Posts Tagged ‘Space’

Busy Jupiter

Image: Anthony Wesley

Something happened to the planet Jupiter between the end of last year and early April.  It may be nothing more than white clouds moving over the dark clouds that defined one of it’s familiar stripes- but those puppies are gone.

That roughly 4-month period is when Jupiter got too close to the sun in the sky for anyone to see it.  When it emerged last month- no dark stripe in the southern hemisphere.  This has happened before, once in 1973 and in the early 1990’s. 

David Shiga has a nice piece on this at

And it’s not the only stuff going on:

The disappearance of the belt comes at a time of widespread – but mysterious – change on Jupiter, which has seen changes to the colour of other bands and spots in its atmosphere

Interesting solar system.

Categories: Cosmos Tags: , , ,

Mystery in Space

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…it’s….a baby space shuttle launched Thursday night by the Air Force under a deep veil of secrecy. Meet the X-37B:

It reads like a cheesy techno-thriller. Developed by Boeing’s Phantom Works Division and under the operation of the Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, the unmanned craft is a tiny version of the space shuttle. Only 29 feet long and with a wingspan of 14 feet, it will live in low-earth orbit for possibly 270 days before making an automated landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The location of Mission Control is unknown.

The government is not saying what it will do, what experiments will be conducted, what the ultimate point of the thing is, other than it appears to be the U.S. military’s first space plane.

Some speculate it’s an extension of predator technology; remote-controlled airborne vehicles that started out as surveillance tools but now carry weaponry and are employed regularly in attacks on terrorist targets along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. In other words, it’s a potential fast-response space vehicle fairly easily launched and landed. But this mission is said to be just a test of the viability of the craft for later operational programs.

Others speculate it’s a program that started decades ago that sort of gained its own bureaucratic momentum and couldn’t be stopped. A military space specialist interviewed by puts it this way:

The second explanation is that of bureaucratic inertia in military programs which is why the justifications and cost estimates are so obscure and mysterious. Once started, programs are difficult to kill especially when the proponents speak of marvelous capabilities analogous to aircraft style operation down the road.

It does have geo-political implications. The Chinese, for example, are likely to see it as the first efforts at U.S. militarization of space and take it as a threat and maybe even a challenge.

I’m not really sure what to make of it. A military space race is not necessarily a comforting prospect. On the other hand, presuming this isn’t some bureaucratic boondoggle- maybe it’s us just being really clever and sophisticated in developing the modern tools we need to beat the bad guys.

I am assuming, of course, that we will always be the good guys.

Space Concerns

January 7, 2010 2 comments

Credit: David A. Hardy & PPARC

Sometimes, scientists and the media conspire to produce really fascinating and frightening news stories. Such is the hype surrounding T Pyxidis- the Death Star.  It’s about the end of the earth, people.


So I’m doing my daily scan of the Drudge Report and making my way through the headlines: Dum-dee-dum-dum-dum. Next Arctic blast blows even colder. Yawn. Stretch. Obama approves tax on health plans. Dum-dee-dum-dum-dum. Yellow Ribbons for soldiers banned in Connecticut town. Well, that sucks. SHOCK: Argument leads to baby being thrown from car. Oh, man, poor baby. Obama orders air marshall surge by Feb 1: race against time. Dum-dee-dum-dum-dum. Supernova Star Blast ‘could wipe out earth.’ Dum-dee….W-w-w-what????

Supernova Star Blast ‘could wipe out earth.’

This is how I find out me, my family, my friends, the friggin’ dog and my cats are all going to perish? In item #24 on the Drudge Report? And I was worrying about the cost of health care, Iranian nukes and starting a new job next month?

Really, I haven’t been this concerned since I read last week that the Russians were going to take it upon themselves to send a spacecraft to knock an asteroid off a possible collision course with earth.  The Russians have a very crappy record with rockets lately. Their Bulova missile, for example, has failed in 9 of 13 launch attempts and my confidence in their knocking-the-asteroid-off-course strategy is precisely ZERO. But this?

Here are the facts as I understand them from Astronomy magazine. Villanova University astronomers Edward M. Sion and Patrick Godon along with one of their students, Timothy McClain, presented a report on Monday at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C. in which they revealed that a “massive, explosive white dwarf star” in a binary system with another star much like our sun, is closer to our solar system than anyone previously thought.

