s a powerful tool. It’s foolish to pass it up.

Oh, and Ms. Abrams — keep bustin’ ‘em up.

Video of a Japanese Space Probe Touching Down on an Asteroid

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

In this video released by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, you can see an on-board view of the Hayabusa2 probe touching down on an asteroid called Ryugu.

The blast you see is the probe firing a bullet made of tantalum at the surface in order to collect a sample. Here’s a photo of the landing site. From Wikipedia:

When the sampler horn attached to Hayabusa2’s underside touched the surface, a projectile (5-gram tantalum bullet) was fired at 300 m/s into the surface. The resulting ejecta particles were collected by a catcher at the top of the horn, which the ejecta reaches under their own momentum under microgravity conditions.

This is the first of three samples that are scheduled to be collected by Hayabusa2. The third sampling will try to collect material located under the surface of the asteroid. To achieve this, a separate gun will detach from the probe and fire a copper bullet at the surface, blasting a hole in the surface and exposing “pristine material”. Meanwhile, the probe itself will deploy a separate camera to watch the bullet’s impact, scoot out of the way to avoid debris, and then come back in a couple of weeks to collect a sample from the resulting crater, which will then be returned to Earth along with the other two samples. Ingenious! I love it when a plan comes together!

What’s the Weather Like on Mars Right Now?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2019

Now that the InSight lander is up and running on Mars, NASA is using the probe’s weather instrumentation to provide a daily weather report from the red planet.

Mars Insight Weather

The report is delayed by a day or so (communications delay? non-essential data delay?), but it’s still really cool to see what the temperature, wind speed, and barometric pressure is at Elysium Planitia.

I’d just like to note for the record that at some point on Monday, it was actually warmer on Mars than it is right now in Vermont. ♫ Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get out into the Martian sun… ♫

Earth’s Atmosphere Stretches Out Past the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2019

Earth Atmosphere Bigger

A recent analysis of data collected by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows that the Earth’s atmosphere is a lot larger than previously known.

A recent discovery based on observations by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO, shows that the gaseous layer that wraps around Earth reaches up to 630 000 km away, or 50 times the diameter of our planet.

“The Moon flies through Earth’s atmosphere,” says Igor Baliukin of Russia’s Space Research Institute, lead author of the paper presenting the results.

“We were not aware of it until we dusted off observations made over two decades ago by the SOHO spacecraft.”

As you might imagine, the atmosphere gets preeeeetty thin farther from the surface of the Earth — at the Moon’s distance, the density of hydrogen atoms is 0.2 atoms per cubic centimeter.

National Geographic’s Upcoming Documentary on the Apollo Missions

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2019

With the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing coming up this summer, the media is about to go into Apollo overdrive. (And I am fully here for it!) So far, there’s been First Man and this Apollo 11 documentary featuring a recently discovered trove of 65mm footage. Add to that Apollo: Missions to the Moon, a documentary series by Tom Jennings for National Geographic. Here’s the trailer:

Engadget has some info on the content of the film:

Director Tom Jennings (who previously documented the Challenger explosion and Princess Diana) is relying on a few uncommon technological tricks to enrich the experience. He’s melding NASA footage with Apollo black box recordings, for example, and is syncing 30-track audio from Mission Control. The aim is to create an “Apollo-era time machine,” Jennings said.

Add an original Hans Zimmer soundtrack into the mix and this could really be something special.

Goodbye Opportunity, the Little Mars Rover that Could

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2019

Yesterday, NASA declared the official end to the Opportunity rover mission on Mars.

One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

Opportunity was the longest-lived robot ever sent to another planet; it lasted longer than anyone could have imagined.

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars — Perseverance Valley.

Here’s a quick video overview of the milestones of Opportunity’s mission:

The NY Times has a great interactive feature about the rover’s activities and achievements and XKCD has a tribute.

