March 10, 2014 at 21:02 pm | Leave a Comment
Science in the Media
Okay, so the new Cosmos series premiered last night, and I’ve been amused and gratified to see a large spectrum of people commenting on it on Twitter, Facebook, and other places. I like that it is inspiring people to look at science again. The series was designed to do that. Science is a part of our culture, so there something very human about wanting to know more about it and the universe we live in. Having that interest doesn’t make you a science “geek”, although that certainly seems to be an interesting “bin” that the mainstream media likes to put people in. I guess it’s just too easy to categorize people by something so profound as their interest in the cosmos. Certainly the series doesn’t do that. It brings it right out, lays science in front of you, and guides you through the whole story of the cosmos. I like that. Science is what real human beings do to understand their surroundings.
Back when I was first writing for a newspaper about astronomy and planetary science, I caught a whiff of this “science ghetto” from my editors. I’d propose a story and they would try to figure out how it was going to fit into the “science page”. I had one editor tell me that regular people didn’t want to see that stuff in the morning news, as if science wasn’t part of regular people’s lives. Today, I see newspapers and other media outlets stuff science interest into the “geek bin”. I’ve talked with news page designers who can’t figure out where to put science — I’ve seen it in Tech sections, Education sections, and occasionally it’s “science” but prettied up so readers don’t get turned off. I don’t know why they do this. Hiding science, calling people who do and like to know about science “geeks” and “nerds”, just makes the subject seem scarier. Then, the media outlets can talk about how science is scary and isn’t that a shame, tut-tut. Well, they’re part of the problem.
Many media studies have gone into the ghetto-ization of science news, and to be honest, I really thought we’d gone beyond that tendency to geek-ize people, and to segment an entire subject of human inquiry for the sake of a catchy word that the SEO department can use to gather clicks.
Here’s my advice: if you want to know how the universe works, search it out. The information is there — it’s a cool journey. And, the new Cosmos series (despite some issues I have with some production bits) is a guide for you. Watch it. Let me know what you think!
March 3, 2014 at 9:00 am | Leave a Comment
Name a Crater: Make an Impact
I’ve named a couple of craters on a Mars atlas map that will be taken to the Red Planet before the end of this decade.
You can, you know. It’s an exciting idea developed by Uwingu.com, and an incredibly super way to raise funds in support of support science research and education here on Earth. You get to name a crater on a Mars map posted on the Uwingu site. In essence, you — and people around the world — are helping populate a map of Mars with names that you suggest. Different crater sizes cost different amounts of money — starting at $5.00 and up. As a result, Uwingu raises support funds for scientists and educators involved in seminal projects.
There are some half million craters on the Uwingu Mars map, and if they all get named, it could raise up to $10 million. If they get named by the end of 2014, that would be just in time to celebrate the 2015 fiftieth anniversary of the first interplanetary Mars explorations that began in the mid-1960s.
Mars Explorers Will Use the Uwingu Map
You know what’s even MORE cool? The Uwingu Mars Map with all the names suggested by the public will be USED by the Mars One project — the start-up that is planning to send robotic and human Mars One missions. Today, Uwingu and Mars One officially announced that Uwingu’s Mars Craters map will be part of their standard “toolkit” for Mars exploration.
Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of the Mars One effort, sees the Uwingu Mars Map as absolutely essential. “Mars One is very excited about this partnership because the goal of Mars one and the educational and science research goals of Uwingu are so well aligned,” he said. “Mars One is organizing mankind’s Mars mission, using people from around the world. Everyone gets the opportunity to participate in Mars exploration. For us it’s a really nice partnership.”
Going to Mars is the space exploration of a new generation. It requires audacious new thinking and bold planning. And, to put it politely, explorers with their boots on the Mars surface aren’t going to sit around waiting for an outmoded gentleman’s club method of naming things that has prevailed in the past, where a commission appoints a committee and they have lots of meetings, and in the meantime, people on Mars have said, “The heck with it, we’ll name this place “Heinlein Ridge” and move on. For practical purposes, it will be important to equip the first Mars explorers with a map ahead of time, if for no other reason than to help communications, navigation, and other mission-related procedures. We already have high-quality Mars surface imagery available, and Uwingu is using that in their project. This is a huge advantage for Mars explorers that Earth-bound explorers never had. They were exploring Terra Incognita. Mars explorers will be walking across Ares Cognita, and the Uwingu Mars Map will be an essential tool for them.
