Category Archives: Space

New planet? Whaddya mean, INFERRED? Ain’t it amazing how little scientists KNOW…

planet nine

An artist’s impression of Planet Nine, which could sit at the edge of our solar system. (R. Hurt/California Institute of Technology)

OK, so now the guy who got Pluto demoted, the author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, says he’s found a new planet. One much farther out (20 times as far as Neptune) and much, much bigger — like, 5 or 10 times as massive as Earth.

Not that anyone has seen this planet, mind you, although the boffins are all looking for it like fun:

Their paper, published in the Astronomical Journal, describes the planet as about five to 10 times as massive as the Earth. But the authors, astronomers Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin, have not observed the planet directly.

Instead, they have inferred its existence from the motion of recently discovered dwarf planets and other small objects in the outer solar system. Those smaller bodies have orbits that appear to be influenced by the gravity of a hidden planet – a “massive perturber.” The astronomers suggest it might have been flung into deep space long ago by the gravitational force of Jupiter or Saturn.

Telescopes on at least two continents are searching for the object, which on average is 20 times farther away than the eighth planet, Neptune. If “Planet Nine” exists, it’s big. Its estimated mass would make it about two to four times the diameter of the Earth, distinguishing it as the fifth-largest planet after Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. But at such extreme distances, it would reflect so little sunlight that it could evade even the most powerful telescopes…

So, astronomers — the class of people who are always telling us about (much smaller) Earth-like planets in other solar systems, gazillions of times farther away than this — have to infer the existence of a gigantic planet still in the grip of Sol’s gravity? I mean, they’re inferring all that stuff about “Goldilocks” planets, too, but if they have to do it in our own system, how reliable is all that stuff about other star systems?

This kind of uncertainty on the part of experts does not inspire confidence on the part of us ignorant laypeople.

Take another news item from this morning: “It’s official: 2015 ‘smashed’ 2014’s global temperature record. It wasn’t even close.

Yo! Get it together, scientists!

Yo! Get it together, scientists!

Now, I realize that one year — or for that matter, two years — does not constitute proof of a trend. But I am reminded that, in the long run, most scientists tell us that we are experiencing climate change, and it’s our fault.

I believe them. But hey, when scientists can’t even tell for sure whether there’s another giant planet in our own solar system, is it surprising that some people don’t? Believe them, I mean.

And yes, I’m doing a classic thing that ignorant people do — I’m combining all scientists, from all disciplines, into one entity. He’s a guy who looks like… well, like the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” That guy knew everything about everything

As for me… I’m just a simple caveman blogger. What do I know?

What space travelers need (hint: it’s not a towel)

A low point from our recent trip to Thailand:

This was some sort of super-duper, futuristic towel that my wife had had the foresight to buy before our trip. Small-folding, super-absorbent, and super-fast-drying so you can use it again before long. Whoever found it may not have recognized it as a towel. Its texture was like a cross between felt and rubber — hard to describe, really.

I had thought it really cool that, like a Douglas Adams character, I was a traveler who always knew where his towel was — in his backback:

Somebody who can stay in control of virtually any situation is somebody who is said to know where his or her towel is. The logic behind this statement is presented in chapter 3 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thus:

… a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Technically, I still knew where it was — I had left it on a doorknob of a farmhouse in the countryside of Khorat. But I no longer had the use of it, which of course was the point of such knowledge. I also had most of those other things listed in the above paragraph, and more — just not my towel, which saddened me, because it made me feel less hoopy.

But now I read that in the future, a space traveler’s most critical accoutrement will not be his towel. In fact, “A 3-D printer may one day be in the carry-on luggage of every savvy solar system traveler…”

They are experimenting with a 3-D printer that would make bricks suitable for airtight buildings and radiation-proof shelters using the grit that blows across Mars’s red surface.

In Huntsville, Ala., Ms. Werkheiser, NASA’s 3-D print project manager, is starting to print curved walls and other structures using imitation Martian sand as an ink. Engineers at the European Space Agency are exploring ways to use lunar dust as an ink to print out an entire moon base. London-based architects Foster + Partners have designed a printable lunar colony.

