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Last Friday I took a walk from my company’s office on Wall Street up to a dinner party in Alphabet City. It was a lovely foggy night and lower Manhattan looked splendid and foreboding: the skyscrapers disappeared into the clouds as though they had no tops and weird glowing halos wreathed the many lights of the finance district. I decided to walk through City Hall Park (which has a big Victorian fountain surrounded by flickering gaslamps which I like to look at), however, when I walked into the park I was stunned to see a large photoshopped sculpture/poster thing of two enormous cuttlefish mating on the entire planet! What could it mean? Has the mayor been reading Ferrebeekeeper? Have the cephalopods finally won a stake in city government?

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(also note the ammonite patterns on this shirt my mom made me)

Here is a shameless selfie of me with the aforementioned work…and it turned out it was not alone: the whole park was full of tentacles, sticky lizard limbs, and planetary bodies.

These sculptures are the environmentally themed artworks of Estonian artist, Katja Novitskova. I had wandered into her show by accident! She used digital technology (and microscopes and satellite imaging) to bring us a juxtaposition of small curious grasping creatures against a background of entire worlds. She particularly specializes in creatures which are the subject of extensive biomedical or biomechanical research—literal and figurative model organisms like the axolotl, the cuttlefish, and the little hydra.
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“EARTH POTENTIAL” (Katja Novitskova, 2017, mixed media sculpture)

This theme is much in keeping with my own artwork which involves biological and historical cycles seen at differing temporal and spatial vantages. Yet because her works are so colorful and pleasing (and so photographic and digital) I am not inclined to view the successful Miss Novitskova with envy. The photographic sculptures remind me of Ranger Rick, the wonderful ecology-themed magazine of my childhood which always featured a “What in the World?” section of photographic sections removed from their original context and blown up. It was a real puzzle to figure out if you were looking at a vascular wall, a butterfly wing, or an aerial photo of the Nile Delta. Just thinking about these different scales (and the discomfiting similarities of appearance and perhaps even function) always blew my mind. So does Katja Novitskova’s artwork! I would like to thank her for putting it up in New York and wish her every success.
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EARTH POTENTIAL (Katja Novitskova, 2017, mixed media sculpture)

Orpheus (Jean Delville, 1893, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Jean Delville, 1893, oil on canvas)

The constellation Lyra was named after the haunting lyre of Orpheus. After the great musician was killed by maenads, his severed head and his lyre were thrown into the river and then drifted down to the sea. Zeus sent his eagle to pick up the lyre and carry it up into the night sky as an eternal reminder for human creative professionals about the nature of their discipline. The myth of this constellation is entirely different in China—as we have seen—yet it too revolves around star-crossed lovers sundered by circumstance.

The Constellation Lyra

The Constellation Lyra

Meanwhile…the robot observatory Kepler has been scanning the heavens for the subtle signs of exoplanets since 2009. The spacecraft malfunctioned in 2013, and engineers are still arguing about how best to salvage or repurpose it (or whether such a thing is even possible), but the vast treasure troves of data collected by Kepler are still yielding stunning discoveries. One of those discoveries just came to light this past week. In the constellation Lyra, there is an orange star 117 light years away from earth. The star is only 3/4th the size of the sun, but it is much older—dating back to 11.2 billion years ago (the sun, by comparison, is 4.567 billion years old). The universe itself is 13.8 billion years old—so the orange star has been burning through most of the history of creation. Because the orange star is smaller than the sun it has a much longer lifespan and will probably continue to fuse atoms together for another 20 billion years (whereas the dear sun, alas, will use up its fuel in another 4 or 5 billion years).

An artist's conception of 444 Kepler and its planetary system

An artist’s conception of 444 Kepler and its planetary system

This is already heady stuff to think about, but not unprecedented. What is news is that Kepler discovered five small, rocky planets orbiting this ancient star—by far the oldest planets ever discovered. The planets are tiny—smaller than Earth and closer to 444 Kepler than Mercury is to our sun. In light of this discovery, the ancient orange star in Lyra has been designated as 444 Kepler.

