Tag Archives: Humanity

Celebrating 40 years of Voyager

It’s often easy to become discouraged by the state of human affairs. Or maybe that’s just me? The sad truth is that our various human systems, such as our political and economic systems, are not only failing us but our planet. As constantly evolving, increasingly complex systems of relationships from the families to cities to regions to nations and between nations mediated by technology which is itself increasingly powerful and complex, we seem to slip-slide at a breakneck pace.

We are the only species that, due to it’s technological abilities, destroys habitat at unprecedented scale. How is it that a species which is supposedly so intelligent can cause such destruction to itself and it’s home? How is it that we can be precise in our engineering and yet so sloppy in our human interactions?

Voyager 1 in testing
Voyager 1 in testing

 

It helps to remember that we are primates. Which is to say, we’re just really smart, differently evolved Hominini, a member of the family of great apes. Perhaps from this context, it’s a bit easier to understand our persistent fallibility. As individuals and a collective, we live in fallibility though we are intelligent enough to deeply alter our environment. From fire to coal to oil to the atom; from simple tools to complex tools to earth moving machines to computers to robots exploring our solar system. We humans are constantly in a state of exploration and often destruction. Our evolutionary “success” seems to exist, though, on the finest of edges. With our ever increasing population (7.5 billion at this moment) dependent on a complex food system which is itself based on the availability of fossil fuels and a stable, semi-predictable climate.

The Blue Marble
The Blue Marble

 

We are simultaneously capable of extended, deep reasoning as well as irrationality and superstition. In so many ways we, as individuals and as social systems, seem to reside in perpetual conflict. We often use the scientific method to wondrous and beneficial effect. Other times we use it to great disaster. Sometimes we push forward too fast, not knowing the results that may emerge. The full repercussions of our actions are often not known but even when they are predicted we fail to heed our own warnings.

Voyager
Voyager

 

Our many societies, complex tapestries of history, culture, politics, ecology, science, art and economy, are often at odds with one another as well as with themselves. In so many ways the Voyager spacecraft are the perfect representatives of humanity. They embody our struggle with fallibility and our development of science as a method and a tool in response to that fallibility. We have developed and used these two spacecraft to explore our universe and to convey something of ourselves to it. At our very best we are explorers and communicators and sometimes our many voices are brought together in a shared expression of our common humanity.

The Golden Record
The Golden Record

 

The Golden Records, our attempt to reach out into the unknown, to share something our tiny world, were created to carry our voices and our story as well as the sounds and images of our Earth. From bird song to whale song, Mozart to Blind Willie Johnson, to the sound of a human heart beating. In addition to a wide variety of audio he record included imagery ranging from illustrations of our solar system to DNA to daily life on our planet. Carl Sagan chaired the committee that spent a year selecting and then compiling the content. Included were the words of then U.S. president, Jimmy Carter:

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”

Lifting off with a Titan Launch Vehicle
Lifting off with a Titan Launch Vehicle

 

Of course, the spacecraft are far more than carriers for the Golden Records. In fact, the records were really intended to be the 2nd part of the mission, the purpose of the spacecraft after they no longer have the ability to transmit data back to us. The 1st part of their mission was, of course, the collection of data about our solar system a mission they are still performing even as they have ventured beyond the solar system.

With less computing power than a cell phone, they have, over the course of their mission, deepened our understanding our our solar system immensely. Beginning with Jupiter, and Saturn and then later Uranus and Neptune.

The Great Red Spot
The Great Red Spot

 

The first planetary encounter of the mission was Jupiter which began when Voyager 1 began taking photos in January 1979 with the closest approach on March 5 and final photos being taken of the planet and moons in April 1979. One of the highlights of this part of the mission was the discovery of volcanic activity on the moon of Io. It was the first time active volcanoes had been observed on another body within our solar system. Voyager’s mission at Jupiter was not the first encounter or the last. There have been 9 thus far.

Jupiter
An animated view of Jupiter taken with photos taken every 10 hours.

 

As Voyager was taking it’s photos of Jupiter it was also getting a gravity assist from the planet. Which is to say, it borrowed energy from the planet’s gravitation to change it’s trajectory and give it a boost to the next destination of its journey: Saturn. The Saturn encounter began November 1980 with closest approach on November 12, 1980 when it came within 77,000 miles (124,000 km). There have been a total of 4 spacecraft encounters with Saturn. Three of those were flybys and one, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, an extended mission which has been ongoing since 2004 and which will end in September 2017.

