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kottke.org posts about space

New Solar Telescope Finds “Campfires” on the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2020

Sun Campfires

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter is not even at its closest distance to the Sun and its telescope has already captured some images that reveal new information about our star, including features called “campfires” that are too small to have been captured by previous instruments. From the description of the video embedded above:

This animation shows a series of close-up views captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) at wavelengths of 17 nanometers, showing the upper atmosphere of the Sun, or corona, with a temperature of around 1 million degrees.

These images reveal a multitude of small flaring loops, erupting bright spots and dark, moving fibrils. A ubiquitous feature of the solar surface, uncovered for the first time by these images, have been called ‘campfires’. They are omnipresent miniature eruptions that could be contributing to the high temperatures of the solar corona and the origin of the solar wind.

The Solar Orbiter can also peek around the back side of the Sun for the first time:

“Right now, we are in the part of the 11-year solar cycle when the Sun is very quiet,” says Sami Solanki, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, and PHI Principal Investigator. “But because Solar Orbiter is at a different angle to the Sun than Earth, we could actually see one active region that wasn’t observable from Earth. That is a first. We have never been able to measure the magnetic field at the back of the Sun.”

As revealing as these first images are, at its closest approach later in the mission the Solar Orbiter’s resolving power will roughly double. Can’t wait to see what else it turns up.

Gorgeous 4K Video of Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 21, 2020

To create this ultra HD footage of the surface of Mars, high-definition panoramas created from hundreds of still photos taken by the Mars rovers are panned over using the Ken Burns effect. The end product is pretty compelling — it’s not video, but it’s not not video either.

A question often asked is: ‘Why don’t we actually have live video from Mars?’

Although the cameras are high quality, the rate at which the rovers can send data back to earth is the biggest challenge. Curiosity can only send data directly back to earth at 32 kilo-bits per second.

Instead, when the rover can connect to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, we get more favourable speeds of 2 Megabytes per second.

However, this link is only available for about 8 minutes each Sol, or Martian day.

As you would expect, sending HD video at these speeds would take a long long time. As nothing really moves on Mars, it makes more sense to take and send back images.

(thx, paul)

Live TV Coverage of the Apollo 11 Landing and Moon Walk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2020

Apollo 11 TV Coverage

Fifty-one years ago today, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon and went for a little walk. For the 12th year in a row, you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk on a small B&W television, synced to the present-day time. Just open this page in your browser today, July 20th, and the coverage will start playing at the proper time. Here’s the schedule (all times EDT):

4:10:30 pm: Moon landing broadcast starts
4:17:40 pm: Lunar module lands on the Moon

4:20:15 pm - 10:51:26 pm: Break in coverage

10:51:27 pm: Moon walk broadcast starts
10:56:15 pm: First step on Moon
11:51:30 pm: Nixon speaks to the Eagle crew
12:00:30 am: Broadcast end (on July 21)

Set an alarm on your phone or calendar!

This is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done online…here’s what I wrote when I launched the project in 2009:

If you’ve never seen this coverage, I urge you to watch at least the landing segment (~10 min.) and the first 10-20 minutes of the Moon walk. I hope that with the old time TV display and poor YouTube quality, you get a small sense of how someone 40 years ago might have experienced it. I’ve watched the whole thing a couple of times while putting this together and I’m struck by two things: 1) how it’s almost more amazing that hundreds of millions of people watched the first Moon walk *live* on TV than it is that they got to the Moon in the first place, and 2) that pretty much the sole purpose of the Apollo 11 Moon walk was to photograph it and broadcast it live back to Earth.

In 2018, I wrote about what to watch for during the landing sequence.

The radio voices you hear are mostly Mission Control in Houston (specifically Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke, who acted as the spacecraft communicator for this mission) and Buzz Aldrin, whose job during the landing was to keep an eye on the LM’s altitude and speed - you can hear him calling it out, “3 1/2 down, 220 feet, 13 forward.” Armstrong doesn’t say a whole lot…he’s busy flying and furiously searching for a suitable landing site. But it’s Armstrong that says after they land, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”. Note the change in call sign from “Eagle” to “Tranquility Base”. :)

The Best Photos of Comet Neowise

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2020

Sometimes I forget what a big space dork I am and then a comet comes along and I’m texting everyone I know to get their asses outside to see the amazing sky thing. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that this is a Comet Neowise fan blog now. After seeing it last night in my backyard,1 I went looking for some of the best photos of it.

