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!
Mission Operations Center workers applaud upon learning of radio contact with New Horizons on the evening of Tuesday, 14 July 2015. Photo: NASA.
Then controllers confirmed seeing good telemetry from several systems, each reporting over the voice channel in turn to Alice Bowman, the Mission Operations Manager: Radiofrequency, Autonomy, C&DH (Command and Data Handling), GNC (Guidance, Navigation, and Control), Propulsion, Power, Thermal. All was well.
Bowman made a formal report to the Principal Investigator: "PI, MOM on Pluto One, we have a healthy spacecraft. We've recorded data of the Pluto system. And we're outbound from Pluto."
Transmission of the scientific data would have to wait. New Horizons had resumed its busy series of measurements, requiring frequent changes in its orientation so as to point instruments at various targets. The high-gain antenna dish would not point toward Earth again for several hours.
Alice Bowman, Mission Operations Manager, is greeted by an enthusiastic audience as the New Horizons team enters the Kossiakoff Conference and Education Center auditorium at APL. Photo: NASA.
Time for another media briefing in the auditorium. Black-shirted New Horizons team members, having walked over en masse from Building 200, were cheered like champion athletes. As they descended the steps in the aisles and assembled on the stage, visitors cheered, journalists grinned, and NASA's Public Affairs Officer Dwayne Brown did his best to emulate a sports announcer, mustering superlatives. It took a while to settle down.
New Horizons team members, wearing black shirts sporting the mission logo, on stage to celebrate successful contact with the spacecraft after its closest approach to Pluto and Charon. Photo: NASA.
A panel of team leaders told what had been learned. "We didn't have any 'autonomy rule firings,' and what that means in layman's terms," said Alice Bowman, "is that the spacecraft—was happy." The crowd laughed.
She continued, "And it was very happy to go on and collect more science. And the main computer system has the data recorder and our C&DH [Command and Data Handling] engineer had reported that 'the expected number of segments' on that recorder had been used. So that tells us that that data has been collected on the spacecraft." Which was another reason for applause.
Dwayne Brown of NASA, left, grins as NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, Principal Investigator Alan Stern, Project Manager Glen Fountain, and Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman give the New Horizons salute. Photo: NASA.
At the end of the briefing, the panelists gave to the cameras what I had learned was the special New Horizons salute: Holding up nine fingers.
Nine is an important number to these people. There are those who say that the Solar System has only eight planets. Nobody in Laurel, Maryland that week would mention the eight-planet idea, except to ridicule it. To them, Pluto was a long-sought goal, and after decades of work, it had blossomed into a complex world with intriguing landscapes and a flock of moons. As far as they're concerned, Pluto is a planet.
As it receded from Pluto and Charon, of course, New Horizons was still observing, still writing fresh data into its recorders. For us on Earth, Encounter Day was ending.
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.
Members of the New Horizons team celebrate the spacecraft's closest approach with cheering and flag-waving, Tuesday morning, 14 July 2015. Photo: NASA.
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 failure during or just after the flyby, we'd have a few precious pictures and spectra to tell us something about Pluto and its neighborhood.
Tuesday dawned. Encounter Day.
I dressed for the occasion. I'd brought my skinny Sixties tie, a gift from a friend who huaunts thrift stores. On it a tiny embroidered Mercury capsule orbits a pale silver planet. I wore a suit and a shirt that I hoped would do the tie justice. Because if you don't wear your vintage space tie on a day when history is being made, when else are you going to wear your vintage space tie?
My skinny space tie.
I arrived at APL just after 7. Small American flags were passed out. It seemed a bit odd to gather people for the instant of closest approach, 7:50 AM. In one sense, nothing was about to happen. There would be no signal from the spacecraft for many hours. We would have no way to know this morning what was happening in Pluto's vicinity.
From another point of view, the moment was potent. The 14th of July was the day the people of the New Horizons project had been anticipating for more than a decade. Nine and a half years since launch; more years since the task of building New Horizons began; over 25 years of dreaming and planning and proposing. Celebrate the precise second when the spacecraft passed nearest to Pluto? Why not?
