September 13, 2013 11:36 am
These days, we have a lot of images of Earth from space. Which is awesome. But before we went to space, we had some ideas about what Earth might look like, too.
Recently, the Library of Congress featured a few of those images on its blog.Here’s one from 1874, in a book called The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite.
Trevor Owens, a special curator for the library’s Science Literacy Initiative writes:
The images in this book are mostly photographs of plaster models based on observations of amateur astronomer James Nasmyth. Most of the images in this book are modeled on their direct observations, but this one represents the view of the Earth from the moon. Part of considering the moon as a world, a place like Earth, required this kind of shift in perspective. Seeing the Earth eclipse the sun from the Moon makes it feel much more like a real world.
In 1893, the book Astronomy for Beginners featured this image of Earth from an unnamed viewpoint in their chapter on “Visitors.”
In 1898, the book The Story of the Sun, Moon, and Stars included this image of the Earth seen from the moon.
Here, we have an image from Camille Fammarion from 1904. The little arrow points to Earth as it might look from the surface of Mercury:
In 1920, the science fiction book A Trip to Mars included this illustration of Earth from the red planet:
And here, for context, is what the Earth looks like from the moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968.
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September 10, 2013 9:50 am
Gravity is only the latest of a long line of books and movies to seize upon the dangers—often deadly—of space travel. But actual astronauts never seem afraid to pierce the atmosphere and plunge into the icy depths beyond our planet. So, are storytellers taking liberties? Is space not quite so dangerous? Are astronauts actual super humans? No—they’re actually quite scared. But they go anyway.
Luca Parmitano is no stranger to the hostility of space. He nearly drowned in his own space suit just a few months ago. On his blog yesterday, he explained that, even though astronauts may seem stoic, they are very aware of how dangerous their jobs are. When asked whether he’s afraid, he says that he often wants to lie:
The temptation to answer simply “no” is great, everyone would breathe a sigh of relief and go on knowing that there are out of the ordinary men and women in the world who work without fear: astronauts. But super humans do not exist – and it is better this way.
My humble opinion is that only fools say they are never afraid – and they are lying when they say it. Fear is a series of sensations, a primordial mechanism that has developed over millennia of evolution to preserve our lives. It would be a waste not to use such a tool. But like any tool, it can be used well or badly: a scalpel, in the expert hands of a surgeon, can save a life while the same scalpel can be lethal when used without skill and knowledge.
The urge to lie about your fear doesn’t just hit Parmitano. In 2011, Maggie Koerth-Baker interviewed astronaut Rex Walheim about going to space. A reader asked, “When you’re going through the selection process, hoping beyond hope to be chosen to train as an astronaut, would you admit to being afraid of anything, or would than seem not very astronaut-like? Is there a place in the training for people to admit to having fear?”
Wilheim’s answer was double-edged:
I think it would depend on how you talk about something like that. If you say, “I’m scared to death,” you might not make it. But you can say, “I’m concerned about my safety.” Frankly, if you’re not concerned about sitting on 10 stories of high explosives, you’re not thinking hard enough. The funny thing is, after 5 years of training, it actually doesn’t cross your mind too much.
As Wilheim suggests, many astronauts won’t fess up directly to being afraid like Parmitano does. In 2009, astronaut Wilson Rothman wrote a first person account of his trip to space on Gizmodo. He wrote:
I remember during one of my launch counts, the ladies were taking our pre-launch breakfast orders, going around the table. I was hearing things like, dry toast. A little yogurt. Cereal. You gotta be kidding me, what kind of pantywaists am I flying with? They got to me and I replied firmly and evenly, “Steak and eggs, medium rare and over easy.” Everyone looked at me funny. I stated the obvious. “Hey, we might go out tomorrow and get blown up. I’m going to have steak and eggs!”
Greg Johnson, the pilot of Endeavor, told ABC in 2011 that any astronaut who won’t fess up to being afraid is just lying. “I feel the risk, and I compare launching on the space shuttle a little like going into combat,” he told them. “Any sane astronaut will feel the fear, or concern just prior to liftoff. If they don’t admit they are lying to you.”
In every interview, though, astronauts repeat some variation of the same sentiment: yes, it’s scary, but it is also worth it.
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September 9, 2013 9:55 am
Today, studying comets and meteors involves billions of dollars worth of equipment and teams from all over the world. But in the 16th century, they used watercolors. Check out, for instance, this book—called the Kometenbuch and made in the late 16th century—which is full of these astronomical illustrations.
