Saturday, July 5, 2008


Here are some screenshots I got of Neptune's storm.

Cool Celestia videos.

Nice download.

What Google Earth is to, well, Earth, Celestia is to the Universe.
An amazing free program with 3D virtual tours of the universe.
Here are some screenshots:

Discovery in orbit over FL:

Recently discovered extrasolar planet Rho Cancri e, a system of at least four planets. Rho Cancri b is visible on the right of e.
Want to know how bright Alpha Centauri is?

Just click "Navigation" and "Goto" and type it in.

The program will "fly" you where you want to go, and provide you info like distance, luminosity, and class in the left-hand corner.

Insanely cool is the ability to set a "time" for Celestia. In other words, if you set the time for between February 20, 1986 and March 23, 2001, you'll see Mir in orbit. If you set it up between July 16 and July 24, 1969 you can see Apollo 11.

Shift+ arrow keys spins the object you're looking at, though looking at the dark side of a celestial body isn't exactly thrilling.

"Eclipse finder" allows you to select either lunar or solar and whichever planet you're inquiring on and view upcoming eclipses for whatever amount of time you select.

Then, Goto takes you to the planet where the eclipse will occur. "Render" and then "Select Objects" and click on "Eclipse shadows" to see where the eclipse will be visible.

Obviously, planets we've landed on and mapped are more detailed, and gas giants won't let you land on the surface because of course they don't have a surface.

A fun and free program.

Download it here.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Anniversary!

Happy 958th anniversary to the gorgeous Crab Nebula, whose supernova was first observed by Chinese, Japanese, and Arab astronomers on July 4th, 1054.

According to Wikipedia:

When SN 1054 occurred, it was visible in the day for 23 straight days and the supernova was visible in the night sky for 653 days.
There is evidence that the Mimbres and Anasazi Indians in North America saw SN 1054.
According to the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

The pictograph shown on this slide was painted on a horizontal overhang six meters off the ground, located on an East-facing cliff face five hundred meters Northeast of the ruin Peñnasco Blanco, in Chaco Canyon. Strong circumstantial evidence points to the pictograph being a depiction of the 1054 supernova. The crescent is the Moon, the star shape to its left the supernova, and the hand (life-size) is taken to indicate that the site is sacred. Calculations of the Moon's orbit back to 5 July 1054 have shown that the moon was waning, just entering first quarter. These calculations also indicate that at dawn on 5 July 1054 in the American Southwest, the moon was within 3 degrees of the supernova, and its crescent oriented as on the pictograph (provided the pictograph is viewed looking up with one's back to the cliff, as the authors of the pictograph most likely did). With the apparent width of the moon being about half a degree, this pictograph comes basically as close as it possibly could to being a true scale rendition of the 1054 supernova seen in conjunction with the waning moon.

On the nearly vertical cliff face below the supernova a Sun-symbol can be seen, painted in pale yellow over a much faded red background. This, combined with a clear view on the mesa top to an eastern horizon suitable for calendrical purposes, might well indicate that the site was also a solar-observing station. From there, the Peñasco Blanco Sun-priest perhaps first noticed the supernova prior to a sunrise observation. Given how rare such an event must have been, it is then conceivable that he might have wanted to record the event. Over a dozen other examples of rock art possibly representing supernova 1054 (i.e., bright "star" close to a crescent Moon) can be found throughout the Southwest, but few are as astronomically convincing as this pictograph.
A pulsating radio source, now known as the Crab Pulsar, lies in the heart of the Nebula.
Also, today is the second anniversary of the launch of STS-121, the first space shuttle launch to occur on the 4th of July. You may recall there were some tense moments following the discovery that foam had fallen off during the STS-121 launch and could have potentially damaged the vehicle. By using new cameras and sensors on the robotic arm, NASA was able to ascertain that the damage was not significant. Discovery landed safely on July 17th.

Why have a space program?

The brilliant astronaut John Young wrote the forward for Tom Jones' book "Sky Walking."
One of the things he mentions is that because of the ISS, astronauts were able to develop agricultural advances involving wheat production which have the potential to solve the world's hunger problem. Spaceflight, as I've said many times, is not about somersaults, as fun as that might be to see. Spaceflight is about making things better for humanity.

Some of the most frequently asked questions about the U.S. space program are "Why go into space when we have so many problems here on Earth?" and "What does the space program do for me?" These are legitimate questions and unfortunately not enough people have been made aware of the vast benefits the space program provides that increase the quality of our daily lives. Applications on Earth of technology needed for space flight have produced thousands of "spinoffs" that contribute to improving national security, the economy, productivity and lifestyle. It is almost impossible to find an area of everyday life that has not been improved by these spinoffs. Collectively, these secondary applications represent a substantial return on the national investment in aerospace research. We should be spending more.

