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.

Get into the Group Photo: Wave to Saturn and the Cassini Spacecraft!

Friday the Nineteenth is the day the Cassini spacecraft, circling Saturn, will turn its cameras back toward Earth, and NASA and JPL want us to go outside and wave. What a photo op! If you’re in America and standing outside at around 5:30 p.m. EDT, you’ll be in the photo. Look to the east and wave to the open sky!

Here’s the official word on the timing of the shot:
“The Cassini portrait session of Earth will last about 15 minutes from 2:27 to 2:42 p.m. PDT (21:27 to 21:42 UTC).” The Americas will be facing Saturn during that time. Other parts of the world, I’m sorry. Next time.

This is approximately what the view will look like from Cassini when it clicks the shutter. 

Help the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop

Speaking of great causes, if you like science fiction that actually gets the science right, there’s nothing better than the annual Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, which since 2007 has been training writers in the basics, as well as some of the finer points, of astronomy. In the early years, when I attended, Launchpad was paid for by grants from NASA and NSF. Now, funding is scarce, and the workshop needs a helping hand from people who care. Science fiction, after all, provides inspiration for future generations of scientists, as well writers, artists, and readers of all kinds. 

If you’d like to help, there’s just one more day left to make a donation to the crowd-funding of this important program. There are all kinds of free books available to reward donations—all donated by author or publisher-alums of the program (like me!) Check out the donations page and get a free book while helping a great cause!

Earth-sized Planet Found Circling Alpha Centauri!

Woot! It’s finally happened! Researchers have announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet in the star system nearest to ours. Called Alpha Centauri Bb for now (it orbits the star in the Alpha Centauri group called Alpha Centauri B), this planet is roughly 3.6 million miles from its sun, compared to our 93 million miles from our sun.  So it’s pretty hot, certainly not in the range for most Earthlike life forms. But this discovery suggests the likelihood of other planets in the star system. Most systems have multiple planets, and the ones closest to their suns are the easiest to detect.

This is so insanely, massively cool. We’ve dreamed of it for years. And now we’ve learned that our nearest neighboring star system has a planet the size of ours, and may have other planets in the habitable zone.

The news takes me back to memories of one of the first paperback SF novels I ever read as a kid: Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C

Who’s ready to join me in starting construction of a starship?

Curiosity Descent Caught on Camera by Mars Orbiter

posted in: astronomy, Mars, science, space 0

I can never seem to catch our animals, or for that matter, my family members, on camera when they’re in the act of doing something interesting. I always get something blurred, or dull, a few moments later. But NASA does a better job. The Mars Orbiter, with split-second timing, caught this photo of Curiosity on its way down to the planet’s surface.

The inset is a close-up of the landing craft hanging from the huge, supersonic parachute that helped slow Curiosity to a safe landing speed. If this doesn’t win an award for best action photography, I don’t know what will.

  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Details here and here.

Watch Curiosity Land on Mars in Realie Vision!

NASA’s latest wonder-probe to Mars, Curiosity, is scheduled to land on Mars at 10:31 p.m. EDT, on the night of August 5th. Be there, and don’t even think about being square. NASA has worked out a way for folks online to experience the event using some kind of 3D software on their computers, and even on their Xbox game sets. Who says NASA doesn’t have a sense of wonder? Go here to see all the different activities they’ve worked out for folks to do in connection with the Mars landing, or here to get set up with the Unity Web Player to experience the landing to full effect. They’re encouraging people to start getting set up now, so everyone isn’t crashing the servers getting set up on the night of the 5th. Go here if you want to learn more about the mission.

Just how exciting could this landing be? After all, we’ve landed on Mars before. But not like this. Take a look at this video to see just how difficult this feat really is. If this doesn’t get you pumped, better check to see if you still have pulse. Pop it up to full screen if you can.

If you have trouble viewing it on this page, go to the source.

Venus Video Montage

Mars shouldn’t get all the glory. I used to travel to both planets regularly in my head, via the great stories I read. One of my favorites, when I was about twelve, was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet book, Revolt on Venus.

Venus just made the last transit across the face of the sun that will be visible from Earth this century. Here’s a lovely montage of video images in various wavelengths taken and edited together by NASA. Who says NASA has no poetry in its soul? You can make it full screen for best effect.

View on youtube

And just for fun, here’s a time-lapse shot from the last transit, in 2004, showing the International Space Station and Venus making a transit across the face of the sun, almost as if in formation.

We’re Doomed!

posted in: astronomy, science, space 0

Scientists have confirmed: the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is on a collision course with our own Milky Way galaxy. When the centers of the two galaxies collide, or even shear past each other if it’s a near-miss, there’s going to be an awful lot of cosmic smacking around happening. Eventually the two galaxies will probably merge, turning two beautiful spirals into a huge elliptical blob. It’s hard to say what will happen in our corner of the action, about two-thirds of the way out from our galactic center. It’s possible that it’ll just be a mind-blowing light show. But I’m not counting on it.
This could happen in the next four billion years. We’ve still got time to pack. But we’re fools if we don’t get working on that star drive right now.
Here‘s an artist’s conception of what it might look like, mid-tango. See it bigger at Astronomy Picture of the Day. And see what the stages of the collision might look like here, where you can also read more about it.
Seems to me there should be a good science fiction story in this. Probably more than one.
1 2 3 4