My favorite so far is from Thierry Legault (website) of the comet over Mont-Saint-Michel in France.

Comet Neowise

In Focus’s Alan Taylor shared a selection of photographs from around the world, including this one from Mika Laureque.

Comet Neowise

Colossal featured this shot by Lester Tsai of Neowise directly over Mt. Hood. Dang.

Comet Neowise

More Comet Neowise photography can be see at USA Today, NASA, Sky & Telescope, and Astronomy Picture of the Day (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

  1. After seeing it briefly two nights ago before some haze settled in (and only then with the aid of binoculars), I stepped out on my deck last night just after 10pm and bam, it was right there, totally visible with the naked eye. I grabbed the binoculars and got a pretty good view and then got out the telescope. Whoa, papa. Totally mind-blowing.

How to Find Comet NEOWISE in the Night Sky This Month

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 13, 2020

If you live in the US and Canada, you might have the opportunity to check out Comet NEOWISE over the next few weeks with a good pair of binoculars or even with the naked eye. EarthSky has the skinny.

By mid-July (around July 12-15), the comet will also become visible at dusk (just after sunset), low in the northwest horizon, for observers in the mid- and northern U.S. How can it be visible in both dawn and dusk? The answer is that the comet is now very far to the north on the sky’s dome. For those at latitudes like those in the southern U.S. (say, around 30 degrees north latitude), the comet is very nearly but not quite circumpolar, that is, it’s nearly in the sky continually, but it isn’t quite … that’s why we at southerly latitudes will have a harder time spotting it in the evening.

Comet NEOWISE

It appears this comet is holding up better than Comet ATLAS did earlier in the year. Here’s a beautiful time lapse of NEOWISE rising over the Adriatic Sea in the early dawn:

And a time lapse of the comet from the International Space Station (it starts rising around the 3-minute mark):

Apart Together

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2020

ISS, Expedition 1

October 31, 2000 was the last day all humans were together on Earth. That day, the rocket containing the crew of Expedition 1 lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and carried them to the International Space Station for a long-term stay. Fittingly, the mission left from the same launchpad that was used to launch Yuri Gagarin into space on April 2, 1961, which was the first time in history that all humans were not together on Earth. Ever since the Expedition 1 crew docked, there’s been an uninterrupted human presence on the ISS, which may continue until 2028 or 2030, by which time there may be humans on the Moon or Mars on a permanent basis. Will humans ever be only Earth-bound again?

BTW, I guess you could argue that the ISS isn’t really separate enough from Earth or that since regular commercial airplane flights began, humans have been separate from the Earth. You could also say that at any given time, thousands of people are in the air while jumping and therefore not on the Earth with the rest of us. I don’t find any of those arguments meaningful. Perhaps someday if space travel is more routine — “just popped up into orbit to visit my daughter” — and the human population is much more distributed, these same distinctions won’t hold, but for now the ISS is definitely apart from the Earth in a way that flying or jumping are not.

A Decade of Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2020

For the past 10 years now, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has been capturing an image of the Sun every 0.75 seconds. To celebrate, NASA created this 61-minute time lapse video of all ten years, with each second representing one day in the Sun’s life. They have helpfully highlighted some noteworthy events in the video, including solar flares and planetary transits.

12:24, June 5, 2012 — The transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. Won’t happen again until 2117.

13:50, Aug. 31, 2012 — The most iconic eruption of this solar cycle bursts from the lower left of the Sun.

43:20, July 5, 2017 — A large sunspot group spends two weeks crossing the face of the Sun.

See also Gorgeous Time Lapse of the Sun.

Teacher Tells Off Neil Armstrong for Faking the Moon Landing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2020

In a letter recently published in a new book, A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong, a teacher wrote a letter to the first human to set foot on the Moon accusing him of making the whole thing up.

