The images we’ve seen have challenged all sense of scale.

Vast canyons of cloud churn within weird, geometric-perfect storms that could easily swallow a handful of Earths. Stratified bands of spinning rings serve as racetracks for roguish moons with haunting names like Pandora and Prometheus. A primordial Titan sits enthroned under robes of smog wherein percolates a strangely frigid chemistry. And a kingdom of ice stands fast above broken chasms where waterfalls rise to the stars on gossamer wings.

This is the Saturn system as witnessed by the Cassini spacecraft. The sonde has been in space for two decades and has orbited Saturn since July of 2004. It released a probe shortly after its arrival and the first landing on a moon other than our own was successful. The Huygens mission on Titan was brief but spectacular. Yet it seems but a temporary sideshow compared to the long and dedicated yeoman’s work performed by Cassini. The spacecraft has sent back volumes of data. The photos are of course amazing but so many other instruments, singing like a chorus via Cassini’s telemetry stream, have added new knowledge about the Saturn system. A graph of data can be just as revolutionary as a photograph, albeit somewhat more demure. And those graphs and photos and data-points will be a treasure trove not just for current researchers, but for those up and coming.

One photo showed a barely noticeable dot of an Earth peeking across space at Saturn. This was both thrilling and humbling. We have the ability to send such a marvel as Cassini to this other world. Yet the gulf it crossed is so vast that our Earth and everyone in it is just a few tiny pixels. We’re 1.2 billion kilometers from Saturn. That photo, sent via radio, took almost ninety minutes to reach us.

Cassini will plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere tomorrow. The scientists are doing this as the old space-probe is running out of the fuel that helps to control it. To avoid possibly contaminating any of Saturn’s moons it is being destroyed in a controlled fall. Like a faithful, dedicated friend it will keep its antenna pointing toward Earth for as long as possible. Its goodbye will be the final bits and bytes of whatever data it can gather. Then it will heat up and just for a second or so burn as intensely as the Sun. Its broken components will not withstand the incredible pressures that exist far below the planet’s towering cloud decks. After that last radio burst it will quickly be no more.

I suspect Cassini will be the first of many visitors, robotic and otherwise, to this enticing world. Another name for Saturn is Chronos. When I hear the word chronos I think of time. When I was young Cassini was a dream mission. Now it has come and gone. Perhaps in the fullness of time other explorers will venture forth. Surely they will glimpse wonder.

Worlds without end.



It’s Moonbase Alpha Day!

It’s Moonbase Alpha Day!

Remember September 13th 1999 when the Earth’s Moon was blown out of orbit? I do! Experts continue to debate whether storing all that atomic waste on the Moon was a good idea but for the rest of us all we ever hope is that the brave crew of Moonbase Alpha finds their way to a safe harbor.

Space: 1999! They only got two seasons. They faced multiple threats and dangers out in space including fickle producers and lousy writing…most of which made no sense in terms of plot or continuity… but they had the most amazing sets, effects, costumes, and guest stars including Christopher Lee and Brian Blessed. I always liked the pluck the actors showed getting through each episode even under the silliest of circumstances. The hair, bell-bottom uniforms and occasional fits of acoustic guitar playing shouted the 1970s. But there was a vision there, including a multi-ethnic, international crew who maintained a certain moral code and applied scientific principles (okay, sometimes pseudo-scientific principles laid out in eloquent techno-babble) to save the day.

When the show came to the States it was in some form of syndication. Local stations often shuffled the deck in terms of episodes so occasionally a plot line or character action made no sense in terms of continuity. Nerds would gather in secret warrens to put the episodes together and try to make sense of it. Still, it was enjoyable and something to look forward to.

The special effects for the time were quite amazing and the Eagle Transporter, in my opinion, remains one of the coolest sci-fi vehicles ever. We all envied Alan Carter his job as chief pilot. If we ever return to the Moon I hope we go there in an Eagle. The music was pure 70s but the intro theme always got your attention. If you were doing the dishes in the kitchen you would hurry up with the drying to catch the show in time.

