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Cassini-2

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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Based on what we are learning from the exoplanet surveys of the past decade, our galaxy is the home of an immense number of Jovian-size gas giant planets.  There are countless “hot Jupiters”–gas giants located close to their stars which whip around and around their orbits in ridiculously short “years”.  There are frigid slow gas giants and super massive ones—practically brown dwarves– which are larger than Jupiter.  There is an endless proliferation of Uranus and Neptune type giants. Imagine them all glittering in strange colors with weird shapes.  They are cloaked in alien clouds and covered in mysterious storms.  Who knows what lies beneath?

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All of these billions of giant planets seem pretty hypothetical to me as I sit here at my cramped & cluttered desk on solid little Earth.  Yet they exist.  They are out there in numbers too vast to comprehend. However, right now, NASA is conducting the most comprehensive exploration yet of the gas giant we can access.  Juno’s mission is just getting underway in earnest, and the largest gas giant in our own backyard should reveal lots about all of the billions which are out of reach.

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I am sad that I can neither understand nor convey the loftiness of this crazy ongoing mission. It is an astonishing undertaking—but we are so inundated by with murky political battles and vulgar popular drivel, that it is hard to see the utterly astonishing nature of this undertaking.

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Maybe I can put it in perspective somewhat. Imagine back to the year 1609 AD when Henry Hudson was first seeing the river which was later named after him. Before him was an exquisite expanse of islands, bays, and sparkling river. The vast waterway flowed down from unknown mountains into a bay surrounded by lovely islands.  The whole expanse was filled with flocks of unknown birds and schools of fish. Beyond the thriving marshes, mysterious forests were filled with moving shadows.

Now multiply that a billion times: replace Henry Hudson with a tiny fragile robot and replace the Hudson River with luminous gas oceans large enough to entirely submerge scores of Earths.  That is what is happening right now.  As you sit reading this on a little glowing screen, we are making fundamental discoveries about a whole planet.

On August 27, 2016, Juno executed the first of 36 orbital flybys over Jupiter. The doughty spacecraft was only 4,200 kilometers (2,500 miles) above Jupiter’s atmosphere. It sent back the first detailed images of the north pole of Jupiter—and it is unlike the rest of the planet.

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The North Pole of Jupiter as seen by Juno [NASA]

To quote Scott Bolton, one of the lead scientists of the Juno mission, “[The] first glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole…it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before….It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to — this image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter. We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”

Jupiter’s clouds contain whole continent-like regions of air which are different than the rest of the planet’s storms and whirls.  We don’t yet know why or how, but we are finding out.  As we do so, we are peeling back a layer of mystery which surrounds all such worlds.

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Solar Radiation Streaming over the North Pole of Jupiter

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OK, yesterday I promised we would get to the space news.  Clearly the real story is the earthlike planet right in our backyard (erm, relatively speaking). However it isn’t going anywhere right now so I am going to blog about it later when we have all had a moment to think about the real implications.  The space story I am looking at today is closer to home, but still takes place out there in the black: back in October of 2014, NASA lost communication with Stereo B one of two paired spacecraft which orbited the sun from the distance of Earth.

The solar observatory spacecraft allow stereoscopic viewing of the sun.  One spacecraft Stereo A was ahead of Earth on its orbit, whereas Stereo B trailed behind us.  The two observatories allow us to study coronal mass ejections and other stellar phenomena.  In 2011, the craft were 180 degrees apart from each other—allowing humankind to view the entire sun at once for the very first time (a truly remarkable milestone, when you think about it, which I heard nothing about at the time).

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Sadly, however, in 2014, as part of an automation and attitude test, Stereo B began to spin.  Mission controllers then lost contact with the craft which (because of the nature of its work) was on the other side of the sun!  NASA has patiently waited till the orbital path of Stereo B carried it further towards Earth and has used the Deep Space Network, a networked array of radio telescopes to find the errant craft.

