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)!
A week ago, we had a movie night/book launch party at my home, and we watched First Man, the excellent biopic about Neil Armstrong, which of course culminated (SPOILER ALERT!) with the successful first landing on the moon.
A few days after that, I watched First Men in the Moon on Turner Classic Movies, an oldie based on the H.G. Wells novel (how closely, I do not know). In this film, the first explorers traveled to the moon in 1899, and the story was rather different. The plot revolved around our hapless explorers finding a race of large, bug-eyed creatures called Selenites living in the moon, in a complex of caverns beneath the lunar surface.
Now I’ve just finished watching the recent Nova episode: Back to the Moon, about how and why we might—after 50 years!—return to the moon to stay. Most of the information was familiar, but something new I learned is that apparent sinkholes have recently been discovered on the moon—holes in the surface, possibly connected to subsurface tunnels and maybe even caverns! The upshot: One location real lunar settlers might pick to build their shelters is in existing tunnels and caverns beneath the lunar surface—just like the Selenites!
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 launch of the Space-X Falcon Heavy was spectacular, and I so wish I had been there to see it. After seeing the space shuttle Atlantis launch (in person), I know that a video can only hint at the experience. Still, what a video! Watch it all the way through to see the two boosters make their Hollywood-perfect landings, and Elon’s red Tesla and its mannequin starman float among the stars!
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.
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!
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!
Earlier 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”:
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.
Glorious! 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.*
*Me again, in the present. It still feels like yesterday.
What 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.
Like 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.
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.*
*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]