kottke.org posts about space

Blackstar — The Sun In A New Light

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2023

Blackstar is a relaxing and meditative 45-minute video of the Sun made by Seán Doran using footage from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Instead of the familiar yellow, Doran has chosen to outfit our star in vivid blue and black, which lends the video a sort of alien familiarity. This looks absolutely stunning in 4K.

The Sun, as Seen by the World's Largest Solar Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2023

closeup shot of a sunspot taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

closeup shot of a sunspot taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

closeup shot of a sunspot taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

closeup shot of the surface of the Sun taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

The Inouye Solar Telescope is the largest and most powerful solar telescope in the world. The telescope is still in a "learning and transitioning period" and not up to full operational speed, but scientists at the National Solar Observatory recently released a batch of images that hint at what it's capable of. Several of the photos feature sunspots, cooler regions of the Sun with strong magnetic fields.

The sunspots pictured are dark and cool regions on the Sun's "surface", known as the photosphere, where strong magnetic fields persist. Sunspots vary in size, but many are often the size of Earth, if not larger. Complex sunspots or groups of sunspots can be the source of explosive events like flares and coronal mass ejections that generate solar storms. These energetic and eruptive phenomena influence the outermost atmospheric layer of the Sun, the heliosphere, with the potential to impact Earth and our critical infrastructure.

In the quiet regions of the Sun, the images show convection cells in the photosphere displaying a bright pattern of hot, upward-flowing plasma (granules) surrounded by darker lanes of cooler, down-flowing solar plasma. In the atmospheric layer above the photosphere, called the chromosphere, we see dark, elongated fibrils originating from locations of small-scale magnetic field accumulations.

(via petapixel)

The Sun, In All Its Glory

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2023

astounding image of the Sun

detail of an astounding image of the Sun

Good morning, sunshines! Well, amateur astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy has done it again. Collaborating with Jason Guenzel, he has produced this absolutely gobsmacking image of the Sun.

The aptly named "Fusion of Helios" is a fusion from the minds of two astrophotographers, Andrew McCarthy and Jason Guenzel. Using a custom-modified hydrogen alpha solar telescope, the combined data from over 90,000 individual images was jointly processed to reveal the layers of intricate details within the solar chromosphere. A geometrically altered image of the 2017 eclipse as an artistic element in this composition to display an otherwise invisible structure. Great care was taken to align the two atmospheric layers in a scientifically plausible way using NASA's SOHO data as a reference.

I've included the full image and my favorite crop (the solar tornado the height of 14 Earths was a close second) above, but do yourself a big favor and check out the largest image available (which is still way smaller than the 140 megapixel final image they produced). If you're curious about the process, here's how McCarthy gets his Sun photos:

So how do I resolve atmospheric details, like spicules, prominences, and filaments? The trick is tuning the telescope to an emission line where these objects aren't drown out by the bright photosphere. Specifically, I'm shooting in the Hydrogen-alpha band of the visible spectrum (656.28nm). Hydrogen Alpha (HA) filters are common in astrophotography, but just adding one to your already filtered telescope will just reduce the sun's light to a dim pink disk, and using it without the aperture filter we use to observe the details on the photosphere will blind you by not filtering enough light. If you just stack filters, you still can't see details. So what's the solution?

A series of precisely-manufactured filters that can be tuned to the appropriate emission line, built right into the telescope's image train does the trick! While scopes built for this purpose do exist (look up "coronado solarmax" or "lunt solar telescope" I employ a heat-tuned hydrogen alpha filter (daystar quark) with an energy rejection filter (ERF) on a simple 5" doublet refractor. That gives me a details up close look at our sun's atmosphere SAFELY. I've made a few custom modifications that have helped me produce a more seamless final image, but am not *quite* yet ready to share them, but just the ERF+Quark on a refractor will get you great views.

Photography has always been a combination of technology, artistry, and wrangling whatever light you can get to best express the feeling that you're going for — astrophotography certainly dials that wrangling up to 11.

