Blog Archives

Seeds in the Cosmic Wind: Carl Sagan on Space Exploration

Got the Monday back-to-work blues? Upset by bad news headlines? Concerned about a potential future President Trump? Take a couple of minutes and watch this.

This video, published by The Royal Institution on YouTube in Dec. 2015 and shared again on Twitter today, features an adorable animation about spaceflight with narration taken from a lecture given by Carl Sagan in 1977.

At that time it had been five years since humans had last walked on the Moon, the first Space Shuttle flight was still three and a half years away and the Voyagers had only just passed the orbit of Mars. But Sagan’s confidence and enthusiasm about the future of space exploration and human spaceflight is as inspirational now as it was then…let us continue to remember his words and pass along his message to each new generation that looks up and wonders “what’s out there” and, more importantly, “can I go?”

“Artifacts from Earth are spinning out into the cosmos. I believe the time will come when most human cultures will be engaged in an activity you might describe as a dandelion going to seed.”
— Carl Sagan, 1977

The Moon’s Dark Seas Are Scars From Ancient Strikes—Even Bigger Than We Thought

Mare Imbrium, one of the large dark basalt "seas" on the Moon's near side. (Photo: J. Major)

Mare Imbrium—the “Sea of Rains”—one of the large dark basalt lava flows on the Moon’s near side. (Photo: J. Major)

When you look up at a full or full-ish Moon you can’t help but notice the large dark spots that mark its Earth-facing side. These form the face of what many call the “Man in the Moon” (or the body of a Moon rabbit, to others) and are individually called mare (“MAR-ay”) which is the Latin word for sea. Early astronomers thought they were bodies of water, but in reality they are solidified dark lava flows from ancient lunar impact events that occurred several billion years ago.

One of the biggest lunar seas, Mare Imbrium (see above), had for a while been thought to have been created by the impact of an asteroid or meteorite somewhere around 50 miles across, based solely on computer models.

Now, research conducted by Brown University professor Dr. Peter Schultz—a specialist in lunar and planetary impacts—indicates that the object that formed Mare Imbrium was likely more massive and of much larger size than once thought…perhaps even as big as 190 miles wide.

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Juno Just Hours from Jupiter Arrival

Juno will reach Jupiter in 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL

Juno is on its way to enter orbit at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL

After nearly 5 years of traveling through space NASA’s Juno spacecraft is just a few dozen hours away from entering orbit around Jupiter, the Solar System’s largest, most massive, and most extreme planet.

“We are ready,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “The science team is incredibly excited to be arriving at Jupiter. The engineers and mission controllers are performing at an Olympic level getting Juno successfully into orbit. As Juno barrels down on Jupiter, the scientists are busy looking at the amazing approach science the spacecraft has already returned to Earth. Jupiter is spectacular from afar and will be absolutely breathtaking from close up.”

Learn more about the mission and find out how to watch the long-awaited event live below:

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We Still Don’t Know What Exploded Over Tunguska in 1908

This is an article, now updated, that I originally posted in 2009 during my first year of blogging. Since then more research has been done on the famous 1908 Tunguska Event and we even had a remarkably similar type of thing occur in February 2013 over the Chelyabinsk area, not too far from Tunguska, but even today, the 108th anniversary of the event, scientists aren’t in agreement over what it was that violently exploded over the boggy forests of Siberia—asteroid or comet.


Flattened trees in Siberia from a 1908 atmospheric explosion

Long the subject of debate, with various theories ranging from meteorite impact to a comet to a flying saucer’s sudden engine meltdown, there’s actually strong evidence that the 1908 “Tunguska Event” was likely caused by the explosion of a comet in the upper atmosphere.

This idea has been suggested before, and is supported by Cornell University engineering professor Michael Kelly’s study of – strangely enough – the space shuttle’s exhaust plumes and their effect on high-atmosphere cloud formation.

To those not familiar with the Tunguska Event, something exploded or impacted in the remote area of Russia on June 30, 1908, flattening the forest in an 830-square-mile area, but leaving no visible crater or other obvious sign of what caused the event. Nearby residents reported the sound of a massive explosion, but that’s about it. Whatever it was, the devastation it caused was extensive and undeniable.

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Does Earth Have a New Moon? Kinda But Not Really

Concept image of a large asteroid passing by Earth and the Moon

Earth currently has a new asteroid companion in its orbit around the Sun (Illustration composite of NASA and ESO images by J. Major)

This week NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced news of an object traveling around the Sun in an orbit that keeps it relatively close to our own planet. The object, a near-Earth asteroid (NEO) less than 300 feet (100 m) across, is designated 2016 HO3 and has in some reports been called a “new” or “mini” moon of Earth…but that’s not entirely true. More accurately 2016 HO3 is what’s known as a quasi-satellite, and is in a temporary (albeit long-lived by human standards) orbit that takes it on a “leapfrog” path around Earth, never getting closer than 38 times the distance to the Moon—about 9.1 million miles.

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Venus’ Water Has Been Electrified Away

ESA's Venus Express has detected a surprisingly strong electric field at Venus – the first time this has been measured at any planet. (ESA–C. Carreau)

Venus Express has detected a surprisingly strong electric field at Venus – the first time this has been measured at any planet. (ESA–C. Carreau)

Using data gathered by ESA’s Venus Express researchers have determined what likely happened to Venus’ water: it was “zapped” away by a surprisingly strong electric field generated by the planet’s atmosphere and the incoming solar wind. Without a protective magnetosphere like Earth has, Venus’ upper atmosphere directly interacts with energetic particles streaming out from the Sun. The result is an electric field that’s at least five times more powerful* than those that might exist on Earth or Mars, strong enough to strip away oxygen ions—one of the two key ingredients for water.

It’s truly an electrifying discovery. (When you’re done groaning, read on…)

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