Several of the episodes stand out. Like all TV shows there is some wheat amid the chaff. A few episodes talk about ecology, the environment, ethical use of technology and medicine, and humanity’s place in the bigger picture. But sometimes the sexism is outrageous (why are women astronauts occasionally called “girls” and is the base solarium there just for people to lay about in bikinis and speedos?) And when any television show ventures into psychology it gets quickly outdated and you find yourself cringing as if the actors are playing with fire.

Yet I give co-producer Sylvia Anderson credit in having cast Barbara Bain as the chief medical officer of the base. Also, in later episodes Zienia Merton as Sandra Benes is shown to be an expert in computers and electronics, often saving the day. There is one episode called “Black Sun”…my favorite…where the Moon travels through a singularity. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and Prof. Bergman (Barry Morse) even meet God in this episode and to their surprise She is female. Radical stuff for 1976!

The Alphans had the coolest ride, ever!

So September 13th comes and goes and I may watch an episode or two. It’s always fun and a good memory. Happy Moonbase Alpha Day, everyone!



…and then the future makes us look up.

…and then the future makes us look up.

An interesting weekend transfixed by The Weather Channel, calling friends and family to see if all is well, and watching, watching, watching via some of the most incredible technology available as a primordial force of Nature crawled at a nightmare-slow pace across sea and land. The hurricane was a second act to a similar one that struck Texas just a handful of days earlier. It morphed and changed as quickly as errant memory but always it ruled not just air and airwaves but thoughts and feelings. Was this the herald of a new era or merely a casual denizen of a time that had already arrived while so many of us were asleep?

In the future, both near and far, our children’s children will not recall the Debate That Never Was. Their’s will be an altered world but one they will call home and one they will find is quite worth fighting for. I don’t know what those battles will be but they will extend beyond grappling with new infrastructure, troubled growing seasons, and shifting priorities. There will be families to care for and jobs to be done. The names of those who dragged their heels and tempted fate…who made it a sport to scoff at the men and women of our time who warned of this…who made money in wagers against our children’s futures…those names will be lost like dust before the wind.

There was a launch from a far-off place called Kazakhstan today. Three guys named Mark and Joe and Alexander voyaged off the planet. Their nationalities don’t matter. Yet physics and energy and vision and courage were combined in the form of a human-made wonder called a rocket. This flight will be a minor footnote in the annals of history, surely. But when you see these launches you feel the future tickling your spine. We can do great things when we all work together. In the end our children’s children will help the world turn into something better.

Worlds without end.

Remembering Seattle Mornings

Remembering Seattle Mornings

Smudged dawn behind rain clouds.


A raven worrying an unseen object on the lawn.

Slant and Desolation Angels displaced on my bookshelf as if they were half the night fighting one another for space.

Making toast but remembering those Sunday breakfasts when she took me over to Mae’s.

Bike tires hissing along damp pavement.

That dream where I’m writing with a laptop on a Washington State ferry.

Watching X-Files with my Scully on the old B&W we rescued from the guts of a Bellevue dumpster.

Green Lake.

The smell of coffee.

Some old person down the hall at work this morning playing the Singles soundtrack for no apparent reason.

Nostalgia for the 90’s, unbidden.

But really, I do know better.

My Seattle boy of coffee and computers.

My Rochester girl of lilacs and Asian dreams.

Walking the spine of a mountain with ocean on one side and mountains crowding the other.

Sitting with my backbone against a rock ledge at 9,500 feet, shivering, and then…

…the sun, swaddled by Pacific-laden rain clouds, finally peeks out at the world with all the radiance of a newborn babe.

Here in the bosom of my beautiful, beloved, and welcoming university I sip from the cup of the global Starbucks diaspora.

Okay, then.

Something on this dampest of July mornings tells me it’s time for that road trip.

Yeah, Frodo, the mountains are calling.

Night Stroll

Night Stroll

Last night was a Ray Bradbury kind of walk: sun setting purple and red amid gray clouds scattered like lost ships before a storm, deer walking their hooved shadows across silent roadways, tall corn whispering summer secrets to those who scamper furry and four-legged among knobbled roots, old wood frame houses with sepia light in the windows and someone running an honest-to-God player piano. I could almost hear the clink of ice in the tall glasses of lemonade. The fireworks were long over and the gunpowder smells had faded like a lost memory. Only the soft scent of grass clippings and pine trees herald this night. Summer is here and many an opportunity for a long evening stroll. And still not too late to pick up “Dandelion Wine.”


photo title: “Officer Painter Patrols Main Street., Stanley, Virginia. 1956” by Winston Link

International Asteroid Day

International Asteroid Day

I first learned of the potential threat of asteroids when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. As with all of Sir Arthur’s novels it is a book full of hope, speculation, wonder, and hard science. We travel with the crew of the exploration vessel Endeavour as it encounters a massive space vehicle from parts unknown that is just passing through our solar system. It’s a fabulous book and I pick it up from time to time and re-read it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable yarn.