Armstrong Letter Hoax

To which Armstrong replied:

Armstrong Letter Hoax

(via the excellent Letters of Note)

NASA & SpaceX Scheduled to Launch Astronauts Into Orbit From US Soil for First Time in 9 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2020

NASA and SpaceX are scheduled to launch two astronauts into orbit this afternoon from the United States for the first time in nine years. The launch is scheduled to take place at 4:33 p.m. EDT. We’ll be watching for sure!

SpaceX is targeting Wednesday, May 27 for Falcon 9’s launch of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration (Demo-2) mission from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This test flight with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the Dragon spacecraft will return human spaceflight to the United States.

The mission is also the first time a private company will carry humans into orbit. You can watch the launch in the stream above with commentary (the coverage has already started — the astronauts just suited up and are on their way to launchpad 39A and now Kelly Clarkson is singing the National Anthem from her house) or with just the audio feed from Mission Control. And you can read more about the mission here.

Update: The launch got scrubbed for today — poor weather conditions. The next launch window is Saturday, May 30 at 3:22pm ET.

Full-Day Rotation of the Earth Around a Stationary Sky

posted by Jason Kottke   May 27, 2020

Last year I posted a pair of videos showing a sky-stabilized rotation of the Earth around the starry sky. Because the Earth is our vantage point, we’re not used to seeing this view and it’s pretty trippy.

Now Bartosz Wojczyński has created a video showing full-day rotation of the Earth with footage shot in Namibia. The rotation is sped up to take only 24 seconds and is repeated 60 times to simulate about 2 months of rotation. I find this very relaxing to watch, like I’m riding in a very slow clothes dryer.

See also The Entire Plane of the Milky Way Captured in a Single Photo.

Lunar Landing Recreated from Archival NASA Photos

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2020

Using thousands of original photographs taken by astronauts during the Apollo missions, motion designer Christian Stangl and composer Wolfgang Stangl worked for 18 months to create this animated short film depicting a flight to the Moon, culminating in a landing and the exploration of the surface. (via moss & fog)

Colorful New Geological Map of the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2020

Moon Geological Map

Moon Geological Map

In collaboration with NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the USGS has released the first complete geological map of the Moon’s surface.

This new work represents a seamless, globally consistent, 1:5,000,000-scale geologic map derived from the six digitally renovated geologic maps (see Source Online Linkage below). The goal of this project was to create a digital resource for science research and analysis, future geologic mapping efforts, be it local-, regional-, or global-scale products, and as a resource for the educators and the public interested in lunar geology.

Strange Maps has more information on how the map came to be and what it shows.

The map was created by the U.S. Geological Service’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. In collaboration with NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute, it combined six ‘regional’ maps of the Moon made during the Apollo era (1961-1975) with input from more recent unmanned lunar missions.

This included data on the polar regions from NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) and close-ups of the equatorial zone from the Japanese Space Agency’s recent SELENE mission.

The two images above show the entire map and a detailed view of a single area (which includes the landing sites of 3 Apollo missions) while the video shows a rotating globe version of the map.

Hubble Telescope Watches the Rare Disintegration of a Comet

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2020

Last month, I told you about Comet ATLAS, which at that time looked capable of putting on a real show in the night sky.

Except, since its discovery, the comet has been brightening at an almost unprecedented speed. As of March 17, ATLAS was already magnitude +8.5, over 600 times brighter than forecast. As a result, great expectations are buzzing for this icy lump of cosmic detritus, with hopes it could become a stupendously bright object by the end of May.

It turns out the increase in brightness was fleeting — and possibly due to the comet breaking apart. In the past week, the Hubble Space Telescope has gotten two good looks at the disintegrating comet, identifying that the main mass has broken into about 30 fragments.

Comet Atlas Hubble

Comet Atlas Hubble

“This is really exciting — both because such events are super cool to watch and because they do not happen very often. Most comets that fragment are too dim to see. Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade,” said the leader of a second Hubble observing team, Quanzhi Ye, of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The results are evidence that comet fragmentation is actually fairly common, say researchers. It might even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die. Because this happens quickly and unpredictably, astronomers remain largely uncertain about the cause of fragmentation. Hubble’s crisp images may yield new clues to the breakup. Hubble distinguishes pieces as small as the size of a house. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus may have been no more than the length of two football fields.

