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It is bitterly cold and wintry in New York today. From Newfoundland to Georgia a winter super-storm is slamming the East Coast of North America (it goes by the amazing marketing name of “bomb cyclone”). As is frequently the case when I am dissatisfied with conditions here on Earth, my mind is wandering off to our sister planet, Venus, where temperatures are somewhat warmer.

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Back when I was a child in living in the countryside I had a lengthy bus-ride to school (this will get back to Venus in a moment). The elementary school library had a copy of The National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe, an astonishing Cold-War era tome of facts and fantastical musings about space. Somebody always checked that book out (indeed, it disintegrated before I reached puberty) and so it got passed around the school bus as we rode to Waterford and back every day. One of the fantasy illustrations which has stayed with me was the painting of the “oucher pouchers” by Roy Gallant (?). These (entirely-imaginary) alien creatures lived on the molten hot surface of Venus, which I guess is why they said “ouch.” They had a plated, heat-proof hide and they were spherical, but if they became too hot, they blasted off into the atmosphere via some sort of posterior rocket-propulsion system (which was of great amusement to the children).

Through the magic of the internet, I found the picture, and I see that the ‘poucher is eating an ill-fated space probe to Venus. They also have scorpion tails (for hunting or protection or goodness only knows). Long-time readers know of my obsession with Venus. I wonder if it started with this concept art (which was made to get kids interested in space). I am including it here so you can think of the molten surface of Venus and of what sorts of life could flourish there, but it is also as a reminder to myself to write more about our nearest planetary neighbor. In 2018 we need to be more imaginative and we need to explore farther (and if anybody is good at engineering we need to do better at that too). This illustration from my childhood is a fun reminder to look back to our childhood dreams in order to look forward to new horizons.

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Oumuamua is an asteroid which came from beyond the solar system.  Perhaps it was ejected from a star system in the Carina–Columba association (which is not an Italian fraternal organization but rather a vast nebula by Eta Carinae about 100 parsecs) around 50 to 100 million years ago, but its age and point of origin are unknown.   It is whipping past the sun and then back into the vast darkness between the stars at a prodigious velocity (apparently it was traveling through interstellar space at something like 26 kilometers per second (58,000 miles per hour).  The object, which measures between 100 and 800 meters (300 to 2500 feet), was initially classified as a comet, but its speed, its orbital eccentricity, and its bizarre shape–which is like an icicle or a shard–caused astronomers to realize it was deeply strange interloper from beyond.

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The object has been closely observed by many of the Earth’s great observatories and it is apparently a dark red—which is caused by cosmic radiation striking it for 100s of millions of years (Kuiper belt objects have similar coloration).  It is traveling far too fast for any existing human craft too reach (although we may be able to build such crafts in the near future), however scientists are assessing it for traces of life or civilization by means of radio telescopy.  It will be out by Jupiter next year and far beyond are kin soon after that, but scientists have learned a great deal from the visit.  Additionally they speculate that other such objects come through the solar system at the rate of one or two per year (which does not seem like a lot considering how large the solar system is).  We are lucky to have spotted this shard, but its catastrophic shape makes one speculate that there is a lot about planetary formation (and destruction) which we don’t know yet.

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Hold everything! Today is the day when Pantone announces their trademarked “Color of the Year” for 2018. To quickly recap, Pantone is a private color-consulting company which helps consumer-facing firms select yearly color palates which work together at the store.  When you go to a mall (kids, this was a large building containing many individual different retail stores) and see that all of the clothes and gadgets are the same colors, Pantone is behind the convergence. They chose a real winner last year—a magnificent mid-tone green that looked like it came straight from the idealized cabbage patches of some fantasy “old country” (but also simultaneously seemed to reference money and environmentalism).  Can this year continue the trend or will we face another perplexing chicken-liver year (or the wishy-washy dichotomy of election year 2016 when we were presented with two opposite gendered tones)?  Without further ado, the Pantone Color of 2018 is…“Ultra violet” a bold rich purple! (maybe you already guessed based on the bar of pure purple above).

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I love this color.  Purple is one of my favorite colors (it might be my favorite) and this tone evokes the best things about purple!  It reminds me of a medieval king’s tunic or a spooky Queen Anne house in a Halloween poster.  Kudos to Pantone for the solid choice.  We will say nothing of Grimace and the shadow his amorphous purple form has cast over a generation of culture mavens and style moguls.

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For its part, Pantone seems to be making a quiet and uncontroversial political statement with its selection. The executive director of the Pantone color institute spells this out in her pronouncement: “It’s also the most complex of all colors, because it takes two shades that are seemingly diametrically opposed — blue and red — and brings them together to create something new.”  The company’s literature further emphasizes purple’s mystical and cosmic connotations…and how dear it was to beloved yet lost entertainment icons like Jim Bowie and Prince.

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Pantone also claims that “ultraviolet” evokes an idealized future (which makes me wonder if they have read “A Clockwork Orange”).  Maybe they are subconsciously projecting the preferences of a highly networked consulting company of global influence since  Ultraviolet is a purple which definitely leans towards blue. It’s fun to reminisce about all of the beloved icons and styles from the past and to make metaphors out of color, yet the colors of the year really do reflect larger patterns and trends. When the economy is doing well, Pantone executives and art-directors feel free to choose more bold and colorful choices.  These become increasingly extravagant until a recession comes along—when they all get reset to monotones, dust-colors, and similarly basic palate choices.  Ultraviolet is clearly leaning towards the more flamboyant side (I seem to recall a similar dot-com purlple back in the nineties just before the bubble burst.  This bold purple reminds us to look towards a brighter future and to enjoy the sugar rush, but it makes me wonder if there aren’t some grays and beiges in the immediate future.

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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).

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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.

 

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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).

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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).

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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).

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 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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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.

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