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Keep an eye on the live video from on board and let us know if you spot any aliens.

That Tesla roadster out in space will, like an asteroid, make its first close pass of Earth in 2091. I don’t think I’ll be around for that event, so I’ll post now.

After that pass by Earth, scientists say it has a 50 percent chance of continuing to orbit for a few tens of millions of years. Eventually, it will collide with a planet or fall into the Sun. If it makes it back to Earth, the atmosphere will burn up most of it before it hits the ground.

For now, it is safely on its way out past Mars, playing David Bowie to deaf, airless ears. It also carries on its dashboard screen the always appropriate message to Earthlings and anyone else who might encounter it: Don’t panic.

 

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Image via Oliver Jeffers

On this New Year’s Eve, I will look up to the night sky to the brightest star there. That is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. You can see it in the evening every year at this time from almost all parts of Earth. Tonight is not only the calendar end of year but, in one of those nice celestial coincidences, it is the midnight culmination of Sirius. That is when it is highest in the sky at midnight, which occurs only once every year.

I need to point out that this midnight is mid-night and not the drop-the-ball midnight we will celebrate tonight. What I will call mid-night is the actual middle of the night, which is midway between sunset and sunrise. For my little piece of Paradelle, that will be at 9:18 pm ET.

If you go to http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/mrst.php you can get a quick calculation done for your little place on Earth for the times of the rise, set, and transit for the Sun and all major solar system bodies and selected bright stars.

From the Northern Hemisphere, we will look toward the south to see Sirius shining brightly on a clear night. (From the Southern Hemisphere, look overhead or high in the north.)

Sirius, the Dog Star, gets its name from a romanization of the Greek Seirios, meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” It appears almost twice as bright as the next brightest star (Canopus). Sirius appears bright because of its “intrinsic luminosity” and also because of its proximity to Earth.  It is 2.6 parsecs away. I know that sounds like Star Trek talk, but the Sirius system is one of Earth’s near neighbours. Sirius is gradually moving closer to the Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years. After that time, its distance will begin to increase and it will become fainter. But Sirius doesn’t have to worry about losing its brightest star ranking for 210,000 years.

What we see is a bit of an illusion because “Sirius” is a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star, called Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of called Sirius B. Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times more luminous than the Sun. Sirius B was actually bigger but consumed its resources and became a red giant. Then, it shed its outer layers and collapsed into its current state as a white dwarf. That happened around 120 million years ago.

All this makes me feel both very tiny, and also part of something so large that I cannot really comprehend it all. So, I will simply go out tonight on this very cold night and look up at Sirius with great wonder.

 

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
― Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

“Bye Bye Moon” is not meant to be a sequel to Goodnight MoonDid you know that the moon’s distance from Earth varies each month? I didn’t know that until this week, even though I know a lot about our Moon and I write about it at least once a month here.

Our Moon has a rather eccentric orbit and it is moving away from us at about one and a half inches per year. Scientists attribute this to tidal friction with the Earth’s oceans which also slows down how fast the Earth rotates, This lengthens our day by about 1 second every 40000 years.

Okay, it is not something we really will notice or need to worry about, but because scientists can do simulations, they can figure out that four and a half billion years ago when the moon was being formed,  it was only about 15,000 miles from Earth. Now, it is about 238, 831 miles from Earth.

Back then, an Earth day might have been only 5 or 6 hours long and there would be 1400 days in one year. More recently, at least relatively, around 900 million years ago there would be 480 days of about 18 hours each in one Earth year. That would certainly give us a very different lifestyle.

And projecting into the future, we would expect longer days but fewer of them in a year.

Even though we can’t observe these changes within a lifetime, it awesome and full of wonder to me that these changes are happening.

mars simulation

Exiting the capsule. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

We have thought about Mars for a long time. Ancient people knew of it, probably first as a bright star and later as a planet. We saw it closer with telescopes, and we imagined Martians lived there. All the 1950s sci-fi books and movies that had aliens from our solar system had them coming from Mars.

Those Martians invading Earth have given way to humans invading Mars.

Is Mars as the next frontier for human exploration? It seems that way. In March, President Trump signed a bill reiterating NASA’s plan to send people to orbit Mars in the 2030s, with a goal of studying the possibility of “living off the land” there.

Movies like The Martian and Interstellar piqué our interest in living off-Earth – and make it seem more possible than it is right now.

As the U.S. in preparation for the Moon landing, we do simulated Mars exercises in the desert. The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is such a facility located in Utah. The site’s empty red hills and canyons have been a Mars testing ground for 16 years.

