[Update (February 13, 2012): The launch was a success! Congrats to the ESA for this achievement.]
The European Space Agency’s new launch vehicle, Vega, has its first "qualification flight" scheduled for Monday morning: the launch window is from 10:00 to 12:00 UTC (05:00 to 07:00 Eastern US time). ESA has a page where you can watch the launch live.
Vega is a smaller rocket, designed to haul 300 – 2000 kg payloads to low Earth orbit. It’s 30 meters tall by 3 meters wide (100 x 10 feet), so we’re not talking huge here. But this is a size needed for smaller payloads that don’t need huge thrust. This first launch will loft nine satellites in total: the AlMaSat demonstration satellite (30 cm on a side); another called LARES which is 390 kg in mass, designed to test an aspect of relativity called frame dragging (where a spinning object such as the Earth warps space by dragging it along with its spin, like a viscous fluid); and seven tiny satellites called picosats.
Given that this is the dead of night my time, I’ll watch it in reruns, but if the timing is more amenable to you give it a look! It’s not often you get to see the maiden voyage of a new rocket.
OK, fine. I’m too much of a sap to leave y’all at the end of the year with a floaty shark balloon. So instead, I’ll leave you with some astonishing beauty: Terje Sorgjerd’s time lapse animation "The Aurora":
Wow. Make sure it’s set to HD and make it full screen!
As devastating and haunting as the northern lights are, my eye kept being drawn to the stars themselves. I recognized some constellations, but their movement across the sky was just so odd: instead of heading up or down, many were going sideways, parallel with the horizon. I hadn’t read the video notes yet, so when I saw that, my first thought was, "Holy cow, how far north was he?!"
Turns out, really, really far. The video was shot at Kirkenes and Pas National Park in northern Norway — yes, northern Norway, around 70° north latitude. As an example, down here at more temperate latitudes, Vega gets pretty high in the sky, almost directly overhead. But that far north it doesn’t; in fact, that far north Vega never sets! It’s a circumpolar star, like Polaris itself. You can see that for yourself in the video: Vega is the bright star near the center of the frame starting at 21 seconds in. It’s in the video for about 10 seconds, and you can see it’s moving downward in a slow arc, but clearly won’t get anywhere near the horizon.
In the very next sequence you can see Orion right on the horizon, faded due to the Moon. But where I live, in Boulder, over the course of the night Orion rises on his side, arcs up to the south until he’s standing upright, then sets on his other side. In the video, though, he’s upright and slowly, slowly sinking at a shallow angle.
What a difference latitude makes! The aurorae are usually only visible from extreme northerly or southerly latitudes — though sometimes, after a big solar storm, they can be seen toward middle latitudes — so that’s an obvious difference. But the stars themselves tell the story of our round planet.
We live on a ball! And it spins through space, once a day, sweeping around a star in a period about 365.24 times that long, which itself circles the center of the Milky Way once in a period 220 million times longer than that, as it’s done only a score of times since its birth.
That’s quite the story. And the best part? It’s true.
Keep that in mind as we start our next turn around the Sun. Maybe it’ll help keep things in perspective.
Happy new year, folks, and may 2012 be ruled by reason and reality.
Recently, I was performing the mundane task of taking out the trash.
I went from room to room, collecting the detritus of the week. I then spent a few minutes scooping out and changing the cat litter, and, sighing, finally tied up the bag and hauled it out to the bins around the side of the house.
As I lugged the hefty bin out to the curb in the darkness, I did what I do, what I always do, when I go outside: I looked up.
I was greeted instantly with an astonishing sight: the reddish, glowing dot of Mars bumped right up against Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. The two were paired less than a degree between each other, low over the western horizon.
It was beautiful. Mars was the slightly brighter of the pair, and even in the mildly light-polluted and sparsely clouded night sky of Boulder I could see the color difference between the planet, some 240 million kilometers away, and the star, 3 million times farther distant yet.
I let my gaze drift a bit over and saw Saturn looming near Leo’s other end. Venus, I knew, was already behind the mountains, but I could see the Big Dipper standing on its bowl to the northwest. Following the arc of the dipper’s handle, I was led to mighty Arcturus, an orange giant nearing the end of its life, and a harbinger of things to come for our own star. Turning, was that Vega I saw dancing in between my neighbor’s tree branches? Why yes, yes it was. Summer’s coming, Vega is telling me.
My trash-hauling chore was forgotten. I suddenly had a flashback, visceral and total, of being a teenager. Standing at the end of my family’s driveway, I watched the sky. Every clear night you’d find me out there. I spent hundreds of hours, thousands, either gazing with my eye to the telescope or simply with my chin tipped up, the Universe unfolded above me. I would always have to pause when a car drove by, and while my absorption with the task didn’t allow it to occur to me then, I now wonder how many of those people saw me and thought to themselves that I was wasting my time.
But as I stand outside my house as an adult, gaping up at the sky, I am familiar there. The stars are my friends… no, that’s hopelessly anthropomorphic and somewhat twee. But they are like slipping your feet into well-worn slippers, like the first bite of a recipe you’ve perfected by countless trial-and-error meals, like holding a book whose spine has been softened through years of reading and re-reading.
I’m comfortable with the sky. I’m at home there. When I stand in my yard and look up, my heart sings and my mind reaches out. My weekly chore was interrupted, delayed, but it didn’t matter.
I don’t know what your own passion is. But I will say this, and you hear me well: no time is wasted spent under the stars. And no time is wasted spent doing what you love.
Picture credit: Il conte di Luna’s Flickr photostream, used under the Creative Commons license.