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The Astronomy Photographer of the Year for 2017

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 04, 2017

Astronomy Photo 2017

Astronomy Photo 2017

Astronomy Photo 2017

Put on by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, The Astronomy Photographer of the Year is the largest competition of its kind in the world. For the 2017 awards, more than 3800 photos were entered from 91 countries. It’s astounding to me that many of these were taken with telescopes you can easily buy online (granted, for thousands of dollars) rather than with the Hubble or some building-sized scope on the top of a mountain in Chile.

The photos above were taken by Andriy Borovkov, Alexandra Hart, and Kamil Nureev.

SpaceX wants to send people to Mars by 2024

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 29, 2017

Spacex BFR

Elon Musk says SpaceX is on target to send cargo to Mars in 2022 and people in 2024. The way the company will do it is by focusing its resources on a new vehicle, the Interplanetary Transport System (codename: the BFR). That vehicle will be able to travel to Mars, but can also be used to generate revenue for the company through launching satellites, resupplying the ISS, and going to the Moon.

Musk also proposed a variety of new uses for the scaled-down rocket beyond just going to Mars. Supposedly, the ITS can be used to launch satellites, take cargo to the International Space Station, and even do lunar missions to set up a Moon base. SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 fleet is used to do a few of those things already, but Musk says eventually the company will turn to the ITS to do all of its space missions.

“We can build a system that cannibalizes our own products, makes our own products redundant, then all the resources we use for Falcon Heavy and Dragon can be applied to one system,” he said at the conference. Musk says the cost of launching cargo on the ITS will be fairly cheap, too, since the rocket and spaceship will be a fully reusable system — unlike the Falcon 9, which is only 70 to 80 percent reusable.

Musk also astoundingly asserted that the same rocket system could be used for long-distance travel on Earth.

He ended his talk with a pretty incredible promise: using that same interplanetary rocket system for long distance travel on Earth. Musk showed a demonstration of the idea on stage, claiming that it will allow passengers to take “most long distance trips” in just 30 minutes, and go “anywhere on Earth in under an hour” for around the same price of an economy airline ticket.

As they say, “huge if true”. Musk is like the sci-fi Oprah here: You get a electric car! And you get a trip to Mars! And you get a self-driving car! And you get a 30-minute Hyperloop trip from SF to LA! And you get a rocket shuttle from NYC to Mumbai in 43 minutes for $1200! Beeeeeeeeees!!!!

Solar system artwork featuring the precise locations of the planets on the day of your birth

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2017

Solar System Birthday Map

Spacetime Coordinates sells prints, metal mementos, and t-shirts that feature the planets of the solar system in the exact locations they were in on the date of your birth (or other significant date). For their new Kickstarter campaign, they’re offering color prints.

While not as pretty as these prints, you can check what the solar system looked like for any date here.

When I was a kid, I spent far too many hours mucking around in Lotus 1-2-3 trying to make a spreadsheet to calculate how often all the planets in the solar system would line up with each other (disregarding their differing planes, particularly Pluto’s).1 I could never get it working. Turns out that a precise alignment has probably never occurred, nor will it ever. But all the planets are “somewhat aligned” every 500 years or so. Neat! (via colossal)

  1. I spent many more hours making a spreadsheet of every single baseball card I owned and how much it was worth, updated by hand from Beckett’s price guide. Time well spent?

The intricate wave structure of Saturn’s rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2017

Saturn Waves by Cassini

On one of its final passes of Saturn, the Cassini probe captured this image of a wave structure in Saturn’s rings known as the Janus 2:1 spiral density wave. The waves are generated by the motion of Janus, one of Saturn’s smaller moons.

This wave is remarkable because Janus, the moon that generates it, is in a strange orbital configuration. Janus and Epimetheus (see “Cruising Past Janus”) share practically the same orbit and trade places every four years. Every time one of those orbit swaps takes place, the ring at this location responds, spawning a new crest in the wave. The distance between any pair of crests corresponds to four years’ worth of the wave propagating downstream from the resonance, which means the wave seen here encodes many decades’ worth of the orbital history of Janus and Epimetheus. According to this interpretation, the part of the wave at the very upper-left of this image corresponds to the positions of Janus and Epimetheus around the time of the Voyager flybys in 1980 and 1981, which is the time at which Janus and Epimetheus were first proven to be two distinct objects (they were first observed in 1966).

