Tag Archives: NASA

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.

Jupiter in an amazing fly-by video


Wired has a great post about the project.

Jupiter is immense. The fifth planet from the sun has a diameter of 89,000 miles, and could easily envelop every other planet (and Pluto). The gas giant also has 2.5 times the mass of all those planets combined. Even its enormous storms boggle the mind: the Great Red Spot is big enough to contain the Earth.

Photos provide glimpses of Jupiter’s grandeur, but you can’t appreciate its stunning scale without some perspective. Gerald Eichstaedt and Seán Doran provide some with a stunning flyby video made from dozens of still photographs taken by the Juno probe.

Barack Obama: America will take the giant leap to Mars

One of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather's shoulders, waving a flag as our astronauts returned to Hawaii. This was years before we'd set foot on the moon. Decades before we'd land a rover on Mars. A generation before photos from the International Space Station would show up in our social media feeds

I'm not a huge fan of Barack Obama (Democrats, Republicans or the two party system in general). Nor am I a fan of CNN. But I came across Obama's essay on Mars, space exploration and STEM and well, I just can't help myself.

Someday, I hope to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders. We'll still look to the stars in wonder, as humans have since the beginning of time. But instead of eagerly awaiting the return of our intrepid explorers, we'll know that because of the choices we make now, they've gone to space not just to visit, but to stay — and in doing so, to make our lives better here on Earth.

Well said.

Apple and NASA collaborate on short film to celebrate Juno Mission: ‘Visions of Harmony’

As an avid amateur astronomer, NASA supporter and all around science nerd I was pretty happy to read today that Apple has partnered with NASA to produce a nine minute short film to celebrate the Juno spacecraft entering Jupiter’s orbit. The film is available on iTunes and Apple Music for free and is called “Visions of Harmony.” On a personal note, as is often true for many amateur astronomers, Jupiter was one of the first things I looked at with my own telescope when I was a 9th grader working on a science fair project. The view through that little telescope was breathtaking though strangely, it didn’t quite seem real and it was a moment I’ve never forgotten.

From the NASA website:

NASA announced a collaboration with Apple that will serve to enhance the agency’s efforts to inform and excite the public about dramatic missions of exploration like Juno. “Destination: Juno” is a synergy between two seemingly disparate worlds: popular music and interplanetary exploration. The works resulting from this collaboration showcase exploratory sounds from artists who have been inspired by Juno and other NASA missions, including Brad Paisley, Corinne Bailey Rae, GZA, Jim James featuring Lydia Tyrell, QUIÑ, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Weezer and Zoé.

Apple has captured moments in this journey with a behind-the-scenes documentary spearheaded by the Juno mission’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton, and scored by Academy Award winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The content is available on various Apple platforms. Other Juno-related content, including educational opportunities with Bill Nye on and an “Interactive Guide to NASA’s Juno Mission,” will roll out over the course of a year and throughout the length of the Juno mission.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

One thing I can say from personal experience as an amateur astronomer is that music does indeed go very well with our exploration of the Cosmos. When I go out to spend an evening at the telescope observing distant galaxies or planets in our solar system I always have a bluetooth speaker with which to play my “Stargazing” playlist. While the quiet sounds of nature are always a nice soundtrack it’s usually when I have music playing that I’m most likely to have those moments which seem most otherworldly. There’s nothing quite like looking through a telescope at Jupiter or something more distant such as galaxy that has been sending its combined starlight out into the universe for 12 million years. That’s the kind of visual experience that is wonderfully enhanced by music.

To go along with the short film, Apple has created a new featured section on Apple Music called “Destination: Jupiter” that highlights the short film as well as the music that appears in it. I’ve not yet listened but it includes tracks by Trent Reznor, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Quin. The film not only includes live music by the above artists but also an interview with Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton.

NASA missions into the solar system are always exciting. Years of planning followed by years in space and then months to years of data collection. Juno, launched in August 2011, will have been traveling just shy of five years when it enters  a polar orbit on July 4.

The spacecraft is to be placed in a polar orbit to study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Juno will also search for clues about how the planet formed, including whether it has a rocky core, the amount of water present within the deep atmosphere, mass distribution, and its deep winds, which can reach speeds of 618 kilometers per hour (384 mph).

According to Apple the goal of its partnership with NASA is to educate and inspire people, while also highlighting the link between exploring space and making music. From USA Today: “The goal is to make science and technology more accessible and relatable to everyone.” – Apple vice-president Robert Kondrk.

For those that might ask, what’s the connection between space exploration and creative expression? I would answer that there’s nothing we might do that requires the imagination and creativity like space exploration does. Science, in a general way, is often rooted in a creative process. Much of what Einstein accomplished had it’s origins in creative thought experiments in which he imagined different scenarios so that he might work through. And he isn’t the only one to have used such thought experiments! Spend some time browsing around the fantastic NASA website, have a look at the many ongoing missions and past missions and consider the beautiful dance of science and creativity that goes into the designing of our space telescopes, rovers, and orbiters. NASA often exhibits the best of humanity. Okay, now I’m gushing. This is what happens when I’m allowed at the keyboard unsupervised while on the topic of NASA.

Also, in case you missed it, one last bit of NASA news. Earlier this month, NASA released an application for iOS and the fourth-gen Apple TV. The app includes live streaming NASA TV, a real-time view of the Earth from the International Space Station, as well as on-demand access to over 10,000 NASA videos and more than 15,000 photos, either individually or as a slideshow. It’s a fantastic tool for exploring our solar system from the comfort of your couch. From your Apple TV search for NASA in the App Store. Or, from your iOS device get it from the iTunes App Store.

To view the new Apple Music/NASA short film, head to Apple Music.

Originally published at beardyguycreative.com on July 1, 2016.