I know this about Villanova. It’s in Philadelphia. They sometimes have a very good basketball team and upset Georgetown in the NCAA title game some 20 years ago. I had no idea they were also capable of scaring the holy bejeezus out of us like this.

This close binary system is called T Pyxidis, which I think is an altogether way too light-hearted name for a DEATH STAR. The massive dwarf white star that’s part of this dynamic duo has had a nasty habit of suffering thermonuclear explosions. They’ve occurred in 1890, 1902, 1920, 1944 and 1967. Simple math dictates this baby is way overdue. Obviously, unless we are living in some kind of parallel universe, the earth did not meet its end in any of these five previous nova events. So what’s different about its future cosmic tantrums, whenever they come?

I’ll let Astronomy magazine take it from here:

If the mass of the white dwarf in such a binary star system increases with time, it will eventually reach the so-called Chandrasekhar limit and undergo instantaneous gravitational collapse, resulting in a powerful thermonuclear detonation that would completely destroy the white dwarf and leave no stellar remnant such as a pulsar or black hole. This catastrophic event, known as a type Ia supernova (or “white dwarf supernova”), releases 10 million times more energy than a nova explosion, or is equivalent to 20 billion, billion, billion megatons of TNT.

And to make matters worse- much, much worse- this binary star system is, like, next door. It is less than 1,000 parsecs away- 3,200 light years. All evidence points to the fact this thing is heading toward an explosion that will exceed the Chandrasekhar limit. At less than 1,000 parsecs, that means gamma rays hitting the earth with the intensity of a thousand simultaneous solar flares. Goodbye Ozone layer. Talk about your global warming. This would be global frying. From The Sun newspaper’s web site:

It will become as bright as all the other stars in the galaxy put together and shine like a beacon halfway across the universe.

Ah- but when might this happen? Well, kind of like 3,200 light years is next door. Tomorrow– in cosmic terms. Which is to say- in several million years. Ok, some calculations say, actually, 10 million years.

Frankly, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Earth Rise & Genesis: Christmas Eve, 1968

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment


Apollo 11 may have been the mission that landed man on the moon, but the ultimate scouting mission of all time, Apollo 8, is the one that touched hearts. It succeeded in doing something I don’t think has ever been accomplished since; it melded science, religion, spirituality and mass communications into a single moment that for 23 minutes, united the world in awe and wonder.

It was supposed to have been a less than spectacular low earth orbit test of the lunar and command modules. But because of delays getting the lunar module ready, it shifted to an incredibly more ambitious mission- fly to the moon and back.

And so it was that at precisely 7:51 am, ET on the morning of December 21st, 1968 the first manned launch of the massive Saturn V rocket sent astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders into their accidental rendevous with destiny.

It was a hell of a way to start a mission; the first human beings strapped onto the top of the most powerful rocket that had been invented. It was more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, almost exactly two-thirds the size of the Washington monument and fully fueled, weighed nearly 6,700,000 pounds.

Borman, Lovell and Anders became the first humans to leave earth’s orbit. Sixty-nine hours and about 230,000 miles after launch, the crew commenced a nerve-racking 4 minute and 13 second burn that made them the first humans to enter into the orbit of another celestial body. If it had not been done exactly right, the astronauts could have been flung out into space never to return, or could have sent themselves into a collision course with the moon.

Over the next 20 hours they would become the first humans to see the dark side of the moon. But it was a 23-minute television broadcast on Christmas Eve that created that special moment that converged science and, depending on your point of view, either religion or mysticism. Having earlier failed to get a clear picture of the earth with their cameras, the crew went to considerable effort to make sure the broadcast would catch a clear picture of the planet that involved positioning the entire spacecraft around. An estimated half a billion people watched that broadcast from earth, then the most viewed television event in history.

And it seemed completely appropriate that as they showed the world their view of the blue planet we all ride through space, the crew would read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night: and the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament; and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven: and the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the collection of waters he called Seas: and God saw that it was good.

I was but a 12-year old boy at the time but remember memorializing the broadcast with a small reel-to-reel tape recorder I had been given by my parents. I still remember it 41 years later like it was yesterday. It was the most moving and inspiring Christmas I ever experienced.

The various stages of earth-rise, 12/24/68

Categories: Earth Tags: , , , , ,