homeaboutarchives + tagsshopmembership!
aboutarchivesshopmembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about space

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

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.

Hear the First Sounds Ever Recorded on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2018

NASA’s InSight mission recently landed on Mars and like other missions before it, the lander is a equipped with a camera and has sent back some pictures of the red planet. But InSight is also carrying a couple of instruments that made it possible to record something no human has ever experienced: what Mars sounds like:

InSight’s air pressure sensor recording the sound of the wind directly and the seismometer recorded the sounds of the lander’s solar panels vibrating as Martian winds blew across them.

Two very sensitive sensors on the spacecraft detected these wind vibrations: an air pressure sensor inside the lander and a seismometer sitting on the lander’s deck, awaiting deployment by InSight’s robotic arm. The two instruments recorded the wind noise in different ways. The air pressure sensor, part of the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem (APSS), which will collect meteorological data, recorded these air vibrations directly. The seismometer recorded lander vibrations caused by the wind moving over the spacecraft’s solar panels, which are each 7 feet (2.2 meters) in diameter and stick out from the sides of the lander like a giant pair of ears.

The sounds are best heard with a good pair of headphones.

Love Letters to Mars

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2018

Mars-Illustration.jpg

Rebecca Boyle is one of my favorite science writers. In two recent pieces, she takes on our nearest, most Earth-like neighbor, Mars. The first is about a team of scientists doing research on extremophiles in South America.

The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles south from the Peruvian border, nestled between the Pacific Cordillera and the Andes, “a cross extended over Chile,” in the words of the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita. Some parts of it are so devoid of life that their microbe-per-inch count can compete with near-sterile hospital surgical suites. Some areas of the Atacama, Earth’s driest nonpolar desert and the oldest desert anywhere, have been rainless for at least 23 million years, and maybe as long as 40 million years. Carbon cycling happens on timescales of thousands of years, comparable to Antarctic permafrost and places deep within Earth’s crust; the Atacama contains some of the most lifeless soils on the planet. The Atacama is one reason that Chile has become a haven for astrobiologists and astronomers: Its pristine dark skies offer an unparalleled view of the stars, and its depleted desert offers a peerless lab for studying the dry limits of life, including how life might survive among those stars. And honestly, it just looks a lot like Mars. It is the closest that these astrobiologists will ever get to the planet that occupies their grant proposals and their imaginations.

I’m neither an astrobiologist nor a professional astronomer, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Mars. I keep tabs on the robots spread across its surface and in its orbit, and sometimes I check their nightly photo downloads. The Atacama is not a giant leap from the Mars of my mind. As I drove up the coast, I found the view so much more like Mars than Earth. There are no palm trees or tourists or bleating gulls. There is nothing but brown, tumbling tanly down the hills, darkening to chocolate inside shadowy ravines and runnels, bleaching to an impoverished shade of cardboard, and crumbling into fine white beach before being swallowed by the cobalt hues of sea and sky. With no trees or succulents or even a blade of grass—not a smidge of green—the only disruption in the brown is a strip of asphalt, Ruta 1. With my cruise control set and David Bowie blaring, I pictured myself driving through Meridiani Planum, a vast equatorial Martian plain, en route to visit the Opportunity rover. The only reminders of other humans were the grim commemorations of car-wreck victims: Almost every mile of Ruta 1 is marked with roadside shrines to the dead…

Salar Grande was once a coastal inlet, much like today’s San Francisco Bay. It dried up between 1.8 and 5.3 million years ago, leaving behind a salt flat between 225 and 300 feet thick. The salar is therefore an analogue for the last time Mars was habitable, after Mars’ oceans, if there were any, dried up, when Martian ecosystems became concentrated in smaller places. And, like Mars itself, the Atacama is a glimpse into Earth’s own future. One day, billions of years from now, all of Earth may resemble this parched land of fissures and knobs, after our own oceans boil away, after the last trees fall, after the algae are all that is left of us.

“In the beginning,” Davila said, “there was bacteria. And at the end, there will be bacteria.”

The second piece is literally a letter, written to the Curiosity Rover that’s explored the red planet since 2012.

