Yeah, I’ve Been Away Awhile…

Those WalMart eclipse glasses won't save you.Did I miss anything?

UPDATE: Why yes, yes I did…witness the spectacle of the Great Eclipse of 2017 as seen from outside my office in Columbus, Ohio:

We could barely contain our enthusiasm.

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The Truth is Out There

Pluto awaits. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Inst.

To those of you who’ve waited so patiently for me to finish FARSIDE, thank you. If you’re wondering how long a wait there might be for the next book, don’t worry. I’m on it. In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time and have been anxious for the right time to share it with you. That would be now…

NASA’s New Horizons probe has been in the news a lot, as it’s now finishing its nine-year journey to Pluto. I’ve been fascinated to see what discoveries will come of it as we’ve never had clear photos of our Solar System’s most distant planet (okay, so it’s not technically a planet anymore but it was when the probe was launched).

Having an overactive imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if they found something totally unexpected. As in not natural.

And with that, I give you the prologue to FROZEN ORBIT:

* * *

July 2015

As the decades passed, men would hotly debate whether the chance encounter had been one of divine providence or blind luck. After nine years of sailing across the solar system, faster than any other machine flung by humans from Earth’s gravity well, the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe had finally entered Pluto’s fragile sphere of influence. It was to be fleeting, for despite carrying the hopes and expectations of so many, the event amounted to not much more than a cosmic one-night-stand.

At least that was the cynic’s view. After a whirlwind of begging and pleading, a small yet determined horde of scientists and engineers had prevailed upon the politicians to fund their little mission before it was too late. At almost literally the eleventh hour, they had managed to convince the Budget Committee that Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere—barely detectable from Earth—would collapse onto the tiny planet’s surface within the next decade, frozen into crystals by their host planet’s unstoppable migration away from the Sun.

“How long until it reappears?” one Senator had asked.

“Two hundred years,” a planetary geologist had replied. But since he was a geologist, the Senator had to ask the physicist seated next to him, who in turn had to produce a meteorologist who could verify their assumptions. Despite his protests of not knowing a single thing about extra-planetary atmospherics, the meteorologist agreed that, yes, the thin envelope of gases would indeed turn to ice and fall to Pluto’s surface. And no, it would not reappear for another two centuries. Only after he’d cited sophomore-level physical science to support his reasoning had it finally been enough to satisfy the gathering of political scientists.

And so, New Horizons had been put together largely from off-the-shelf components meant for other (cancelled) missions. It resembled nothing so much as an ambitious grade-schooler’s concept of what a space probe might be: about the size and shape of a grand piano, but covered in gold foil with a massive dish antenna and sporting a radioisotope generator at one end.

After a quick pass by Jupiter to steal the energy from some of that giant planet’s gravity (which it wasn’t going to miss, after all), the little probe went into hibernation until being awakened by its masters back on Earth. That it would be in position to capture such amazing images and data after such a long sleep, so far from home, was a stunning enough technical feat. That it was further able to capture the image that had triggered so many arguments was indescribable.

Some had called it miraculous. Others, carefully adhering to their notions of detached objectivity, simply marveled at the luck and explained it with mathematics. In private, they whispered among themselves that it was indeed stunning, phenomenal, and extraordinary.

That this golden radioactive piano, the first to encounter the solar system’s most distant planet (as it was still called back in 2006), zipping past at nearly forty thousand miles per hour, would be in a position to see what it saw (and that what it saw was in a position to be seen to begin with) was difficult to describe as anything other than, well, miraculous.

If this was a game of cosmic billiards, it was a blindfolded double-reverse bank shot. Once the masters had removed the blindfold, what they saw was beyond anyone’s ability to describe: there was Pluto, its prime moon Charon, and the two minor moons discovered along the way. All of them appeared in full color, high-definition detail, imagery of a depth and quality that the probe’s masters could scarcely have hoped for.

Yet it was those things which they didn’t expect to find that were the most breathtaking, such being the nature of exploration. In this case, it had at first appeared as an unexpected source of gamma radiation in orbit around Pluto. Just a trace, it was nevertheless odd as it would have normally been associated with some kind of high-energy source: a faraway supernova, maybe a black hole. On Earth it could have only emerged from the violent fusion reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.

The strange radiation signature only became noticeable during the final weeks of New Horizon’s approach, and was at first thought to be the result of instruments in dire need of calibration after being asleep for six years. When the probe was two weeks from its closest approach, the radiation trace disappeared.

