On This Astronomical Day

On This Astronomical Day

On two days each year, astronomy enthusiasts around the country — and the world —celebrate National Astronomy Day. For 2016, those days are May 14 and October 8.

Founded in 1973 by Doug Berger, president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California, Astronomy Day asks us all to gaze upwards and contemplate the beauty of our surrounding universe and perhaps stand in awe of our fortuitous place in both space and time. Not only is it astonishing in itself that we live on a planet that has the capability to support life — and that life actually arose despite unseemly conditions — but we’re also fortunate enough to live in a time in which technology gives us the capabilities to peer into the vastness of space and glimpse worlds and galaxies beyond what we were ever able to imagine.

The universe is immense (around 14 billion light years from end to end), but within that vastness lie objects that still baffle our current intellectual and scientific abilities. So today, let’s recognize a particular space-faring telescope that has allowed us to pull back the black cosmic veil and shed light on some of the most astounding structures our universal home has to offer.

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble in orbit
Hubble in orbit 600 kilometers above Earth.

Launched aboard space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was the first of its kind, and to date it’s taken more than 1.2 million images of our surrounding universe. Despite early malfunctions with its mirrors (which it uses to focus on far-flung objects), astronauts replaced and corrected those components and Hubble was back in operation. Hubble’s first image left the scientific community in awe, and it was humanity’s first step into truly understanding what lies beyond our small solar neighborhood.

Hubble’s first image

While admittedly not astonishing to most, this first image showed a level of detail that ground-based telescopes could only dream of capturing. After some fine-tuning and tweaking of its instrumentation, the Hubble team was able to calibrate the telescope to peer further and further into the black and to capture more astonishing images than we could have imagined. You can go to Hubble’s website to see a gallery of those amazing images.

One of the most remarkable images from Hubble took the scientific community by storm. On December 18 and December 28, 1995, Hubble turned its gaze to a blank space in the constellation Ursa Major and took a series of observations (i.e. photographs). The results of those observations are nothing short of breathtaking. What was by all accounts an empty patch of sky turned out to reveal one of the most unimaginable scenes that nobody was expecting — later termed the Hubble Deep Field image.

Hubble Deep Field: 1995

In an unassuming patch of black space, Hubble revealed a cosmic highway of galaxies. What’s truly astounding is that this image isn’t a mixture of galaxies and stars. To the contrary, every single speck of light you see in this image is a galaxy. I’ll say that again. Every speck is a GALAXY, in themselves each made up of trillions stars like our own. Even in the dark there is light, and lots of it.

To understand the scope of this image’s importance, take a pen and extend your arm its full length towards the sky. The head of the pen is the size of the area Hubble trained its camera. Think about that. This image is the result of only a pen head’s spot in the sky, and yet that one minuscule area revealed more galaxies than you can reasonably count. Multiply what you see here by the entire rest of the universe (trillions upon trillions of galaxies) and our place in the universe quickly comes into perspective. And then ask yourself if you believe we’re truly alone.

Over the years, Hubble has taken millions of observations, and it’s only scratched the surface of what’s within our observable universe. To celebrate Astronomy Day, take a few minutes and peruse Hubble’s massive collection of images from its truly remarkable life. Below are just a few of my personal favorites.

Horsehead Nebula
cats eye
Cat’s Eye Nebula
NGC 4038-4039_the antennae galaxy
NGC 4038-4039: The Antennae Galaxy

Happy Astronomy Day!

SpaceXploration: How SpaceX will Kickstart the Next Space Age

SpaceXploration: How SpaceX will Kickstart the Next Space Age

Given the current tumultuous political season and discussions about bathrooms, you may have missed a small event that took place in the middle of the ocean (well, 150 miles off the coast of Florida). After a successful launch of their Falcon 9 rocket delivering cargo to the ISS, SpaceX successfully landed the booster portion of said rocket on an autonomous barge floating in the ocean. Although not one for the history books for most people, this event just completely revolutionized the space industry.

So what’s the big deal? Three things:
1. SpaceX will save taxpayers billions of dollars
2. America’s back in the space game
3. Space is going to be interesting again

1. Billions in savings

Imagine you book a flight to New York (or anywhere – it doesn’t matter). You get on the plane, take off, and land safely at your destination. But rather than refueling the plane and preparing for the next leg of the flight, workers put the jet on a barge and dump it in the middle of the ocean. Now imagine that this happens after every single commercial flight. It sounds ludicrous (because it is), but that’s essentially exactly how we approach industrial rocketry. We put supplies on top of a rocket, blast it into space, then let everything that’s not the payload drift back to Earth and crash into the ocean, never to be used again.