I think of you often. For much of this year, I saw Mars shining red in the window right above my computer. It was nice, like keeping an eye on you. And when I went to Mars earlier this year—actually the Atacama, a desert at the bottom of this world—the landscape made me think of you a lot. It made me grateful for the Mars you gave me, the Mars of my mind. Even more than your forebears did, you helped me understand why Mars stands out among the planets.

Earth’s other neighbors are interesting, sure. Jupiter is a peach-and-tan inkwell stirred with gothic darkness. Saturn and its orrery of moons trace feverish circles, as if brushed onto the void by the painter Kandinsky. Uranus and Neptune are the plain Christmas ornaments I hang next to the ornate ones, just to make the tree seem less busy. Mercury is a purple version of the moon, and Venus is a blast-furnace hellscape.

But Mars, little red Mars—it’s just like home. When you gaze out on the Murray Buttes, I see my Rocky Mountains.

That Mars — so like our world, yet so unlike it. Like a lover who understands and compliments us through similarity amid difference. It may be in the distance, but it is next.

And its visitors, like Curiosity, are already our friends:

I admire Juno’s photos of Jupiter and Cassini’s photos of Saturn, sure, but I don’t see the spacecraft in those images. And that means I don’t see myself. My connection to Mars comes from seeing you there. Seeing the terrain as you see it, that’s wonderful—but seeing you seeing it, feeling the photographer’s undeniable presence, is transformative.

Update: Boyle wrote a coda to her two pieces on Mars today for Last Word on Nothing. It’s Earth-focused, but then again, Earth is a very strange planet too:

At one point, after a couple hours of driving south, I needed a break. I needed to smell the ocean, mere feet to my right. I pulled over to the shoulder, parked my silver SUV on the sand, and walked a few feet. I was completely on my own. I saw nothing alive—no gull, no driver, no seaweed, no plant. I stared at the Pacific and felt my chest tighten. I was thousands of miles from my family, and I have never felt more alone.

The ocean was loud, dashing against dark rocks, and within a minute I felt like its rhythm was a part of me. It was going to swallow me and the sun was going to drive me mad. I strained to see anything else alive, some sign that I was still on Earth, but I saw nothing but sand and blue.

I squinted for a minute. The entire planet looks like this, from a great distance. From the Moon, you can make out the continents, patches of brown and green beneath a light frosting of clouds. But the general impression of Earth is one of blue and white. Ocean and sky. Our blue marble.

I listened to the Pacific and took a step forward. I was on Earth. I was so lucky to be here. So goddamn lucky I suddenly wanted to scream. Do you know how rare it is to have a planet covered in water? How precious it is to get out of the car, walk a few feet, and touch the ocean? It was the deep blue of my daughter’s eyes. This water is flowing through me, through her, through all of us here, together. Is this enlightenment? I thought to myself. I don’t know enough about Buddhism.

It was hard to get back in the car after that. But I feared that if I didn’t, the Pacific would rise up and consume me, swallow me whole before I had a chance to tell anyone I saw it. I had to tell her what I saw.

The End of Space Travel?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2018

Remember Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity? A missile strike on a satellite causes a chain reaction, which ends up destroying almost everything in low Earth orbit. As this Kurzgesagt video explains, this scenario is actually something we need to worry about. In the past 60 years, we’ve launched so much stuff into space that there are millions of pieces of debris up there, hurtling around the Earth at 1000s of miles per hour. The stuff ranges in size from marbles to full-sized satellites. If two larger objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) collided with each other, the resulting debris field could trigger a chain reaction of collisions that would destroy everything currently in that orbit and possibly prevent any new launches. Goodbye ISS, goodbye weather satellites, goodbye GPS, etc. etc. etc. The Moon, Mars, and other destinations beyond LEO would be a lot harder to reach because you’d have to travel through the deadly debris field, particularly with crewed missions.

ISS Time Lapse Video of Two Complete Trips Around the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2018

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first module of the International Space Station being put into orbit, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst shot a 15-minute time lapse video of the Earth from the ISS, long enough for two complete orbits of the planet. Landmarks along the journey are annotated right on the video and the location of the ISS is also plotted on a map in the top right corner. Love the nighttime thunderstorms over the Pacific.

