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It’s an exciting new year in space exploration and today we are getting back images from the most distant object ever explored by a probe spacecraft.  Launched in January of 2006, NASA’s amazing New Horizons mission (pictured above) has been flying through the solar system ever since.  Back in 2014 it reached its primary objective, the icy dwarf world Pluto, which has been the focus of considerable interest and, arguably, of even greater controversy concerning astronomical naming conventions (“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us….Nothing.” could arguably teach us about astronomy AND independent food preparation, I suppose).  Since that time, New Horizons has continued to fly further from the Sun and deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a dark distant band of icy pseudo-worlds at the edge of the Solar System.  New Horizons just flew past one of these Kuiper Belt objects…the distant ice ball 2014 MU69.

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This frozen miniature planet is only 35 by 15 km (20 by 10 miles in diameter) and it orbits the sun every 298 years.  The most exciting part of this body is its shape.  It is literally a snowman—a smaller spherical lump of ice frozen to a larger one.  Just look at it! You can practically see Charlie Brown half-building it and then giving up with a silent outer space “Good Grief”

Sadly, the mission has generated another astronomical naming controversy.  Scientists were dissatisfied with the way “2014 MU69” rolled off the tongue so they crowdsourced the problem to the internet to find names for this distant iceball.  The internet suggested “Ultima Thule” which was a Roman and Medieval term for the unknown icy lands beyond the periphery of the known world.  That is a pretty good name and the scientists split it into two for the weird binary snowman (the larger body is “Ultima” and the smaller is “Thule”).  Unfortunately, though, Nazi occultists also found the name “Thule” back in the thirties and they used it as a mythical place of origin for the mythical Aryan Race (sorry Nazis, we are all originally African).

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Like all good-hearted people, I despise Nazis…but this seems like a Roman name sullied by racist morons more than a millennium after its introduction.  Do you think scientists need to rename this primitive snowman world? Or should we go with Ultima Thule?  Or should we just stick with 2014 MU69 (since, frankly, unless New Horizons discovers some strange artifacts, alien beings, or something we are probably never going to think about this corner of the solar system again).

 

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There have been some stories bouncing around the world media lately which are highly germane to past Ferrebeekeeper posts (and to some bigger topics too).  We’ll get to them one at a time this week, but let’s start with the most exciting news:  today (11/26/18) NASA’s InSight lander touched down successfully on Mars at 2:47 PM Eastern Time.   The craft is the eighth human-made craft to successfully touch down on the red planet. It’s unwieldy name is a trademark agonizing NASA acronym which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”  To put this in more comprehensible (yet less correct) terms, the lander is a geophysics probe which will examine the interior of the planet.  Of course InSight isn’t really geophysics since it is not studying Earth, but saying “astrophysics” misleads one from the lander’s core mission of assessing Mars’ internal composition and structure.

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The landing was a marvel of aerospace engineering since, in the span of about 6 and a half minutes, the craft was forced to slow from 17,300 kph (10,750 mph) to 8 kph (5 mph). Coincidentally, this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from California…from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where my paternal grandfather used to paint rockets back in the 1950s and 60s! Speaking of which, as always, I am taken aback by the extent to which our interplanetary probes resemble retro UFOs from 1950s science fiction.

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The craft landed on Elysium Planitia an enormous featureless plain famous for its dullness.  You may think “why didn’t they just send the poor thing to Kansas?” but since the craft is designed to examine the interior of Mars, its landing sight was not important (except to make sure the lander arrived in one piece).

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Now that the probe has finally reached its destination, it will begin to utilize a sophisticated array of instruments including a seismic wave reader, a subterranean infrared reader to monitor heat escaping Mars, and a sophisticated radio array to monitor the planet’s core (among other tools).

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It is easy to lose track of the many amazing Martian discoveries being made by robot explorers, but InSight strikes me as truly important since it offers to answer one of the most important question about Mars–how did it go from being a volcanically active world with oceans and an Earthlike atmosphere to being an inactive, desolate desert?  We’ll keep you posted as discoveries (insights?) come rolling in, but, for now, congratulations NASA!

