Finding One’s Way

July 25, 2008 at 9:34 am | Leave a Comment

Using Space-age Technology

We just spent a few weeks traveling across the country, driving in a computer-equipped car, using a GPS for directions. The GPS gave the whole thing a Jetsons sort of feel in the sense that whenever we needed to make a crucial turn somewhere, a friendly voice would chime in and tell us “In 0.2 miles, turn right…” or something like that. That’s one of those handy things, like a map, that you don’t leave home without anymore, especially if you have one of the newer cell phones or gadget-laden cars that seem to proliferate.

More than once as we drove the interstates and back roads to such interesting places as Roslyn, Washington, I thought to myself, “All this help, thanks to the space program!” I should also thank military planners and designers for the GPS system in the first place, too.

I got to thinking about a future vacation, maybe a hunded or two years from now, when we have regular interplanetary travel. We’ll take off in our nuclear-powered spacecraft, fully equipped with a galactic position system unit, aiming for a multi-year round trip to the outer solar system. As we get closer to important turning points, a friendly voice will come on and say things like, “In 1 million kilometers, prepare to execute a legal gravitational assist at Jupiter…”

Walking on the Moon

July 23, 2008 at 9:09 am | Leave a Comment

Or Just Plain Walking…Period.

Okay, so when I was a kid, we landed astronauts on the Moon. I figured it was only a matter of time before the rest of us would get to go, whether as passengers, tourists, or workers. Well… it hasn’t happened yet. For whatever reasons, going back to the Moon has been backburnered since the early ’70s and it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon. Ditto with Mars. Not that we’ve sent anybody there, but our eyes are certainly turned that way, what with all the rovers and orbiters and landers we’ve been sending to tell us the geological history of the Red Planet. I used to think that the first generation of Mars-nauts was in elementary school, but I wonder if that’s been too optimistic on my part. Is it possible that that first wave of Martian explorers to set foot on the planet aren’t even born yet? Tell me it ain’t so. Same with our chances to go to the Moon! But, there are deeper issues than MY wish to go to another planet. I read today that no matter who is elected president of the U.S., NASA will face shortfalls in funding. This basically tells me that our country (the U.S.) isn’t interested in funding basic research (which always pays itself back in many ways). I suspect that it looks very easy to cut NASA and research funding, which is a very small part of a huge federal budget. But, those cuts may be the ones that our moms always warned us about — the ones where you cut off your nose to spite your face. Traveling to other planets aside, money for basic research and sciences always comes back manyfold in terms of paychecks, tax revenues to towns where researchers live and work, and in the well-known “spinoffs” from basic research. Anyone who has gone to a doctor, bought groceries, driven a car, played a video game, or bought fresh food has benefitted from basic science research and, in many cases, from space science and astronomy research. Don’t believe me? Do a little Googling on the term “space spinoffs”. Or… if you’re just too tired to do that, try this one on for size: science develops a robotic leg that allows a rover to move across the ground on another planet. That leg design gets picked up by a medical researcher who sees a way to restore broken joints. That research ends up providing a new knee or ankle to an accident victim or a wounded soldier. Take out the basic research funding and what do you have? Think about it.

Reporting the Universe

July 21, 2008 at 8:04 am | Leave a Comment

Writing the Cosmos Takes You Places You Don’t Expect

I got my start as a science writer when I decided I could do a better job of telling a story about astronomy than somebody else was doing. As I recall, the first thing I wrote was a planetarium show about light-travel time. Not much later, I found myself at a newspaper, doing all kinds of odd editorial and writing jobs. Not all of it was science-related, but occasionally I’d get to tell an astronomy story. And, sometimes I’d get stuck with something like “Balance an Egg on the Equinox: Fact or Fiction?” Eventually I moved fulltime into science writing just about the time I went back to graduate school.

Life’s like that. You start out in one direction and end up going places you never expect to be. I made that observation to a student reporter from the University of Colorado who called me a while back to update my “facts” for the alumni association. That led to a story that showed up in the spring issue of Bylines, the CU Journalism alumni magazine. I’m not sure she knew what to make of what I said. As I recall, when one graduates, it seems like life’s paths are set — you major in journalism or physics or whatever and that’s what you’ll do your whole life, right?

