Monday, January 27th, 2020

People have been taking selfies since the camera was invented. Astronauts are no more immune to the temptation to snap photos of themselves while they’re on the job than the rest of us are. Here’s astronaut Jessica Meir, who is currently orbiting her home planet aboard the International Space Station, as she snapped a photo of herself that should be on the wall of every kid who dreams of becoming an astronaut some day:

Astronaut Jessica Meir

spacewalk selfie | 8:36 am CDT
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Monday, December 16th, 2019

We spent most of our second day in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry, but before that we had to find a place to get some breakfast, which I thought would be relatively easy because there is no shortage of places to eat in Chicago if you’re okay with waiting for an hour or more. We ended up at the counter of the Pittsfield Cafe, not the trendiest of places but even so more popular than the chic tea shop next door. We had to wait in a long line that thankfully moved very quickly, and we were seated in under twenty minutes. The food was hot and delicious and they served mimosas, so quite a successful breakfast after all.

An MTA double-decker commuter train whisked us south to 57th Street where we walked a couple blocks to get to the museum, where My Darling B was looking forward to seeing exhibits of Christmas around the world, mostly dozens of Christmas trees decorated with ornaments they said were most popular in each of the represented countries. B liked the tree representing Japan the best. I was there for the scienc-y stuff, so while she snapped photos of the ornaments, I ducked into the exhibit halls to watch avalanches form and pendulums swing and, while she was resting her feet near the end of our visit, I took a quick side trip to the space center to say hi to Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to leave earth and fly to the moon. The gumdrop-shaped command module sits behind a high wall of plexiglass but I managed to snap a few photos over the top of the wall without dropping my phone. Might have been embarrassing.

Back in Chicago we stopped at the Adams Street Brewery for some cold suds and a pretzel before heading to a comedy show. I unreservedly recommend the Imperial Stout they brew on the premises.

Chicago day two | 10:12 pm CDT
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Sunday, November 12th, 2017

Science Twitter has been all kinds of fascinating these past few days! Just a few things I’ve learned:

There’s a robot spacecraft known as Juno that’s been orbiting Jupiter for a little more than a year. It dives in for an up-close look-see to do it’s sciencey thing, then spins waaayyy far away to get out of Jupiter’s intense radiation and send back data. I’ve been following it’s flight and updates from Jupiter for a while, but this week it sent back mind-numbingly gorgeous photos of the gas giant that make me want to buy a computer monitor eight feet across so I can stare at them up close forever. Also, I’m tickled to learn that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot translates to “der Grossen Roten Fleck” in German.

Bella Boulderstone has spent her whole life studying not only has one of the coolest last names I’ve heard in a while, she’s been tweeting about galactic nuclei on Twitter under the handle @astrotweeps, which a different scientist uses each week to highlight their particular area of specialty. Boulderstone’s specialty is studying active galactic nuclei; those are the black holes at the centers of some galaxies (about ten percent, not a paltry number because there are 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe) that are gobbling up everything around them and spitting it out again as radiation. Our galaxy doesn’t have an AGN; it’s too old so it’s already gobbled up everything it can get its hands on, but in about four billion years, when the galaxy Andromeda crashes into the Milky way, I’m told there’ll probably be some fireworks.

Light will echo just like sound will. Sound will bounce off a far object and come to your ears after you heard the sound the first time. Light has been seen to do the same thing when it bounces off the gas around an exploding star, then come to the observing telescope after it saw the star explode.

Margaret Hamilton, the woman who wrote computer code that got the Apollo mission from the earth to the surface of the moon and back, not only got a Presidential Medal of Freedom for being so awesome, she also has her own Lego character! WANT!

science twitter | 9:39 am CDT
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Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

A fair wind and following seas to you, Dick Gordon, and thank you.
Dick Gordon

Command Module pilot Dick Gordon in his spacecraft (NASA photo)

Fare thee well, Dick Gordon | 10:06 pm CDT
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Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

“So what do you think,” I asked My Darling B the other night, over the dinner table, “is Pluto a planet, or isn’t it?”

I’ve tried many times to engage B on all kinds of different subjects that flip my space geek switch – the vastness of cosmology, the mind-blowing revelations of physics, the just plain cool beans of astronauts and space ships, but they all leave cross-eyed and yawning. She’s just not a nerd for the cosmos.

But ask her about Pluto and, oh man! She’s got an opinion about that!

“Pluto is definitely a planet,” she said with a finality I hadn’t heard since I’d last been lectured to by a nun. “That’s the way I learned it, and that’s the way it’s always going to be, as far as I’m concerned.”

