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kottke.org posts about space

Neil and Buzz Barely Got Out of the Infield

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

Apollo 11 Baseball

With the 50th anniversary of the first crewed landing on the Moon fast approaching, I thought I’d share one of my favorite views of the Moon walk, a map of where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, superimposed over a baseball field (bigger). The Lunar Module is parked on the pitcher’s mound and you can see where the two astronauts walked, set up cameras, collected samples, and did experiments.

This map easily illustrates something you don’t get from watching video of the Moon walk: just how close the astronauts stayed to the LM and how small an area they covered during their 2 and 1/2 hours on the surface. The crew had spent 75+ hours flying 234,000 miles to the Moon and when they finally got out onto the surface, they barely left the infield! On his longest walk, Armstrong ventured into center field about 200 feet from the mound, not even far enough to reach the warning track in most major league parks. In fact, the length of Armstrong’s walk fell far short of the 363-foot length of the Saturn V rocket that carried him to the Moon and all of their activity could fit neatly into a soccer pitch (bigger):

Apollo 11 Soccer

Astronauts on subsequent missions ventured much further. The Apollo 12 crew ventured 600 feet from the LM on their second walk of the mission. The Apollo 14 crew walked almost a mile. After the Lunar Rover entered the mix, excursions up to 7 miles during EVAs that lasted for more than 7 hours at a time became common.

Video of the Complete Descent of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2019

The Apollo Flight Journal has put together a 20-minute video of the full descent and landing of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module containing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.

The video combines data from the onboard computer for altitude and pitch angle, 16mm film that was shot throughout the descent at 6 frames per second. The audio recording is from two sources. The air/ground transmissions are on the left stereo channel and the mission control flight director loop is on the right channel. Subtitles are included to aid comprehension.

Reminder that you can follow along in sync with the entire Apollo 11 mission right up until their splashdown. I am also doing my presentation of Walter Cronkite’s CBS news coverage of the landing and the Moon walk again this year, starting at 4:10pm EDT on Saturday, July 20. Here’s the post I wrote about it last year for more details. (thx, david)

The Atlas of Moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2019

Atlas Of Moons

From National Geographic comes The Atlas of Moons, an interactive reference to all of the major moons in our solar system, from the Earth’s own moon to the Galilean moons of Jupiter to Charon, which forms a binary system with Pluto.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t fully aware that some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s major moons orbited their planets so quickly — Europa takes 3.6 days to complete an orbit, Io once every 1.8 days, and Mimas speeds around Saturn every 22.6 hours.

How to Watch the South American Solar Eclipse

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2019

Today, July 2, 2019, just after 4:30pm ET, a total solar eclipse will be visible in parts of Chile and Argentina. Because most of you, I am guessing, are not currently in those parts of Chile and Argentina, the best way to watch the eclipse is through any number of live streams, three of which I’m embedding here:

I was lucky enough to see the eclipse in 2017 and it was a life-altering experience, so I’ll be tearing myself away from the USA vs England match for a few minutes at least.

Beautiful Maps of the Solar System’s Asteroids and the Topography of Mercury

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

Remember how last week I told you about Eleanor Lutz’s An Atlas of Space?

Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km.

Well, she’s posted her first two projects: An Orbit Map of the Solar System (a map of more than 18,000 asteroid orbits in the solar system) and A Topographic Map of Mercury.

Atlas Of Space

Atlas Of Space

As promised, Lutz has posted the source code for each project to her GitHub account: Mercury topography, asteroid orbits. What a great resource for aspiring data visualization designers. Stay tuned to her site, Twitter, or Tumblr for upcoming installments of the atlas.

Update: Lutz’s third map in the series is out: The Geology of Mars. And here’s the link to the code and how-to on Github.

Atlas Of Space

Update: Lutz’s fourth map has been released: an animated map of the Earth cycling through all four seasons. Link to the code on GitHub.

Also, she’s made high-res wallpapers available for download in a number of different aspect ratios…check out the links at the bottom of the post.

Update: Today’s installment of the atlas presents a view from our solar system: The Western Constellations (source code on Github).