Prints of this image (and some digital downloads) are available in various sizes from McCarthy and Guenzel.

A Prelude to a Supernova

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2023

The luminous, hot star Wolf-Rayet 124 (WR 124) is prominent at the center of the James Webb Space Telescope's composite image combining near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light from Webb's Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument

Folks, I told you that this was going to become a JWST fan blog and if you didn't hear me the first time, consider yourself notified. NASA's newest space telescope is still stretching its legs, but even back in its early days last summer, it captured this breathtaking near-infrared and mid-infrared image of a star preparing to go supernova.

The 10 light-years-wide nebula is made of material cast off from the aging star in random ejections, and from dust produced in the ensuing turbulence. This brilliant stage of mass loss precedes the star's eventual supernova, when nuclear fusion in its core stops and the pressure of gravity causes it to collapse in on itself and then explode.

Images like these are useful for studying dust, which sounds a little boring but actually is fascinating (italics mine):

The origin of cosmic dust that can survive a supernova blast and contribute to the universe's overall "dust budget" is of great interest to astronomers for multiple reasons. Dust is integral to the workings of the universe: It shelters forming stars, gathers together to help form planets, and serves as a platform for molecules to form and clump together — including the building blocks of life on Earth. Despite the many essential roles that dust plays, there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers' current dust-formation theories can explain. The universe is operating with a dust budget surplus.

Currently imagining a sci-fi office dramedy about the dust budget surplus — someone over at HBO Max or Apple+ get on this.

Unprecedented Infrared Photos of Nearby Galaxies

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 22, 2023

a top-down view of a galaxy

a top-down view of a galaxy

I don't know how kottke.org isn't going to turn into a JWST-only blog — it seems like there's some never-before-seen imagery released every other week that just absolutely knocks my socks off. Like these unprecedented images of nearby galaxies that were taken to help study how individual stars affect galactic structure.

The saying goes, 'From a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak.' This is accurate not just here on Earth, but in our solar system and beyond. Even on a galactic scale, where individual stars and star clusters can sculpt a galaxy's overall structure. Scientists say NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is perfectly primed to study these phenomena, and the first data is astounding astronomers.

New imagery from Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument is revealing never-before-seen details into how young, newly forming stars influence the structure of the gas and dust of nearby galaxies, and therefore how they evolve over time. Areas of galaxies that once appeared dim and dark in visible light, now under Webb's infrared eye, are glowing cavities and huge cavernous bubbles of gas and dust.

Supermassive Black Holes: A Possible Source of Dark Energy

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2023

A group of astronomers say they have evidence that links supermassive black holes at galactic centers with dark energy, the mysterious force that accounts for roughly 68% of the energy in the universe. Here's the news release and the paper. From the Guardian:

Instead of dark energy being smeared out across spacetime, as many physicists have assumed, the scientists suggest that it is created and remains inside black holes, which form in the crushing forces of collapsing stars.

"We propose that black holes are the source for dark energy," said Duncan Farrah, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii. "This dark energy is produced when normal matter is compressed during the death and collapse of large stars."

The claim was met with raised eyebrows from some independent experts, with one noting that while the idea deserved scrutiny, it was far too early to link black holes and dark energy. "There's a number of counter-arguments and facts that need to be understood if this claim is going to live more than a few months," said Vitor Cardoso, a professor of physics at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

And here's a short video explainer:

It's a radical claim to be sure — it'll be interesting to see how it shakes out in the weeks and months to come as other scientists interpret the results.

New Massive Image of the Milky Way with 3.32 Billion Individual Objects

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2023

image of part of the Milky Way with 3.32 billion individually identifiable objects

small portion of an image of part of the Milky Way with 3.32 billion individually identifiable objects

Thanks to a planet-wide collaboration, scientists have released an image of the Milky Way that contains 3.32 billion individually identifiable objects, most of which are stars.

Gathering the data required to cover this much of the night sky was a Herculean task; the DECaPS2 survey identified 3.32 billion objects from over 21,400 individual exposures. Its two-year run, which involved about 260 hours of observations, produced more than 10 terabytes of data.