The photograph is also an optical illusion of sorts. The rings appear to be getting farther away in the upper lefthand corner but the plane of the photograph is actually parallel to the plane of the rings…it’s just that the wavelength of the density wave gets shorter from right to left.

Update: Here are those density waves converted into sound waves. The first set sounds like an accelerating F1 car.

The Moon 1968-1972

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2017

Apollo 11 Flag

The Moon 1968-1972 is a slim volume of photographs from the Apollo missions to the Moon that took place over four short years almost 50 years ago. The book contains a passage by E.B. White taken from this New Yorker article about the Apollo 11 landing in 1969.

The moon, it turns out, is a great place for men. One-sixth gravity must be a lot of fun, and when Armstrong and Aldrin went into their bouncy little dance, like two happy children, it was a moment not only of triumph but of gaiety. The moon, on the other hand, is a poor place for flags. Ours looked stiff and awkward, trying to float on the breeze that does not blow. (There must be a lesson here somewhere.) It is traditional, of course, for explorers to plant the flag, but it struck us, as we watched with awe and admiration and pride, that our two fellows were universal men, not national men, and should have been equipped accordingly. Like every great river and every great sea, the moon belongs to none and belongs to all. It still holds the key to madness, still controls the tides that lap on shores everywhere, still guards the lovers who kiss in every land under no banner but the sky. What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.

Newly processed photos of Jupiter taken by NASA’s Juno probe

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2017

Jupiter Juno

Jupiter Juno

Jupiter Juno

Seán Doran shared some recently processed photos of Jupiter that he worked on with Gerald Eichstädt. The photos were taken by NASA’s Juno probe on a recent pass by the planet. These are like Impressionist paintings…you could spend hours staring at the whirls & whorls and never find your way out. There are more images of Jupiter in Doran’s Flickr album, including this high-resolution shot that you can download for printing.

Infographic of the fascinating timeline of the far future

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2017

Timeline of The Far Future

Timeline of the far future is one of my favorite pages on Wikipedia. It details what might happen to humanity, human artifacts, the Earth, the solar system, and the Universe from 10,000 years from now until long past the heat death of the Universe. Information is Beautiful has made a lovely infographic of the timeline.

Reading through the timeline is a glorious way to spend time…here are a few favorites I noticed this time around as well as some from my first post.

August 20, 10,663: “A simultaneous total solar eclipse and transit of Mercury.”

20,000 years: “The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 1,000 sq mi area of Ukraine and Belarus left deserted by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, becomes safe for human life.”

296,000 years: “Voyager 2 passes within 4.3 light-years of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.”

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 million years: “On the Moon, Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ footprint at Tranquility Base will erode by this time, along with those left by all twelve Apollo moonwalkers, due to the accumulated effects of space weathering.”

15.7 million: “Half-life of iodine-129, the most durable long-lived fission product in uranium-derived nuclear waste.”

100 million years: “Future archaeologists should be able to identify an ‘Urban Stratum’ of fossilized great coastal cities, mostly through the remains of underground infrastructure such as building foundations and utility tunnels.”

1 billion years: “Estimated lifespan of the two Voyager Golden Records, before the information stored on them is rendered unrecoverable.”

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’.”

7.59 billion years: The Earth and Moon are very likely destroyed by falling into the Sun, just before the Sun reaches the tip of its red giant phase and its maximum radius of 256 times the present-day value. Before the final collision, the Moon possibly spirals below Earth’s Roche limit, breaking into a ring of debris, most of which falls to the Earth’s surface.

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.”

Live TV coverage of Apollo 11 landing and moon walk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2017

Apollo 11 TV Coverage

48 years ago today, the lunar module from the Apollo 11 mission landed on the Moon. Later that same day, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the module, set foot on the surface, and went for a walk. And the entire world watched them do it. Live.

