Our Fascination Dates Back through History

Curiosity looks south from its perch at "Rocknest" site. Taken between Oct. 5 and Nov. 16, 2012. From the first gigapixel image taken on Mars's surface. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity looks south from its perch at “Rocknest” site. Taken between Oct. 5 and Nov. 16, 2012. From the first gigapixel image taken on Mars’s surface. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This Friday, November 28th, about 90,000 messages sent from the people of Earth will make their way to the planet Mars. They’re part of the “Beam Me to Mars” effort put together by Uwingu.com to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Mariner 4 mission in 1964. This spacecraft was the first successful one to reach Mars safely and send back up-close and personal images of another planet.

The crowd of humans reaching out via radioed message to Mars on this anniversary is diverse and world-wide. It includes a number of well-known Mars enthusiasts and scientists, including actors Seth Green, Clare Grant, George Takei and his husband Brad Takei, authors Dava Sobel and Homer Hickam,  astronauts Chris Hadfield and Richard Garriott, former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, and many others, including me. I thought the idea was so compelling and profound that I had to participate the moment I heard about the project. The messages range from short greetings to space organization logos, videos, and sound recordings.

After the messages are beamed to Mars at a million bits per second shortly after 3 p.m. on Friday (transmitted by Universal Space Network), copies will also be sent to NASA headquarter, Congress, and the United Nations. They are the first messages sent intentionally by citizens of Earth, and they comprise an outlook of hope, friendliness, and outreach. My hope is that they somehow also reach the decision-makers in the halls of power, to show them that humanity’s future lies on not just one, but two planets.

The proceeds of “Beam Me to Mars” (raised by sales of the messages to the participants) will go to the Uwingu Fund, which help pay for grants to researchers and science educators. In these days of tough funding for science, efforts such as Uwingu help keep science moving forward, and the group has other projects (such as the “Name the Craters of Mars” effort) that help raise money for the betterment of science and science education.

Why did I send a message to Mars? I’ve been interested in Mars since I was a young child, and have written about it extensively over the years. I wrote a best-selling planetarium show/fulldome video about Mars that remains an audience favorite. When I was doing the research for that show, I found historical treatises about the Red Planet showing that many cultures on Earth, stretching back thousands of years, had an interest in this ruddy wanderer of the skies. In one paper, I found references to 27 different names for the planet from various cultures throughout time. Many refer to it in some form of a “war god” or an ominous omen in the sky.  Over time, that viewpoint changed, particularly as we began to explore it with telescopes from Earth and then with spacecraft.

Today, we know that Mars has no indigenous life of its own (or if it did, it’s now gone or hidden deep underground in the form of microbial life).  Yet, we still explore it. I would have loved to become a Mars explorer, but that doesn’t look to be in the cards just yet. So, I did the next best thing, I sent a message. (And, over the years, some portion of my taxes have gone to fund Mars exploration, something which I’m pleased to do.)

Why?  Why do we care about it? Why do we send orbiters and landers …. and messages?

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The Universe Throws Yet Another Solveable Mystery at Us

So many cool science stories, so little time! Against the backdrop of the ongoing saga of Rosetta at Comet 67P (and cool results are starting to flow from the Philae lander, which I’ll talk about in another entry), the rest of the universe has been ticking merrily away, providing a constant stream of fascinating information.

Artist’s concept of the large-scale structure of the universe. Courtesy European Southern Observatory.

For example, here’s a story to get your thinking, It involves the large-scale structure of the universe and a curious property of quasars. You know what a quasar is, right? It’s an active supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. There are countless numbers of these eerily bright objects scattered throughout the universe. These incredibly massive black holes are usually surrounded by dense, hot disks funneling material into the black hole. This action produces tremendous jets of superheated material threaded with strong magnetic fields. These jets extend out across many light-years of space.

These objects, called quasars (short for quasi-stellar radio sources) are incredibly bright in radio frequencies, as well as visible light. Astronomers studying quasars measure various characteristics in order to understand what they’re doing and what effects they have on their galaxies. One such characteristic is the spin of a quasar — its spin rate and its spin axis.

A research team using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large telescope has been studying light polarized light streaming from 93 of these quasars spread out across billions of light-years, as they appeared when the universe was about one-third of its current age. (Polarized light can give hints about the accretion disk and its spin direction.) To their surprise, the observers have found that the rotation axes of those quasars are parallel to each other.

This video shows that if you back off a little and look at the distribution of galaxies across billions and billions of light-years, you see them fall into a graceful cosmic web of filaments and clumps outlining huge voids where there are few galaxies. This is called the “large-scale structure of the universe”. When the astronomers superimposed the quasars in their study over a map of the large-scale structure, they found that nearly all of the rotation axes of the quasars pointed along the filaments they existed in at that time. (If you want to know the details of how the astronomers found this amazing alignment, check out this press release from ESO.)

This arrangement is not just by chance. There’s a physical reason WHY this is happening — perhaps due to the influence of nearby dark matter? It’s not clear yet why these early quasars are spinning away in parallel across vast distances in the early cosmos. This finding will certainly be added to cosmologist’s working models of the early universe!