Out of a $2.4 trillion budget, less than 0.8% is spent on the entire space program! That's less than 1 penny for every dollar spent. The average American spends more of their budget on their cable bill, eating out or entertainment than this yet the benefits of space flight are remarkable. It has been conservatively estimated by U.S. space experts that for every dollar the U.S. spends on R and D in the space program, it receives $7 back in the form of corporate and personal income taxes from increased jobs and economic growth. Besides the obvious jobs created in the aerospace industry, thousands more are created by many other companies applying NASA technology in nonspace related areas that affect us daily. One cannot even begin to place a dollar value on the lives saved and improved lifestyles of the less fortunate. Space technology benefits everyone and a rising technological tide does raise all boats.

Read the rest at The Space Place by clicking here.

A few things that make our lives easier, safer, and better, developed and perfected directly and only because of a need in the space program.

(Many more can be found on the page at Space Place.)


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Quoth humanity.

I am convinced that of all the people on the two sides of the great curtain, the space pilots are the least likely to hate each other. Like the late Erich von Holst, I believe that the tremendous and otherwise not quite explicable public interest in space flight arises from the subconscious realization that it helps to preserve peace. May it continue to do so!
- Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, 1963

As soon as somebody demonstrates the art of flying, settlers from our species of man will not be lacking [on the moon and Jupiter]... Given ships or sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, there will be those who will not shrink from even that vast expanse.
Johannes Kepler, letter to Galileo, 1610

In spite of the opinions of certain narrow-minded people, who would shut up the human race upon this globe, as within some magic circle which it must never outstep, we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York.
-Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon, 1865

I only hope that we shall not wait to adopt the program until after our astronomers have reported a new and unsuspected aster[oid] moving across their fields of vision with menacing speed. At that point it will be too late!
- Wernher von Braun, "A Plea for a Coordinated Space Program" in The Complete Book of Outer Space, 1953

Don't tell me that man doesn't belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go--and he'll do plenty well when he gets there.
-Wernher von Braun, Time magazine, 1958

The earth is the cradle of humankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.
-Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, 1895

The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war.
-James S. McDonnell

Men might as well project a voyage to the Moon as attempt to employ steam navigation against the stormy North Atlantic Ocean.
— Dr. Dionysus Lardner, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, University College, London, 1838.

Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.
— Serbian proverb


Garrett during his two-week NEEMO-5 Expedition.

Space flight would be awesome. Living underwater would be very nearly as awesome.


Someone must have parked it in the O'Hare parking lot.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Sky Walking" by Tom Jones.

Lord, no.
Not him.

This guy:

A friend of mine, a fellow Catholic and space geek, was kind enough to e-mail me an article which appeared in a Catholic paper a few years back written by astronaut Tom Jones.

I thought the article was so good that I searched until I found Jones' e-mail address. I dropped him a line to tell him how much I enjoyed the piece.

And then...

He wrote me back. That's right. There, in my inbox, was correspondence from a man who flew four shuttle missions and did three spacewalks to help construct the ISS.
He was so humble and gracious in accepting my praise for his article. He didn't just send back, "Thanks." He made the e-mail personal, responding to the space-related AND faith-related points of my note. He opened with, "How kind of you to write such heartwarming words!" He didn't just nod in my direction. He stopped, smiled, shook my hand, and asked how the kids were doing, figuratively, of course.
I was thrilled, even though I suspected that's exactly how he'd be.

Of course, after the article, my interest was piqued. I didn't just want to know about Dr. Jones' spiritual journey - I wanted to know all about his scientific and personal journey as well. In addition, I suppose I wanted to extend my gratitude for his kind reply. Tom Jones is an American hero, risking his life as surely as Lewis and Clark did, though he risked his not just for exploration and expansion but for the betterment of mankind. Tom Jones is a fine writer. Tom Jones has interesting subject material, duh. But guess what? Tom Jones is also well-mannered. I can't imagine the number of e-mails he gets. (In fact, his website notes that one should have patience when awaiting an e-mail reply "due to the amount of correspondence he receives.") So, yeah. It would have been easy for him to write back a standard form "Thanks for the kind words" bit, BUT HE DIDN'T. A million points, right there. Without hesitation, I went to Barnes and and bought "Sky Walking" and "Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler's Wehrmacht."
And I was thrilled to learn that he has a National Geographic book, "Planetology", coming out in the fall. Dr. Jones is a distinguished scientist, holding a doctorate in planetary science. I am very eager to read "Planetology."

So I got the book today as I was walking out the door for work. When I sat down at my desk, I opened it.

Holy. cow.

I literally delayed restroom breaks reading this book. Wow! It's phenomenal. It is gripping - hysterical, fascinating, and at times, scary. I finished the whole thing. 345 pages in an 8 hour shift. I could not stop reading.