Atlas Of Space

This week’s map shows every single star visible from Earth, on the darkest night with the clearest sky. The map also includes all of the brightest galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters from W.H. Finlay’s Concise Catalog of Deep-sky Objects. I illustrated the familiar Western star patterns — or asterisms — in blue and gold, as well as the scientific constellation boundaries in red.

The Apollo 11 Mission in Realtime

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 17, 2019

Apollo 11 Realtime

Well, this is just flat-out fantastic. Ben Feist and a team of collaborators have built Apollo 11 In Real Time, an interactive presentation of the first mission to land on the Moon as it happened.

This website replays the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, 50 years ago. It consists entirely of historical material, all timed to Ground Elapsed Time — the master mission clock. Footage of Mission Control, film shot by the astronauts, and television broadcasts transmitted from space and the surface of the Moon, have been painstakingly placed to the very moments they were shot during the mission, as has every photograph taken, and every word spoken.

You can tune in in real time beginning July 16th, watch/experience it right now from 1 minute before launch, or you can skip around the timeline to just watch the moments you want. As someone who has been hosting an Apollo 11 in real time thing for the past 9 years, this site makes me both ridiculously happy and a little bit jealous.

I’ve only ever seen footage of the first moonwalk in grainy videos as broadcast on TV, but this site shows it in the original resolution and it’s a revelation. Here’s the moonwalk, beginning with some footage of the folks in Mission Control nervously fidgeting with their hands (skip to 5:18:00 if the video doesn’t start there):

The rest of the video for the entire mission can be found here…what a trove. This whole thing is marvelous…I can’t wait to tune in when July 16th rolls around.

The Biggest Nonmilitary Effort in the History of Human Civilization

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2019

aldrin-moon.jpg

Charles Fishman has a new book, One Giant Leap, all about NASA’s Apollo program to land an astronaut on the moon. He talks about it on Fresh Air with Dave Davies.

On what computers were like in the early ’60s and how far they had to come to go to space

It’s hard to appreciate now, but in 1961, 1962, 1963, computers had the opposite reputation of the reputation they have now. Most computers couldn’t go more than a few hours without breaking down. Even on John Glenn’s famous orbital flight — the first U.S. orbital flight — the computers in mission control stopped working for three minutes [out] of four hours. Well, that’s only three minutes [out] of four hours, but that was the most important computer in the world during that four hours and they couldn’t keep it going during the entire orbital mission of John Glenn.

So they needed computers that were small, lightweight, fast and absolutely reliable, and the computers that were available then — even the compact computers — were the size of two or three refrigerators next to each other, and so this was a huge technology development undertaking of Apollo.

On the seamstresses who wove the computer memory by hand

There was no computer memory of the sort that we think of now on computer chips. The memory was literally woven … onto modules and the only way to get the wires exactly right was to have people using needles, and instead of thread wire, weave the computer program. …

The Apollo computers had a total of 73 [kilobytes] of memory. If you get an email with the morning headlines from your local newspaper, it takes up more space than 73 [kilobytes]. … They hired seamstresses. … Every wire had to be right. Because if you got [it] wrong, the computer program didn’t work. They hired women, and it took eight weeks to manufacture the memory for a single Apollo flight computer, and that eight weeks of manufacturing was literally sitting at sophisticated looms weaving wires, one wire at a time.

One anecdote that was new to me describes Armstrong and Aldrin test-burning moon dust, to make sure it wouldn’t ignite when repressurized.

Armstrong and Aldrin actually had been instructed to do a little experiment. They had a little bag of lunar dirt and they put it on the engine cover of the ascent engine, which was in the middle of the lunar module cabin. And then they slowly pressurized the cabin to make sure it wouldn’t catch fire and it didn’t. …

The smell turns out to be the smell of fireplace ashes, or as Buzz Aldrin put it, the smell of the air after a fireworks show. This was one of the small but sort of delightful surprises about flying to the moon.

Space Robot Roll Call

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2019

Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society filed a report on humanity’s current roster of spacecraft currently exploring the solar system (and beyond).

