Posts Tagged ‘Space’


Voyager I just keeps going!

August 17, 2013

Wow, Voyager I has reached the heliosphere, basically, the edge of the solar system. I remember well the day it was launched in 1977.  This is the first manmade object to reach this far out into space.  It is humanity’s first attempt to shake hands with other sentient beings.

Other spacecraft, Pioneer 10 and 11 for instance, had simple plaques.  Sort of a “Property of Earth” thing, but Voyager I and II have special records aboard that give a road map, greetings in 55 languages, and sounds from Earth, as well as visual instructions on how to play the record.

NASA still receives data from both units.  They will start to exhaust their fuel sometime after 2020.  We will lose contact but both travelers will keep going, hopefully to fulfill their ultimate goal of making contact.

There was a time when we reached for the stars.  Now…


Looking to the Heavens

April 13, 2012

Throughout human history, looking to the heavens has always intrigued and awed us.  For much of that history, the nature of the universe we live is was unknown, much of its nature still is.  To cope, humans placed supernatural qualities upon the night sky.  Still, as we look back to our ancestors, it seems they understood they were connected to it somehow, just as we are today.  As knowledge progressed, so did our understanding of that connection.  Whether we use the sky to navigate, tell a horoscope, look for evidence of God, or study it its vastness to

First Picture from Space

understand how everything came to be, it is certainly one bad-ass place.

Just over sixty-five years ago, the first pictures from space were recorded[i].  They were taken from a German V-2 rocket captured after World War II.  (Click here to watch the newsreel clip)  Not until then, did we really know if space beyond our atmosphere looked like what we thought.  From the beginning of recorded time, to just over sixty-five years ago, we could only guess.  Since then, we have been on sort of a photographic orgy when it comes our consumption of pictures from space.

Still, it was not until the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in April of 1990 (Happy Anniversary Hubble!) that the “awe-factor” went through the roof.  Its ability to take images without the distortion caused by our atmosphere put its images in a class of their own.   They are simply stunning.  HST is in the last phase of its life-cycle.  Currently, Hubble is joined by the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST), launched in 2003 and when HST is no longer operational, SST will still be feeding our need for pictures from the farthest reaches of the universe.  My only hope

Crab Nebula

is we do not allow HST to fall to earth and burn up in the atmosphere.  It needs to be in the Air & Space Museum.

Sometimes when I look at these images, I feel really small.  At the same time, I am comforted knowing I am part of such a vast and wonderful universe.  After all, even a cell in your fingernail gets to be part of you as a whole.  Without it, you would be diminished.  Without us, the universe would be diminished too.

As it is, we get to enjoy the pictures from our orbiting telescopes, even if we do not understand just how things like a planetary nebular really form.  We guess and theorize but, just like before that picture from the V-2, we do not know.  Maybe that is the real draw; space holds the same sort of magic for us today as it did for our ancestors thousands of years ago.  While thy wondered about these dots of lights racing through the sky, we wonder at a nebula sixty-five thousand light-years away.  While we think of their astral mythology as antiquated, perhaps our descendants thousands of years from now will view E=mc2 and the Big Bang Theory the same way.

Star-Forming Region of NGC 3324

[i] Reichhardt, Tony. “” Air and Space Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, National Air & Space Museum, Nov. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.



One Big-Ass Universe

March 19, 2012

Part of the problem in understanding the universe is its immense size.  Numbers measured in divisions like parsecs, light years and astronomical units mean little to nothing to most of us.  To help understand, here are some truly nerdy facts about our universe broken down so the average human can understand them:

  • Light travels 186, 282 miles in one second. That means a ray of light could circle Earth 23.5 times in one second.
  • As Earth orbits the Sun, its distance is between 91 million and 94 million miles.  It takes light from the Sun about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach us.  That same ray of light would circle Earth about 11,689.5 times in the same period.
  • Earth’s average diameter is 7,913 miles.  The sun’s average diameter is 864,300 miles. That is 109 times larger than Earth.
  • One of the brightest stars in the night sky is Rigel, in the constellation Orion.  Its diameter is 65 million miles.  That is 75 times larger than the Sun.

Now remember, light makes 23.5 trips around Earth in one second.  It takes light 5 minutes and 48 seconds to travel around Rigel one time. In fact, Rigel takes up about 70% of the distance between the Earth and Sun. Just image the tan we’d get if we orbited Rigel!

  • Our solar system is pretty big, to us at any rate.  Counting Pluto as its edge ( I know Pluto is not the real edge but all that gets “nerdier” than I wish to go ) That same ray of light that circled Earth 23.4 times in a second takes about 5.5 hours to reach Pluto.  Look at it this way; it is almost 3 billion miles from the Sun to Pluto.  That means you would need to circle Earth over 379,122 times to cover the same distance.

We have only reached the edge of solar system, using Pluto of course, and the numbers based on a unit we know and understand, like a mile, is useless.  After all, when was the last time you took a 375 million mile trip?  This is why astrophysics comes up with measurements like parsecs.  It helps define the great distances of space in numbers easier to digest.  Here is what some of the common units really mean:

  • Astronomical Unit: au for short. To avoid the lengthy and uber-nerdy definition of au, think of it as the distance between the Earth and Sun.  Or about 92 million miles.  In early astronomy, it sort of made sense as a handy break point.
  • Light-year: ly for short. It is simply the distance light travels in 365.25 days. It is a big number, remembering light circles Earth 23.5 times a second and a year has 31,556,926 seconds; light makes 741,587,761 trips around the Earth in a year.  Another way to see it; a light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles or 1,966 times longer than from Pluto to the Sun.  Having said all that, and just to show how far above mere mortals astrophysicists are, light-years is a term they use for us laymen.  Astrophysicist like to use the next measurement unit – parsec.
  • Parsec: pc for short.  Unlike au and ly, a parsec is based on pure mathematical theory.  Au uses an average distance and is sort of arbitrary; ly uses a distance measurement based on time.  Parsec measures distance based on good ol’ geometry.  A parsec is the distance from the Sun to an object in space which has a parallax angle of one arcsecond.  The name comes from the parallax of one second.   I know, I know, you did not sign up for a math class.  For us it simply means it is about 3.2 ly or 19 trillion miles. Do I really need to figure out how many orbits around the Earth that would be? Ok, it’s just over 2.4 billion trips about Earth.

There are other even larger, units of measure for space.   Trying to convert them down to size is pointless as the reference number itself become a laughably large.  We are talking billions of stars spread over trillions of miles.  The universe is one really big place.

When we think about the universe, we must account for its size.  Just in our solar system alone there are immense size differences to deal with.  If we think of the size of Earth as a peppercorn, Jupiter would be a golf ball and the Sun a volleyball.  At the same scale, Earth would be about 25 paces from the sun and Jupiter about another 110 paces.  I guess Walt Disney was right; it is a small world after all.  Maybe it’s just one big-ass universe.

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