Gathering moondust

NASA went to extraordinary lengths to show that what was brought back from the moon that time was safe.

NASA fed some of its precious Apollo 11 lunar samples to cockroaches
“We had to prove that we weren’t going to contaminate not only human beings, but we weren’t going to contaminate fish and birds and animals and plants and you name it,” said Charles Berry, head of medical operations during Apollo, in an oral history. “Any of the Earth’s biosphere, we had to prove we weren’t going to affect it. So we had to develop an amazing program that was carried off really for three flights’ worth. A lot of trouble.”

50 years later, those samples are still studied.

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How NASA has preserved Apollo moon rocks for 50 years
“May I hold it?” I ask Krysher. No dice. I had to ask, even though Zeigler had warned me in an e-mail before I arrived: “We have pretty strict rules about people putting their (gloved) hands in the cabinets to touch samples. Basically, it’s an only-if-you-walked-on-the-moon rule.”

Keeping pristine samples away from curious fingers allowed scientists to make one of the most surprising lunar discoveries of the last 50 years: The moon is wet. Over the last decade, scientists have found hundreds of times more water in lunar samples than researchers in the Apollo era realized existed.

A visit to NASA’s moon rock central
Science News astronomy writer Lisa Grossman went behind the scenes at NASA’s pristine sample lab at Johnson Space Center in Houston this spring and saw moon rocks up close — or as close as non-astronauts can get.

“Liftoff, we have a liftoff!”

It’s the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 today, blasting off on July 16, 1969 to start its three-day trip to the moon.

That landing, though.

Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary: NASA legends remember the nerve-wracking moments
“It was a very large crater,” Armstrong told Ed Bradley and “60 Minutes” in 2005. “Steep slopes on the crater, covered with very large rocks about the size of automobiles. That was not the kind of place I wanted to try to make the first landing.”

Armstrong, flying manually, had to improvise. He had roughly one minute of fuel to find a safe place to land … “The tension was through the roof,” said Charlie Duke, also in Mission Control, who was the man telling Armstrong he was flying on fumes. Duke said the tension was so great at Mission Control there was dead silence. “I’d never heard Mission Control so quiet. So that tension, it was palpable. You could feel it.”

Armstrong finally spotted smooth terrain: “And we finally landed with nobody knows exactly how much fuel. Some estimates have it at 20 seconds’ [worth].”

“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
“Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

An absolutely incredible journey. The risks were staggering. It could have all gone very differently.

50 facts about the Apollo 11 moon landing for its 50th anniversary
5. Richard Nixon had a speech prepared in case the Apollo 11 astronauts never came home.
As with many historic undertakings, President Nixon had to prepare for the possibility that a tragedy might occur during the Apollo 11 mission. So his speechwriter, William Safire, wrote two different speeches: one to celebrate the mission’s victory, another titled “In the Event of Moon Disaster.” It stated:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

Thankfully, the mission was a success, though some thought the soundtrack could be improved.

Brian Eno’s soundtrack for the Apollo 11 moon landing
In the months that followed, the same few seconds of Neil Armstrong’s small steps played on an endless loop on TV as anchors and journalists offered their analysis and patriotic platitudes as a soundtrack. The experts, he later wrote, “[obscured] the grandeur and strangeness of the event with a patina of down-to-earth chatter.”

In 01983, Eno decided to add his own soundtrack to the momentous event.

Brian Eno – An Ending (Ascent) (Remastered 2019)

It’s not the only moon out there, of course.

The Atlas of Moons
Our solar system collectively hosts nearly 200 known moons, some of which are vibrant worlds in their own right. Take a tour of the major moons in our celestial menagerie, including those that are among the most mystifying—or scientifically intriguing—places in our local neighborhood.

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Update 17/07/19

Can’t resist just adding another article here, though I’ve mentioned some of these before.

The greatest photos ever? Why the moon landing shots are artistic masterpieces
The legacy of Earthrise has never stopped growing – and the Earth, as seen by unmanned spacecraft, has never stopped shrinking. When Nasa’s Voyager probe reached the edge of the solar system it turned to take a picture of a tiny Earth alongside its neighbouring planets. The Hubble telescope and its like have shown us a sublime, colourful universe whose light-filled dust clouds are light years across.

Yet the photographs taken by the Apollo 11 astronauts and the handful of humans who followed them remain unique. They are still the only portraits of our species on another world.

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I didn’t realise you could see Buzz Aldrin’s face in that photo.

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And here’s one more, on the exhilaration of the event.

