Wednesday Evening Open Thread: Mars, Bitches!

What is it with Repub draft-dodging Preznidents and the Red Planet? Olivia Nuzzi, professional journalistic assassin, targets “President” Ted Baxter for NYMag:

Donald Trump nearly derailed a televised call to the International Space Station after he got distracted, first by a sudden fantasy of going to Mars before the end of his first term in the White House, and then by a trip to the bathroom to check his reflection in the mirror, according to Team of Vipers, a new book by Cliff Sims, who worked as a communications official for Trump on his presidential campaign and in the West Wing.

The April 24, 2017 video call to congratulate the astronaut Peggy Whitson, who that day broke the record to become the American who has spent the longest amount of time in space, was an unusually smooth public event for the president…

Sims detailed the logistics of setting up the call, something that required NASA engineers and diagrams of the Oval Office and a walk-through beforehand. But the most important aspect of the plan, Sims learned, would be the timing. An engineer explained something called “orbital mechanics” to him, how the Space Station would only be reachable during a specific period of about 20 minutes when it was in just the right place. “The President would have to be right on time, a rarity,” Sims wrote…

As Sims explained to the president what was about to happen, “he scanned over his prepared remarks, crossing out some of the text with a Sharpie.” Meanwhile, Sims wrote, “the giant flat-screen TV hanging on the wall was turned to Fox News, on mute.” Trump asked him where the cameras would be positioned and “which side of his head would be most prominently featured.” Sims wrote that he “made sure the press cameras would be positioned on the right side,” which was Trump’s preference.

Then, something happened. Trump “suddenly appeared distracted, distant,” wrote Sims. “I could sense the gears inside of his head starting to turn. I was losing him.” As the clock ticked down, Trump “suddenly turned toward the NASA administrator.” He asked: “What’s our plan for Mars?”

Lightfoot explained to the president — who, again, had recently signed a bill containing a plan for Mars — that NASA planned to send a rover to Mars in 2020 and, by the 2030s, would attempt a manned spaceflight.

“Trump bristled,” according to Sims. He asked, “But is there any way we could do it by the end of my first term?”…

Sunday Morning Open Thread: Take Us Away, ‘Oumuamua

It’s not the space rock, it’s the stories we tell each other about the space rock. As someone who’s been both an avid sf reader and a Cynic for pushing 60 years now, I found Professor Loeb’s whole argument charming:

I don’t care what people say,” asserts Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department and author of one of the most controversial articles in the realm of science last year (and also one of the most popular in the general media). “It doesn’t matter to me,” he continues. “I say what I think, and if the broad public takes an interest in what I say, that’s a welcome result as far as I’m concerned, but an indirect result. Science isn’t like politics: It is not based on popularity polls.”

Prof. Abraham Loeb, 56, was born in Beit Hanan, a moshav in central Israel, and studied physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as part of the Israel Defense Forces’ Talpiot program for recruits who demonstrate outstanding academic ability. Freeman Dyson, the theoretical physicist, and the late astrophysicist John Bahcall admitted Loeb to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, whose past faculty members included Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 2012, Time magazine named Loeb one of the 25 most influential people in the field of space. He has won prizes, written books and published 700 articles in the world’s leading scientific journals. Last October, Loeb and his postdoctoral student Shmuel Bialy, also an Israeli, published an article in the scientific outlet “The Astrophysical Journal Letters,” which seriously raised the possibility that an intelligent species of aliens had sent a spaceship to Earth.

The “spaceship” in question is called Oumuamua. For those who don’t keep up with space news, Oumuamua is the first object in history to pass through the solar system and be identified as definitely originating outside of it. The first interstellar guest came to us from the direction of Vega, the brightest star in the Lyra constellation, which is 26 light-years from us. In the 1997 film “Contact,” it’s the star from which the radio signal is sent to Jodie Foster.

Oumuamua was actually discovered by a Canadian astronomer, Robert Weryk, using the Pan-STARRS telescope at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii. “Oumuamua” is Hawaiian for “first distant messenger” – in a word, “scout.” It was discovered on October 19, 2017, suspiciously close to Earth (relatively speaking, of course: Oumuamua was 33 million kilometers away from us when it was sighted – 85 times farther than the moon is from Earth)…
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Tuesday Morning Open Thread: Merry Xmas, Earthlings

From the Washington Post:

The astronauts had spun around the moon a few times already, their gaze pointed down on the gray, pockmarked lunar surface. But now as they completed another orbit of the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, Frank Borman, the commander of the Apollo 8 mission, rolled the spacecraft, and, soon, there it was.

Earth, this bright, beautiful sphere, alone in the inky vastness of space, a soloist at the edge of the stage suspended in the spotlight.

“Oh, my God,” exclaimed Bill Anders, the lunar module pilot. “Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

Anders knew black and white film wouldn’t do it justice. But he also knew he didn’t have a lot of time if he was going to get the shot.