Most of the stars and dust in the Milky Way are located in its spiral disk — the bright band stretching across this image. While this profusion of stars and dust makes for beautiful images, it also makes the galactic plane challenging to observe. The dark tendrils of dust seen threading through this image absorb starlight and blot out fainter stars entirely, and the light from diffuse nebulae interferes with any attempts to measure the brightness of individual objects. Another challenge arises from the sheer number of stars, which can overlap in the image and make it difficult to disentangle individual stars from their neighbors.

It's worth checking out the largest size of the image published on the web (which is actually much smaller than the image's actual size) as well as a tiny portion of the full image (second image above) that shows just how much detail is there. A zoomable interface for the entire image is available here.

James Webb Telescope's Incredibly Deep View of the Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2023

an image of thousands of galaxies taken by the James Webb Space Telescope

The European Space Agency has released a gobsmacking deep field image of thousands of galaxies taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

A crowded field of galaxies throngs this Picture of the Month from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, along with bright stars crowned with Webb's signature six-pointed diffraction spikes. The large spiral galaxy at the base of this image is accompanied by a profusion of smaller, more distant galaxies which range from fully-fledged spirals to mere bright smudges. Named LEDA 2046648, it is situated a little over a billion light-years from Earth, in the constellation Hercules.

I know we've seen deep field images from the Hubble, but I don't know how you can tire of looking at actual images created by human technology that shows thousands of galaxies, billions of years, trillions of stars, quadrillions of planets, untold numbers of potential intelligences & civilizations, and who really knows what else. It boggles the mind, every time.

You can download/view a massive high-res copy of this image right here.

Update: Here's a video that zooms in from a wide view of the Milky Way all the way into galaxy LEDA 2046648 pictured above.

Wow. (via @cparnot)

Apollo, As Seen by Young Girls

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2023

Three girls quoted in a 1971 Billings Gazette article about the Apollo program — Betsy Longo, Amy Ponich, Jennifer Dettmann

On February 7, 1971, the Billings Gazette, a local Montana newspaper, ran a story by Carol Perkins titled "Apollo — As Kids See It." They interviewed young kids, from 5 to 11, and a range of boys and girls, to get their opinion about NASA's then-current manned moon missions. Paleofuture's Matt Novak zeroes in on the girls:

"I wouldn't like to go to the moon. It's not really a place for girls," said 7-year-old Joan Anderson, who would be about 58 years old now.

"I think it would be fun to marry an astronaut. He would be rich and famous," said 5-year-old Gail Standard.

"He'd be gone away a lot, so I would go with him. I'd wear a girl's astronaut uniform and cook a lot of potatoes," said 6-year-old Jennifer Dettmann, speaking of her potential astronaut husband.

There are a lot of myths about the Apollo space program. Chief among them is that most Americans fervently supported the space program's enormous costs. In reality, most Americans of the 1960s thought the Apollo space program wasn't a good use of taxpayer funds, with many people asking why that money wasn't being spent to fight homelessness or hunger in the U.S.—the same criticisms you hear today.

In fact, one of the girls quoted in the article, 11-year-old Betsy Longo, expressed a similar sentiment.

"I don't think they should use so much money to go to the moon," Longo said. "They should use it to stop cancer and help people here on Earth."

One 10-year-old, Amy Ponich, was the only girl in the article who seemed receptive to the idea that she could have a role to play in America's exploration of space, telling the reporter that she wanted to be a scientist to "discover more frontiers."

"We need to know what the moon is made of and how it related to the Earth," Ponich said.

The US Apollo program only included men, but the USSR's Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space in 1963. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983, twelve years after this article. Since the Apollo program ended in 1972, no human beings have landed on the moon.

How to Find the Rare Green Comet in the Night Skies

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2023

photo of Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF)

A comet called Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is currently visible in northern skies with the naked eye and here's how you can catch a glimpse for yourself.

