It is truly amazing: a human artifact is riding a comet some 500 million kilometers from Earth tonight. “Riding” may even be the perfect word, since it may be hanging on to this speeding boulder without its anchoring harpoons stuck into the soft rock (sand? snowball?) it fell on.
If you don’t know what I’m going on about in the previous paragraph, watch this NASA video to understand how ridiculously hard this was:
And yet, after ten years of aiming at this mountain-sized remnant of the Big Bang orbiting crazily around the sun, our scientists and engineers managed to land this expensive piece of metal called Philae in the right spot. It is now sending back pictures and data for us to process.
With a bit of good fortune, it will hang on long enough for the comet to come back around the sun. If it doesn’t, its mother ship, called Rosetta, will stay in orbit. It also collects data that will help us better understand what comets are, and what they do. Before it’s all over, maybe we’ll be able to prove (or disprove) that a comet brought water to earth, leading (after a long march of time) to life on this planet.
Congratulations to the European Space Agency and the teams of scientists that put this mission together. I sit here in wonder and astonishment.
Does space exploration excite you? Is it a waste of expertise and money? Still signed up for the Virgin Galactic trip? As always, I look forward to your comments.
Just when you think you’re going to have trouble finding blog topics during a sleepy holiday week, stuff starts happening in the cosmos. One natural occurrence, but two events related to human exploration. Let’s review:
Since its discovery in September 2012, Comet ISON was shaping up to be one of the brightest objects we’ve ever seen flying through the night sky. Astronomers always tempered their descriptions of what was going to happen with this clause “IF it survives its solar flyby.” This proved to be a wise disclaimer. At first, it appeared as if the whole 2-kilometer wide dirty snowball had completely melted while passing just a million miles away from the incredibly hot surface of the sun. Yet this morning, other spacecraft could still see a trail of something along the presumed ISON trail.
This small remainder of the comet could still break apart by the time you read this, but there’s a small hope it could still brighten before it flies back by Earth. The good news is that more comets will be in the vicinity soon. The BBC reports:
Private launch company SpaceX failed twice to launch a TV satellite on Thursday. Both launches counted down to under a minute before an engine malfunction prevented launch. They may try again on Saturday. Best wishes!
Chinese prepare for moon lander launch, and otherwise think big about space
After reading the BBC story on Comet ISON, this story caught my eye: Why China is Fixated on the Moon. Besides reporting on the upcoming Chang’e 3 mission that may launch this weekend, there was an interview with a “top Chinese scientist,” Ouyang Ziyuan of the department of lunar and deep space exploration.
Chang’e 3’s mission is to land on the moon and use a rover to explore its geology, the first time any craft from Earth has done that since the Soviets did in 1976. The Chinese hope to put a human on the moon in the near future.
Ouyang suggested that the moon could solve many, if not all, Earth’s energy problems. He envisions concentrating the energy from an array of solar panels on the moon and getting that energy back here. Similarly,
The Moon is also “so rich” in helium-3, which is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion, that this could “solve human beings’ energy demand for around 10,000 years at least”.
Cool, huh? If only a nation with a few more resources could envision using something so hot that it can destroy a 4.5-billion-year-old iceball in minutes to power generators on this planet. Hmmm….
Every two years or so, the planets align in such a way that Earth can send projectiles to the planet next door, Mars. The launch window opened today and we sent an instrument the size of a school bus to study Mars’ atmosphere, past and present.
“Something clearly happened,” (mission principal investigator Bruce) Jakosky said.
I missed the launch at 12:28 CST, but watched NASA TV’s coverage via Livestream and Spaceflight Now. This included the post-launch news conference where Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado declared that he’d had “Ten years of terror” putting this mission together.
NASA’s transparency and public outreach is pretty amazing. Proof: The news conference also featured questions from Twitter. Ordinary folks posted questions using the #askNASA hashtag.
It will be 10 months before MAVEN gets to Mars, but it may have some work to do along the way. If all goes well in the next couple of weeks, MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph could get pictures of Comet ISON coming around the sun. This would be cool too.
Best wishes, MAVEN. We look forward to some great science next fall!
But Dr. Lakdawalla brings much more of the working scientist to her role of improving public understanding, and marshaling public support for exploration of our solar system and beyond. Before her current gig, she was a planetary geologist; she stays in touch with her experimental side attending and covering conferences.
I first encountered this sensibility listening to Planetary Radio, the weekly 30-minute podcast (and radio show) covering space news produced by the PS. Emily has a weekly spot running down the week’s headlines. This podcast is typically one of the highlights of my week, in part because everyone on the show is clearly smart, but not given to speaking in jargon and vocabulary designed to fly over our heads. As a technical writer who aims for that same sweet spot, I appreciate how rare this quality can be.
The word “evangelist” is heavy with connotations and is not one I use lightly. I use it to convey my devotion and passion to my subject, and what I consider my avocation to share it with the world, along with the belief that a respect for the cosmos and our place in it can make people’s lives better.
If you have any interest in science, astronomy, or have a similar passion for humanity’s reach for the stars, go check out the Planetary Society, its website, and the radio program.
Happy Ada Lovelace Day!
Previous Ada Lovelace Day Posts on Notes from the Metaverse:
As I fight trouble with the latest Firefox update in KDE, posts will be on the brief side (though I hope the interruption won’t be long). There’s much to discuss here, but I’ve become addicted to the Performancing interface, with the easy Technorati and del.icio.us tagging.