SpaceX launches private rocket

On Sunday, a private company called SpaceX launched a rocket into orbit. You remember all the commotion a few years ago about Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. That was a private rocket too, so what’s the big deal now? Well… Burt Rutan’s space ship is definitely worthy of praise, but it only takes millionaires on suborbital joy rides. It’s a tourism game for the Drag-My-Rich-Ass-Up-Mount-Everest set. And you don’t even get that much space time for your $200,000. You can stick your tongue out and lick space at the top of your bounce, but that’s about it.

SpaceX, on the other hand, was designed not to win a competition but to put satellites into space for paying customers. Put another way, NASA is never going to compete with Richard Branson to put tourists into space, but SpaceX is now competing with NASA and every other launch vendor on the planet. And their launch manifest is full.

The launch on Sunday was actually the fourth flight, but it was the first that worked perfectly from end to end, proving once again that space flight is hard. Here’s a great video of the launch. I love the fact that there’s no sound. No countdown, no voice of Mission Control. Just fizz, ka-boom, and off she goes!

The launch site is on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Here’s a fun exercise: can you find the launchpad with Google Earth by looking at the shape of the island as you fly away?

Hurricane Ivan from space

One of my new favorite sites is Riding with Robots on the High Frontier. I have always liked NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, but I tend to filter out the deep space stuff. Nebula, shmebula. I want to see something in this solar system. Too many parsecs spoils the soup. Riding with Robots is dedicated to planetary probe imagery. Check out the dust devil footprints on this Martian dune.

The site also features a nifty Planet Portal that shows active missions. You get a sense of news, without the over-the-top treatment at I’ve always wanted to open up a space mission-themed sports bar. Instead of hockey on this TV and football on that one, you’d have Jupiter on this TV and Mars on that one, with crowds of Zima-swilling geeks elbowing each other for a look at the action. But help me out here: what should I call it?

I can’t remember where I first saw this image of Hurricane Ivan as viewed from the space station. It was probably on APOD. It’s an arresting image, and it struck me as a picture taken from the ground looking up past a tall building at some bizarre atmospheric disturbance.


I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen that image somewhere before. Then I remembered I had been playing the game Half Life, which prominently features this image.


The artists for this game had to be working from this image, right? The similarities are remarkable.

Two faces of a moon

“Japetus is unique in the Solar System—you know this already, of course, but like all the astronomers of the last three hundred years, you’ve probably given it little thought. So let me remind you that Cassini—who discovered Japetus in 1671—also observed that it was six times brighter on one side of its orbit than the other.

“This is an extraordinary ratio, and there has never been a satisfactory explanation for it. Japetus is so small – about eight hundred miles in diameter—that even in the lunar telescopes its disk is barely visible. But there seems to be a brilliant, curiously symmetrical spot on one face, and this may be connected with TMA-1. I sometimes think that Japetus has been flashing at us like a cosmic heliograph for three hundred years, and we’ve been too stupid to understand its message.”

Arthur C. Clarke gave these words to his fictitious astronomer Heywood Floyd near the climax of his book 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like a lot of people, I read those words years ago and thought to myself: what is the dang deal with Japetus? Clarke wasn’t making up the part about the two-faced nature of Iapetus (as it is more commonly called), an oddball Saturnian moon.

The two-toned satellite is still mysterious, but now we have some quality snapshots from the visiting Cassini spacecraft. And, hoo boy! they do not disappoint. I find this APOD picture astounding: The Strange Trailing Side of Saturn’s Iapetus. Great Clarke! Look in the sky! It’s a cosmic snowball rolled in dirt… it’s a sugar-frosted chocolate space truffle… it’s… it’s a much better investment than the International Space Station. You know what we need? I’ll tell you what we need: more space robots with cameras and fewer accident-prone gold-plated Tang-sucking astro-cosmo-taikonauts.

Opportunity rover is free at last

For those of you who missed the recent drama on Mars, for something like a month, the rover named Opportunity has been stuck in the mud, or rather in a fine powdery rover-swallowing dust. So for five weeks it’s been sending back picture after pathetic picture like this. Fortunately it had already been on the planet for more than a year, so the mainstream press paid it almost no attention. But imagine what a drag it would have been to roll off the lander straight into soupy quicksand. At last, however, it’s out of the sand trap and on the move once more.

One of the entertaining things about the Mars rovers is that the latest pictures are posted immediately, so you can put together the story even before the JPL press release. So I had been going to the rover site regularly to see if they were making progress. Similarly, I was watching a few months ago as the Spirit rover struggled up a mountain looking for a view of the far side (also known as the view from Larry’s Lookout). Why did the bear go over the mountain? To see this. It’s not the most gorgeous picture, but it’s the first one that offered a glimpse of the world on the far side of the range. Every bear that went over a mountain knows that thrill. It was exciting to watch over the laboring rover’s shoulder, undistracted by public relations staff. We were given a virtual version of what cavers call “booty scooping”, which is to say, being the first to lay eyes on territory never before beheld by man.

Before we leave Mars for the day, take a look at this picture.
From orbit you can actually see the tracks left behind by Spirit as it climbs. Think about this: right now, there are two robots built by humans crawling around on the surface of Mars. Robots. On Mars.

That thought makes me happy.

A Space in Time

A bookstore, a weblog, a magazine, all these things take on the personality of their proprietor, and if that personality resonates sufficiently with your own, you find yourself coming back again and again, chuckling that someone should be able so consistently to amuse you, sight unseen. So it is for me, I find, with The Atlantic magazine. I can’t say exactly how they keep choosing articles that interest and entertain me, but they do. I will read anything by William Langewiesche, and he’s written the cover story this month about “unbuilding” the World Trade Center. Actually, the web version is an extract, and the magazine version is only one part of what will become a book on the same subject.

In the same issue, and fully available on the web, is beautiful lyrical essay
(“A Space in Time”) by Michael Benson about imagery from NASA’s various space probes. It’s long for an onscreen read, but it’s worth the effort. Near the end, he uses a long quote from Carl Sagan that I will include here. Carl says

In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

This echoes very much the teachings of Joseph Campbell, who pointed out that a healthy working mythology (religion) is one that puts you into accord with the universe as it is currently understood, not as it was understood by nomadic tribes in the Near East two thousand years ago. I’m with Carl. The religion we need is the one that lets us hug those improbable spacefaring robots from JPL. You go, God!