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is currently making its way through the northern skies and should reach its brightest magnitude in early February, according to In-The-Sky.org as it approaches perigee on Feb. 1. To see the comet for yourself, look to the north just after sunset and look for a faint greenish glow. Under the right dark sky conditions, the comet could be visible to the unaided eye, but binoculars will certainly make the job easier.

The comet last visited the Earth about 50,000 years ago and this may be its last visit before it leaves the solar system for good. The unusual green color results from a rare chemical reaction:

The comet itself isn't green, but its head does appear to glow green thanks to a somewhat rare chemical reaction. The glow likely comes from diatomic carbon (C2) — a simple molecule made of two carbon atoms bonded together. When ultraviolet light from the sun breaks this molecule down, it emits a greenish glow that can last for several days, according to a 2021 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This eerie light disappears before making its way to the comet's tail, or coma, which is made of gas. That gas is once again a result of solar radiation - in this case, sunlight causes part of the comet to sublimate, or transition from a solid into a gas without entering a liquid state. That gas streaks behind the comet, often glowing blue from the ultraviolet light.

The best, brightest views of the comet will be right around Feb 1, when it will be near the constellation Camelopardalis (almost due north, in the general vicinity of the Big and Little Dippers) right after sunset — use an app like Sky Guide to help find it. It's cloudy here in Vermont until Friday...I'm going to try to catch a glimpse of it then.

Amazing photo of Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) above by Dan Bartlett.

Magnificent Black & White Photos of the Earth Rising Over the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2023

black and white photo of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon

black and white photo of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon

South Korea currently has a probe called Danuri orbiting the Moon at an altitude of about 62 miles above the surface. It's just begun its mission but has already sent back some black & white photos of the Moon and the Earth, including the two above. Over at EarthSky, Dave Adalian says these shots "rival the work of legendary nature photographer Ansel Adams" and it's difficult to disagree.

Also worth a look: Danuri's shot of the Earth and Moon from a distance, hanging in the blackness of space like a pair of pearls. (via petapixel)

Detailed Martian Geologic Maps from the USGS

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2023

geologic map of the Olympus Mons caldera on Mars

geologic map of the Aeolis Dorsa region of Mars

The USGS Astrogeology Science Center recently released a series of detailed geological maps of Mars that detail features from the red planet's past like volcanos and flowing water. If you're thinking, "hey that looks a lot like a river in that second image", you're not far off.

One particularly interesting feature that hints at Mars' watery past is the sinuous ridge, which is a winding, narrow ridge that looks like an inverted river channel. These ridges are interpreted to be aqueous (formed by water), making them possible clues about the history of water on Mars.

The scale of the maps is useful for identifying geologic changes over time:

The new map of Aeolis Dorsa adds to the hypothesis that Mars was once wet and had abundant active river systems in the past before aqueous activity decreased over time. This change caused the primary depositional methods in the region to shift from rivers (fluvial) to sediment fans with intermittent deposition (alluvial) and eventually to a dry and wind-driven (aeolian) system. This local pattern mimics our current understanding of the global environmental history of Mars.

Lovely aesthetics as well. (via @geoffmanaugh)

A Soothing Hour of the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2023

Sure, the James Webb Space Telescope and ok, the Hubble, but the Solar Dynamics Observatory has to be right up there for producing some of the most jaw-dropping space photography around. This 4K video from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center condenses 133 days of the SRO's observations of the Sun into a soothing hour-long time lapse.

See also The Highest Resolution Photo of the Sun Ever Taken, A Decade of Sun, Epic Time Lapse Videos of Mercury's Transit of the Sun, and Thermonuclear Art.

Our First Closeup Image of Mars Was a Paint-By-Numbers Pastel Drawing

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 30, 2022

Pastel drawing of the surface of Mars

On July 15, 1965, NASA's Mariner 4 probe flew within 6,118 miles of the surface of Mars, capturing images as it passed over the planet. The image data was transmitted back to scientists on Earth, but they didn't have a good way to quickly render a photograph from it. They determined that the fastest way to see what Mariner 4 had seen was to print out the imaging data as a series of numbers, paste them into a grid, buy a set of pastels from a nearby art store, and do a paint-by-numbers job with the pastels on the data grid. The result (pictured above) was the first closeup representation of the surface of an extraterrestrial planet — in color, no less!

