Archive for the 'space' Category

JPL’s ‘7 Minutes of Terror’ Video

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

On August 5 at around 10:24 p.m. Pacific time, engineers at JPL will experience “7 minutes of terror” as they follow the delayed telemetry from the Mars Curiosity rover to see if it successfully reaches the end of its automated landing procedure. I’m hoping it does. And if the production quality of the latest video describing the rover’s descent is any indication of the JPL geeks’ technical proficiency, I’d say they’ve got a shot at it.

Seeing Is Believing, Part 2

Friday, February 19th, 2010

This seems apropos, given the recent obsession hereabouts with climate-change research. On February 11, 2010, NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory atop an Atlas V rocket, and Barbara Tomlinson made the following video. This is the point in the launch just before the rocket goes supersonic, when it sends out a series of concentric pressure waves that destroy the sun dog in the right side of the frame:

Here’s a longer version (complete with cheesy soundtrack!):

I liked the user comments:

TenRoc382k9 (13 hours ago)
looks kinda fake

Heh. Can’t fool us. Those San Francisco backdrops in “Monk” are obviously real, but this? Give me a break.

Tomlinson found the “fake” comments interesting, too. In fact, she graphed them:


She observes:

My favorite version of Wow! is captainpickard’s, “I’ll have an order of KICK ASS, with a side of FUCK YEAH!” For Fake! I have to compliment stegre for “I have seem (sic) many edited films and this video has definitely been tampered. Your argument is invalid.” It is both arrogant and nonsensical at the same time. Excellent work, stegre.

More discussion at Bad Astronomy: Rocket launch blows away the sky. And at One Astronomer’s Noise: SDO is GO!!!!!, which includes a link to Anna Herbst’s wider-angle video.

Update: Another cool view, this one by Romeo Durscher, including the contrail that followed:

Possibly My Favorite Onion Video Ever

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

NASA Scientists Plan To Approach Girl By 2018 

Conspiracies Everywhere!

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two is never sure. — Anonymous

I’m surrounded by conspiracies. There was an excellent Tank Riot podcast the other day: Conspiracies, Part 6, which was mostly about the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film in particular. One point that Viktor made (loosely paraphrased): In the olden days, when some public figure was assassinated we all read the news reports, which were mediated by a professional class of interpreters, and we more or less knew (or thought we knew) what time it was. With the Kennedy assassination, though, where we had a source of objective truth (the Zapruder film), it didn’t make things better; instead, it made things much, much worse, serving as the raw material for an endless parade of conspiracy theories.

Or Climategate (of course), which Kevin Drum had a nice item on today (Quote of the Day: Climate Denialism), where the eponymous quotation was of Al Gore (as interviewed by John Dickerson in Slate): “What in the Hell Do They Think Is Causing It?”

If the people that believed the moon landing was staged on a movie lot had access to unlimited money from large carbon polluters or some other special interest who wanted to confuse people into thinking that the moon landing didn’t take place, I’m sure we’d have a robust debate about it right now.

Or there were all those beautiful shots of what surely was an upper stage of a (Russian, presumably) rocket venting propellant over Norway:


…of which Phil Plait in his excellent Bad Astronomy blog had many interesting things to say (Awesomely bizarre light show freaks out Norway), but which prompted a set of blog comments the most memorable of which was this one by user Billy:

Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia all denny [sic] having launched a rocket at that time. Also, for it to be a rocket the spiral is too symmetric. To me this looks like a vortex of a very strong energy force. Perhaps a temporary black hole because of some thing happening to the earth’s magnetic field? I’m 99.9% sure this was not man made; at least not with anything that I know of…

To the above: NO WAY is that a rocket.

See? He’s 99.9% sure. He’s quantified his level of certainty. He’s being scientific.

Sigh. What began with the JFK assassination has picked up steam since we got the Internet. If you’re willing to ignore conflicting data and focus only on finding confirmation for your a priori opinions, Google is perfectly happy to let you enclose yourself in a snuggie of comforting factoids. Meanwhile, real engineers and scientists, people who have to make rockets go up and governments recognize the catastrophe that climate denialists would inflict on our descendants, people who measure their ideas not against what they want to believe, but against what actually is, labor on.

Update: Russia comes clean: Yeah, it was an upper-stage failure of a submarine-launched missile. So, what do you think the chances are that Billy is hard at work recalibrating his estimates in light of this anomalous data? Yup, I agree: Somewhere around 0.1%.

