Wanna see the space station overhead? NASA will send you mail!

By Phil Plait | November 7, 2012 10:16 am

Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead is pretty cool. It glides soundlessly across the sky, getting brighter as it gets closer to you, whizzing by hundreds of kilometers above your head at 8 kilometers per second.

I usually go to Heavens-Above when I think of it to check when the next few passes will be. But wouldn’t it be nice if you get a text or email letting you know that a pass is about to happen?

NASA has set up a service to do just that: Spot The Station. You can give it your email or phone number, your location, and whether you’d like to see evening passes, morning ones, or both (because the station is lit by the Sun, you can only see it just after sunset or before sunrise).

That’s all there is to it. The next time the station is going to be visible from your location, NASA will send you a note. They also have a page describing what the message means, so you can go outside and figure out not just when to look, but where.

I’ll note there’s another service that does this as well: Twisst, which uses Twitter to let you know about good station passes at your location. It would be fun to compare them, actually. And useful, because they may have different criteria for what constitutes a good viewing opportunity. If you want to see the station, it might pay to hedge your bet.

And don’t forget to try to take a picture! The shot above is one I took a few years ago with nothing more than an off-the-shelf point-and-shoot camera set up on a tripod in my back yard. There are two streaks because one (on the right) is the station, and the other is the Space Shuttle Atlantis! I can guarantee you can’t get that shot again, but we do send other spacecraft to the station, so if you time it right you might get something like this. If you don’t try, it’s a sure thing you never will, so give it a shot!


Related Posts:

Watch the skies for the Shuttle and ISS
And I saw a star rising in… the WEST?
SERIOUSLY jaw-dropping pictures of Endeavour and the ISS!
Ridiculously awesome pic of Discovery and the ISS taken from the ground!

A step in the right direction… but there are many more steps to go

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 11:44 pm

Well, it was quite a night.

I’m trying to parse it all, and there’s a whole lot to parse. The big news, duh, is that President Obama won, and yes, I’m happy about that. Despite a lot of smoke and mirrors from pundits and campaign managers during this unending election cycle, the President has done a lot of good for this country, and has been a net positive in many ways. I think a lot more can improve in the next four years, and I’ll be curious to see just how he rolls up his sleeves and gets to it.

Having said that, I’m not all rainbows and unicorns with him, which I’ll get to in a sec.

I’m thrilled Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost. I have to think that their, ah, extremely poorly thought-out comments about rape had something to do with that. I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of "Hey Republicans, if you want to win next time you’d better not talk about rape!", which I think is wrongheaded. I think politicians should be talking about it, but they should be getting it right. It’s one thing to score a political zinger, but another to actually change the hearts and minds of those same politicians. I want real change, not change in rhetoric.

I’ll note that it looks like in January there will be 18 women Senators, an all-time high. That’s a bit short of the 50 or 52 needed to reflect the true composition of our population, but it’s better than it ever has been. This seems to me to be pretty good evidence that women listen, and they vote. As do men who are concerned over women’s issues. That’s a fine thing, and a really good sign.

Tammy Baldwin is one of those women. She’s the first openly gay Senator in our nation’s history. And four states – Maine, Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland – approved marriage equality acts. I’m OK with that. I’m more than OK with that. For why, see here and here and here and here and here.

But the news isn’t all good. I poked around a bit, and saw that a lot of the antiscience Congresscritters were re-elected. Climate change deniers Ralph Hall (head of the House Science Committee) and John Sensenbrenner, and many others will still retain their seats (but not Akin, yay!). [UPDATE: Turns out Hall is term-limited as chairman and will give up the gavel. That link also discusses the changes in the Committee]. Relatively moderate Republican Roscoe Bartlett lost, and he acknowledged the reality of climate change. He’ll have to be replaced by the Republican majority, and sadly, there’s a long list of global warming deniers to choose from. Don’t forget Paul Broun ran unopposed, and he’s a full-blooded antiscience Big-Bang-denying antievolution creationist.