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. Just open this page in your browser and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here’s the schedule (all times EDT):

4:10:30 pm: Moon landing broadcast starts
4:17:40 pm: Lunar module lands on the Moon

4:20:15 pm: Break in coverage

10:51:27 pm: Moon walk broadcast starts
10:56:15 pm: First step on Moon
11:51:30 pm: Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew
12:00:30 am: Broadcast end (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.

This is one of my favorite projects I’ve ever done, and it almost didn’t happen this year. I woke up this morning assuming it was just going to work again, just like it had the previous 8 years, but a bit of testing revealed that YouTube had discontinued the API I was using to display and time the videos. I wasn’t sure I had the JavaScript chops to fix it in time for the big show this afternoon. Luckily, I was able to solicit some help on Twitter and as the internet continues to be absolutely amazing, Geoff Stearns fixed the problem. As he said in his tweet, Stearns works for Google and wrote the YouTube API that had been discontinued, which is a bit like Marshall McLuhan popping out from behind a poster in Annie Hall, but instead of saying “you know nothing of my work”, he says “I’m gonna fix this up real quick”. Reader, it took him 14 minutes from saying “I’ll help” to posting the solution, and I’d bet half of that time was spent running to the fridge for a LaCroix and selecting the proper coding playlist on Spotify. So big thanks to Geoff for making this happen today! And thanks also to Brian Seward, who landed a solution in my inbox a bit after Geoff’s.

Oh, and no more Flash! So it’ll work on any modern browser with no plugins. But I tested it on my phone and it still doesn’t seem to work properly there…the video loads but doesn’t autoplay. Something to improve for next year!

NASA Apollo Saturn V Lego set

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2017

Apollo 11 Lego

Lego has introduced an Apollo Saturn V rocket set, complete with lunar lander and 3 astronaut minifigs.

Packed with authentic details, it features 3 removable rocket stages, including the S-IVB third stage with the lunar lander and lunar orbiter. The set also includes 3 stands to display the model horizontally, 3 new-for-June-2017 astronaut microfigures for role-play recreations of the Moon landings, plus a booklet about the manned Apollo missions and the fan designers of this educational and inspirational LEGO Ideas set.

Three rocket stages! And look at this lander:

Apollo 11 Lego

Amazing detail: the set contains 1969 pieces, which is the year that the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon. I typically leave the Lego building to my kids, but I might have to make an exception for this. (via mike)

The view from Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2017

Mars Opportunity 2017

NASA’s Opportunity rover started exploring the surface of Mars in January 2004. Its mission was supposed to last about 90 days, but over 13 years later, Opportunity is still rolling around the red planet, doing science and taking photos. Jason Major processed a few of Opportunity’s most recent snaps of the Endeavour Crater and they’re just wonderful. I’m especially taken with the one included above…it belongs in a museum!

Vivid new images and flyby videos of Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2017

Jupiter South Pole Juno

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is currently orbiting around Jupiter and taking some of the best photos and scientific measurements we’ve seen of the solar system’s largest planet. The photo above is of Jupiter’s south pole, gathering point for massive cyclones.

Early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet’s surface than previously thought.

“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

Using data and photos from Juno, Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran have created these videos that approximate what it might look like flying by Jupiter in a spacecraft.


Lunar, a short film about humankind’s journey to the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2017

Using NASA still photographs and audio from the Apollo missions, Christian Stangl created this animated collage as a dedication “to all people who believe in peaceful expansion of our borders”.

In the year 1957 the cold war expands to space. The Soviet-Union sends Sputnik as the first manmade object into earth-orbit. 2 years later Yuri Gagarin enters space as the first man in space. The so called “Space Race” seems to be decided. But in 1961 President Kennedy promised to send American Astronauts to the moon. The Apollo Project was born. A space ship had to be built that is strong enough to escape earth’s gravitation, land on the moon and bring the crew safely back to earth.

