So Long, And Thanks For All The Dirt

IMG_0720A life of adventure and exploration.

A life of travel and learning.

A life well-lived.

I don’t know about you, but those are the things to which I aspire.  And when someone passes who has achieved those things?  That is a life to be celebrated.  A life to be appreciated…although not without a certain hint of envy.

So, a toast, then, to MER-B…better known as the Mars rover Opportunity.

“Wait, what?” you scream.  “You’re leaving a drink on the bar to a freaking robot?!”aHR0cDovL3d3dy5saXZlc2NpZW5jZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzEwNC8yOTUvb3JpZ2luYWwvY3VyaW9zaXR5LXJvdmVyLmpwZw==.jpeg

Yes.  Yes, I am.

Astro-nerds everywhere know by now that the little rover has finally died.  Now, many of the news stories I saw about Oppy’s death were pretty damned shallow, not to mention inaccurate.  Some were even faintly mocking: “NASA’s $400 million dollar probe killed by dust!” and shit like that.

*sigh*

Let’s get some facts, shall we?

Opportunity, and its twin sibling Spirit, were both designed to travel a few thousand feet, to live a “life” of just a shade over 90 Earth days.  Those were the official goals when they landed on Mars in 2004 (pay attention, now, there’ll be a quiz on this later!).

190213150035_1_540x360Spirit (MER-A) died first, in 2009.  Well over five years later, for anyone not counting!

Opportunity, however…

Opportunity didn’t die until 2018 – a life of over FOURTEEN YEARS!!

Of all the rovers the various space agencies have landed on Mars and the Moon — including Oppy’s big brother Curiosity — not one has traveled farther than Opportunity.  The little robot-who-could ran a literal marathon; over those fourteen years, it travelled 28 miles.

mars-opportunity-rover-dies-1That’s 28 miles in terrain that would be considered harsh and destructive even here on Earth, let alone in a place where the nearest mechanic is well over six months away, where commands have to be sent minutes and hours in advance due to light’s travel time.  That’s traveling with nothing more than solar panels for power…and still spending the bulk of each and every day performing science.  Testing and sampling … digging and analyzing … and photographing.  Oh hell yeah, Opportunity photographed the shit out of Mars.

A few random shots, in collage form:

And, just to bring a tear to your eye, I’m adding the very last photo Oppy’s took as death finally came:

uploads%2Fcard%2Fimage%2F934076%2Fd91e111e-cb46-414b-a815-6b3a2e7501f6.jpg%2F950x534__filters%3Aquality%2890%29.jpg

So raise a toast, folks, for the little robot who never gave up, never surrendered*.  Raise a glass, also, to those engineers and designers and planners who turned a tiny budget — in space-probe terms — and turned it into 14 years of absolutely killer science.

*Ahem…of course I had to have a “Galaxy Quest” reference!  That movie still cracks me up…

Cheers!

moonbeer

Our Place in the Universe, or How We’re Not-So Not-So-Special

nerdalert_091412So I promised, a while back, a two-part post about astronomy and sci-fi.  I’m finally following through on that promise!

This post is — finally! — the first part of that “series.”

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I am an astronomy nerd.  Hell, I just bought a couple of new college textbooks solely because my old ones are getting somewhat out-of-date.  By the way, if you want a little light reading before bedtime, hit the chapter on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.  You should probably leave the excitement of the section about dark energy for some afternoon reading, however…

Anyway, I wanted to tackle a bit of “Our Place in the Universe” before I got into the second post, the one about how I try to include that in my sci-fi writing.

First off, a bit of background that I’ll call the “Nothin’ Special Principle.” Most astronomers hold and adhere to the idea that neither the Earth, nor the Solar system itself, is special in any way.  They look at our little neighborhood as completely “average,” and build theories and assumptions from that starting point.

The problem is, that principle is looking less and less true.  There are a number of “special” things about our system, and about Earth itself.  Now, before I list those things, there is the one big thought/question that comes to mind: are we here because of those “special” things, or in spite of them?  The answer to that one is out of my paygrade, by the way…

Okay, so to the “specialness” that kinda, sorta sets us apart…

First off, it’s the age of our Sun.  In order to have complex life — let alone intelligence and development — you have to have metals*, and a lot of them.  You have to have things like carbon and oxygen and iron and copper and potassium and the all the other crap we take for granted.  Hell, even before we got around to using those metals to make tools, we had to have them as integral parts of our biology.  And the only way in the universe you get elements heavier than hydrogen and helium is through the life cycles of large stars (birth – rapid growth – death by supernova).

*A quick explanation: words in astronomy are generally different than they are in chemistry or, indeed, in real life.  In astronomy, any element heavier than helium is a “metal”.

Our Sun is either a 4th or 5th generation star (thoughts and opinions differ on precisely which).  That’s pretty normal, by the way, for a mid-sized, main sequence star.  But, the simple fact is that we as a species needed those previous generations of stars in order to have the planet and solar system that we call home.  No first generation star still exists (long, different story on that), and the 2nd-3rd generation ones that are still around just don’t show the metals required for life.

