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]

 

 

Moonglow

Last night’s supermoon lunar eclipse was gorgeous, even viewed from our suburban Boston driveway. It gave me a reason to bring out my Meade ETX-90 Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, which is a compact 3.5 inch reflector that I don’t use as much as I would like. I don’t have equipment for taking pictures, so I’ll show you some that other people took.

The thing that most struck me was how much the reddened Moon, with its dark, patchy maria, looked like pictures of Mars, especially from the days when astronomers had only modest ground-based telescopes—but even now, with the Hubble.  I’ll show you one of those, below the moon shots.

The other thing, as I peered through the lens wishing I could see the Apollo lander equipment, was that twelve men walked on that world over forty years ago. It’s high time some more men took that stroll—and some women, too. And maybe for some to go there to stay.

The third thing was, this was an anniversary of sorts for Allysen and me. It was the last supermoon eclipse, in 1982, that got us started dating!

Here (if the code works) is a slideshow the Telegraph put together on short notice. Our view probably looked most like the one you’ll see from Paris, here.

And here’s a shot of Mars, from the Hubble Space Telescope. Reminiscent, no?

And what the hey, in keeping with the theme, here’s a picture of Moonlight:

  

Loving This View of Pluto

posted in: astronomy, Pluto, space 0

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!

Wanderers (of a Strange and Distant Time)

Want to be mesmerized for three and a half minutes? Open this on a good monitor, click the “full screen” icon in the lower right of this video, turn up the sound, and sit back and journey the solar system. See if you recognize the voice.



Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the Day for showing it to me. For more information about the film and scenes depicted, visit the website of Erik Wernquist, who assembled the film. A remarkable piece of inspiration.

And yes, my title line is a near-quote from the Moody Blues. Extra point if you can name the album, without looking it up.

Riding a Comet!

The successful landing of Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the European Space Agency is a welcome bright spot in this month’s space news. Bright for science, and bright for the spirit of exploration. Well done, ESA!

As I type this, I don’t know if Philae has yet run out of battery power. In case you’ve been living in a mine this week, Philae dropped across space to a landing, but took a few unfortunate bounces and ended up resting on a precarious spot with too much shadow for its solar cells. I wish we could send it a light! I’d even contribute my Stanley car jumpstart battery, if it would help. Well, I’m sure Philae’s clever scientist-parents will make the most of it. And I can’t wait to find out what they learn. [Update: Apparently it has run out of battery power, after drilling into the comet, but before sending data back. Ow, that hurts. But there may be opportunity for it to recharge slowly, in the coming months, and maybe come back to life for a while. Let’s hope.]

It’s amazing how little we knew about comets until we started visiting them in robotic person. We used to think they were basically dirty snowballs. Now we see that they’re much more like asteroids, but with some snow and ice to provide outgassing for the halo.

As I looked at the pictures of the comet, I found myself thinking of John Bandicut, fictional space pilot in my novel Neptune Crossing. John had to smack just such a comet really really hard, to keep it from hitting Earth. Looking at those pictures of a real comet, I reflected on how Bandie was one mongo brave dude to do such a thing. Even if he did have alien science working for him, and was half out of his mind with silence fugue. When I wrote the scene, I knew he was brave. But I don’t think I knew just how brave.

Thanks, Bandie, for riding that other comet!  (Even if you are fictional, and in the future.)

I like XKCD’s view of the landing:

http://xkcd.com/1446/

Comet ISON: John Bandicut?

It took a loyal reader to point it out to me: The coming close encounter of Comet ISON with the sun is kind of reminiscent of a fateful ride taken by John Bandicut in my novel Neptune Crossing. (Tip of the space helmet to Kyle Michael Jeynes for noting it on my Facebook page.) Of course, in Bandicut’s case, he and the quarx Charlie were chasing the comet.

If you haven’t read Neptune Crossing, you should. I need the sales! No, actually it’s free, pretty much everywhere fine ebooks are to be found. Or, you could take the plunge and buy it in a high quality omnibus with the next two books in the series. Only $6.99 for three complete novels! A steal, even if you can get the first one by itself for free!

Seriously, though, ebook sales have been down something fierce the last few months. It’s been true for me, and I’m hearing it from a lot of other writers, too. Maybe it’s the economy, combined with organized governmental dysfunction. Even our local beer and wine store reports a recent sales slump. If people aren’t buying likker, you know there’s a problem!

So, support your favorite author and buy a book today. Or, maybe even better, recommend your favorite author to someone who hasn’t had the pleasure yet. Your favorite author will thank you.

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