Probe Report 2019

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 are now past their prime mission and are in their extended mission phases. Their companion SmallSat, Longjiang-2, will crash into the Moon on 31 July to bring its mission to an intentional end. Parker Solar Probe is near aphelion as of 1 July and will reach its third death-defying solar perihelion on 1 September. BepiColombo completed its near-Earth commissioning phase on 5 April and is now settling into its long-cruise phase. Earlier this year, the ESA-JAXA Mercury mission was racing ahead of Earth on an inside track, but its elliptical orbit has now taken it farther from the Sun than Earth, allowing Earth to catch up. It will return to Earth’s neighborhood in April 2020 for a flyby.

I counted roughly 30 different probes and rovers in operation, most of them gathered around the Moon and Mars. Sure, where’s my jetpack and flying car and all that, but the fact that humanity has more than two dozen robots currently exploring the solar system seems pretty futuristic to me.

Wikipedia also has a page listing currently active probes and of course there’s the lovely & informative spaceprob.es as well.

An Atlas of Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2019

Atlas Of Space

Eleanor Lutz is one of my favorite data visualizers (previously) and she’s about ready to drop her new project: An Atlas of Space.

I’m excited to finally share a new design project this week! Over the past year and a half I’ve been working on a collection of ten maps on planets, moons, and outer space. To name a few, I’ve made an animated map of the seasons on Earth, a map of Mars geology, and a map of everything in the solar system bigger than 10km.

Over the next few weeks I want to share each map alongside the open-source Python code and detailed tutorials for recreating the design. All of the astronomy data comes from publicly available sources like NASA and the USGS, so I thought this would be the perfect project for writing design tutorials (which I’ve been meaning to do for a while).

Ahhh, look at those colors! Lutz is going to be posting a new map from the project periodically over the next few weeks so follow her on Tabletop Whale, Twitter, or Tumblr to tune in.

Update: I’m keeping track of the projects that make up the atlas as they are released in updates to this post.

Chasing the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2019

In July, American Experience will air Chasing the Moon, a 6-hour documentary film about the effort to send a manned mission to the Moon before the end of the 1960s.

The series recasts the Space Age as a fascinating stew of scientific innovation, political calculation, media spectacle, visionary impulses and personal drama. Utilizing a visual feast of previously overlooked and lost archival material — much of which has never before been seen by the public — the film features a diverse cast of characters who played key roles in these historic events. Among those included are astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman and Bill Anders; Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet premier and a leading Soviet rocket engineer; Poppy Northcutt, a 25-year old “mathematics whiz” who gained worldwide attention as the first woman to serve in the all-male bastion of NASA’s Mission Control; and Ed Dwight, the Air Force pilot selected by the Kennedy administration to train as America’s first black astronaut.

Among the stories not usually told about the Moon missions is that of Ed Dwight, NASA’s first black astronaut trainee:

Since 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, there’s a *lot* of stuff out there about the Space Race and Apollo program, but this film looks like it’s going to be one of the best. The film will start airing on PBS on July 8 and the Blu-ray & DVD comes out on July 9. There’s a companion book that will be available next week.

Nichelle Nichols’ 1977 NASA Recruitment Film for Space Shuttle Astronauts

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2019

In this NASA promotional film from 1977, Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols takes a tour of the Johnson Space Center with Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean and urges viewers, especially women and people of color, to sign up to be astronauts on NASA’s Space Shuttle program.

As one of the first black women to play a lead role on television, Nichols was a role model for women and people of color, particularly those interested in science, space, and engineering. When she was she thinking of quitting Star Trek, Nichols met Martin Luther King Jr. at a NAACP fundraiser and he talked her into staying on the show. She recalled King telling her:

Do you not understand what God has given you? … You have the first important non-traditional role, non-stereotypical role. … You cannot abdicate your position. You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.

So when NASA came calling, Nichols used her position well:

She relayed her response to NASA with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don’t choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it.”

Nichols credited Star Trek with the success of her recruiting efforts. “Suddenly the people who were responding were the bigger Trekkers you ever saw. They truly believed what I said… it was a very successful endeavor. It changed the face of the astronaut corp forever.”