Dayvan Cowboy Video

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

In case you missed it in the links for Podcast 24, this video for the Boards of Canada song “Dayvan Cowboy” is my idea of a music video.

Update: The balloon jump footage is of Joseph Kittinger’s record-breaking jump in 1960 as part of Project Excelsior.

I also came across this other video set to the same piece of music. In this one, you get to ride aboard the left solid rocket booster during a shuttle launch, including liftoff, SRB separation, and splashdown. Fun!

They Are Made Out of Meat

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

I thought this short short story by Terry Bisson was fun: They are made out of meat. For those who prefer video to literature, there’s also this seven-minute film adaptation.

Okay. Enough of me flapping my meat at you.

Hansen: NASA’s Trying to Shut Me Up

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Interesting piece from the NYT about James E. Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA, who’s crying foul about agency higher-ups trying to keep him from spreading the word about what the data show about global warming: Climate expert says NASA tried to silence him.

Frank Drake on the Voyager Record’s Ambiguity

Friday, October 28th, 2005

Speaking of annoying pedantry, don’t get me started on the Drake Equation. But I do recommend reading this smallish interview from Forbes with SETI maven Frank Drake: Frank Drake On ambiguity.

I especially liked this part:

There’s another picture on the Voyager record, which in retrospect was a big mistake. It shows a woman in the grocery store buying groceries, and she’s eating some grapes. That picture was there to show where we get food and how we eat. But what we didn’t even notice was that in that same picture, on an upper shelf, there are some toy trucks. They look just like real, full-size trucks that appear in some of the other pictures. It can give the false impression that you buy baby trucks in the grocery store, and you feed them, and they grow into big trucks. That doesn’t make sense at all to us, but it could totally confuse the extraterrestrials.

Which prompted the following observation by me in Ishar:

You say, “yeah. ET’s gonna be _pissed_ when he arrives in his invasion fleet, ready to establish overlordship, and he gets on all communications frequencies, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “ATTENTION ALL TRUCKS OF PLANET EARTH! THE LIFE YOU HAVE KNOWN IS ENDED! THE NEW ORDER HAS BEGUN!”, and all the humans will be, like, snickering and shit.”


This is, after all, the thing that always cracks me up about SETI, and the Drake equation, and suchlike speculation: It always ends up being more about the limits of our own imagination than about what’s actually out there (or not).

There are indeed many more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Even when we do our best to fill in the empty spaces, we end up being more quaint than insightful, at least with the benefit of hindsight.

Departing Earth

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

NASA’s MESSENGER mission is a space probe launched in August, 2004. Its planned itinerary includes no fewer than six planetary flybys (one of Earth, two of Venus, and three of Mercury) before it enters orbit around Mercury in March, 2011.

In the past I’ve sometimes griped about Earth flybys of space probes powered by plutonium RTGs; not so much to argue that the risks of a high-altitude vaporization and subsequent release of plutonium aren’t worth it, but to call for a more-honest discussion of the risks than has sometimes been offerred by mission supporters.

But MESSENGER doesn’t represent a problem in that area; its destination in the inner solar system means that it will have plenty of Sun power from its solar panels, and so it apparently is plutonium-free.

And the Earth flyby already happened, anyway, on August 2, 2005. I talked in PhotosFromTheSpaceShuttleColumbia about the importance of having human eyes in space to deliver perspective-changing images, but even if a robot can’t be as good at catching opportunistic snapshots as a human being, it can still deliver some amazing views.

Like the one on display here: Earth departure movie. The official site’s description:

The Mercury-bound MESSENGER spacecraft captured several stunning images of Earth during a gravity assist swingby of its home planet on Aug. 2, 2005. Several hundred images, taken with the wide-angle camera in MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS), were sequenced into a movie documenting the view from MESSENGER as it departed Earth.

Comprising 358 frames taken over 24 hours, the movie follows Earth through one complete rotation. The spacecraft was 40,761 miles (65,598 kilometers) above South America when the camera started rolling on Aug. 2. It was 270,847 miles (435,885 kilometers) away from Earth – farther than the Moon’s orbit – when it snapped the last image on Aug. 3.

Ceglowski on the Shuttle

Thursday, August 18th, 2005

Maciej Ceglowski of Idle Words lays bare the sad truth at the heart of the space shuttle program: A rocket to nowhere.

Eye of Sauron found in deep space.

