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Sometimes if you aren’t watching the heavens (or the news) closely enough, you miss a major astronomical discovery.  For example last summer, astronomers discovered a galaxy which formed only one or two billion years after the Big Bang (so I guess it is unclear whethter I missed this story by one year or by 12 billion).  At any rate, the galaxy hunters used the Hubble space telescope to peer through a powerful gravitational lense far away in space.  Gravitational lenses are areas where timespace is warped like a huge lense by high-gravity phenomena, and a viewer can use them like a huge lense to see far-away objects.  By using the Hubble telescope together with the gravitational lense they were able to see back a dozen billion years in time to the edge of the universe…as it once was not long after creation.  What they saw perplexed them.

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There is a fundamental difference between galaxies.  Galaxies where stars are being formed tend to be blue and spiral shaped (like our own beloved Milky Way!).  Galaxies where stars have largely stopped forming are “red and dead” since the remaining stars tend to be long lived red dwarf stars and the bright young (short-lived) blue stars are mostly gone.  These red galaxies are not shaped like spirals, but tend to be elliptical shaped (like an egg or a football, not like one of those evil gym machines).

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The ancient galaxy at the edge of the universe was neither of those colors or shapes. It was a dense yellow disk.  Stars formed in an (enormous) accretion disk but then, for some reason, new star formation stopped.  The blue stars burned out (“the light that shines twice as bright etc, etc..”), but the yellow middle aged stars were still burning.   The galaxy had three times the mass of the Milky Way but scrunched into a pancake of much smaller area.

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So do galaxies always form as disks and then either become self-renewing blue spirals (maybe by colliding with other galaxies or clouds of dust)or dead red footballs?  Or was this early yellow disk galaxy an abberation? Or is our own galaxy truly new (well…newish…being only a few billion years old)?  I do not understand astrophysics well enough to answer these questions or even formulate them properly (although I get the sense some of these questions may not yet be answered by anyone in any comprehensive way), but I would love to hear what people can add to this rudimentary yet compelling story of shapes and colors.

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I am still working away at my flatfish project.  Here are four recent drawings/mixed media works which I made.  The flounder above is a cosmic flounder and represents humankind’s aspirations for the stars.  The mathematicians and engineers (here represented as ancient Egyptians) do their best with the tools and calculations they have available, but the universe is so vast.  The flounder represents all Earth life waiting to be lifted to the heavens.  As they struggle, insouciant aliens fly by waving.  The combination of ancient and modern elements make one think of the biblical ark (which is represented in the next picture. The flounder is, of course, a watery beast and is unmoved by divine wrath, although it does look a bit appalled at the inundation.

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Next is a picture of a crude and vigorous flatfish made out of thick lines.  The fish swims by a Viking long hall as seabirds wheel about in the sky, but thanks to some trick of the world (or perhaps the artist’s whimsy) a coati is raiding the pumpkins and fruiting vines. Is this scene unfolding in the old world or the new?

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Finally, there is a scene of a medieval styleeremitic  brother who has forgotten his scriptures and is now contemplating the life-giving sun.   A saintly duck and a far-flying swallow look kindly on his devotions, but the monk’s cat seems unmoved by his devotion.  Crystals hint that religious fervor is becoming convoluted by the vagaries and appetites of the modern world, which can be witnessed all around the verdant turbot.  Yet the fish and its inhabitants maintain a solemn and studious otherworldliness.  Whatever this mysterious devotion is, it is represented in each of these 4 fish, but the viewer will have to devote some time and thought of their own in order to elucidate the subject of this devout zeal. 

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Do you ever miss the 70s?  That time will never return (although stagflation and oil crunches might make an unexpected comeback from the weird devil’s brew of bad economic and geopolitical policies which we are experimenting with) however there is a more positive reminder of the age of disco in the very heavens themselves.  At present, there are three disco balls in orbit around Earth.  The first and most significant is actually a 70s artifact: LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics Satellite) was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 4th 1976.  The 408 kilogram (900 pound) satellite has no electronic components ore even moving parts: it is a brass sphere studded with 426 jewel-like retroreflectors. 422 of these retroreflectors are made from fused silica glass (to reflect visible light), however the remaining 4 are germanium, for infrared experiments.

