We spent Tuesday, the 14th of July, in suspense, not knowing whether the Pluto flyby had been a success. Just as planned, the spacecraft had not transmitted any signal since Monday. I was among the visitors at the home base of the New Horizons spacecraft, the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Late in the afternoon, the spacecraft antenna pointed briefly back at Earth. The plan was to send a squirt of status data for a few minutes. Moving at the speed of light, this signal would not reach Earth until four and a half hours later, at 8:52 PM Laurel time. Around 8:00, the conference center was filling up with people. The crowd watched a NASA TV feed. Had the spacecraft functioned correctly? The feed switched to the New Horizons operations center in another building. “Carrier lock” had been achieved. This brought relieved applause! Then controllers confirmed seeing good telemetry from several systems, each reporting … Continue reading →
About Bill Higgins
William S. Higgins is a radiation safety physicist at Fermilab involved with the transport of high-energy particle beams. He frequently writes and speaks about spaceflight, astronomy, and the history of science. A graduate of Notre Dame, he lives in Aurora, Illinois.
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As I left the Applied Physics Laboratory on the evening of Monday, 13 July—a day I wrote about in “Land of the Plutophiles”—I knew the New Horizons spacecraft would fall silent that night. Across the gulf between here and Pluto, the slow transmission of images and other data takes a lot of time. Pointing instruments this way and that, as the spacecraft covered Pluto, Charon, the smaller moons, and the space between, left no time to pause and point the high-gain dish antenna at Earth—especially during the crucial hours near closest approach. Instead the plan was to record all data in New Horizons’ onboard memory. There would be plenty of time, if all went well, to transmit the data in the months following the flyby. During Monday, nevertheless, a few key “insurance” observations had been transmitted. The chance of collision with a destructive grain of dust, or disruption by a cosmic ray, was remote, but not zero. In case of … Continue reading →
I arrived today in the heart of Plutomania, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The scientists collaborating on the New Horizons team have already been here, keeping long hours, for weeks. Today APL welcomed about a thousand invited guests and a couple of hundred of the world’s journalists. Today’s hot news from the press briefing: Nitrogen ions, lost from the top of Pluto’s intriguing atmosphere, were detected several days before they were expected. Pluto’s radius has been measured at 1185 kilometers, plus or minus 10, which firmly establishes it as larger, if only slightly larger, than its rival Kuiper Belt, Eris. Check out APL’s New Horizons page for links to a video archive of such briefings. I met Kerri Beisser, APL’s education and public outreach lead for New Horizons. I met the New Horizons Educator Fellows, teachers who help other teachers bring Pluto into their classroom work. These teachers have been involved with the project for years, some since … Continue reading →
I’m stopping in the middle of an epic road trip to post this from a diner in York, Pennsylvania. I am headed for Laurel, Maryland, where the good folks at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory have been flying NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft for nine years. The day after tomorrow, New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto and Charon. APL will have a lot of temporary visitors. I’ve agreed to help with their education and public outreach efforts, starting tomorrow. I changed my travel plans when I learned that my uncle, Bernard Higgins, had died. The funeral was to be in Rochester, New York last Friday. I decided to leave home on Thursday and drove 600 miles from Aurora, Illinois to Buffalo, about an hour short of Rochester, in one very long day. I was able to cover the remaining distance the next morning, just in time for Uncle Benny’s funeral. We were all very sad to have … Continue reading →
Brother Guy knows I love a challenge. A few days ago Brenda Frye, in her article on the creation of complex nuclei in supernovae, concluded “As Carl Sagan first said, ‘We are starstuff!'” Brother Guy recalled (approximately) Joni Mitchell’s words in her 1969 song “Woodstock:” “We are stardust, we are golden,” and wondered whether Sagan was the first to refer to “star stuff.” He wrote, “This would be a great research topic for Bill Higgins!” Maybe it would. Actually, this question has already been researched, in a fine 2013 posting by the Quote Investigator. It’s well worth reading. But I can add a few remarks to QI’s discussion. In his 1973 book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Carl Sagan wrote: All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. … Continue reading →
Speaking of asteroids… “An Asteroid As Big As the Vatican.” This title arrested me. Instantly I realized that I should write about it here. How could I overlook it? Dr. Bruce Betts never stops marveling at the Universe. As Director of Science and Technology for The Planetary Society, he’s been explaining astronomy for a long time. A particular specialty is his “Random Space Facts” feature. He seizes upon one idea and presents it briefly, in a tongue-and-cheek manner. I’m familiar with Random Space Facts from listening for years to the Planetary Radio podcast and radio show; I’ve learned that the feature dates back to Betts’s answering machine in the 1990s. In recent months, Betts has brought Random Space Facts to video. Among the short clips on the Planetary Society’s Web site, I found one shot in the heart of Rome: A most unexpected connection between planetary science and the Vatican! Here Dr. Betts tells more of the story behind Random … Continue reading →
