I’ll admit it, I am a sucker for year-end lists. If I’m reading one, it is a fun provocation for disagreement. If I’m writing one (like now), it is a welcome opportunity to separate the timeless from the ephemeral. Either way, such lists inspire an invigorating reconsideration of the events of the past 12 months–and for those who care about the human exploration of the universe, 2014 was a momentous year in many way.
Not all of the year’s developments were positive, of course, and not all delivered on their promise. So I’m dividing my list into “hits” and “misses.” This post covers part 1–the hits. As you’ll see, I am grading on a curve, with bonuses for boldness and demerits for projects with excessive hype or bad cost/benefit ratios. And by nature this is a subjective list. Disagree with my categories? Think I left out something important? Let me know, either in the comments or via Twitter: @coreyspowell.
During the darkest days of December, it makes me feel better to think about all the other, more profound darknesses out there in the universe. A little dose of the old perspective, you know. And boy, there are a lot of them–not just a lot of dark places, but a lot of different forms of darkness out there. In fact, there’s a lot more darkness than most of us realize, for an obvious if easily overlooked reason: Space images are calibrated to highlight faint or even invisible detail, making the universe seem like a much brighter place than it really is.
Consider, for instance, Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the now-famous comet being explored by the Rosetta spacecraft (and home to the intrepid, hibernating Philae lander). In all the images you see online, it looks brightly lit. Even the allegedly “true color” image, which is supposed to show what the Comet C-G would look like to the human eye up close, is a bright green-tinged gray. Here’s the truth: The comet is blacker than coal.
It truly is revolutionary, Or you could call it the holy grail, or the smoking gun–almost any cliche you throw at it works, because this is the real deal. What you are witnessing here is nothing less than the genesis of an entire new solar system, taking place right before your eyes.
For some quick context: Ever since Immanuel Kant introduced his nebular hypothesis in 1755, scientists have strongly suspected that planets form in swirling clouds around newborn stars. Over the years the theory has grown far more refined, filled in with supercomputer simulations and with increasingly detailed studies showing that young stars are surrounded by disks of gas and dust, closely matching what the models predict. But this new image, created by the ALMA observatory in Chile, is by far the best look ever at how planets are born.
Out There is not a political blog. Quite the opposite: It is a celebration of the outer boundaries of human exploration, where I deliberately steer away from most of the issues associated with our daily grind. Nevertheless, there are times when science contributes something to the political conversation (and vice versa), and this is one of them.
As I was reading about yesterday’s election, I was reminded of a quote from my recent interview with James Marsh, director of the new film The Theory of Everything. “That’s an interesting part of science, that you have to be open to changing your mind…It’s a hallmark of that thinking, that you’re open to the evidence changing your ideas,” he said. (His comments echo the famous quote from Carl Sagan.) Marsh was speaking in reference to Stephen Hawking’s u-turn rejection of his early cosmological ideas in favor of the no-boundary proposal, but it has a surprising resonance to election politics as well.
But praising The Theory of Everything for its omissions does it a disservice. The film achieves far more than sidestepping the common pitfalls of beautiful-mind storytelling; it takes a full-on, no-safety-net dramatic plunge. It presents Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, every bit as good as you’ve heard) as a cocky, witty, prickly, passionate, arrogant, lovable, and–yes–prodigiously intelligent character. It retraces his romance with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones, equally impressive in a quieter and more controlled role) in exquisite and sometimes painful detail. Most remarkably, the movie worms its way into the philosophical heart of science, exploring unflinchingly what it means to think like a open-minded physicist.
I consider the Rosetta spacecraft one of the most exciting space voyagers in years. It is the first probe to orbit a comet, returning images of unprecedented richness. On November 12 it will place a lander on the comet’s surface, another exploratory breakthrough. Rosetta’s target, Comet 67P (its mouthy full name is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) is a frozen relic from the early days of the solar system. Studying it up close will teach us a lot about how the planets formed, how Earth got its water, maybe even how life began.