I think of this mission as a triumph of humankind, a dash to distant worlds that would, if successful, make global history. The flag in my hand, though, was a reminder that the government of one nation had sponsored, built, and launched New Horizons, albeit with many international collaborators. For the people of the United States to take pride in this accomplishment seemed entirely appropriate.
The conference center was jam-packed with APL employees, and visitors. Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator, assembled members of the New Horizons team at the center of the room. Above their heads, video screens displayed the NASA TV feed. At one point, we saw the Mission Operations Center in another building, deserted except for stuffed toys left in the flight controllers' seats. The flight controllers were here with us...
In the Mission Operations Center, deserted by humans, Pluto, Yoda, and a bear in a party hat monitor the Flight Control stations. Photo: NASA.
As the moment drew near. Stern led the crowd in a countdown. We cheered. We waved our little flags. We didn't know whether the spacecraft had functioned properly, but we were sure it had passed Pluto, and was now receding into deep space. Newton's laws of motion assured us of that.
Shortly afterward, the morning's media briefing began. On a screen was spectacular "insurance" image, gathered on Monday, that would become iconic: The sunlit hemisphere of Pluto, in detail. The surface was far from uniform: Rugged terrain in the dark belt around the equator. Cliffs, perhaps signs of erosion, running across the northern hemisphere. Smooth plains in the vast, pale heart-shaped region. Craters were few, suggesting that the surface has changed in geologically-recent time. Imaging scientists had worked far into the night to prepare this superb mosaic for immediate release.
Now-famous view of Pluto acquired 13 July 2015, and unveiled at the morning briefing on 14 July. Photo: NASA/JHU APL/Southwest Research Institute.
It was too soon to draw many conclusions, but the varied landscape made one thing abundantly clear: Pluto is not boring. Which made everyone even more glad that the United States had sent a probe to visit.
Had the spacecraft succeeded? Had the instruments worked? We didn't know. We would all have to wait until Tuesday evening to find out.
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 before launch. I'll be assisting Kerri's group in preparing for a big public event next Saturday.
The Kossiakoff Conference and Education Center should be buzzing Tuesday. It will be a busy day for the spacecraft, but it will fall silent as it concentrates on ignoring Earth and cramming as much instrument data as it can into its solid-state memories. Closest approach is 7:49:57 AM Eastern Daylight Time. A whole lot of people in Laurel, Maryland will be holding their breath.Not until about 9 at night, long past the critical busiest hours of the flyby, will NASA receive a signal from the spacecraft that will indicate whether it's alive and well. Tune in, as the announcers say, tomorrow.
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 lost him, but on the other hand it was a great joy to be gathered with so many people who loved him. I heard a lot of cousins tell a lot of stories; this buoyed me up for the next leg of the trip.
Saturday night, I played around with a combination of Google Maps and the invaluable Masstimes.org to come up with a list of churches in towns along my trajectory to Maryland Sunday morning. This might have been too much cleverness, but I couldn't resist a puzzle.
I got a later start than I'd meant to, and was realizing that I wasn't going to make it to Addison, N.Y. in time for the 10:30 Mass at St. Catherine of Siena. I began to figure my arrival time at my backup, the 11:15 at Holy Child in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Just then I saw that the next exit was for Mount Morris, and I still had twelve minutes before the 10:00 Mass began. That's how I found myself under the double gaze of Saint Patrick—he is represented in that eponymous church not only by a statue but also by a large depiction in stained glass.
In today's Gospel, Mark 6:7–13, Jesus sends disciples out into the world two by two. St. Patrick's deacon gave a homily about traveling, which, as a traveler, I appreciated.
I tend to forget how enjoyable it is to drive through Pennsylvania. The parts of Illinois I usually travel in are resolutely flat. Pennsylvania has scenery. It's as if the surface of Illinois was magically wrinkled up, so that farms and forests and towns suddenly found themselves on the slopes of hills and valleys. Plus, along the highways, blasting and excavation frequently exposed the sedimentary layers beneath, so the Pennsylvanians, if they choose, can read the history of their landscape.
