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.

When Mining Asteroids, Don’t Forget Your Trusty Dog

The recent arrival of the privately designed-and-built Dragon space capsule at the International Space Station dovetails nicely with another recent event: the announcement of a privately funded initiative called Planetary Resources, Inc., to seek out and mine near-Earth asteroids.

Both dovetail nicely with my own initiative: the release of my short story “Dog Star” as a standalone ebook. The dovetailing has to do with the fact that “Dog Star” is about a young asteroid miner who finds himself grounded on just such as asteroid, just him and his disabled ship… and his trusty “smartmutt,” an enhanced border collie named Sam. Dogs who can discuss astrophysics with you while thinking about digging on an asteroid aren’t a dime a dozen even in this future. Sam has to prove his mettle while helping his human dig his way out of this life-threatening jam.

This is a reprint of a story that first appeared as part of an online science-oriented anthology of stories called Diamonds in the Sky, which was funded by the National Science Foundation to help further the cause of science education, particularly in astronomy. (This new release has a couple of minor corrections from the text as it was released in the anthology.)

Gretchen, the student who has been working with me, helped get “Dog Star” up for sale on the last day of her interning stint. (Thanks, Gretchen!) It’s now free at Smashwords, and you can also get it in the Kindle and Nook stores.

Kindle | Nook | Smashwords (free!)

“Dog Star” will also appear in my forthcoming short story collection, Reality and Other Fictions, which is rapidly moving toward completion. I hope to make an announcement about that in the next few weeks. It will contain about half my published stories, including a couple not released as standalone ebooks. The other half will follow in Going Alien, soon after.

NASA Cuts: What Is Obama Thinking?

Congress is right now considering future budgets for the funding of our space program, and it’s got me extremely worried. The Obama administration has proposed deep cuts, especially for planetary sciences. This is crazy, stupid, and short-sighted, and I call upon Congress to turn this thing around—please! Let’s continue funding our world-class space program, especially for space and planetary sciences, which since the Apollo days have been the capstone of American scientific exploration. The U.S. has already pulled out of one important international planetary mission, based just on the proposed budget. It would be a travesty to cancel other cutting-edge space missions.

It’s practically a given most of the American public thinks we spend a lot more on the space program than we actually do. In fact, NASA’s budget has always been a drop in the bucket compared to the Defense Department’s. Even at the height of the relatively extravagant days of the Apollo Moon landing program, the space program only accounted for a few percent of the federal budget. Since then it’s been sharply cut back. And now they want to cut it back even further. This despite the fact that every dollar spent on space helps to stimulate the economy, maintain our leadership in science and technology, inspire young scientists and engineers—and that’s in addition to advancing our knowledge of the universe, and laying the groundwork for a future spacefaring civilization.

The Obama budget would put the brakes on all of this. And when you put the brakes on a programs like this, you don’t just slow things down, you cause enormous disruption to long-range endeavors and put highly trained people out of work, people whom you might not be able to get back a few years down the road. I’m an Obama supporter, but this may be his administration’s single most misguided action.

To voice your support of space exploration, contact your Congress critter. One way you can do that is by signing on with the message from the Planetary Society, which you can dispatch to your representatives here.

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