What miracles humans can produce

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.


The Week in Space: The Universe Does Not Care About Your Puny Holidays

Planets of the Solar System


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:


Comet ISON (mostly) melts down


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:


In 11 months’ time, Comet Siding Spring will breeze past Mars at a distance of little more than 100,000km. And then in November 2014, Esa’s (the European Space Agency) Rosetta mission will attempt to place a probe on the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.



SpaceX misses its launch date


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!


Falcon rocket on the pad, Space Exploration Te...
Falcon rocket on the pad, Space Exploration Technologies, (SpaceX) Space Launch Complex – Three West (SLC-3W), Vandenberg Airforce Base Image (See talk page for GFDL permission notes and SpaceX contact information) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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….



Back to Mars

English: Artist's Concept of MAVEN, set to lau...
Artist’s Concept of MAVEN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

This story, from NBC Science Editor Alan Boyle, has a great description of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. Here’s a quote:

The mission’s objective is to help scientists figure out how the Red Planet’s environment changed from a warm, moist place into the chilly wasteland it is today.

Previous missions — including NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been working on Red Planet’s surface for more than a year — have found ample geological evidence that Mars had enough liquid water on its surface to be hospitable to life billions of years ago. That’s not the case anymore.

“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!

Happy Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating a Planetary Evangelist

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace
Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October 15 is Ada Lovelace Day when bloggers around the world celebrate the first computer programmer, and all women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Last week the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society came to Denver. The primary way I kept up with the news out of this meeting (and most things space-related) was through Emily Lakdawalla’s Twitter feed. Emily is the Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for the Planetary Society (PS), and she is just amazing.

PS President Bill Nye has a much higher profile:

Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for the Planetary Society
Emily Lakdawalla

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.

Emily’s “Snapshots from Space” blog demonstrates this quality too. In this post, she discusses her chat with a cab driver going to the airport on the way to Denver. The post also explains why she chose “Planetary Evangelist” as part of her job title:

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:


Space Blog!

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.

Meanwhile, you may find it interesting that Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, is blogging. This should be a fun read for the next few days.