And if astronauts ever do attempt to reach Mars, they may survive the journey by eating pizza made with a 3-D-printed food system for long duration space missions, now under development in Texas…

These printers will use materials found on the moon and on Mars as “ink.”

Frankly, on this topic I’m a little like those people who believe the moon landings were a hoax. I DO believe in the moon landings, let me be clear, but I still don’t understand how any sort of complex item — say, pizza — can be recreated so that it is functional. I see how you might print a plastic statue of the object; I just don’t understand how it could work like the original.

In other words, I can imagine having something like a low-functioning 3D PDF — like a fax that is a picture of text, but doesn’t give you text that you can work with, because the document does not know that the text is text. If you can follow me.

But the boffins say it will work. If so, I suppose, in the future you won’t need to have your towel, because you can always print another…

Maybe we should ask Toby Ziegler about the military shuttle


Today, The New York Times sort of scoffed at its own report, 25 years ago, about the National Aero-Space Plane, which was to boldly go where no man had gone before, spacecraftwise:

In his 1986 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan promised “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.”

On Oct. 3, 1989, an article in Science Times, “Designing a Plane for the Leap of Space (and Back),” reported frenetic activity at NASA and the Defense Department.

“Scientists and engineers are making rapid progress in developing technologies needed to build a 17,000-mile-an-hour ‘space plane’ that could escape earth’s gravity and circle the globe in 90 minutes,” the article began….

But the whole project was abandoned in 1994, and experts say it remains technologically beyond our reach.

Or does it?

Just this week, the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane returned to Earth after a mission lasting almost two years.

Or, at least, they say it was unmanned. And they’re not telling us much more about it. Apparently, our government is still capable of keeping some secrets, even in the Edward Snowden era. This leads to speculation:

Theorists speculate the spacecraft is a space bomber, a spy plane against such targets as the Chinese space station, or merely an experiment as the government states, according to a Popular Mechanics story in 2012.

Maybe we could get former White House aide Toby Ziegler to tell us what he knows about it…

NASA’s starship, the IXS Enterprise


This is the coolest thing I ran into over the weekend. I think the info has been out there awhile, but it was new to me when I saw it at the WashPost site.

First, there’s a guy at NASA, engineer and physicist Harold White, working on how to make a warp-drive spaceship, a true starship, a vehicle that can move at speeds exceeding the speed of light. Which, it is believed, may one day be possible.

Better than that:

And now, to boldly go where no designer has gone before, Mark Rademaker — who is collaborating with White — has created a CGI design concept for the “warp ship.” They’re calling it the IXS Enterprise.

Admittedly, the pictures are less about getting to the other side of the galaxy, and more about getting kids excited about pursuing STEM careers. But they’re a lot of fun anyway. You can see more images at Rademaker’s Flickr account.

White explains in detail how his warp drive would work in the video below. But for those of you who want the quick, oversimplified version, basically it works “by expanding space-time behind the object and contracting space-time front of it.”

A disappointing aspect of that is that it makes for a bit of a clunky design. In the photo above, I saw that structure around the ship and thought it was docked in a construction bay, or making a stop at a space station. No, apparently, that huge ring is part of the ship — an essential element to making the warp drive work. “The rings are most important as they will form the Warp bubble,” says Rademaker.

But maybe they can streamline them some before NASA’s ready to “boldly go.” Which is bound to be awhile, given that NASA currently has no operational spacecraft. We’ll see. Or our descendants will, anyway…

For you space buffs, a nice shot of Manhattan


This sort of image is fairly unremarkable in these days of Google Earth, but I thought it was worth reTweeting when I saw it yesterday.

A Japanese astronaut (I’m still adjusting to there being such things) shot this picture and Tweeted it with the simple observation, “Nice pass over New York City.

Yes, it was. Very clear. It would be cooler if the resolution were higher, but still nice.

And yes, in these days when Americans no longer have a means to get into space and have to hitch rides, there are still people up there, still grooving on the view…

Google Maps version

Google Maps version

George Clooney as an old-fashioned hero


Several members of my family were watching the Oscars last night, and occasionally I’d step into the room, taking a break from re-reading The Far Side of the World for about the sixth time, which is something I’d rather do than watch the Oscars. (I’m still mad about the “Shakespeare In Love”-as-Best-Picture fiasco of 1998.)