In light of her passion for Pluto, I thought she might be interested in the existence of a tenth planet even farther away and even more massive than Pluto, but her eyes glazed over and she went back to chewing on her dinner. Nope. Pluto’s about as far out into space as she’ll go.

Pluto | 7:37 pm CDT
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Monday, December 1st, 2014

Very cool.

Here’s a gallery of still shots and some background about the places – real places! – in the solar system that you’re looking at in the video.

Wanderers | 5:28 pm CDT
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Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

comet 67P C-GAfter a corkscrew-crazy ten-year trip circling the solar system over and over to catch up with comet 67P C-G, the Rosetta spacecraft has finally entered orbit and sent back some fantastic photographs of the comet before sending a lander to its surface and, ultimately, staying with the comet as it makes its closest approach to the sun.

Humans can do some pretty fantastic shit when they set their minds to it.

Rosetta | 9:41 pm CDT
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Sunday, July 20th, 2014

footprint on the moon

“We have been given eyes to see what the lightyear worlds cannot see of themselves,” Ray Bradbury wrote. “We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?”

footprint | 10:34 am CDT
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Saturday, November 10th, 2012

I’ve been looking at this awesome photo all week:

That’s the Tadpole Galaxy, a spiral galaxy that got one of its arms ripped off by another galaxy that passed a little too close by. Pretty mind-blowing, isn’t it?

But what got me staring at this photo for a whole week was when I realized that practically all the bright lights in the background were also galaxies. Galaxies!

Head asplode!

tadpole | 9:15 pm CDT
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Monday, October 8th, 2012

There’s an IQ test to get into the Hayden Planetarium but they don’t tell you about that when you buy your tickets.

The planetarium itself looks like a huge sphere on stilts inside a glass box that is the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Wow. I would give up a kidney to work in a place called the Rose Center for Earth and Space. I wouldn’t even necessarily have to do anything all that earthy or spacey, I just want to work in a place with a name as cool as that. Even if I were the janitor, I’d have business cards made up with my name followed by ROSE CENTER FOR EARTH AND SPACE because how awesome would that be? But My Darling B isn’t going to move to New York City because she loves her garden and I love that she has a garden so I’m probably never going to clean toilets at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. *sigh* Guess I’ll have to be content with cleaning toilets here at Our Humble O’Bode.

When we got to the Rose Center for Earth and Space (not going to shorten the name; deal with it), we found ourselves on a mezzanine that ran all the way around the bottom third of the planetarium sphere. To get into the planetarium, which is in the top half of the sphere, we had to ride an elevator from the exhibit floor beneath the sphere to a balcony on the floor above us. The only way to get to the elevator appeared to be by way of a corkscrewing ramp that coiled around the base of the sphere, and to get to that, it appeared that we had to enter a small movie theater in the bottom of the sphere where we would have to watch a four-minute video about the big bang. The IQ test is: Can that really be the only way to get to the planetarium? Because if it is, it seems a little convoluted. (Answer at the bottom of this post. Don’t skip ahead to cheat.)

Not that I didn’t want to watch a video about the big bang, but we bought tickets for the twelve-thirty showing of “Journey To The Stars,” the featured show at the planetarium, and we arrived shortly after noon. Our timing was a little tight. Also, the corkscrewing ramp was an exhibit about the big bang that I wanted to see. Seemed a little pointless to watch the video if we wouldn’t have enough time to walk through the exhibit, but we searched for, but couldn’t find, a stairway down to the bottom floor, so we gave up, ducked into the little movie theater, watched the video about the big bang, then rushed down the ramp without looking at any of the exhibits, figuring that we could come back later to look them over.

The planetarium show was all about stars and how they’re the source of practically all the elements in the universe, and the sun is the source of all power for all living things on earth. Great show, outstandingly illustrated, excellently narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, although I have one teensy-tiny little niggle, the smallest of bones to pick with the writing, which missed a huge opportunity, it seemed to me, to explain what’s going on when new elements are formed in stars. It bugs me that shows like this one dumb the science down so far that it sounds as if the formation of elements in stars is almost entirely accidental.