The book begins on a bit of a grim note, however. It briefly mentions the Tunguska event of 30 June 1908 when a meteor or comet slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded with several megatons of energy high above the Siberian taiga. The airburst flattened millions of trees and devastated almost 2100 square kilometers of an unpopulated region.

Clarke goes on and describes a fictional event in the year 2077, when a large asteroid enters the atmosphere somewhere high above the Mediterranean Sea. Crossing the sky, it leaves a trail of devastation across southern Europe and northern Africa before it impacts northern Italy. I read this book in high school and the scenario left a deep impression on me. When the Chelyabinsk meteor and its shockwave struck in February of 2013 Clarke’s book immediately came to mind.

Clarke suggested that one of the remedies to avoid potential disaster was to use powerful arrays of optical telescopes and radars to catalog the many asteroids that cross Earth’s path. In the novel he called this observational campaign Project Spaceguard. It is one such telescope array that discovers the object Rama and drives the plot forward.

The Earth has been struck by asteroids many times. Evidence of this can be seen in places like Meteor Crater, Arizona. Earlier impacts include the devastating Chicxulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Perhaps lesser known is the Eltanin impact that struck the Pacific Ocean 2.5 million years ago. The Eltanin asteroid was 4 kilometers in diameter and left a crater 35 kilometers across on the ocean floor. It led to large tsunamis and was perhaps the trigger for an ice age. If an Eltanin happened tomorrow it would be a global catastrophe.

Since Clarke’s novel a number of efforts have been made to actively catalog near-Earth objects (NEOs). In a nod to Sir Arthur these efforts are collectively referred to as Project Spaceguard. Many scientists, amateur astronomers, and even governmental agencies around the world have become involved. This includes many notable writers, cosmonauts, astronauts, artists, and celebrities. Detection of a threatening asteroid would give us some lead time to prepare either for a disaster or, better yet, to put the energies and technologies of humanity forward to deflect a NEO. An asteroid strike is the only type of natural disaster that could potentially be prevented.

International Asteroid Day is an attempt to raise awareness of the hazard of NEOs. It also seeks to explore possible mitigation methods which could literally save the planet. Many activities related to the International Asteroid Day and Project Spaceguard are led by the B612 Foundation. One of the founders of the B612 Foundation is Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart. He and Brian May…who is both a celebrated guitarist for Queen as well as a PhD astrophysicist…helped establish Asteroid Day. According to the B612 Foundation’s website there is a working group in place that has three primary goals:

1. Employ available technology to detect and track Near-Earth Asteroids that threaten human populations via governments and private and philanthropic organisations.

2. A rapid hundred-fold acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.

3. Global adoption of Asteroid Day, heightening awareness of the asteroid hazard and our efforts to prevent impacts, on June 30 – with United Nations recognition.

Activity on these three tasks has been robust and the third action item has been achieved. There are many ongoing events and activities around the world today. There are also links and interesting interviews and videos at Asteroid Day.


It should be noted that in recent years various exploration craft have visited both asteroids and comets. This small armada includes the Deep Impact mission, the Rosetta orbiter and Philae lander, NEAR-Shoemaker, and the Dawn spacecraft that is currently orbiting Ceres. In addition, the OSIRIS-REX craft is on its way to asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft’s acronym stands for: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. That’s a mouthful!

The “Security” part of that title is based on the fact that this mission will extensively study the asteroid to learn about its composition and interaction with its surroundings, including the Yarkovsky Effect. Bennu was chosen in part due to the fact that it has a 1-in-1800 chance of impacting the Earth when it passes nearby in the year 2170.