Apollo 11’s Post-Lunar Quarantine

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2020

I do not know if hearing about other people’s quarantine experiences makes going through one yourself any easier, but the story of how NASA sequestered the returning Apollo 11 astronauts away from the rest of the world for 21 days is interesting for other reasons as well. The worry was that some sort of “moon bug” or “lunar plague” was going to make its way from the Moon to the Earth in the spacecraft or the astronauts’ bodies.

From the moment the Apollo 11 astronauts arrive back on earth from their epochal visit to the moon, they will be treated not as heroes but as bearers of the most virulent, devastating plague the world has ever known.

So NASA quarantined Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in a series of specially designed suits and environments until August 10, 1969. At one point, the three of them lived in a modified Airstream trailer in which the air pressure was lower on the inside than outside so if there was a leak, air would rush into the trailer, not out. Armstrong even celebrated a birthday in quarantine.

After Apollo 11, NASA did similar quarantines for 12 and 14 but abandoned them after that because they figured it was safe.

Oh, and if you were curious about the Soyuz launch yesterday that sent three astronauts to the ISS and how they were going to mitigate the chances of sending any SARS-CoV-2 up there, crews on all missions are subject to a mandatory 2 week quarantine before they leave (according to this press release).

Recently Discovered Comet Might Put On a Show

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2020

Back in late December, a new comet called Comet ATLAS (or C/2019 Y4) was discovered by a robotic astronomical survey on the lookout for objects that may strike the Earth. Don’t worry, Comet ATLAS isn’t going to hit us, but it has a chance to put on quite a show.1 It didn’t seem like much at first, but since its discovery Comet ATLAS has gotten brighter much faster than scientists have expected.

When astronomers first spotted Comet ATLAS in December, it was in Ursa Major and was an exceedingly faint object, close to 20th magnitude. That’s about 398,000 times dimmer than stars that are on the threshold of naked-eye visibility. At the time, it was 273 million miles (439 million kilometers) from the sun.

But comets typically brighten as they approach the sun, and at its closest, on May 31, Comet ATLAS will be just 23.5 million miles (37.8 million km) from the sun. Such a prodigious change in solar distance would typically cause a comet to increase in luminosity by almost 11 magnitudes, enough to make ATLAS easily visible in a small telescope or a pair of good binoculars, although quite frankly nothing really to write home about.

Except, since its discovery, the comet has been brightening at an almost unprecedented speed. As of March 17, ATLAS was already magnitude +8.5, over 600 times brighter than forecast. As a result, great expectations are buzzing for this icy lump of cosmic detritus, with hopes it could become a stupendously bright object by the end of May.

But the brightening could also be a sign that the comet is ejecting a lot of material because it’s burning itself out, so grain of salt. But if keeps brightening at a good pace, it could be visible during the day in the northern hemisphere.

If Atlas manages to remain intact, some in the field have suggested it could grow from magnitude +1 to possibly -5. At the brightest extreme, it could be visible even during the day.

The location of the comet is also notable-unlike more recent comets, it will be best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere.

Chuck Ayoub recently captured the comet arcing across the night sky with his backyard astrophotography rig:

Oh I hope Comet ATLAS can keep it together. I vividly remember going outside in rural Wisconsin darkness to see the tail of Comet Hyakutake stretch halfway across the sky. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

Update: It looks as though Comet ATLAS will not be dazzling naked-eye observers later this spring — the comet seems to have broken into 3 or 4 pieces as it nears the Sun.

Comet Atlas Broken

  1. Although I guess Comet ATLAS is good news if you’re looking for signs of the apocalypse too. Pandemic: check. Bright new light in the sky: check.

The Curiosity Rover Captures a 1.8 Gigapixel Panorama of Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2020

Mars Curiosity Pano

Late last year, NASA’s Curiosity rover took over a thousand photos of the Martian landscape while exploring a mountainside. NASA stitched the photos together and recently released this 1.8 gigapixel panorama of Mars (along with a mere 650 megapixel panorama, pictured above). Here’s a version you can pan and zoom:

And a narrated video of the panorama:

Both panoramas showcase “Glen Torridon,” a region on the side of Mount Sharp that Curiosity is exploring. They were taken between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, when the mission team was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Sitting still with few tasks to do while awaiting the team to return and provide its next commands, the rover had a rare chance to image its surroundings from the same vantage point several days in a row.