NPR did a story about Crew 177, a team of students and teachers from a Texas community college who had applied to spend a week in a two-story metal cylinder at the MDRS near Hanksville in southern Utah.

The Mars Society

The Mars Society is a nonprofit funded by grants, private donations and membership fees.

They once got donations from the [Elon] Musk Foundation, but he has his own plan to colonize Mars now.

The Society started using the Utah site in 2001. They are not affiliated with NASA who has its own simulation site in Hawaii. NASA runs simulated missions that last as long as a year.

Is this all about Mars exploration for scientific or economic gains? Or both? Or is Mars our Plan B?

Science fiction explored the Plan B idea a long time ago with Mars or other planets being a place to go if – or more likely, when – Earth is no longer habitable.

Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post in 2016 that Mars is not a Plan B, but there are still some serious projects to get there for a variety of reasons.

And don’t we want to get out there before the aliens make their arrival here?

When the mothership lands, know who your friends are.

collecting specimens

An “extravehicular activity,” collecting rock specimens. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

NASA photo

Detail of a 1998 NASA photo id STS088-724-66, described as showing an item of space debris,[1] an object claimed by conspiracy theorists to be an extraterrestrial satellite, the “Black Knight”

The Black Knight story is a very mixed bag of probably unrelated stories that touch on space exploration, fringe science, conspiracies, astronomical observations, real satellites and fuzzy photos. I don’t consider myself to be a conspiracy theory type, but I like oddball stories and legends.

Though this story is current, the legendary aspects go back to back to 1899. That’s when some repeating sources from “out there” were heard during radio experiments done by Nikola Tesla.

In 1928, an amateur radio operator, Jorgen Hals of Norway, reported these radio signals or echoes. I think we can confirm that these signals were not made by an Earth-launched satellite. Of course, that left things open to aliens.
The best explanation of these early observations is that they came from pulsars, which were not discovered until 1968. A pulsar (short for pulsating radio star) is a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. When this radiation beam is pointing toward Earth , they can be observed.

But in 1954 when newspapers were already full of UFO stories, stories emerged saying that the U.S. Air Force had reported two unidentified “satellites” orbiting Earth. This was a time when no country could launch a satellite.
There was a British rocket called the Black Knight that was used in conjunction with the Blue Streak missile program between 1958 and 1965, to test re-entry vehicles. But that is a dead end, because the program never put anything into orbit. I found no explanation for why the supposed object picked up the name of Black Knight, but it’s a sexy name to use for a legend.

As we entered the age of the “space race,” a 1960 TIME magazine story reported that the U.S. Navy had detected a dark object thought to be a Soviet spy satellite. Later, they reported that it was “the remains of an Air Force Discoverer VIII satellite that had gone astray.” To the conspiracy theorists, the explanation wasn’t acceptable and military cover ups were a large part of the UFO community.

On the extreme end of this Black Knight legend are those that believe it is a 13,000 year old object of extraterrestrial origin in near-polar orbit. In 1973, Duncan Lunan analyzed the long-delayed radio echoes and speculated that they could originate from a 13,000 year old alien probe located in an orbit around the earth’s moon. But Lunan later retracted his own conclusions. Lunan, a Scottish astronomer and science fiction writer, interpreted a message caught in the 1920s by two Norwegian physicists that he said came from a probe orbiting the Moon and sent there by the inhabitants of a planet orbiting Epsilon Boötis. He would later go on to revoke his withdrawal.

On the real science side, we had astronaut Gordon Cooper supposedly reported a UFO sighting during his 15th orbit in Mercury 9 in 1963.  When he returned, there was a media blackout and NASA attributed it to hallucinations. Cooper had claimed to have seen several objects that were “unidentified.”

The 1998 NASA photo (above) is believed by some to show the Black Knight satellite. It was photographed during the STS-88 mission. Most scientific investigators seem to agree that the object photographed is a thermal blanket that was confirmed as lost by the crew of the Endeavor space shuttle as they worked on the developing the International Space Station.

YouTube user NUA’s video “Black Knight Satellite UFO Documentary – Truth Exposed 2015 – (Debunked)”  states that the proof is conclusive that the 1998 NASA images are no Black Knight but just that satellite thermal blanket.

But that has not stopped the legend. There are videos that claim that the Black Knight is real. People who want to believe in alien intelligence and visitors and visits to Earth by them cling to these stories. I saw the film Arrival recently. I enjoyed it and found it a great conversation starter about communications, time and the possibilities of alien intelligence. These stories intrigue many of us and the belief that the government is hiding information from the public only seems more credible every year.