Crescent Saturn
Crescent Saturn

 

After Saturn, Voyager went on to Uranus and Neptune. Thanks to Carl Sagan, Voyager had one last photographic mission. The last photographs taken were a family portrait of our solar system. On February 14, 1990, at a distance of 6 billion kilometers from Earth, Voyager captured a mosaic of 60 photos including 6 planets: Jupiter, Earth, Venus, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It is from this series of images that the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph was taken. In the image the Earth is just a tiny blueish-white speck seen in a brownish band of light on the right side of the image.

Pale Blue Dot
Pale Blue Dot

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

To celebrate the 40 year anniversary PBS has created a fantastic website and documentary, The Farthest: Voyager in Space. It is a truly wonderful documentary and I was moved to tears more than once while watching it. Stream it via their app or the above website. I’ll likely be watching it again. The website is beautifully done with a wealth of imagery, text and live display of the current Voyager mission time and distance from Earth.

Pale Blue Dot


With all of the craziness of the past couple of days (and really, the months since DT took office) it’s good to get some perspective with Carl Sagan.

The original image was taken in 1990 at Sagan’s request. I used the new image taken July 19, 2013 by the Cassini spacecraft in an event called “The Day the Earth Smiled”. Look closely at DOT and you’ll find the Earth at the center. 

Story behind original image taken in 1990 at Penny4Nasa.

Denny

August 11, 2017

The world is all upside down these days. It’s a good time for deep breaths and time under the stars. Last night I spent a good long while looking at Saturn and a few of it’s moons. Then I spent some time looking at the Lagoon Nebula.

Precarious

As is my usual routine I took my dog Cosmo out for our walk to the mailbox yesterday. Along the way I had a thought about the precariousness of our existence on Earth. We live in this sort of illusion as our daily life is wrapped in an assumption of stability. For the most part our human brains encounter the same environment everyday. Most of us wake up in the morning and are active during the day. The light from our sun scatters in our atmosphere, heating and lighting and otherwise presenting a world around us that seems stable. Somedays are cloudy, others sunny, often a mix of the two. As we go about our days we see a mix of human and non-human species, natural and human environments. We eat and breath, work, play, and talk.

But our life on this planet exists on the thinnest of onion skins. The biosphere of our planet, the zone in which all life happens is remarkably thin. While the actual thickness of the biosphere is not easily measured it generally falls within a range of 6.5 miles. At the highest we have birds flying as high as 1.1 mile and at the depth we have fish 5.2 miles below the water. There are examples of higher flying birds and deeper dwelling organisms but they are exceptions to the general. The diameter of the earth is 7,918 miles. The radius is 3,959 miles. Almost all life on our planet lives on the outer 6.5 miles of that.

The image above is to scale for size but not distance in orbits

The image above is to scale for size but not distance in orbits

As an amateur astronomer I've spent a good bit of time viewing and contemplating space and distance. For all of the beauty of the stars in the night sky, space is mostly empty. The space between stars is vast. The space between galaxies even more so. If we just turn our attention to our own solar system and what exists here well, again, it's mostly empty space. Our Sun makes up 99.86% of the matter in our solar system. Our Earth, though it is the densest planet in the solar system, is only the tiniest proportion of the mass of our solar system. It barely registers. On the scale of our solar system our Earth is merely a tiny point separated from the sun and other planets by vast distances. To get a sense of it watch this amazing video by Wylie Overstreet in which three guys drove out to the desert of Nevada with a to-scale model to demonstrate the spacing of our solar system.

Our lived experience, our world, is just a precarious, thin layer on what amounts to a very tiny planet. On a clear, dark night I can lookup and see several thousand stars with my naked eyes. In remote locations such as mine there is little light pollution and the atmosphere disappears. It is in this star-lit darkness that I can begin to experience the Earth as a space ship of sorts. It really is a living space ship. In our orbit around the sun we move through space at 67,000 miles per hour. But remember, our solar system is also moving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at 490,000 miles per hour. Of course we don't see it or feel it directly but it is happening nonetheless.