Sunday, June 26th, 2005

Because I know John is both obsessive and a huge LOTR fan, I will ruin his life with this link, showing the Eye of Sauron has been discovered in the blackest depths of space. Which is actually pretty cool.

Iapetus Ridge Followup

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

I previously talked about the weird-ass equatorial ridge on Saturn’s moon Iapetus. I’ve been waiting to hear what wacky theories real scientists come up with to explain it (after getting tired of the differently-wacky theories non-scientists were coming up with), and it seems that Paulo C.C. Freire has one: Did Iapetus consume one of Saturn’s rings?

Mars Rover Free at Last

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

It’s a bit dated (they freed the rover a little more than a week ago), but I still want to link to driftglass’s account of this, mostly for the title: Mars, bitches!

FAA Wants to Regulate Space Advertising

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

From CNN: No billboards in space.

The Federal Aviation Administration proposed Thursday to amend its regulations to ensure that it can enforce a law that prohibits “obtrusive” advertising in zero gravity. “Objects placed in orbit, if large enough, could be seen by people around the world for long periods of time,” the FAA said in a regulatory filing.

I’m torn between really liking the concept of preventing space-based advertising, and being fairly horrified at the notion that the FAA would just up and suggest that it has any business regulating such activity.

Am I a free-market wolf in liberal sheep’s clothing? A closet libertarian? I have to wonder sometimes.

The Equatorial Ridge on Iapetus

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Where was I back in early January when all the other obsessives were talking about the newly discovered equatorial ridge on Saturn’s moon Iapetus? Check out this Cassini image: Encountering Iapetus:

Iapetus\'s equatorial ridge

You can also read some of the initial news coverage: Saturn’s moon reveals bulging equator.

Fortunately, I recently renewed my subscription to Sky & Telescope, one of the greatest magazines ever, so even though I missed this story when it broke, I caught it on the rebound. Turning to the Net to see what planetary scientists have come up with since the photos originally rocked their worlds back on New Year’s Eve, there’s not a whole lot. A few theories being floated around among the less-responsible types:

It’s really too early to say, but Marshall Eubanks’ informed hunch is that the ridge and the moon’s odd light/dark bifurcation will turn out to be related: Strange equatorial feature on Iapetus. His reasoning is that it’s unlikely that the same small moon would have two weirdly anomalous global features without their being related. (Iapetus’ previous claim to fame was that the leading hemisphere — that is, the hemisphere that goes first as the tidally-locked moon orbits Saturn with the same face always facing forward — is extremely dark, while the trailing hemisphere is extremely bright.)

While they may well be related, though, I think there’s evidence in the latest images that the two features were created at different times. At least, that’s my interpretation of the following:

This is a close-up from the same image I posted, above, showing the region from the left side of the frame where the ridge reaches the moon’s limb. If you look closely, I think you can see several places where impact craters overlay the ridge, obliterating parts of it. To me, that says that the ridge predates those impacts, possibly being a relic from a time relatively early in the moon’s history.

Then there’s this close-up, which I took from another Cassini image (Dark-stained Iapetus):

This shows part of the dark-to-light transition from the area above that really big impact crater that is just above the center of the first image. It looks to me like the dark material is forming streaks “downwind” (that is, trailing off to the upper right) from some of the impact craters. This would imply (to me, at least) that the dark material was overlaid on the moon’s surface after the time when most of the impact craters were created. In other words, we could divide Iapetus’ history into at least three periods:

  • An early period, during which the equatorial ridge formed.
  • A middle period, during which most of the cratering occurred.
  • A late period, during which the dark material was deposited.

If that’s true, then while the ridge and the dark/light appearance of the moon could still turn out to be related in some way, they didn’t come into existence at the same time, with their creations having been separated by many tens or hundreds of millions, or maybe even billions, of years.

The thing I love most about a story like this is not the way it reliably brings the kooks out of the woodwork (people like Richard “Face on Mars” Hoagland, whose Moon with a view starts with some really interesting material about Arthur C. Clarke and the history of our knowledge about Iapetus, before veering into his trademark wishful fantasizing). No, what gets me is that very real moment of shock when smart, sober, well-informed people who’ve spent their entire lives studying a subject are suddenly confronted by something they never in their wildest dreams imagined. Anyway, I look forward to getting better pictures when Cassini visits Iapetus again in 2007.