So, if you support the legend, you will point to “facts” such as that in 1957, long before the lost blanket, Dr. Luis Corralos of the Communications Ministry in Venezuela photographed the Black Knight while taking pictures of Sputnik II as it passed over Caracas. This unknown object was also seen “shadowing” the Sputnik 1 Spacecraft and the UFO (not identified as the Black Knight then) was in Polar orbit.

Again, this was in a time when no country could maintain a spacecraft in Polar Orbit. The first Polar-orbitingg satellite was launched in 1960. What’s the significance of this type of orbit? Polar orbits are often used for earth-mapping and observation, capturing the planet from one point.

I found online mentions of other sightings in the 1960′s of this polar-orbiting Black Knight and even estimates that the object’s weight was over 10 tons which would have made it the heaviest artificial satellite orbiting Earth.

On September 3, 1960, a tracking camera at Grumman Aircraft Corporation’s Long Island, NY factory is said to have taken a a photograph of the Black Knight in which it looks more like an aircraft than a satellite.

Looking more like an aircraft

Looking more like an aircraft?

I also have not found any explanations for why the Black Knight is here or what its purpose would be. Like that Arrival film (and maybe more so in the story the film is based on) story, those are really the big questions. And like addressed in that film, you would think the military of some country would have blasted the thing if it was seen as any kind of threat.

Did the Black Knight satellite and its radio messages originate from the Epsilon Bootes Star System 13.000 years ago? Epsilon Boötis (AKA Epsilon Boo or Izar) is a star in the northern constellation of Boötes and it came up in a Star Trek episode (“Whom Gods Destroy”) when the character Kelvar Garth is also referred to as Garth of Izar. Maybe that is where the Black Knight belongs – in science fiction.

glenn

f7-mercury-wikimedia

I wrote a letter to John Glenn in 1963. I was 10 years old. That was a traumatic year for me. A year when my father became very ill with a disease that would take his life six years later. Glenn was heroic to many people and especially to kids then. He was a space cowboy. But, looking back, I think that he also represented to me some escape from this world which wasn’t a place I wanted to be.

John Glenn Jr. died yesterday. He was 95. He was an aviator, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator from Ohio. But my connection to him was strongest back when he was one of the “Mercury Seven” test pilots selected by NASA to become America’s first astronauts and fly the Project Mercury spacecraft.

At my elementary school, we watched him in 1962 when he flew the Friendship 7 mission and became the first American to orbit the Earth. We sat in a half-circle on the floor of the school gymnasium and looked at a medium-sized black and white television set. It was great.

He wasn’t the first person to go into space. He was the fifth person. Two Russian cosmonauts were first, and there were earlier sub-orbital flights by Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.  Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He circled the planet three times in a flight that lasted just under five hours.

helmet
In 1962, I dressed for Halloween as an astronaut with a homemade spacesuit and my Steve Canyon Jet Helmet on which I had labeled “Ken.” I felt extremely cool.

John Glenn answered my letter. He sent a short note that seemed to be written in response to my own letter, and it had what I’ll assume is his own signature, an 8×10 photo and a booklet about the space program.

I had told him that as much as I wanted to be an astronaut, I was sure I would never have that chance. For one thing, I wore eyeglasses and had read that knocked me out of the flight school path to space that all the astronauts had followed. I also said I thought I would be too afraid to go into space.

He replied that there were many things I could do to help the country and the space program besides being an astronaut.

My father wanted me to be an engineer. He worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey before he became ill and had worked on components for the Telstar satellite.

The original Telstar belonged to AT&T as part of a multi-national agreement among AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, GPO (United Kingdom) and the National PTT (France) in order to develop experimental satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean.

Our family went to a Christmas party at Bell Labs in 1962. There was full size model of Telstar there which I assumed was the actual satellite and that it had been brought down for the party.

Telstar relayed through space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and fax images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed.

I read a book about Glenn many years later when he first announced a run for the Senate. I remember that he said that he saw no contradiction between believing in God and the knowledge that evolution is “a fact” that should be taught in schools. I liked that ability to hold two supposedly incompatible ideas as beliefs simultaneously, and I agree with him.

Glenn gave me second hope for my childhood astronaut dream when on October 29, 1998 (while still a sitting senator) he became the oldest person to fly in space. At 77, he flew on the Space Shuttle as a Payload Specialist on Discovery mission STS-95.

Telstar 1 and 2 are no longer functional, but they still orbit the Earth.

I like that they are still out there in space.

 

About Telstar

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