(Late-breaking update: I can recommend the chocolate milkshakes at the 83 Diner. Thick and chocolatey. Is that the right way to spell "chocolatey?")
Because I've been spending my time either behind the wheel of a car or schmoozing with cousins, I haven't been glued to the Internet the way others have. If I'd been at home, I, too, would be eagerly combing the Web, streaming press briefings, and refreshing Twitter feeds to find any scraps of news from Pluto's vicinity. I've had just a few glimpses of new images. I have noticed that discourse about Pluto has reached such a fever pitch that even professional astronomers have begun to speak IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
Pluto has been an unresolved dot in telescopes all my life, or at most a few pixels across in the Hubble Space Telescope. In the past month or so, New Horizons has been giving us Pluto as a painted disk, with dark and light patterns shading its surface. That was exciting enough, for a while.
In the days since I left Illinois, Pluto has sprouted fine detail. No wonder everyone's excited. It's like stepping from the flat terrain of Illinois to the complex features of Pennsylvainia's landscapes. Thus the pros are writing things like WOW, PLUTO HAS GEOLOGY.
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!"
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. We are made of star-stuff.
It seems to be Sagan's third-most-popular phrase, after "Pale Blue Dot" and "billions and billions."
Earlier astronomers and journalists had also said that people are made of "star-stuff." (Most often, they hyphenate the phrase, so I will, too.) The Quote Investigator found examples from 1913, 1918, and 1929.
Poking around in Google's gift to word-lovers, Ngram Viewer, I found that the phrase has an earlier history—but with a different meaning.
It was used simply to describe celestial matter, the material of which stars or nebulae or planets are made, without the connotation that star-stuff is the same stuff that Earth is made of.
A good example is found in the Glasgow Medical Journal for May, 1883, in which Robert Munro comments on a suggestion by a physicist—who would one day be known as Lord Kelvin—that life on Earth may have originated elsewhere in space:
Sir William Thomson, in accounting for the origin of life, had recourse to some stray star-stuff—a "moss-grown fragment from the ruins of another world," which, like a little leaven, leavened the whole globe. But this is pure speculation.
(To this day, we have a few scientists speculating that life may have originated elsewhere and traveled through space to Earth. It seems pretty unlikely to me, but it's not yet utterly ruled out by the science we know.)
Even earlier, in 1873, in his book on the plurality of worlds and extraterrestrial life, The Arena And the Throne, L.T. Townsend writes:
The supposition now generally approved is, that Saturn consists of an unsolidified mass of star-stuff in process of cooling...
And later, of the Moon, Townsend writes:
Its geological history has all the interest of a romance. It was once "fire-mist," or "sun-stuff," "star-stuff," or "world-stuff," as variously named, which is probably the original created substance, "light"—God said, Let there be light (sun-stuff), and light (sun-stuff) was.
The Germans have an excellent word for matter scattered through space; they call it star-stuff; for, as a small seed may be the parent of a large tree, a minute particle of matter, now apparently errant in the so-called void, may be the nucleus of a huge star—one of the orbs to be, in that distant future when Arcturus shall have grown dim and Aldebaran have been in some way dissolved.
Harvey may have been on to something. In the February 1900 issue of The Writer, Mary Hall Leonard observed some recent trends in language in her essay "The Revival of Old English Words." This was an era when German leadership in science was ascendant; many American physicists and chemists studied at German universities, and more learned to speak German in order to read leading journals. Perhaps this had some influence on an effect Leonard noticed:
The power to make compounds freely, which belonged to the older English, though in a less degree than to the German tongue, seems to be again coming to the front. It has been said that if Americans were as loyal as Germans they would say "mineral oil" instead of "petroleum," "water-stuff" and "sour-stuff" for "hydrogen " and "oxygen," and "star-knowledge," "earth-knowledge," etc., instead of "astronomy," "geology," and the other names of sciences. Some of the great scientific men are, indeed, beginning to speak of "sun-stuff," "star-stuff," and "life-stuff," and the word "soul-stuff" may be found in a recent literary book by Elbert Hubbard.
