Heartbeats From Deep Space

All the remarkable pictures coming to us in the past few weeks from the new space telescope have some people thinking again about what is “out there” and also about who might be out there too.

I read that it is unlikely that the telescope will show us any signs of other intelligent life, but it might show signs of some life forms. Bacteria and such don’t make for summer blockbuster films, so that idea doesn’t get people very excited.

magnetar – a type of neutron star with a powerful magnetic field

But scientists have picked up a radio signal they are calling a “heartbeat” billions of light-years away. Astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other sites have picked up radio signals that repeat in a clear periodic pattern similar to a beating heart from a galaxy billions of light-years from Earth. The signal was found to last up to three seconds (that is 1,000 times longer than the average radio burst) and repeat every .2 seconds, like a heartbeat.

The scientists don’t think it is some alien sitting at a control panel sending out a message. Though there are not many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals, there are some. In our own galaxy, radio pulsars and magnetars rotate and produce a beamed emission, like a lighthouse. 

That’s not a very Romantic explanation of the signal. The alien sending out the signal like E.T.’s heart would be a lot more interesting. But the discovery could help researchers determine at what speed the universe is expanding.

What I do find capital R Romantic is the idea of this “heartbeat” billions of light-years away. Since the time of Edwin Hubble, it has been known the Universe is expanding. More recently, observations have shown that this expansion is accelerating. The reason for this acceleration is unknown but it has been suggested that “Dark Energy” is causing the expansion rate to increase. The origin and physics of this Dark Energy are presently unknown.

Walking on the Moon

I remember watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on our Moon on July 20, 1969. I was in high school but it was summer vacation so all of my friends had been outside being teenagers. But everyone went home to watch the astronauts.

I went home before 3 pm EST because that was supposed to be when they would be landing. I looked it up today and Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module landed at 20:17 GMT (3:17 my time) and then Neil Armstrong (who was closest to the door) was the first man to step on the Moon.

They landed in an area known as the Sea of Tranquility. When his feet touched the ground Armstrong spoke words that would become famous: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He later said that he had actually said “That’s one small step for a man” but the audio cut out and the “a” was lost.

Buzz Aldrin called for a moment of silence shortly after the landing to give thanks for their survival. I read today but I don’t recall that he took communion with a wafer and a tiny chalice of wine.

Aldrin stands on the Moon
Aldrin on the Moon in a photo by Armstrong, who can be seen reflected in Aldrin’s visor. NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain

Buzz Aldrin grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, not far from my hometown. In 2016, his hometown middle school in Montclair was renamed Buzz Aldrin Middle School. I was the poet-in-the-schools person there for a few years. Students knew a bit about him – astronaut, Moon landing – but almost nothing about the actual landing or the space program. When I told them about watching the landing, they looked at me as if I was time traveler. I must be as old as their grandfather.

A teacher there told me that when they did the dedication Aldrin came to the school for an assembly and was kind of cranky and a bit “inappropriate” in his remarks to the pre-teens. Hey, he had been on the Moon!

The video from the Moon landing was not very good quality by today’s standards but the idea that it was coming from so far away made it amazing. Most people today still have no real understanding of how that picture appears on their Tv screen whether it travels by antenna, cable, or from their phone.

I have to shake my head and wonder about people who still doubt that we ever landed on the Moon. There is something in humans that seems to be attracted to conspiracies and doubt. My favorite crazy theory is that director Stanley Kubrick did 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before. One source claims that Kubrick initially declined the offer, only relenting when NASA threatened to out his little brother as a member of the Communist Party. Knowing what I do about Kubrick, he would have had a hard time shooting bad video because he was so demanding as a director.

That theory (which came mostly from one person and one book he wrote called held that Kubrick spent 18 months on a soundstage shooting the footage for the Apollo 11 and 12 Moon missions. Hey, in his 1980 film The Shining, the boy does wear an Apollo 11 sweater at one point. The 1978 film, Capricorn One, is about a journalist who uncovers a government hoax about astronauts landing on Mars. That prepares us for how they will fake the Mars landing one day.