I like how NASA is casually suggesting that the rover is just kinda taking some vacation snaps while waiting on friends.

Universe Sandbox

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2020

Universe Sandbox is a interactive space & gravity simulator that you can use to play God of your own universe.

You can create star systems: “Start with a star then add planets. Spruce it up with moons, rings, comets, or even a black hole.” You can collide planets and stars or simulate gravity: “N-body simulation at almost any speed using Newtonian mechanics.” You can model the Earth’s climate, make a star go supernova, or ride along on space missions or see historical events.

I found Universe Sandbox after watching this video about what would happen if the Earth got hit by a grain of sand going 99.9% the speed of light (spoiler: not much). This game/simulator/educational tool is only $30 but I fear that if I bought it, I would never ever leave the house again.

Story Time from Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2020

The Story Time from Space program aims to promote language and STEM literacy by having astronauts read educational bedtime books from low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station to kids on Earth. Here’s astronaut Kate Rubins reading Rosie Revere, Engineer:

And Ada Twist, Scientist read by Serena Auñón-Chancellor:

What a cool idea. Check out the rest of the available videos in their library.

An Astronomer Explains Black Holes in 5 Levels of Increasing Complexity

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2020

In this video from Wired’s 5 Levels series, NASA astronomer Varoujan Gorjian explains the concept of black holes to five different people, ranging from a five-year-old to a college student to a Caltech astrophysicist.

A research astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Grojian specializes in — and I’d just like to pause here to emphasize that this is the official title of his research group at JPL — the structure of the universe. Which means the guy not only knows about event horizons and gravitational lensing but stuff like tidal forces (what!), x-ray binaries (hey now!), and active galactic nuclei (oh my god!). Seriously, the guy’s knowledge of black holes is encyclopedic.

Gorjian lost me somewhere in the middle of his conversation with the grad student.

This Striking Image of the Moon Is a Combination of 100,000 Photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2020

Backyard astronomer Andrew McCarthy has created some arresting images of various objects in the sky, including galaxies, planets, the Sun, and nebulas. Perhaps his favorite subject is the Moon and for one of his first images of 2020, he combined 100,000 photos to make this image of the first quarter Moon.

Andrew McCarthy Moon

Some detail:

Andrew McCarthy Moon

*low whistle* McCarthy uses some digital darkroom techniques to bump up the dynamic range, which he explained in the comments of a similar image.

The natural colors of the moon were brought out here with minor saturation adjustments, but those colors are completely real and what you could see if your eyes were more sensitive. I find the color really helps tell the story of how some of these features formed billions of years ago.

In one of his Instagram Stories, he shows how he photographs the Moon, including dealing with temperature changes over the course of the session — “when it’s cold, the telescope shrinks, and the focus changes”.

McCarthy sells digital copies of his images (as wallpaper or to print out) as well as prints. (via moss & fog)

NASA: How We’re Going (Back) to the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2020

Before the holidays, NASA announced their plan for going back to the Moon by 2024.

With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with our commercial and international partners and establish sustainable exploration by 2028. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars.

The plan involves many supply runs and a small space station orbiting the Moon so that things like rovers and lunar landers are in place when manned missions need to land on the Moon or even continue on to Mars. You can check out all of the details on NASA’s website.

Every Kind of Thing in Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2019

This 12-minute animated video is a tour of all of the different kinds of things “out there” in the universe (as opposed to matter and structures smaller than, say, a human being).

This video explores all of the things in the Universe from our Earth and local Solar System, out to the Milky Way Galaxy and looks at all of the different kinds of stars from Brown Dwarfs to Red Supergiant Stars. Then to the things they explode into like white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. Then we look at all the other kinds of galaxy in the universe, blazars, quasars and out to the cosmic microwave background and the big bang. It covers most of the different things that we know about in the Universe.

A poster of the final drawing is available here.