Among the recruits drawn to NASA by Nichols’ efforts were Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Ronald McNair & Judith Resnick, who both died in the Challenger accident, Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space, and Mae Jemison, who was the first black woman in space. The diversity of the latest batch of NASA astronauts-in-training is a testament to Nichols’ and NASA’s joint efforts as well. (via open culture)

The Martian Base in the Gobi Desert

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2019

Mars Base Gobi

A Chinese company called C-Space has built a simulation of a Mars base in the Gobi desert. Currently used for educational purposes, the company plans to open “Mars Base 1” up for tourism to give visitors a glimpse of what living on Mars would be like.

The facility’s unveiling comes as China is making progress in its efforts to catch up to the United States and become a space power, with ambitions of sending humans to the moon someday.

The white-coloured base has a silver dome and nine modules, including living quarters, a control room, a greenhouse and an airlock.

Alan Taylor featured some photos of Mars Base 1 recently.

Mars Base Gobi

Mars Base Gobi

It’s all a little surreal, even before you get to the 2001 monolith:

Mars Base Gobi

The DIY Astronaut

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2019

Ever since he was a kid, Cameron Smith has wanted to go into space. This desire persisted into adulthood, and the Portland State archaeology professor has spent the past several years constructing a series of homemade pressurized spacesuits to achieve that dream. In this video, Smith talks about his quest and we witness his preparations for testing a spacesuit he built for under $1000 by taking it up in a balloon to a height of 63,000 feet.

You can read more about Smith and his project in the Journal of Critical Space Studies.

Smith’s journey to the upper atmosphere calls to mind the devil-may-care mindset typical of the early days of space exploration, when air force pilots on both sides of the Iron Curtain risked their neck to advance human spaceflight and secure military advantage in orbit. These pilots were the first humans to test experimental new pressure suits that were meant to sustain life in the upper atmosphere and beyond, and there was little assurance that they would ever return from these crucial tests alive.

And yes, you can totally buy old Russian and Soviet spacesuits on eBay.

The first photo of a black hole

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 10, 2019

The first photo of a black hole

Ok, this is pretty cool. We have the first photo of a supermassive black hole, from imagery taken two years ago of the elliptical galaxy M87 (in the constellation Virgo) by the Event Horizon Telescope project. The EHT team is a group of 200 scientist that has been working on this project for two decades. The image was created using data captured from radio telescopes from Hawaii to the South Pole and beyond using very long baseline interferometry.

The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of the galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from here, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the power and malevolence of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.

Now is a good time to (re)read Jonathan Lethem’s early novel, the absurdist physics love story As She Climbed Across the Table.

Update: Vox’s Joss Fong has a good 6-minute video that explains how the photo was taken:

And this video by Veritasium is even more meaty (and this one too):

US Postal Service Unveils 50th Anniversary Apollo 11 Stamps

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2019

Apollo 11 Usps

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the USPS is releasing a pair of stamps with lunar imagery.

One stamp features a photograph of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his spacesuit on the surface of the moon. The image was taken by astronaut Neil Armstrong. The other stamp, a photograph of the moon taken in 2010 by Gregory H. Revera of Huntsville, AL, shows the landing site of the lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility. The site is indicated on the stamp by a dot.

These pair nicely with the US Mint’s Apollo 11 commemorative coins.

Apollo 11 Mint Coin

(via swissmiss)

A Huge Collection of Apollo 11 Press Kits

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2019

When Apollo 11 landed two men on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth, thousands of people at NASA were joined in the effort by dozens of companies that did everything from building the spacecraft to providing the cameras for the mission. Each of those companies was understandably proud of their involvement and wanted to use the mission to drum up interest in their products and services. Marketing strategist David Meerman Scott has been collecting the press kits produced by the Apollo contractors and has made them available online for free download in PDF format.

What a trove! Here are a few of my favorites. First is the kit from Fisher, who provided the pens that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins wrote with during the voyage.

Apollo Press Kits

The final requirement was to see if the pen could still write after all that torture. NASA required that each pen write 1,653 feet of continuous traces, or for about 4 1/2 hours. The three pens were placed in an automatic writing machine and far out passed the qualifications. The first pen wrote for 54 hours and 50 minutes and 15,346 feet. The second finished after 18,303 feet. The third, writing on a new, highly absorbent paper, still wrote for 7,484 feet.

Fisher still sells a version of the original Apollo 11 space pen.