After the flyby of the planet it would take several hours for computers to process a real image. So while they were waiting, the engineers thought of different ways of taking the 1's and 0's from the actual data and create an image. After a few variations, it seemed most efficient to print out the digits and color over them based upon how bright each pixel was. So Mr. Grumm went to a local art store and asked for a set of chalk with different shades of gray. The art store replied that they "did not sell chalk" (as that was apparently too low for them, only convenience stores sold "chalk"), but they did have colored pastels. Richard did not want to spend a lot of time arguing with them, so he bought the pastels (actual pastels seen below), had the 1's and 0's printed out on ticker tape about 3in wide, and his team colored them by their brightness level (color key seen below).

Here's a closer view of the pastels and numbers:

detail of a pastel drawing of the surface of Mars

The choice of color palette was serendipitous:

Though he used a brown/red color scheme, the thought that Mars was red did not enter his mind. He really was looking for the colors that best represented a grey scale, since that was what they were going to get anyway. It is uncanny how close his color scheme is to the actual colors of Mars. It's as if they came right out of current images of the planet.

Compare with the photography we're getting from Curiosity these days; we've come a long way in the last 60 years. (via @jenniferrrrrroberts and robin sloan)

Some of the Best Moon & Earth Photos from NASA's Artemis I Mission

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2022

photo of the Moon and Earth with the Artemis I spacecraft in the foreground

photo of the Moon and Earth with the Artemis I spacecraft in the foreground

close-up of the lunar surface

photo of the Earth with the Artemis I spacecraft in the foreground

close-up of the lunar surface

photo of the Moon with the Artemis I spacecraft in the foreground

photo of the Moon and Earth with the Artemis I spacecraft in the foreground

Over the weekend, NASA's Artemis I mission returned from a 25-day trip to the Moon. The mission was a test-run of the rockets, systems, and spacecraft that will return humans to the surface of the Moon. Visual imaging has been an integral part of even the earliest space missions — strap a camera to a spacecraft, let the people see what space looks like, and they will be inspired. Well, the photographs returned by Artemis I's Orion spacecraft have certainly been inspirational. Working from NASA's archive of images (on Flickr too), I've selected some of the most interesting and dramatic photos from the mission. The one at the top, showing a crescent Earth rising over the Moon's surface, might be one of my favorite space photos ever (and that's really saying something) — you can see a bigger version of it here.

Mars Helicopter Spots Perseverance Rover's Landing Debris

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2022

wreckage from the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars

wreckage from the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars

On the 26th flight of Ingenuity, NASA's helicopter on Mars, it spotted and photographed the wreckage of the Perseverance rover's landing gear, protective shell, and parachute. From a NY Times article on the photos:

"There's definitely a sci-fi element to it," Ian Clark, an engineer who worked on Perseverance's parachute system, said of photographs released on Wednesday. "It exudes otherworldly, doesn't it?"

Part of the reason NASA had Ingenuity go take a look is to see how all of that equipment held up during the landing process. Data from the photos will inform future missions.

"Perseverance had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown," said JPL's Ian Clark, former Perseverance systems engineer and now Mars Sample Return ascent phase lead. "But Ingenuity's images offer a different vantage point. If they either reinforce that our systems worked as we think they worked or provide even one dataset of engineering information we can use for Mars Sample Return planning, it will be amazing. And if not, the pictures are still phenomenal and inspiring."