I laughed out loud several times, particularly in the first few chapters. And I NEVER laugh out loud while reading. It is obvious that Tom Jones is blessed with humility and a fine sense of humor. The bit about Story Musgrave's advice on a funny trick to play while peeing in space had me in stitches, not just because it's a grand idea, but because it's pretty obvious that Story isn't conveying a hypothetical situation - he's actually done it!
And the part about the crewmember who fell asleep while e-mailing and was found not in his bunk but floating peacefully through the cabin, bumping walls here and there, but never moving from his fetal position - what a visual!

It is so accessible, yet in no way is it dumbed down. It is technical without being dense. Paragraphs about TACAN and MECO are interspersed with stories about his wife, kids, and his poor nervous mother, and there is no shortage of hilarity, frivolity, introspection, and awed reverence. I found myself thinking over and over again, "Okay, I could never be an astronaut."
I mean, I was always aware that there's a whole lot of behind-the-scenes, non-fun stuff, but the stories in this book make it pretty clear.
The file footage you see on CNN? That's the glory.
The reality is that an astronaut career is a smelly, dangerous, repetitive, jealous, demanding and sometimes disgusting mistress.
Strangely, with so much of the glory stripped away, I found myself EVEN MORE in awe and admiration of our men and women in the space program. There probably aren't many people reading this blog, who, with a limitless bank account, wouldn't purchase a ticket on the space shuttle if it were possible. (Okay, there aren't many people reading this blog, period. I digress.)
It looks so FUN! It IS so fun! But there are also probably not many people who would go to the trouble of getting a PhD, spend 18 hours a day, 6 days a week at work doing the same thing over and over and over and over again, leave their families week after week, deal with bureaucrats 24/7, go potty in absolutely the most inconvenient and time-consuming way, etc., just for the pleasure of eating irradiated roast beef and drinking Tang in a weightless environment. They are the most dedicated, committed professionals in America, you can take it to the bank. And I'm not just talking about the astronauts - the men and women who make it happen are included in that group, too.

One of the things I appreciated in the book was the author sharing with us (briefly, yet tenderly) his reactions to both Challenger and Columbia. He writes:

I knew that spaceflight carried risk. But nothing in my flying experience prepared me for the shock of January 28, 1986. A graduate student in planetary sciences at the University of Arizona, I had just returned from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where over the weekend I had shared with colleagues the mind-tingling experience of Voyager 2's first-ever spacecraft encounter with the planet Uranus. Back in Tucson that Tuesday morning, I stepped next door from my campus office to the Flandrau Planetarium to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger.

With me in that darkened planetarium were a few dozen elementary schoolchildren on a field trip to watch the first teacher rocket into orbit. It wasn't a big crowd; shuttle launches were no longer a novelty. Nevertheless, the planetarium staff and I shared the excitement visible on the young faces as the shuttle soared into a pure blue sky on the blazing exhaust of its twin boosters. We tracked Challenger's upward progress as the cameras zoomed in, filling the giant screen with the shuttle's image and bringing looks of wonder and awe to the faces of the youthful crowd. Just seventy seconds after liftoff, our exhilaration turned to stomach-turning shock. Nine miles above Cape Canaveral, the space shuttle disintegrated before our eyes. A failed rubber O-ring seal allowed the escape of burning propellant gases from the side of the right booster; the scorching flame triggered a structural failure that tore apart the boosters, fuel tank, and orbiter. That churning fireball, I knew instantly, sealed the fate of all seven crew members, but with the children I strained for a glimpse of a miracle - the orbiter emerging safe from the flaming debris. Still hoping, a few of the students clapped as a lone parachute carrying a fragment of one of the boosters drifted toward the sea. But we were wishing for the impossible: Challenger's crew wore no parachutes. As the camera focused on wreckage splashing into the empty ocean, I could see my own horror reflected in the shock and disbelief around me. No one knew what to say; the sudden tragedy had silenced the room. I offered my only thought to the children and their teachers: "Now would be a good time to say a prayer."

Of course, space is a dangerous business, and this book managed to convey that well. It's not just launch and landing that are dangerous. Almost every single moment carries some risk, sometimes before you even leave earth.

Chapter 13 opens with Dr. Jones doing a "mock space walk" at JSC. He's in an EVA suit, the room is a vacuum chamber, and if something goes wrong, he's dead meat.

He writes:

Working in a vacuum was always a hazardous undertaking, even in the terrestrial confines of the vacuum chambers at the Johnson Space Center. During the Skylab program, a test engineer, James LeBlanc, was working at a pressure equivalent of about 250,000 feet when his umbilical popped loose from his modified Apollo EVA suit, instantly exposing him to near-vacuum. Taking the full brunt of an explosive decompression, Jim said his last memory before blacking out was feeling the saliva boiling off his tongue. (Emphasis mine.)