After the astronauts came back from the Moon, they were quarantined for 21 days to ensure that the crew had not returned with any harmful Moon germs. Stouffer’s, the frozen foods company, was contracted by NASA to provide some of the astronauts’ meals in quarantine.

Apollo Press Kits

A typical astronaut dinner will consist of short ribs of beef, potatoes au gratin and tossed green salad. Stouffer’s has been selected to provide from its retail line a major portion of the entrees and side dishes for the astronauts. Ease of preparation, purity, quality and variety as well as taste and appearance were the main reasons for NASA’s selection of Stouffer’s foods.

Hasselblad provided the cameras for the mission.

Apollo Press Kits

Grumman made the Lunar Module, the capsule that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to and from the surface of the Moon.

Apollo Press Kits

I could keep going on these all day. What a terrific resource. Scott, along with Richard Jurek, is also the author of Marketing the Moon, a book about how NASA sold the Apollo program to the American public. (via steven heller)

Stacey Abrams, Star Trek Superfan

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 08, 2019

Data-Stratagema.jpg

Georgia politician, almost-Governor, and Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams has a secret to her success: she loves Star Trek. In particular, she loves my favorite Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In explaining her approach to politics as a black Democratic woman in a state controlled by white Republican men, she devotes several pages to a pivotal scene from “Peak Performance,” an episode from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In the episode, Data, the preternaturally pale android with a greenish cast to his skin, is playing Strategema, a game that appears to be some incredibly complicated form of 3-D holographic chess, against a humanoid grandmaster named Kolrami. Data cannot defeat Kolrami, he discovers, but he can outlast him, drive him into a rage and force him to quit the game, which is itself a kind of victory.

Ms. Abrams writes that this has helped her focus her own thinking. “Data reframed his objective — not to win outright but to stay alive, passing up opportunities for immediate victory in favor of a strategy of survival,” she says in the book. “My lesson is simpler: change the rules of engagement.”

Stacey Abrams

This sparked some predictably joyous reactions among Star Trek fans:

And the following thoughtful thread from Manu Saadia (@trekonomics) on the history of progressive politics, as modeled in the Star Trek universe:

It actually is possible to overthink this. All of this about politics and the imagination and utopian possibilities is true. But at the same time, ultimately, it’s just a really cool show. It’s one we grew up with. And as politicians get younger, it’s one we’ve always had with us, framing our background on entertainment, war, morality, politics, economics — everything.

The world the original Star Trek entered was one where space was only beginning to open, as a direct consequence of the nuclear and geopolitical crisis than enveloping the planet. Now, we have all new geopolitical crises to deal with. Star Trek offers a surprisingly resilient fictional framework for understanding most if not all of them. That’s a powerful tool. It’s foolish to pass it up.

Oh, and Ms. Abrams — keep bustin’ ‘em up.

Video of a Japanese Space Probe Touching Down on an Asteroid

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

In this video released by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, you can see an on-board view of the Hayabusa2 probe touching down on an asteroid called Ryugu.

The blast you see is the probe firing a bullet made of tantalum at the surface in order to collect a sample. Here’s a photo of the landing site. From Wikipedia:

When the sampler horn attached to Hayabusa2’s underside touched the surface, a projectile (5-gram tantalum bullet) was fired at 300 m/s into the surface. The resulting ejecta particles were collected by a catcher at the top of the horn, which the ejecta reaches under their own momentum under microgravity conditions.

This is the first of three samples that are scheduled to be collected by Hayabusa2. The third sampling will try to collect material located under the surface of the asteroid. To achieve this, a separate gun will detach from the probe and fire a copper bullet at the surface, blasting a hole in the surface and exposing “pristine material”. Meanwhile, the probe itself will deploy a separate camera to watch the bullet’s impact, scoot out of the way to avoid debris, and then come back in a couple of weeks to collect a sample from the resulting crater, which will then be returned to Earth along with the other two samples. Ingenious! I love it when a plan comes together!

What’s the Weather Like on Mars Right Now?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2019

Now that the InSight lander is up and running on Mars, NASA is using the probe’s weather instrumentation to provide a daily weather report from the red planet.

