MORE Art of Space

May 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm | 2 Comments

Depicting Space Touches the Heart and Imagination

I keep hearing that space is cold and inhuman. I keep seeing people post messages around the InterTubeWeb that nobody’s interested in space exploration. I don’t know where they get these ideas, unless maybe some so-called “thought leaders” in the media and political establishments are trying to continue a meme they neither  like  nor understand. After all, space exploration requires a frame of mind that not everybody can fit into (or perhaps doesn’t want to fit into).  You don’t have to be a super athelete or test pilot to appreciate space exploration. You can be anybody with an open mind and a zest for finding out what’s “out there, thataway.”

In the week or so since we posted our video about the launch of space shuttle Endeavour, (shown below) I’ve gotten interesting and lovely feedback from people who have watched it. They are from all walks of life, and their notes have been very touching. There have also been some other very cool videos and images posted, and I’ve enjoyed those as much as my own experience at launch.

It’s like all of us space enthusiasts, all the folk who are interested in and touched by space exploration, are finding our voices by sharing our impressions of what we’ve seen. And, it’s not limited to those of us who are earthbound.

Space shuttle Endeavour docked to ISS, with Earth rotating in the background (in a long exposure). Note the stars! Courtesy NASA.

For example, this image almost looks like an impressionist painting, except that it’s a real image taken of Endeavour as it was docked to the International Space Station. The image is a  time exposure taken from the station by one of the astronauts as both connected objects whizzed overhead in its orbit. Earth’s lights are streaked, but check out those stars in the background.

It’s a dreamy, romantic-looking scene, but very much grounded in the reality and hardware of space flight. I find that it touches the viewer’s emotions in a very visceral way and, for me at least, TAKES me to that time and place.

There are more of those pictures here, if you want to be touched, as well.

Lucy West Binnall and her signed painting. Courtesy Lucy West Studios.

While following Twitter messages about the launch and mission, I ran across a lovely page about an artist named Lucy West Binnall who painted a launch piece and sent it to the astronauts at KSC.  To her great joy, they signed a copy and sent it back to her before the left on their mission. You can read her great story here.  I shared our video with her, and thus was born a nice relationship online.  I was immediately taken with her artwork and the great joy she appears to get from painting scenes from space exploration and astronomy observations.  You should check out her page and be touched, as well.

The astronauts themselves, a wide-ranging bunch of people who encompass a lot of different backgrounds, all come back to Earth and talk about how wonderful the experience is, how peaceful our planet looks from space, and so on.  Most of us know, at some deep level, that they have been profoundly changed by their experience (and some of us, me included, wish we could experience that change, too.).

Some, such as Alan Bean, have gone on to create artwork depicting space and exploration.  Others from all the world’s space agencies have shared their experiences through smashingly good talks that really touch people’s imaginations about going up to space. They’re people like you and me, more experienced in the spaceways, perhaps, but nonetheless, giving a human face to space exploration.

The Endeavour astronauts have posted a tribute to their space ship, which you can see here at a link just posted last night and making its way around the IntarWebs today (and you’re getting it straight from them as they were orbiting Earth)!

Finally, someone at NASA came up with this art-music-science mix tribute to the mission as well:

I would imagine that you can find many, many more instances of space depicted in a positive, artful, media-driven way. Do a little search and see what you find! It’s a sort of meta-exploration of space exploration and humanity’s artful interpretation of the cosmos from whence we all have come. Enjoy!

Working in Space

May 26, 2011 at 20:34 pm | Leave a Comment


A press shot of the crew of the ISS in monochrom's ISS.

What randy band of improv artists based in Vienna has as their show motto: “In space no one can hear you complain about your job”?  Why, the folks at monochrom’s ISS show, a funny, irreverant and sometimes NSFW (a little profanity now and again, so if such offends you, don’t watch)  improvisation-based show on the Web depicting life on the International Space Station.

This is a ten-part show that is part improv, part reality-sitcom showing how the fictional crew of the station must come up with strategies to deal with surprise situations in their space-bound habitat.  it’s humorous and smart, and puts a very human face on the ups and downs of living in space.

The show’s producers/directors, Johannes Grenzfurthner and Roland Gratzer, have relied on material from NASA and ESA to create the scenarios their actors work through.  The show’s acting troupe includes Jeff Ricketts (Star Trek: Enterprise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), Maciej Salamon (Musicals: Barbarella, Tanz der Vampire, Sweeney Todd), Claire Tudela (Carmen, Musical: The Producers), Geoff Pinfield (Aoterroroa, Lovepuke).

Check out this inventive group’s Web page for past episodes and news about the next production. You can see all their episodes at monochrom’s ISS.

Visit to an Asteroid

May 25, 2011 at 14:30 pm | Leave a Comment

NASA to Launch New Science Mission to Asteroid 1999 RQ36

Well, it’s official. A new planetary science mission called OSIRIX-REx will be launched in 2016 to visit an asteroid in 2020, pluck up some samples from its surface, and return them to Earth. NASA  just made the announcement about this mission, which has the lengthy name “Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer”, or OSIRIS-REx. It will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and studies of this asteroid will have far-reaching implications, not only in our understanding of their formation (and the information they carry about conditions in the early solar system), but also will help astronomers better predict the orbital paths of asteroids that come close to our planet.

Conceptual image of OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

So, what can an asteroid tell us? These chunks of leftover debris from the solar system’s formation some 4.5 billion years ago, contain the original material from the solar nebula from which the Sun and planets formed. Study that material and you can learn a huge amount of information about conditions in the nebula at the time the solar system was born. Along with comets, which were formed largely in the outer reaches of the solar system, asteroids are essentially treasure caches of material that “remembers” what it was like back in the early epochs of solar system history.