On a better note, I’ll add that Bill Foster, a moderate Illinois Republican Democrat, won a seat. He’s a high-energy physicist! Man oh man, I’d love to see him get on the Science Committee. Boulder’s own Jared Polis retained his seat in Congress, too, and he’s pro-science as well.

Now, having said all that…

I am still unhappy about President Obama gutting NASA’s space exploration funding, and I am unhappy he still hasn’t talked much about climate change… and those are just science topics. And it’s important to note that it’s still a Republican house, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House, just as it’s been for two years now. These same two years where almost no legislation has been passed, and a whole lot of science has been ridiculed or simply ignored.

The takeaway here? Overall, I’m pleased. Some things got better, and not much got worse. A lot is still the same, so we have to be ready for more of what we’ve already been through. And while this is a time of celebration for many of us, we must acknowledge that the forces against reality and science are still out there and still have a lot of power. We must not flag, not give up, and never tire.

Ever onward!

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

Time lapse: Helvetia’s Dream

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 2:19 pm

Oh my, another lovely night sky (and landscape!) time lapse video; this time from Alessandro Della Bella, and called Helvetia’s Dream:

[Make sure you set it to hi-def and make it full screen.]

I love the opening shot! Unless it was just digitally zoomed, it must have taken some planning; you have to know just where the Moon is going to rise to catch it that accurately.

A couple of other things to watch for, too:

At about 45 seconds in, a bright meteor leaves a long persistent train, a glowing trail that gets blown away by the thin but rapid winds 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. I actually gasped when I saw that!

At 1:30 you see the stars of Orion setting behind the Matterhorn, zoomed in. The big bright pink blob is the famed Orion Nebula, but just above it is the star Alnitak with a bit of nebulosity around it; the bright patch is the Flame nebula, and barely visible is the much fainter but iconic Horsehead Nebula.

I also love how the clouds – more like fog – flow through the valley. The study of how things flow is called hydrodynamics, and physicists use the word "fluid" to describe the stuff that’s flowing. In common vernacular that means liquid ("Have you been drinking enough fluids?") but in science air is a fluid. So is the thin gas in a nebula, since it can carry sound waves and be shaped by supersonic flow.

Whenever a doctor asks me if I’ve been taking my fluids, I always want to respond, "WHAT? And ionize my cardiovascular system?!"

I’ve never had the guts.

Anyway, one more thing: the Moon setting at the end is actually not full! The long exposure times makes it look that way, but when it nears the horizon you can see it’s really a thin crescent, but the dark part of the Moon is being illuminated by Earthshine: light from the Earth itself softly illuminating the nighttime moonscape, which is then reflected back to us.

There’s poetry in the heavens, if you know where to look.

Tip o’ the lens cap to MichaelPeterson on Twitter.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: time lapse

Unicorn chaser

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 10:16 am

I suspect something like half of the people reading my blog will, today, need this: a video of a puppy playing with a spring doorstop.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEmq6Denjqo

[The term "unicorn chaser" comes from Boing Boing, and is akin to a palate-cleansing for your brain after something awful.]

c/o my pal the geektastic Bonnie Burton.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Geekery, Humor
MORE ABOUT: doorstop, puppy

Vote.

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 6:00 am

Listen. I want you to vote.

I won’t make that pandering "It doesn’t matter who you vote for" speech, because, geez, c’mon. It does matter.

But not voting at all is not an option. You need to vote.

I know a lot of folks are undecided, and getting mocked in the media for it. But from what I see, a lot of people have honest problems with both candidates.

I can relate. I do too. But in my opinion, voting is still critical, for a few reasons. But there’s one big one: if you don’t vote, how does that help?

Seriously, staying home and not voting doesn’t help at all, and in fact hurts. Why? Because, for one thing, I bet you don’t hate everything about both candidates. A lot of people frame it as the lesser of two evils, but I think it’s more positive to consider it as the better of the two choices.

Looking over the choices, there must be one who edges out the other, for whatever issues matter to you. That matters. It truly does.

And not voting hurts you, directly. If you don’t vote, you have no say in what the government can do for or with or to you. You’re letting other people make that decision for you. And I think you probably know better what you want than other people do.

