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Cassini is preparing for its final few orbits before its death plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant Saturn on September 15th. To prepare humankind for this spectacular demise, NASA has been releasing some “greatest hits” photos including these astonishing images taken April 26th which show the 2000 kilometer (1,250-mile) wide hexagonal storm on the north pole of the planet. Cassini was 267,000 kilometers (166,000 miles) above the ringed world when it snapped these photos of the vortex (and a secondary counter vortex orbiting the mail eye). I am getting ready for the end of the journey, I guess, but Cassini was amazing in every way. It is worth really looking at these pictures and thinking about the astonishing nature of reality.


There are more pictures coming in from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and they are amazing. The plucky space probe has entered an orbital pattern which causes it to swoop from one pole of the gas giant to the other in 2 short hours (that may not sound like a short period…but Jupiter is enormous). As it passes close to the gas giant, Juno has been able to photograph and record hitherto unknown features of the fifth planet from the sun—such as a magnetic field twice as powerful as predicted and intricate and heterogeneous ammonia weather systems.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this new trove of data comes from Jupiter’s previously unexplored poles which are filled with intricate webs of cyclones—each up to 1400 kilometers in diameter. You can see them here on astonishing photos. Scientists are eager to learn more about the storms—and what lies beneath them. The coming months will feature even more beautiful images from the solar system’s grandest planet—and maybe we will get some answers too concerning what is under the clouds and what powers these colossal storms on our breathtaking neighbor.


Ferrebeekeeper has a great love of space-themed art. Yet the beginnings of western art as we know it today were not about space, but instead about religion. Christian iconography dominated: the heavens were not the literal heavens but instead the supernatural …uh…actually, never mind.  This is a fresco by Giotto from the Arena Chapel.  Giotto single-handedly reshaped the classical and medieval precepts of art (and remade our notion of visual culture).  The Arena Chapel is his masterwork–a project where Byzantine opulence, Christian devotion, linear perspective, and new Italian realism converged to give birth to the European artistic tradition (although, to be sure, Western art had many grandparents…and lots of weird uncles that were an influence before–and after–Giotto).


Here is the birth of art…showing the birth of Christ, and there, proudly in the center of the composition, right above Jesus and the adoring Magi, is a comet which would not look out of place in nineteen-sixties space art.  The flying ball of fire points directly into the manger where the astonished kings (and their even more astonished camels pay homage to the new-born savior who has appeared as a refugee child).  It is a beautiful picture–and an unexpected appearance of outer space imagery right at the dawn of the 14th century as art began to manifest itself in familiar fashion.



As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).


The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).


Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).


 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!



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.


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.


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.


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!


Once people have done something for the first time, it becomes much easier to do it again and again in novel ways.  I mention this, because, just this week, the great nation of India tested their own scaled-down and scaled-back prototype version of a space shuttle.  ISRO (The India Space Research Organization) fired a 7m-scale model lander about 70km (43 miles) into the atmosphere from a spaceport in took off from Andhra Pradesh.  The craft was launched atop a HS9 solid rocket booster. It is unclear whether the organization has recovered the prototype or not.


The Indian spaceplane program is proceeding on a tiny budget which would make NASA (or even SpaceX) wince. The little prototype cost the equivalent of $14 million dollars. However the Indian government has big plans: within 15 years they hope to build a full scale Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) capable of repeatedly going into orbit and then returning through Earth’s atmosphere to land safely.  Since NASA has been working on projects very different from spaceplanes, I am glad to see that somebody else is still working on the concept.  I will be extremely curious to watch the progress of this Indian offspring of the original shuttle program which was such a triumphant and tragic centerpiece of space exploration during my childhood.



Hey, did I tell you about Akatsuki?  It was one of the thrilling space exploration stories of 2015—and it is just now becoming germane, but it did not get a lot of press attention in the west because of the holidays and because people were busy thinking about stupid trivia (including me).  Akatsuki is a Japanese spacecraft/space mission designed to research and explore the atmosphere of Venus (its other name is Venus Climate Orbiter).  The mission was launched in May of 2010 and the craft was supposed to go into orbit in December of 2010, but a catastrophic failure of the orbital maneuvering engine caused it to fly off into orbit around the sun (this failure was caused by a tiny salt deposit—which quietly says a great deal about the difficulties and dangers of space travel).