Scientists weren't the only ones who spoke about star-stuff. In 1887, the poet and critic James Russell Lowell* uses an astronomical metaphor in discussing imperfectly-crafted poetry:
We are in the realm of chaos and chance, nebular, with phosphorescent gleams here and there, star-stuff, but uncondensed in stars.
In her weighty 1888 book The Secret Doctrine, the Theosophical occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, explicating a mystical text, describes its cosmology:
This "matter," which, according to the revelation received from the primeval Dhyani-Buddhas, is, during the periodical sleep of the universe, of the ultimate tenuity conceivable to the eye of the perfect Bodhisatva—this matter, radiant and cool, becomes at the first reawakening of cosmic motion, scattered through space, appearing when seen from the earth, in clusters and lumps, like curds in thin milk. These are the seeds of future worlds, the "star-stuff."
So while "we are made of star-stuff" is a powerful idea, going back well before Carl Sagan, the use of "star-stuff" more simply, to refer to the ingredients of the cosmos, has not been uncommon. I'll give the last word to Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer Abroad, 1894:
"Look what billions and billions** of stars there is. How does it come that there was just exactly enough star-stuff, and none left over? How does it come there ain't no sand-pile up there?"
Since 1894, much effort in astronomy and astrophysics has been devoted to figuring this out. What with dust, gas, dark matter, and all the cosmic microwave photons, the universe seems to include not only star-stuff, but quite a lot of other stuff besides!
* Lowell's family gave America not only several literary figures but also a well-known astronomer, Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855—1916).
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.
Artist's conception of Gemini spacecraft.
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, iconic—pictures McDivitt took of him. He floats effortlessly against black space, blue ocean, and white clouds, his air hose snaking across the picture. He's holding a pistol-grip gas-jet gadget called the Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit intended to practice movement in space.
In these photos, you can see that Ed White has a camera mounted atop his gas gun.
I've seen McDivitt's photos countless times. I'd never seen any photos White took.
I became curious to see the Gemini 4 spacecraft from the outside. What did the EVA look like from White's camera?
At Arizona State University, the March to the Moon project has scanned photos taken by astronauts in NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. They've provided a nice Web interface for browsing this historic database.
I went looking for the roll of film from White's camera. Its magazine number is GT4-37199. Here's what White saw.
White had a lot on his mind that day, so he can be forgiven if the photos are less than perfect. None of these would win a photography prize, and several are seriously flawed.
Frame 1; only part of the film is exposed, showing the open hatch, the umbilical hose, and part of the white Gemini adapter section in the rear of the spacecraft.
Leaving the hatch behind. Stray light overexposes the bottom half of the frame.
At one point, White touched McDivitt's window, leaving smears; McDivitt jokingly complained.
Rear adapter section, showing the black ovals of the attitude rocket engines.
Now here's the sort of photo I was hoping for, when I went looking through the March to the Moon database. It's White's most dramatic shot of the spacecraft, Frame 2. The nose is on the right and McDivitt's window appears at lower left.
By Frame 18, White and his camera were safely back in the spacecraft.
I may be slow, but it wasn't until I had looked over White's pictures that a thought dawned on me.
Without leaving his seat, McDivitt also took photos of Gemini 4's exterior!
Look again at the classic pictures of White.
His helmet visor is a mirror.
It was gold-plated to reduce the intensity of sunlight, much like sunglasses do. One can crop out everything but the visor, and get some pretty good views of the Gemini 4 spacecraft.
I think this is about as good as White's own best photo! Here's a visor view, less distinct, from another photo.
In the course of time, after their return to Earth, the city of Chicago threw a parade for White and McDivitt. Other astronauts had had other parades, but Chicago's had a difference: High up on a skyscraper, balloon-filled mannequins formed a long row of spacewalkers, waving in the breeze. Perhaps they were a portent of the many EVAs that would be undertaken by cosmonauts and astronauts in the five decades to come.