See also An Incredible Video of What It’s Like to Orbit the Earth for 90 Minutes.

If the Planets Were As Close As the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2018

Using 3D rendering software, Yeti Dynamics made this video that shows what our sky would look like if several of our solar system’s planets orbited the Earth in place of the Moon. If you look closely when Saturn and Jupiter are in the sky, you can see their moons as well.

the moon that flies in front of Saturn is Tethys. It is Tiny. but *very* close. Dione would be on a collision course, it’s orbital distance from Saturn is Nearly identical to our Moon’s orbit around Earth

See also their video of what the Moon would look like if it orbited the Earth at the same distance as the International Space Station.

Update: And here’s what it would look like if the Earth had Saturn’s rings. (via @FormingWorship)

Watch It Live: NASA’s InSight Probe Lands on Mars Today

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2018

After a seven-month journey covering over 300 million miles, NASA’s InSight probe will land on the surface of Mars today around 3pm. The video embedded above is a live stream of mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that starts at 2pm and will be the best thing to watch as the probe lands. (See also this live stream of NASA TV.) The landing will occur around 2:47pm ET but the landing signal from Mars won’t arrive on Earth until 2:54pm ET at the earliest. And no video from the landing itself of course…”live” is a bit of a misnomer here but it still should be exciting.

NASA produced this short video that shows what’s involved in the landing process, aka how the probe goes from doing 13,000 mph to resting on the surface in just six-and-a-half minutes.

The NY Times has a good explainer on the InSight mission and landing.

NASA’s study of Mars has focused on the planet’s surface and the possibility of life early in its history. By contrast, the InSight mission — the name is a compression of Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will study the mysteries of the planet’s deep interior, aiming to answer geophysical questions about its structure, composition and how it formed.

I love this stuff…the kids and I will be watching for sure!

Update: The Oatmeal has a great comic about the InSight landing.

The Moon Is Flipped Upside Down in the Southern Hemisphere

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2018

How old were you when you learned that the Moon in the Southern Hemisphere is upside down? I was today years old…this is my head exploding —> %@*&!$. Ok, the Moon isn’t upside down (that’s Northern-ist) but its orientation changes depending on if you’re north or south of the equator.

Moon Flipped

“From our perspective, the Moon and the night sky is actually rotated 180 degrees compared to our Northern Hemispherical friends,” Jake Clark, an astronomer from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, explained to ScienceAlert.

“In the south we see the Moon’s dark ‘Oceanus Procellarum’ sea in the south-east corner compared to in the north-west corner for a northern observer.”

But why does it look like this? Well, because physically, we’re actually upside down compared to someone standing in the opposite hemisphere.

That makes perfect sense & the explanation is quite simple but it’s still messing with my head. How did I not know this? Here’s how the Moon appears in the Northern Hemisphere (from Wikipedia):

Moon Flipped North

And here’s a photo from Brendan Keene in Australia:

Moon Flipped South

Art on the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

The NY times recently asked eight artists what art projects they would do if they could fly to the Moon. Here’s Kara Walker’s answer:

Gil Scott Heron wrote that famous poem, “Whitey on the Moon”: “The man just upped my rent last night / Cause whitey’s on the moon / No hot water, no toilets, no lights / But whitey’s on the moon.”

I got thinking about a moon colony, which plenty of people have talked about pretty seriously over the years. So what I’d do is this: For every female child born on Earth, one sexist, white supremacist adult male would be shipped to the moon. They could colonize it to their heart’s content, and look down from a distance of a quarter-million miles. It’s a monochrome world up there; probably they’d love it. The colony would be hermetically sealed. And the rest of us could enjoy the sight of them from a safe distance. Maybe there could be some kind of selection ritual involved, something to do with menstruation and the tides — a touch of nature, to add a bit of irony justice to the endeavor.

For the supremacists, maybe traveling so far from home would help inspire a different worldview. And for the rest of us down on Earth, perhaps this is an opportunity to focus on the nature of our home planet with the same dreamy reverence we once reserved for the moon.