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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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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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Meanwhile…three quarters of a billion kilometers away, the Juno space probe continues its exploration of the gas giant Jupiter.   The probes orbit brings it to within 4,200 kilometers (2500 miles) of the cloudtops once every 53 days.  So far, Juno has made 10 such passes (out of a planned 12 before the mission’s end in July).  As the astrophysicists and planetary scientists work to make sense of mission data, NASA has made the raw image data available to the world.  Private citizens have used it to create these stunning images of the largest world in the Solar System.  Since I can’t even begin to explain the vast atmospheric complexities behind these swirling psychedelic wonders, I will leave them here without comment.  Marvel at our huge planetary neighbor with its marbelized super storms and spare a moment to thank Gerald Eichstädt & Seán Doran for putting these amazing pictures together.

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There are two amazing pieces of space news today to shock and astonish you.  First, we have found a near-analog to planet Earth orbiting a red dwarf star—and it is “only” 11 light-years from our Solar System.  The exoplanet is named  Ross 128b and it is orbiting a quiet red dwarf star (most red dwarves are subject to solar flares which release life cleansing jolts of exotic radiation, but, like our delightful Sun, Ross 128 seems to be much more sedate (perhaps its placid life has something to do with its bland name which makes it sound like a dullard clone friend on an 90s sitcom).  In this age of exoplanet discovery, it is easy to lose sight of what an astonishing find this is, but I grew up in a world with only nine known planets.  Remember back when Ferrebeekeeper was rhapsodizing about weird icy oddballs like Gliese 581 g?  Ross 128B seems like it roughly the same size and temperature as Earth and it is right in our backyard.  Additionally, it is moving towards us, in a mere 78000 years it will be the closest exoplanet to Earth!

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The other “news” is more conditional and vague, but no less exciting to me.  NASA has been floating the concept of a balloon mission to Venus.  I have been hoping for more attention to our nearest neighbor (since I harbor fantasies of living there, in the sweet spot above the merciless clouds) a balloon probe to see what the atmosphere is actually like would let us know whether his fantasy is at all workable.   The Soviet Union actually sent some balloon probes to Venus back in the early days of interplanetary exploration, but they were crude things which were not built to last and they told us little.  Let’s do it right this time and find out everything about our mysterious sister planet!  It is going to be a little while before Ross 128B is in range so let’s explore the immediate neighborhood and get to work on living abroad while there is still time!  

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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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Seven hundred million miles away the Cassini spacecraft is preparing for death this coming September (2017). Launched in 1997 (when I moved to Brooklyn) the joint Italian/American space exploration mission to Saturn has seen and done things beyond comprehension. Lifted out of Earth’s gravity well by means of a Titan IVB/Centaur It flew through the nothingness and slingshotted around Venus (twice), the Earth, and Jupiter. It discovered new oceans on Enceladus and launched a lander onto the supermoon Titan (the first ever landing in the outer solar system). Cassini was used to tested general relativity: the craft broadcast radio past the sun to the Earth so that scientists could measure how the star’s gravity distorted the electromagnetic waves. Powered only by pluck (and, uh, 33 kilograms of plutonium-238) the little probe visited 20 moons.
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But all good things come to an end, and this final phase may be the most dramatic. On April 26th the craft began weaving between Saturn’s rings and the top of the planet’s atmosphere. The image at the top is an artist’s conception of how this might look for Cassini. The second image is a picture of the enormous hexagonal storm at the north pole taken April 30th. The image below is an infrared picture of Saturn. Cassini is scheduled to make 20 more of these passes before its final fiery plunge into Saturn itself, so prepare for more mind-boggling images of the gas giant.
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M-type asteroids are high albedo (i.e shiny) asteroids made partially or mostly of metal. Of all of M-type asteroids currently known in the solar system, 16 Psyche is the most massive.  It is a hunk of iron and nickel (and other heavy metals?) which has a diameter of 250 kilometers.  Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is believed to be the exposed core of a planet approximately the size of Mars which was obliterated by a catastrophic impact.  The asteroid is named after the intrepid mortal who found love and ultimately apotheosis in an “Eyes Wide Shut” type Greek myth of great suspense, horror, and beauty.

