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In 2016 the Japanese Space Agency launched a quarter-of-a-billion dollar x-ray observatory named Hitomi into Earth orbit.  The craft’s mission was to study extremely energetic processes at the far reaches of the universe.  It was hoped that the data Hitomi provided would allow astronomers to understand how the large scale structures of the universe came into being (how galactic superclusters form, for example).  The satellite initially worked perfectly, but, within 38 Earth days, the spacecraft was lost: a failure of attitude control sent it into an uncontrolled spin which caused critical structural elements to break apart.


The full story of what destroyed Hitomi is perhaps of greater immediate interest to living beings on Earth than how the meta-structures the universe came into being.  When everything went wrong for the ill-fated space observatory it was passing over the southern part of the Atlantic ocean.  For spacefarers, this region of the Van Allen Belt is analogous to what the Bermuda Triangle or the Namib Skeleton Coast is for sailors: it is a haunted and dangerous stretch of space.  Astronauts who travel through it report strange phantasmagorical dots and streaks in their vision, even when they close their eyes.   The Hubble Space Telescope does not make observations when it passes over the south Atlantic.  Controllers turn off its delicate systems.  The region is known to the world’s space agencies as “the South Atlantic Anomaly.”  Hitomi was not its first victim–it is surmised that the South Atlantic Anomaly was responsible for the failures of the Globalstar network satellites way back in aught seven.


The existence of the South Atlantic Anomaly was known long before that.  It was discovered in 1958 by Explorer 1, the first American satellite (which was equipped with a Geiger counter).  Perhaps the Soviets would have discovered the anomaly by means of Sputnik, but, because the Cold War made  scientific cooperation difficult, Australia did not hand over Sputnik data to the Soviets until later.  Suffice to say, the South Atlantic Anomaly is an anomaly in the Van Allen Belt, the torus-shaped field of charged particles which are held in place by the magnetic field of Earth.  Earth’s magnetosphere is important. Billions of years ago, Mars and Venus seem to have been exceedingly Earthlike, with water oceans and convivial atmospheres.  But neither Mars nor Venus has a magnetosphere and their oceans have perished and their atmospheres have changed into monstrous things….although we don’t know exactly what happened on either of our neighboring planets (and the present priorities here on Earth are to make Michel Dell and Howard Schultz as rich as possible at everyone else’s expense, not, you know, to understand what planetary scale forces could make worlds uninhabitable).


Um, at any rate, the magnetic field of Earth is created by the mysterious processes beneath our feet at the center of the planet.  The Earth’s inner core is believed to have two layers: an outer core of molten iron and heavy metals and an inner core of solid iron nickel alloy.  The inner core is about 70% of the volume of the moon and it is nearly as hot as the surface of the sun with an estimated temperature of (5,430 °C) or 9806 °F, but the molten outer core is only as hot as the surface of an orange star (2,730–4,230 °C; 4,940–7,640 °F).  Within the outer core, eddy currents form in the superheated metal. The complex relationship between these currents, the spinning planet, and the two core layers creates a geodynamo which produces the planet’s magnetosphere which in turn captures the particles which make up the Van Allen Belts.  However, the eddy currents cause the magnetic poles to invert every few hundred thousand years (we are currently overdue for such a flip).  The South Atlantic Anomaly is a manifestation of the “weather” in the molten outer core of Earth–a prelude to the magnetic polar flip.  First generation spacecraft used solid state components and had big ungainly robust circuitry.  Additionally they were hardened against radiation.  Some of today’s craft make use of delicate & elaborate microcircuitry which is prone to failure when struck by esoteric radiation particles.  This is how what happens far beneath our feet influences what happens to craft in outer space.

One of life’s disappointments is the dearth of fine art concerning outer space.  Outer space is vast beyond imagining: it contains everything known. Indeed, we live in space (albeit on a little blue planet hurtling around an obscure yellow star)–but cosmic wonders do not seem to have called out to the greatest artists of the past as much as religious or earthly subjects. There are of course many commercial illustrations featuring the elements of science fiction: starships, ringed planets, exploding suns, and tentacled aliens (all of which I like) and there are also didactic scientific illustrations, which attempt to show binary stars, ring galaxies, quasars and other celestial subjects.  Yet only rarely does a fine artist turn his eyes towards the heavens, and it is even less frequent that such a work captures the magnificence and enormity of astronomy.

Fortunately the Dutch artist MC Escher was such an artist.  His space-themed engravings utilize religious, architectural, and biological elements in order to give a sense of scale and mystery.  The familiar architecture and subjects are transcended and eclipsed by the enormity of the cosmic subjects.  Here are two of his woodcuts which directly concern outer space.

The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (M.C. Escher, 1935, wood engraving)

The first print is a wood engraving entitled The Dream (Mantis Religiosa) shows a fallen bishop stretched on a catafalque as a huge otherworldly praying mantis stands on his chest (the whole work is a sort of pun on the mantis’ taxonomical name Mantis religiosa “the religious mantis”.  The buildings arround the bishop and the bug are dissipating to reveal the wonders of the night sky. The bishop’s world of religious mysteries and social control are vanishing in the face of his death.  Greater mysteries are coming to life and beckoning the anxious viewer.

Another World (M. C. Escher, 1947, colored woodcut)

The colored woodcut “Other World” shows a simurgh standing above, below and in front of the viewer in a spatially impossible gazebo on an alien world.  The simurgh is a mythical animal from ancient Persian literature and art which combines human and avian elements.  Sufi mystics sometimes utilize the simurgh as a metaphor for the unknowable nature of divinity.  Yet here the simurgh is dwarfed by the craters beneath him and by the planetary rings filling up the sky above.  A strange horn hangs above, below, and to the side of the viewer.  Perhaps it is a shofar from ancient Judea or a cornucopia from the great goat Amalthea.  Whatever the case, the viewer has become unfixed in mathematical space and is simultaneously looking at the world from many different vantage points.  A galaxy hangs in the sky above as a reminder of the viewer’s insignificance.

Above all it is Escher’s manipulation of spatial constructs within his art that makes the viewer realize the mathematical mysteries which we are daily enmeshed in.  The multidimensional geometric oddities rendered by Escher’s steady hand in two dimensions characterize a universe which contains both order and mystery.  Giant bugs and bird/human hybrids are only symbols of our quest to learn the underpinnings of the firmament. Escher’s art is one of the few places where science and art go together hand in hand as partners. This synthesis gives a lasting greatness to his artwork, which are undiminished by popularity and mass reproduction.

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