So I heard a couple of references to the movie “Gravity” — which stands out among the films of this past year in that I actually went to see it in a theater. I had heard that a) it was good, and b) the 3D was actually worth seeing. So several weeks ago, I went to see it while I could still catch it in that format.

It was good, and the 3D, while not being mind-blowing, was at least watchable. It didn’t get in the way. But I wouldn’t call it indispensable. I think the film would have been visually impressive without it.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. This morning, skimming through my email, I saw a link to a Slate piece about the Oscars, and I followed it because I was curious what they could possibly mean by the headline, “Ellen Was the Stephen Colbert of Oscars Hosts.” Turns out, not much. But on the way to finding that out, I ran across this sentence fragment (believe me, you don’t want to read the whole sentence; it’s unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe celebrity news): “… another montage about heroes, featuring almost no women.”

No, I don’t know what that referred to, and don’t care. But it got me thinking about George Clooney in “Gravity,” who I thought was impressive as an old-fashioned, early ’60s-or-earlier kind of hero, the kind you don’t see all that often in movies anymore.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, I’m about to give away the whole movie, so if you care about that, stop reading now.

Yes, the movie centers around Sandra Bullock’s character, who spends most of the screen time alone. The film is mainly about her grit and determination to survive. You would in fact call her character heroic if she were saving anyone other than herself, but whether you call it that or not, her struggle is pretty gripping.

But the reason she spends all that screen time alone is that at the beginning, George Clooney’s character gives his life so that she’ll have a chance.

And in his few minutes on screen, he exhibits enough Traditional Manly Virtues to fill up the whole film and more. He seems to personify all the courage we ascribed to the original seven Mercury astronauts, as described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. And as befits a hero, he wears it lightly, hid in a constant stream of wisecracks, maintaining an even strain.

There’s a dynamic between him and the Bullock character that I’ve seen in real workplaces. She is the no-nonsense woman who has a task to perform and is doing it not because she enjoys it, but because it needs doing and she knows how to do it, and she just wants to get it done and go home and maybe put her feet up, but while she’s working she has to put up with this lollygaggin’, wisecracking guy who doesn’t seem to have enough to do and who is maybe flirting with her or something, which is something she doesn’t need.

Although it turns out that the good-time Charlie thing is just part of his leadership style. He’s just trying to get a smile out of someone having a bad day (because if you can do that, the unit functions more smoothly). But that’s not all there is to him. When things go bad and somebody needs to give orders, he does so with a crisp, commanding confidence. No question at that point that he is the mission commander, and there’s a reason for that. Because as much as you might need scientists and techies to make the gadgets work, there’s a time when you need a pilot, a guy who routinely hangs his hide out over the edge in a hurtling piece of machinery and hauls it back in again without breaking a sweat — someone schooled in emergency, someone at home with danger. You need someone in charge who knows exactly what he’s doing, even when everything’s gone all to hell.

His persona makes such an impression on Sandra Bullock’s character that even well after he is certainly dead, at a point when she has decided to just give up and let herself pass out from lack of oxygen, he returns to her in a hallucination — still the same lollygaggin’, keeping-it-light guy, but gently goading her into waking up and doing what it takes to survive, in spite of the odds.

And the thing is, he does all of this without seeming like a caricature, or a stereotype, or a throwback to movies gone by. In fact, he does all this more artfully and smoothly than most Traditional Heroes in old movies.

Anyway, I was impressed by that. And I wonder whether any actor other than Clooney could have pulled it off….

Anyone remember Space Family Robinson? I do…


Over the weekend, I denied being a “geek,” at least according to the parameters that Amazon set out.

However, I admitted that I may be such a geek that normal geek-dar doesn’t pick me up on the screen, in that my enthusiasms are slightly more esoteric.Goldkeycomics

For instance, I denied being a Trekkie, and that was true. But I was into the even lower-quality “Lost in Space.” I thought it great that TV had turned a comic book I was into — “Space Family Robinson” — into a prime-time show.

Anybody remember that? It was published by Gold Key Comics. For that matter, anyone remember Gold Key comics?