Life on Earth is precarious. It's stability is not permanent. Our sense of day-to-day continuity is something we're used to and something we assume will continue. I'd suggest that if more people had a better sense of how it all works, had a better sense of just how thin the envelope of safety is, perhaps they might be more inclined to take seriously the warning of science regarding climate change, habitat loss and other aspects of biosphere stability. It's too late to stop much of what we've set in motion but if we don't make real change very soon we will experience the worst case scenarios.

It’s up to us

So, Trump won the 2016 election. Yikes. Many are rightly concerned with what he and the Republican controlled congress will do. So many issues, far too many to cover here. No, this is a post about climate change because that’s one that affects us all and it’s the one that in the near and long term is causing significant damage to the ecosystems of our planet to the degree that our very survival is in question. For far, far too long people have looked to government for solutions. To technology and products for easy or even fun fixes. This must stop.

I think the real question is when will we all become the solution for the planet? I understand that laws can help, that federal funding can help. But each and every day every person on the planet makes choices, mostly going with the flow and the flow is harmful. This is especially true in the U.S. and other affluent nations where consumption of energy and goods have been far higher. It’s easier to go with the flow and so we do. We drive. We turn the thermostat to whatever makes us most comfortable. We buy food shipped in from across the country or world. We freeze our food, we refrigerate it. We buy new phones, tablets, and computers, big screen televisions, and huge houses to fill. New cars, new clothes, and the list goes on.

What. Are. We. Waiting. For? Must we really be told by the government how to behave? Forced? I get that corporations need such enforcement. The vast majority of them behave very badly in regards to the environment. But each of us? We can choose to do better. Every day we can choose to harm less but by and large we choose to harm more because its our way of life. Our way of life is based on consumption, comfort and convenience all of which are based on the burning of fossil fuels. That’s it. There’s no magic involved in fixing this.

DO LESS. CONSUME LESS. BE LESS COMFORTABLE. ACCEPT INCONVENIENCE.

A list of the things we can do everyday regardless of who is president:

Do the bare minimum in climate control of your home. If it’s cold outside be as cold inside as you can be. It was 30° today at sunrise. My tiny home was 50° because my heat was off. I was cozy because I was wearing warm clothes and was covered with blankets, a dog and a cat. I got up put on a jacket and made some coffee and oatmeal. In the summer I do the same. I do the best I can to deal with the heat. Eventually I turn on the AC just as this winter I will use heat. But I make a choice to cover up and to wear layers. I don’t assume it’s my right to crank my heat up to 70 or 75 or any other temperature.

Don’t drive unless you must. I work from home so it’s easy. I go to town once a week or less. I only go if I must and when I do I combine all my errands. If I forget something it waits until the next trip. When I lived in Memphis I walked and used a bike as much as possible. I did use a car when I needed to… and sometimes when it was convenient. But that’s when I made the wrong choice. Everyday our highways are full of cars most of which have only one person in them. That’s the wrong choice.

Take a train, not a plane. This is a big one. We fly the globe with little consideration of the climate change impact. If you’ve flown in the past year can you also say how much carbon your flight produced? Was it even on your radar? For some it may be but I’d guess that for most it never enters the equation. Why not? If we must travel we should travel by train as it is FAR more efficient.

Buy less. Buy used. Share. Make do. This is pretty straight forward. You don’t buy stuff unless you must. When you do buy you buy used if you can. Borrow first. Fix first. If you replace something and it is still useable (computers and gadgets especially) make sure it goes somewhere where it will be reused. Whether you sell it or donate it, be responsible for it because it’s not waste. It’s a resource with lots of energy bound up in it.

Reuse and recycle as much as possible. I stopped buying trash bags a long time ago. I use canvas bags for shopping but occasionally get the plastic bags that I use for trash. I throw away one of those plastic shopping bags filled with trash once every 2–3 weeks. Almost everything is recycled. When I do visit the dumpster it is always full of mostly recyclable materials that others are too lazy to recycle. Most “trash” isn’t trash at all.

Eat less meat, eat local food if possible. Food takes energy to produce and transport. Some takes more energy, beef and other raised livestock especially. This one can get complicated and probably requires it’s own post.

Do less in a general way. People are always on the go. Stop. Take a nap. Read a book. Take a walk. Just stay out of your car.

Last but not least, choose not to have children. This is another biggy that probably could do with it’s own post. Each human requires a lifetime of resources. There are 7+billion of us on the planet. We probably need to reduce that by lowering the birth rate.