During STS-98, Tom's wife Liz and their two children were in a room at KSC waiting for the launch. NASA administrator Dan Goldin came into the room (normally a very private setting, reserved for just closest family to be apart from everything).
Jones writes:

Liz expected NASA's top official to express appreciation for their support of the crew and optimism for an on-time launch. Instead Goldin's remarks took an unusual direction. "We've tried to make this vehicle as safe as possible." Liz looked at him with disbelief as he continued. "We've tried to make this launch as safe as possible." What could he possibly be thinking? How was Dan going to salvage this one? He followed his thoughts to their chilling conclusion: "But after all... this is space." Goldin pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. The three wives were stunned. As he left the room it was all Liz could do to voice a polite goodbye.

In addition to the interesting subject material, reading this book gives space geeks a good opportunity to learn more about the men and women and places they already know so much about. Reading about how personable and kind and helpful John Young and Story Musgrave are (I knew it!), or how Mission Control is set up, or what a day in the life of an Astronaut Candidate is like - all this was great fun.

Other high praise:

A 'tell it like it is' flight crew report of living and working in space... An inside story - well told!
-Neil Armstrong

Tom Jones will take you by the hand through the trials and tribulations of being a shuttle astronaut. His vision of where NASA should go in the future should be read by all serious space enthusiasts.
-James A. Lovell

Tom Jones's excellent descriptions take you along to experience the joys, frustrations, training, selection-at-long-last, and life aboard a mission in space. An excellent account.
-John Glenn

WOW! Tom Jones writes as well as he flies, with humor, candor, and considerable wisdom.
-Michael Collins

In short, get this damn book. It is awesome, awesome, awesome.

If I ever get involved in another Astronaut Fan Club...

The fuuuuture.

Sitting here watching Star Wars for the nine millionth time, a couple of things occurred to me.

1.) When am I going to finally get a computer that beeps and whistles and chirps?
2008 and we still have computers that don't chirp when you hit "enter" or constantly flash multicolored lights to indicate they are working.

2.) A lot of cardboard died to make those sets.

3.) Harrison Ford: Because sometimes hot lasts a lifetime.

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish

July 14, Bastille Day to those of you searching desperately for a reason to get sloshed on good wine, is D-Day for the Large Hadron Collider. That’s when the 50,000 tons of magnets in the collider are expected to be chilled to -456.3 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than deep space.

As Scientific American points out, the magnets have to be that cold in order to be “ready to whip opposing beams of protons to near light speed and collide them so researchers can pick over the debris.

The collider, in a 17-mile-long ring built underground near the Swiss-French border, is designed to recreate, however, briefly, conditions that existed near the time of the Big Bang. Or to put it in Scientific American’s more understandable terms:

The LHC was built first and foremost to seek out a subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, which solves the conundrum of why the photon (the particle that conveys the force of electromagnetism) has no mass, whereas its counterparts, the W and Z bosons (the operative particles in the weak nuclear force that causes radioactive decay), do.

Physicists believe that the Higgs breaks a symmetry between these forces, similar to the way Earth's gravity makes it appear that space has an up and a down. It does so by acting like molasses that other particles have to plow through. The end result is mass as we know it.


Scientists also are looking for the particles responsible for dark matter and an answer to why there is so much more matter than anti-matter in the universe.
Just to make things interesting, a group of folks, including some scientists, is suing in Hawaii (don’t ask) to stop the flipping of the collider’s switch. They claim that it could actually create a black hole that would swallow earth. I personally think it would be kinda cool to die in a massive black hole. I’m guessing you just get squished, but what I know about physics could fit inside a Higgs boson.

Anyway, the scientists working on the LHC were remarkably calm as they uttered their comforting words regarding that possibility: “We don’t think that will happen.”
If we’re talking end of the world kinda stuff, I’d sure like something more definitive than that.

For the Hubble.

Dear Hubble,
I will miss you.
It hurts that we have to go our separate ways.
Here is a video I made for you.


P.S. This has NOTHING to do with the under-construction Webb Space Telescope. It's not you. It's me.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Upcoming ISS sighting opportunities

Below: The ISS photographed by Bret Dahl as it flew over Dallas, Texas 04-13-08. Fanfreekingtastic.

Below: The ISS moves through the sky over Kent, England. Photo by Dave P. Smith,
taken with Canon Powershot.

I am certainly going to try to see the ISS on the morning of the 3rd and the morning of the 5th, at least.

For my family in FL, there are NINETEEN sighting opportunities for the ISS, Hubble, and Genesis in the next ten days, but most will be dim. I don't feel a bit sorry for you, though, as you get awesome darkness for skywatching every single night.

What a fantastic way to start the day.