The important deduction from that is that any star that is able to support the development and evolution of life has to be around the same generation star as our own in order to have a sufficient level of “metallicity.”  Now, our Sun is currently about 4.5 billion years old — pretty much middle-aged for it’s size, generation and composition — and the Earth is something like 4 billion.  If we guess that similar stars/planets are about the same, or younger, that would put any intelligent aliens in another system at about the same level of development as us (give or take a few millennia).  We might, when you get right down to it, be the first — or among the first — example of intelligent life in the entire galaxy…or even the entire universe.

Okay, so that’s the “specialness” of the Sun.  What about our solar system itself?  We used to think it was pretty much normal and average….then we started discovering planets and systems around other stars.  The more planetary systems we find, the more we understand that there really ain’t no such thing as “normal.”  In fact, our system is looking more and more like an unusual outlier than the norm.

Four billion years ago, when the Earth still had that new-planet smell, the solar system was a very different place.  Most of the planets’ orbits were different, and there were something like 4-5 times as many planets and bodies running around.  It was also a shooting-gallery, with all those bodies smacking into each other on a regular basis.

Why does that matter?

Two reasons: the gas giants, and Earth itself.  Jupiter and Saturn were, back then, in resonant, mutually supporting orbits that kept either of them from migrating closer to the Sun through the inner solar system and, well, screwing everything else up.  Those two also “adjusted” the orbits of the other planets into the stability we see today, along with either eating or ejecting from the solar system an awful lot of “extra” bodies.

As for the Earth itself…well…one very specific part of that shooting gallery made all the difference.  The Earth, Mars and Venus really aren’t all that different, when you get right down to it.  Similar sizes, similar compositions, and roughly similar orbits.  So why is Venus a hellscape, and Mars cold and dead, while the Earth is what it is?  Why is the iron core of the Earth almost twice as big (in relation to overall planet size) as the cores of the other two?  Why do we have a moon that is almost a quarter of our own size, when they have none (Mars’ two tiny captured asteroids don’t really count).  Why?

Because we got smacked.

We got smacked hard….and it made all the difference.

Not too long after the Earth formed, another planet — about the same size as Mars — hit us.  Now, getting hit by another planet would usually be considered a “bad thing,” but this one hit us just right.  It hit at an angle shallow enough that it didn’t just shatter the shit out everything, but deep enough to merge the two bodies together…and to create our helpfully large moon in the process.

The real key to that merger is that the Earth kept the other planet’s core, in addition to our own.  That “second” core gave us a natural magnetic field that is much stronger than we “should” have.  That stronger field is why we still have an atmosphere, where Mars has almost none remaining (about 1% of ours).  No extra-large core, and very, very likely there is no life on Earth bigger than bacteria…if we even got that much.

And the water we have…  Oh, the water…  We have too much.  Okay, so it’s not really all that much, not when compared with places like Ganymede and Europa, but it should have all boiled away while the sun was still an angry teenager and flaring like mad.  It probably did boil away, in fact, but we got more…and no one is sure how.  Asteroids and comets, most likely, but no one really agrees on any one mechanism for that.

So, it all worked out for the best in the end, but do you have any idea of the odds against all that working out?  The right amount of metal…two gas giants not doing what most of the other giants we can see have done…a collision that added rather than destroyed…oceans and lakes for swimming and boating and, oh yeah, growing life…

We beat the odds as a species — and that’s pretty damned cool — but there is just no way in hell you can argue that we are average.  We kinda need to consider the possibility that Our Place in the Universe, or at least Our Place in the Milky Way, comes down to one word: alone.  We might be it, we might be all there is when it comes to intelligent life.

That thought is depressing as hell.

Okay, okay…if you want a bit of hope that the entire freaking Universe is NOT culminating in Trump, Pelosi and the Kardashians, here it is: there are something like 300-400 BILLION stars in our galaxy, and something like 300-400 BILLION galaxies in the observable universe.  That is roughly an astronomical shit-ton of stars.  Out of all those stars, there has to be at least one that also beat the odds!

Nerd Alert: Astronomy Stuff!

EB8689A0-C6DC-4EFC-B0A4-5EFD204B5DC9Okay…it’s time to really get my nerd on. For those of you frightened by forays into the darker, scarier reaches of nerd-dom, now might be a good time to look away…

What’s got me all geeked-up, you ask? Direct imaging of planetary systems.

And, no, I don’t mean our damned system. Don’t get me wrong, I love the cool-as-hell pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and Pluto to which we have been treated lately, but they don’t get me well-and-truly going. Not the way “pictures” of other star systems do.

Think about it: should I get all hot and bothered about an uber-detailed picture of Jupiter’s storms…or by one that shows a gas giant orbiting another star? That’s like arguing about which is better, The Phantom Menace or Empire Strikes Back. I mean, c’mon now…let’s be real here.