Xkcd Oppy

The Hoover Dam’s “Hidden” 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2019

There’s a little-known monument located at the site of the Hoover Dam that shows the progression of “North Stars” as the Earth moves through its 25,772-year change of rotational axis. Alexander Rose of the Long Now Foundation couldn’t find much public documentation related to this celestial map, so he did some research.

I now had some historical text and photos, but I was still missing a complete diagram of the plaza that would allow me to really understand it. I contacted the historian again, and she obtained permission from her superiors to release the actual building plans. I suspect that they generally don’t like to release technical plans of the dam for security reasons, but it seems they deemed my request a low security risk as the monument is not part of the structure of the dam. The historian sent me a tube full of large blueprints and a CD of the same prints already scanned. With this in hand I was finally able to re-construct the technical intent of the plaza and how it works.

In order to understand how the plaza marks the date of the dam’s construction in the nearly 26,000-year cycle of the earth’s precession, it is worth explaining what exactly axial precession is. In the simplest terms, it is the earth “wobbling” on its tilted axis like a gyroscope — but very, very slowly. This wobbling effectively moves what we see as the center point that stars appear to revolve around each evening.

Presently, this center point lies very close to the conveniently bright star Polaris. The reason we have historically paid so much attention to this celestial center, or North Star, is because it is the star that stays put all through the course of the night. Having this one fixed point in the sky is the foundation of all celestial navigation.

Here are some explanatory notes that Rose wrote over the blueprints of the monument showing how to read the map:

Hoover Celestial Map

A Flyover of Europa

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 11, 2019

Using recently processed data from the Galileo probe, NASA-JPL software engineer Kevin Gill created this low-altitude flyover of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

The surface was imaged between 1996 & 1998 and is made up of a water-ice crust. Despite the cracks and streaks that you can see in the video, Europa actually has the smoothest surface of any object in the solar system.

These images are not super high-res because they were taken with equipment designed and built in the 80s. But we’re going to get a better look at Europa soon…both ESA’s JUICE probe and NASA’s Europa Clipper are planning on imaging the moon in the next decade.

In a Race to the Edge of the Solar System, Which Star Trek Ship Would Win?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2019

These visualizations of the speed of light I posted last week somehow demonstrate both how fast light speed is and how slow it is compared the vastness of the galaxy & universe. Science fiction often bends the rules of physics as we currently understand them, with fictional spacecraft pushing beyond the speed of light. In Star Trek, the measure of a ship’s velocity is warp speed. Warp 1 is the speed of light, Warp 6 is 392 times the speed of light, etc. In this Warp Speed Comparison video, EC Henry compares the top speeds of various Star Trek vessels (the original Enterprise, Voyager, the Defiant), racing them from Earth to the edge of the solar system.

Once again, you get a real sense of how fast these ships would be if they actually existed but also of the vastness of space. It would take 10 seconds for the fastest ship to reach the edge of the solar system at maximum warp and just over 6 hours to get to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Wikipedia lists a few dozen stars that are within a day’s journey at full warp…a trip that takes light more than 16 years. The mighty speed of light is no match for the human imagination. (thx, jim)

Trailer for “Apollo 11”, a Documentary Based on Pristine 65mm Footage of the Mission

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2019

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which means an increase in Apollo 11 media. This is a strong early entrant: “Apollo 11”, a feature-length documentary on the mission, featuring “a newly discovered trove of 65mm footage” of starting clarity.

Miller and his team collaborated with NASA and the National Archives (NARA) to locate all of the existing footage from the Apollo 11 mission. In the course of sourcing all of the known imagery, NARA staff members made a discovery that changed the course of the project — an unprocessed collection of 65mm footage, never before seen by the public. Unbeknownst to even the NARA archivists, the reels contained wide format scenes of the Saturn V launch, the inside of the Launch Control Center and post-mission activities aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier.

The find resulted in the project evolving from one of only filmmaking to one of also film curation and historic preservation. The resulting transfer — from which the documentary was cut — is the highest resolution, highest quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage in existence.

The film is 100% archival footage and audio. They’ve paired the footage with selections from 11,000 hours of mission audio.