Although not regularly publicized, sending rockets into space is a fairly regular occurrence. Those rockets carry a plethora of various payloads: satellites, ISS supplies, telescopes, probes, rovers. Satellites alone make up the majority of what’s sent into space, used for GPS, TV, phones, surveillance, and a myriad of other purposes. Rockets put a lot of stuff into space. And each launch costs the taxpayers millions of dollars, if managed through NASA and on top of an American rocket. SpaceX’s achievement now means that we can launch, retrieve, and reuse expensive equipment that would have previously been discarded. SpaceX proved that the concept of retrievable and reusable rocketry works. Now, if NASA and SpaceX can consistently retrieve and reuse boosters, it’s a potential savings of billions of taxpayer dollars year over year.

Amount of man-made satellites orbiting Earth

2. America’s got its space mojo back

Since the scrap of the shuttle program in 2011, America has slowly been losing its competitive edge in the global space market. NASA itself has even been on the funding chopping block for the last couple of decades, but they’ve done an outstanding job of staying relevant in political circles. For the past decade, congress has been regularly defunding the agency, forcing it to hitch rides (literally) on other country’s space programs. America rarely does anything newsworthy when it comes to space exploration, and anything that has made the news was set in motion years ago:

  • New Horizons
  • Voyager 1 & 2
  • Hubble, James Webb, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer, etc. (space telescopes)
  • Spirit and Opportunity (Mars rovers)
  • Philae (comet lander)
  • International Space Station (ISS)

NASA’s lack of funding is a result of short-sighted political visions, and if it was up to the agency we’d be on our way to Mars right now.

Curiosity on Mar’s Namib Dune

Landing a booster on a barge may not seem like a big deal now, but this event just set in motion an entire series of future accomplishments, innovation, and planning. It’s the first rung in America’s new space ladder. This autonomous landing was proof of concept, and now that it’s been proven to work, we’re about to witness a major revolution in astronautic design, engineering, and execution. Further, one of the most important commercial pioneers in the industry (SpaceX / Elon Musk) is working almost exclusively with NASA. SpaceX is revolutionizing astronautics, and they’re bringing that knowledge to NASA. America’s back in the game.

3. Space will be interesting again

If you were alive in 1969, then you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when Neil Armstrong climbed out of the lunar lander and stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon. The human species had just put a man on a cosmic orb that wasn’t Earth. In the bloodiest decade of American history since the Civil War (the Vietnam War), Americans were glued to the TV and newspapers as the Apollo missions changed humanity. The photo “Earthrise over the Moon” adorned every newspaper and magazine after its release, and that one picture changed our perspective of Earth and our own humanity forever.

Earthrise over the Moon – Apollo 8

It may be difficult to imagine, but it wasn’t long ago that we essentially had no idea what our surrounding universe actually looked like. We had hazy photos from powerful telescopes and distorted images taken from various portions of the radio and light spectrums, but nothing spectacular. The Hubble Space Telescope changed everything. Hubble’s first set of pictures swept the public by storm, showing us detailed images of nebulae and far-away galaxies. The Hubble Telescope changed our understanding of the universe, and it made space accessible and exciting again. These beautiful images could be appreciated and understood by anyone and everyone, meaning it didn’t take an advanced astrophysics degree to understand how a nebula worked. We could actually SEE how it worked. And it was beautiful.

My personal favorite: Pillars of Creation

Lately, space has been rather dull to the majority of the public. Unless you’ve been keeping up with cosmology, astrophysics, and general spacey news, you haven’t heard of anything extremely exciting lately. Sure, we’ve made a few discoveries, sent more supplies to ISS, launched some satellites, and performed other routine activities. But nothing Earth shattering. The question NASA has been trying to answer lately is “What’s our next big thing?”

But it’s important to understand that without public interest, NASA isn’t going to do the next big thing. Given the political nature of congress (duh), they’re not going to invest billions of dollars in an agency that the public doesn’t deem a necessity. To the constituency, there are more important problems money can solve down here. How’s space going to help the economy, jobs, security, or society in general? Neil deGrasse Tyson gave one of the best answers to this question in a speech a few years ago at the 28th National Space Symposium. I highly recommend taking the time to watch it, because he puts into perspective how space exploration touches every aspect of our lives.

But SpaceX just gave NASA the boost (pun intended) it needed to actually begin to provide a sufficient answer to that question. We all know Mars is our next major exploratory step. The only questions are when and how. Landing a booster on a barge in the middle of the ocean may not seem like a direct step towards the red planet, but the downstream effects are huge. SpaceX just proved the concepts of astronautical efficiency, autonomy, and re-usability — three vital components of anything space related. Especially when planning a trip to Mars, efficiency and re-usability will be top on the list to implement into the design (as well as human safety), and autonomy means those humans don’t have to perform every single task required in such a major endeavor. This is one of the first major steps in that direction. It’s the first rung, and we’re about to see more rungs added as NASA and commercial entities team up to figure out the “hows”.

So to most, SpaceX’s latest accomplishment may have been just that — an accomplishment. But it’s more than that. It’s the first step in America’s space revolution (and, I’d argue, re-evolution), and I’m excited to see where those steps take us in our journey through space.