Help Science Research and Education

Check out "Beam Me to Mars", a global shout-out to Mars fundraiser!

Check out “Beam Me to Mars”, a global shout-out to Mars fundraiser!

My friends over at Uwingu have a really cool new fundraiser effort going called “Beam Me to Mars”.  I’m so jazzed by it that I’m taking off my porkpie journalism hat and participating in this global “shout out” to Mars as an avid Red Planet enthusiast.

The idea is this: in exchange for a donation that goes to support science research and education, you can beam a message to the planet Mars on November 28, 2014. That’s the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Mars mission, launched on November 28, 1964.  Everybody’s messages will go to Mars as a stream of transmissi0ns via radio communications.  Uwingu has already amassed an amazing collection of messages from such varied folks as Astronaut Chris Hatfield, Bill Nye, Dr. Maria Zuber, the famous Mars Curiosity “Mohawk” Mars guy Bobak Ferdowski, Dr. Lori Garver, writer Dava Sobel, and many others. I’m adding my message, as well, in my role as CEO of Loch Ness Productions and general Mars enthusiast.

In addition, Uwingu’s Youtube channel will be featuring a neat array of videos from various supporters (I’m adding mine toTHAT  mix, too!), sharing their ideas about missions to Mars and why they support the “Beam Me to Mars” effort. I think this is a pretty snazzy effort, and pleased to see so many other folks hopping on the bandwagon. It’s the sort of effort that really captures the imagination!  I  mean, think of it — YOUR words and message going to Mars!  It takes me back to the days when I played “Missions to Mars” as a little kid.

So, how do you participate?  Go to and select “Beam me to Mars”.  Your message can be as simple as your name, or you can wax philosophical and even include images. You can send as many messages as you want, and prices start at $5.00. You have from now until November 5th,2014 to get your message(s) entered. All the messages will be sent at a rate of a million bits per second to Mars by Uwingu’s “Beam Me” transmission partner, Universal Space Network (a satellite communications provider).  Messages will also be published on Uwingu’s Web page for other Mars fans to see.

So, why am I jazzed about this project?  As a science writer, it has always been my interest to see increases in science and science education. Those things can only make positive contributions to our society. Uwingu’s outreach projects help provide much-needed funding to projects for science education and science research, and I like that. In today’s fiscally dicey times, really good science isn’t getting funded. And, even worse, science education continues to get short shrift.  The founders of Uwingu saw a way to create unique science outreach projects to help fund both. They began with an ongoing exoplanet-naming project, plus their “Name a Crater on Mars” on a special Uwingu map that will be used by the Mars One mission in a few years. “Beam Me to Mars” is a particularly unique opportunity for anybody to send a message to Mars. Up til now, only scientists and engineers could do it.

The other reason that I’m psyched about “Beam Me to Mars” is that I’m a Mars enthusiast from way back.  I always hoped I’d get to GO to Mars. Some years ago, I attended several meetings called “The Case for Mars” (predecessors to the Mars Society), and have always been fascinated with the Red Planet. In 2001, my company produced a fulldome video show called MarsQuest that has been very popular.  In it, we explored the history of humanity’s fascination with the Red Planet, and gave our audiences a science-fiction look forward to what future Mars missions might be like. In the very early days of that show, high-resolution images of Mars landscapes were not as numerous as they are today, so we simulated Mars explorations of the future using great space art.  Now, we are perhaps only a few short years away from sending the first human explorers to Mars, and I can’t wait to see their first “in situ” images of the Martian landscapes.

So, why not send a message to Mars?  It costs less than a pizza, and your money will help create a better scientific and science education future through Uwingu’s grants to researchers and educators.  Join me and let’s give a global shout-out to Mars this November.




It’s a World-wide Science

Astronomers without Borders brings astronomy to people around the world. Courtesy AWB.