I am a total sucker for everything Moon/Apollo related. To me, putting humans on the Moon is one of the best and most inspiring things we have ever done as a species, even though it’s the poster child for the right thing done for the wrong reason.

The latest SpaceX rocket launch and landing, start-to-finish

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2017

This is cool. SpaceX has built a reusable rocket for launching things into space. The rocket takes off, separates from its payload, and then lands back on Earth, upright and intact on a landing pad. They’ve had several successful missions but this morning, they webcast the launch and return of the rocket with footage from long-range cameras and a camera fixed to the side of the rocket from start to finish.

The launch happens at 11:58, at 14:24 the main stage separates from the payload, and at 21:00, it’s on the ground — the whole thing is over in 9 minutes. And the views are super-clear (until clouds and exhaust from engines cloud the view right at the end) and the long continuous shot of the rocket is astounding…it looks totally fake, like out of a sci-fi movie.

Speaking of sci-fi, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared a better view of the rocket landing on Instagram…here it is on YouTube:

Look at the landing gear delicately fold down about 2 seconds before the landing. Looks totally CG! I’ve seen footage of these landings dozens of times and it’s still incredible.

What will the night sky look like in 5 million years?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2017

Based on the motions of the 2 million stars observed by ESA’s Gaia mission over the past two years, scientists created this simulated animation of how the view of the Milky Way in the night sky will evolve over the next 5 million years.

The shape of the Orion constellation can be spotted towards the right edge of the frame, just below the Galactic Plane, at the beginning of the video. As the sequence proceeds, the familiar shape of this constellation (and others) evolves into a new pattern. Two stellar clusters — groups of stars that were born together and consequently move together — can be seen towards the left edge of the frame: these are the alpha Persei (Per OB3) and Pleiades open clusters.

Stars seem to move with a wide range of velocities in this video, with stars in the Galactic Plane moving quite slow and faster ones appearing over the entire frame. This is a perspective effect: most of the stars we see in the plane are much farther from us, and thus seem to be moving slower than the nearby stars, which are visible across the entire sky.

Well, how’s that for some perspective? (via blastr)

The Orion Nebula, our friendly neighborhood star factory

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2017

Orion Nebula

Rolf Olsen recently took this amazing photo of the Orion Nebula using a home-built telescope.

The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in the sky and also has a significant place in the history of astrophotography. In 1880 it was the first ever nebula to be photographed; Henry Draper used the newly invented dry plate process to acquire a 51-minute exposure of the nebula with an 11 inch telescope. Subsequently, in 1883, amateur astronomer Andrew Ainslie Common recorded several exposures up to 60 minutes long with a much larger 36-inch telescope, and showed for the first time that photography could reveal stars and details fainter than those visible to the human eye.

Thanks to Phil Plait for the link…he’s got much more to say about the image and the nebula here.

Also called M42 (the 42nd object in a catalog kept by comet hunter Charles Messier in the late 18th century), it is a sprawling star factory, a gas cloud where stars are born. It’s a couple of dozen light-years across, and sits well over a thousand light-years from Earth. That’s 10,000 trillion kilometers, and you can see it with your naked eye! It’s so bright because of a handful of extremely massive hot stars sit in its center. They blast out ultraviolet light that energizes the gas in the nebula, causing it to glow.

It’s actually a small section of a much larger dark cloud, what’s called a molecular cloud, that we cannot see directly. Stars were born near the edge of that cloud, not too deeply inside it, and when they switched on their fierce light and stellar winds blew a hole in the cloud, popping it like a bubble. The Orion Nebula is a cavity in the side of that cloud, carved by the newborn stars.

A full rotation of the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2017

All but a few humans have seen no more than half of the Moon with their own eyes. For the rest of us stuck on Earth, we only get to see the side that always faces the Earth because the Earth & Moon are tidally locked; the Moon’s rotation about its axis and its orbit around the Earth take the same amount of time. But NASA’s LRO probe has taken high-resolution photos of all but 2% of the Moon’s surface, which have been stitched together into this video of the Moon’s full 360-degree rotation.