Here’s what I mean: When I asked B later to tell me how fusion took place in the sun and why, she said, “Well, they made it sound like all those atoms just floated around until they bumped into one another.” She’s not far off at all: That’s exactly how they explained it, if you can call that an explanation. Why they bumped into each other in the interior of the sun, instead of doing it somewhere else, was not explained. A simpler and, if I may say so, a better explanation would be that fusion takes place in the sun because a star is a place where there is so much hydrogen piled up in one place that it gets crushed under its own weight. When you crush atoms against one another, they fuse together. It’s as easy to explain as that, and yet most science films make it sound like an atomic dance party where hydrogen atoms gather for no other reason than to bump into each other.

After the show, we stepped out of the planetarium to find ourselves right back on the same mezzanine we started from when we came in. We still hadn’t worked out the secret of how to get to the bottom (hint: there’s a stairwell at the far end of the Rose Center for Earth and Space that we overlooked until we were about to leave) and we wanted to go back and see the big bang exhibit and several others on the floor below the planetarium, but we really didn’t want to watch the introductory film again. My Darling B took the lead on this one: As we entered the movie theater, she lead me toward the back and parked herself in front of the exit door. Then, while the attendant wasn’t looking, she opened the door a crack and slipped through. I followed here and we stood giggling at the top of the ramp like a couple of school kids who’d skipped out of study hall to smoke cigarettes in the parking lot.

Our truancy did not go unnoticed, however. We thought we got away with ducking the movie, but somebody must’ve ratted us out because the attendant popped out the back door while we were looking over the exhibits. “You’ve got to see the show,” he told us, looking genuinely hurt that we didn’t stay.

“Actually, we’ve seen it,” I told him, figuring that honesty would serve us best here. “We came through once before but we didn’t get to see the exhibit, so we’re doing that now.”

“But you’ve got to see the video first,” he said again. So much for honesty.

“Yes, and we’ve done that,” B said. “We came through earlier and watched the show, but we didn’t have time to see the exhibit, so we’re doing that now.”

“But you have to see the show or it won’t make sense.”

“We saw the show,” I said. “Before. We watched it, and then we came back to see the exhibit.”

“Well, okay then,” he said. “Have a nice day.” And he ducked back inside, but he didn’t seem to be convinced that we’d seen the show. Maybe he was just sick and tired of arguing with us. We’re always messing up somebody’s day.

Hayden Planetarium | 6:29 pm CDT
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Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

image of Twitter feed

Catching up on my Twitter feed this morning. Ran across a Tweet from science writer Pamela Gay describing the exploration of the asteroid Vesta by the Dawn probe. “Vesta melted, formed iron core, may have an Ovaltine crust.” Wait, what?

Oh. Olivine, not Ovaltine. Okay, then.

Ovaltine | 6:03 am CDT
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Thursday, August 9th, 2012

It’s another too-tired-to-blog post. Today’s eye candy: Saturn.

image of Saturn

stripes | 8:51 pm CDT
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Monday, August 6th, 2012

Hey, we landed another robot on Mars!

image of curiosity lander on Mars

On the screen in the left background there are a couple of images sent back from the robot just minutes after it touched down. The image on the left is the robot’s shadow on the ground.

Too tired to come up with more than that. Off to bed now. Alarm goes bleep bleep bleep in five hours.

curiosity | 12:53 am CDT
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Monday, July 30th, 2012

This is your “I’m too tired to write drivel, believe it or not” video.

You may not have seen this film in science class, but you know that voice.

voice | 9:00 pm CDT
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Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

The whole world is on fire!

In a time-lapse video shot from the windows of the International Space Station, your home planet burns so brightly it’s hard not to wonder how anything can be alive down there. Cities are ablaze, lightning flares through the cloud tops, and the atmosphere itself swirls with the yellow-green flames of atoms charged by solar flares.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael K├Ânig on Vimeo.

flames | 6:21 am CDT
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Friday, July 22nd, 2011

image of space shuttle Atlantis' re-entryI know our problems down here on earth are so very huge that it seems nobody has the enthusiasm left over to care about what’s going on it orbit or on the moon or even on Mars, but take a gander for just a moment, won’t you, at this awesome freaking photograph. (If you click on it, you’ll get a mind-blowing 1.8 MB enlargement to peruse at length.) It was taken by one of the crew members aboard the International Space Station who was looking out the window when the space shuttle Atlantis streaked by underneath, heading for a landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This is what photographers call a night shot. The face of the earth is in shadow, so the guy with the camera took a very long exposure, maybe ten seconds, maybe thirty or more, to get enough light to fall through his camera lens so he could record this moment.