I’ve seen pictures of America’s first spacewalker. But what did America’s first spacewalker see? Fifty years ago, astronauts James A. McDivitt and Edward H. White blasted off from Cape Kennedy aboard Gemini 4. Their mission would last four days. Flights of NASA’s two-seat Gemini spacecraft would practice the long durations, complex tasks, and astronautical skills necessary for the eventual Apollo missions to the Moon. Eleven weeks previously, on 18 March 1965, Soviet Union had launched Voshkod 2. Alexei Leonov had, for 12 minutes, become the first human to leave a spacecraft and drift in the void. NASA referred to this as “extravehicular activity,” or EVA, but the press began to call it a “spacewalk,” a name which has been with us ever since. It was time for an American to follow. On 3 June 1965, Captain Ed White left the Gemini 4 capsule and, protected by his G4C pressure suit, soared weightlessly in space alone for 20 minutes. You’ve seen the famous—nay, … Continue reading →
I haven’t been using Twitter very long. Twitter itself hasn’t been around for long, having been founded in 2006. It’s a very 21st-century medium of communication. I was therefore surprised when I came across a familiar voice, tweeting from the 17th century. Someone–it’s not clear who–is tweeting Johannes Kepler’s short book Somnium, his story about a fictional astronomer who is magically transported to the Moon. Somnium was originally written in Latin. The person behind @SomniumProject is making a new translation of the book into English. The Somnium (or Dream) has emerged in 140-character chunks, one sentence at a time, or sometimes just a sentence fragment, ever since 2011. SomniumProject also passes along news about astronomy and the history of science. Sometimes weeks or months will go by between bursts of fresh translated passages. But gradually, Kepler’s story is emerging, imagining the sky as seen from the surface of the Moon. You can see all the tweets to date, sorted into … Continue reading →
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was the astronomer who recognized that the planets move around the Sun in ellipses; this discovery led directly to the Newtonian revolution which gave us our present understanding of the laws of physics. Kepler wrote many works of nonfiction on astronomy and optics. However, the most peculiar of his writings, Somnium, or, in English, Dream, is a short fictional voyage to the Moon. Its narrator, Duracotus, a native of Iceland, studies astronomy with Tycho Brahe in Denmark. When he returns home he discovers that his mother knows far more about the Moon than Tycho does; she reveals that she is a witch and converses with demons who regularly travel through space. (Kepler himself worked with Tycho, the greatest astronomical observer of his age, and his own mother was once accused of witchcraft and imprisoned.) The witch summons a demon, who explains that travel to the Moon is possible only when the shadow of the Earth touches it–that … Continue reading →
“News is only the first rough draft of history.” –Alan Barth Forty-five years ago, the Apollo 13 mission met with a disastrous explosion that threatened the lives of the three astronauts aboard, James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. The intended lunar landing was abandoned, replaced with a determined struggle to fix problems, keep systems running, and keep the crew alive, while Apollo 13’s command and service module Odyssey, docked to its lunar module Aquarius, swung around the far side of the Moon and made its way back to Earth. In the course of time, many books have examined the history of Apollo 13. Examples include Henry S. F. Cooper’s Thirteen: The Flight That Failed, Lost Moon (retitled Apollo 13) by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Catherine Bly Cox and Charles Murray, and A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. And there’s a great 1995 movie, Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. … Continue reading →
A new map plots the distribution of invisible dark matter across part of the sky. On 13 April, astronomers of the Dark Energy Survey made an announcement that began: Mapping the cosmos: Dark Energy Survey creates detailed guide to spotting dark matter Analysis will help scientists understand the role that dark matter plays in galaxy formation Scientists on the Dark Energy Survey have released the first in a series of dark matter maps of the cosmos. These maps, created with one of the world’s most powerful digital cameras, are the largest contiguous maps created at this level of detail and will improve our understanding of dark matter’s role in the formation of galaxies. Analysis of the clumpiness of the dark matter in the maps will also allow scientists to probe the nature of the mysterious dark energy, believed to be causing the expansion of the universe to speed up. [To read the rest of of the press release, follow this link.] … Continue reading →
At Christmastime, I pointed out “Christmas on the Moon,” a 1959 episode of the nearly-forgotten TV series Men into Space that can be seen on Youtube. I wrote: “I’m always intrigued when filmmakers attempt to put fairly accurate science into a science fiction story.” Well, even though not only Christmas but also Easter have come and gone, I’ve returned to thinking about the show. I’d like to take a closer look at the episode’s attempts to deal with scientific issues. And since today the world is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, examining a TV drama revolving around a telescope in space might be relevant for a moment. In so doing, I will mention plot points in the episode, so heed my SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched it. In “Christmas on the Moon,” Colonel Edward McCauley (played by William Lundigan) and his wife host a pre-Christmas party, just before spacemen and astronomers depart for the Moon … Continue reading →