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This story doesn’t really have a point–it is just the brief tale of a senseless crash on the road.  Yet it is impossible not to be impressed and horrified by it.  Today in Montana, a driver lost control of a semi truck and crashed the enormous vehicle into a ditch.  Although the driver and his shotgun man were both unhurt, the truck’s cargo, 40,000 pounds of honey bees, came loose during the collision and I guess are now at large in Montana (this could be the beginning of a very special modern western).  The truck was traveling from California to North Dakota which is also fascinating to me.  Were these bees going to work the orchards of North Dakota?   Was this a honey bee colony ship?  We just don’t know all of the details.  We don’t even know if the bees will be recovered, although firefighters on the scene (in full fireproof gear and contained breathing devices) said that “only” a quarter of the bees fully escaped.

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This incident has taught us that 40,000 pounds of bees is roughly equal to 133 million individual bees!  There were more honey bees on that truck then there are people in Japan.  I hope some of them set up permanent shop in Bozeman, Montana and it becomes an apiculture Mecca (maybe even changing its name to Beesman, Montana), but probably some insurance accountant will more a few numbers and the incident will be forgotten.  It really makes you wonder what is in all of those huge trucks out there on the road though…

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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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Last week I meant to include an elegiac post to Rosetta, an astonishing space mission, which stretched out over a dozen years and logged 4.9 billion miles of travel.  Rosetta was launched way back in 2004.  It was originally supposed to rendezvous with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011, but problems with the launch in Guyana caused the probe to miss the launch window for the primary mission.  The ESA changed the mission parameters so that the spacecraft ended up exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko instead (this second comet was functionally the same as the first—except for a much more difficult-to-say name). During its journey to the comet, Rosetta also flew by Mars and two asteroids.  After flying by Mars in February of 2007, the craft flew by Earth in November of 2007.  It caused a miniature panic when astronomers of the Catalina sky survey spotted it and misidentified it as a 20 meter near-Earth asteroid on a possible collision path with Earth!

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The spacecraft arrived at  Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August of 2014 and the most famous…and infamous…part of the mission took place in November of that same year, when Rosetta launched the Philae lander to harpoon itself to the comet.  Although Philae (which was named after a Rosetta-like obelisk with the same text in Greek and Egyptian) succeeded in landing and not bouncing off into the void, sadly the little lander came down in a miserable crevasse.  Scientists intimately studied pictures of the comet (from Rosetta) until they found the lander in the icy chaos.  It was a pretty ghastly scene which reminded me of my sock drawer (if it were dropped from space onto Tungnafellsjökull glacier).

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(See it there at bottom right?)

Rosetta’s long and mostly successful mission came to an end last Friday in a truly operatic fashion. Mission controllers chose to use the last vestiges of power to smash the orbiter into the comet! Well, although I am saying “smashed” what actually happened was more like a grandmother walking into a snowbank.  The lander was lowered onto the comet at about one mile per hour. Except, despite the fact that Rosetta traveled more than 5 billion miles (“uphill both ways”) it was not designed for landing and its last communication was a photo just above the comet surface.  RIP Rosetta, you were one good probe!

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960fdb911b03d1f06ca05e6fc84fc123My apologies! I usually try to write a blog post every workday (and answer comments the day…or at least the week…that you all leave them), however, unfortunately my poor computer became overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of the modern world and died unexpectedly.  It was one of those classic heartbreaking electronic death scenes: I was watching the emotional climax of a movie on Netflix when suddenly there was a loud diminishing power-down noise (poink! BZZzzzzfffft) and the image collapsed into a jagged phosphorescent line and suddenly my only computer was as dead as bipartisan compromise in America.

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It is shocking how much is on a computer.  I don’t just use it to write and communicate with friends around the world.  It is also my graphic resource, my stereo, my document archive, my financial records, and my cookbook.  Let this tale serve as a cautionary reminder to back things up on those cheap little portable hard drives!

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Anyway, thanks to a heroic intercession by my friend the IT manager (who swooped in like Apollo on a cloud in French Neoclassical theatre) I am back in business with no lasting harm done.  The whole scary episode has led me to reflect on the central place of computers in our lives…and yet they are all utilitarian gray and black boxes.   If I designed a computer, it would look like a glowing ball of energy in a bell jar suspended on cabriolet legs—not like a flat screen connected to a miniature metal utility shed. I wondered if somebody had spent some time to jazz up computers with gothic stylings (a favorite aesthetic of mine) and I found these images which I have used to illustrate this post.  These are so cool!  Why can’t we have prettier computers?  People of the future are going to look at our metal rectangles and conclude that we were primitives….although I guess if one’s fancy computer that looks like a Gothic cathedral just suddenly died it would be even more crushing than otherwise.

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Anyway, i am sorry for the blog interruption.  I will try to answer everyone’s excellent comments tomorrow!  In the mean time, it’s good to be back on the internet!

archbishop5

Venera 3 Lander

Venera 3 Probe

This thing, which looks like a sad cross between an ur-robot and a space probe, is Venera 3, a uh cross between an ur-robot and a space probe (Occam’s razor sometimes works for identifying weird historical objects). Although the probe did fail…in a way… it was hardly a sad object but rather a glorious milestone for humankind. Here is the story.
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The Soviet Union launched Venera 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November of 1965 (as “Days of Our Lives” first went on the air, crisis threatened British Rhodesia, and Björk was born). The probe was designed to fly to Venus and deploy a probe into the (then unknown) atmosphere of that world and ultimately land/crash (?) upon the surface. Venera 3 traveled on its interplanetary journey by means of a Tyazheliy Sputnik (65-092B) craft. It took the vehicle 5 months to hurtle through space to our nearest planetary neighbor. I said that the probe was a sort of ur-robot, but that is actually being pretty generous. The planetary lander contained a radio communication system, some scientific instruments and power sources, and a bitchin’ medallion with the U.S.S.R. coat of arms.

