It’s Wondrous Out There!

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the very first episode, the mischievous character “Q” made his first appearance and showed the Enterprise crew some important and beautiful things. That’s the way the cosmos rolls: it’s full of very interesting things to discover and explore. As Q said, it’s full of treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid.

Timid would be sitting on Earth, looking up at the skies, but doing nothing to learn about what’s in them. Or refusing to use one’s brain to learn about the natural processes that created the objects we see “out there”. It would be a terrible waste of human intelligence and of space.

Vertical structures rise out of and up above Saturn’s B ring. These “peaks” of ring material are about a kilometer high in places, and show us what happens when moonlets orbit in and near the ringlets that make up the B ring. Their gravitational influence causes the ring particles to lift up, splashing out of the ring plane for a brief time. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/SSI

The folks who built and manage the Cassini spacecraft aren’t timid. They had a dream to send a spacecraft to the ringed planet Saturn, and for years now, that mission has been sending back some of the coolest images of the planet, its moons, and rings that are even better than we could ever have imagined. We don’t have to imagine what it would be like to see that planet; now we know.  Now, if we WANT to know more, we should probably just go there. And, someday, humans will. Until they do, we have the Cassini (and before that, the Voyagers 1 and 2) images to look at; like this one — showing us just what it looks like to fly above Saturn’s rings.

The spacecraft was about 209,000 kilometers from Saturn when it caught this image. What amazes me are the shadows being cast by the “fountains” of ring particles being sprayed up under the gravitational influence of nearby moonlets. The rings themselves look so solid that you might think you could settle your space ship down on them. But, you’d be amazed when you got up close, because you’d be setting “through” a collection of particles, with nothing to hold on to.  In fact, those rings are really quite thin — only about 30 FEET.

I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty wondrous!

 

 

Last-minute Astro and Space Gifts

Let Hubble’s images of space grace your holiday greetings!

Well, the annual gift-a-thon is in countdown to the final hours now and there are probably some of you still figuring out what to get for that certain someone (or yourself!).  I’ve mentioned some cool ideas over here and here and here (so check out those links, too!), but I always have more to talk about.

My perennially favorite calendar arrived (thanks to the publisher!) and it’s going to be hanging on my wall any day now. It’s called The Year in Space 2015 Calendar, and its published in cooperation with the Planetary Society (one of my favorite space advocacy organizations). It has a year’s worth of gorgeous images, space facts, and other interesting information about the sky and our exploration of the cosmos.  You can get it at The Year in Space Web page and I highly recommend it. One of the nicest and loveliest space calendars out there!  It’s a great gift.

One of the more offbeat gifts I’ve seen (and I ordered this for myself so I can’t wait to see it) are the constellation earrings over at Thinkgeek.com. The constellation Orion is one of my favorites, so they’re entirely appropriate! Thinkgeek also has a lot of other nerdly and spacey gifts, so browse around while you’re over there. (No, I don’t get paid by Thinkgeek — I’m just a satisfied customer of many years’ standing.)

A friend alerted me to the many fantastic astronomy and space themed objects at Etsy. Among them are spacey cufflinks, prints, clothing, and much more. This link takes you to a search I did at Etsy, using the term “astronomy gift ideas”.  There are some pretty cool things there, made mostly by artists selling their own work. Worth a look!

While you’re at it, think about giving gift memberships to the space-happy folk on your list.  The Planetary Society is a good place to show your support for space travel and exploration. If you or your giftee live in or get to Los Angeles quite often, please consider a gift membership to Griffith Observatory’s support group called Friends of the Observatory. They do an outstanding job of promoting and supporting this fantastic institution and your dollars help support a wide variety of programming efforts (including school visits).  If you’re outside of the LA area,  check out gift memberships and certificates for and from your local planetarium and science center gift shop.  Also consider a gift from Astronomers Without Borders. This organization brings astronomy to people around the world, regardless of where they live.  Another good astronomy educati0n resource that offers memberships is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The group has a large international presence in astronomy education and outreach, with a fantastic online presence (and gift shop!).

Of course, the best gift of all is sharing your own knowledge of the sky with others. It doesn’t cost you a cent, and allows you to teach others about the science of astronomy. So, maybe a “selfie” gift certificate promising some stargazing time with your best friends and family will be just the ticket. You can even dress it up by printing it out on one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s free, downloadable holiday cards!

Whatever you do, have a wonderful holiday season!