Now I should add a caveat that I’m an unbridled fan of space exploration. Things that thrill me don’t always resonate the same way with the broader public, so I am heartened to see that the Rosetta mission has gone mainstream. Not only is it inspiring a great deal of news coverage and image sharing, it has achieved that distinctive sign of modern approval: It has spawned its own Internet meme.
The process began with a Photoshop of Comet 67P into downtown Los Angeles. The juxtaposition drives home the point that Comet 67P is tiny by planetary standards–just 2.5 miles wide–yet it is a whole complex world unto itself. Soon others digital artists jumped on the idea, bringing the comet onto a global tour. The result? Well…I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
These days it’s no surprise to come across a gallery of amazing astronomy images. The Hubble Space Telescope, the other NASA great observatories and space probes, the European Space Agency and European Southern Observatory, and many, many dedicated amateurs (among other sources) provide a steady flow of visual riches. Mind-boggling beauty shows up every day; I can barely keep up with it in my Twitter feed.
But what of the other human senses? Our appreciation of the natural world is bolstered not just in sights but in sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. A walk in the woods would not be the same without birdsong, the loamy odor of decaying leaves, the brush of branches. It’s a shame we don’t have access to the same kinds of experiences to connect us with the universe beyond our planet.
Wait a second! Actually we do, or at least we are starting to.
Sometimes the Nobel prize in physics requires a fair bit of decoding for the non-expert (such as last year’s award for the theory behind the Higgs boson, or the award the year before “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems”). There’s little room for confusion about this year’s prize, which recognizes the inventors of the blue LED, the crucial technology for energy-efficient indoor LED lighting. But in terms of public acclaim, nothing compares to the very first Nobel prize in physics, awarded in 1901 for work that had already been a source of excitement, scandal, and quackery for 5 years.
The story goes back to November of 1895, when Wilhelm Röntgen was experimenting with cathode-ray tubes–the predecessors of the old vacuum tube television sets. During his tests, he noticed that when he powered up the tubes, they caused a fluorescent screen in his lab to light up. On November 8 he studied the effect in detail and confirmed that something from the tubes was making his screen light up even if the tube was completely sealed in light-proof cardboard. He suspected, correctly, that the tube was producing some novel kind of invisible ray.
In my previous post I talked about the magical quality of an orbit: Each time a spacecraft settles into a permanent path around a new object, humanity has taken one more step in venturing off this little blue world of ours and becoming colonizers of the universe. When the Rosetta reached Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko on August 6 it marked the 11th celestial body we’ve orbited: Step #11 in the human conquest of space.
Going from zero to 11 has taken just under 57 years; the anniversary of Sputnik, the very first orbiter, arrives this weekend. It’s been a remarkable journey from Russia’s pioneering artificial satellite–hardly more than a metal ball with a radio beeper inside–to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta, which is conducting detailed scientific studies of its comet and deploying a lander onto the surface.
And yet, as momentous as each of these new orbits has been, many of them are now largely overlooked. At least one is forgotten almost entirely. (I’m thinking about the first spacecraft to orbit the sun. Can you name it? I couldn’t. See below for the answer.) So here is a look back at the 11 robotic emissaries that brought us out of our planetary cocoon, and the new perspectives that they provided. For more about space exploration, past, present, and future, you can follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell
To my mind, “standard orbit, Mr. Sulu” are more exciting words than “beam me up, Scotty.” An orbit contains a promise of ongoing excitement and adventure: When a spacecraft settles into orbit around another world, that means we have come to stay and explore, not just snap a few quick pictures and move on (maybe pausing briefly to break the Prime Directive). Two recent historic achievements speak to the thrill of the orbit, and its importance in establishing humans as a truly space-faring species.
The first, obviously, is India’s Mars Orbital Probe–also known as Mangalyaan, “Mars craft” in Sanskrit–which began circling the Red Planet earlier this week. With this achievement, India has taken its first step into deep space, joining the United States, Russia, and the multi-nation European Space Agency (ESA) at Mars. Expect more company soon. China aimed for Mars in 2011 but missed when Yinghou-1‘s Russian rocket malfunctioned; the nation plans to try again in 2015. Japan also failed in its first Mars attempt, but will join with the ESA to send the BepiColombo probe into orbit around Mercury.