I was originally attracted to the comics by the obvious play on “Swiss Family Robinson,” a movie I had enjoyed (I never read the book). I haven’t touched a copy in nearly 50 years (I wasn’t foresighted enough to keep them until they grew in market value), but I still remember one edition causing me to think about how immense space was. There was a story in which the Robinsons received a signal from about 20,000 miles away, and one of the kids said, “That’s practically right next door!” Which is really trite, except to a kid.

Of course, no one has ever evoked the vastness of space as well as Douglas Adams:

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…

As someone at the BBC wrote, that should be in every science textbook.

3D food printer, circa 1956

On my previous post about space travel and 3D printers, mention was made of the Star Trek “food replicator.”

But I seemed to recall that sci-fi had imagined this device much earlier than that.

Indeed, in the 1956 classic “Forbidden Planet,” starring Walter PidgeonAnne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen, there is a robot that has a sort of miniature 3D food printer built into its torso.

I couldn’t find a clip showing that from the actual film, but I did find this promotional short in which the robot explains how it is able to replicate food of any kind, in any amount. All that is needed is a small sample of the food — which I suppose makes it more of a 3D food copier than printer.

But whatever. I thought I’d share it. Also, I refer you to a story Burl brought to our attention, about how a 3D printer saved a baby’s life.

This is just astounding technology…

Robbie the Robot, a pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen, and pre-Honey West Anne Francis (who showed her gams a LOT in this one).

Robbie the Robot, a pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen, and pre-“Honey West” Anne Francis (who showed her gams a LOT in this one).

Would you like a 3D print of fries with that?


We don’t have flying cars yet, or time travel, but I’m encouraged to see that NASA is at least working on this

NASA can send robots to Mars, no problem. But if it’s ever going to put humans on the Red Planet, it has to figure out how to feed them over the course of a years-long mission.

So the space agency has funded research for what could be the ultimate nerd solution: a 3-D printer that creates entrees or desserts at the touch of a button.

Yes, it’s another case of life imitating “Star Trek” (remember the food replicator?). In this case, though, the creators hope there is an application beyond deep-space pizza parties. The technology could also be used to feed hungry populations here on Earth.

Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Corp. has been selected for a $125,000 grant from NASA to develop a 3-D printer that will create “nutritious and flavorful” food suitable for astronauts, according to the company’s proposal. Using a “digital recipe,” the printers will combine powders to produce food that has the structure and texture of, well, actual food. Including smell…

Obviously, the food would not be created out of thin air. The “toner” on this copier would have to consist of the chemical building blocks of the actual food items. The story doesn’t really spell out why that’s such an advantage, but I’m guessing it’s because powders containing those compounds are more easily stored.

But still… you would have to have the water that would flesh out the food, and… I don’t know why this would be an improvement over Tang.

But it sounds cool.

Personally, I want a 3D printer that would print diamonds out of coal dust. Or make a really convincing 3D print of Christina Hendricks. Just as a for-instance. I think that would be highly marketable.

I give up — what’s that bright thing in the sky? (Oh. Sirius.)

Image from my app.

Image from my app.

Any astronomers out there? Because I’ve got a question that’s been bugging me.

Some time ago, I picked up one of those cards at Starbucks that provides a code that lets you download a free iPhone app. This one was called “Star Walk,” and it was very cool.

Basically, you hold your phone up to the sky, and it gives you a labeled diagram of what you’re looking at. For that matter, you can use it inside, and it will tell you exactly where the planets and the constellations and major satellites are in relation to where you’re standing. You can even hold it toward the ground and see where the heavenly bodies are when they’re not in the visible sky, on the other side of our planet.

I appreciate it because I’ve always felt particularly ignorant because I know so little about what’s out there. I read those novels I love about Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, and Jack is always so dumbfounded by how little his friend the doctor knows about the planets and stars or anything else having to do with seamanship. And I’m not genius with languages like the doctor, so I feel particularly stupid.

Before the app, if I saw a particularly bright object in the sky, I assumed it was Venus, unless it had a reddish tint, in which case I assumed it was Mars. But I really had no idea.

I’m not that much brighter now, but I’ve picked up a couple of things. I can look up right away and say, “There’s Jupiter.” And at this time of night, I can pick out Orion pretty clearly.

But there’s something that’s been perplexing me in recent weeks.