I still look in wonder at the Moon most nights and it still seems incredible that we can send a spacecraft to the Moon or Mars. And how about that a telescope is now orbiting around the Sun at a distance of nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth and sending back amazing photos of stars and planets? Using the JWST, we will be able to capture extremely distant galaxies as they were only 100 million years after the Big Bang – which happened around 13.8 billion years ago. We will be able to see light from 13.7 billion years ago. That must be fake too, right?

The “Phantom Galaxy” NGC 628 as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope NASA/ESA/CSA/STSCI/JUDY SCHMIDT

Crossposted from the One-Page Schoolhouse website

A Space Pioneer

An artist's impression of a Pioneer spacecraft on its way to interstellar space.jpg
An artist’s impression of Pioneer 10 looking back at our solar system on its way to interstellar space. Image by NASA/Don Davis, Public Domain

Pioneer 10 was originally designated Pioneer F when this American space probe was launched in 1972.

Designed for deep-space exploration, it passed safely through the asteroid belt. That alone is quite an accomplishment as some of the asteroids are the size of Alaska. It took the first close-up pictures of Jupiter in 1973. It sent back data about the solar wind in the far reaches of our solar system.

The mission was originally expected to last only 21 months but quite amazingly it didn’t officially end until 1997. That was 25 years, and NASA’s Deep Space Network continued to pick up signals for several more years.

In 1983, Pioneer 10 lived up to its “pioneer” name when it passed outside Neptune’s orbit and became the first man-made object to leave the solar system.

As it ran out of power, it sent its last, faint communication back home in January 2003.

So, is that the end of Pioneer 10? No, it still continues (without a communications system) on its way to Aldebaran, the brightest star that forms the eye of the constellation Taurus. I would love to be around to write a post about that, but it will take about two million years to get there, according to NASA.

Don’t you wonder whether someone else may find it before that and try to determine where it came from and who sent it?

Pioneer 10 on its kickmotor.jpg
Pioneer 10 on a Star-37E kick motor just prior to being encapsulated for launch. Image by solarsystem.nasa.gov via Wikimedia


Earth Had a New Moon

I’m not writing here about the monthly New Moon phase that will appear this Sunday. I’m talking about a news item that didn’t get a lot of attention.

It seems that Earth acquired a second “mini-moon.” It’s not very big – about the size of a small car. Astronomers spotted it circling our planet back in February.

Researchers Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne at the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona. They say that Earth has “temporarily captured” this object which is a “possible mini-moon called 2020 CD3,” and likely to be a C-type asteroid.

Any Near-Earth Object (NEO) that follows an Earth-like orbit may eventually be captured by Earth’s gravity during low-velocity encounters. This is just the second asteroid known to orbit Earth (2006 RH120 was first). Its route suggests it entered Earth’s orbit three years ago.

new moon
Okay, it doesn’t look so impressive in this International Gemini Observatory image. This is 2020 CD3.

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Minor Planet Center collects data on minor planets and asteroids says it is likely an asteroid captured by Earth’s gravity.

Our “new moon” is not in a stable orbit around us and so it didn’t stay long enough to get really established in our imagination. I don’t imagine there will be many poems written about it. (What rhymes smoothly with 2020 CD3?) It orbited Earth like a tiny natural satellite. It seems like Asteroid 2020 CD3 has now gone back into orbit around the sun, so it is tailing us on our annual journey around the Sun after about a year of travel around Earth.

Farewell, 2020 CD3. Have a good journey.

Before We Destroyed Earth, We Destroyed Venus

hot planet Venus

I try to avoid conspiracy theories and fringe science, but every once and a while a story catches my attention and I read on past the crazy headline. Such was the case with a story that says “Humans Could Be From Venus: A theory about the destructive nature of humanity”

Even if your only knowledge of Venus comes from an elementary school science class, you would know that the planet is not for humans. These days we hear about Mars expeditions, not ones to Venus.