Ed White perished less than two years later, in the tragic Apollo 1 launch pad fire. He is constantly remembered, a symbol of the Space Age, as the man floating free, blue and white Earth moving below him, facing the stars.
Johannes Kepler (1571—1630) has recently been spotted tweeting.
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.
Brief translated passages from Kepler's lunar-voyage story Dream, presented in Twitter's bottom-to-top style by @SomniumProject. "Volva" is the name lunar inhabitants give to Earth, hence Subvolvans are residents of the Moon's near side. Our planet is always in their sky.
The disadvantage—well, I guess there are quite a few disadvantages to reading a classic book a line at a time, over years—one disadvantage is that the footnotes are not (yet) available. As I wrote the other day, Kepler's explanatory scientific footnotes are the best part. Our translator has hinted that the 15,000 words of footnotes will eventually be translated as well.
I like the idea of SomniumProject because it's so eccentric. It may not be the ideal way to read the book, but over time the tweets have been bringing this pioneering work of imagination before the eyeballs of thousands.
Among all the other tweets flowing past, for just a moment, when a bit of Somnium shows up on screen, the reader's own imagination might slip away to stand, alongside Kepler, looking up at the Earth.
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.)
Title page of Johannes Kepler's Dream. Published in 1634 by his son after his death, which is why this opus is posthumum.
The witch summons a demon, who explains that travel to the Moon is possible only when the shadow of the Earth touches it–that is, during a lunar eclipse.
Because the opportunity is so fleeting, we take few human beings along, and only those who are most devoted to us. Some man of this kind, then, we seize as a group and all of us, pushing from underneath, lift him up into the heavens. In every instance the take-off hits him as a severe shock, for he is hurled just as though he had been shot aloft by gunpowder to sail over mountains and seas. For this reason at the outset he must be lulled to sleep immediately with narcotics and opiates. His limbs must be arranged in such a way that his torso will not be torn away from his buttocks nor his head from his body, but the shock will be distributed among his individual limbs. Then a new difficulty follows: extreme cold and impeded breathing.
The cold is relieved by a power which we are born with; the breathing, by applying damp sponges to the nostrils. After the first stage of the trip is finished, the passage becomes easier. At that time we expose their bodies to the open air and remove our hands. Their bodies roll themselves up, like spiders, into balls which we carry along almost entirely by our will alone, so that finally the bodily mass proceeds toward its destination of its own accord. But this onward drive is of very little use to us, because it is too late. Hence it is by our will, as I said, that we move the body swiftly along, and we forge ahead of it from now on lest it suffer any harm by colliding very hard with the moon. When the humans wake up, they usually complain about an indescribable weariness of all their limbs, from which they later recover well enough to walk.
In this passage Kepler demonstrates that he understands many of the problems of space flight: the need for sudden acceleration, the dangers of its effect on the body, the cold of space, the gradual thinning of the atmosphere, the "onward drive" provided as the Moon's attraction grows. Some of these he must solve by magic, such as the demons' lifting power and warmth. Some he tries to solve by plausible invention — arranging the passengers' limbs and applying the damp sponges — just as a modern science fiction writer would. Though Somnium was written in 1609, nearly sixty years before Newton published a complete theory of gravity, Kepler evidently knew that planets attracted other massive bodies and that the attraction became weaker with distance.
The bulk of the story is concerned with a detailed description of astronomy as seen from the Moon. The Earth hangs fixed in the sky, the Sun arcs slowly overhead every 28 days, eclipses are markedly different from terrestrial ones, and the behavior of the planets is somewhat novel. Kepler evidently delighted in working out the facts of lunar astronomy. His whole story is carefully consistent with the known facts of seventeenth-century science. He speculates on the effect of long days and nights on life on the Moon. Plants and animals take forms with tough skins to endure the scorching Sun, and the oceans boil at noon.
To my mind, Somnium is an early predecessor of that flavor of science fiction known as the "hard-science" story: one which hews closely to the line of contemporary science. (Modern authors best known for hard SF include Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Hal Clement.)