Don’t vote, and you are freely allowing others to declare how much tax you should pay, where that money goes, whether or not you have access to health care, how women are treated (whether through pay, health benefits, or a myriad of other ways), and even whether science or nonsense gets taught in schools.

Another argument I hear is that one vote doesn’t count. Lets be honest: in many places, that’s probably true. But not everywhere, and it can be hard to tell just where. Remember, in 2000, the entire national election boiled down to a few hundred votes in Florida. A few hundred.

I look at the swing states, places that can swing the election and where it’s hard to tell who’s ahead, and I wonder. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida… all these states have big universities, with student populations in the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. A single freshman class at one of those schools could swing this entire election.

Still think your vote doesn’t count?

I know a lot of younger folks read my blog. You have way more riding on this election than I do. Maybe you’re looking for a job, or have one already. How much tax do you think is fair to pay? What rights will you have with your employer? What kind of health insurance will you get? It’s not sexy to think about health insurance, but it’s going to suck mightily when you break your leg or you need to get your wisdom teeth out, and you find out it’s going to be a cash only out-of-pocket transaction.

Also, you’ll have to live in the future longer than I will. What’s that future going to be like? One where global warming slams us every summer with stronger hurricanes because the government ignored the scientists? One where your kids are taught the Earth is 6000 years old? One where you can’t get contraception?

That’s what your vote means.

On these issues – and a whole passel more – the two major candidates are worlds apart. These issues impact you, now, today. Health care, taxes, women’s rights, corporate law, international policy, gay marriage, climate change… do even a modicum of research and you’ll see the differences shining like a beacon. And we may have a Supreme Court justice retire in the next four years; think about how the two candidates differ on whom they would nominate for that.

And if you like a third party candidate, then great! Go vote for him or her! But don’t complain that it’s a waste of time because they can’t win. It’s a certainty they can’t if you don’t vote for them, and if enough people vote for them they may start to get noticed.

For me, a lot of the decisions I make when I vote boil down to how the candidate faces science, faces reality – which are in many ways the same thing. Maybe you agree. And that brings up a final major point: this election is not just to decide who will be President. We’re voting for Congress as well, and these are the people who make the laws. Congress has the lowest public approval rating they’ve had in decades, and for good reason. But you know what can be done? You can throw out the ones who won’t face reality!

Look up who’s who in your state and district and see what your Congresscritters think. I’ll guarantee there are huge differences between candidates for Congress. And the majority party picks who runs the committees – for example, the House Science Committee, where several of the sitting members are as blatantly antiscience as anyone I’ve ever seen.

Do you love science as much as I do? You can vote them out!

I’ll also note that in local elections there will be people running for school board. Think that’s not important? Think again.

This election is about far more than electing a President. It could mean four more years of science obstructionism, four years we cannot afford to lose.

I’m not a single issue voter, and I hope you aren’t either. But then, reality isn’t a single issue. Antiscience affects global warming legislation, textbooks and class curricula, women’s rights, technology development, medical research, energy production, religious incursions on the First Amendment, and much more. Our very economy is largely based on science and engineering. It’s not too much to ask for people in power to understand that.

In fact, it’s a rock bottom requirement.

So speaking of bottoms, get off yours. The only way you can waste your vote is by not casting one.

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

DC comics pins Krypton to the star map

By Phil Plait | November 5, 2012 9:31 am

The story of Superman is so well known that I hardly need go into detail. But in case you’re some sort of commie, the idea is that he was born on the planet Krypton orbiting a far away red star, and sent to Earth while still a baby by his parents as their home planet exploded around them. Our yellow Sun somehow gives Kal-El superpowers, and he goes on to star in a series of increasingly poorly-made movies*.

I’ve often wondered exactly what kind of star Krypton orbited and where it was. Up until now all we’ve known is that it was red, and red stars come in many flavors, from dinky red dwarfs with a tenth the mass of the Sun up to massive supergiants like Betelgeuse which outweigh the Sun by dozens of times (I’ll note that a deleted scene in "Superman Returns" indicates it’s a red supergiant).