In July I wrote about the Astronomers Without Borders Indiegogo campaign called “Telescopes to Tanzania”.  The group’s campaign can use a boost and I’m happy to urge you to consider supporting it. AWB spreads the news about astronomy throughout the world, and there’s NO reason why kids in Tanzania shouldn’t get to learn about the same science that kids in other countries get as a matter of course. So, if you’re flush with some bucks (and that might not be more than the cost of a trip to Starbucks), head over there and help ‘em out. And, don’t forget to share your generosity and thoughts on their comments page and through Twitter and other social media. Help spread the word, okay?

Still not convinced? How about participating in “Dollar Donation Day” for the Indiegogo Campaign? Any amount, from a dollar and up will count toward the goal. And, share the fundraising link with your friends!  Head over to their campaign and shake your wallet loose. And, while you’re at it, join and or contribute to AWB’s awesome work to bring astronomy to everybody, regardless of where they live!

Cassini Captures Cloud Movement Over Ligeia Mare

An animated gif of clouds moving across Titan's northern Ligeia Mare (sea). Watch the clouds over the dark area lower center/right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

An animated gif of clouds moving across Titan’s northern Ligeia Mare (sea). Watch the clouds over the dark area lower center/right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

If you’ve ever been aboard a sailing ship, you probably know the sensation of the craft cutting through the ocean, wind at your back and a breeze in your face. It’s probably the same sensation you get when you go hang-gliding, or water (or snow) skiing.

It turns out, if you lived on Saturn’s icy but intriguing moon  Titan, you could experience the same sensations (provided you could survive the atmosphere and cold temperatures). Of course, your ship would need to be able to withstand the frigid methane sea, and the cold, largely nitrogen (with small amounts of methane and hydrogen) atmosphere.

The clouds would be made of methane, possibly some ammonia, and other hydrocarbons. Feeling the breeze on your face would require you to withstand an atmospheric pressure about 1.5 times that of Earth’s sea level, and near-surface temperatures of about 94 Kelvin (-297 F, or -179 C). Not impossible, but right now, pretty improbable. That’s why we have the Cassini-Solstice Mission — to give us a spacecraft-eye view of what it might look like from above.

So, what would a cloudy, breezy sea day on Titan be like? Cassini scientists just released an animation of clouds blowing across the surface of the northern Titan sea called Ligeia Mare. In the sequence (which you can see here), the clouds blow just over the hydrocarbon-rich sea at speeds of around 7 to 10 miles per hour (3-4.5 meters/second). These images were taken a few weeks ago (late July), and the formation of the clouds and their actions may be harbingers of summer on Titan.

Titan does indeed have seasons during its 30-Earth-year-long year. Each of those seasons lasts about 7 Earth years, giving plenty of time for seasonal change to occur. When Cassini first arrived at Saturn and began studying this moon, its northern pole was pointed away from the Sun, which put it in high winter. At that time, the north polar region was shrouded with a hazy hood. There was a lot of cloud activity in the southern hemisphere (during its summer, when things were a bit warmer (relatively)).

As equinox approached, when both northern and southern hemisphere Titan got equal amounts of light and heat from the Sun, the northern polar hood shrank. Cloud activity continued for a while, until the passing of a large storm in 2010. Then, cloud activity dropped quite a bit. In the approach to northern hemisphere summer (southern hemisphere winter), the northern hood nearly disappeared, and now that we’re starting to see northern summer and southern winter. This latest discovery of clouds above a northern hemisphere ocean could signal summer weather patterns. Their appearance also leads the science team to speculate about whether (or how) the clouds are rela ted in some way to the seas. It’s possible that clouds form over the seas as a matter of course, but it’s also possible that Cassini just happened to catch some clouds racing over the ocean surface as part of a larger-scale circulation pattern.

Cassini will continue studying atmospheric change at Titan during the upcoming northern hemisphere summer (southern hemisphere winter). Already it has given us a great deal of information about the only other world in the solar system (besides earth) that has a fully developed atmosphere (and could possibly be habitable to certain forms of life). Stay tuned!