Forget Covid. Forget politics. Go outside tonight if you have any kind of clear sky and a view to the southeast and southwest—even if it’s between the trees and buildings. To the southeast, Mars and the Moon are about to fall into a dangerous, non-distancing embrace. They are spectacular together, with or without city light pollution. And to the southwest, Jupiter and Saturn continue to dance brightly (well, Jupiter is bright, Saturn is less so) at arm’s length.
I saw them all while walking the dogs (I couldn’t even see any stars), and was thrown right back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the solar system was a simpler place, and we just knew that in another fifty years, we’d be able to head down to the Atom City Spaceport and hop on a luxury space-liner to any of those places. Those were the days! The Golden Era of Space Travel (as it should have been)!
I came back from walking the dogs and saw a wonderful triad of the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn—in a clear sky (by Boston standards), and right above my driveway. If I’m ever going to bring that beautiful Celestron telescope down from the dining room, I thought, this should be the time. So I limbered up with some back exercises* and lugged it downstairs. What a beautiful view! The Moon was glorious, Jupiter was spectacular, and Saturn was elusive. Finally I found it, though, with its rings tilted at a rakish angle. I texted my family, I phoned them: Get down here!
This is them, taking their turns at the scope.
And here is the worst astronomical picture ever: Jupiter and the Galilean moons, imaged with an Android phone held shakily to the eyepiece. I thought all I’d gotten was a blur. But when I checked later, I was pleased to see a recognizable picture of the planet! (The big blue smudge is an artifact. Either that, or it’s Neptune, photobombing my shot.)
In a world filled with wildfires, hurricanes, pandemic, and walking calamities in high public office, sometimes you just need a little piece of the cosmos to calm you down.
*Not really, but I should have. That thing is heavy.
Remember when Venus was a planet of lush jungles and radiant oceans, and Mercury was a tidally locked world of extremes, its dayside treacherous with molten-metal pools and its nightside a frigid locker of exotic ices? And who knew what sorts of intelligent lifeforms existed to pose a communications challenge?
Such were the imagined worlds during the Golden Era of science fiction, the stories written in the 40s and 50s and early 60s, the stories I imprinted on as an avid young reader. Those visions may have been shattered by the real worlds discovered by space probes of the late Twentieth Century. But my mind was full of those images over the last couple of evenings as I peered through my binoculars at Venus and Mercury—seemingly close enough to reach out and tango—in the western twilight sky.
Oh, to have those Golden-era worlds back. The possibilities!
I tried to take a picture with my phone camera, but it was hopeless. Here are two NASA images, Mercury on the left and Venus on the right (not to scale). These are the worlds I saw, though the vision I saw was quite different!
Captain Jack and I went for a little bike ride yesterday, to enjoy the pleasant evening. I found us riding straight into a breathtaking view of a slender, crescent moon, and bright Venus just above it. This picture gives just a hint. (What is it about stunning views of the sky in real life, and what you get on your phone camera—even a good camera?) Let’s zoom in…
Way back in the late 1980s when the rocks were still cooling, I wrote a pair of novels, From a Changeling Star and Down the Stream of Stars, that proposed an interstellar highway (sort of a modified wormhole) created by the joining of two black holes with a long strand of cosmic hyperstring. That same starstream features prominently in my new work, The Reefs of Time / Crucible of Time.
Now, I read here that real scientists have proposed that one could create a real wormhole, using—are you ready?—two black holes and a couple of strands of cosmic string. Seriously, is that cool or what? God, I love science!
Mars Reconnaissance Observer (MRO) took pictures from orbit of the Phoenix Mars lander, roughly ten years apart. If this animated gif from NASA works correctly, you’ll see a blink comparison of the site ten years ago, and now. The evidence could not be more striking: Little Green Men (LGMs) have been systematically covering our lander with sand! They work slowly but steadily; they’ve even hidden the parachute (bottom). My theory is they’re part of the Flat Mars Society and are covering up evidence of life from off world. How devious.
This, combined with the famous hex-wrench socket on top of Saturn (see in motion here), offer clear proof of aliens meddling in and around our solar system. I suspect they live inside Saturn and go in and out through the hex hatch, but this has not yet been shown. Sciency research continues.
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.
I was just reading in Astronomy Magazine that astronomers have predicted that a binary pair of stars will merge into one in 2022, and set off an explosion called a red nova, similar to this image of V838 Monocerotis, from the Hubble space telescope. It’ll be as bright as the North Star, and last for up to six months. That’s a pretty striking prediction, and not the sort of prediction astronomers usually make. (More here.) But here’s the thing…
I was most of the way through the article when I went, Wait—who? I scrolled back up to read again, who’s being quoted here. I wasn’t seeing things—it’s Lawrence Molnar of Calvin College in Michigan. Way to go, Larry! Larry Molnar and his wife Cindy are friends from way back, having lived right above us for several years right after Allysen and I got married. We went to the same church; we exchanged babysitting. He was my first consultant on the question of how one could theoretically set off a supernova (From a Changeling Star), and he introduced me to other consultants at Center for Astrophysics at Harvard. We also made a snow dog together (modeled on Sam, our first border collie mix), back in the 1980s.
This is cool. I’m going to be watching, Larry, to see if it happens on time.
Curly and Moe were not mentioned as participants in the study.*
*Sorry. That’s the only part of this post that’s an April Fools joke. The rest is real.
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!