The other unexpected find was a massive cache of audio recordings — more than 11,000 hours — comprising the individual tracks from 60 members of the Mission Control team. “Apollo 11” film team members wrote code to restore the audio and make it searchable and then began the multi-year process of listening to and documenting the recordings. The effort yielded new insights into key events of the moon landing mission, as well as surprising moments of humor and camaraderie.

This. Sounds. Amazing. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a few days ago and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Here’s David Erhlich writing for Indiewire:

It’s rare that picture quality can inspire a physical reaction, but the opening moments of “Apollo 11,” in which a NASA camera crew roams around the base of the rocket and spies on some of the people who’ve come to gawk at it from a beach across the water, are vivid enough to melt away the screen that stands between them. The clarity takes your breath away, and it does so in the blink of an eye; your body will react to it before your brain has time to process why, after a lifetime of casual interest, you’re suddenly overcome by the sheer enormity of what it meant to leave the Earth and land somewhere else. By tricking you at a base sensory level into seeing the past as though it were the present, Miller cuts away the 50 years that have come between the two, like a heart surgeon who cuts away a dangerous clot so that the blood can flow again. Such perfect verisimilitude is impossible to fake.

And Daniel Fienberg for The Hollywood Reporter:

Much of the footage in Apollo 11 is, by virtue of both access and proper preservation, utterly breathtaking. The sense of scale, especially in the opening minutes, sets the tone as rocket is being transported to the launch pad and resembles nothing so much as a scene from Star Wars only with the weight and grandeur that come from 6.5 million pounds of machinery instead of CG. The cameraman’s astonishment is evident and it’s contagious. The same is true of long tracking shots through the firing room as the camera moves past row after row after row of computers, row after row after row of scientists and engineers whose entire professional careers have led to this moment.

There will be a theatrical release (including what sounds like an IMAX release for museums & space centers) followed by a showing on TV by CNN closer to July.

Visualizing the Speed of Light

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2019

Light is fast! In a recent series of animations, planetary scientist James O’Donoghue demonstrates just how fast light is…and also how far away even our closest celestial neighbors are. Light, moving at 186,000 mi/sec, can circle the Earth 7.5 times per second and here’s what that looks like:

It can also travel from the surface of the Earth to the surface of the Moon in ~1.3 seconds, like so:

That seems both really fast and not that fast somehow. Now check out light traveling the 34 million miles to Mars in a pokey 3 minutes:

And Mars is close! If O’Donoghue made a real-time animation of light traveling to Pluto, the video would last over 5 hours. The animation for the closest undisputed galaxy, Seque 1, would last 75,000 years and 2.5 million years for the Andromeda galaxy animation. The farthest-known objects from Earth are more than 13 billion light years away. Light is slow!

See also The Leisurely Pace of Light Speed.

Video: A Meteorite Hit the Moon During the Recent Eclipse!

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2019

Something incredible happened during the super blood wolf moon eclipse that took place on Sunday night: a meteorite struck the moon during the eclipse and it was captured on video, the first time this has ever happened.

Jose Maria Madiedo at the University of Huelva in Spain has confirmed that the impact is genuine. For years, he and his colleagues have been hoping to observe a meteorite impact on the moon during a lunar eclipse, but the brightness of these events can make that very difficult — lunar meteorite impacts have been filmed before, but not during an eclipse.

The 4K video of the impact above was taken by amateur astronomer Deep Sky Dude in Texas…he notes the impact happening at 10:41pm CST. I couldn’t find any confirmation on this, but the impact looks bright enough that it may have been visible with the naked eye if you were paying sufficient attention to the right area at the right time.

Phil Plait has a bunch more info on the impact. If the impact site can be accurately determined, NASA will attempt to send the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to get photos of it.

Interestingly, I talked to Noah Petro, Project Scientist for LRO, and he noted that the impact may have created secondary craters, smaller ones made by debris blown out by the main impact. Those will spread out over a larger area, and are easier to spot, so it’s possible that even with a rough location known beforehand the crater can be found. Also, fresh craters look distinct from older ones — they’re brighter, and have a bright fresh splash pattern around them — so once it’s in LRO’s sights it should be relatively easy to spot.

