On Wednesday, the European Space Agency’s Philae lander made history by being the first spacecraft to land on a comet. Comet 69P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is now the seventh celestial body humans have touched. What are the others? I’m glad you asked because we’re about to run through the list.
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If you happened to encounter some aliens, what would you say (presuming they can translate/understand your human language)? Maybe the first thing would be, “Please don’t kill me,” but after a while you’d probably have a lot of questions about their civilization and technology, and what took them so long to make contact with humans. NASA has been asking itself the same question, especially as its New Horizons spacecraft prepares to finish studying Pluto next summer and head deeper into space. When it embarks on that journey, it will take with it a message for whomever or whatever it may encounter.
The message will stream to the craft next year, after it wraps up its Pluto mission. The message isn’t exactly something you could stick into a bottle — it’s really a digital record of sounds and images that would give its recipient an indication of what life on planet Earth is like. The information will resemble the Golden Record carried by the Voyager probes which were launched in 1977, and which are currently traveling through interstellar space. Both spacecraft carry messages on 12-inch, gold-plated copper disks. The contents were selected carefully by a committee that included Carl Sagan, and they represent a cultural cross-section of life on Earth: images, sounds, 55 greetings in different languages, and music.
The more we learn about our universe, the more marvelous and overwhelming it is. The cosmos is of such unfathomable size, full of such bewildering variety, it seems that no matter how much we learn about it, there will always be more to explore. And while manned spaceflight isn’t in 2014 where I hoped it would be when I was younger, I’m still awed by the images and information sent back by Curiosity on Mars, by the Cassini mission to Saturn, and by Voyager 1, out beyond the fringe of our solar system. Still, the universe as we know it now remains full of wonders, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for the early days when we didn’t know nearly as much, and when pulp science fiction imagined a solar system replete with life on every world and moon trekking around our sun. If you want a beautiful vision of that dreamed-of solar system, you need look no further than these images by pulp artist Frank R. Paul.
While we might think of space as a vast and silent expanse, that’s not necessarily true. Space has plenty of noise, like these dense plasma sounds captured by Voyager 1 as it headed into interstellar space. Space also has musical stylings of Chris Hadfield. Now, Harvard astronomy professor Alicia Soderberg has found a way to turn a supernova into songs. Eat your heart out, Oasis.
Soderberg specializes in a star’s last gasps, which are violent, dramatic explosions. It’s tough to capture one in real time, though, so she often conducts what’s called a stellar autopsy, examining the remnants of the event. She gathers up all the information she can find, including x-rays, light, and radio waves. Then she and her team set about analyzing and synthesizing the data, which is about as easy as trying to put all the pieces together of an explosion here on Earth.
Given my fascination with the universe, my love for Carl Sagan, and my hopes that the reboot of Cosmos will take viewers by storm, it’s only appropriate that my last post of the year would be about space — and more specifically, about a planetary scientist who arranged a pretty awesome photo op of Earth from the Cassini spacecraft.
Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team and professor of astrophysics and planetary scientists, is following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps, especially when it comes to appreciating the significance of Earth as the “pale blue dot.” The phrase refers to a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe on its way out of the Solar System, nearly four billion miles from Earth. At Sagan’s request, NASA had the probe turn around and take a photo of Earth, which Sagan then elegantly wrote about. While the photo provides some perspective on the enormity of the universe and the relative smallness of Earth, the original image wasn’t actually that good, and Porco has been wanting to update that image for a long time.
Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech from his book of the same name is easily one of my favorite things in the universe. The speech is in reference to an image of the Earth captured by Voyager 1 in 1990, taken from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. It shows our homeworld as little more than a speck, “suspended in a sunbeam.” Sagan’s eloquent monologue based on the image is both inspiring and humbling, demonstrating wonderfully that Sagan was often as much poet as scientist. There have been numerous video versions of Sagan’s speech floating around the internet, but the one above, assembled by Reid Gower, may be my favorite. Give it a watch and take a moment to be awestruck and appreciative for that blue dot we call home.