Here’s Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon. In contrast, architect Daniel Libeskind would turn the Moon into a square by painting part of it black:

My son Noam is an astrophysicist at the Leibniz Institute in Germany, and we did some calculations about how it could work. We thought the best way would be to paint sections of it black, so they no longer reflect the sun’s light. To account for the curvature, you’d need to paint four spherical caps on the moon’s surface. That would create a kind of frame that looks square when you see it from earth.

This Holiday Ad Featuring Elton John Might Make You Cry

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

Sure, I know this is a television commercial for a UK department store and therefore should be afforded a certain level of emotional detachment, but only the most cynical folks out there will still be stone-faced at the end of this holiday advert starring Elton John.

After watching it, I thought back to my childhood for a gift that turned out to be more than just a gift. The closest I could come is a telescope1 my dad got me when I was maybe 8 or 9. While I didn’t grow up to be a celebrated astrophysicist or anything like that, that telescope solidified my love of science, encouraged my curiosity, and fostered my growing worldview that the universe could be wondrous without being magical. I could see sunspots on the Sun, the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and shadows cast by craters on the Moon with my own eyes just as well as I could see the blades of grass right in front of me. Those objects moved around out there according to the same simple physical laws as the Earth moved, as did the baseball my dad & I played catch with, the rocket that shepherded astronauts to the Moon, and the waves on the ocean.

Seeing that all of those things were tied together across massive distances by a single system made a powerful impression on me. There was no need to say “well, I don’t know how that works so it must be some magical force or being”. I could go to a book and look up how Saturn’s rings formed, where the Moon’s craters came from, and why we only ever see one side of the Moon from Earth. And if the answer to a question didn’t exist, you could take that curiosity and go find out yourself, no permission necessary, and contribute to the collective human understanding of our existence. I switched away from a career in science shortly after entering grad school, but the spirit of scientific inquiry and curiosity has never left me or my work. I’ve loved being a designer, technologist, writer, and curator who still thinks like a scientist, like a little kid peering through his telescope at the rings of Saturn for the very first time and wanting to know everything about them.

  1. The telescape was a Jason model 311. I was old enough to know that it wasn’t made specifically for me, that didn’t stop me from feeling a little bit special owning a telescope with my actual name on it.

An Incredible Video of What It’s Like to Orbit the Earth for 90 Minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

This is easily the most awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping thing I’ve seen in months. In its low Earth orbit ~250 miles above our planet, the International Space Station takes about 90 minutes to complete one orbit of the Earth. Fewer than 600 people have ever orbited our planet, but with this realtime video by Seán Doran, you can experience what it looks like from the vantage point of the IIS for the full 90 minutes.

The video is in 4K so find the largest monitor/TV you can, turn up the sound, watch for awhile (even if it’s only for a few minutes), and see if you don’t experience a little bit of the Overview Effect, what NASA astronaut Kathryn Sullivan described as a life-altering experience:

I first saw the earth — the whole earth — from the shuttle Challenger in 1984. The view takes your breath away and fills you with childlike wonder. An incredibly beautiful tapestry of blue and white, tan, black and green seems to glide beneath you at an elegant, stately pace. But you’re actually going so fast that the entire map of the world spins before your eyes with each 90-minute orbit. After just one or two laps, you feel, maybe for the first time, like a citizen of a planet.

We could use more global citizenry these days.

Time Lapse of a SpaceX Launch Looks Like a UFO

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2018

Sunday night, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The nighttime launch created what looked like a nebula in the sky, prompting LA mayor Eric Garcetti to tweet that his city was not being visited by a flying saucer. This 4K time lapse of the launch is only 13 seconds long and is worth watching about 40 times in a row.

One way the universe might end

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 05, 2018

My favorite astrophysicist Katie Mack recently reposted a Cosmos article she wrote about a relatively obscure model for the total annihilation of the universe, called “vacuum decay.”