Mars Insight Weather

The report is delayed by a day or so (communications delay? non-essential data delay?), but it’s still really cool to see what the temperature, wind speed, and barometric pressure is at Elysium Planitia.

I’d just like to note for the record that at some point on Monday, it was actually warmer on Mars than it is right now in Vermont. ♫ Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get out into the Martian sun… ♫

Earth’s Atmosphere Stretches Out Past the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2019

Earth Atmosphere Bigger

A recent analysis of data collected by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows that the Earth’s atmosphere is a lot larger than previously known.

A recent discovery based on observations by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO, shows that the gaseous layer that wraps around Earth reaches up to 630 000 km away, or 50 times the diameter of our planet.

“The Moon flies through Earth’s atmosphere,” says Igor Baliukin of Russia’s Space Research Institute, lead author of the paper presenting the results.

“We were not aware of it until we dusted off observations made over two decades ago by the SOHO spacecraft.”

As you might imagine, the atmosphere gets preeeeetty thin farther from the surface of the Earth — at the Moon’s distance, the density of hydrogen atoms is 0.2 atoms per cubic centimeter.

National Geographic’s Upcoming Documentary on the Apollo Missions

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2019

With the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing coming up this summer, the media is about to go into Apollo overdrive. (And I am fully here for it!) So far, there’s been First Man and this Apollo 11 documentary featuring a recently discovered trove of 65mm footage. Add to that Apollo: Missions to the Moon, a documentary series by Tom Jennings for National Geographic. Here’s the trailer:

Engadget has some info on the content of the film:

Director Tom Jennings (who previously documented the Challenger explosion and Princess Diana) is relying on a few uncommon technological tricks to enrich the experience. He’s melding NASA footage with Apollo black box recordings, for example, and is syncing 30-track audio from Mission Control. The aim is to create an “Apollo-era time machine,” Jennings said.

Add an original Hans Zimmer soundtrack into the mix and this could really be something special.

Goodbye Opportunity, the Little Mars Rover that Could

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2019

Yesterday, NASA declared the official end to the Opportunity rover mission on Mars.

One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

Opportunity was the longest-lived robot ever sent to another planet; it lasted longer than anyone could have imagined.

Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars — Perseverance Valley.

Here’s a quick video overview of the milestones of Opportunity’s mission:

The NY Times has a great interactive feature about the rover’s activities and achievements and XKCD has a tribute.

Xkcd Oppy

The Hoover Dam’s “Hidden” 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2019

There’s a little-known monument located at the site of the Hoover Dam that shows the progression of “North Stars” as the Earth moves through its 25,772-year change of rotational axis. Alexander Rose of the Long Now Foundation couldn’t find much public documentation related to this celestial map, so he did some research.

I now had some historical text and photos, but I was still missing a complete diagram of the plaza that would allow me to really understand it. I contacted the historian again, and she obtained permission from her superiors to release the actual building plans. I suspect that they generally don’t like to release technical plans of the dam for security reasons, but it seems they deemed my request a low security risk as the monument is not part of the structure of the dam. The historian sent me a tube full of large blueprints and a CD of the same prints already scanned. With this in hand I was finally able to re-construct the technical intent of the plaza and how it works.

In order to understand how the plaza marks the date of the dam’s construction in the nearly 26,000-year cycle of the earth’s precession, it is worth explaining what exactly axial precession is. In the simplest terms, it is the earth “wobbling” on its tilted axis like a gyroscope — but very, very slowly. This wobbling effectively moves what we see as the center point that stars appear to revolve around each evening.

Presently, this center point lies very close to the conveniently bright star Polaris. The reason we have historically paid so much attention to this celestial center, or North Star, is because it is the star that stays put all through the course of the night. Having this one fixed point in the sky is the foundation of all celestial navigation.

Here are some explanatory notes that Rose wrote over the blueprints of the monument showing how to read the map:

Hoover Celestial Map

Update: Wally Motloch has also done some significant research on this monument.

A Flyover of Europa

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 11, 2019

Using recently processed data from the Galileo probe, NASA-JPL software engineer Kevin Gill created this low-altitude flyover of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

The surface was imaged between 1996 & 1998 and is made up of a water-ice crust. Despite the cracks and streaks that you can see in the video, Europa actually has the smoothest surface of any object in the solar system.