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Are you curious to know more about 16 Psyche based on this description?  I certainly hope you are, because NASA has just announced future missions for the 2020s and 16 Psyche is on the list. As currently conceived, the Psyche exploration mission will send a robot probe powered by solar electric propulsion out to the obliterated core to examine the planetoid.  The probe will be equipped with a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to find out more about the composition and history of the enigmatic relic.

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Of course other long term aspects of the mission are of interest as well.  Although we have not yet mastered nuclear fusion, safe comprehensive control of such boundless energy is probably only 20 years or so away [winky icon].  What if humankind had sophisticated manufacturing robots and near infinite energy?  In such circumstances 8 million cubic kilometers of steel might come in very handy indeed.  So far the good news keeps rolling in for 2017.  This Psyche mission can’t happen fast enough for my taste.

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The ancient Babylonians looked up at the glittering night stars and saw the shapes they knew from nature and from the myths of Mesopotamian civilization: a lion, a maiden, a scale, a scorpion, a centaur archer, a water goat (?),  a water bearer, a pair of fish, twins, a ram, a bull, and a solipsistic crab.  For thousands of years, these ancient emblems fascinated the imagination and represented the changing influence of the heavens upon humankind throughout the year.   Roman astronomers and calendar makers formally enshrined the twelve symbols as a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude: a calendar for the whole year.  This zodiac has been with us for a long time. The twelve figures lie at the center of the fun pseudoscience of astrology (which has no rational validity but which is a great way to strike up conversations and analyze the most fascinating subject of our times: the self).

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But what if the Babylonians and the Romans got it wrong?  There was always some awkward wiggle room in their calculations.  Was there a 13th zodiac sign which ancient magi/natural philosophers skipped out of ignorance, fear, or fascination with the number 12?  This is the provocative but largely meaningless question posed by NASA in a spectacular announcement of a newly found thirteenth constellation!  Well actually they have not so much found this constellation Ophiuchus, as reinstated it in the circle of the night sky as illustrated in the stunning graphic below.

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Orpiurchus, “The Snake-bearer” has long been in the heavens—although it is hard to see from northern latitudes–and astrologists and iconographers have flirted with the idea of including him in the classic zodiac (which kind of only works in the northern hemisphere anyway).   The snake bearer does have an emotional resonance with Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, AND Judaeo-Christian cultures, all of which have intense snake-themed myths about knowledge, hubris, and humankind’s uneasy place in the cosmos.

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ZodiacBooks.com presents us with an overview of the emotional traits of these new snake carriers as, “spirited, magnetic, impulsive, clever, flamboyant, and at times jealous, power-hungry, and temperamental [people born in this sign] want to heal the world of all ills and bring everyone closer together.” Hmm, it sort of sounds like everyone I know except for my crabby Cancer friend.  Obviously shoehorning a whole 13th symbol into the calendar has moved everything around, so here are the new dates, if you are afraid you might actually have some other personality than the one you have always had:

Capricorn: January 20-February 16

Aquarius: February 16-March 11

Pisces: March 11-April 18

Aries: April 18-May 13

Taurus: May 13-June 21

Gemini: June 21-July 20

Cancer: July 20-August 10

Leo: August 10-September 16

Virgo: September 16-October 30

Libra: October 30-November 23

Scorpio: November 23-November 29

Ophiuchus: November 29-December 17

Sagittarius: December 17-January 20

Of course a cynical natural scientist might surmise that random patterns of stars (which lie many many light years from each other) have no influence whatsoever on our little lives.  NASA, which deals in real science and engineering, but which desperately needs ATTENTION to thrive in our chaotic late-stage democracy says as much on their website.  They have essentially slapped a “for novelty purposes only” asterisk on this entire story (AND on astrology). We will see if Orpiurchus becomes a lasting part of the heavens or if he slinks back into dark obscurity like he did in the 1970s (or in this beautiful Rouseeau painting below which has nothing to do with this attention-seeking story). In the meantime, this is a fine opportunity to talk to people about their personalities and their birthdays and about what they want from the world. Whatever his nature, the snake-bearer can thus help us fulfil the true purpose of astrology!

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