In the images of the upright backshell and the debris field that resulted from it impacting the surface at about 78 mph (126 kph), the backshell's protective coating appears to have remained intact during Mars atmospheric entry. Many of the 80 high-strength suspension lines connecting the backshell to the parachute are visible and also appear intact. Spread out and covered in dust, only about a third of the orange-and-white parachute — at 70.5 feet (21.5 meters) wide, it was the biggest ever deployed on Mars — can be seen, but the canopy shows no signs of damage from the supersonic airflow during inflation. Several weeks of analysis will be needed for a more final verdict.

It is really remarkable, the images we're seeing from Mars, taken by a robotic helicopter.

NASA's Perseverance Rover Sees Solar Eclipse on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2022

Wow, NASA just released a video shot by the Mars Perseverance rover of a solar eclipse by the moon Phobos. The video description calls it "the most zoomed-in, highest frame-rate observation of a Phobos solar eclipse ever taken from the Martian surface". According to this article from JPL, the video of the eclipse is played in realtime; it only lasted about 40 seconds.

Captured with Perseverance's next-generation Mastcam-Z camera on April 2, the 397th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, the eclipse lasted a little over 40 seconds — much shorter than a typical solar eclipse involving Earth's Moon. (Phobos is about 157 times smaller than Earth's Moon. Mars' other moon, Deimos, is even smaller.)

Just a hunk of space rock passing in front of a massive burning ball of gas recorded by a robot from the surface of an extraterrestrial planet, no big deal.

High-Res View of a Martian Crater

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2022

Seán Doran strikes again. In this short flyover rendered in 8K resolution by Doran, we're treated to a detailed look at a crater on Mars. The imagery is from the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Beautiful — worth taking a second or third pass to catch all the details.

The Highest Resolution Photo of the Sun Ever Taken

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2022

very high resolution image of the Sun

The European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter recently took 25 images of the Sun from a distance of 46 million miles that, when stitched all together, form the highest resolution photo of the Sun (and its corona) ever created.

The high-resolution telescope of EUI takes pictures of such high spatial resolution that, at that close distance, a mosaic of 25 individual images is needed to cover the entire Sun. Taken one after the other, the full image was captured over a period of more than four hours because each tile takes about 10 minutes, including the time for the spacecraft to point from one segment to the next.

In total, the final image contains more than 83 million pixels in a 9148 x 9112 pixel grid. For comparison, this image has a resolution that is ten times better than what a 4K TV screen can display.

You can zoom in on the image here to see how remarkably detailed it is.

How Saturn Got Its Rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2022

Within the past 100 million years, an icy moon got too close to Saturn and the planet's gravity ripped it apart, forming the iconic rings. This clip from BBC's The Planets details how that happened, accompanied by some amazing photography from NASA's Cassini mission.

I got this from The Kid Should See This, who shared some ring facts:

They are younger than the dinosaurs, they form a disk wider than Jupiter that averages just 9 meters (30 feet) thick, and thanks to Cassini, we now know that there are tall peaks rising as high as 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) from the planet's B ring.

I've shared this story on the site before, but seeing the rings of Saturn through my telescope in my backyard as a teenager made a massive impression on me as to the scale of the solar system and humankind's ability to understand it through science and technology. I still can't believe you can see those rings with a cheap telescope or binoculars. Incredible.

Apollo 10 1/2

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2022

From Richard Linklater (Boyhood, A Scanner Darkly) comes a new Netflix movie called Apollo 10 1/2, in which a young boy growing up in Houston, TX in the 60s gets recruited by NASA to land a accidentally-too-small lunar lander on the Moon. It's animated1 and premieres on Netflix on April 1.

  1. The movie is rotoscoped, like Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. I have to say, the rotoscoping effect is not my favorite. Why couldn't this have been live action? I bet it would find more of an audience that way...

How the James Webb Space Telescope Orbits Nothing

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is designed to be positioned near one of the five Lagrange Points in the Sun/Earth system, special areas of gravitational equilibrium that keep objects stationary relative to both the Earth and the Sun. Here's how Lagrange Points work and why they are so useful for spacecraft like the Webb.

See also What Makes Lagrange Points Special Locations In Space.