It’s not clear how big the crater will be. I’ve seen some estimates that the rock that hit was probably no more than a dozen kilograms or so, and the crater will be probably 10 meters across. That’s small, but hopefully its freshness will make it stand out.

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2019

Shuttle Endeavour rising through the clouds

I love this photo of the Space Shuttle Endeavour rising through the clouds on a plume of smoke during its last launch in 2011. We are but infinitesimal specks on a tiny rock orbiting a small star in an ordinary galaxy among trillions in an endless universe. And yet we’ve pushed our way into that vastness, just a little bit. I wonder where we’ll end up?

A Massive Ice-Filled Crater on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 26, 2018

Korolev Crater

Korolev Crater

ESA’s Mars Express mission recently photographed the Korolev crater on Mars, filled almost to the brim with water ice.1 When I first saw this image I thought, oh cute!, assuming the crater was maybe a few dozen feet across. But no, it’s about 51 miles across and the thickest part of the ice is over a mile thick.

This ever-icy presence is due to an interesting phenomenon known as a ‘cold trap’, which occurs as the name suggests. The crater’s floor is deep, lying some two kilometres vertically beneath its rim.

The very deepest parts of Korolev crater, those containing ice, act as a natural cold trap: the air moving over the deposit of ice cools down and sinks, creating a layer of cold air that sits directly above the ice itself.

Behaving as a shield, this layer helps the ice remain stable and stops it from heating up and disappearing. Air is a poor conductor of heat, exacerbating this effect and keeping Korolev crater permanently icy.

Update: Just to clarify slightly, the top image was generated using photographs taken by Mars Express and a terrain map, so it’s technically not a photograph but is like the oblique view in Google Maps. The bottom image is a composite of five photographs. (via @ryanguill)

  1. Mars also has CO2 ice, so you have to specify.

Hear the First Sounds Ever Recorded on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2018

NASA’s InSight mission recently landed on Mars and like other missions before it, the lander is a equipped with a camera and has sent back some pictures of the red planet. But InSight is also carrying a couple of instruments that made it possible to record something no human has ever experienced: what Mars sounds like:

InSight’s air pressure sensor recording the sound of the wind directly and the seismometer recorded the sounds of the lander’s solar panels vibrating as Martian winds blew across them.

Two very sensitive sensors on the spacecraft detected these wind vibrations: an air pressure sensor inside the lander and a seismometer sitting on the lander’s deck, awaiting deployment by InSight’s robotic arm. The two instruments recorded the wind noise in different ways. The air pressure sensor, part of the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem (APSS), which will collect meteorological data, recorded these air vibrations directly. The seismometer recorded lander vibrations caused by the wind moving over the spacecraft’s solar panels, which are each 7 feet (2.2 meters) in diameter and stick out from the sides of the lander like a giant pair of ears.

The sounds are best heard with a good pair of headphones.

Love Letters to Mars

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2018

Mars-Illustration.jpg

Rebecca Boyle is one of my favorite science writers. In two recent pieces, she takes on our nearest, most Earth-like neighbor, Mars. The first is about a team of scientists doing research on extremophiles in South America.

The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles south from the Peruvian border, nestled between the Pacific Cordillera and the Andes, “a cross extended over Chile,” in the words of the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita. Some parts of it are so devoid of life that their microbe-per-inch count can compete with near-sterile hospital surgical suites. Some areas of the Atacama, Earth’s driest nonpolar desert and the oldest desert anywhere, have been rainless for at least 23 million years, and maybe as long as 40 million years. Carbon cycling happens on timescales of thousands of years, comparable to Antarctic permafrost and places deep within Earth’s crust; the Atacama contains some of the most lifeless soils on the planet. The Atacama is one reason that Chile has become a haven for astrobiologists and astronomers: Its pristine dark skies offer an unparalleled view of the stars, and its depleted desert offers a peerless lab for studying the dry limits of life, including how life might survive among those stars. And honestly, it just looks a lot like Mars. It is the closest that these astrobiologists will ever get to the planet that occupies their grant proposals and their imaginations.