Essentially, what vacuum decay relies on is the fact that we don’t know for sure whether space is in the lowest energy, most stable possible state (a true vacuum) or at an adjacent, slightly higher energy level (a false vacuum). Space could be only metastable, and a random quantum fluctuation or sufficiently high level energy event could push part of the universe from the false vacuum to the true one. This could cause “a bubble of true vacuum that will then expand in all directions at the speed of light. Such a bubble would be lethal.”

It’s compellingly badass, and as Mack notes, frightfully efficient. First, it’s not the slow petering out that is heat death. Also, it wouldn’t just eliminate our current universe, but all possibility of a universe anything like ours. Vacuum decay destroys space like Roman generals salting the earth at Carthage.

The walls of the true vacuum bubble would expand in all directions at the speed of light. You wouldn’t see it coming. The walls can contain a huge amount of energy, so you might be incinerated as the bubble wall ploughed through you. Different vacuum states have different constants of nature, so the basic structure of matter might also be disastrously altered. But it could be even worse: in 1980, theoretical physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia calculated for the first time that any bubble of true vacuum would immediately suffer total gravitational collapse.

They say: “This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in a new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it.

“However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some creatures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.”

First Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2018

I don’t know why I’m so skeptical about First Man, the upcoming biopic about Neil Armstrong and the first Moon landing. Oh wait, yes I do: Apollo 11 holds a special place in my heart, as does Armstrong and his role in the historic landing, and I’m very protective of it. It would be so easy and, in my opinion, wrong to load this story up with unnecessary drama when there’s already so much there in the story, even though it might not be naturally cinematic.

On the other hand, the trailer looks great, Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, director Damien Chazelle’s previous films are really good (Whiplash and La La Land), and the film is based on the authorized and well-received biography by James Hansen. Ok fine, I just talked myself into it!

Law & Order: Martian Victims Unit

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2018

I loved this imaginative and clever piece by Geoff Manaugh called How Will Police Solve Murders on Mars? about how a future human settlement on Mars would handle matters of law and order. For one things, crimes might be more difficult to investigate.

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. Even radiocarbon dating will be different on Mars, Darwent reminded me, due to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, making it difficult to date older crime scenes.

The Martian environment itself is also already so lethal that even a violent murder could be disguised as a natural act. Darwent suggested that a would-be murderer on the Red Planet could use the environment’s ambient lethality to her advantage. A fatal poisoning could be staged to seem as if the victim simply died of exposure to abrasive chemicals, known as perchlorates, in the Martian rocks. A weak seal on a space suit, or an oxygen meter that appears to have failed but was actually tampered with, could really be a clever homicide hiding in plain sight.

At a broader level, what sort of political system develops because of the Martian environment might shape how law enforcement happens.

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity-even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

A few paragraphs after this, the terrifyingly wonderful phrase “politically motivated depressurization” is used. I don’t think we’re super close to the colonization of Mars, but Manaugh says, better to think about it now before we “unwittingly construct an interplanetary dystopia run by cops who shoot first and ask questions later”.

How We Could Build a Moon Base Today

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2018

This video explores how humans could begin to colonize the Moon today, using currently available technology.

We actually do have the technology and current estimates from NASA and the private sector say it could be done for $20-40 billion spread out over about a decade. The price is comparable to the International Space Station or the budget surplus of Germany in 2017.

That’s also only 12-25% of the net worth of Jeff Bezos. I don’t know whether that’s more an illustration of the relative affordability of building a Moon base or of Bezos’ wealth, but either way it’s a little bit crazy that the world’s richest man can easily afford to fund the building of a Moon base and somehow it’s not happening (or even close to happening).

A 20-year time lapse of stars orbiting a massive black hole

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 31, 2018

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile has been watching the supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy and the stars that orbit it. Using observations from the past 20 years, the ESO made this time lapse video of the stars orbiting the black hole, which has the mass of four million suns. I’ve watched this video like 20 times today, my mind blown at being able to observe the motion of these massive objects from such a distance.