Jupiter is off to the right of Orion. Fine, I can see that. But there’s something a roughly equal distance off to the left of Orion, at about the same elevation, that’s just about as bright as Jupiter. And what with light pollution from streetlamps and such, that object is the only thing bright enough to see in that part of the sky.

There’s nothing on Star Walk’s celestial map to indicate that there’s anything that really stands out in that part of the sky. There’s Sirius, and…

You know what? I just looked up Canis Major, which I know to be to the left of Orion, and according to Wikipedia Sirius is the brightest star in that constellation by far. In fact, I see elsewhere that it’s the brightest star in the sky other than our own Sol. So, you know. Duh.

(Yes, all of you who know something about astronomy; I am abysmally ignorant. No way would they let me be master and commander of any vessel in Nelson’s Navy.)

Don’t know why my app didn’t indicate that. (It makes it look like Murzim and Betelgeuse and Bellatrix and Rigel are all just as bright, which they’re not.) But hey, it’s a free app. And what it does do is pretty cool.

It’s got to be Sirius. So never mind. Unless you know I’m wrong, in which case please tell me…

How’d you like a one-way ticket to Mars?


Sounds kind of like a threat, doesn’t it? Sort of like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice!” (I’ve always marveled that such a wildly popular show could have sought to derive humor from wife-beating. Was it misogyny? Or, seeing as how Alice was the smart one, was it a way of further degrading Ralph? Were the show’s writers saying this is what you should expect from blue-collar guys like him? It just seemed a problem on so many levels, not least being the fact that it wasn’t funny.)

Slatest brings my attention to this interview with Gerard ‘t Hooft, talking about a proposal — which he supports — to send colonists to Mars to stay. As in, no return trip. But that’s not the kicker. The kicker is that the venture would be funded by the reality TV show about the “first Martians.”

Apparently, the idea has been around for awhile, but I didn’t know about it until I saw this interview. Here’s a story from last year:

The Dutch startup Mars One is counting on reality television to fund a highly ambitious trip to colonize the red planet.

The company hopes to establish the first human colony on Mars in 2023. (That’s 10 years before NASA hopes to reach Mars.) It plans to send four explorers on a one-way trip, with new teams following every two years.

That’s right—the Mars One colonists should expect to remain there for the rest of their lives, though the project website notes, “this is no way excludes the possibility of a return flight at some point in the future.” The settlers will have to hope that once Mars is sufficiently populated and developed, it will be “much easier to build the returning rocket there.” How comforting.

Still, even with the simplified logistics of a one-way trip, the Mars One project will still carry a hefty price tag—an estimated $6 billion for the initial four astronauts. To raise the cash, Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp plans on “creating the biggest media event ever.”

“To attract sponsors, we will create appealing media content around the selection of the astronauts, the training, unmanned missions and other topics,” said Lansdorp in an interview with Gizmag. “This should convince sponsors and investors to participate with the promise of an even bigger exposure later: we expect that almost every person on Earth will witness the landing of the first astronauts on Mars.”…

And this is from the website of the outfit proposing to do this:

Mars One is a not-for-profit organization that will take humanity to Mars in 2023, to establish the foundation of a permanent settlement from which we will prosper, learn, and grow. Before the first crew lands, Mars One will have established a habitable, sustainable settlement designed to receive astronauts every two years. To accomplish this, Mars One has developed a precise, realistic plan based entirely upon existing technologies. It is both economically and logistically feasible, in motion through the integration of existing suppliers and experts in space exploration.
We invite you to participate in this journey, by sharing our vision with your friends, by supporting our effort and, perhaps, by becoming the next Mars astronaut yourself.

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more depressing than spending the rest of my life in a tiny pod, or in a spacesuit, on a planet devoid of life. Never to see my family again — from the ones I now know to grandchildren yet unborn. Never to take in a breath of fresh, natural air or watch the seasons change. Having to take extreme care at all times just to keep living a life that would be grim at best.

And yet, 40,000 people have applied so far. Dr. ‘t Hooft (who to this ignorant Anglocentrist seems to have gone ahead and adopted a Martian surname) says this in the interview:

Everyone is now being asked about their motivation, and thousands of replies have already been collected.