A Deepfake Nixon Delivers Eulogy for the Apollo 11 Astronauts

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2019

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed safely on the Moon in July 1969, President Richard Nixon called them from the White House during their moonwalk to say how proud he was of what they had accomplished. But in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin did not make it safely off the Moon’s surface, Nixon was prepared to give a very different sort of speech. The remarks were written by William Safire and recorded in a memo called In Event of Moon Disaster.

Fifty years ago, not even Stanley Kubrick could have faked the Moon landing. But today, visual effects and techniques driven by machine learning are so good that it might be relatively simple, at least the television broadcast part of it.1 In a short demonstration of that technical supremacy, a group from MIT has created a deepfake version of Nixon delivering that disaster speech. Here are a couple of clips from the deepfake speech:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

The full film is being shown at IDFA DocLab in Amsterdam and will make its way online sometime next year.

The implications of being able to so convincingly fake the televised appearance of a former US President are left as an exercise to the reader. (via boing boing)

Update: The whole film is now online. (thx, andy)

  1. But technology is often a two-way street. If the resolution of the broadcast is high enough, CGI probably still has tells…and AI definitely does. And even if you got the TV broadcast correct, with the availability of all sorts of high-tech equipment, the backyard astronomer, with the collective help of their web-connected compatriots around the world, would probably be able to easily sniff out whether actual spacecraft and communication signals were in transit to and from the Moon.

How to Watch Tonight’s Rare Unicorn Meteor Storm

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2019

Astronomers are expecting a particularly strong meteor storm tonight visible from parts of Europe, Africa, North America, and South America that could produce meteors at a rate of 400/hour or more. The storm’s radiant will be centered right around the constellation of Monoceros (that’s the unicorn, which makes this a very 2019 event). Just find Orion in the eastern sky and look a bit down and to the left, right where the red patch is:

Meteor Storm 2019

If you’re on the east coast of the US and the sky is clear tonight, you should head outside around 11:15pm EST. And be prompt…the storm’s peak activity will last 15-40 minutes. I’m going to see if Night Mode on my iPhone 11 Pro can capture any of the action…

See also the time I saw a boomerang meteor explode like a firework in the night sky. (thx, megan)

Spinning Tethers for Space Propulsion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

I love rocket launches. They are loud, carry cool things into space, and last a surprisingly long time considering how fast the rocket is already traveling when it clears the tower. But I think we’re going to look back on this era of space travel and marvel that launches & rockets were our only means of getting things into and around space (planetary gravity assists notwithstanding). We’re already moving in that direction; the initial tests of a space sail inspired by Carl Sagan have been promising. Another space propulsion idea is to use spinning space tethers to whip smaller, slower space vehicles from relatively low altitudes to higher orbits or even to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. This video from Kurzgesagt explains how these tethers work and what we could do with them.

I believe Neal Stephenson wrote about space tethers (or something very similar) in Seveneves.

Neutron Stars and Nuclear Pasta. Yummy!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 13, 2019

The latest video from Kurzgesagt is a short primer on neutron stars, the densest large objects in the universe.

The mind-boggling density of neutron stars is their most well-known attribute: the mass of all living humans would fit into a volume the size of a sugar cube at the same density. But I learned about a couple of new things that I’d like to highlight. The first is nuclear pasta, which might be the strongest material in the universe.

Astrophysicists have theorized that as a neutron star settles into its new configuration, densely packed neutrons are pushed and pulled in different ways, resulting in formation of various shapes below the surface. Many of the theorized shapes take on the names of pasta, because of the similarities. Some have been named gnocchi, for example, others spaghetti or lasagna.

Simulations have demonstrated that nuclear pasta might be some 10 billion times stronger than steel.

The second thing deals with neutron star mergers. When two neutron stars merge, they explode in a shower of matter that’s flung across space. Recent research suggests that many of the heavy elements present in the universe could be formed in these mergers.

But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.

If this pans out, it means that the Earth’s platinum, uranium, lead, and tin may have originated in exploding neutron stars. Neat!