Well, that’s about to change. DC comics is releasing a new book this week – Action Comics Superman #14 – that finally reveals the answer to this stellar question. And they picked a special guest to reveal it: my old friend Neil Tyson.

Actually, Neil did more than just appear in the comic: he was approached by DC to find a good star to fit the story. Red supergiants don’t work; they explode as supernovae when they are too young to have an advanced civilization rise on any orbiting planets. Red giants aren’t a great fit either; they can be old, but none is at the right distance to match the storyline. It would have to be a red dwarf: there are lots of them, they can be very old, and some are close enough to fit the plot.

I won’t keep you in suspense: the star is LHS 2520, a red dwarf in the southern constellation of Corvus (at the center of the picture here). It’s an M3.5 dwarf, meaning it has about a quarter of the Sun’s mass, a third its diameter, roughly half the Sun’s temperature, and a luminosity of a mere 1% of our Sun’s. It’s only 27 light years away – very close on the scale of the galaxy – but such a dim bulb you need a telescope to see it at all (for any astronomers out there, the coordinates are RA: 12h 10m 5.77s, Dec: -15° 4m 17.9 s).

Which brings us back to the Superman story. I was sent an advance copy, and it’s actually a clever tale, with some relatively solid science in it. I won’t spoil it, but apparently Superman comes to visit the Hayden Planetarium in New York City (where Neil is the director) every 382 days, which happens to be the period of Krypton around the star (known as Rao in the comic canon). Although it’s not said explicitly in the story, it sounds like they try to observe Krypton when it’s at the point in its orbit where it appears farthest from its star, reducing the glare and making it easier to spot.

As for the major plot point of the story, I won’t reveal it. But I’ll give you a hint: Superman is about 27 years old. PLEASE don’t leave any guesses in the comments below until a few days after the issue is out. I want to avoid spoiling it for any other readers.

Being a dork, I have to comment on some of the science in the story, though. Given the mass of a star and the period of a planet orbiting it, you can find the distance between the two. Doing the math (I’m a dork, remember?) I find the distance of Krypton to its Sun is about 100 million kilometers, somewhat closer than Earth is to the Sun (150 million kilometers).

But remember, Rao is a dim red dwarf! It’s so cool and faint that even at that closer orbital distance, Krypton would be a chilly world. Even if the planet is black as soot (and thereby absorbing all the heat falling on it from Rao) its temperature is still something like -170° Celsius – about -270° F! [If you’re curious, I outline how to calculate this on the Bad Astronomy website.] At that temperature oxygen and nitrogen are still gases – barely – but it’s way below the freezing point of water. And if it’s not black, but instead snowy and white, the temperature will be even lower.

So Krypton maybe isn’t the best place for life to arise… still, there are ways out of this. Maybe either the Kryptonians migrated there (they couldn’t find a warmer planet?) or there’s something else going on. If it’s really volcanic then greenhouse gases could be prevalent, raising the temperature. Possibly the planet’s interior is still warm from heat leftover from its formation… or maybe whatever made it warm enough to be habitable also led to its destruction. Comic book science can be pretty ironic.

[DC comics: call me! I have ideas.]

I also feel obligated to note that in the comic, they made the planet look much larger than the star. That doesn’t work; the two are so far away it doesn’t matter if Krypton was on Rao’s near or far side; it would have to appear smaller than the star. We know Krypton is not a gas giant, so it can’t be much more than a few times Earth’s size. Even compared to a red dwarf that’s pretty small.

Still, it does make for a dramatic series of panels, and I’m always willing to let art trump science if need be. And this really is a pretty nifty story.

The issue comes out on November 7, and I’ll be heading over to my local comic store (Time Warp) to pick up a copy. Next time I see Neil maybe I’ll get him to sign it. It’s not too often I get to do that with someone who knows Superman.

Image credits: DC Comics; Digitized Sky Survey/NASA/Skyview


* I love – LOVE – the 1978 Superman movie, and I still to this day listen to the soundtrack, so you can argue with me over this, but you will be wrong.