The Japanese space agency turned the probe to hibernation mode to conserve energy and waited…and waited…and waited.  For five years, the craft flew through interplanetary darkness, quietly orbiting the sun as rocket scientists plotted and made corrections.  Then, in December of 2015 the agency tried again.  The combustion chamber throat and nozzle of the orbital maneuvering engine were horribly damaged (such a problem destroyed NASA’s Mars Observer probe in 1993) so JAXA jettisoned the craft’s oxidizing fuel and attempted to enter a strange elliptical orbit by means of four hydrazine attitude control thrusters. The rendezvous between Akatsuki and Venus occurred on 7 December 2015.  Using four tiny thrusters not rated for orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft made a 20 minute burn and entered Venusian orbit!  I wish I could make this sound more dramatic—it was a stupendously precise and superb piece of jerry-rigged rocket science happening around a different world.  It is a miracle this craft is not a splatter on the baking surface of Venus.  Kudos to JAXA!


The craft was originally slated to orbit Venus every 30 Earth hours, but its wild and bumpy 5 year journey to our sister planet changed the original plans quite a bit.  In March of 2016, JAXA mission control finalized the craft’s elliptical orbit to take 9 days per orbital revolution.  Planetary observations are slated to start in mid-April—right about now! Akatsuki is the only operational human craft currently at Venus.  Its mission is to investigate Venutian meteorology with an infrared camera (we will be talking more about the insane Venutian atmosphere in a follow-up post) and to determine whether lightning and active volcanoes exist on the hot troubled world.  This information may take a while to collate and access (considering that we are only now figuring out what the results of the last Venus mission, the ESA Venus Express, actually denote.

Anyway, stay tuned for more news from Venus!  Maybe Akatsuki will be broadcasting some surprises about the little known planet next door.


I was going to write about problems with the Kepler space telescope, a NASA space observatory 75 million kilometers from Earth which monitors the stars to discover Earthlike exoplanets.  This weekend something went wonky and the craft slipped into emergency mode.  It was feared to be damaged to the point of inoperability….but then the NASA engineers dedicated a whole array of radio signals on the so Deep Space Network (spacecraft telecommunications system) to awaking the spacecraft and getting it back in operating condition.  So I don’t have a blog post…which turns out to be good news.  Hooray for Kepler—let’s find some exoplanets!


It’s April 12th, “Yuri’s Night” when humankind comes together to celebrate our achievements in space…and to brainstorm about where we will go next.   Of course at this precise moment we are having some temporary setbacks in space—but we’ll post about NASA’s space telescope trouble tomorrow.  Today is about the glory and magnificence of space exploration.  And there are plenty of news stories about that too.  SpaceX has finally “stuck the landing” on one of its reusable rockets (and the past year’s drama of watching them nearly land on a raft and then blow up was pretty thrilling in its own right).  A private firm is building an inflatable module for the International Space Station.  NASA is moving forwards with its plans to build a space probe to touch the sun! And that is not to mention the many man robot probes running around the Solar System.


Solar Probe Plus (NASA)

However, today is also a day when we whisper our heart’s dearest wishes to the stars.  The Economist has abandoned its fusty articles about central banking to lovingly describe a feasible interstellar space craft!  Visionary engineers keep grinding ahead with plans for a space elevator (the brainchild of a different Yuri— Yuri Artsutanov).   Tech billionaires are working on their asteroid mining project (at least on paper)… and NASA continues to talk of a Mars mission.


Yet all of this pales beside my near-future space vision—a plan which is as simple as it is breathtaking and incomprehensible.  I want us to come together and hang a new society in the distant skies over Venus.  At first it will be a crude plastic bouncy city, but, as we drop energy transfer cables down into the atmosphere and skyhooks down to harvest raw materials from the surface things should start to get more elaborate fast.  We can make floating farms, forests, and oceans.  All we need to do is get a plastics factory over to Venus and uh, solve the pesky problem of shielding our new society from deadly solar winds (a real problem on Venus, since it has no magnetosphere to speak of).


(Artwork by Don Dixon)

With this in mind, it is time to take a much closer look at Venus.  So this is my Yuri’s Night resolution.  We will be revisiting our sister planet at this site and reviewing everything we know about it.  Since the first humans looked up in the morning sky and saw it as the brightest star up until now Venus has always been in our hearts—but these days we know some real and meaningful things about the morning star (wisdom which did not come easily).   It’s time to review that information and find out more about our closest planetary neighbor.  So hang on to your (heat resistant) helmets and get ready to visit this beautiful hellish sister world!


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.

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?

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

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