I’m neither an astrobiologist nor a professional astronomer, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Mars. I keep tabs on the robots spread across its surface and in its orbit, and sometimes I check their nightly photo downloads. The Atacama is not a giant leap from the Mars of my mind. As I drove up the coast, I found the view so much more like Mars than Earth. There are no palm trees or tourists or bleating gulls. There is nothing but brown, tumbling tanly down the hills, darkening to chocolate inside shadowy ravines and runnels, bleaching to an impoverished shade of cardboard, and crumbling into fine white beach before being swallowed by the cobalt hues of sea and sky. With no trees or succulents or even a blade of grass—not a smidge of green—the only disruption in the brown is a strip of asphalt, Ruta 1. With my cruise control set and David Bowie blaring, I pictured myself driving through Meridiani Planum, a vast equatorial Martian plain, en route to visit the Opportunity rover. The only reminders of other humans were the grim commemorations of car-wreck victims: Almost every mile of Ruta 1 is marked with roadside shrines to the dead…

Salar Grande was once a coastal inlet, much like today’s San Francisco Bay. It dried up between 1.8 and 5.3 million years ago, leaving behind a salt flat between 225 and 300 feet thick. The salar is therefore an analogue for the last time Mars was habitable, after Mars’ oceans, if there were any, dried up, when Martian ecosystems became concentrated in smaller places. And, like Mars itself, the Atacama is a glimpse into Earth’s own future. One day, billions of years from now, all of Earth may resemble this parched land of fissures and knobs, after our own oceans boil away, after the last trees fall, after the algae are all that is left of us.

“In the beginning,” Davila said, “there was bacteria. And at the end, there will be bacteria.”

The second piece is literally a letter, written to the Curiosity Rover that’s explored the red planet since 2012.

I think of you often. For much of this year, I saw Mars shining red in the window right above my computer. It was nice, like keeping an eye on you. And when I went to Mars earlier this year—actually the Atacama, a desert at the bottom of this world—the landscape made me think of you a lot. It made me grateful for the Mars you gave me, the Mars of my mind. Even more than your forebears did, you helped me understand why Mars stands out among the planets.

Earth’s other neighbors are interesting, sure. Jupiter is a peach-and-tan inkwell stirred with gothic darkness. Saturn and its orrery of moons trace feverish circles, as if brushed onto the void by the painter Kandinsky. Uranus and Neptune are the plain Christmas ornaments I hang next to the ornate ones, just to make the tree seem less busy. Mercury is a purple version of the moon, and Venus is a blast-furnace hellscape.

But Mars, little red Mars—it’s just like home. When you gaze out on the Murray Buttes, I see my Rocky Mountains.

That Mars — so like our world, yet so unlike it. Like a lover who understands and compliments us through similarity amid difference. It may be in the distance, but it is next.

And its visitors, like Curiosity, are already our friends:

I admire Juno’s photos of Jupiter and Cassini’s photos of Saturn, sure, but I don’t see the spacecraft in those images. And that means I don’t see myself. My connection to Mars comes from seeing you there. Seeing the terrain as you see it, that’s wonderful—but seeing you seeing it, feeling the photographer’s undeniable presence, is transformative.

Update: Boyle wrote a coda to her two pieces on Mars today for Last Word on Nothing. It’s Earth-focused, but then again, Earth is a very strange planet too:

At one point, after a couple hours of driving south, I needed a break. I needed to smell the ocean, mere feet to my right. I pulled over to the shoulder, parked my silver SUV on the sand, and walked a few feet. I was completely on my own. I saw nothing alive—no gull, no driver, no seaweed, no plant. I stared at the Pacific and felt my chest tighten. I was thousands of miles from my family, and I have never felt more alone.