The length of the exposure is the reason the earth looks a little blurry. The space station is hustling along at about twenty thousand miles per hour, so it moved far enough in ten seconds (or whatever) to make it impossible to get a clear shot of the cloudcover. But the long exposure made it possible to record Atlantis’ re-entry as a long, fiery streak which, now that I think of it, might have been there even if they had taken a shorter exposure. The streak is ionized gas, a visible trail of the enormous amount of energy the shuttle sheds by crashing into the atmosphere. It’s hitting the atmosphere so hard that the gasses that make up the air are not merely set on fire by the friction, their electrons have been excited to the point that they’re emitting visible radiation. This is the kind of fire that alien invaders will use to roast us like ants when they finally arrive to harvest the earth on their journey toward total galactic domination. Gunpowder and bullets are sticks and stones compared to setting the atmosphere on fire at the atomic level.

Air isn’t something you normally think of as a solid object but, at the speed the shuttle is moving, it is. You can see the boundary of the atmosphere in the photograph as a thin, green line that astronauts call “airglow.” The sun (or the moon, not sure) is illuminating it from behind, so you get to see it here as a shell around the planet. * It’s about sixty miles thick, which seems like a lot until you learn that the breathable stuff is a layer barely a mile and a half thick. That’s why airplanes have to power dive and those comical-looking plastic masks drop out of the ceiling if a window blows out. The rest of what is considered atmosphere is just dead weight holding the breathable stuff against the surface of the planet, and – here’s the part that should interest you – it’s slowly diffusing into space. The breathable stuff has to be replenished by the activity of the plants and animals here on the surface, and that’s why rock stars, tree huggers and biologists keep yapping about carbon emissions. The carbon they’re talking about is, basically, aerial shit. We’re shitting into the breathable stuff. Plants and animals are not made to breathe shit.

If I seem to have wandered from the topic, I humbly submit that you are mistaken. If you’ll just look at this photo, you can see why it’s important to explore other worlds, or just to go into orbit where we can look back at our own home planet. Even if you don’t know about the ions and the carbon and gas diffusion, you can see them in action in this photo. It’s photographs like this, and other ways of gathering information, that give us a source of data to work out the puzzle of how the universe works.

Also, it’s cool. Really cool.

*I’ve learned since I posted this drivel that airglow is not just the light of the sun or the moon being diffused through the atmosphere. The air around our planet actually glows.

glow | 7:50 am CDT
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Friday, March 12th, 2010

The Great Bird's photostreamI’ve wasted an indefensibly huge amount of time surfing through these photos of PR photos from the original Star Trek television series, but then I’ve wasted an indefensibly huge amount of time watching every episode of the series at least half a dozen times, too. But don’t judge me. Space geekery is a disease. I’m just a victim. From Bird Of The Galaxy’s Flickr photostream.

geeking out | 3:26 pm CDT
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Saturday, February 27th, 2010

plastic model space shipMy basement workshop filled with the reek of burning plastic as I cut the hatch out of my scale model Apollo command module this afternoon. I want to display it with the hatch open and the model doesn’t come with a removable hatch, dammit. What would be so hard about that?

It’s probably better that they didn’t, after all, because the hatch they molded into the shell of the CM had a window that didn’t look right. Building one from scratch would have been a pain, but since I’ll have to build one anyway to display it opened up, oh well.

So I put a cutting wheel in my Dremel tool, bit the bullet and sawed a rough hole out of the plastic body of the model. Trouble is, a Dremel tool spins so fast (if you haven’t invested in a variable speed control, which I haven’t) the cutting wheel doesn’t cut the plastic so much as it melts it. Hence the stink.

I wasn’t planning to make any big modifications to this model, but I kept going back photos of the CM to look for details I could add to make it look a little better, and this one became my favorite:

Apollo 9In fact, this photo has been a favorite of mine for years. That’s Dave Scott standing in the open hatch of Gumdrop, the Apollo 9 command module. The LM pilot, Rusty Schweickart (“Rusty” is a perfect astronaut’s nickname, isn’t it?), snapped this photo of Scott while Schweickart stood on the “front porch” of Spider, the moon lander. They were the first crew to take an LM into space and fly it around to make sure it worked the way it was supposed to. It did.

I wanted to be an astronaut the minute I saw this photo. I wanted to stand in the open hatch of a space ship as I casually wound the key of the film feed on my Hasselblad camera so I could snap a few photos of my home planet as it rolled beneath me. Fucking wow.

But, since I suck at math so bad that any space ship they strapped me into would spontaneously combust, I’ll be happy enough with my little plastic model. And it’s going to have an open hatch with a little plastic astronaut standing in it, just you wait.

apollo model | 10:13 am CDT
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