The anticipation is part of the excitement: who will see it first? where? when? We stand up on our beach house’s roof deck, scanning the night sky, enjoying the breeze and the sound of the surf and the fading light of the setting sun illuminating the palm trees around us. Waiting for the predicted time, looking around, anticipating.
Then someone spots it: a small dot near the horizon. Everyone looks, points, calls “I see it!” We watch as it travels across the sky, getting brighter as it moves. We talk about what it means, and we recall previous times we’ve seen it. It fades as it moves towards the far horizon and we move off to enjoy the rest of the evening. It never fails to put a smile on my face.
For years, we’ve been spotting the ISS (the International Space Station) from our holiday home on the Kenyan coast. Whenever we’re there, I check to see if it will be visible and get the family to take some time to watch it fly overhead. I’ll usually look up who’s on the station crew at the time and any tidbits of information about experiments, spacewalks, etc.
There’s a great feeling of being connected. We’re on the edge of water and land, spending our days walking along that edge and going back and forth from the sea to the land. We’re standing on Earth and looking up at the stars, seeing other human beings traveling in a massive achievement of human engineering and technology. The fact that we can see it from where we stand is just terrific – no binoculars or telescope needed. It has also become something of a tradition: every holiday we make a plan for a space station viewing on our roof deck.
In one sense, it’s an unexciting non-event: a dot of light crossing the sky. In another, however, it’s a connection between us and one of the greatest achievements of the human species. What an event to enjoy on a beach holiday!
There I was, going about my daily business, when NASA did it to me again. You’d think that they’d be content to let us lead regular, normal lives, but no. They just have to go and open up our minds to wonder and amazement. Jerks.
NASA has always done incredible work in exploring space and expanding our understanding of how the universe works. Just in the last year, there have been multiple reports sent back from various worlds in our solar system. Robot explorers have sent back scientific data, images and more that cause us to rethink how our universe works.
The latest assault on our sense of complacency was that the planet Mars has liquid water on the surface. We’ve known that Mars has ice on the surface, and there’s been suspicion that there is liquid water underground, but now we know that water flows on the surface of the planet. (It’s not like there are rivers and lakes, but seasonal runoffs of briny water.) When you consider that all life on Earth – no matter the conditions, even extremely hot or acidic or cold or whatever – requires water to exist, this is huge news. If there is life on other planets, it must be in places where there is water. If there is water on Mars, there is a chance that there is life …and that is incredible.
Discoveries are being made almost daily as scientists study the data (the latest is that Pluto has blue skies and red ice). It’s not that surprising, considering that before New Horizons flew past Pluto the best images we had of the (dwarf) planet was of a pixelated blob, snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope. Now we have images of mountains, ice plains, atmosphere, and more. It’s an incredibly active world, way out there at the fringes of our solar system, and scientists are amazed at its complexity.
It wasn’t NASA, but the scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) who sent a craft (Rosetta) to intercept Comet 67P. In a first for space exploration, ESA managed to land a craft (Philae) on the surface of the comet. (Watch a truly incredible video of the landing created by ESA from images sent by the lander.)
Spacecraft always record scientific data in a variety of ways. The visual information comes back to us as beautiful photographs and videos. Rosetta also included audio information, sending back recordings of the “singing comet.” Musician Andrew Huang took the sounds from Comet 67P, remixed them and came up with this:
The Dawn spacecraft is currently orbiting this dwarf planet in the asteroid belt – a world that was once considered the “missing” planet between Mars and Jupiter and classified as a planet for half a century – and mapping the entire sphere. It’s collecting data and sending images that are stumping scientists: what are those bright spots? what made the 6km mountain that sticks out of a flat plain? There just aren’t any conclusive answers …yet. Dawn will come closer this month – dropping down to an orbit only 375km away from the surface. Perhaps this closer look will help answer some of the questions. Meanwhile, scientists are left speculating.
Our incredible universe
It’s literally awesome what leaps our species has taken in terms of our knowledge of the universe. We have sent robot explorers to most of our solar system’s worlds, and they’ve sent back information about blue skies, surface water, active volcanoes, and many more things that we understand and many that we don’t. We can see high-resolution photographs and topographical maps of places that we can’t even see from Earth without professional telescopes.
There’s a poem by Whitman that captures for me some of this wonder and amazement (although he’s a little more critical of the scientists than I am!):
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
It’s rare to have moments of joy and wonder on overnight intercontinental flights …at least not when you fly economy. But sometimes the stars literally align and amazing things happen.
We were flying home from Rome to Addis Ababa on Monday night, the three of us squeezed into tight quarters on a nearly fully flight. We were glad to have three seats in the middle since that meant that at least one of us could sleep (for Nadia, three seats means a princess-sized bed!).
Around 4am, I woke up and got up to stretch my legs. I walked around the plane, circling around to use the loo. All the rows were occupied, with all the window seats filled with sleeping passengers. The portholes in the bulkheads were just too small to allow me to see anything. Grumbling, I headed back to my seat.
Determined to climb over someone if I had to, I got out my camera and headed back down the length of the plane. Fortunately, someone had got up and there was a free window seat on the right side of the plane. I got in and looked out.
Serendipity. The window was perfect. Just beyond the wingtip was the moon, full and bright. It was a “supermoon,” bigger than normal since it was at perigee (closest point to Earth in its orbit), 50,000km closer to the Earth than at apogee (furthest point). Coincidentally, this supermoon was passing through the Earth’s shadow: such a supermoon eclipse only happens every 30 years or so.
I took out my camera and snapped away. Unfortunately, the plane was vibrating too much and there was too much ambient light reflecting in the window to get a really clear photograph. Instead I put the camera away and enjoyed the sight.
The moon doesn’t go dark during a lunar eclipse, since it gets some ambient light bent through the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, it turns a rusty red – some people call it a “blood moon.” For me, this was no harbinger of doom but a gorgeous sight that speaks about how beautifully the universe works and how much we know and continue to learn.
We know when eclipses happen and can predict to the minute when they start and end for any spot on Earth. I knew that 4am would be the perfect time to look out the right side of the airplane as we flew over the Sudan-Ethiopia border and see the moon in our shadow. Eclipses work like clockwork and show how knowable and predictable the universe is. Instead of demystifying the universe, however, this just increases my wonder and amazement at how perfectly it all works.
Meanwhile, it was a gorgeous sight. I got up and returned to my cramped seat with a huge grin on my face. My knees and back would get relief later. For now, I was filled with wonder and appreciation for our beautiful universe.