The VLT was also able to track the motion of one of these stars and confirm for the first time a prediction made by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

New infrared observations from the exquisitely sensitive GRAVITY, SINFONI and NACO instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now allowed astronomers to follow one of these stars, called S2, as it passed very close to the black hole during May 2018. At the closest point this star was at a distance of less than 20 billion kilometres from the black hole and moving at a speed in excess of 25 million kilometres per hour — almost three percent of the speed of light.

S2 has the mass of about 15 suns. That’s 6.6 × 10^31 pounds moving at 3% of the speed of light. Wowowow.

Live TV coverage of the Apollo 11 landing and Moon walk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2018

Apollo 11 TV Coverage

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and said:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

A little more than 8 years later, it was done. On July 20, 1969, 49 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, took a walk, and returned safely to Earth a few days later. And the whole thing was broadcast live on television screens around the world.

For the 40th anniversary of the landing in 2009, I put together a page where you can watch the original CBS News coverage of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Moon landing and the first Moon walk, synced to the present-day time. Just open this page in your browser 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: 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)

You can add these yearly recurring events to your calendar: Moon landing & Moon walk.

Here’s what I wrote when I launched the project, which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done online:

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.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Andrew Chaikin’s account of the Apollo program, A Man on the Moon, and the chapter about Apollo 11’s Moon landing was riveting.1 I’ve watched the TV footage & listened to the recordings dozens of times and I was still on the edge of my seat, sweating the landing alongside Armstrong and Aldrin. And sweating they were…at least Armstrong was. Take a look at his heart rate during the landing; it peaked at 150 beats per minute at landing (note: the “1000 ft altitude” is mislabeled, it should be “100 ft”):

Neil Armstrong's heart rate during the Apollo 11 Moon landing

For reference, Armstrong’s resting heart rate was around 60 bpm. There are a couple of other interesting things about this chart. The first is the two minutes of missing data starting around 102:36. They were supposed to be 10 minutes from landing on the Moon and instead their link to Mission Control in Houston kept cutting out. Then there were the intermittent 1201 and 1202 program alarms, which neither the LM crew nor Houston had encountered in any of the training simulations. At the sign of the first alarm at 102:38:26, Armstrong’s heart rate actually appears to drop. And then, as the alarms continue throughout the sequence along with Houston’s assurances that the alarm is nothing to worry about, Armstrong’s heart rate stays steady.

Right around the 2000 feet mark, Armstrong realizes that he needs to maneuver around a crater and some rocks on the surface to reach a flat landing spot and his heart rate steadily rises until it plateaus at the landing. At the time, he thought he’d landed with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. That Neil Armstrong was able to keep his cool with unknown alarms going off while avoiding craters and boulders with very little fuel remaining and his heart rate spiking while skimming over the surface OF THE FREAKING MOON doing something no one had ever done before is one of the most totally cold-blooded & badass things anyone has ever done. Damn, I get goosebumps just reading about it!

Update: The landing broadcast just aired and I wanted to explain a little about what you saw (you can relive it here).

The shots of the Moon you see during the landing broadcast are animations…there is obviously no camera on the Moon watching the LM descend to the surface. There was a camera recording the landing from the LM but that footage was not released until later. This is in contrast to the footage you’ll see later on the Moon walk broadcast…that footage was piped in live to TV screens all over the world as it happened.

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”. :)

Two things to listen for on the broadcast: the 1201/1202 program alarms I mentioned above and two quick callouts by Charlie Duke about the remaining fuel towards the end: “60 seconds” and “30 seconds”. Armstrong is taking all this information in through his earpiece — the 1202s, the altitude and speed from Aldrin, and the remaining fuel — and using it to figure out where to land.

The CBS animation shows the fake LM landing on the fake Moon before the actual landing — when Buzz says “contact light” and then “engine stop”. The animation was based on the scheduled landing time and evidently couldn’t be adjusted. The scheduled time was overshot because of the crater and boulders situation mentioned above.

Cronkite was joined on the program by former astronaut Wally Schirra. When Armstrong signaled they’d landed, Schirra can be seen dabbing his eyes and Cronkite looks a little misty as well as he rubs his hands together.

  1. The book is read by Bronson Pinchot, who played Balki Bartokomous on the 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers. He is a fantastic audiobook narrator.