We are still working on figuring out what sort of shape the poor guy is in (and maybe rehabilitating the spinning observatory), however I feel the story is worth telling as a sort of reminder of the fleet of crafts we have up there, which we don’t think about very often.

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Happy (belated) Fourth of July! While everyone was out barbecuing and amusing themselves with colorful novelty explosions, there was big news in space exploration: NASA’s Juno probe, which launched from Earth five years ago, has finally reached the gas giant planet and entered orbit. The robot spacecraft, which is about the size of a basketball court, is now dancing nimbly amongst the system of moons and rings and radiation belts around the giant world.

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The probe is a remarkable spacecraft.  It traveled 2.7 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) to reach the exact orbit which NASA planned for it.  The secret behind its astonishing precision (even when traveling at 165,000 mph) is the autonomy of its sophisticated navigational computer.  Mission controllers do not have to radio the probe from half-way across the solar system (which would take minutes—or longer. Instead the probe navigates itself. The ship computer is shielded beneath a titanium vault to keep radiation from frying its clever electronic brain.

earth-jupiterOh man!

 

Among the planets, Jupiter is a sort of greedy eldest child.  Scientists who study planetary formation believe that the gas giant formed first of all the planets and it took the lion’s share of available matter left over from the formation of the sun. Jupiter is more than twice as massive as all the other planets in our solar system put together: indeed, it is three hundred and eighteen times more massive than Earth.  Yet we know shockingly little about this bruiser. Very basic questions about Jupiter remain unanswered. For example we still do not know whether the planet has a rocky core beneath its vast colorful atmosphere.

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As we learn more about exoplanets which orbit other stars, questions about the formation of solar systems have become more numerous.  Astronomers have been particularly perplexed by the number of “hot Jupiters,” giant gas planets which are extremely close to their stars.  Was Jupiter such a world at some point before moving to its current location, or is it a huge freak?  We simply do not know.  Scientists would also like to know more about the unimaginably vast cloudscapes of Jupiter.  What dynamics move these huge bands of pressurized gas?

As Jupiter formed, it was bombarded by strange radiation.  The depths of Jupiter’s storms must still feature giant lightning strikes. This sort of treatment can cause hydrocarbons and ammonia to form amino acids.  Maybe life has a Jovian origin.  Maybe Jupiter still has life floating around like aerial zooplankton.  Again, we just don’t know much about the giant world…

Did anybody see that amazing episode of "Cosmos"?

Did anybody see that amazing episode of “Cosmos”?

However, now that Juno has arrived we can start to answer some of these questions.  The probe will go through various start-up and test sequences until Oct. 19 when it moves to a 14-day orbit of the planet and really starts scrutinizing our giant neighbor.

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Oh, one more thing—NASA has been getting better at PR to make space more accessible and “fun” for us laypeople following at home (as witnessed by the July 4th arrival).  Juno also has a crew of three Lego astronauts: Galileo, Jupiter, and Juno herself.  This leads me to write about Juno herself, for she is a terrifying figure among the gods.  More about her tomorrow!

Pluto (Photo from NASA's New Horizons mission)

Pluto (Photo from NASA’s New Horizons mission)

As promised we are dedicating today’s post to the New Horizons spacecraft. The unmanned robot probe (which is the size of an unwieldy motorcycle) flew past Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EST, traveling at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour (31,000 mph). At its nearest approach, the craft was only 1200 kilometers (7500 miles) above Pluto’s surface—closer to Pluto than Brooklyn is to Botswana.

