Cassini Arrives at Saturn

June 30, 2004 at 19:24 pm | Leave a Comment
Cassini shows us Saturn

Cassini shows us Saturn

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my first experience covering a planetary mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1981. It was Saturn, and in a great deja vu experience, 23 years later, I’m watching from the comfort of my home office while another mission prepares to explore Saturn in greater depth. It’s not nearly as heart-pounding (for me, anyway), but for the mission planners who have been waiting for 7 years for this moment, it is astoundingly exciting, the chance of a lifetime to study Saturn. The Saturn image here was taken a couple of days ago and it brings all those memories back… and entices us to imagine what the next months of exploration will bring us. Stay tuned!

Thinking about the Universe

June 29, 2004 at 19:10 pm | Leave a Comment

When I was a teenager there was a popular poster with a poem called “Desiderata.” One stanza of this work particularly caught my attention:

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

That poster hung on my wall for a couple of years until I headed off to college, but I credit it with reawakening my interest in all things cosmological. (Though I doubt I thought of an interest in the origin and evolution of everything in the universe as an interest in cosmology.) I think that reading that piece was the first time I heard a glimmering of the idea that right down to our blood and bones and the air we breathe and the light we see we are intimately tied to the stars and galaxies.
Radical idea that, especially if one believes in alternate theories of creation. It seems only natural that an evolving universe would eventually come up with stuff like human beings, although we now know that life (at least as we know it) is the result of many rare confluences of events and processes. Some say that argues for a creator, or some organizing influence. Others say that it doesn’t. In truth we’ll never really know because so much of the universe, particularly the instant of its birth (the Big Bang) is forever veiled from us. But we use astronomy and astrophysics to probe as much as we can into the depths of the cosmos to find clues to the origins of everything we know.
It’s my opinion that the universe has no conscious, overarching planner shoving the cosmic chess pieces here and there just to see how things will turn out. Sure there are laws which govern the actions of matter (all forms) and forces, but those aren’t evidence of such a planner. Is there an organizing principle? Sure. But again, that’s no evidence of a planner.
In truth, it’s not important (in the cosmic scheme of things) that a set of life forms on a planet hidden away in the outskirts of a galaxy (one of billions of galaxies) has devised some cosmic architect and insists that everyone was created by that unseen influence. What IS important that we continually search the cosmos for answers to how everything we can detect came about, how the stars and galaxies were formed, and what processes lead the constant unfolding of the universe. In the end, that’s all we can really do—strive to learn.

Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?

June 24, 2004 at 19:58 pm | Leave a Comment

Back when I was in college and we used to hang around the planetarium, the laser light show started with a song from the Jefferson Starship album, “Blows Against the Empire” called “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?” It was a song from a man to a woman, both aboard a starship in the future, and he’s inviting her up to A Deck to see the stars. I always thought that was a romantic thing, embodying so much about stars and space exploration. Here’s how it goes:

Words/Music: Kantner, Crosby

Have You Seen The Stars Tonight?
Would you like to go up on ‘A’ Deck and look at them with me?
Have You Seen The Stars Tonight?
Would you like to go up for a stroll and keep me company?

Do you know
We could go?
We are free
Anyplace you can think of
We could be

Have you seen the stars tonight?
Have you looked at all the family of stars?

Maybe we’ll never get to the stars, but humans have a powerful link to the stars built into their bodies and thoughts. All we have to do is look up, and we’re looking at our past, and maybe our future.

So, have YOU seen the stars tonight?

Hubble in the Domed Environment

June 22, 2004 at 22:17 pm | Leave a Comment

We’ve just spent the past few months creating a show about Hubble Space Telescope science. It was produced mainly for planetariums, but I’d love to see it get out into classrooms, if we could just figure out a way to market it. Astronomy’s such a cool subject and people always want to know more about it. Of course, the beauty of astronomy, in addition to the great pictures and wonderful science results flowing from every observatory on (and above) the planet, is that there’s always something new coming up.

In the case of Hubble Space Telescope, the discoveries keep marching down the pipeline and putting together a planetarium show (or any kind of presentation about HST) is kind of like holding a bucket under a firehose and gathering in as much as you can until the bucket overflows. I had a wealth of images to choose from, but still, it was a tough job just figuring out what NOT to use! Ultimately I ended up selecting a couple of hundred images in the first cut, winnowing that down to just under 200, and then adding in some graphics and other visual material. Then it was time to produce! The story just wrote itself. Seldom does it just flow out as it did with this one. I guess that’s a sign of goodness; I know from experience that sometimes writing isn’t so easy and the words don’t always come tripping out of the word processor like they did for this one.

But then again, the inspiration I get from HST, and really from ALL observatories, is endless. I just go hold that bucket out and see what I gather up from the datastorm descending on us from the sky every second!

For Your Gazing Pleasure

June 18, 2004 at 11:35 am | Leave a Comment
The Horsehead Nebula, courtesy of Jean-Charles Cuillandre and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula, courtesy of Jean-Charles Cuillandre and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Evocative. That’s one word I can use to describe this amazing image of the Horsehead Nebula. Stunning is another. I think that’s what Dr. Jean-Charles Cuillandre, who works with the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope atop Mauna Kea, had in mind when he started a “pretty pictures” program of imagery.

Prosaically speaking, this is a cloud of gas and dust being lit up by a hot young star. It’s just a coincidence that the darkest part of the image, the Horse’s head, looks like a horse. What’s cooler to contemplate is what’s inside that horsey-looking cloud. Maybe a newborn star waiting to eat away the remaining cloud and burst forth with light in a few hundred thousand years? It’s possible.

Starbirth is like that — full of surprises. And areas of starbirth are among the hottest (literally) topics of astronomy research today. Lucky for us, scientists like Dr. Cuillandre are ready, willing, and able to give us “front row” seats for the festivities!

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Image of Horsehead Nebula: T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA)

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