Behold Our Dazzling Night Sky When the Milky Way Collides with Andromeda in 4 Billion Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2019

This is what our night sky is going to look like in 3.9 billion years:

Milkdromeda

Wow! So what’s going on here? Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers at NASA have predicted that our own Milky Way galaxy and the nearby Andromeda galaxy (M31) will collide about 4 billion years from now. As part of the announcement from 2012, they produced a video of what the collision would look like and a series of illustrations of what our sky will look like during the collision process.1

In 2 billion years, Andromeda will be noticeably closer in the sky:

Milkdromeda

By 3.75 billion years, it will fill a significant chunk of the sky. And the Milky Way will begin to bend due to the pull of gravity from Andromeda:

Milkdromeda

In about 3.85 billion years, the first close approach will trigger the formation of new stars, “which is evident in a plethora of emission nebulae and open young star clusters”:

Milkdromeda

Star formation continues 3.9 billion years from now. Could you imagine actually going outside at night and seeing this? It’s like a nightly fireworks display:

Milkdromeda

After the galaxies pass by each other in 4 billion years, they are stretched and warped by gravity:

Milkdromeda

In 5.1 billion years, Andromeda and the Milky Way will come around for a second close pass, their galactic cores blazing bright in the night sky:

Milkdromeda

And finally, in 7 billion years, the two galaxies will have merged into a single elliptical galaxy nicknamed Milkdromeda:

Milkdromeda

Interestingly, despite the galactic collision and the dazzling view from Earth, it’s extremely unlikely that any individual stars will collide because of the sheer amount of empty space in galaxies.

  1. I mean, assuming there will still be someone or something standing on the Earth 4 billion years from now to witness it. Presumably whoever’s around will have solved light pollution by then? The bigger worry is that according to the timeline of the far future, Earth will be uninhabitable long before an collision occurs (average surface temp of 296 °F in 2.8 billion years). Toasty!

Beading the Cosmos

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2019

Margaret Nazon

Inspired by some photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Margaret Nazon began in 2009 to make beaded artworks of stars, galaxies, planets, and nebula. I love her representation of the Milky Way, pictured above. Nazon grew up in a First Nation community in Canada’s Northwest Territories and in this interview she talks about using traditional materials for her cosmic drawings.

I consider my art to be “abstract.” Aboriginal people have used animal skins, bones, seeds, quills and rocks for decoration, and I figured it would fit in my artwork. I was given buttons made of caribou bones as a gift and I decided I should try to incorporate a solid piece of bone into one of my galaxy pictures. Viewers loved that. I spent last December in Salt Spring Island B.C. One of my friends asked if I was going to incorporate B.C. rocks or shells in my work and I thought that was a great idea. I started receiving rocks and shells as inspiration. Just recently a Gwich’in friend gave me willow seeds to use. The Gwich’in people used to use willow seeds to decorate their clothing.

(via brain pickings)

The First Photograph of the Far Side of the Moon from 1959

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2019

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union kicked off the Space Race and for the first several years (arguable up until the Moon landing in ‘69), they dominated the United States. One of their “firsts” in the early years was taking the first photo of the far side of the Moon 60 years ago this month.

Dark side of the Moon 1959

Astronomer Kevin Hainline wrote a fascinating account of how the Soviet’s Luna 3 spacecraft took the photo and then transmitted it back to Earth.

First off, Luna 3, the first three-axis stabilized spacecraft, had to reach the Moon to take the pictures, and it had to use a little photocell to orient towards the Moon so that now, while stabilized, it could take the pictures. Which it did. On PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM.

And it gets WILDER because these photos were then moved to a little CHEMICAL PLANT to DEVELOP AND DRY THEM. That’s right, Luna 3 had a little 1 Hour Photo inside. Now you’re thinking, well, how do you get those actual photos back to the Earth?

How indeed? The spacecraft faxed the photos to Earth. A few years later, when the Soviets’ Luna 9 took the first photo on the Moon’s surface and went to transmit it back to Earth, a group in the UK was able to read the signal with a fax machine and the resulting image was published the next day on the front page of the Daily Express.

The Comet

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2019

Director Christian Stangl and composer Wolfgang Stangl used millions of photos (that’s right, millions!) taken by the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to make this short video that makes the mission feel like sci-fi a la Alien or District 9.