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Because of the shape and size of the solar system, the telemetry of the mission, and the niceties of radio-communication, NASA did not receive the information dump from the spacecraft until 00:53 GMT Wednesday which is uh…approximately right now! So I haven’t had any time to groom the Pluto data! Today’s post is thus more of a laurel. But the information does exist—the craft survived and completed its mission. We have a trove of knowledge about Pluto to help scientists understand the nature of the solar system—or to conceive of what kinds of new questions to ask about other planetary systems. Maybe I’ll be desperately writing another post tomorrow if scientists unexpectedly find canals on Pluto or discover that Nyx is really a giant egg or something, but most likely this data will take a long time to process and understand. Such is the nature of science (and most worthwhile pursuits). So what is the purpose of this post?

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I have never been unduly upset about the designation “dwarf planet” for things like Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Haumea. However I did grow up with “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” (a much snappier mnemonic than “My very educated mother just served us nothing”), and the idea of Pluto as the final planet still holds undeserved weight in my subconscious. I have thus been taking NASA’s self-congratulatory PR announcements seriously when they say “we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets.” That sounds right to me. Humankind has gathered a great deal of information about the solar system. Now it is time to brainstorm some new objectives before the fickle public loses its interest and wanders off.

This graphic is old...What next?

This graphic is old…What next?

There is a national consensus that we should be spending all of our money on expensive cell phones and vastly overpriced (yet disturbingly ineffectual) medical care. The space age is reckoned to be over—and space should now be left to the likes of Elon Musk and other James Bond villain-ish mega billionaires. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. Now that we have some ideas about what is out there we should use our hard-won knowledge to do tremendous things! My favorite next step is an atmospheric mission to Venus. Let’s send some cool space blimps to sit in the high atmosphere of our sister planet and maybe launch some weird little drones and smaller balloons into the atmosphere. We could find out whether a floating colony is even feasible. Plus it would be like the Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers all over—on another world!

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

The idea of a human mission to Mars and a submarine mission to Europa also have great merit—but I see them as more difficult and with less practical purpose. What are your favorite ideas about what to do next? This seems like a good moment to at least talk about the direction we are headed, even as we sip champagne and dance joyously about what we have done.

"Champagne in Space" by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

“Champagne in Space” by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

Artist's redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

Artist’s redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).

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Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.

Artist's Concept of WISE J224607.57-052635.0

Artist’s Concept of WISE J224607.57-052635.0

Ferrebeekeeper has featured some mind-bogglingly strange astronomic entities before—black holes, ultra-dense stellar remnants, hyper-giant stars with a million times the mass of the sun, colliding neutron stars—but today we move up to a vastly greater order of magnitude!  Astronomers have just discovered a new class of galaxy which emits energy at unimaginable levels.  Using NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), scientists have discovered what are being tentatively called “extremely luminous infrared galaxies” (ELIRGs).

One of these galaxies (with the not-very-snappy designation “WISE J224607.57-052635.0”) is producing 10,000 times more energy than the Milky Way, despite being much smaller than our familiar home.  The newly discovered galaxy is putting out more energy than 10 trillion suns (or, more correctly, I should say it was putting out the energy of ten trillion main-sequence yellow stars). Scientists consider it the brightest known galaxy in the universe.

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WISE J224607.57-052635.0 is 12.5 billion light-years away.  Since the universe is 13.8 billion years old, what we are now seeing dates to a whole different era of galactic dynamics.  Today maybe WISE J224607.57-052635.0 is a burned-out remnant…or a perfectly respectable middle-aged galaxy like the Milky Way.  Who knows?  But twelve-and-a-half billion years ago it was releasing an inconceivable amount of energy—so much so that astronomers are having trouble adjusting their theories to it.  Perhaps some embryonic galaxies have black holes which gobble up stars at a much greater rate than initially thought or, alternately, some unknown set of circumstances has allowed the black hole (or holes?) at the center of WISE J224607.57-052635.0 to somehow surpass the theoretical threshold of black hole feeding.

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Clearly astronomers are going to be sorting out what exactly happened out there for quite a while, but in the meantime, when you look up at the night sky remember you are looking at an invisible fountain of energy ten trillion times brighter than the sun. [Ooh, I made myself dizzy]

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).

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I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

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