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Orbiting the entire planet every 225.70 minutes, LAGEOSl is a pretty stupendous piece of space art in its own right, however it was designed for a serious scientific purpose.  Lageos provides an orbiting laser ranging benchmark.  To quote space.com:

Over the past 40 years, NASA has used LAGEOS to measure the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, detect irregularities in the rotation of the planet, weigh the Earth and track small shifts in its center of mass via tiny changes in the satellite’s orbit and distance from Earth.

Measurements made using LAGEOS have also been used to confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity, since measurements made on this scale demonstrate a measurable “frame dragging effect” (which you are going to have to figure out with some help from your favorite physicist).  The satellite also illustrates the Yarkovsky effect, which explains how an object is heated by photons on one side will later emit that heat in a way which slows the object.  This latter effect will eventually cause LAGEOS’ orbit to deteriorate and bring it tumbling to Earth.  Scientists estimate this will happen 8.4 million years from now, so there is still time to contemplate this sphere.  Also there is a small time capsule on board to capture certain scientific truths and human ephemera for the long ages.

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LAGEOS was so useful and proved to be such a success that NASA launched an identical sister craft in 1992 (how did I miss all of these interesting events?).  This still leaves one disco ball satellite unaccounted for.  The final craft is “The Humanity Star” which serves no purpose other than being art.   Launched on January 21st of this year (2018), the humanity star is a regular polygonal solid with 65 triangular sides.  It is made of carbon fiber embedded with enormously reflective panels and is meant to be seen twinkling in the night sky to make humankind collectively reflect on our shared home, the Earth.  The Humanity Star orbits much lower than the LAGEOS satellites.  They are  5,900 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Earth’s surface, whereas the humanity star is only 283.4 kilometers (176.1 miles) away from the planet at its perigree.  It whips around the Earth every 90 minutes on a circumpolar orbit (which means it is visible from everywhere at some point.  You could look up where it is online and go out and find it with fieldglasses.  The object glimmers and shimmers in unusual ways, sometimes appearing as bright as Sirius (the brightest star save for the sun), but usually twinkling like barely visible stars.  The Humanity Star won’t last long—it is scheduled to fall into Earth’s gravity well and burn up in fall of this year, so check it out before it is gone.  The craft was controversial: some serious aerospace mavens objected to launching an object into orbit to serve no purpose other than art, yet, as an artist I am happy to know it is out there.  Maybe go look at it and let me know if it inspires you.

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Ferrebeekeeper has written about nanosatellites—tiny swarms of lightweight & (relatively) inexpensive satellites which mimic the functionality of big pricey birds.  That article was enthusiastic about the tiny spacecraft, however the FCC (which reviews communications satellites and approves/denies satellite launches) has some reasonable reservations about the idea, particularly considering all the of space junk which is already whipping through near-earth orbit at 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour).  Last year Swarm Technologies, a mysterious and shadowy start-up founded in 2016 and based in Los Altos, California applied to the FCC to launch 4 little satellites called BEEs (which, in the inane blather of forced acronyms, stands for “Basic Electronic Elements”).  The FCC turned down the request, concluding that the functionality of the satellites (which are maybe for some sort of network?) did not make up for the safety risk they posed.  Yet Swarm Technologies launched them into orbit anyway in mid-January, in a rocket which blasted off from India.  Each Bee is 10 centimeters in length and width, and 2.8 centimeters in height.

National security agencies (which have substantial technologies for monitoring Earth orbit), are able to track the “bees” but it is an open question whether they are fully dark or whether they are producing little pings and chirps for their well-heeled private masters here on Earth.

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This is an unprecedented first for the FCC and other space agencies which have never been so blatantly flouted by a scofflaw corporation (although given the brazen, lawless, and dangerous conduct of America’s highhanded corporations and lordly oligarchs, it will probably not be the last).   The satellites lack propulsion systems and they will probably fall back into Earth’s gravity well within 10 years and burn up (I suspect an astrophysicist could tell you something less approximate, but this timeframe should serve for general purposes).

If Swarm could have held their horses a bit, they may have been able to reapply: Lockheed Martin is currently building a much more sophisticated radar system to monitor small objects in orbit.  I wonder if this is a glimpse of the privatized future of space which everyone is always touting.  If so it is not a particularly compelling picture.