Voyage of the Moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2022

Space is mostly just what it says on the tin: empty space. The solar system is no exception; it's a massive volume occupied by little more than the Sun's mass — the mass of all the planets, moons, comets, asteroids, space dust, and stray electrons are just a bit more than a rounding error. But oh what mass it is when you get up close to it.

The NASA space probe Cassini, on its seven-year journey to Saturn, cozied up to Jupiter in December 2000 and captured a succession of images of Io and Europa passing over the Great Red Spot during the moons' orbit of the gas giant planet. Kevin Gill turned those images into the incredible video embedded above. That we have such crisp, smooth video of two small moons orbiting a planet some 444 million miles away from Earth is something of a miracle — it looks totally rendered. Also in the video is footage of Titan orbiting Saturn — that horizontal line bisecting the frame is Saturn's rings, edge-on.

How Does The James Webb Space Telescope Work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is still winging its way to its permanent home at the L2 point1 about 930,000 miles from Earth — it's due to arrive in about 4 days. It's a massive and fascinating project and for his YouTube series Smarter Every Day, Destin Sandlin talked to Nobel laureate John Mather, the senior project scientist for the JWST, about how the telescope works.

Also worth a watch is Real Engineering's The Insane Engineering of James Webb Telescope:

It really is a marvel of modern science & engineering — I can't wait to see what the telescope sees once it's fully operational.

  1. You can read about Lagrange points here or here...they are interesting!

Gorilla in Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2022

Astronaut Scott Kelly arranged to have a gorilla suit sent up to him during his year spent on the International Space Station. One day, near the end of the mission in 2016, he put it on, stowed away in a large storage container, and then escaped and went on a "rampage".

Powers of Ten, Updated With Current Science

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2022

Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 short film Powers of Ten is one of the best bits of science communication ever created...and a personal favorite of mine. Here's a description of the original film:

Powers of Ten takes us on an adventure in magnitudes. Starting at a picnic by the lakeside in Chicago, this famous film transports us to the outer edges of the universe. Every ten seconds we view the starting point from ten times farther out until our own galaxy is visible only a s a speck of light among many others. Returning to Earth with breathtaking speed, we move inward — into the hand of the sleeping picnicker — with ten times more magnification every ten seconds. Our journey ends inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

As an homage, the BBC and particle physicist Brian Cox have created an updated version that reflects what we've learned about the universe in the 45 years since Powers of Ten was made. The new video zooms out to the limits of our current observational powers, to about 100 billion light years away, 1000X wider than in the original. (I wish they would have done the zoom in part of the video too, but maybe next year!)

And if you'd like to explore the scales of the universe for yourself, check out the Universe in a Nutshell app from Tim Urban and Kurzgesagt — you can zoom in and out as far as you want and interact with and learn about objects along the way.

A Close-Up Photo of Comet Leonard by an Amateur Astronomer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2022

Comet Leonard

Using a composite of 25 different shots done over a period of 12 minutes in his backyard, amateur astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy created this stunning image of Comet Leonard. From PetaPixel:

Processing comet images is a challenge because even in the span of 12 minutes, the comet drifts across the frame relative to the background stars," McCarthy tells PetaPixel. "Due to the comet's motion, it has to be stacked differently. I tell the software to stack the images based on the comet position and star positions separately, which is then combined together to produce an image with the comet and stars both sharp.

See also this image of Leonard and McCarthy's colorful photo of a full moon.

The Dark Forest (Or, Why We Should Keep Still and Not Look for Aliens)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

Inspired by the second book in Liu Cixin's excellent Three-Body Problem trilogy, Kurzgesagt made a video about the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

Confronted with the seemingly empty universe, humanity faces a dilemma. We desperately want to know if we are alone in the Milky Way. We want to call out and reveal ourselves to anyone watching but that could be the last thing we ever do. Because maybe the universe is not empty. Maybe it's full of civilizations but they are hiding from each other. Maybe the civilizations that attracted attention in the past were wiped away by invisible arrows. This is the Dark Forest solution to the Fermi paradox.