Oh, I hope they’re doing a more extensive psychological evaluation than that. The results of an exhaustive study of people who would raise their hands for this should be fascinating.

So there’s something we can DO about asteroids?


Last week, we saw quite an array of celestial events. First, lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica only hours after the Pope shocked the world by announcing his retirement, suggesting that Someone preferred to keep such decisions to Himself.

Then, on the same day that we smugly expected an asteroid that we knew would come closer than some man-made satellites, but miss us, a smaller one that we weren’t anticipating didn’t. Miss us, I mean. It put on a light show and did spectacular damage in Siberia, injuring more than a thousand people. (Apparently, meteors hate Siberia more than tornadoes hate trailer parks.)

It’s like the heavens were mocking us and our belief that we have a handle on things.

Speaking of which, I thought I’d pass on this interesting piece that I saw in The Guardian from ex-astronaut Rusty Schweickart. He said that we need to know more about these smaller asteroids, and that we can, if we invest in new telescope technology. But the most surprising thing he said was that if we spot these rogue rocks early enough, we can actually do something to keep them from hitting us. Excerpts:

Spaceship Earth just took two celestial shots across its bow as, first, a meteor struck Russia, showering the Chelyabinsk region with fragments and reportedly injuring several hundred people, and second, as Asteroid 2012 DA14 whizzed past on 15 February. Traditionally, a torpedo across the bow is fired as a warning to change one’s behavior – and this coincidence of events should be a warning to humanity that meteors are not always as benign as “shooting stars” and that the next asteroid might not miss! Will we, the crew of SS Earth heed this warning?…

Nevertheless, the Earth is hit by one of these relatively small DA14-sized asteroids about once every 300 years, on average. And “small” is far, far from insignificant. The DA14-like asteroid that hit Earth in 1908 did so in a remote region of Siberia, where the explosion (the equivalent of about 250 Hiroshima nuclear bombs going off at one time) destroyed over 800 square miles of the countryside. This disaster zone, superimposed on any city in the world, would have wiped it and all its residents from the face of the Earth. I refer you, as a graphic reminder of the power of such explosions, to the post-facto Hiroshima bomb pictures readily found online.

The second way to view DA14 is to realize that, until just about a year ago, it was one of about 1 million similarly sized, near-Earth asteroids, which we know are out there, statistically, but that we haven’t yet seen. Consequently, until we find them in our telescopes, we are like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery with nothing more than luck to prevent a disaster. Regrettably, the Earth-based telescopes we’ve been using to discover and track these objects have, practically speaking, reached their limitations for finding the vast majority of these cosmic torpedoes.

Why do we care about finding them if there’s nothing we can do about it? Because, unknown to most people, is that if we have adequate early warning, our current space technology is sufficiently advanced to deflect these asteroids. For smaller impacts, even a last-minute warning of several days could enable a local evacuation and save many lives.

Deflection, however, will generally require several decades of warning. Fortunately, due to the relatively pure nature of space dynamics, forecasting an asteroid impact 100 years in advance is possible once its orbit is well known. The sine qua non, therefore, is finding them…

He goes on to make a pitch for the Sentinel telescope. He’s involved with a nonprofit that wants to build this thing and save the planet. Which is good of him.

What he does not to, to my frustration, is explain his claim that we can deflect these things. However, Stuart Clark, also writing in The Guardian, answers my question:

“There are three ways to deflect a dangerous asteroid: the gently pull, the swift kick and nuking it,” says Fitzsimmons. Which method is best depends on the asteroid’s size, composition, orbit, and crucially, how much warning we get. Typically, warning times of a decade or so would be required.

With plenty of warning, the gentle pull may be all that is needed. In this scenario, you send the heaviest spacecraft you can launch to “hover” close to the dangerous asteroid. The tiny gravitational pull that the spacecraft produces on the asteroid then adds up over many years to shift it off collision course. It’s a concept known as the gravity tractor.

The swift kick actually involves a collision. You hit the asteroid with a heavy spacecraft that instantaneously changes its orbit. The more warning you have, the smaller the kick you need to give it. Observations can quickly show whether the method has worked or whether another kick is needed.

