Cassini, We’re Going to Miss You!

The Cassini spacecraft is about to end its role in one of the most incredible scientific journeys in history. Launched almost twenty years ago on a billion-mile trip to Saturn, Cassini has been sending back astounding images and data ever since. An international collaboration of U.S. and European space agencies, Cassini has probably delivered more surprises to researchers on Earth than any probe before or after—ranging from pictures of the mist-shrouded surface of Titan with its methane lakes and rivers, to the water geysers and hidden ocean of Enceladus, to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rings, to the crazy giant hexagon* on the north pole of Saturn itself.

NASA has produced a breathtaking video summary of Cassini’s journey, which I would embed here if I could find the embed code. But click here, and watch it in full screen. It’ll be the best five minutes you spent today.

Cassini has been a workhorse of stellar quality. But it’s finally running out of fuel—years after the originally planned end date of its mission—and to keep it from accidentally colliding with one of the potentially life-hosting moons, it’s going out in a blaze of glory, burning up tomorrow morning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It makes me sad. I wish it could have been kept in a parking orbit somewhere safe, so that some future exploration crew could have docked with it, put placards on it, and turned it into the Saturn branch of the Smithsonian, to be kept in perpetuity. But caution ruled, and rightly so, I guess. We’re looking eagerly for extraterrestrial life, and it wouldn’t do for the field to be littered with bits of Earth life. Plus, she’ll be doing science all the way in as she augers into Saturn, where she’ll melt and burn and vaporize at the end. What a way to go.

I feel kind of weepy, imagining that. But you can watch it live right here, Friday morning at 7-8:30 a.m. EDT.

Here’s a collection of some of Cassini’s greatest hits.

*Which I still maintain is a hex socket for aliens to use in opening up the top of the planet. JPL scientists insist it’s a weather system, and usually I believe them. This time, I’m not so sure.

This Is the Droid We’re Looking For!

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Definitely the droid you’re looking for, if you’re looking for a cute buddy who’d be at home with R2 or BB8. He has, unfortunately, the boring name of Int-Ball. You could have done better than that, NASA! You’ll have to travel to the International Space Station to hang with him, though. There you’ll find him floating around, maneuvering via little internal fans, taking pictures of whatever Ground Control wants him to take pix of. Hey—not in there, little Int!

from Astronomy Pic of the Day

 

 

Planet of Proxima Centauri

Huge news from the world of astronomy! A planet has been discovered circling the closest star to ours, just 4.25 light-years away! And it may be in the Goldilocks zone—neither too close to its star nor too far away to have liquid water. Proxima is a red dwarf, much smaller than our sun, and Proxima b (the planet) is orbiting much closer to its star than Earth, with an orbit around its sun every 11.2 days. The net effect of this is that, depending on what kind of atmosphere it has, the surface temperature could be moderate enough for water to exist in liquid form: ideal for our kind of life. This is big news, even bigger than the apparent discovery a few years ago of a planet circling Alpha Centauri (part of the same star group, but a little further away). Read the details on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. And here’s a video from the European Southern Observatory:

Regarding that previous discovery around Alpha Centauri, it was (according to Phil Plait’s article) later found to be an error. But he thinks the evidence for this one is a lot more solid. So here’s hoping, and let’s start tuning up that stardrive!

Apollo 11—Moonstruck!