Well, not so much. I went back to school to try for a PhD in Astrophysics. I didn’t get there for various reasons, but I did study a lot of physics, astronomy, and planetary science along the way. Ultimately I ended up with hours and hours of science course work, but a masters’ in journalism and mass communication aimed at presenting astronomy and space science to the public. And, today I routinely research and write about astronomy, astrophysics, and planetary science — depending on the project I’m doing.

I’d like to go back and complete that PhD path, but for now I’m on the trail of science writing, taking all that immense background and experience in science and science writing and using it to tell stories about the universe. Along the way I’ve worked on an HST team, edited a science magazine, written research papers, worked with scientists to tell their stories, written exhibits (one set about astronomy and another about climate change) for two major institutions, and created many a planetarium and online video piece to help astronomers and the public understand the cosmos.

The message here is that one’s paths can be as varied as there are places to explore in the cosmos. Not sure if my Bylines profile got that across, but it was interesting to see a snapshot of my career taken by someone else.

Another Dwarf Planet in the Wings

July 18, 2008 at 9:15 am | Leave a Comment

They’re Out There

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will downloadThe known solar system continues to expand. While I was on vacation, astronomers gave a name and designation to an outer solar system world that’s roughly 3/4 the size of Pluto.  This plutoid (which is a subclass of dwarf planets), discovered in 2005, is now called Makemake (pronounced mah-kay mah-kay), or (136472) Makemake, if you’re sending a formal invitation for it to join the community of worlds. Mike Brown, the astronomer who discovered Makemake, has a great discussion about the name he selected for this world, which is a Kuiper Belt object. Essentially, he chose the  name of the god of fertility in the mythology of the South Pacific island of Rapa Nui at Easter Island.

We don’t really have a good image of Makemake, but my friend Robert Hurt at IPAC at Caltech, who does double duty as a scientist AND talented space artist, came up with this lovely artist’s conception of what the newest Plutoid might look like. It could have a moon, so Robert put one in.  We won’t know for sure until more detailed imaging and spectra can be done. It’s exciting to see more worlds being discovered “out there” on the frontier of the solar system!

Riding on the Winds of Time

July 17, 2008 at 10:38 am | Leave a Comment

What Were YOU Doing A Galactic Year Ago?

Think about what you were doing a year ago. For me, it was summertime, and I was probably working on a script for a fulldome video show. That was one EARTH year ago. One Mars year ago (687 Earth days), I was still working on exhibits for the Griffith Observatory and they were about to reopen. One Jupiter year ago (11.9 Earth years ago) I was just finishing graduate school. One Saturn year ago (29.5 years ago) I had just gotten married and was working for a school district. One Uranus year ago… well, my grandparents were just getting married. One Neptune year ago (165 years ago), their grandparents were probably just meeting. And, one Pluto year ago (248 years ago)… well, you get the idea.

So, what was going on one galactic year ago? That’s roughly the time it takes for Earth to make a trip once around the center of the galaxy (from our viewpoint out here in the spiral arms). It’s an incredibly long time — roughly 250 million Earth years ago (give or take a couple of dozen million years).

Fortunately, we weren’t around a galactic year ago. Why do I say that? Because if we were around then, we’d either be puzzling out one of the largest mass extinctions of life in Earth’s history.  There WAS life on our planet at that time, but some 250 million years ago, it was already declining in the oceans, and was about to be nearly wiped out on land. This was an event called “The Great Dying” and it began around a galactic year ago. The formal name of the event is the Permian-Triassic Extinction, and to give you an idea of how extensive it was, about 9 in 10 marine species died out, and 7 in 10 land species suffered the same fate. This wasn’t the first or the last time that life has been threatened with extinction during our planet’s history.

255.jpg (119462 bytes)The best explanation for this mass extinction, backed up by data from studies of marine life forms and rocks that date back to that time, is that ocean life had been struggling along due to some toxic upwelling from ocean depths. It was gasping for breath, in essence.

On the land, extensive volcanic activity was pumping grunge into the air and resurfacing the planet, which affected land life. And, at that time, the continents didn’t look anything like they do today, as you can see in Chris Scotese’s rendering of Pangaea

Anyway, to make matters worse, along came a huge impactor, perhaps 6 to 12 kilometers across. When it crashed into Earth’s surface, it did severe damage, and may have hastened the Great Dying that was already in progress. In any case, it was a major mass extinction event. And it happened about a galactic year ago.

Life did thrive again, as we see in the fossil records from the next few eras and epochs as the new galactic year wore on. It makes me wonder what the next one will bring. A lot can happen in a year!

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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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