The ocean was loud, dashing against dark rocks, and within a minute I felt like its rhythm was a part of me. It was going to swallow me and the sun was going to drive me mad. I strained to see anything else alive, some sign that I was still on Earth, but I saw nothing but sand and blue.

I squinted for a minute. The entire planet looks like this, from a great distance. From the Moon, you can make out the continents, patches of brown and green beneath a light frosting of clouds. But the general impression of Earth is one of blue and white. Ocean and sky. Our blue marble.

I listened to the Pacific and took a step forward. I was on Earth. I was so lucky to be here. So goddamn lucky I suddenly wanted to scream. Do you know how rare it is to have a planet covered in water? How precious it is to get out of the car, walk a few feet, and touch the ocean? It was the deep blue of my daughter’s eyes. This water is flowing through me, through her, through all of us here, together. Is this enlightenment? I thought to myself. I don’t know enough about Buddhism.

It was hard to get back in the car after that. But I feared that if I didn’t, the Pacific would rise up and consume me, swallow me whole before I had a chance to tell anyone I saw it. I had to tell her what I saw.

The End of Space Travel?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2018

Remember Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity? A missile strike on a satellite causes a chain reaction, which ends up destroying almost everything in low Earth orbit. As this Kurzgesagt video explains, this scenario is actually something we need to worry about. In the past 60 years, we’ve launched so much stuff into space that there are millions of pieces of debris up there, hurtling around the Earth at 1000s of miles per hour. The stuff ranges in size from marbles to full-sized satellites. If two larger objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) collided with each other, the resulting debris field could trigger a chain reaction of collisions that would destroy everything currently in that orbit and possibly prevent any new launches. Goodbye ISS, goodbye weather satellites, goodbye GPS, etc. etc. etc. The Moon, Mars, and other destinations beyond LEO would be a lot harder to reach because you’d have to travel through the deadly debris field, particularly with crewed missions.

ISS Time Lapse Video of Two Complete Trips Around the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2018

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first module of the International Space Station being put into orbit, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst shot a 15-minute time lapse video of the Earth from the ISS, long enough for two complete orbits of the planet. Landmarks along the journey are annotated right on the video and the location of the ISS is also plotted on a map in the top right corner. Love the nighttime thunderstorms over the Pacific.

See also An Incredible Video of What It’s Like to Orbit the Earth for 90 Minutes.

If the Planets Were As Close As the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2018

Using 3D rendering software, Yeti Dynamics made this video that shows what our sky would look like if several of our solar system’s planets orbited the Earth in place of the Moon. If you look closely when Saturn and Jupiter are in the sky, you can see their moons as well.

the moon that flies in front of Saturn is Tethys. It is Tiny. but *very* close. Dione would be on a collision course, it’s orbital distance from Saturn is Nearly identical to our Moon’s orbit around Earth

See also their video of what the Moon would look like if it orbited the Earth at the same distance as the International Space Station.

Update: And here’s what it would look like if the Earth had Saturn’s rings. (via @FormingWorship)

Watch It Live: NASA’s InSight Probe Lands on Mars Today

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2018

After a seven-month journey covering over 300 million miles, NASA’s InSight probe will land on the surface of Mars today around 3pm. The video embedded above is a live stream of mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that starts at 2pm and will be the best thing to watch as the probe lands. (See also this live stream of NASA TV.) The landing will occur around 2:47pm ET but the landing signal from Mars won’t arrive on Earth until 2:54pm ET at the earliest. And no video from the landing itself of course…”live” is a bit of a misnomer here but it still should be exciting.

NASA produced this short video that shows what’s involved in the landing process, aka how the probe goes from doing 13,000 mph to resting on the surface in just six-and-a-half minutes.

The NY Times has a good explainer on the InSight mission and landing.

NASA’s study of Mars has focused on the planet’s surface and the possibility of life early in its history. By contrast, the InSight mission — the name is a compression of Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will study the mysteries of the planet’s deep interior, aiming to answer geophysical questions about its structure, composition and how it formed.

