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:


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…


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.


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.

Late…Again. *Sigh*

I know this will shock you — given that I write sci-fi, and all — but I love astronomy. I listen pretty fanatically to a handful of astronomy podcasts*, I buy astronomy & cosmology texts alongside the vast numbers of history books I collect, I can (and do!) still work a telescope for long nights of observations.

*And, yes, they are in fact kinda like the old “astronomy/cosmology for idiots…err, non-majors” courses back in college…

All of that means, of course, that I also pretty fanatically follow current missions and discussions and debates about space exploration. Crap, I remember sitting in my living room and watching the “live stream” of Voyager 2’s encounter with Neptune. The data didn’t really make much sense to me, given just how much interpretation and adjustment it requires, but I nerded out on it nonetheless.

Why am I writing about this?

804E49CA-BFC3-46EF-B980-3EEC244B0AD6Well, the recent test flight of the Falcon Heavy got me to thinking. First off, it is nice to see some options for (relatively*) heavy-lift become once again available. It was also seriously geek-worthy to watch the two secondary boosters land themselves pretty much simultaneously. That the primary booster did not also successfully land was an important learning experience that in no way detracts from the accomplishment. The ability to re-land and re-use boosters is a vital element of practical and affordable launch systems — and the space shuttle’s “drop ‘em in the ocean” system was, well, pretty damned inefficient.3E2B612C-2C19-4C83-A073-04EE44757693

*”Relatively” because we have given up A LOT of capability over the years: the Falcon Heavy is capable of about 3.4 million pounds of thrust at launch, with a payload capacity to low Earth orbit of about 70 tons — compared (sadly) to the capacity of the decades-dead Saturn V that we can no longer build of 7.9 million pounds of thrust, and 155 tons to LEO.

But the biggest part of the whole thing? Getting launches into private hands, and opening LEO to be an economic asset (and battleground). Look, NASA is phenomenal at pushing the boundaries, and at exploring and furthering our knowledge and understanding. It is, on the other hand, absolutely shit at turning those accomplishments to practical endeavors.

And you now what? That’s okay, that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to explore, not to exploit.

There is an old saying, however, that “trade follows the flag”. In the old days, that meant that practicalities followed (and built on) exploration and discovery. In space, however, that has not happened…well, has not happened quickly.

Want to make space — more specifically, low Earth orbit — accessible and efficient? You gotta open it up to people to make a buck, then. Right now that is pretty limited to the launch systems of SpaceX and Blue Origin, but even baby-steps can get you there…

The astro-nerd world is currently roiling itself up pretty seriously in regards to the Trump Administration’s recently released “plan” to begin phasing out the International Space Station after 2024 with an eye to turning it over to commercial enterprises.

At first glance that sounds nuts…but only at first glance. That plan actually is one I am happy to hear, for a few reasons:

1) The damned station is ridiculously expensive and complicated to operate given that it is controlled and funded by the bureaucracies of no fewer than FIVE space agencies (US, Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada). Keep in mind, none of the other four have shown any interest whatsoever in funding the ISS after 2024, and we sure as hell ain’t gonna pick up the whole tab.

2) NASA, as I said, is bad at following up exploration and discovery with practicalities — the ISS is little more than a laboratory to learn about the human capacity to live in space for prolonged periods. The other experiments and tests that happen up there are basically 75% public relations.

3) A private company — more likely a consortium of several deep-pocketed corporations — could turn it from PR stunt into a legit lab for practical, realistic engineering needs. The speculation is that micro-gravity can help in the manufacture of things like fiber optics, certain pharmaceuticals, some metals & ceramics, and a handful of other applications. NASA doesn’t give two shits about that, it’s not their mandate. Commercial enterprises, on the other hand, can and will turn the place into a test-bed for technologies with potentially direct benefits to those of us here at the bottom of the gravity well.

NASA gave us shit like Velcro, carbon composites, Mylar, and automated flight computers — even Tang, for God’s sake! — but it took private companies to turn those into everyday tools. And that is not a bad thing.  No government agency on the face of the planet understands efficiency, or commercialization, or supply and demand…so let’s find ways to encourage those who DO understand those things to get involved. Let’s let trade once again follow the flag.