This actually happens twice per orbit, when it’s on either side of its star. That means the orbital period is actually twice 382 days, or well over two years… and as you’ll see, that puts it farther from its star, making things worse.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Geekery

Breaking up is easy to do. If you’re a comet.

By Phil Plait | November 5, 2012 7:00 am

So there’s this comet named 168P/Hergenrother. It’s one of a bazillion such iceballs orbiting the Sun, but this one turns out to be more interesting than most. For one thing, it has a short period, orbiting the Sun once every 6.8 years or so. Its orbit goes out to about that of Jupiter’s, and reaches down into the inner solar system about as far as Mars. It never gets closer than about 80 million kilometers (50 million miles) to us, so it’s usually relatively faint, and you need a big ‘scope to observe it.

It was discovered in 1998, and made a second pass down our way in 2005. This year, 2012, it came by again, and folks around the world observed it as they do any comet. But then, in September, it gave us a surprise. A big one. Lots of observers were reporting that practically overnight the comet grew hugely in brightness, getting as much as 700 times brighter than expected! Not only that, but observations showed the shape of the comet had changed, going from fairly point-like to much fuzzier.

That could mean only one thing. The comet was breaking up.

The picture above is from the Faulkes Telescope North, located on the Hawaiian observatory on Haleakala. It’s a composite of lots of separate exposures that were added together; you can see the stars are trailed (actually stippled; each exposure was short but then shifted to line up on the comet). The comet is the bright fuzzy blob in the upper right, and if you look just below the main part you can see a second fuzzy blob, much fainter.

That’s proof positive the comet calved, or had a big chunk break off. In fact, observations using the huge Gemini telescope show that the main body has broken up into at least four pieces! So what does this mean?

First, don’t panic. We’ve seen this happen to comets before, and this one is so far away from us we’re in no danger at all. It literally cannot get near us.

Second, it’s very interesting scientifically. Comets are basically big frozen snowballs peppered with rock. Imagine scooping up a handful of gravel and snow and then packing into a loose ball. That’s a comet, if your snowball is several kilometers across and the ice is actually frozen water and carbon dioxide. When they are far from the Sun comets stay frozen and are exceedingly dim. When they get closer, the ice goes directly to a gas (called sublimation), and escapes from the solid part (called the nucleus). It expands and can form a big fuzzy head around the solid nucleus that can be tens of thousands of kilometers across, bigger than planets! This is also what gets blown back by the solar wind (and the pressure of sunlight) to form the tail(s) of the comet.

This means that every time a comet gets closer to the Sun and starts to sublimate, it dies a little bit. Material leaves the comet and never comes back. But that ice is what holds the comet together! So sometimes enough ice turns into a gas and escapes that the comet gets substantially weaker, and big chunks of it can dislodge, falling away. That’s what appears to have happened to Hergenrother.

While we’ve seen this before with other comets, it’s not like it happens every day, so any chance to see this occur is fascinating. In 2006 we watched as comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 literally disintegrated. Even more amazing, in 2007 the run-of-the-mill comet 17P/Holmes suddenly erupted, getting hugely brighter, and a huge shell of dust was seen to be expanding around it. Now we think Holmes collided with a small asteroid, and the violence of the event blasted off the material. I saw Holmes with own eyes when this happened, and even though it was past the orbit of Mars, the shell of dust was easily visible to the naked eye. It was awesome.

No two comets are ever really alike. They have different sizes, shapes, compositions, and orbits. And each will behave slightly differently as they round the Sun and head back into deep space. If there’s a lesson from Hergenrother, it’s this: it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on everything in the sky. Just because something looks routine now doesn’t mean it won’t try to pull a fast one later.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to AsteroidWatch NickAstronomer. Image credits: Hergenrother: LCOGT/Giovanni Sostero, Nick Howes, Alison Tripp & Ernesto Guido; Holmes: Tamas Ladanyi


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Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets
The Sun ate another comet
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Rosetta: mission to land on a comet

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

The single greatest vacation picture ever taken

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2012 6:00 am

On Halloween 2012, when people were assembling their costumes and candy, the Mars Curiosity rover was assembling something truly spectacular: a jaw-dropping high-definition self-portrait that has to be seen to be believed:

[Click to enjohnny5enate. And yes, oh my yes, you want to.]