The atmospheric pressure on Venus is high enough to crush humans. The air is a toxic mix of sulfur and carbon dioxide. The temperatures on the surface is hundreds of degrees. So why would anyone think that human life might have been there at one time?

It is actually connected to the idea (and supported with money by people like billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk) of a future for the human race off this planet on Mars or beyond. Might the human race have done this move before?

NASA, in looking at our own climate data and worst-case scenarios for the future of Earth, has pondered whether Venus might have once been habitable and that its ecosystem was destroyed. Those scenarios about Earth’s future has a planet more like Venus.

The standard theory on Venus is that natural planetary causes or an event from space created the planet we know. Is it at all possible that humans or some form of ancient human ancestor millions of years ago destroyed the planet? It’s the greenhouse effect unchecked. More CO2 goes into the air and heat gets trapped, temperatures rise which causes more CO2 to be released into the atmosphere and that loop eventually destroys all life.

I doubt that is what happened. This is where the speculation gets pretty crazy in a way that is good for science-fiction plots but not for science non-fiction. Where is the evidence for this Venus theory? I don’t see any – but others do.

Following this Venus line of speculation leads us to ask how and why did humanity make a quite sudden evolutionary appearance on Earth relatively few thousands of years ago? The whole primate to primitive humans to fully homo sapiens has had scientists theorizing for centuries. Having us land here from Venus is an easy (too easy) explanation.

And then we get to all the ideas about things like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids and agriculture which all arrive at roughly 3000BCE. The theory that has produced lots of books and movies has been that aliens visited Earth and helped humans leap into the future. But what if those “aliens” were us come from Venus?

Venus dayside
A more habitable looking Venus dayside in false color via PLANET-C Project Team/ EuroPlanet

Venus now is completely uninhabitable. It has a cloud cover so thick as to prevent us from getting a closer look at even the surface. That ambiguity allows the Venus-was-our-home theorists to wonder if under the clouds and surface there might be the remnants of an old civilization. We start out on one planet, flourish for a few thousand years, and eventually ruin the place and then move on to the next one.

It makes for an interesting story. It’s a cautionary tale about what we are doing – and maybe have already done before – to a planet’s environment.

I just wonder why those Venusians who were advanced enough to make it to Earth ended up being so primitive when they got here that they needed to start over. Didn’t they bring any of their advanced tools and records? And why did they look so primitive?

I think I’m seeing more credibility in the old aliens-helped-us theory from the 1950s. If that one is true, they should be arriving again pretty soon to move us off Earth to the next place.

Read the original article that started me thinking about all this at medium.com and read about a new study about the idea of human colonization on Mars.

Home Is A Pale Blue Dot

pale blue dot
Earth, described by scientist Carl Sagan as a “Pale Blue Dot,” as seen by Voyager 1 from a distance of more than 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers). Do you see us as that dot on the vertical line?

The image above was the inspiration for Carl Sagan‘s 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. In the photograph, Earth’s is less than a pixel. This dot is lost in the vastness of space, highlighted a bit by a band of sunlight reflected by the camera.

Sagan wrote: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…  on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Voyager 1 had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System when Sagan requested that NASA turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth.

How do you feel when you look at the photo? I am humbled by the vastness of space in a smaller way than when I look up at the night sky on a clear night in a truly dark place and feel like the universe is an endless ocean.

Sagan believed that humans are not as important as they think they are.

In “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake, he writes that “To see a World in a Grain of Sand,” and that is how the photo makes me feel. Very small, but not insignificant.

And I also agree with Blake in that you don’t have to look up. You can see “Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

You can see these things, but most people do not see them.

In his book, Sagan begins by examining claims throughout history that Earth and the human species are unique. Later, he argues that in order to save the human race, space colonization and terraforming places such as the Moon and Mars needs to be done.

Carl Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, tells readers to pick one of the other planetary “dots” photographed that are in the book and imagine that there are inhabitants on that world who believe that the universe was created solely for themselves.