A fictional flight above real Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2017

Using real images of Mars taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Jan Fröjdman created a 3D-rendered flyover of several areas of the planet’s surface.

In this film I have chosen some locations and processed the images into panning video clips. There is a feeling that you are flying above Mars looking down watching interesting locations on the planet. And there are really great places on Mars! I would love to see images taken by a landscape photographer on Mars, especially from the polar regions. But I’m afraid I won’t see that kind of images during my lifetime.

It has really been time-consuming making these panning clips. In my 3D-process I have manually hand-picked reference points on the anaglyph image pairs. For this film I have chosen more than 33.000 reference points! It took me 3 months of calendar time working with the project every now and then.

Watch this in the highest def you can muster…gorgeous.

The Goddesses of Venus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Goddesses Of Venus Map

Last year, Eleanor Lutz made a medieval-style map of Mars. As a follow-up, she’s made a topographical map of Venus. The features on Venus are named for female mythological figures & notable women and Lutz provides a small biography for each one on the map. Among those featured on the map are:

Anne Frank
Selu (Cherokee Corn Goddess)
Kali (Hindu Goddess, Mother of Death)
Virginia Woolf
Sedna (Eskimo Whose Fingers Became Seals and Whales)
Ubastet (Egyptian Cat Goddess)
Beatrix Potter
Edith Piaf

Here are the full lists of the craters, mountains, and coronae on Venus.

An appreciation of the Hubble’s Deep Field images

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2017

More than 20 years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope took a photo of a patch of seemingly dark sky and, lo, it was filled with hundreds and hundreds of galaxies.

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

About ten years after that, they looked even deeper into the night sky and observed thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars. The video above is an appreciation of these Deep Field images and what they taught us about the Universe.

In 1995, scientists pointed the Hubble Telescope at an area of the sky near the Big Dipper. The location was apparently empty, and the whole endeavour was risky — what, if anything, was going to show up? But what came back was nothing short of spectacular: an image of over 1,500 galaxies glimmering in a tiny sliver of the universe. Alex Hofeldt helps us understand the scale of this image.

NASA has found 7 Earth-like planets orbiting a single nearby star

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2017

Trappist 1

Today NASA announced the discovery of seven planets “that could harbor life” around a dwarf star called Trappist-1.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light years, or about 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets - planets around stars other than the sun - in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

“This is the first time so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” said Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of an international team that has been observing Trappist-1.

Here’s the paper published in Nature.

The leisurely pace of light speed

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2017

In a 45-minute video called Riding Light, Alphonse Swinehart animates the journey outward from the Sun to Jupiter from the perspective of a photon of light. The video underscores just how slow light is in comparison to the vast distances it has to cover, even within our own solar system. Light takes 8.5 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth, almost 45 minutes to Jupiter, more than 4 years to the nearest star, 100,000 years to the center of our galaxy, 2.5 million years to the nearest large galaxy (Andromeda), and 32 billion years to reach the most remote galaxy ever observed.1 The music is by Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians), whose music can also seem sort of endless.

If you’re impatient, you can watch this 3-minute version, sped up by 15 times:

  1. This isn’t strictly true. As I understand it, a photon that just left the Sun will never reach that most remote galaxy.

A beautiful aquarium supernova

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2017

Using mostly old-school visual effects — like ink dispersing in an aquarium and poking holes in napkins (to represent stars) — Thomas Vanz created a pretty compelling representation of a dying star going supernova.

Novae is a movie about an astronomical event that occurs during the last evolutionary stages of a massive star’s life, whose dramatic and catastrophic death is marked by one final titanic explosion called supernova.

By only using an aquarium, ink and water, this film is also an attempt to represent the giant with the small without any computed generated imagery.

As a tribute to Kubrick or Nolan’s filmography, Novae is a cosmic poem that want to introduce the viewer to the nebulae’s infinite beauty.

Vanz documented his process in these two videos, which are almost as entertaining as the finished product.