The chaotic clouds of Jupiter

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2018

Jupiter Clouds Swirl

This newly released photo of the chaotic clouds of Jupiter would make a great marbled paper pattern.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft took this color-enhanced image at 10:23 p.m. PDT on May 23, 2018 (1:23 a.m. EDT on May 24), as the spacecraft performed its 13th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time, Juno was about 9,600 miles (15,500 kilometers) from the planet’s cloud tops, above a northern latitude of 56 degrees.

The region seen here is somewhat chaotic and turbulent, given the various swirling cloud formations. In general, the darker cloud material is deeper in Jupiter’s atmosphere, while bright cloud material is high. The bright clouds are most likely ammonia or ammonia and water, mixed with a sprinkling of unknown chemical ingredients.

You can view a “charmingly British” short film about making marbled paper right here.

What the uncharted territories of outer space might look like…

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2018

Harkening back to when visual effects teams used colorful liquids & chemicals to simulate space travel for films like 2001, Helios uses those same techniques to visualize “what the uncharted territories of outer space might look like”.

Helios considers what the uncharted territories of outer space might look like. It was created as a passion project in my basement studio using various liquids and chemicals. It is staged as an audiovisual stimulus inspired by the aesthetics of vintage NASA space travel.

Having spent my entire childhood in an area lacking both basic infrastructure and light pollution, I developed an escapist obsession for watching the night sky and contemplating. I would constantly get on people’s nerves asking: “What do the limits of the universe look like? And what’s behind that?”

Here’s a look at the process behind the video, along with some high-resolution screencaps.

Those grainy Moon photos from the 60s? The actual high-res images looked so much better.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2018

In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent five spacecraft to orbit the Moon to take high-resolution photos to aid in finding a good landing spot for the Apollo missions. NASA released some photos to the public and they were extremely grainy and low resolution because they didn’t want the Soviet Union to know the capabilities of US spy satellites. Here’s a comparison to what the public saw at the time versus how the photos actually looked:

Old Moon New Moon

The Lunar Orbiters never returned to Earth with the imagery. Instead, the Orbiter developed the 70mm film (yes film) and then raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron spot (200 lines/mm resolution) and beamed the data back to Earth using lossless analog compression, which was yet to actually be patented by anyone. Three ground stations on earth, one of which was in Madrid, another in Australia and the other in California recieved the signals and recorded them. The transmissions were recorded on to magnetic tape. The tapes needed Ampex FR-900 drives to read them, a refrigerator sized device that cost $300,000 to buy new in the 1960’s.

The high-res photos were only revealed in 2008, after a volunteer restoration effort undertaken in an abandoned McDonald’s nicknamed McMoon.

They were huge files, even by today’s standards. One of the later images can be as big as 2GB on a modern PC, with photos on top resolution DSLRs only being in the region of 10MB you can see how big these images are. One engineer said you could blow the images up to the size of a billboard without losing any quality. When the initial NASA engineers printed off these images, they had to hang them in a church because they were so big. The below images show some idea of the scale of these images. Each individual image when printed out was 1.58m by 0.4m.

You can view a collection of some of the images here.

Jeff Bezos sees space as the “only” option to spend his money on

posted by Patrick Tanguay   May 02, 2018

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is super rich, $131 billion kind of rich. Business wise, an admirable drive, some incredible ideas, and a very forward looking mind, playing three dimensional chess some might say. And yet, when considering what he might do with his fortune, he was a bit disappointing.

The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it, […] the most important work that I’m doing.

Blue Origin is expensive enough to be able to use that fortune, I am currently liquidating about $1 billion a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin. And I plan to continue to do that for a long time. Because you’re right, you’re not going to spend it on a second dinner out.

Going to space is a great dream but I’m not sure it’s the only thing worth spending billions on. And I’m not the only one.

Great discoveries have come out of our space dreams and accomplishments, I’m sure many more will. Just look at what Elon Musk has done in a few years. Bezos’ comment was, at the very least, tone deaf. If he’s such a great leader, he should also lead for the greater good now, not just for far away dreams of space.