Finally, if things are desperate, nuke it. This can provide the biggest kick of all. But don’t shatter the asteroid. The last thing you want to do is break it up. That turns a cannonball into buck shot without significantly changing its orbit.

Instead, a nearby nuclear explosion would evaporate the surface layers of the asteroid. As the vaporised rock jets into space, the asteroid would be pushed in the opposite direction.

But — correct me if I’m wrong — in order for us to do any of that, our space program needs to be more advanced than it is now. The gentle pull, anyway. To be able to intercept an asteroid decades away from us in time to gradually pull it off course sounds to me well beyond our current technology. Seems that we might want to step up our game a bit. As Clark quotes Larry Niven as saying, “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space programme.”

Here’s hoping the scientists did their sums right

2012 DA14

A portion of the graphic in today’s WSJ.

I’d hate to find out they were a bit off, in the wrong direction.

There was a graphic this morning in The Wall Street Journal blithely informing me that an asteroid is going to pass very close to the Earth on Feb. 15. How close? Like, way, way closer than the moon (less than 10 percent of that distance). In fact, closer than some of our geosynchronous satellites. In fact, it may even take out a satellite or two.

Oh, and get this — this 45-meter-wide, 130,000-metric-ton chunk of trouble passes by the Earth about once a year. And… it’s passing close enough to us this time that its path is likely to be changed significantly by our gravity. Which means, who knows how close or how far it will be in the future.

If it did hit us someday, it would mean a collision packing the energy of 120 Hiroshima bombs. Of course, a bigger asteroid would be worse. 2012 DA14 is actually one of the “smallest of known asteroids,” according to the graphic in the paper this morning.

I think it’s really time we got serious again about manned space flight, don’t you?

One small step: Remembering Neil Armstrong

These cartoons from Robert Ariail and Bill Day remind me that I neglected to post about our loss of Neil Armstrong over the weekend.

In part, that was because I knew so little about him. Other astronauts — some of them, anyway — had such large personas by comparison. John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Pete Conrad, for instance. What we didn’t know about those guys before was added and amplified by The Right Stuff. Yet Wolfe only had one vivid anecdote in his book that I recall about Armstrong — and it was about what a neutral, bland, machine-like personality he had:

The subtext of that anecdote, of course, was that Armstrong was no Chuck Yeager.

“… scarcely a line or a feature in his face that you could remember” seemed to describe this hero of the space race. I always sort of assumed he was chosen for his very anonymity, making him an American Everyman. It bugged me a bit at the time that after military pilots had paved the way into space up to that point, a civilian got to take the big First Step — it hardly seemed fair. But even in that, he was generic — he saved NASA from having to pick between Navy, Air Force and Marines for the big honor.

Then there was his name, evoking Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.

But finally, the fact that he was so anonymous, that (officially) anyway he was just chosen because he was the guy in line who had built up the requisite experience, emphasized the great thing about NASA — to a communitarian, anyway. It was always about the team (if you doubt it, go watch “Apollo 13” again), from the glory boys atop the rockets to the geeks in Mission Control to the lowliest worker on an assembly line making the humblest part of the capsule. Stretched just a bit, the team included all Americans (at the very least, we paid for the trip), and ultimately all humanity.

He was the first, but the rest of us took that step with him.

Would Mr. Sulu lie to us about space exploration? No way!

Kurt Rebello, who graduated from Radford High School with Burl Burlingame and me, brings my attention via Facebook to the above photo from George Takei, which comes with this caption:

The first image has now been received from Curiosity on Mars.

You may think this is some sort of gag, but hey: This is Mr. Sulu. Could he possibly mislead us on anything having to do with space exploration?

That would not be logical, captain.

On the one hand Jupiter, on the other Venus

Rick Stilwell, a.k.a. @RickCaffeinated, shared this last evening:

Explanation: It was visible around the world. The sunset conjunction of Jupiter and Venus was visible last week almost no matter where you lived on Earth. Anyone on the planet with a clear western horizon at sunset could see them. This week the two are still notable, even though Jupiter has sunk below the brighter Venus. And if you look higher in the sky you can see Mars as well. Pictured above, a creative photographer traveled away from the town lights of SzubinPoland to image a near closest approach of the two planets almost a week ago. The bright planets were separated only by three degrees and his daughter striking a humorous pose. A faint red sunset still glowed in the background. Although this conjunction is drawing to a close, another conjunction between Venus and Jupiter will occur next May.