I love this stuff…the kids and I will be watching for sure!

Update: The Oatmeal has a great comic about the InSight landing.

The Moon Is Flipped Upside Down in the Southern Hemisphere

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2018

How old were you when you learned that the Moon in the Southern Hemisphere is upside down? I was today years old…this is my head exploding —> %@*&!$. Ok, the Moon isn’t upside down (that’s Northern-ist) but its orientation changes depending on if you’re north or south of the equator.

Moon Flipped

“From our perspective, the Moon and the night sky is actually rotated 180 degrees compared to our Northern Hemispherical friends,” Jake Clark, an astronomer from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, explained to ScienceAlert.

“In the south we see the Moon’s dark ‘Oceanus Procellarum’ sea in the south-east corner compared to in the north-west corner for a northern observer.”

But why does it look like this? Well, because physically, we’re actually upside down compared to someone standing in the opposite hemisphere.

That makes perfect sense & the explanation is quite simple but it’s still messing with my head. How did I not know this? Here’s how the Moon appears in the Northern Hemisphere (from Wikipedia):

Moon Flipped North

And here’s a photo from Brendan Keene in Australia:

Moon Flipped South

Art on the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

The NY times recently asked eight artists what art projects they would do if they could fly to the Moon. Here’s Kara Walker’s answer:

Gil Scott Heron wrote that famous poem, “Whitey on the Moon”: “The man just upped my rent last night / Cause whitey’s on the moon / No hot water, no toilets, no lights / But whitey’s on the moon.”

I got thinking about a moon colony, which plenty of people have talked about pretty seriously over the years. So what I’d do is this: For every female child born on Earth, one sexist, white supremacist adult male would be shipped to the moon. They could colonize it to their heart’s content, and look down from a distance of a quarter-million miles. It’s a monochrome world up there; probably they’d love it. The colony would be hermetically sealed. And the rest of us could enjoy the sight of them from a safe distance. Maybe there could be some kind of selection ritual involved, something to do with menstruation and the tides — a touch of nature, to add a bit of irony justice to the endeavor.

For the supremacists, maybe traveling so far from home would help inspire a different worldview. And for the rest of us down on Earth, perhaps this is an opportunity to focus on the nature of our home planet with the same dreamy reverence we once reserved for the moon.

Here’s Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon. In contrast, architect Daniel Libeskind would turn the Moon into a square by painting part of it black:

My son Noam is an astrophysicist at the Leibniz Institute in Germany, and we did some calculations about how it could work. We thought the best way would be to paint sections of it black, so they no longer reflect the sun’s light. To account for the curvature, you’d need to paint four spherical caps on the moon’s surface. That would create a kind of frame that looks square when you see it from earth.

This Holiday Ad Featuring Elton John Might Make You Cry

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

Sure, I know this is a television commercial for a UK department store and therefore should be afforded a certain level of emotional detachment, but only the most cynical folks out there will still be stone-faced at the end of this holiday advert starring Elton John.

After watching it, I thought back to my childhood for a gift that turned out to be more than just a gift. The closest I could come is a telescope1 my dad got me when I was maybe 8 or 9. While I didn’t grow up to be a celebrated astrophysicist or anything like that, that telescope solidified my love of science, encouraged my curiosity, and fostered my growing worldview that the universe could be wondrous without being magical. I could see sunspots on the Sun, the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and shadows cast by craters on the Moon with my own eyes just as well as I could see the blades of grass right in front of me. Those objects moved around out there according to the same simple physical laws as the Earth moved, as did the baseball my dad & I played catch with, the rocket that shepherded astronauts to the Moon, and the waves on the ocean.