The last steps on the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2016

In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy told Congress and the rest of the American public that the US was going to send a man to the Moon. Just over 11 years later, as part of the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, humans set foot on the Moon for the last time.1 The Last Steps is a summary of that final mission, during which NASA accomplished the near-impossible yet again and was met with increasing public indifference about a journey that had taken on the ease of a car trip to grandma’s house.

Update: Perhaps humans will set foot on the Moon sooner than 2060. The European Space Agency is planning on a manned mission “by 2030” and China is shooting for 2036. (via @T_fabriek)

  1. For now, I guess I should add. It’s been 44 years since then and at the rate things are going, it might be another 44 years before it happens again. I’m hoping for a reboot of the Apollo franchise sooner rather than later, though.

Gorgeous ultra HD fly-through of the inside of the International Space Station

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2016

NASA has uploaded a beautiful and relaxing 18-minute fly-through video of the International Space Station filmed in ultra high-definition 4K resolution. They used to a fisheye lens to film it, which means you get plenty of detail and depth of field.

The Universe has 10 times more galaxies than we thought

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2016

Hubble Ultra Deep Field

A recent paper claims that the Universe has 10 times more galaxies than we previously thought: an estimated 2 trillion galaxies covering every single patch of sky visible from the Earth. But that doesn’t mean the Universe is more massive or that it contains more stars. Phil Plait explains:

Now, let me be clear. This doesn’t meant the Universe is ten times bigger than we thought, or there are ten times as many stars. I’ll explain — I mean, duh, it’s what I do — but to cut to the chase, what they found is that there are lots of teeny, faint galaxies very far away that have gone undetected. So instead of being in a smaller number of big galaxies, stars are divvied up into a bigger number of smaller ones.

So how many stars are there in the Universe? The Milky Way contains about 400 billion stars. Some massive elliptical galaxies house more than 100 trillion stars. Estimates of the total number are rough, but it’s probably around 10^24 stars…that’s a septillion stars, a trillion trillion. It’s absurd that we’d be the only planet in the Universe with life on it.

Gorgeous photos of NASA’s rockets and robots

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2016

Redgrove NASA

Redgrove NASA

Wired took an exclusive tour of NASA’s rockets and robots with photographer Benedict Redgrove and the photographic results are — sorry! — out of this world. Best viewed on Redgrove’s site, who must be — still sorry!! — over the moon about how they turned out. But seriously, that DARPA centaur-on-wheels robot…how cool is that?

Also, you may remember Redgrove from his short film on how tennis balls are made. How that for service? (Stop. Just stop it. (You love it. (STOP!)))

Meet the nano sapiens

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Nano Sapiens

In a 1959 talk at Caltech titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman outlined a new field of study in physics: nanotechnology. He argued there was much to be explored in the realm of the very small — information storage, more powerful microscopes, biological research, computing — and that that exploration would be enormously useful.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

In a reaction to Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, David Galbraith suggests there might be plenty of room at the bottom for human civilization as well. Don’t colonize Mars, miniaturize humanity. Create nano sapiens.

If we think of this as a design problem, there is a much better solution. Instead of expanding our environment to another planet at massive cost, why wouldn’t we miniaturise ourselves so we can expand without increasing our habitat or energy requirements, but still maintain our ability to create culture and knowledge, via information exchange.

The history of information technology and the preservation of Moore’s law has been driven by exactly this phenomenon of miniaturization. So why shouldn’t the same apply to the post technological evolution of humankind as it approaches the hypothetical ‘singularity’ and the potential ability for us to be physically embodied in silicon rather than carbon form.

When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.1

Galbraith also speculates about nano aliens as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox:

Interestingly, the same rules of energy use and distance between planets and stars would apply to any extraterrestrial aliens, so one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that we all get smaller and less visible as we get more technologically advanced. Rather than favoring interstellar colonization with its mind boggling distances which are impossible to communicate across within the lifetimes of individuals (and therefore impossible to hold together in any meaningful way as a civilization) perhaps advanced civilizations stick to their home planets but just get more efficient to be sustainable.