These images are not super high-res because they were taken with equipment designed and built in the 80s. But we’re going to get a better look at Europa soon…both ESA’s JUICE probe and NASA’s Europa Clipper are planning on imaging the moon in the next decade.

In a Race to the Edge of the Solar System, Which Star Trek Ship Would Win?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2019

These visualizations of the speed of light I posted last week somehow demonstrate both how fast light speed is and how slow it is compared the vastness of the galaxy & universe. Science fiction often bends the rules of physics as we currently understand them, with fictional spacecraft pushing beyond the speed of light. In Star Trek, the measure of a ship’s velocity is warp speed. Warp 1 is the speed of light, Warp 6 is 392 times the speed of light, etc. In this Warp Speed Comparison video, EC Henry compares the top speeds of various Star Trek vessels (the original Enterprise, Voyager, the Defiant), racing them from Earth to the edge of the solar system.

Once again, you get a real sense of how fast these ships would be if they actually existed but also of the vastness of space. It would take 10 seconds for the fastest ship to reach the edge of the solar system at maximum warp and just over 6 hours to get to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Wikipedia lists a few dozen stars that are within a day’s journey at full warp…a trip that takes light more than 16 years. The mighty speed of light is no match for the human imagination. (thx, jim)

Trailer for “Apollo 11”, a Documentary Based on Pristine 65mm Footage of the Mission

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2019

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which means an increase in Apollo 11 media. This is a strong early entrant: “Apollo 11”, a feature-length documentary on the mission, featuring “a newly discovered trove of 65mm footage” of starting clarity.

Miller and his team collaborated with NASA and the National Archives (NARA) to locate all of the existing footage from the Apollo 11 mission. In the course of sourcing all of the known imagery, NARA staff members made a discovery that changed the course of the project — an unprocessed collection of 65mm footage, never before seen by the public. Unbeknownst to even the NARA archivists, the reels contained wide format scenes of the Saturn V launch, the inside of the Launch Control Center and post-mission activities aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier.

The find resulted in the project evolving from one of only filmmaking to one of also film curation and historic preservation. The resulting transfer — from which the documentary was cut — is the highest resolution, highest quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage in existence.

The film is 100% archival footage and audio. They’ve paired the footage with selections from 11,000 hours of mission audio.

The other unexpected find was a massive cache of audio recordings — more than 11,000 hours — comprising the individual tracks from 60 members of the Mission Control team. “Apollo 11” film team members wrote code to restore the audio and make it searchable and then began the multi-year process of listening to and documenting the recordings. The effort yielded new insights into key events of the moon landing mission, as well as surprising moments of humor and camaraderie.

This. Sounds. Amazing. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a few days ago and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Here’s David Erhlich writing for Indiewire:

It’s rare that picture quality can inspire a physical reaction, but the opening moments of “Apollo 11,” in which a NASA camera crew roams around the base of the rocket and spies on some of the people who’ve come to gawk at it from a beach across the water, are vivid enough to melt away the screen that stands between them. The clarity takes your breath away, and it does so in the blink of an eye; your body will react to it before your brain has time to process why, after a lifetime of casual interest, you’re suddenly overcome by the sheer enormity of what it meant to leave the Earth and land somewhere else. By tricking you at a base sensory level into seeing the past as though it were the present, Miller cuts away the 50 years that have come between the two, like a heart surgeon who cuts away a dangerous clot so that the blood can flow again. Such perfect verisimilitude is impossible to fake.

And Daniel Fienberg for The Hollywood Reporter:

Much of the footage in Apollo 11 is, by virtue of both access and proper preservation, utterly breathtaking. The sense of scale, especially in the opening minutes, sets the tone as rocket is being transported to the launch pad and resembles nothing so much as a scene from Star Wars only with the weight and grandeur that come from 6.5 million pounds of machinery instead of CG. The cameraman’s astonishment is evident and it’s contagious. The same is true of long tracking shots through the firing room as the camera moves past row after row after row of computers, row after row after row of scientists and engineers whose entire professional careers have led to this moment.