“Hand me a roll of color quick, will you,” he said.

“Oh, man, that’s great,” said Jim Lovell, the command module pilot and navigator.

“Hurry,” Anders pleaded. “Quick!”

Anders loaded the color film into his Hasselblad camera and started firing away while his anxious crewmates remained transfixed by the blue and white vision outside their windows…

Two days later, the film was processed, and NASA released photo number 68-H-1401 to the public with a news release that said: “This view of the rising earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit insertion burn.”…

“As I looked down at the Earth, which is about the size of your fist at arm’s length, I’m thinking this is not a very big place. Why can’t we get along?” Anders said during a video played during a ceremony at Washington National Cathedral recently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the mission. “To me it was strange that we had worked and had come all the way to the moon to study the moon, and what we really discovered was the Earth.”

Saturday Morning Open Thread: Cold Moon

From the Washington Post:

The year’s final full moon rises Saturday evening. Its nickname, the “Cold Moon,” is apt for the first full moon of winter, and it will be bright in the night sky.

The 13th full moon of 2018, “the cold moon gets its name because December is the month when it really starts to get cold,” according to NASA…

This year’s Cold Moon will also be brighter than normal. This is because the full Cold Moon is coming during perigee. Perigee is when the moon is at or near its closest approach to Earth. When the moon is far off, it is in apogee. Perigee also causes higher-than-usual tides, which are ongoing and anticipated in the days ahead…

One positive note, for us sane not-Republicans:

Nine Rings, Seven, Three, One … None?…also, Far Out, Man…

Time to catch up on some Solar System news!

Saturn is the gateway drug for an addiction to the night sky.

Alas, in a mere 300 million years from now, it maybe less of an astronomy evangelist than it is now, assuming that our lineage has left any descendent species to kvell at the cosmos:

Saturn’s icy rings are among the most iconic features in the solar system. But they’re raining so much water onto the planet…they could rain themselves nearly out of existence, leaving Saturn startlingly ringless.

“What we’re seeing is something on the order of about a ton and a half per second,” said James O’Donoghue of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., who reports the conclusions Monday in the journal Icarus. [links in the original]

This is, to be sure, a first estimate, and it is one made in the face of substantial unknowns:

Assuming a constant rate of ring rain — which Dr. Spilker said is a substantial unknown — the team calculated that Saturn’s rings could mostly shed themselves into oblivion within 300 million years.

“It’s not out of the question,I would say, that the rings might degrade on this kind of time scale,” said Jeff Cuzzi of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who was not involved in the research.

But, he added, “it doesn’t mean that if you come back, there would just be nothing there.” The rate at which the rings might waste away depends not only on how much material is still in the rings, but on other physical forces, Saturn’s shifting seasons and the way in which ring material is replenished.

There is some evidence pointing towards a yet more swift destruction of the rings, but the basic message is that beauty is ephemeral, no matter where you look.

In other news, the outer solar system is growing ever more crowded, and some of those who study it may be showing their age, or at least the timing of the acquisition of their formative vocabulary:

A newly discovered object is the most-distant body ever observed in the solar system — and the first object ever found orbiting at more than 100 times the distance from Earth to the sun…

Formally, this new solar companion has a very prim an proper name:

…Its provisional designation from the International Astronomical Union is 2018 VG18.

The new dwarf planet is distant enough that very little is known about it besides its existence.

“All that we currently know about 2018 VG18 is its extreme distance from the sun, its approximate diameter, and its color,” David Tholen, a researcher at the University of Hawaii and part of the discovery team, said in a statement. “Because 2018 VG18 is so distant, it orbits very slowly, likely taking more than 1,000 years to take one trip around the Sun.”

It’s a blank canvas, in other words, on which its observers allowed memories of perhaps well-misspent youths to play:

The discovery team nicknamed the object “Farout”…

…which is appropriate, given the borderlands location in which it abides:

Farout is 120 astronomical units (AU) from the sun — one AU is the distance between Earth and the sun, which is about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers). The object is more than 3.5 times the current distance between Pluto and the sun (34 AU), and it outpaces the previous farthest-known solar system object, the dwarf planet Eris, which is currently about 96 AU from the sun. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft recently entered interstellar space at about 120 AU, leaving the sun’s “sphere of influence” called the heliopause, where bodies experience the solar wind.

I can think of some American political actors for whom this would make an ideal vacation destination.  As the saying goes…I’ve got a little list.

Anyway, despite the best efforts of our Republican friends and the MAGAt apocaplyse, humankind, and the US government, are capable of some great things, as above. There are days when I cling to that thought.

Open thread, y’all.

Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, Saturn eclipse mosaic2013

Aokokoro Mandelbrot set image number 8, 2009 — going for the feeling, ya know?