Aliens Are (Not) Among Us

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

Some people just don’t care about outer space. Even the smartest, most curious folk sometimes suffer a precipitous drop-off in interest when the subject matter shifts beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Like Sherlock Holmes, from A Study in Scarlet:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

(Though see this site for a second opinion on Dr. Watson’s diagnosis of Holmes’ astronomical ignorance: The astronomical Holmes.)

Anyway, the fact is that you will sometimes find an intellectual who gets really snarky when talking about extraterrestrial subject matter. Like Lee Siegel, TV critic for The Nation. Here’s an excerpt from Alien nation, his review of an upcoming Peter Jennings special on ABC that apparently gives sympathetic treatment to the idea that we’re being visited by aliens:

Jennings is very respectful to the “witnesses” who claim to have seen aliens flying over their barnyards, etc., or who insist that they’ve been abducted (they should be so lucky). There is something in Jennings’s open attitude to all of this of the new deference to so-called religious people that suddenly seized the commentating classes after the election last November. These UFO true believers, after all, are animated by some kind of religious-ish impulse, some thirst for ultimates; or maybe some wish to be jolted out of their dulled senses. In that sense, they are also like generations of vanguard artists, yearning to shock and be shocked.

But there is something else in Jennings’s preening solemn tones (his megalomania is extraterrestrial; so is his tendency to pronounce words like “project” two different ways). There is in Jennings’s voice this surging American love for the absurd, and therefore contemptible person. From politics to reality shows, we seem to like to be surrounded by people ruled by greed, hampered by stupidity, blinkered by obsession. These sad bored UFOers, their faces blank, their land-locked figures full-sail with heartland obesity, their eyes shining with their earth-centric, mundane, child’s fantasy of a populated universe–the spatial, secular version of the religious, temporal dream of a populated eternity–these people are easy to laugh at, and therefore easy to accommodate.

When my friend Arktos (who goes by J.A.Y.S.O.N. when he shows up at saw this piece, it bothered him:

Behind you! Arktos!

Arktos says to you, “thats mean”

You say to Arktos, “what’s mean?”

Arktos says to you, “the ufo thing”

Arktos says to you, “and the heartland obesity thing”

You scratch your head in thought.

You say to Arktos, “what ufo thing?”

You say to Arktos, “oh, the alien nation article by lee siegel?”

Arktos nods to you.

Arktos says to you, “yeah, i wanted to write, ‘dear guy, sorry for not believing the same things you do, i’m clearly stupid, and also i’m sorry for being fat and living in ohio'”

You say to Arktos, “ah. I didn’t realize you were a Believer in UFO visitation.”

Arktos says to you, “let me put it to you like this”

Arktos says to you, “i’m a fortean, i acknowledge the possibility, but like i more just hate smarmy fucking writers”

Arktos says to you, “i understand that people are bad about the ufo thing, but like, that guy is an ass”

This led to a long (too long, I’m sure, in the view of many who witnessed it) discussion of the possibility/probability of life existing beyond earth. Once we got past the fireworks, it eventually emerged (I think) that we both basically hold the same view (that we don’t have any idea, really), and only diverge in terms of which of the two alternatives (there is life beyond earth, or there isn’t life beyond earth) we find more outré.

For those who like to assert, however, as Arktos seemed to be doing during the initial phase of our discussion, that the nearly infinite number of worlds out there makes it virtually certain that life has originated more than once, let me offer the following analogy:

Imagine a die with an unknown number of sides, with that number of sides represented by X. (Former D&D players will have no problem with this part.) The sides are numbered sequentially, from 1 up to X. We’re walking along, and we happen to come upon this die resting on the ground with a 1 showing on its upper face. Now ask yourself: Without knowing how many sides the die has (that is, without knowing the value of X), and without knowing how many times the die is going to be rolled (which we’ll call Y), can you predict the likelihood that a 1 will be rolled again?

The answer clearly is no, you can’t. In fact, even if you know that Y (which in this analogy could be equated with the number of places beyond earth that are suitable for life) is a very large number (as it surely is), you still can’t say anything about the probability of another 1 being rolled without knowing something about the value of X (which I’m letting stand for the probability that, given a place suitable for life, life will actually emerge there — which readers who share my obsession with this stuff will recognize as the term f-sub-l from the infamous Drake equation.)

Janus/Onan tried to shoot this down with the following:

Janus says to you, “Well, no.”

Janus says to you, “If you’re going to insist upon an artificially estimation-poor model, then the case for life elsewhere actually gets vastly stronger.”

Janus says to you, “100% of the planets with which we’ve had nontrivial experience have been teeming with life. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to extrapolate that around 100% of all others are.”