Apollo 11 Lunar Module EagleEarlier this evening, while bike riding with Captain Jack, I saw the most gorgeous full, pumpkin-colored moon rising above the city. I braked to take a look and marveled. Did we really walk on that Moon during my lifetime? And that reminded me that today is the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. And that reminded me that, seven years ago, I wrote a piece for Tor.com on my recollections of the first moon landing. Why not run it again? I thought. So here, as published on Tor.com, is “Apollo 11—Moonstruck”:

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I was just shy of 20 years old as the countdown proceeded. Home from college for the summer, I sat in my living room in Huron, Ohio, mesmerized by the moving phosphors as the Apollo/Saturn 5 rocket—to my eye the most beautiful creation in human history—steamed and fumed and all but stamped its feet with impatience. The phone rang. A friend had a proposal: if we jumped in the car right then and headed for Florida (a 30-hour drive), we might just make it to the Cape in time to watch the launch in person. This would require my commandeering a family car without my parents’ knowledge or permission, as neither was at home, and cell phones were still science fiction. That might not have been enough to stop me. What did stop me was this thought: if we were delayed or ran out of cash on the way (all too likely), we’d miss the launch altogether. That thought was too much to bear. I watched the launch on TV from home.

Apollo 11 liftoffGlorious! Saturn 5 climbs a pillar of fire into the sky! My God. That was our destiny, humanity’s destiny, to ride fire to the stars!  (To this day, I cannot watch the replay without chills in my spine. The same goes for: “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”) Once those brave, lucky astronauts were safely en route, I settled in for the long watch. Finally came the landing, and the footsteps on lunar soil, which I would not have missed if the house were on fire. But I had an unanticipated difficulty: Do I watch Walter Cronkite on CBS, with Arthur C. Clarke as guest, or John Chancellor on NBC, with Robert Heinlein? Aaahhh! With no remote, I kept leaping to the set to wrench the knob from one station to the other. What a satisfying crown to the occasion: two of my science fiction heroes, called upon to comment!  I already knew then that science fiction would impart a crucial direction to my life. But what a triumph, what vindication!

Forty years ago? Seems like yesterday.*

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*Me again, in the present. It still feels like yesterday.

By the way, Tor.com still has the whole series of authors’ reminiscences about the moon landing up online. You can browse the estimable list of entries here:
http://www.tor.com/features/series/moon-landing-day/

Great Way to Celebrate the Fourth of July

juno-jupiter-artist-conceptWhat better way to crown the Fourth of July, a celebration of the birth of the U.S.A., than to plunk a billion-dollar spacecraft—Juno, the fastest-moving probe ever launched by humanity—into a perfect orbit around Jupiter? This isn’t just any orbit. NASA had to thread Juno into a precise path taking the craft between the planet’s upper atmosphere and its hellish radiation belt. Too close to that belt, and the instruments would have been instant toast. Fortunately, NASA eats challenges like that for lunch. Juno will be flying a highly elliptical path over the huge planet’s poles, zooming repeatedly to within a few thousand miles of the atmosphere and then whipping way out for a long-distance view.

Jupiter's magnetic field-artist's conceptLike so many space stories, there’s a lot in this that echoes my current work in progress. Readers of The Chaos Chronicles might remember that Li-Jared comes from Karellia, a planet with a fiery radiation belt surrounding it. In The Reefs of Time, Li-Jared (and we) get a chance to visit that world, which features things even weirder than the “beautiful, perilous sky” that its inhabitants know so well.

Take a moment to enjoy this view of Jupiter’s moons circling the great planet, shot by Juno on its flight inbound.

Far Out Views from Space

posted in: astronomy, space | 0

Astronaut Scott Kelly is coming home from the International Space Station after 340 days in orbit. Click here at the Boston Globe for a gallery of some amazing images he shared during his time at the edge of the great Up-and-Out.*

Aurora from ISS_SKelly
Aurora seen from the ISS

 

Moon Venus Jupiter from ISS_SKelly
The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter peering back at Astronaut Kelly

 

Milky Way from ISS_SKelly
The Milky Way, our home galaxy

*If the “Up-and-Out” is unfamiliar to you, you may not have had the pleasure of reading any of the stories of the late Cordwainer Smith. Here’s one of my favorites, The Game of Rat and Dragon. It starts this way:

“Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living….” [more]

 

 

SpaceX Lands a Rocket the Way God Intended!