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I have been watching NASA with great consternation lately.  The space agency has maintained its budget (which is good, in today’s world of brutal trench-warfare politics), however for 15 months NASA has had no leader and it seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward on missions.  Finally, in April, the President’s candidate for the position of head administrator was confirmed, Jim Bridenstine a fundamentalist congressman from Oklahoma who does not believe in global warming and opposes LGBTQ rights.  He is the first non-scientist chief administrator in the agency’s history.

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Bridenstein does however have a background as a Navy officer which is promising.  It is possible he can put his more recent background as a divisive political agitator and an ignoramus behind him.  His first major speech was somewhat encouraging:  he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to send missions to both Mars and the Moon in the not-enormously distant future.  The historic first moon landing was 49 years ago and the last manned mission to the moon took place in 1972 (three years before Bridenstein was born).  The new administrator compared these missions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and went on to say it is time for NASA and private aerospace ventures to work on building a transcontinental railroad to space in the current era.  That is a fine metaphor (although I don’t trust private aerospace ventures any more than people of the 19th century trusted crooked railroad monopolies).  Bridenstein needs to back up his elegant words with real plans for NASA.  Currently, the USA can’t even put a human in space, much less send one to the moon or another planet.  Bridenstein needs to act quickly and decisively to show that he is not an agency head like Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, or Jeff Sessions (which is to say a leader who embodies the opposite & antithetical values from the agency they were sent to run).

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I liked your railroad metaphor, Jim, but you need to appoint a lot of smart people to organize a meaningful and coherent schedule for America’s favorite agency.

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Have you seen photos of Venus?  When the planet is observed in visible light it looks like a big bland ecru ball (see above).  Put a whiteboard and some plastic rolling chairs on that puppy and you would have a corporate conference room in some awful suburban office-park.  Yet ultraviolet imaging of Venus paints a somewhat more interesting picture of swirling bands or darkness in the heady acid atmosphere of our sister planet.  But what does that mean?

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The dark bands turn out to be the result of sulfur compounds (carbonyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide) and other yet unknown chemical compounds in the upper atmosphere of Venus.  On Earth these sulfur compounds are hallmarks of life…or of volcanic activity.  Some scientists are provocatively asking whether extremophile bacteria could have a place in the temperate upper atmosphere of Earth’ closest planetary neighbor.  The bacteria could use the rich sulfur and carbon clouds as building blocks and the UV (and other EM radiation!) bombardment of the sun for energy.  Perhaps, they muse, these dark bands are something akin to algal blooms in Earth’s oceans.

More than a billion years ago, Venus enjoyed a period of prolonged earthlike climate with surface water and an atmosphere which was not so hellishly heavy and hot.  But something went hideously awry and runaway greenhouse effect created a terrible feedback loop which changed the planet’s surface into the monstrous place it is today.  Apparently the igneous/volcanic processes of Venus are rather different than those of Earth, so it was probably not all treeferns, friendly dinosaurs, and bikini-clad aliens even before the runaway greenhouse phase melted away the old surface of Venus, but perhaps bacteria (or analogous lifeforms) could have evolved and escaped the catastrophe by moving into the upper clouds (which, as previously noted here, have temperatures not unlike those of Earth’s surface).

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My guess is that Venus is lifeless as a jackhammer (though, like a jackhammer it can give the alarming appearance of life), yet even if this is the case, we should know more about all of this! What happened to Venus’ original surface? Was there ever life there?  What is going on with its volcanoes and internal geology?  What is the composition of the clouds of Venus? Is there anything there other than strange sufur compounds and esoteric hydrocarbons formed from the mixture of sulfur, carbon dioxide, and UV radiation?   Once again, our nearest neighbor is beckoning.  We need to move forward with sophisticated atmospheric probes (like VAMP) and NASA should collaborate with Russia on their next Venus mission (it looks like our governments are closer than ever anyway).  For some reason, popular imagination disdains Venus, yet the questions there seem salient, and the possibilities for a nearby Earth-sized world of unlimited energy and resources seem, well, unlimited.