That made it all the more surprising when it reappeared three days before New Horizons’ closest approach, leaving its masters on Earth with barely enough time to adjust their aim. As the tiny probe swept past its long-awaited target, its cameras were briefly trained on a point in space from where the gamma emissions appeared.

The first image showed only a pinprick of visible light reflected from the distant Sun, but it corresponded to the weak radiation and even weaker thermal signature.

Energetic and warm—not what anyone had expected from a tiny moonlet orbiting a minor planet. Some wondered if it was volcanic like Io, though the lack of Jupiter-sized tidal forces ruled that out. Nonsense, others argued: we’d been convinced that Mars was devoid of water for decades, remember? The atmosphere was simply too thin to keep it from evaporating, until we discovered a naturally-occurring antifreeze below the surface. Just because a phenomenon doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect doesn’t make it impossible.

The next day’s imagery caused more consternation for the masters. That point of light had grown larger as the object followed its own orbit while the little probe flew closer. But this time the light had taken on a more definitive shape: irregular, yet roughly symmetrical. One commented that it looked like a dragonfly.

If the second day had created turmoil, the final day had uniformly shut them up. The dragonfly had resolved itself into something completely unexpected: faded green, with metallic highlights randomly dotting the surface and ungainly ebony protuberances clustered around one end. Startlingly familiar, there could be no mistaking it for a natural object.

To a chorus of groans, one wag in Mission Operations had nailed it: that’s no moon; that’s a space station.

For all of the mystery surrounding this unexpected find, it was perhaps the markings that surprised them most: CCCP, the Cyrillic acronym for the long-extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

 

* * *

Asteroids

The Chelyabinsk Meteor: wakey-wakey!

…Nature’s way of asking, “How’s that space program coming along?”

I reckon the answer to that particular question depends on where you’re looking.

Turns out that last winter’s big explode-y meteor over Russia may have come from a whole pack of big explode-y meteors. Which means we could stand a good chance of running into some of his buddies one day.

If that doesn’t bother you enough, there’s always this handy little graphic of all the potentially civilization-ending rocks lurking out there:

Warning: Falling Rocks

Sleep well.

And hurry up, Mr. Musk.

Neighborhood Watch

Last night I had cobbled together a lot of interesting stuff about today’s cosmic near-miss with asteroid 2012 DA14 (a pretty innocuous – even boring – name for something that had the potential to do so much damage). I know the professional astronomers have to catalog this stuff in ways that make sense to them, but something passing inside the orbits of our own weather satellites that’s big enough to flatten a large city should have a more impressive calling card. Like Zul the Destroyer. Or Hoss.

So yes, there was already a good deal of material ready to go but things just got a lot more interesting overnight: Hundreds Injured in Russian Meteorite Event.

Just passin’ through…

Continue reading “Neighborhood Watch”

Party Crasher

A “Once in a Civilization” comet will be paying us a visit next New Year’s Eve. From Scientific American:

Why is this comet expected to be so unique? Two reasons:

Astronomers predict that the comet will pass just 1.16 million miles from the Sun as it swings around its perihelion, or closest approach. (This may seem like a lot, but remember—the Sun is big. If we were to scale the Sun down to the size of Earth, the comet would pass well within the orbits of dozens of satellites.) The close approach will melt enormous amounts of the comet’s ice, releasing dust and gas and forming what should be a magnificent tail.

After it loops around the Sun and forms this tail, the comet should then pass relatively close to Earth—not near enough to cause any worry, but close enough to put on a great show. Viewers in the Northern Hemisphere will get the best view as the comet blooms in the weeks approaching Christmas 2013. The comet could grow as bright as the full moon.

Comets can be somewhat unpredictable (remember the last appearance of Comet Halley?) but this one looks like it probably won’t disappoint. The “once in a civilization” moniker makes me a little squeamish, though people with a much better understanding of orbital mechanics than I have insist there’s no way this thing will hit us.

But being so big, and so close, passing right over Earth next New Year’s Eve will be quite a show. Brighter than the full moon and maybe even visible in daylight.

If you’d like to make yourself feel a little better about probabilities and all, here’s NASA’s orbit visualizer.

 

The Daily Awesome

Check out this stunning image gallery:

Above: an enhanced view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which was apparently on the Federation’s short list for testing the Genesis Device. Think I’m kidding?

See? Opposite angle. Trust me, I’m an amateur astronomer.

Except for the above, these are from a new book called Planetfall, a collection of meticulously enhanced images from NASA probes. Some are composites from multiple images, others stand alone as testament to the ingenious beauty of the solar system God has blessed us to live in.

As for the book itself, it’s proof that not everything translates well into an e-reader. This deserves the big ol’ coffee-table treatment and a prominent place on my Christmas list.