SpaceX_launch-landing

Straight down, on a tail of fire, that’s how. Anyone who’s read science fiction of the 1950s (Tom Corbett: Space Cadet being a particularly fine example), or seen Destination Moon—or, come to think of it, watched any Apollo landing on the Moon, knows that.

After several attempts, and several failures, SpaceX succeeded with a nighttime launch on December 21, hurling a satellite into orbit, and sending the first stage back to make a soft landing at Starbase Canaveral. It’s not just for show, though the sight was a beautiful one. The purpose is to bring down the cost of space travel by making it possible to reuse these rockets, instead of letting them burn up in the atmosphere or slam down in the ocean.

This is a remarkable achievement for SpaceX, and another step toward more affordable space travel.

Great photos at theverge.com

SpaceX_landing2

and a comparison of this achievement with the recent landing of the New Shepherd rocket from Blue Origin. (Hint: New Shepherd was an outstanding achievement, but this one went higher, faster, harder—and launched an actual satellite in the bargain.)

 

Braided Clouds, from Space

This NASA image caught my eye on The Atlantic’s website. (Click the link if this embed code doesn’t work. Ah, nope, it doesn’t. Click the link.) Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean, from NASA’s Aqua satellite.

Cloud vortices off Heard Island, south Indian Ocean. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of sea ice off Heard Island on Nov 2, 2015 at 5:02 AM EST (09:20 UTC). A cloud vortex- the circular pattern seen here- is produced by the flow of air in the atmosphere. Heard Island (visible in the lower right portion of the image) is located in the Indian Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Madagascar to Antarctica. The island is uninhabited by humans, although it is home to many birds and seals. Heard Island is rugged and mountainous, and is mostly covered with ice. It is also home to an active volcano, Mawson Peak. The island has been a territory of Australia since 1947. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team #nasagoddard
A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on

Loving This View of Pluto

NASA has put together a short animation from some of the images taken by New Horizons, showing amazing detail of the mountain range and one of the smoother sections. This is only the beginning. Think of it! We are all part of the generation of Humanity that got to see Pluto up close for the first time! (Actually, come to think of it, I have lived to see, with the rest of the world, every planet in the solar system up close for the first time. That’s pretty amazing.)

You can see it bigger at APOD.

How can you not heart Pluto? I’m sure the aliens who painted this feature on the surface of the planet were much nicer than the ones I wrote about last time.

The heart-shaped feature has been provisionally named Tombaugh Regio for farmer-astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. (And whom I got to hear speak at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, back in the late 1980s.)

 

Pluto! And Charon!

Charon and Pluto, seen from New Horizons

Today’s the day! NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will whiz past Pluto at a distance of only 7800 miles today—in fact, by the time you read this, will already have made the flyby! This little spacecraft has sent us some amazing pictures of Pluto and Charon, and if everything goes right, they will only get better. The spacecraft will be out of contact with Earth during the flyby, the better to frantically shoot pictures and hoover up as much data as it can during the brief encounter. That data will be sent back at a very slow bit-rate, because of the distance, and will take over a year to be transmitted in its entirety!

I’ve always felt that Pluto, way out in the dark of farthest interplanetary space, was one of our most fascinating planets. And yes, the astronomers have agreed now that it’s a dwarf planet—but to me, it will always be our ninth planet.

In fact, when I was a kid, a favorite science fiction novel was called Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim (who later went on to found DAW Books). It involved a kid traveling on an emergency expedition to visit all the planets of the solar system, to learn why the sun was getting dimmer. They found out, all right—it was a bunch of crummy, scum-sucking aliens, who had planted special antennae on each planet, to somehow draw off power from the sun for the aliens’ nefarious purposes. It took cleverness, grit, and maybe a few nukes, but we took care of that. I read that story at least a dozen or two dozen times when I was at a certain age.

You can download this science fiction classic from Project Gutenberg.

Oh, and you can follow the real-life Pluto mission here on space.com or here at NASA. Don’t miss it!

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