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Venera 3 has the distinction of being the first manmade object to reach a different planet. That sort of thing is familiar now (though less than it should be), but I invite you to really think about how utterly astonishing it is. Unfortunately Venera 3’s landing was more or less indistinguishable from crashing: the communications systems failed before any planetary data could be returned (probably upon first contact with Venus’ nightmare caustic atmosphere and scalding temperatures). We only know that Venera 3 is now a heap of melted metal and slag on the surface of Venus because it fell into the planet’s gravity well. Where else could it be?

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Regular readers know my fascination with our sister planet. I found the story of Venera 3 on the online Venus scorecard…it appeared after a great many more pathetic stories (Venera 1 and Venera 2 for example are still out there slowly orbiting the Sun—and the Soviet program only named missions after they had attained a degree of success). Ferrebeekeeper is going to be back looking at this scorecard. There are other stories worth telling in there with all the dismal explosions, telemetry failures, miscues, and melted probes. The successes—even painful successes like Venera 3 also reveal the story of Venus (insomuch as we know its story—for the world is still an immense mystery). There need to be a lot more home runs at the bottom of that scorecard.

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Artist's conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

Artist’s conception of MESSENGER above Mercury (NASA)

On Thursday, humankind is deliberately crashing a spaceship into another planet! We could easily be the evil aliens in someone else’s space drama. Well, at least we could be, if there were any remote chance that Mercury, the intended target of our bombardment, were a possible haven for life.  And bombardment is not really the right word: what is actually scheduled is the seemly & rational conclusion to NASA’s MESSENGER mission, a highly successful exploration of the solar system’s mysterious innermost world.  The mission has been ongoing for more than a decade (a decade of our Earth time—or nearly 40 Mercury years).

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

A portrait of Mercury from MESSENGER

The 485-kilogram (1,069 pound) MESSENGER spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2004. The space probe has an awkward and contrived government acronym, which is why I keep talking about it in all caps—I’m not shouting (although planetary exploration does make me very excited). The craft took some amazing pictures of Venus (a planet which always calls to me) on its way to Mercury.  Then MESSENGER flew by the small planet multiple times before entering orbit on March 18, 2011 (the first human spacecraft to do so).  Since then MESSENGER has extensively scanned and mapped the surface of Mercury—a planet which is surprisingly elusive to astronomers because of its proximity to the sun.  The mission revealed some surprising results which are leading to big new questions.

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

False Color Maps of Mercury (NASA)

Mercury has a small diameter—it is actually smaller in area than some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter—but it has substantial mass because much of it is made of heavy metals.  The face of the small world is thought to be ancient: scientists speculated that its bland pitted face might date back to the formation of the solar system, but it seems that Mercury does harbor secrets.

The mission featured a big surprise.  Messenger found surface water in the form of ice frozen inside the polar craters of Mercury.  This was not really a shock—astronomers have suspected that ice was present due to radio-telescope readings.  What was surprising was that the ice was coated with tarlike black goo. My poor roommate (who is always wandering the house pointing at films, stains, and accretions in horror) would not be surprised by a black coating on anything, however scientists were taken aback because Mercury was not thought to have any “volatile” compounds.  According to the current models of planetary formation, elements like chlorine, sulfur, potassium and sodium should have boiled away during the cataclysmic high-temperature formation of Mercury…yet there they are, like the scum in my kitchen. The scientific data from MESSENGER is likely to force a rethink of planetary formation (although frankly, considering all of the weird exoplanets that are being discovered, scientists probably need to refine their theories about planetary accretion anyway). The mission also measured subtle planetary flux which should give us a better sense of Mercury’s composition and internal workings.

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

The yellow patches show areas where water ice is believed to exist. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

All good things must end, however, and MESSENGER has run out of fuel for maneuvering.  Mission controllers have opted for an operatic exit and they are smashing the craft into the planet’s surface at 8,750 miles per hour (nearly four kilometers per second).  This should create an 18 meter (50 foot) wide crater.  Future scientists will have a known fresh disturbance to use as a benchmark for assessing the ancient craters of Mercury.  Perhaps the plume will reveal some interesting secrets as well.

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

MESSENGER Crashes into Mercury (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Unfortunately, it will be a while before we see the results of our destructive acts.  The site of impact is hidden from Earth, and we have no other spacecraft in any proximity to Mercury. A European and Japanese collaboration called BepiColombo is scheduled to launch from Earth in 2017 and arrive at Mercury in 2024.  Perhaps we will have new questions for whatever answers MESSENGER is about to divulge in its unseen but spectacular final act!

Update: Through some grotesque oversight, NASA failed to portray MESSENGER’s final moments through the magic of art. I took the liberty of providing my own interpretation above.  NASA did not return my questions about whether the spacecraft will wail in a plaintive manner as it impacts the surface–so I am forced to assume that it will.  Did I mention that Mercury has no atmosphere?  You should probably ignore that…

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