November 8, 2013
“Thank you for coming to my personal therapy session,” former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria joked at yesterday’s discussion on the “overview effect” at the National Air and Space Museum. He explained that people like himself, a Navy pilot, and fellow panelist Sandy Magnus, who has a PhD in materials science and engineering, are chosen by NASA to be astronauts largely for their technical skill, not their ability to “communicate touchy-feely things.” Which makes it difficult to translate the profound psychological effect that seeing Earth from above has on a person. (Or as Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway remarks, “They should have sent a poet.“)
The event began with a showing of Overview, a documentary on the effect released last year by the Planetary Collective. The 20-minute film, viewed nearly four million times, was a stepping stone to their upcoming feature-length documentary, Continuum, about our “interconnection with each other, the planet, and the universe.”
It’s all a bit lovey-dovey, but astronauts who have gone to orbit over the last half-century have made it clear that seeing our planet from a vantage point in space flips some kind of switch in your brain. And while many of us may be awed by spectacular photos taken from the space station cupola and stretching all the way back to Earthrise, the powerful feeling of seeing it live just cannot be duplicated, they tell us.
After spending four and a half months floating around in microgravity as a crewmember of Expedition 18 in 2008-2009, Magnus came back to Earth to this “horrible, monstrously oppressive force” we call gravity. “My first thought was ‘oh my God, how do we get anything done on this planet??‘,” she said. It’s a feeling we can imagine but cannot experience the way an astronaut does. As Magnus put it, you know a stove is hot, but you can’t fully comprehend the concept until you’ve put your hand on the burner.
Frank White, a panel member who coined the term “overview effect” and wrote a book about it in 1987, believes that it’s crucial we find a way to translate it for the general populace. The effect, he says, “is a message to us human beings about who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.” Astronauts frequently have four particular epiphanies of awareness, according to panelist David Beaver, one of the founders of the The Overview Institute: the thinness of the atmosphere (Magnus said the paper-thin layer of atmosphere nearly skimming the planet’s surface was her very first thought upon opening the shuttle payload bay doors on her first trip to space), the interactivity of the biosphere, the smallness of Earth in space, and, perhaps surprisingly, the roundness of the Earth — another concept we understand in the post-Columbus era, but don’t really experience in our everyday lives.
The Institute’s goal is simple: To get people on this planet to realize we’re all living on “spaceship Earth” together, and that we need to care for the planet before we all become homeless together. Perhaps if our world leaders all took an orbit on the space station, said Lopez-Alegria, the idea of world citizenship over national citizenship would take hold, and the only thing left to wonder would be why it took us so long to realize it in the first place. Lopez-Alegria is now the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and hopes this new industry will “democratize access to space” so that regular folk — including the poets — can have the experience, and not just millionaire space tourists. (On the other hand, if you want to send a message that space tourism will continue to be a rich- people thing, NBC Universal’s press release today proclaiming, “Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television,” is exactly how you go about it.)
Lopez-Alegria cited the XCOR’s suborbital Lynx and World View’s newly-announced stratosphere balloon ride as (hopefully) relatively affordable options that will give regular people an opportunity to experience the overview effect. White, meanwhile, hopes that an organization like the Overview Institute might one day be able to offer scholarships to the kinds of people that might have the unique ability to communicate the feeling to those of us who remain gravity-bound.
October 17, 2013
Comet ISON has been the subject of all sorts of predictions since it was discovered just over a year ago. First it was thought that ISON will be the most spectacular comet seen in a generation when it draws close to the sun late this November. Then some astronomers in Colombia insisted the comet was fizzling — that is, breaking into pieces — as comets sometimes do. But most other astronomers decided to wait and see.
Released today, new images from the Hubble Space Telescope reveal that Comet ISON is sticking together so far. “It’s overhyped, it’s underhyped. Just let it be what it is,” said astrophysicist Bonnie Meinke this afternoon during a Google Hangout with other scientists tracking the comet.