The Lament of Orpheus (Alexandre Séon, 1896, oil on canvas)

The Lament of Orpheus (Alexandre Séon, 1896, oil on canvas)

444 Kepler is from one of the first broods of stars to exist. The fact that it has planets at all is something of a surprise. Astronomers are working to explain the genesis of such early planets. Of course this discovery raises other questions as well, about whether life could be much older than imagined. However to such questions there are still no answers. From the heavenly lyre of Orpheus, as from the rest of the firmament we have still heard nothing but silence.

surface_area_largeToday features a short but vivid post borrowed from the futurist/science fiction/space blog io9 (which in turn took it from XKCD). Above is a map of all the surfaces of the solar system’s planets and moons flattened out and stitched together. The map was created by Randall Munroe and it does a superb job of explaining the relative size of rocky objects in the solar system. For obvious reasons the gas giants (and the sun!) have been excluded, but so too have small rocks and dust. For fun (um, I hope), the mapmaker also included an area equivalent to all human skin–which, distressingly, seems to be about the size of Hainan.

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

This map also emphasizes my most ardent fantasy of solar system colonization: I don’t really want to set up shop on Umbiel or Ceres, but I have a long-lasting interest in colonizing Venus. Sadly most of the rest of humankind is having trouble grasping this concept (possibly because the surface of Venus is a molten hellscape featuring boiling lead, sulfuric acid rain, and crushing pressure).  Remember though, we don’t need to ever go down to the Venutian surface: we can hang around in floating bouncy castles drifting through the balmy spring at the top of the atmosphere. Imagine taking your family zeppelin out for a night on the floating town! All of the people who express such an unwholesome interest in cold resource-poor Mars should pause to reexamine its relative area on Mr. Munroe’s excellent map!

Mars, Earth, Venus

Left to right: Mars, Earth, Venus

French Space Program satellite COROT

French Space Program satellite COROT

During the last several years one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy has been data from two orbiting space observatories concerning planets which lie outside our solar system.   The NASA space telescope Kepler discovers such planets by simultaneously measuring the light from thousands of stars for the faint dimming that occurs when a planet passes between the star and Kepler.  The French satellite COROT (“COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits”) finds exoplanets by tracking the slight oscillations in distant stars caused by the gravitational tug of orbiting planets.  The subtlety and elegant precision of both methods is astounding.

Sadly such astonishing engineering seems to have been near the edge of our technological abilities.  Yesterday Kepler went into safe mode (a sort of automatic shut-down triggered by a crisis).  Apparently a reaction wheel (a flywheel used to orient the spacecraft in relation to the stars) failed and Kepler can no longer be aimed properly.  The orbital observatory initially had four reaction wheels—one of which was a spare– however the spare wheel failed in July of 2012 and at least three wheels are required to operate the satellite.  If NASA cannot somehow reactivate the flywheel, then the mission is over.

Kepler Space Observatory

Kepler Space Observatory

Likewise on November 2, COROT suffered from a computer failure which made it impossible to collect data from the satellite and its status remains uncertain.  Most likely it is offline forever.  So our ability to find huge numbers of exoplanets via space observatory has temporarily been halted.

Kepler was launched in 2009 for a four year mission, however the mission was recently extended until 2016 (since it took longer to collect and make sense of the data then initially planned).   At last count Kepler had discovered 132 planets and was monitoring more than 2,700 further candidate planet. As of November 2011, COROT had found 24 new worlds and was screening around 600 additional candidates for confirmation.  Additionally two years of Kepler data has been downloaded but not yet interpreted so post-mortem discoveries may lie ahead.

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

Planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite

It is frustrating that the age of almost daily discovery of new worlds has come to a temporary end due to equipment failure, however a new generation of planet finding missions is already on the drawing board.  To quote The Guardian:

The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa’s successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.

RIP Kepler and COROT, you discovered so many planets and you will be missed, but your successors will be even greater.

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