There will be a theatrical release (including what sounds like an IMAX release for museums & space centers) followed by a showing on TV by CNN closer to July.

Visualizing the Speed of Light

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2019

Light is fast! In a recent series of animations, planetary scientist James O’Donoghue demonstrates just how fast light is…and also how far away even our closest celestial neighbors are. Light, moving at 186,000 mi/sec, can circle the Earth 7.5 times per second and here’s what that looks like:

It can also travel from the surface of the Earth to the surface of the Moon in ~1.3 seconds, like so:

That seems both really fast and not that fast somehow. Now check out light traveling the 34 million miles to Mars in a pokey 3 minutes:

And Mars is close! If O’Donoghue made a real-time animation of light traveling to Pluto, the video would last over 5 hours. The animation for the closest undisputed galaxy, Seque 1, would last 75,000 years and 2.5 million years for the Andromeda galaxy animation. The farthest-known objects from Earth are more than 13 billion light years away. Light is slow!

See also The Leisurely Pace of Light Speed.

Video: A Meteorite Hit the Moon During the Recent Eclipse!

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2019

Something incredible happened during the super blood wolf moon eclipse that took place on Sunday night: a meteorite struck the moon during the eclipse and it was captured on video, the first time this has ever happened.

Jose Maria Madiedo at the University of Huelva in Spain has confirmed that the impact is genuine. For years, he and his colleagues have been hoping to observe a meteorite impact on the moon during a lunar eclipse, but the brightness of these events can make that very difficult — lunar meteorite impacts have been filmed before, but not during an eclipse.

The 4K video of the impact above was taken by amateur astronomer Deep Sky Dude in Texas…he notes the impact happening at 10:41pm CST. I couldn’t find any confirmation on this, but the impact looks bright enough that it may have been visible with the naked eye if you were paying sufficient attention to the right area at the right time.

Phil Plait has a bunch more info on the impact. If the impact site can be accurately determined, NASA will attempt to send the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to get photos of it.

Interestingly, I talked to Noah Petro, Project Scientist for LRO, and he noted that the impact may have created secondary craters, smaller ones made by debris blown out by the main impact. Those will spread out over a larger area, and are easier to spot, so it’s possible that even with a rough location known beforehand the crater can be found. Also, fresh craters look distinct from older ones — they’re brighter, and have a bright fresh splash pattern around them — so once it’s in LRO’s sights it should be relatively easy to spot.

It’s not clear how big the crater will be. I’ve seen some estimates that the rock that hit was probably no more than a dozen kilograms or so, and the crater will be probably 10 meters across. That’s small, but hopefully its freshness will make it stand out.

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2019

Shuttle Endeavour rising through the clouds

I love this photo of the Space Shuttle Endeavour rising through the clouds on a plume of smoke during its last launch in 2011. We are but infinitesimal specks on a tiny rock orbiting a small star in an ordinary galaxy among trillions in an endless universe. And yet we’ve pushed our way into that vastness, just a little bit. I wonder where we’ll end up?

A Massive Ice-Filled Crater on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 26, 2018

Korolev Crater

Korolev Crater

ESA’s Mars Express mission recently photographed the Korolev crater on Mars, filled almost to the brim with water ice.1 When I first saw this image I thought, oh cute!, assuming the crater was maybe a few dozen feet across. But no, it’s about 51 miles across and the thickest part of the ice is over a mile thick.

This ever-icy presence is due to an interesting phenomenon known as a ‘cold trap’, which occurs as the name suggests. The crater’s floor is deep, lying some two kilometres vertically beneath its rim.

The very deepest parts of Korolev crater, those containing ice, act as a natural cold trap: the air moving over the deposit of ice cools down and sinks, creating a layer of cold air that sits directly above the ice itself.

Behaving as a shield, this layer helps the ice remain stable and stops it from heating up and disappearing. Air is a poor conductor of heat, exacerbating this effect and keeping Korolev crater permanently icy.

Update: Just to clarify slightly, the top image was generated using photographs taken by Mars Express and a terrain map, so it’s technically not a photograph but is like the oblique view in Google Maps. The bottom image is a composite of five photographs. (via @ryanguill)

  1. Mars also has CO2 ice, so you have to specify.