Once he'd thought "How would the sky look if I were standing on the Moon?" Kepler's imagination wouldn't let go of the question, ideas blossomed in his head, and he determined to write a story about them. This same impulse afflicted Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. By the 20th century, enough stories like theirs had been written that one could draw a circle around them and give them a name, saying, "This is science fiction."
Amusingly, Kepler yielded to a temptation that must also have occurred to many a subsequent hard-SF writer — he added footnotes to explain the meticulously-built scientific background to his story. The footnotes run more than four times the length of the story itself! And they are well worth reading.
Beginning of Kepler's lengthy astronomical footnotes to Somnium.
Getting hold of a copy of Somnium is not trivial, though. Two English translations appeared in the 1960s, Edward Rosen's and Patricia Kirkwood's, but apparently no English version is currently in print. Copies are available on the used market, but so far, their asking price has always exceeded the level of my interest in owning a copy of Kepler's story. (Thank goodness for libraries!)
If you read Latin, here's a 1634 edition online. The Google Books project scanned a copy with very thin pages, though, so characters from the back of a page show through faintly, making the text difficult enough to read with the human eyeball and also, I believe, messing up automated Optical Character Recognition. So the plain text and EPUB versions are not very useful.
But another version of Kepler's story has recently appeared. I'll say more about this in a few days.
"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.
Service Module of Apollo 13, with explosion damage visible at right, photographed by crew in Command Module Odyssey after separation. Photo: NASA.
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.
But how did Apollo 13 look as it was happening?
A leading source of spaceflight journalism, Aviation Week and Space Technology, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. To get into a centennial mood, the magazine is regularly posting excerpts from its past issues highlighting notable developments in aviation and spaceflight. One of them was Apollo 13.
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.
This is the first Dark Energy Survey map to trace the detailed distribution of dark matter across a large area of sky. The color scale represents projected mass density: red and yellow represent regions with more dense matter. The dark matter maps reflect the current picture of mass distribution in the universe where large filaments of matter align with galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Clusters of galaxies are represented by gray dots on the map - bigger dots represent larger clusters. This map covers three percent of the area of sky that DES will eventually document over its five-year mission. Image & caption text: Dark Energy Survey
The new Dark Energy Survey map employs a third technique, "weak lensing." The gravity of massive objects can bend the paths of passing photons of light. DES astronomers observed subtle distortions in the shapes of 2 million galaxies to deduce the locations of unseen, massive concentrations of dark matter.
One reason I found this announcement exciting was that it came from Fermilab, the laboratory where I have worked for many years. Fermilab is one of the institutions collaborating on the international Dark Energy Survey. I'm not involved with this project but I have friends who have put many years of effort into it. So I enjoy seeing new science flowing from the fabulous camera they built and tested. I look forward to much more, as the DES continues to survey the sky.
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.
Space-suited astronomers arrive at the lunar observatory. Copyright 1959 Ziv Television Productions.
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 to study a comet. From the main lunar base, they make an arduous eight-hour hike to a lonely observatory. Having arrived, one of the astronomers becomes ill. The others struggle to keep him alive; meanwhile a medical team sets out for the observatory, braving a deadly meteor bombardment that accompanies the comet.
Good: Dr. Farrar (played by Whit Bissell) plans to journey to the Moon because a lunar telescope will give him especially good observations of the passing comet. In the 1950s, advocates of spaceflight always mentioned the advantages of doing astronomy with telescopes beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Today, instruments aboard spacecraft, most famously the Hubble Telescope, routinely contribute to astronomy. Indeed, at this moment, a telescope aboard the Chang'e 3 lander is making ultraviolet observations from the lunar surface.
Not so good: Serving Tom and Jerrys—a holiday drink made from whipped egg whites and rum—Col. McCauley somewhat reluctantly offers one to the pregnant Edith Nichols (Patricia Manning): "…Are you allowed to have one?"
Things have changed. In 2015, expectant mothers on television are unlikely to be portrayed drinking alcohol.