I have The Dark Forest on the Kindle, so I looked up how this is explained in the book (spoilers, obvs):

"The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life-another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod-there's only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It's the explanation for the Fermi Paradox."

Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.

"But in this dark forest, there's a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, 'Here I am! Here I am!'" Luo Ji said.

"Has anyone heard it?"

"That's guaranteed. But those shouts alone can't be used to determine the child's location. Humanity has not yet transmitted information about the exact position of Earth and the Solar System into the universe. From the information that has been sent out, all that can be learned is the distance between Earth and Trisolaris, and their general heading in the Milky Way. The precise location of the two worlds is still a mystery. Since we're located in the wilderness of the periphery of the galaxy, we're a little safer."

That's the basic idea, but there's more to it...you should watch the video or, even better, read the series — I've read the entire trilogy twice and this makes me want to read it again! (I loved the Drive Easter egg towards the end of the video. Well played.)

This Is A Film About The James Webb Space Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

In this entertaining, informative, and charmingly goofy video, Dr. Kevin Hainline tells us all about the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST is a bigger and better version of the Hubble Space Telescope and will allow scientists to peer deeper into the universe and farther back in time than ever before.

Listen, science is hard! Engineering is hard! It's difficult to figure out how to build an incredibly sensitive infrared detector that you have to cram together on the back of a giant, foldable, gold covered mirror, sitting on a delicate, tennis-court-sized parasol, that can survive a rocket launch! It's hard stuff!

And hundreds and hundreds of people around the world have been working on it together. JWST is the single most complicated science project human beings have ever attempted. But it's been worth it. Because we want to discover the earliest galaxies in the universe, and clouds on other planets, and baby star-forming regions, and debris disks around stars, and weird dwarf galaxies, and supermassive black holes!

It's been in development for almost thirty years and everyone is really ready for it! The James Webb Space Telescope is about to change astronomy. Get ready for discovery!

I am ready and excited! The JWST is currently set to launch no earlier than Dec 24, 2021. You can follow the progress of the launch here.

See also Looking back in time with the James Webb Space Telescope (60 Minutes) and 29 Days on the Edge. Oh and scientists have been working on this project for 20 years and are (understandably) really nervous about what happens with the launch.

A NASA Spacecraft Has Touched the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

For the first time in human history, a spacecraft has flown through the Sun's corona to collect data and capture samples (and, crucially, exited safely).

During the flyby, Parker Solar Probe passed into and out of the corona several times. This is proved what some had predicted — that the Alfvén critical surface isn't shaped like a smooth ball. Rather, it has spikes and valleys that wrinkle the surface. Discovering where these protrusions line up with solar activity coming from the surface can help scientists learn how events on the Sun affect the atmosphere and solar wind.

Six panels of images taken from inside a coronal streamer. They appear grayish with white streaks showing particles in the solar wind.

At one point, as Parker Solar Probe dipped to just beneath 15 solar radii (around 6.5 million miles) from the Sun's surface, it transited a feature in the corona called a pseudostreamer. Pseudostreamers are massive structures that rise above the Sun's surface and can be seen from Earth during solar eclipses.

Passing through the pseudostreamer was like flying into the eye of a storm. Inside the pseudostreamer, the conditions quieted, particles slowed, and number of switchbacks dropped — a dramatic change from the busy barrage of particles the spacecraft usually encounters in the solar wind.

For the first time, the spacecraft found itself in a region where the magnetic fields were strong enough to dominate the movement of particles there. These conditions were the definitive proof the spacecraft had passed the Alfvén critical surface and entered the solar atmosphere where magnetic fields shape the movement of everything in the region.

The first passage through the corona, which lasted only a few hours, is one of many planned for the mission. Parker will continue to spiral closer to the Sun, eventually reaching as close as 8.86 solar radii (3.83 million miles) from the surface. Upcoming flybys, the next of which is happening in January 2022, will likely bring Parker Solar Probe through the corona again.

The video above provides a great overview of the origins, objectives, and motivations for the mission.