Category Archives: Space Exploration

INDEPENDENCE DAY: NEW HORIZONS BUILDS ON OUR JOURNEYS TO THE MOON

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On this 4th of July, 2015, New Horizons hurtles toward Pluto. It’s a mere 7,240,920 miles away and closing fast. If all goes as planned, we should see tantalizing photos in under two weeks. This serves as a reminder of just how far we have come since people first set foot on the Moon nearly 46 years ago. Here’s one of the iconic photos of Astronaut John Young, commander of Apollo 16.

Today, I am struck, not only by how far we’ve been able to send space craft, but also by the globalization of the efforts to explore other planets, moons, asteroids, and everything else that’s out there. While some may decry the perceived loss of American supremacy in space exploration, I do not share those views. Indeed, I am reminded that centuries ago, the efforts of European explorers to reach distant lands did not depend upon the interest of a single nation or the will of a single monarch. It is precisely the international nature of the attempts to further human understanding of the origins and evolution of the Solar System that reassures me of the progress we are making.

For those like me, who remember the grainy black and white images on our 1969 televisions, it seems like the ability to follow #PlutoFlyby from the comfort of our laptops and phones is yet another demonstration that we’re living in the future.

JUPITER’S MOONS, SATURN’S RINGS, AND PLANET HUNTING

Rosie Gazing at Saturn-2

Hey this is me last week observing Saturn’s rings via a telescope atop the planetarium at the University of Wyoming, during Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. I’ve always loved that Saturn simply looks like the quintessential planet, what with those pretty rings. Plus, the International Space Station chose that time to transit right over our heads. For those who have not seen the ISS, it moves rather fast, and looks bigger than an airplane. It can be distinguished by the fact that it has a curving path and it eventually fades from view. And for the first time, I peered through a pair of night vision goggles at what I was told were satellites. How wonderful it was! But I think my favorite experience that night may have been looking at Jupiter’s moons as they were aligned much like in one of Galileo’s drawings of his own observations.

Galileo's Drawings of Jupiter's Moons

The next day, I was reminded that it is at least as important–no make that more important–that Galileo not only had the forethought and patience to make systematic observations, but also to record those observations together with dates and times. That’s what made him a scientist and enabled him to come up with his great hypothesis.

The importance of writing down those observations was brought home to me when we did a lab in which we examined data collected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft in a search for extra-solar planets. The first image I looked at had not one, but three planets! I was so excited by what I had seen that I immediately zipped on to the next image, having neglected to record how many planets I’d seen, or what star they were orbiting, or its location. Oops. I had to go back and make notes of my observations.

One really neat thing about going planet hunting is that you can do it too, even if you are not a trained astronomer with access to the equipment that you’d find at a university astronomy department. You will be helping scientists to evaluate which objects may be planets. You can easily and quickly learn to become a planet hunter from the comfort of your very own home computer via a nifty web site called Planet Hunters, which is part of Zooniverse.

http://www.planethunters.org/?utm_source=Zooniverse%20Home&utm_medium=Web&utm_campaign=Homepage%20Catalogue.

Before you set out, though, be warned that it can easily absorb hours at a time. Also, it helps to work on a big, clean screen in a dark room. The idea is that we can all help in the efforts to identify new planets.

Wow, my head is spinning and that was just a sample of the neat stuff I got out of a week at astronomy camp for SF writers.

LAUNCH PAD ASTRONOMY WORKSHOP: FEELING LIKE A COALESCING STAR

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Between lectures, labs, a planetarium show, rooftop observing of stars and the International Space Station, visiting the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO), and hanging with SF writers and astronomers, I’ve not had a great deal of time to blog. Never fear, dear readers, for it’s been a remarkable few days thus far. I’ve crammed so much new learning into my head that I feel like a forming star with all this knowledge whirling and coalescing. This was to be expected as it has been decades since my formal astronomy training took place. So much has been discovered in the intervening years! In the compressed time we had, we just scratched the surface on a lot of topics.Thankfully, I’ve gotten myself equipped with a space-station’s worth of cool resources to draw upon when I’ll need to go into greater depth on … well on lotsa stuff from the Big Bang to the end of the Universe.