But as I pointed out in response, that doesn’t wash. You can’t take the presence of life on earth as a suitable basis for extrapolation, because the fact that we’re even here to do the extrapolating requires that we be on a planet suitable for life. (See the anthropic principle.) The presence of life on earth tells us that there is, in fact, a 1 on one face of the die, and that it was rolled at least once. It tells us that the emergence of life is possible. It doesn’t tell us how likely that event is.

See, sticking with the analogy, we don’t get to even consider the question until a 1 has been rolled (because until then, there’s no one to do the considering). So the fact that we’ve got that single case of a 1 having been rolled really tells us nothing, beyond the fact that the probability of rolling a 1 is greater than zero. But again, since we don’t know the value of X (the number of sides of the die), we can’t say whether the chances of rolling 1 a second time in Y tries is astronomically high, astronomically low, or somewhere in between.

We just don’t know.

Proceeding scientifically, there are two possible hypotheses: A: Life has emerged exactly once in the universe. B: Life has emerged more than once in the universe. The presence of life in a single place in the universe (on earth, that is) is accounted for equally well by both hypotheses. If you want to argue that one or the other hypothesis is more likely than the other, you’re going to need more data.

To date, we really don’t have that data. A small number of people have reported seeing alien spacecraft, and even being abducted and probed, but at this point it’s not clear to me that that counts as evidence of anything other than the weirdness of people, generally. And we’ve done SETI listening with radio telescopes, and landed probes on a few nearby planets and moons, without turning up any compelling evidence of life (so far).

I’m rambling; sorry. Let’s finish this up with another Holmes quote, this time from The Second Stain:

“You are off?”

“Yes, I will while away the morning at Godolphin Street with our friends of the regular establishment. With Eduardo Lucas lies the solution of our problem, though I must admit that I have not an inkling as to what form it may take. It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. Do you stay on guard, my good Watson, and receive any fresh visitors. I’ll join you at lunch if I am able.”

Those who currently claim it is “probable” (or even “virtually certain”) that there is life beyond earth are theorizing in advance of the facts. In effect, they are manifesting a religious faith in things unseen. Which is fine. I’m cool with faith. But it’s not science. And at least for the moment, it doesn’t persuade me.

NASA: Life on Mars Today?

Friday, February 18th, 2005

Oops, I lied. One more via Boing Boing, which points to the following story at NASA researchers claim evidence of present life on Mars. The research is currently being peer-reviewed by the folks at Nature; if they decide it’s worth publishing, expect quite the media flurry.

Huygens Approaching Titan

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

So, if all goes well, by this time tomorrow we should be starting to know a whole lot more about the atmosphere and surface of Saturn’s smog-shrouded moon, Titan: Huygens at Titan’s doorstep.

I actually came down on the Luddite side on the question of Huygens’ parent Cassini probe’s 1999 flyby of Earth. I’m all for space exploration and science. But I resented the way some of the Cassini defenders deliberately obscured the nature of the risk associated with the flyby, focusing instead on the relative safety of the launch, as if that were really the issue. A launch disaster, you see, would have been unlikely to release plutonium into the atmosphere from Cassini’s radioactive-decay-powered batteries. But a mistaken trajectory during the near-Earth flyby would have been a very different story.

Anyway, the (admittedly low) possibility of a radiation release during the Cassini flyby didn’t come to pass, so we don’t have to second-guess the public relations effort that deflected public attention from the possibility. And now I’m just very excited about the chance that we’ll be getting a great big chunk of previously unknown data, all at once.

Good luck, little robot.

Human Stories of Mars, by Stephen Baxter

Thursday, January 22nd, 2004

In case you haven’t heard, NASA has lost contact with Spirit — which makes this Stephen Baxter article I recieved today all the more interesting. It’s got just the right mix of historical factoids and pragmatic optimism to put the past, present and future of Martian exploration into perspective…

Hoagland Finds Machinery on Mars

Friday, January 16th, 2004

I don’t know why this cracks me up so much, but it does. Richard C. Hoagland, popularizer of the “Face on Mars” thing, looks at the imagery being returned by the Spirit rover and sees something amazing: A gallery of cased objects and machinery at the Spirit landing site.

Dunno, Richard; they kinda look like rocks to me.

Interesting background info available here: A skeptical look at Richard C. Hoagland.

Thanks to my new idol, Winston Smith at Philosoraptor, for the link.