‘Kometenbuch’ was produced in Flanders or NE France in 1587. Two editions are known to exist; the other copy is owned by the Warburg Institute in London, and contains near-identical sketches, but has an extra chapter of writing. The names of the author and illustrator are unknown. The text would appear to reflect the rather outlandish, or at least exaggerated, qualities we see in the painted miniatures. In other words, the text purports to compile a history of comet science from ancient times up to the late Medieval period, but it does so in such a way that the emphasis is on ‘popularising’ the content. Early Modern pop-science, if you will. So what began as factual depictions of celestial phenomena, morphed into spectacular genre paintings.
Some of the images even reveal the artist’s sense of humor. (Your eye’s drawn to the sky, but look down and to the right.)
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September 6, 2013 10:32 am
If you live in the mid-Atlantic U.S., somewhere from Maine to South Carolina—even if you’re as far inland as western Pennsylvania—look east tonight just before 11:30, and you’ll be in for a treat. A rocket heading for the Moon is blasting off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The area where the launch will be visible is pretty huge (though the rocket may be quite tiny if you’re far away), but if you can’t see it from where you live, you can watch the launch live online.
NASA will be launching a five-stage rocket known as the Minotaur V. This isn’t the first launch from Wallops, but, says the Planetary Society, it is the first launch of this kind of rocket. It’s also one of the largest launches from Wallops, and it’s the first one going to the Moon. The Associated Press:
All but one of NASA’s approximately 40 moon missions — most memorably the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s — originated from Cape Canaveral. The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago this weekend. The lone exception, Clementine, a military-NASA venture, rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.
The rocket will be carrying a new lunar probe, known as LADEE. The orbiter will circle the Moon, studying the (extremely thin) lunar atmosphere. The AP:
Sometimes, people are a little taken aback when we start talking about the lunar atmosphere because, right, we were told in school that the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere,” said Sarah Noble, NASA program scientist.
“It does. It’s just really, really thin.”
The atmosphere is so thin and delicate, in fact, that spacecraft landings can disturb it. So now is the time to go, Noble said, before other countries and even private companies start bombarding the moon and fouling up the atmosphere.
In case you’re not sure what to look for, here’s what an April launch from Wallops looked like. Just make sure to scale the size of the rocket with how many miles you are away from Virginia.
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August 28, 2013 2:12 pm
The Sun does a lot of crazy things: it spawns roiling loops of superheated plasma that stretch for thousands of miles, it blows huge chunks of itself off into space and, every 11 years or so, its insides do a little flip. The solar magnetic field turns on its head, and the north pole becomes the south, and the south, the north. The sun is actually gearing up for one of these flips, says NASA, and it should take place any time now.
It’s nice to see, every now and again, some of these behaviors elsewhere in the universe—to know that the sun might be strange, but not too strange. For the first time, says the American Museum of Natural History, scientists reported seeing another star go through a similar magnetic field flip.
As described in a new study, scientists have been watching as a star, known as Tau Boötis (and nicknamed Tau Boo), flipped its magnetic field back and forth. The behavior isn’t exactly the same as the Sun’s, though. Where the Sun takes 22 years to go through a full cycle, flipping and flipping back, Tau Boötis does it in just two.
It’s still mostly a bunch of conjecture, but the scientists in their study have already suggested a way that they think Tau Boötis’ flip is different than the Sun’s, other than the rapid clip. Tau Boötis has a huge planet orbiting right up close. The scientists think that this huge planet, much like Jupiter but with an orbit that takes just 3.3 days, may be affecting the star’s magnetic field. Astronomy explains:
“For Tau Boo, tidal interactions between the star and the planet might be an important factor in accelerating the cycle, but we can’t be sure of the cause,” said Fares.
Tau Boo spins on its axis once every 3.3 days — the same amount of time as it takes the hot Jupiter to complete one orbit. One hypothesis for Tau Boo’s rapid cycle is that the planet makes it rotate faster than usual, and this is affecting the generation of the magnetic field.
“There are still some big questions about what’s causing Tau Boo’s rapid magnetic cycle,” said Fares. “From our survey, we can say that each planetary system is particular, that interactions affect stars and planets differently, and that they depend on the masses, distance, and other properties.”
We still don’t really know why the Sun’s magnetic field flips like this in the first place. So, having a second example of stellar magnetic field flipping to compare the sun’s behavior against should be extremely helpful to scientists working to understand this phenomenon.
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