This incredible picture is a mosaic made up of 55 hi-res images taken by the MAHLI, the Mars Hand Lens Imager. That’s a camera designed to be able to take close-up shots of nearby rocks and other feature, but can also focus all the way out to infinity, allowing it to take pictures of distant geographical features as well.

Or, in this case, itself! Now get this: MAHLI is located at the end of the two-meter robotic arm. That was extended and then aimed back at the rover so it could take the pictures (think of every Facebook pic you’ve seen of party revelers holding a camera up and taking a snapshot of themselves). So why don’t you see the arm in these shots? It’s because it was edited out! The camera took several pictures which overlapped. So you’d get two shots of, say, the main body of the rover, each with the arm blocking a different part of the rover’s body. By combining the parts of each picture that don’t show the arm, you can edit it out of the final product. [UPDATE: What I said is technically possible, but not in fact what happened! Emily Lakdawalla has – haha – the scoop on this.]

In the end, you’re left with a pristine (if somewhat distorted) view of the rover as if you were standing there. And there’s so much more than just the rover! The rocks and sand covering the ground, the wheel tread prints in the surface, the small plain the rover sits on. And you can see the layered hills in the distance; those rise up to become the central peak of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s home… and also the rover’s eventual destination. Remember, it’s a rover. It roves.

Pictures like this also let engineers assess the rover’s status. They can look over the different parts and make sure everything’s OK, and also use it as a baseline in case something goes wrong later. It’s far more than just a pretty picture.

But oh my, it’s such a pretty picture!

You can get more info at Universe Today, and Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog points out some fun stuff to look for in the shot, too.

And, I suppose, the title of this post is somewhat misleading. It may look like Curiosity is sitting on a sandy beach somewhere, taking its own "Wish you were here!" picture. But in reality, it’s no vacation. Curiosity is there to work. And it has just two Earth years to unravel a few billion years of Martian history.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


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Pew! Pew! Take *that*, Mars!
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Pretty pictures

How far back will we set our clocks?

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2012 11:59 am

This picture is going around Facebook. I tried to find the original, but it’s hopeless, so I’ll just put this here.

Remember, in the US we’re not just voting on the President, we’re voting on lots of Congresscritters, too. In that case, we may be setting the clocks back more like two thousand years.


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The Neroes of global warming
A wind is rising
The US Congress Anti-Science Committee

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Humor, Piece of mind, Politics

The return of Something Fierce

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2012 7:03 am

Regular readers of my long-standing crush on singer/songwriter/siren Marian Call. Her voice is lovely, her lyrics brain-poking, and her self-motivated music career an inspiration.

So I’m really pleased to let y’all know she is re-releasing her last album, Something Fierce. She’s doing this for several reasons, but one is to get it more widely released. She wants to get on NPR and other places where the audience for her would fit right in.

Of course, this is Marian we’re talking about, so she’s gone to ridiculous lengths to do this. She wants her listeners to participate, to be a part of this. So she’s done something both silly and clever (typically): she’s started a treasure hunt. Well, she’s calling it Adventure Questing because, let’s face it, her fans (of which I am a big one) are all geeks. Anyway, she’s issuing one task per day to her followers, and they’re, well, silly and clever. I won’t give anything away; instead, just go look.

Also, follow her on Twitter for updates and such.

This all started on November 1 – sorry, I know I’m late, but there has been some other stuff on my mind lately – and ends on the 13th. So go and start questing adventurously! And know that what you’re doing is helping support an extremely talented artist who has worked enormously hard to get where she is, and does it all for the love of music, and the love of fans. That’s honest truth, and one of the many reasons I really dig her.


Related Posts:

Rocketfest!
Something Fierce
The (Marian) Call of Mars
Clarion Marian Call

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery
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