Humans are explorers. Curiosity about new worlds and ideas is one of humanity’s defining traits. One of the most striking things about the Eames’ Powers of Ten video is how similar outer space and inner space look — vast distances punctuated occasionally by matter. What if, instead of using more and more energy exploring planets, stars, and galaxies across larger and larger distances (the first half of the Eames’ video), we went the other way and focused on using less energy to explore cells, molecules, and atoms across smaller and smaller distances. It wouldn’t be so much giving up human space exploration as it would be exchanging it for a very similar and more accessible exploration of the molecular and atomic realm. There is, after all, plenty of room down there.

Update: I knew the responses to this would be good. Galbraith’s idea has a name: the transcension hypothesis, formulated by the aptly named John Smart. Jason Silva explains in this video:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.

Before we get there, however, there are a few challenges we need to overcome, as Joe Hanson explains in The Small Problem With Shrinking Ourselves:

As it often seems in such matters, science follows science fiction here. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (Amazon), the Chinese miniaturize themselves in response to the Earth’s decreasing resources.

In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.

Blood Music by Greg Bear (Amazon) has a nano-civilization theme:

Through infection, conversion and assimilation of humans and other organisms the cells eventually aggregate most of the biosphere of North America into a region seven thousand kilometres wide. This civilization, which incorporates both the evolved noocytes and recently assimilated conventional humans, is eventually forced to abandon the normal plane of existence in favor of one in which thought does not require a physical substrate.

James Blish’s short story Surface Tension tells the tale of microscopic human colonists. (via @harryh, @mariosaldana, @EndlessForms, @vanjacosic, @chumunculus)

Update: For some years, director Alexander Payne has been working on a film called Downsizing:

“Downsizing,” after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth’s natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. “Smalls” get small, then become members of small cities (the main characters moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney’s Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.

Word is that Matt Damon will play the lead role. Mr. Payne, consider a title change to “Nano Sapiens”? (via @stephenosberg)

Photo by Poy.

  1. This is not a straightforward matter however. The 6-inch human wouldn’t eat 1728 times less food…that would mean you could live on a Big Mac for a year. Small animals often eat a significant percentage of their body weights each day, which normal-sized humans never approach. For example, according to this chart a grey squirrel weighs about 21 oz and eats about 1.6 oz of food, the equivalent of a 180-pound human eating about 14 pounds of food a day.

Musk: SpaceX will start colonizing Mars in 7 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Yesterday, Elon Musk shared SpaceX’s plan for colonizing Mars. Gizmodo has a good overview of the plan.

SpaceX plans to build a “self-sustaining city” on Mars, according to its founder Elon Musk. But, while we now know a lot more about how SpaceX plans to get to Mars, details about how people will actually survive up there remain sketchy.

Musk dropped the news on Tuesday during an address at the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he had promised to reveal how the company planned to send people to live on Mars.

“I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy,” said Musk, but he noted that he saw only two possible paths forward. “One path is to stay on Earth forever, and there will be some extinction event. The alternative is to become a multi-planetary species, which I hope you will agree is the right way to go.”

Musk says that human flights to Mars could start as soon as 2023. So audacious, I love it. I am so rooting for him to pull this off.

Update: Wait But Why has a characteristically entertaining and informative piece about SpaceX’s Big Fucking Rocket.

“It’s so mind-blowing. It blows my mind, and I see it every week.”

Elon’s pumped. And when you learn about the big fucking rocket he’s building, you’ll understand why.

First, let’s absorb the challenge at hand. It’s often said that space is hard. To this day, only a few hundred people have been in space, only a few countries have the ability to launch something into space, and the history of human space travel is littered with tragic launch failures. Firing something super heavy and delicate and full of explosive liquid up through the atmosphere without anything going wrong is incredibly hard.

But when we talk about humans going into space, we’re talking mostly about humans going into Low Earth Orbit, a layer of space between 100 and 1,200 miles above the ground — and normally, they’re headed only 250 miles up to the International Space Station. The only time humans have gone farther were the small handful of Americans who made it out to the moon in the 1960s, traveling about 250,000 miles away.