Asteroid 1999 RQ 36 is about the size of five football fields and is very likely rich in carbon and other elements that are useful in the creation of life. Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating some of life’s ingredients can be created in space. Scientists want to see if they also are present on RQ36.

Aside from doing a little “gardening” on the asteroid’s surface, the mission will also measure something called the “Yarkovsky effect.”   It’s a small shove that the Sun’s radiation gives to an asteroid. The way it works is that an asteroid’s surface absorbs sunlight, just as Earth’s surface does. The asteroid’s surface then radiates that heat back out to space, and in the process, that gives a little “push” to the body.  Now, this wouldn’t ordinarily be of  much concern for asteroids that never get close to our planet. But, occasionally some do, and knowing the effect of the Sun’s warming on such a body helps astronomers predict their orbital paths (and possibly whether one could be a threat to our planet).

It’s interesting work because while we’ve studied most of the other planets and many of their moons, observations and visits to asteroids and comets are a bit rarer in planetary science.

Galaxies Are Like People

May 25, 2011 at 14:12 pm | Leave a Comment

They Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Artist's concept of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA JPL

You grew up in this galaxy.  It’s what astronomers call a “barred spiral” and if you were an alien living on a planet a galaxy with a “top down” view of the Milky Way, this is what the view would be.  The central area, called the “bulge” is filled with stars and, of course, our own supermassive black hole.  The bar of light extending out from the center is a sort of “transport” mechanism for gas and other materials toward the core. The spiral arms are where a lot of the latest star-forming (and star death) action is taking place.  Our planet is about 2/3 of the way out from the center, between a pair of spiral arms. We don’t live in the center of this stellar city, but more like in the outskirts where the action is a bit quieter. That’s good for us, since being too close to the center might not be good for our solar system’s health.

Astronomers are well aware that not all galaxies look like this. In fact, the Milky Way didn’t always look as it does now. It has evolved, just as all other galaxies have throughout the cosmos. To study the changes that galaxies go through, astronomers have categorized them by shape (their “morphology”) and their sizes, as well as other characteristics like the ages of their stars and the metal content they have.

A new, colorful collection of galaxy specimens has been released by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

NASA’s WISE mission (the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), is studying distant galaxies and today has released images of an assort mix of colorful and shapely galaxies. Just as people come in all sizes and variations on the two-arms, two-legs, height and weight arrangements of our bodies, galaxies also exhibit a wide array of variations on the standard theme.

The new collection of nine galaxies shows off this diversity, with members of different sizes, colors and shapes. Infrared light from the galaxies, which we can’t see with our eyes, has been translated into visible-light colors that we can see. Blue colors show older populations of stars, while yellow indicates dusty areas where stars are forming.

This collage of WISE images shows everything from “grand design spirals,” with their elegant swirling arms, to so-called “flocculent” galaxies, which look more patchy and nebulous.  All these galaxies are close enough to us that WISE can see details of their structures. Some show sinuous arms and central bulges filled with packed-together stellar populations and possibly even central supermassive black holes.

Some of the galaxies are oriented toward us nearly face-on, such as Messier 83, and others are partly angled away from us, for example Messier 81. One galaxy, NGC 5907, is oriented completely edge-on, so that all we can see is its profile. The edge of its main galaxy disk appears pencil-thin, and its halo of surrounding stars is barely visible as a green glow above and below the disk.

The arms of the galaxies come in different shapes too. Messier 51 has arms that look like a spiral lollipop, while the arms of the flocculent galaxy NGC 2403 look choppy, perhaps more like layered frosting. Astronomers think that gravitational interactions with companion galaxies may lead to more well-defined spiral arms. One such companion can be seen near Messier 51 in blue. Some of the galaxies also have spokes, or spurs, that join the arms together, such as those in IC 342.

As astronomers scan the universe, they’ll be able to dig more deeply into the different galaxy shapes they see. Just as images of different people at different ages tell us about how humans are born, age, and die, images such as these give important clues about a galaxy’s evolutionary history and the stars it contains. Not only will this work help us understand the life stories of all galaxies, it contributes to a greater appreciation of our own Milky Way and the changes it went through that led to the creation of our own Sun and planets.

Good Night, Spirit

May 24, 2011 at 18:56 pm | Leave a Comment

NASA Says Spirit Isn’t Phoning Home

Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. Courtesy NASA.

The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, a mission designed to last three months but instead lasted more than six years, has not responded to NASA’s attempts to contact it for the past 10 months. The last transmission to the plucky little rover, which got mired in a sand trap on Mars but continued to send information until the onset of Martian winter last year, will be tomorrow.  NASA engineers say that the rover has endured a pretty stressful winter, what with the lack of sunlight to keep its batteries charged to run its survival heaters. Without those warmers, the internal temperatures on the rover likely got cold enough to damage or destroy critical components and connections. If that has indeed happened, then Spirit has gone to sleep and won’t be waking up again.

Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 3, 2004. After accomplishing its prime-mission goals, the rover’s controllers programmed it to accomplish additional objectives, including further exploration of the region where it landed, and ongoing imaging of the surface and atmospheric measurements. Its twin, Opportunity, continues active exploration of Mars on the other side of the planet.

With the loss of Spirit, NASA is redeploying teams to work with the Mars rover, Curiosity, which launches in November of this year. Mars exploration goes on — building on Spirit’s successes and accomplishments. For those of us who are interested in Mars and its continued exploration, it’s a sad passing, but we know that Spirit has advanced our understanding of the planet.  If you haven’t kept up with the latest in Mars exploration, check it out at NASA’s MER pages.

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