That’s Jupiter on the left, Venus on the right.

Very cool.

Godspeed, John Glenn! Trying to remember the time when we KNEW that we could do ANYthing

Time now flies to the point that it’s achieved escape velocity.

Today, it is 50 years since my 3rd-grade class was herded into the auditorium to watch John Glenn take off in Friendship 7 to orbit the Earth.

And look how far we’ve come… today, Glenn marks the anniversary by chatting with American astronauts who are … visiting our moon colony? landing on Mars? pushing to the outer edges of the solar system?… no, merely orbiting the Earth in a space station. And not a cool, elegantly-revolving-wheel space station like in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but something that looks like a cross between a bunch of tin cans fitted together and the kind of  TV antenna we used to have affixed to our houses in 1962.

So, in other words, we haven’t come very far at all. In fact, looking at our sad, tentative little foothold in space, we haven’t moved at all. In fact, we’ve regressed.

Sure, it was primitive to seal an astronaut into that little nonaerodynamic capsule like “Spam in a can” and throw it into space, but today we don’t even have a functioning capsule. The United States doesn’t have a single spacecraft of any kind in service. Remember the terrible Russkies whom we feared dropping atom bombs on us from Sputnik like rocks from a highway overpass? We have to hitch rides with them now.

When Glenn made his flight, anything and everything seemed possible — and because it seemed so, it was so. We were going to the moon, even though many technical barriers remained to doing so. We weren’t entirely sure when we started that it could be done, but we were going to do it. And we did. And then we pulled back to Glenn-like riding around the block. And then we even quit doing that.

No one could possibly have predicted, 50 years ago, that we would be so earthbound now. It was impossible to conceive. Back then, Robert Heinlein assumed we would have made two expeditions to Mars by the end of the century (even with a third World War delaying us), and that was totally doable. Of course we would! If we could go to the moon in a decade, surely we could make it to Mars in four!

But today, people make fun of Newt Gingrich for even talking about it. And between the left and its preference for social programs and the right with its not wanting government to do anything, it’s hard even to remember a time when we knew, for a fact, that we could do it all. And did it.

Now, we’re all about what we can’t do, or don’t want to do, which amounts to much the same thing.

It’s just not as exciting to be an earthling now as it was that day 50 years ago.

Is that the right term for a planet of small stature?

From NASA site: "A Hubble Space Telescope image of Pluto and its moons. Charon is the largest moon close to Pluto. The other three bright dots are smaller moons discovered in 2005 and 2011." Apparently, we still don't have a close-up.

Well, that was exciting. (Ralph Hightower will like this; he’s into space stuff.) I just got a reply from the Hubble via Twitter.

Having seen this:

Astronomers using @NASA_Hubblediscover another moon orbiting dwarf planet #Pluto

… I naturally asked, “Does that make it a planet again?” I had read right past the “dwarf planet” reference, because I didn’t know what that was.

@NASA_Hubble wrote back to me, “Not quite,” and urged me to “See Resolutions 5A and 6A.” Which I did. To share:

The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, except
satellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:
(1) A “planet”
is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for
its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium
(nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient
mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic
equilibrium (nearly round) shape
, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and
(d) is not a satellite.
(3) All other objects
, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as
“Small Solar-System Bodies”.
IAU Resolution: Pluto
The IAU further resolves:
Pluto is a “dwarf planet” by the above definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new
category of trans-Neptunian objects.

RESOLUTION 5AThe IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, exceptsatellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:(1) A “planet”1is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass forits self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium(nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficientmass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostaticequilibrium (nearly round) shape2, (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and(d) is not a satellite.(3) All other objects3, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as“Small Solar-System Bodies”.IAU Resolution: PlutoRESOLUTION 6AThe IAU further resolves:Pluto is a “dwarf planet” by the above definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects.1

Well, that’s better than nothing. Not that we’ve always given actual human dwarfs much respect on this planet, but I suppose being some kind of planet is better than nothing. WAY better than being just a “trans-Neptunian object.”