Snarking At The Moon

Okay, so I write sci-fi (for the moment)…

This, apparently, makes me an “expert” to some folks.  Now, I do know a lot of shit about a lot of things, but that’s mostly because I read…and because I love to learn.  cqg441259eqn34Hell, I once had to learn the actual math behind orbital mechanics — it made the nerd in me tingle with excitement, and the historian go out and get drunk.

None of this means, however, that I have a PhD in Astrophysics…

I still get the questions, though.

“What’s this stuff about habitable Earths around other stars? Does that mean people, too?”

“Why can’t we just build bigger rockets and go to the next star to meet them?”

“Why go to [insert planet/moon here]?  There are no cities or people, so why go all that way just to find some algae?”


Want to know about the political nature of the various priesthoods under the Roman Republic?  Or maybe get a breakdown of the Social War and its role in the rise of the Empire?  Maybe even learn a bit about Marius and Sulla?

You don’t?


Most of the sci-fi-ish questions I get arise from a couple of problems:

  1. Folks don’t learn the basics — specifically, the basics of physics and how the universe works, and so don’t know what to question, let alone how.  They learn “everything they need” from stories in the news, which leads to…
  2. Reporters are idiots.  Take relatively simple, easy-to-communicate facts and they will still dumb them down into complete uselessness.

So, a few (bitter, snarky) answers:

All of the “Earths” we have discovered so far are not.  Not “Earths,” I mean.  They are potentially rocky planets in something like the right orbit to potentially have liquid water.  That’s it.  That’s as “Earthy” as they get.

Let’s take the potential earth-like planet “found” orbiting Proxima Centauri.  Hey, it’s the closest star!  We have neighbors!


It’s a potential rock orbiting a red dwarf, for fuck’s sake!  In order to be in the “Goldilocks zone” where liquid water can exist, it orbits all of 7.5 million kilometers from the star.  Earth, by comparison, is twenty times farther from the Sun…hell, even Mercury is something like five times farther out!  You could go boil your head in a microwave for the next thousand years and not absorb a tenth of the radiation that cooks this rock every single “day”.  If it does have “intelligent” life, those folks will look a whole lot like reporters…

Ahem, never mind.

And, before anyone asks: No.  Just no.  We cannot go there at the moment.  Oh, there are all kinds of theoretical engines that could get us there in…well…in a century or two.  But none of them actually exist at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, some of those technologies and theoretical engines are fascinating — but that is all they are: theoretical.  Even if we could build a sufficiently powerful, practical VASIMR engine right now, do you know how much fuel you would need to accelerate to (and decelerate from) anything resembling a useful interstellar speed?

Even if we perfected the perpetually-fifty-years-away technology of nuclear fusion, you would still need loads of deuterium or tritium for the reactor.  And that fuel for your reactor does not include the (exponentially worse) metric-shit-ton of reaction mass you would need for your thrusters on the ride.

And, please, don’t even get me started on the pipe-dreams of “solar sails” and “laser-powered” craft.  For the former: take a sheet of paper and hold it on your finger tips…that is roughly the amount of thrust you would get from a square kilometer of solar sail in our inner system.  In interstellar space?  Yeah, your dog could fart you to Proxima Centauri faster.  And “laser-powered”? Just pure sci-fantasy bullshit.  Those designers read “Mote In God’s Eye” way too many times…


Look, I’m not shitting on the legitimate excitement of these discoveries…nor on the dreams of exploration.  We need those dreams.  We need to continue to stretch and reach beyond our grasp, or we will stagnate and die.

But, for the love of God, could we please do so with a modicum of common sense?

There are “new earths” out there.  The odds are there is intelligent life out there.  But, in all honesty, these things are a century or more from mere confirmation, let alone direct interaction.

No, what should really excite us right now are the wonders, and discoveries, on our own doorstep.  I agree 100% with manned missions to Mars…if only for the dream of discovery.  But that’s not the truly exciting stuff.  No, what really floats my boat is more of a reach…and more of a dream:

Missions to Titan, and to Europa, and Enceladus…places that are the most likely of all to have life.  No, it won’t be “intelligent”, but it will be different.  Different DNA, different evolution.  Crap, what more could you ask for?  Do you know how much we could learn just from some freaking algae?!

Missions to Uranus, and Neptune, and Pluto. These planets (and their moons) are things about which we still know next-to-nothing…

And let’s not forget the practical: asteroid mining, orbital research and manufacturing…

No, we have more than enough to keep us busy at home, thank you very much.  Dream big — always dream big — but act small.