The Uwingu Mars Map crater-naming project launched last week, and really caught the public imagination. According to Alan Stern, Uwingu founder and CEO, and a planetary scientist involved with the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the outer solar system, the response has been phenomenal. “We opened our online doors on Wednesday, midday on the east coast. News stories started to flow immediately. Social media began raining down,” he said. “That was a few days ago. Since then, we’ve had people from 57 countries on six continents log in to name nearly 6,000 features on Mars. That’s nearly half of what was named in 50 years of the old way of doing things.”
That’s right, only 15,000 features have been named on Mars in 50 years. The pace of Mars exploration is incredibly fast, perhaps too fast for the old ways of naming things to keep up. The history of naming objects during periods of exploration usually happens as explorers open up new places and its a “real time” activity. “When Apollo landed on the Moon, they named features for astronauts, mission controllers, and so on,” said Alan, describing lunar names that are still often used but somehow have never been ingested into the “official” IAU databases. “What we’re doing is making a preparatory map for missions to Mars using names that are contributed by the people of Earth, who are paying for those missions through their taxes. We will have the most utilitarian and useful map of Mars with all those names. We think we are doing a public service for NASA, for other space agencies, for Mars One, for the public, by pushing the pedal to the metal to knock off all the naming of those features on Mars.”
I am a HUGE supporter of Mars missions. Anybody who’s been reading my blog over the years knows that. If I could go to Mars, I would SO be there! So, in that light, I find the Mars crater map naming process fascinating. It resonates with me, probably because I have been SO involved in astronomy and space science outreach over the years. I’ve always known that one important way to engage people’s interest in these topics is to make it personal for them. To involve their emotions and interests. And, what could be more personal and touching than putting your name (or someone else’s) on another planet? To know that it might be used? It personalizes Mars and space exploration. It’s a way of conferring a little bit of immortality in a huge universe. And, anybody who can generate excitement by finding a way to kindle people’s interest in this exploration merits my positive attention.
Uwingu, with Mars One, is opening up a new a new and enticing facet of Mars exploration to the public. We know that there WILL be Mars missions, and that those explorers will either need to name places as they go along, or ideally, have maps already charted to simplify their lives. I’ve had conversations with Alan about this project and its meaning to the public and where it fits in the standard hierarchy of naming objects in space. He pointed out that the Uwingu fundraising effort is focused on the Mars Map itself because the time is fast approaching when Mars crater (and other surface features) will need names. ”The Mars One participation points out an important reason for having a complete map of Mars with names ready to go,” he said. “For the first Mars explorers — the ones who actually go to Mars, and for the people of Earth, we think this is going to be THE standard map.”
So, the Uwingu Mars Map with its current crater-naming emphasis is an important part of the essential planning for landing people on Mars. That’s a BIG project. It’s daring. It’s fraught with problems that Mars One and its mission planners are working to reduce. It’s not like anything humanity has done before. It’s going to take ALL of Earth’s people to make it happen, even if many of us are only involved by paying our taxes or…naming craters on a map.
So, take a step into a future, one with Mars exploration. Check out Uwingu.com, and help future Mars explorers by contributing a bit of money and a name on a map. And, you’ll be helping astronomy and education research right here on Earth.
While you’re there, go check out my crater names. One is TheSpacewriter and the other is Geodesium, for one of my favorite space music composers in the entire universe! We’re both stargazers, so our crater names are in the Noctis Labyrinthus region, just off the Valles Marineris. They’re called Geodesium and TheSpacewriter, and they’re right next to each other, in the Labyrinth of the Night. See if you can find ‘em!
Finally, in a case of “reality follows art”, in 1996, my company created a show called SkyQuest where a little girl “explores Mars” in her backyard using a cardboard spaceship called “Mars 1″. Nothing would please me more to see that dream become reality!
March 1, 2014 at 15:03 pm | Leave a Comment
Change of Seasons
For those of you who like to stargaze, March is bringing a change of seasons, which is reflected in the star patterns we see at night. In particular, the constellations Leo and Cancer are sentinels, telling us that northern hemisphere spring and southern hemisphere autumn are right around the corner. The winter/summer constellations are dipping lower into the west in the evenings. In this month’s “Our Night Sky” from Astrocast.TV, I give you a few pointers on what to look for as you go out stargazing in March. Check it out!