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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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So, the super massive ulti-mega-omnibus funding bill passed today (despite a last-minute executive tantrum) and the bill is…good?  This goes against all of the doom-and-gloom scenarios which dominate the news (and this blog), and it is unpalatable to praise any product from the 115th Congress of the United States of America, but, despite the president’s recommendation for massive cuts to fundamental scientific inquiry, Congress coughed up a LOT of new money for science.

I know you are all smart, so let’s get straight to the numbers. For its annual budget, the NIH received 3 billion dollars more than last year (an 8.7 % increase). The National Science Foundation got a $295 million budget raise (3.9 % increase).  The USGS received a $63 million budget (6%) expansion, while Congress increased the budget of the NOAA by $234 million (4%) to $5.9 billion.  The Department of Energy received a whopping 16 percent raise of $868 million dollars: their annual budget is now $6.26 billion (obvs. we need shiny new nuclear weapons…but maybe there is some money for fundamental nuclear research in there too). Even the EPA kept the same budget as last year and experienced no cuts.

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Best of all NASA gets a much-needed lift.  To quote The Atlantic (which was the source of these numbers):

Nasa will receive $20.7 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The space agency’s science programs will increase by about 8 percent to $6.2 billion and its planetary-science program, in particular, by 21 percent, to $2.2 billion.

Of course, the biggest slice of the pie goes to the military, however a lot of Defense Department money ends up going to research too… although I would be happier if, instead of building manned aircraft appropriate for the Cold War, they spent more money on blue sky research and moonshot scifi stuff like wormholes, grasers, super robots, and railguns.  But that research (and more) is in there too…somewhere…so hooray!

I have been marching around with a pitchfork and a torch demanding that Congress be defenestrated…but this budget unexpectedly satisfies my most cherished demands.  Maybe if there were more blueprints like this I could swallow some more tax give-aways and religious idiocy and what not.  When I am having political arguments, I always say I will support any stupidity as long as there is more money for fundamental scientific research.  This government has really pushed just how far such a bargain extends…and yet they came through in the end.

Of course, there may be some people who cry out that all of those millions and billions could be given to impoverished communities (Democrats) or to needy multi-billionaire plutocrats (Republicans), but ensuring scientific research and keeping Visigoth hordes from swimming the ocean and sacking our cities are the two things the government MUST do to ensure there is a future….and they have done that.  The future generations who will have to pay this leviathan $1.3 trillion tab, might actually get something for their money: a yet-unknown equivalent of the internet, the capacitor, the moon landing, or the wonder vaccines of yesteryear. At least the government is trying to fulfill humankind’s most fundamental aspiration—to know more about the universe and how it works so we don’t destroy ourselves (sadly, this great quest, as construed by the powers-that-be, involves building tons of super-weapons with which to destroy ourselves, but nobody said life was easy).

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Of course it is a tumultuous time and I may be saying a very different thing next week, but for the present the seed corn for the crops of the future has been stowed away.  I am pleasantly surprised to say “Good job!” to our elected officials.

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Congratulations to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space company for successfully testing its new heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, a reusable multi-stage heavy lift rocket for delivering large cargoes to Earth orbit or for traveling on cislunar or even interplanetary trips.  The rocket is the largest conventional rocket built since the mighty Saturn V which took humankind to the moon (although the space shuttle’s elaborate  boosters were capable of greater thrust).  The Falcon Heavy vehicle is capable of  producing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff–which means it can heft around around 63,800 kilograms (140,700 pounds) of payload into low-Earth orbit.

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Today’s launch from Kennedy Space Center was largely successful: the top and bottom boosters landed safely on designated platforms.  The center booster, alas, did not quite perform as hoped and slammed into the ocean.  The rocket’s payload, Mr. Musk’s electric Tesla roadster (with a mannequin and sundry pop-culture science fiction novelty items) successfully entered a heliocentric orbit which will bring it back and forth between Mars and Earth as it loops around the sun.  The launch paves the way for a new era of private industry in space (SpaceX plans to monetize subsequent Falcon Heavy rocket missions for government and commercial payloads and missions), but it is only a step on the way to a planned BFR (Big “Falcon” Rocket) for interplanetary missions.  I am excited by that concept, though I hope Mr. Musk will take a moment to think about the top of Venus’ atmosphere as a potential destination as well as cold arid Mars. For right now though, hooray for this thrilling milestone!

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