Seeing that all of those things were tied together across massive distances by a single system made a powerful impression on me. There was no need to say “well, I don’t know how that works so it must be some magical force or being”. I could go to a book and look up how Saturn’s rings formed, where the Moon’s craters came from, and why we only ever see one side of the Moon from Earth. And if the answer to a question didn’t exist, you could take that curiosity and go find out yourself, no permission necessary, and contribute to the collective human understanding of our existence. I switched away from a career in science shortly after entering grad school, but the spirit of scientific inquiry and curiosity has never left me or my work. I’ve loved being a designer, technologist, writer, and curator who still thinks like a scientist, like a little kid peering through his telescope at the rings of Saturn for the very first time and wanting to know everything about them.

  1. The telescape was a Jason model 311. I was old enough to know that it wasn’t made specifically for me, that didn’t stop me from feeling a little bit special owning a telescope with my actual name on it.

An Incredible Video of What It’s Like to Orbit the Earth for 90 Minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

This is easily the most awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping thing I’ve seen in months. In its low Earth orbit ~250 miles above our planet, the International Space Station takes about 90 minutes to complete one orbit of the Earth. Fewer than 600 people have ever orbited our planet, but with this realtime video by Seán Doran, you can experience what it looks like from the vantage point of the IIS for the full 90 minutes.

The video is in 4K so find the largest monitor/TV you can, turn up the sound, watch for awhile (even if it’s only for a few minutes), and see if you don’t experience a little bit of the Overview Effect, what NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan described as a life-altering experience:

I first saw the earth — the whole earth — from the shuttle Challenger in 1984. The view takes your breath away and fills you with childlike wonder. An incredibly beautiful tapestry of blue and white, tan, black and green seems to glide beneath you at an elegant, stately pace. But you’re actually going so fast that the entire map of the world spins before your eyes with each 90-minute orbit. After just one or two laps, you feel, maybe for the first time, like a citizen of a planet.

We could use more global citizenry these days.

Time Lapse of a SpaceX Launch Looks Like a UFO

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2018

Sunday night, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The nighttime launch created what looked like a nebula in the sky, prompting LA mayor Eric Garcetti to tweet that his city was not being visited by a flying saucer. This 4K time lapse of the launch is only 13 seconds long and is worth watching about 40 times in a row.

One way the universe might end

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 05, 2018

My favorite astrophysicist Katie Mack recently reposted a Cosmos article she wrote about a relatively obscure model for the total annihilation of the universe, called “vacuum decay.”

Essentially, what vacuum decay relies on is the fact that we don’t know for sure whether space is in the lowest energy, most stable possible state (a true vacuum) or at an adjacent, slightly higher energy level (a false vacuum). Space could be only metastable, and a random quantum fluctuation or sufficiently high level energy event could push part of the universe from the false vacuum to the true one. This could cause “a bubble of true vacuum that will then expand in all directions at the speed of light. Such a bubble would be lethal.”

It’s compellingly badass, and as Mack notes, frightfully efficient. First, it’s not the slow petering out that is heat death. Also, it wouldn’t just eliminate our current universe, but all possibility of a universe anything like ours. Vacuum decay destroys space like Roman generals salting the earth at Carthage.

The walls of the true vacuum bubble would expand in all directions at the speed of light. You wouldn’t see it coming. The walls can contain a huge amount of energy, so you might be incinerated as the bubble wall ploughed through you. Different vacuum states have different constants of nature, so the basic structure of matter might also be disastrously altered. But it could be even worse: in 1980, theoretical physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia calculated for the first time that any bubble of true vacuum would immediately suffer total gravitational collapse.

They say: “This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in a new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it.

“However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some creatures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.”

First Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2018

I don’t know why I’m so skeptical about First Man, the upcoming biopic about Neil Armstrong and the first Moon landing. Oh wait, yes I do: Apollo 11 holds a special place in my heart, as does Armstrong and his role in the historic landing, and I’m very protective of it. It would be so easy and, in my opinion, wrong to load this story up with unnecessary drama when there’s already so much there in the story, even though it might not be naturally cinematic.

On the other hand, the trailer looks great, Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, director Damien Chazelle’s previous films are really good (Whiplash and La La Land), and the film is based on the authorized and well-received biography by James Hansen. Ok fine, I just talked myself into it!