February 28, 2014 at 21:54 pm | Leave a Comment
New Worlds: Not SF Anymore!
I know the news about the new planets has really grabbed people this past week. There’s something about distant worlds that excites the science fiction-lover inside each of us. And, Kepler has found another 715 new worlds among the myriad of observations it has made.
What kind of worlds are they? The statistics are fascinating. Around 95 percent of them are smaller than our planet Neptune. That’s a big step forward. It means that we’re able to detect smaller worlds now, although it does take a bit longer to confirm them since they’re — well, small. Which makes them harder to spot in the followup observations. Many of them are in multiple-world systems, similar to ours, which has planets, moons, and outer worlds not even discovered yet.
Four of the newly found planets are only about 2.5 times the size of Earth AND they orbit in a region around their stars called the habitable zone. That’s an area of space where conditions are right to allow the existence of liquid water on a planet’s surface. One of the worlds belongs to a star that is half the size and much dimmer than our Sun. That’s the level of detail they’re getting from these observations. And, the discovery of new worlds around other stars is now completely OUT of the realm of science fiction. In fact, I say it’s been out since 1995, when the first one was found. This stuff’s IS real, folks!
So, now, all you budding science fiction writers out there, read the full story on the latest discovery, check out the exoplanets at the Kepler web site and see for yourself that they exist. Figure out from their orbital characteristics just what kind of planets they might be. With that, you’ve got fodder for countless stories to be told. And, that’s a great thing. I’ve always said the universe has great stories to tell — and it just keeps supplying writers with a LOT more places to set them.
By the way, there’s a cool new app out called Exoplanet. It keeps track of the latest exoplanet discoveries (although as if this writing it hadn’t quite caught up with the latest discovery, but give it time) and gives you lots of data about other-world discoveries. It has in-app purchases that allow you to plug in other functionality, but the main app itself is free. So, if you’re into exoplanets (or want to be), check it out!
February 26, 2014 at 10:15 am | 4 Comments
What Will Future Mars Generations Call Their Hometowns?
Ever dreamed about going to Mars? Imagine being one of the first wave of Mars explorers to land and make your home there. You’ll be settling the frontier, a place with exotic places like Olympus Mons, the Valles Marineris, Margaritifer Chaos, and Ares Vallis. There are about 15,000 named features on the planet, but many regions and places remain nameless.
Chances are, by the time Mars is ready for colonization, you could have your place names already to go, courtesy of Uwingu.com‘s latest fundraiser for space science research and education. Today Uwingu is launching a Mars Crater-naming project, seeking public names for more than 500,000 craters. The result will be a fully fleshed out atlas of crater names, accessible to scientists and space missions to Mars, as well as to the public.
Anyone who wants to name a crater can simply go to Uwingu.com, select a crater they want to name, pay a small, and the name they suggest goes on the Uwingu Mars Map. Already-existing place names are already on the map, grandfathered in from previous atlases.
According to Uwingu founder, Dr. Alan Stern (a planetary scientist), bringing the public in on Mars crater-naming raises even more interest in the planet AND the donations collected will help support $10 million in grants to scientists whose space research and educators whose science education efforts have been threatened by budget cuts. “Every crater named adds to the Uwingu fund for space research and education, so naming a crater on Mars lets you make an impact of your own!”
Uwingu has raised money with its past efforts to support projects such as the Allen Telescope Array, operated by the SETI Institute, Astronomers Without Borders, the Galileo Teacher Training Program, and the Purdue Multiethnic Training Program.
Check out the Uwingu.com Website today and read more about this crater-naming fundraiser for science research and education. There’s an FAQ that explains the process in more detail.
Who knows, somewhere, sometime, a scientist will thank you for helping support their research—and maybe you or someone you know will one day set foot in a crater that you helped name.
Note: because I know that several of my readers will remind me of this, there IS a loose set of rules about naming features on Mars that NASA and the international planetary science community use as suggestions for naming features on the planet. This crater-naming fundraiser does not replace any of that, but offers a unique way for non-scientists to get involved in helping create a fleshed-out Mars Atlas. As Dr. Stern wrote to me, “We hope that our fundraiser will greatly accelerate the naming of features on Mars by involving the public!”
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Copyright 2013, Carolyn Collins Petersen
Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)
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