One more jaw-dropper, and then you’ll just have to go check out the rest for yourself:

Near Misses and Dodged Bullets

Where’s the kaboom?

Interesting goings-on in our night sky recently – check out this amateur video of something big hitting something even bigger: Mysterious Impact Flash on Jupiter.

Now, understand I use the “amateur” term carefully. There’s a huge global network of astronomers out there who do this stuff purely for fun and personal interest. Some of the equipment they have is astounding, and they got mad skillz. Professional astronomers count on these guys for cataloging phenomena that the Big Dogs just can’t devote scope time to: stuff like variable stars, planetary occultations, Martian dust storms, and comets (many of the named comets were discovered by non-professionals).

Apparently that list also includes potential civilization-destroying rogue asteroids.

Yeah, I left the best part for last: from iO9, speculation that perhaps Jupiter took one for the team. There’s been a lot of that lately, come to think of it.

So, are the massive outer planets with their deep gravity wells actually a picket system for the smaller inner planets – namely, the ones that could support life? More specifically, ours?

This is a theory which has been gaining traction over the years. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus (stop giggling), and Neptune patrol the far reaches of our solar system, sucking in or otherwise diverting species-threatening chunks of rock and ice that otherwise might find themselves on orbits that intersect ours at really inconvenient times. Like, you know, when we’re in the same place.

NEO (Near-Earth Object) detection has been getting more and more attention of late, but an observer’s position on our globe makes a big difference: if you’re in North America, most of the southern sky is permanently out of reach. If you’re in Australia, the problem is reversed. And as I understand it, there isn’t a lot of observing capability in the southern hemisphere. If you look at the distribution of population and land mass, it’s not hard to see why. But the rocks are still out there.

NASA has proposed a manned mission to a NEO using the Orion spacecraft it’s developing, and there are plenty of candidate asteroids out there. I’m all for it if they can afford it. Besides going farther than the Moon, to something humans have never encountered, it’s a good idea to understand these things better so as to be able to deflect or destroy them before one of them eventually gets pitched through the strike zone right into home plate.

So could NASA do it? Sure, if they ever get Orion flying. The whole idea is that it would need less delta-V than a lunar mission and it could be done without a specialized lander – so it’s less of an engineering hurdle and more of a logistics problem. LockMart has already studied this extensively, calling it the “Plymouth Rock” mission.

Could private space do it? Well, ya’ll can probably guess how I feel about that. Once a manned Dragon is ready, I’ll bet SpaceX could put a mission together in short order if they really wanted to.

This is why building routine low-cost access to space is important: it enables us get out there and do something about it. Space travel isn’t easy or inherently safe, but there’s no reason the mechanical aspects of it can’t be made reliable and modular. Which of course is exactly what SpaceX, Bigelow, XCor, Masten, et al., are trying to do.

Think about this: what would you need to put together an asteroid mission?

Well, there’s the transportation up and down: Dragon.

How about a crew habitat and life support? Bigelow Sundancers would be a good start.

Propulsion? I don’t know, maybe existing Centaur kick-stages or whatever that Russian booster Space Adventures is using for their lunar orbit tourist flight.

Get the idea? The basic components either exist or are in development with test articles already flown in orbit. But as they say, the devil’s in the details: radiation shielding being the most obvious. Leaving the protection of the Van Allen belts is a real hazard – the Apollo program didn’t really address it, placing their faith in probability. That is, the missions were of short enough duration that the likelihood of being fried by a Coronal Mass Ejection was acceptably low. But they also recognized that if they kept going, it would eventually happen. A two or three month flight to an asteroid raises the odds significantly.

Which brings us back to my point: none of this is without risk. But nothing worth doing ever is. In the meantime, if you want to get a good idea of the sort of widespread mayhem even a relatively small asteroid or comet could produce, check out this handy little Calculator of Mass Destruction.

And be thankful that our solar system has been blessed with these gas giants which are not only nice to look at, but which protect us from all manner of big space junk.

Wow. Just…Wow.

Yet another awe-inspiring time lapse video from the International Space Station. It’s about 1 frame per second, which is apparently close to a real-time view.

So watch, and imagine you’re chillin’ in the observation cupola of the ISS. Which, by the way, looks an awful lot like the windows on a Star Wars TIE fighter:

Or, you can imagine you’re watching this from the flight deck of the Austral Clipper. And by the way, the hard-copy proof of Perigee finally arrived in the mail today. If I can’t find any problems with it, look for it to be on sale this weekend…wOOt!