To the moon… and beyond!

Fresh from our trip to Kielder, my son’s very excited about this news story.

The lunar gateway: a shortcut to Mars?
“The moon has lain virtually undisturbed for the last 4.5bn years,” says Parker. “It is a museum of the history of our solar system. And yes, we visited it when we briefly landed Apollo spacecraft there. However, that was the equivalent of going to a museum, heading straight to the gift shop and then leaving. It is the dusty corners of a museum where you find the really interesting stuff – and that is where we are going to go with Gateway.”

And our boy’s keen to go, too, on his way to Mars. That may take some time, though.

How far is it to Mars?
If the Earth were 100 pixels wide, the moon would be 3000 pixels away. Mars, at its closest, would be 428,000 pixels away.

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And who knows what else is out there.

The unending hunt for Planet Nine, our solar system’s hidden world
Astronomers are deeply divided, but intent on finding the truth. They’re using the world’s largest telescopes and most powerful supercomputers, and enlisting the help of thousands of amateurs like Forbes, who plays her part in this epic, astronomical search in between episodes of Love Island. Together, they will either pinpoint the location of this mysterious world and give the solar system a ninth planet, or rule out its existence once and for all.

The search for homes far from home

Some more links following our recent trip to the Kielder Observatory, for their talk on exoplanets. There seems to be a lot going on.

NASA’s TESS spacecraft begins its search for exoplanets
TESS is a follow-up to Kepler, a spacecraft that has spent the last nine years searching for Earth-like exoplanets near Sun-like stars. Though it may be on its last legs, Kepler has already found 2,650 confirmed exoplanets and even more are expected to be discovered from the data it has collected. But Kepler was designed to focus on a small section of the sky and while it spotted many exoplanets, a lot of them were very far away from Earth. TESS, however, will eventually map about 85 percent of the sky and it will attempt to spot exoplanets a bit closer to Earth — which allow other telescopes to study them more thoroughly.

How NASA’s newest planet hunter scans the sky

A little less bombastic than its previous video.

The search for new worlds is here

So what kind of new worlds are being discovered? And when can we visit?

Visions of the future
Imagination is our window into the future. At NASA/JPL we strive to be bold in advancing the edge of possibility so that someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality. As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.

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What about those planets closer to home?

Cool, there’s water on Mars. But does it make good pickles?
Deep under the ice cap of Mars’s southern pole, there could be a store of water, the first stable body of liquid water ever found on the planet. After the paper announcing this discovery came out, reporters described a “lake of liquid water,” about 12 miles in diameter. Hearing that phrase, it’s easy, perhaps even natural, to imagine a bubble of crystal-clear water, hidden under the cap of frozen water and carbon dioxide, pure and sweet and waiting. But the reality would be less appealing.

Never mind the summer heat: Earth is at its greatest distance from the sun
“I find it amusing that the common misconception about Earth’s seasons is actually true if you are on Mars,” said David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute. “School children on Mars will need to be taught differently.”

Worth bearing in mind.

Looking up

There’s a bloody lunar eclipse this evening, although the thunderclouds that are accompanying our unusually warm summer may get in the way. But whilst we’re on the subject:

Figures in the stars: How cultures across the world have seen their myths and legends in the stars
Let’s compare 28 different “sky cultures” to see differences and similarities in the shapes they’ve seen in the night sky. Ranging from the so-called “Modern” or Western constellations, to Chinese, Maori and even a few shapes from historical cultures such as the Aztecs.

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And as we can see here, attempts to map and explain our place in the universe go back a long way.

Cosmography manuscript (12th Century)
This wonderful series of medieval cosmographic diagrams and schemas are sourced from a late 12th-century manuscript created in England. Coming to only nine folios, the manuscript is essentially a scientific textbook for monks, bringing together cosmographical knowledge from a range of early Christian writers such as Bede and Isodere, who themselves based their ideas on such classical sources as Pliny the Elder, though adapting them for their new Christian context.

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A possible “CSI: Old Masters” spin-off?

Thanks to the software within our cameras and phones these days, we almost always know when and where we took our photos. But what of the great images and artworks before such technology was available? That’s where the astrophysicist and forensic astronomer Donald Olson comes in.

Solved: a decades-old Ansel Adams mystery
In the past, he and his team at Texas State University have figured out where Julius Caesar landed when he invaded Britain in 55 B.C. (northeast of Dover), why the British didn’t spot Paul Revere as he made his Midnight Ride (the moon was in a weird spot), and the identity of at least two mysterious yellow orbs floating in paintings: the one in Vincent Van Gogh’s White House at Night (it’s Venus) and the one in Edvard Munch’s The Girls on the Pier (it’s the moon).

More recently, they tackled two of Ansel Adams’s images of Alaska—Moon and Denali and Denali and Wonder Lake—using topographic maps, astronomical software, and webcam archives to figure out exactly when and where the photos were snapped.

Quite the detective story. More examples in his new book.

Further Adventures of the Celestial Sleuth: using astronomy to solve more mysteries in art, history, and literature
From the author of “Celestial Sleuth” (2014), yet more mysteries in art, history, and literature are solved by calculating phases of the Moon, determining the positions of the planets and stars, and identifying celestial objects in paintings. In addition to helping to crack difficult cases, these studies spark our imagination and provide a better understanding of the skies. Weather archives, vintage maps, tides, historical letters and diaries, military records and the assistance of experts in related fields help with this work.

2001 was 50 years ago already?

It’s hard to believe this film is 50 years old. The Guardian marks the occasion with a piece that describes how the first audiences were baffled and walked out of the premiere, and how the critics of the day rubbished it: “trash masquerading as art”. I wonder what its own initial review was like. The article starts with news about mountains on a tiny moon orbiting Pluto.

Kubrick’s 2001: the film that haunts our dreams of space
As a result Kubrick Mons and Clarke Montes are now two of Charon’s major mountains. It is a fitting honour – and timely. The two men’s great collaborative work, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released 50 years ago this month. By putting its creators’ names on the map of Charon, at the edge of the solar system, astronomers are repaying a debt to two visionaries who reshaped our thinking about the cosmos and created a film rated by some as the greatest ever made.

As well as being a major influence on a range of film-makers, its depiction of futuristic technology caught the eye of astronomers and designers alike.

Equally intrigued were young scientists desperate to witness technology that was credible and imaginative, something that had been entirely absent from feature films until then. “The film set new standards for ‘realistic’ portrayal of life in space, overcoming decades of Flash Gordon space-westerns,” says a former teenage astronomer, Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London. “It also created a new soundtrack for cosmic spectacle – through the use of the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and the music of Ligeti.”

One thing I love about the film is the unflinching slowness in the editing. It’s as is the whole film, and not just HAL, is trying to stare you out. Pinter would be proud of these pauses. This clip shows that beautifully, I think.

HAL 9000: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”

And that voice. Would the film be the same without Douglas Rain? Here he is eight years before.

Universe (1960 film)
After this work, co-director Colin Low worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work on this short may have influenced Kubrick to begin his project. Kubrick chose Universe narrator Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000 computer and also hired Wally Gentleman, who did optical effects for the NFB documentary, to work on 2001.

‘Universe’ – 1960 – science/ astronomy animation

That film starts off with a fascinating artistic impression of the moon. Here’s a slightly more up-to-date representation, care of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Tour of the Moon in 4K