2EC55F4B-A197-4162-850E-ACE87FB8A55CWith all that said, imaging of what the professional astrogeeks call “extrasolar” systems is hard. I mean, REALLY hard. We can’t truly do it in visible light because, well, stars are kinda bright. There have been some cool successes, however, including one of a planet roughly twice the mass of Jupiter orbiting a brown dwarf (which I’m adding here).  Take a look at this picture before you check out the ones below to…well…get yourself used to what this kind of stuff looks like.

Visible light is a problem, but other wavelengths…other wavelengths are a different story. We still have trouble picking out planets, but very smart people are working very hard to do this. And even the “crappy” pictures are pretty damned cool.

This is more of a photo post than a normal one, but…crap…the pictures are freaking awesome…

1) A bunch of baby pictures of newly forming planetary systems…more specifically, the dust clouds around young stars where planet formation is taking place.  The cleared “lanes” and spaces you can see are where planets have already come together:

SPHERE images a zoo of dusty discs around young stars

2) And some “adult” pictures…well, at least as close as we can come:

3) And, lest you criticize the “bad” pictures above, just remember that we are talking about hundreds of light-years for most of them.  Heck, just getting good pictures in our own damned backyard is tough: below is what Pluto and Charon look like to Hubble, versus what we finally saw when we got a “close-up” from the New Horizons probe.  Not to repeat myself, but this stuff is hard:

A61913E4-6C5E-4A71-A793-447316A3A83C

There Is Never Enough Space

Handout image of Saturn from space, the first in which Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus and Mars are all visibleI wrote a space post last Friday, and that’s always a dangerous thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I like writing space posts.  No, the problem is that I had nowhere near enough words — nowhere near enough space — to write what I wanted.  So, today, I get to touch on one more of those (several) things I didn’t have the space or time to say in that post…

The ISS and current proposed NASA budget may have some folks clutching their pearls and searching for a fainting-couch, but complaints and battles about budgets are only the second oldest debate in space exploration.  No, the oldest argument — older than the flights of Gagarin and Shepherd and Glenn — concerns the value of manned spaceflight itself.

Now, one piece of explanation and background is required before I get into the argument itself.  Launching shit into space costs.  The more you launch, the more it costs.  It costs weight, and technology, and (most of all) money.  When you send just one astronaut into orbit, you are sending not just a 180-pound human, you are sending all of the food and water and air that human needs.  AND all of the additional fuel launching that stuff requires.

When you get right down to it, putting humans into space is expensive.  Your ships and stations have to be bigger (read: heavier), because they have to have things like atmosphere, water, HVAC, radiation shielding, toilets, medical supplies…you get the idea.  It is (literally) tons of stuff to support just one human.

That’s bad enough in low Earth orbit, but what about things like trips to the moon, or Mars, or even the asteroid belt?  That is A LOT of stuff to be trying to move around.

So, is it worth it?

You bet your ass.

Robotic probes can do an awful lot.  Hell, the Mars rovers have been absolutely phenomenal.  Even better, take the Juno and Galileo missions to Jupiter…the Cassini mission to Saturn…New Horizons…the various space telescopes & observatories…and, especially, the granddaddies of them all: Voyagers 1 &2.

We wouldn’t have learned half of what know without robotic probes.  And, let’s be honest, there are certain places where we HAVE to use robots.  No human, at our current tech level, is going to orbit Jupiter or Saturn.  Barring major changes, we are probably a century or more away from that.  But, the inner system still beckons…

Why?

If robots can do so much, why go to all the trouble and expense of sending people?

Because we — as a people, and as a species — need to stretch and reach and strive for more.  Because we need to feel as much as to see.  Because, in the end, we need to dream.

No robotic probe, no matter how capable or sophisticated or multifaceted, can provide the same connection and capacity as does a human.  No robotic probe can inspire dreams.

We anthropomorphize the shit out of our probes: from plucky Curiosity, to the self-sacrifice of Cassini, to the reckless daring of the two Voyagers, we have imbued our exploration craft with “personality” and “life”.

It’s not the same.
Why did the Apollo program resonate so very deeply with people?  Why did it connect with not just the people of the US, but also folks around the world?  Even back then, we could have done the missions with robotic probes.  Hell, the Viking landers were little more than Apollo technology, sent to Mars…but they had far less “connection” than a few frail humans walking awkwardly in bulky suits.  Why?

Because they were people.moonbeer

Because Neil Armstrong nailed it.  To paraphrase that famous quote: a giant leap for humanity required one small step by a man.

Hell, to tie this all back to writing: why did The Martian (both book and movie) resonate so very deeply with folks?  Because it was the drama of exploration and danger and disaster, yes, but also — and far more importantly — it was the story of “Mark Watney.”  It was the story of a person.

*sigh*

I just checked my word-count for this post…sure enough, just like last Friday, I’m running long.  Very long.  And there is still more to say.  More to say on this particular topic, more to say on space exploration, more to say on astronomy and science…

But not now.  I’m out of space.