On November 28, ISON will make its closest pass to the sun, approaching just about one million miles above the surface. The “sungrazer” will be so close that the sun’s magnetic field will yank on charged dust and gas particles in the comet’s tail, likely creating “waves and puffy bits,” said Meinke, much like Comet Lovejoy in 2011. The solar observatories — SDO, SOHO, and STEREO — as well as the Mercury orbiter MESSENGER, will all turn their eyes to the comet as it passes.
July 17, 2013
For all the new, exotic things astronomers discover in the universe, it’s almost more exciting to find out there was something hanging out in our own neighborhood that we never knew was there. This week, the SETI Institute announced that one of its astronomers, Mark Showalter, found a never-before-seen moon around Neptune, its 14th (circled above), noting that it was even missed by Voyager 2 when it flew by and surveyed the planet’s rings and moons in 1989. He used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the planet, then re-processed and combined 150 images in sets of eight to 10.
The news sounded a bit familiar. Air & Space interviewed Showalter earlier this summer about studying the solar system, and he told us a similar story. You can read the interview in full in our feature on the Hubble Space Telescope, part of our upcoming 2013 special collector’s edition on aerospace inventions, The Genius Factor, which arrives on newsstands this August. Here’s a snippet, in which we asked him about imaging the rings of Uranus:
“Hubble remains far and away the most powerful instrument we have for studying the families of small moons orbiting the outer planets,” Showalter says. “I find it remarkable that Mab and Cupid were too small to be noticed by the Voyager spacecraft during its 1986 flyby of Uranus, but we could see them using Hubble years later.” Showalter used the same “observing trick” on Pluto and discovered two tiny moons in 2011 and 2012.
July 8, 2013
Space X released a video last Friday of a test launch for its prototype rocket, the reusable Grasshopper. The 10-story tall rocket takes off and — most impressively — lands vertically. As the video description notes:
Previous Grasshopper tests relied on the other rocket sensors but for this test, an additional, higher accuracy sensor was in the control loop. In other words, SpaceX was directly controlling the vehicle based on new sensor readings, adding a new level of accuracy in sensing the distance between Grasshopper and the ground, enabling a more precise landing.
Watching the rocket descend, perfectly stable, from more than 1,000 feet is impressive enough, but the video adds another nice whoa element, taken by a camera-equipped hexacopter hovering at just about the peak altitude Grasshopper reaches.
April 30, 2013
The Herschel Space Telescope was never meant for hot astronomy topics. It was meant for the cool ones. The European Space Agency spacecraft officially ended its observations yesterday when the last of its liquid helium, used to keep the telescope’s temperature close to absolute zero, was exhausted after three years of operation.
Herschel was launched in 2009 and spent its mission orbiting at L2, one of five Lagrangian points in the Earth-Sun system that are gravitationally stable. L2 is nearly a million miles farther from the sun than Earth is — ESA’s Planck Space Telescope, among others, is already stationed there, and it’s the future location of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. That far from the Sun is an ideal place to look at cool objects.
Observing in a broad spectral range from the far infrared to submillimeter wavelengths, Herschel could study dim objects, like asteroids in the Kuiper belt at the edge of our solar system, or debris disks where planets are forming around other stars. It also saw red-shifted light from early and active star-forming galaxies. Herschel hunted for water around the universe, finding ice particles heated by ultraviolet light from stars in many protoplanetary disks, and discovering that nearly all the water in Jupiter’s atmosphere was brought to the planet by comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994.
Herschel had the largest infrared mirror ever launched into space — at 3.5 meters in diameter, it’s more than a meter bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s. (JWST’s mirror, however, will be almost twice as big as Herschel’s.) Scientists are still reviewing data from the space observatory, so even though the spacecraft has gone dead, discoveries will likely still be made. Indeed, astronomers are hoping that a brand new ground-based observatory can leapfrog off of Herschel’s contributions in studying the “cool” universe: ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, began operating earlier this year and should be fully operational in September. Combining their data should tell us much about the early universe and galaxy formation.
Next Page »