When Earth and Mars are at their closest, Mars is somewhere between 34 and 60 million miles away — about 200 times farther away than the moon and about 200,000 times farther away than the ISS.

The moon is just over one light second away.

Mars is more than three light minutes away.

Mars is far.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of the Voyager Golden Record

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 22, 2016

Just launched on Kickstarter: a gorgeous reproduction of the Golden Record that was included on the Voyager space probes when we shot them into space almost 40 years ago. The records contained images and sounds from Earth that some extraterrestrial civilization may someday view and listen to.

The Voyager Golden Record contains the story of Earth expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad cultures and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Senegalese percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Dozens of natural sounds of our planet — birds, a train, a baby’s cry — are collaged into a lovely sound poem. There are spoken greetings in 55 human languages, and one whale language, and more than one hundred images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.

This is so cool. When I was doing the packages with Quarterly, one of the ideas I had on my list was to replicate the Golden Record. The production values would have been a lot more limited than this effort and the rights issue is ultimately why I never pursued it:

The overwhelming majority of the funds raised from this historic reissue will go directly to the high production costs, licensing, and royalties incurred in creating this lavish box set.

See also the Contents of the Voyager Golden Record and The sounds of Voyager’s Golden Record.

Possible Earth-like planet discovered orbiting star nearest Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2016

Exoplanet Art

The scientific rumor mill is saying that astronomers in Chile have discovered an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting the star nearest Earth, Alpha Proxima, a mere 4.25 light years away. As they say, “huge if true”.

The hunt for exoplanets has been heating up in recent years. Since it began its mission in 2009, over four thousand exoplanet candidates have been discovered by the Kepler mission, several hundred of which have been confirmed to be “Earth-like” (i.e. terrestrial). And of these, some 216 planets have been shown to be both terrestrial and located within their parent star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks zone”).

But in what may prove to be the most exciting find to date, the German weekly Der Spiegel announced recently that astronomers have discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, just 4.25 light-years away. Yes, in what is an apparent trifecta, this newly-discovered exoplanet is Earth-like, orbits within its sun’s habitable zone, and is within our reach. But is this too good to be true?

If you read the article, there’s cause for skepticism but an official announcement is coming next week so we’ll know for sure one way or the other.

The other cool thing? If there is a planet there, plans are already underway to build a project to get probes to nearby Alpha Centuri in 20 years, Project Starshot:

In the last decade and a half, rapid technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed. This involves a ground-based light beamer pushing ultra-light nanocrafts - miniature space probes attached to lightsails - to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch, and beam home images of possible planets, as well as other scientific data such as analysis of magnetic fields.

Perhaps they can redirect their target slightly?

Update: It appears as if the rumors were true. Phil Plait writing at Slate:

The planet, called Proxima Centauri b or just Proxima b (exoplanets are given their star’s name plus a lower case letter in order of discovery, starting with “b”), orbits Proxima every 11.2 days. It has a mass of no less than 1.3 times the Earth’s, so if it’s rock and metal like Earth it’s only a bit bigger. It’s a mere 7.3 million kilometers from the star-a lot closer than Earth’s distance from the Sun of 150 million kilometers!-but Proxima is so faint and cool it receives about two-thirds the amount of light and heat the Earth does. That means that it’s in Proxima’s habitable zone: It’s possible (more or less) that liquid water could exist on its surface.

That’s coooool.

Update: Project Blue wants to built a space telescope for the purpose of observing and photographing Earth-like planets around Alpha Centuri.

Project Blue is a consortium of leading space and research organizations on a mission to build and launch a small space telescope to observe planets around our nearest stellar neighbors: Alpha Centauri A and B. The goal is simple: to capture an image, visible to the human eye, of orbiting planets. Seeing a “pale blue dot” could indicate the presence of oceans or an atmosphere — the potential to support life. It would be our first view of another world like our own. With a modest budget and a planned launch by 2020, this goal is tantalizingly close.