This is just a partial list that covers some of the most obvious choices that also happen to have the most impact. I’ve had a thought in the past day that it would be great if we had a social media that combined aspects of FB, Instagram, Twitter etc but which was focused on making such changes. A website that offered an opportunity to commit to the most important, impactful choices that individuals can make. Such a site would include ways to share and document solutions and efforts. We should celebrate the effort and the change. Our social media hashtags should be about how we’re saving the planet. Our selfies should show our gardens and our produce. Our latest home improvement share should demonstrate practical repairs, re-uses and re-purposes. I think our use of social media has, to now, largely been about ego and status. That should change. It should be about supporting one another’s efforts to make the changes we must make if we are to survive.

Many of us were surprised by the election of 2016. Many upset. There’s much fear about the policies that will be enacted. The fears are valid. But much of the work we have to do would have existed regardless of the election. Especially in regards to the environment, much of what can happen, much of what needs to happen, much of what must happen, is in our own hands. We cannot wait for government to force us. We cannot wait for convenient technological fixes. We cannot wait. Me and you. We each make our choices. We must make better choices for ourselves and encourage others in our lives to do the same.

Looking at other galaxies

One of the best things about living under really dark skies and having a decent telescope is viewing other galaxies. While I equally enjoy the many beautiful objects in our own galaxy such as nebulae and globular clusters, the hunt for distant galaxies has a meditative quality for me. Sometimes the finding is a bit of a let down. For example, last night I went looking for NGC 7042, a spiral galaxy. It took some doing but I found it. It’s 250 million light years away. Yeah. It was the faintest little smudge of light barely detectable on a very clear night with a decently sized telescope (12.5 inches). When I find these really faint ones I always laugh at my disappointment. Yes, it is a galaxy filled with billions of stars and yes, I just sighed in disappointment. But, but, it’s 250 million light years away I remind myself. Not only that it is moving away from us at 5,083 kilometers per second or, 1.7% the speed of light. There will come a time in the distant future when that galaxy and others are no longer visible from Earth. The stretched out light will no longer reach us. The Universe is expanding and that expansion is accelerating. Eventually galaxies that are currently visible to us will blink out. Of course, by that time we’ll likely not be here to notice.

The thing about viewing other galaxies is that it helps frame the scale of the Universe. When I look at the star Vega I’m seeing a star that is only 25 light years away. Yes, still a vast distance from our perspective. But it’s in our local neighborhood so to speak. In fact, it’s like a neighbor on our own street. Funny thing, the stars we see when we look up without a telescope are all in our local neighborhood. We’re only seeing about 6,000 of the very closest stars in our galaxy of 200 billion stars. When I look at the Orion Nebula I’m looking at something that is only 1,400 light years away. Sure, that’s a good bit further than Vega but again, remember that our Milky Way galaxy is an average of 100,000 light years in diameter. So, Orion is still very much in our local neighborhood.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy of the Local Group which consists of about 45 other galaxies including our Milky Way.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy of the Local Group which consists of about 45 other galaxies including our Milky Way.

But back to the viewing of galaxies, the easiest to view from the Northern hemisphere of Earth is Andromeda which is “only” 2.5 million light years away. It fills the eyepiece of my telescope and can actually be seen with the naked eye if you’re under dark skies. I have no problem picking it out from the stars of the Milky Way. It’s oval of faint light is actually quite large and fills an area larger than the full moon in our night sky. It’s quite close and in fact, billions of years in the future we will in fact merge with Andromeda. I viewed Andromeda just two nights ago. I also viewed the Bode’s galaxy, M81 and the Cigar Galaxy, M82 which are a pair of galaxies 12 million light years away and are fairly bright and easy to find with a telescope. In 2014 a star went supernova in M82 and we were able to view it from Earth. Quite a show! So the pair is, in the larger scale of things, quite close. A bit further than Andromeda but not nearly as far as the 250 million light years that makes NGC 7042 so faint.

Faint and distant or bright and close, viewing other galaxies is a thrill because it means looking at the starlight of hundreds of billions stars. As those photons stream into my eyes I’ve got a direct connection with the ancient starlight created by billions of suns. It is light that has been stretching through the Cosmos for millions of years and ends its journey in my eye. The experience is one which enhances my perspective and gives life on Earth an added dimension. In seeing such distant worlds I begin to contemplate and understand the scale of the Universe in a way I had not before. It has changed who I am as a human as well as my understanding of what it means to be human.