The Incredible Invisible Milky Way

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The Milky Way over Switzerland, (c) Stephane Vetter

Arlene and I just returned from three days in Mendocino, on the northern California coast. It had been foggy recently—a very common thing in Mendocino—but during our stay it was completely cloudless. And no moon! A stargazer’s paradise. I walked down the street to where there weren’t any nearby lights and looked up. And there it was! The magical mystical Milky Way: the combined glow of billions of stars in our own galaxy.

The Milky Way is magical to me because I can’t see it at home. There is so much artificial nighttime light in the Bay Area that only the brightest stars are visible. The Milky Way is still there, of course, RIGHT THERE, EVERY DAMN NIGHT, AND I CAN’T SEE IT.

My brother and I were both interested in astronomy at an early age. Every weekend we went around the neighborhood collecting used newspapers in the old red wagon, which we stacked up in our garage. Once we had accumulated a carload, we’d pile them into our Chevrolet station wagon and Dad would drive us into Oakland to the recycle yard. (I’m sure Dad spent more in gas, not to mention in his time, than we made selling the newsprint. He was generous that way.) After about two years, we took the money we had saved and bought a small telescope. I still remember the first night we used it and saw Saturn.

But we couldn’t see the Milky Way! Suburban Fremont in the mid-1960s already had way too much light pollution. Pretty much the only time I got to see the Milky Way as a lad was during Boy Scout summer camp, far from the city lights.  And as an adult, I still have to journey far to see it: this week was the first time I’d seen the Milky Way in several years. It’s one of the prices we pay to live in the city, and one of the reasons I often fantasize about living out of it.

Comet Redux

Yesterday NASA’s Stardust mission flew by comet Tempel 1 and took detailed photographs. In July 2005, the same spacecraft (then named Deep Impact) watched as a special impactor successfully slammed into Tempel 1. Investigators have located the 2005 impact zone on the comet and can see a crater that wasn’t there before.

This is the not the only super-duper cool astronomy stuff that’s happening right now. In just 28 days, the Messenger probe will become the first spacecraft ever to go into orbit around the planet Mercury.

Should humans build robots? You bet. Where should we use them? Outer space!

Help NASA map the moon!

A robotic spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, is currently orbiting the moon. The LRO is sending back so much data, however, that NASA is asking for help in analyzing it. Oxford astrophysicist Chris Lintott created the website MoonZoo.org (part of the Zooniverse Project), where anyone can log on, watch a training video and begin identifying objects on the lunar surface.

One of the lunar images I annotated for the MoonZoo project

Today I created an account on MoonZoo and very quickly I was identifying craters, boulders, mounds, linear features and other objects. There’s even a tiny chance that the picture you’re shown will include man-made objects: a non-functioning lander from the 1960s, for example. It’s very absorbing—I spent about 30 minutes marking craters when I really should have been working on something else.

This enabling of easy public participation in the advancement of science is one of the things I love best about the Internet.

The Future of NASA, or Three Days in Iraq

Tonight I heard a superb opinion piece by Dr Moira Gunn, host of the weekly radio show TechNation. She notes the political debate over NASA’s budget and President Obama’s new vision for the agency.

The proposed annual budget for NASA is only $19 billion … and do you know what we spend in Iraq every single day? $7 billion.

That’s right. Three days from now, we will have spent on Iraq the entirety of next year’s budget for NASA, and then some. Obama’s proposal to increase the budget of NASA by $6 billion over the next five years, really says that in half-a-decade, NASA will receive one more day in Iraq. (Yes, try to contain your enthusiasm.)

Gunn advocates a much larger investment, both in NASA and in science education & innovation in general—advocacy best championed by a government. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy’s leadership was critical in pushing the country not just towards the Apollo moon program, but towards excellence in science. The United States definitely needs another inoculation of science excellence now.

My angle on NASA’s vision is this: the current debate seems to hinge on whether we’re going back to the Moon, or to Mars—and whether various communities around the country will retain their aerospace industries that work to put humans in space. I wish human space flight weren’t such a political flash point, because it’s not where NASA should direct its energies.

Human space travel is very expensive, and very dangerous. There is, of course, the risk of accidents, such as those to the Challenger and Columbia, but the chief danger in space is cosmic radiation. A trip to the Moon takes about two weeks, but these days people are talking about going to Mars. A manned mission to Mars would take two-and-a-half years, because Mars is so far away. That’s a 2-1/2-year dose of cosmic radiation for each astronaut, and there’s no way to shield it.

Unmanned interplanetary missions have been enormously successful (Mars Rovers, Cassini, Galileo, Ulysses), and several others are en route to their destinations with all systems go (Messenger, New Horizons, Dawn), demonstrating without a doubt the value of further robotic missions. I remain skeptical of the feasibility of manned missions, not only because of their cost, but of the political fallout from the inevitable accidents and loss of life. The age of easy and ubiquitous space flight is still far in the future.

So how about we give NASA a few extra days in Iraq?