In flight to a distant worldlet and on the hunt, OSIRIS-REX has used its camera systems to search for NEOs. It should arrive at Bennu in August of 2018. A sample probe will be returned to Earth by September of 2023. The samples could shed light on the composition of asteroids. It may also give us some idea as how to thwart an asteroid should we ever detect one on a path to hit us.

According to NASA’s JPL website other scientific objectives of the mission include:

  1. Return and analyze a sample of pristine carbonaceous regolith in an amount sufficient to study the nature, history, and distribution of its constituent minerals and organic material.
  2. Map the global properties, chemistry, and mineralogy of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to characterize its geologic and dynamic history and provide context for the returned samples.
  3. Document the texture, morphology, geochemistry, and spectral properties of the regolith at the sampling site in situ at scales down to millimeters.
  4. Measure the Yarkovsky Effect on a potentially hazardous asteroid and constrain the asteroid properties that contribute to this effect.
  5. Characterize the integrated global properties of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to allow for direct comparison with ground-based telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.

The Yarkovsky Effect is of interest and definitely falls under the “Security” part of the OSIRIS-REX mission. First described in 1900 by Ivan Yarkovsky, the theory relates the thermal effects of sunlight falling on a rotating body in space to tiny forces that are generated on the object’s center of mass. Over time these tiny forces could nudge even a large asteroid into a different orbit. Scientists have studied the idea that by changing the areal coverage or location of sunlight on the surface of an asteroid its course could be adjusted. Given enough of a warning a spacecraft could be sent out to intercept the asteroid. A crew or robots (or both) could paint absorptive material onto an asteroid or deploy reflectors that might increase the level of solar radiation that strikes its surface. These alterations could change the asteroid’s orbit just enough for it to miss Earth.

This is not science fiction. The Deep Impact mission voyaged to the comet Tempel-1 and arrived in 2005. It launched an impactor into the comet. The impactor was a semi-autonomous vehicle that could maneuver and return telemetry and images to Earth. On July 4th 2005 it hit Tempel-1 at a high rate of speed and released the energy equivalent of 5 tons of dynamite. Careful study showed that the comet’s course was altered slightly, with a 10 centimeter adjustment to its perihelion, or closest point of its orbit to the Sun. Follow-on studies by NASA and other organizations have indicated that an impactor strike of this type is perhaps the most mature technology currently available to successfully deflect an inbound asteroid.

So we live in an amazing age. Rather than fearing this hazard, people around the globe are staring it in the face, pooling resources, and coming up with competent strategies. We even have an International Asteroid Day. I think Sir Arthur would approve.

Comet Tempel-1 at the moment of collision with the Deep Impact spacecraft’s impactor probe. Although Tempel-1 is not an asteroid, it definitely experienced a (very tiny) orbital deflection!

The Zoo

The Zoo

The Sun passes through 12 constellations in its annual journey across the sky. These constellations are known to astronomers as the 12 signs of the zodiac. Libra is the only non-living entity represented by the twelve asterisms. By my count there are 7 animals (Leo, Cancer, Taurus, Aries, Pisces. Capricorn, and Scorpius) and 4 humans (Virgo, Gemini the Twins, Aquarius) among the famous constellations of the zodiac. Sagittarius is a centaur so I suppose that makes it 1/2 animal and 1/2 human. Given the wealth of animals among these constellation names it makes sense that zodiac has the same root as zoo.

As far back as 5000 years ago twelve was used to represent the number of months in a year, each dominated by one of the constellations. The sun follows a line called the ecliptic and in fact there is a 13th constellation in the zodiac. This one is called Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder. It is a very large constellation but a small portion of it drops down to the Sun’s path on the ecliptic. Indeed, the Serpent Holder places one foot between Scorpius and Sagittarius.

Another “intruder” in the ecliptic is the Moon. It will always be found within 5 degrees of the ecliptic. Generally speaking it follows the same path as the Sun across the sky. Both Sun and Moon appear to take up 1/2 a degree of arc in the sky when viewed from Earth. Use your thumb and you can block out both a full Moon and the Sun. This cosmic coincidence is what leads to some of the beautiful eclipses we experience on Earth: a 1/2 degree wide Moon just perfectly blocks out a 1/2 degree wide Sun. This summer North America will be treated to a solar eclipse. It will occur on August 21st. More about that later!