I’ll go into more detail later, but for now, here is WIRO, housing a 2.3 meter telescope, which is perched at 9656 feet in altitude with gorgeous views in all directions, courtesy of awesome writer Alan Gratz.

WIRO

 

T-MINUS 8 DAYS UNTIL LAUNCH PAD ASTRONOMY WORKSHOP

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I got a few responses about my last post discussing my upcoming attendance at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, which blasts off just eight days from now. A couple of talented writers in different phases of their careers essentially said, “Oh, I could never do something like that because my brain isn’t good with science and math.” Those remarks reminded me of comments I’ve heard from time to time from writers who’ve told me, “I could never write a story for Analog because I don’t know enough chemistry or physics.”

Such statements always make me a little sad. I wish these hard-working, creative, and talented folks didn’t set the barrier so high for themselves. Don’t they realize that many science fiction writers focus on an area of science that has almost nothing to do with their undergraduate or graduate training in a completely different field? That’s one of the great things about human beings: we are adaptable; we can delve into whole new areas of learning and attain new proficiencies.

I’m firmly convinced that everyone—and I do mean EVERYONE—who is an intelligent, decently educated reader can, with a modicum of interest and effort, grasp much of the basics of astronomy, or other sciences, and work to improve their knowledge of these fields.

How do you get started? One way I tried to prepare for Launch Pad was by taking an on-line course given by Future Learn entitled Moons. For eight weeks, I spent some of my spare time learning a lot about the Moon, its relationship with the Earth, as well as the other moons in our solar system, of which there are hundreds of varying shapes, sizes, and compositions. The course is free, self-paced, and fascinating. After each learning module, there is an opportunity for students from all over the world to comment. It’s truly inspiring to see that people of all ages who have never had any formal science training, as well as those who know a great deal, can come together to help one another understand key concepts, as well as how those concepts play out in our solar system.

There are many other science courses that one can take on line at no cost. The time commitment can be as much or as little as one would like to put into it. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to wrap your brain around new concepts and ways of thinking.

HUMANS TO MARS

I recently attended the Humans to Mars Summit, which is a gathering of folks from both NASA and the private sector who are all involved in one way or another in working toward the shared goal of sending human missions to explore Mars. These people are systematically working to develop six or so difficult pieces that will need to be combined–rocket launch and booster technology to get out of the gravity well; propulsion systems for the long journey; a deep space habitat; entry, descent, landing devices; surface habitats and rovers; and an ascent vehicle to lift off the Martian surface at the end of the mission. No, none of this will be easy, given that Mars is so much farther from the Earth than the Moon is. By way of comparison, the journey to Mars will take several months, whereas the trip from Earth to the Moon takes a few days. Nonetheless, I came away with so much more optimism for the endeavor than I’ve had in years.

Something that particularly struck me were the discussions of the reasons to send people, and not just robots, to explore Mars. There was the very sensible observation that people can do more science and better science than robotic devices by virtue of the fact that we have a much better ability to select more interesting rock specimens, etc. Of course, humans will be aided by robots in performing scientific missions. As to justification for going to Mars, apart from the advancement of science, I think Andy Weir said it best. He’s the author of The Martian. After twenty five years as a computer programmer, he understood the need to have a backup. Michael Swanwick also provided an astute observation having recently returned from China. The Chinese are not spending time on justifying their own space program as they moved forward with it. For them, exploration is simply something a great nation does.

The other thing that struck me was the idea that, in terms of timing, some of the children of the presenters could be the right age to be aboard that first or second Mars landing. During one of the Q & A sessions, the question was asked as to how many of the panelists would be OK with their own children going on a mission to Mars with the expectation of a return flight. The responses were decidedly mixed. It’s something to think about, isn’t it? How many of us would want close family members to accept those risks for that reward?

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