The sublime Romanticism of the moon landing
Virtually alone among contemporary observers in seeing the true significance of the lunar landing was Vladimir Nabokov, who rented a television set for the occasion. Asked by The New York Times for his reaction, the author of Pale Fire wrote of:

…[T]hat gentle little minuet that despite their awkward suits the two men danced with such grace to the tune of lunar gravity was a lovely sight. It was also a moment when a flag means to one more than a flag usually does. I am puzzled and pained by the fact that the English weeklies ignored the absolutely overwhelming excitement of the adventure, the strange sensual exhilaration of palpating those precious pebbles, of seeing our marbled globe in the black sky, of feeling along one’s spine the shiver and wonder of it. After all, Englishmen should understand that thrill, they who have been the greatest, the purest explorers. Why then drag in such irrelevant matters as wasted dollars and power politics?

A new moon?

I can’t help but think this comes under the ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’ heading.

Chinese city to replace street lights with orbiting artificial moon by 2020
Within two years, the city of Chengdu aims to swap out its ground-based street lighting with the soft glow of an artificial moon, casting light across 50 square miles of the urban landscape. […]

Reflective panels on board the machine will pick up and redirect the sun’s rays. The satellite will actually glow multiple times brighter than the moon itself, creating a dusk-like atmosphere on demand. The precise illumination can be varied in different sections of the city as well.

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I’m sure it’s very technically impressive and will put Chengdu on the map, but…

A Chinese company has plans for an artificial moon to replace streetlights
Meanwhile, other groups are trying to make the world dark again. A 2016 study showed that more than 80% of the world, and 99% of people in the US and Europe, live in “light-polluted” areas, where the sky’s natural glow has been altered by artificial light from buildings and street lamps. Entire cities, like Flagstaff, Arizona and Ketchum, Idaho, are actively working to reduce light emissions at night. Both are certified “dark sky communities” by a group called the International Dark Sky Association, which offers dark sky designations to towns, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and other places actively working towards a “more natural night sky.”

I remember first reading about dark sky initiatives when we went to the Kielder Observatory, within the Northumberland Dark Sky Park. This fake moon does seem to be a move in the wrong direction.

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.

Space to think at Kielder

We took a trip to Kielder Observatory recently. What an incredible place.

Kielder Observatory – A magical & unique visitor attraction
Kielder Observatory is one of the most remarkable places to visit in the whole of the UK. A public astronomical observatory which is second to none, under some of the darkest skies in the world where you’ll find “infinite inspiration” and wonders you could never have imagined!

The Kielder Observatory

I had never seen the Milky Way before, but because it was so dark out there we could just about make it out.

Dark-sky status awarded to Northumberland Park area
The International Dark Skies Association (IDA), based in Tucson, Arizona, granted it gold status, which is the highest accolade it can bestow.

Steve Owens, dark skies consultant and chair of the IDA’s development committee, said: “The quality of Northumberland’s night sky, and the huge efforts made by local communities to preserve them, make Northumberland Dark Sky Park a gold tier site, and one of the best places to stargaze in Europe.”

We had booked onto a midnight talk on exoplanets, but before that started we just gazed at the stars — and planets and satellites and perseid meteors. We watched the moon rise and everyone enjoyed taking photos of it through the telescope.

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Not bad for a little cameraphone. Here’s another view, courtesy of NASA and Claude Debussy.

Clair de Lune
Vast lunar landscapes set to the aching, shimmering piano of Claude Debussy’s 1905 composition ‘Clair de Lune’ (French for ‘moonlight’) offer an enchanting melding of science and art through the interplay of light, texture and music. The video, which traces the flow of sunlight over the Moon’s surface, was created by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio using images captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It was first shown at a celebration of NASA’s 60th anniversary along with a live performance of Debussy’s music.

The music fits perfectly; not so sure about that recently released movie trailer, though.

Seeing further, better

It felt right that those first images of and from the moon were so blurred and grainy — it was a quarter of a million miles away, after all. But that wasn’t the full picture.

McMoon: How the earliest images of the moon were so much better than we realised
Fifty years ago, 5 unmanned lunar orbiters circled the moon, taking extremely high resolution photos of the surface. They were trying to find the perfect landing site for the Apollo missions. They would be good enough to blow up to 40 x 54ft images that the astronauts would walk across looking for the great spot. After their use, the images were locked away from the public until after the bulk of the moon landings, as at the time they would have revealed the superior technology of the USA’s spy satellite cameras, which the orbiters cameras were designed from.

If it’s image size you’re after…

365-gigapixel panorama of Mont Blanc becomes the world’s largest photo
Say hello to the new largest photo in the world. An international team led by photographer Filippo Blengini has published a gigantic panoramic photograph of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain. This new record-holding image weighs in at a staggering 365 gigapixels.