Good: To the mild shock of the other characters, young Dr. Jim Nichols (Keith Larsen) dismisses the Christmas narrative as "a lot of nonsense… just a hangover from the Middle Ages." Yet he professes great admiration, and affection, for the older astronomer Farrar, who is considerably more sympathetic to Christian belief, and says that he is honored to be collaborating with the older astronomer.
Not only does "Christmas on the Moon" portray scientists of differing religious convictions working together, it subtly underscores the truth that good science can be done by atheists, Christians, or anybody else. Science belongs to everyone who's willing to play by its rules.
Good: Particles of dust and ice, orbiting the sun in trajectories near, but not quite the same as, the comet's orbit, increase the frequency of meteor impacts on the Moon. This poses a hazard to space-suited astronauts making the long journey on foot between the main base and the remote observatory.
Loose particles from a comet's nucleus form the surrounding "coma" giving the comet its fuzzy appearance. Over years of time, under the subtle influence of a variety of forces, the orbits of such particles diverge slightly from the nucleus's own path. Eventually the comet is trailed by a long, skinny cloud of solid objects. This is the origin of many meteor showers. If the Moon crossed the comet's orbit, we'd expect a bombardment of the lunar surface, even as the cometary nucleus itself passed well clear of the Moon.
Not so good: The meteor hazard is portrayed as a very dense and rapid bombardment, rather like an artillery barrage. It seems more likely that such meteors would be further apart and less frequent. That would be much less dramatic, though, and less effective at emphasizing urgent danger to astronauts hiking across the lunar surface. Also, nobody seems worried that the meteors might damage the pressurized observatory habitat they're in.
Good: Early on, the characters discuss theories of comet composition, emphasizing that comets may incorporate ice. Later, desperate to keep the ailing Farrar cool while waiting for the surgeon to arrive, Nichols realizes that the cometary fragments hitting the landscape outside may supply him with a vital slab of ice. He disobeys an order and risks his life to venture outside and retrieve it.
Outside the window of the observatory, Dr. Nichols sprints back, clutching his icy prize, while meteoric impacts raise puffs of lunar dust. Copyright 1959 Ziv Television Productions.
Not so good: Nichols is inspired to do this when the delirious Dr. Farrar starts quoting John Donne's poetry. Donne's song begins "Go and catch a falling star…" This is a bit heavy-handed. Nichols is already an expert on comets, and really wouldn't need a feverish line from a random seventeenth-century poem to remind him that there might be ice falling out there.
Dr. Nichols hammers an icy comet fragment, in hope of cooling the feverish Dr. Farrar. Copyright 1959 Ziv Television Productions.
Want to know what I think? I think the screenwriters, Lawrence L. Goldman and David Duncan, may have been listening to the radio. On 9 October 1957, singer Perry Como recorded a song by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance which began:
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away…
In the spring of 1958, "Catch a Falling Star" became a hit. (Youtube here.) It may still have been on jukeboxes when "Christmas on the Moon" was being written a year or so later.
I have no evidence for this, but I'm willing to bet that Goldman or Duncan had this song (which apparently owes something to John Donne) in mind. Perhaps they thought a reference to a great poet would be classier than a reference to an ephemeral pop song. Or perhaps they preferred to use the song, but couldn't easily obtain permission to use its lyrics–whereas John Donne's words were in the public domain, absolutely free. Anyway, that's what I think.
Not so good: In reality, traveling at typical cometary speeds, the fragments would probably hit the Moon hard enough to vaporize, and large chunks of ice would probably not be left over. Still, the scenario we see is not impossible.
Not so good: After all the trouble they went to to reach the telescope outpost, we don't see the characters making any observations of the comet! It's as though Dr. Farrar's illness made them forget why they were there. Perhaps we can presume that Dr. Nichols has been operating the telescope in gaps between scenes. Or during the commercial breaks.
All in all, I have to give Men into Space high marks, not just for incorporating plausible science into this episode, but for having science provide the motivation for the story (the comet observations), part of the peril (the comet-linked meteor shower), and part of the solution to the crisis (ice from the comet itself). I can forgive them a few lapses. I'm always hoping to see more TV shows and movies that treat science with this level of respect. Nice job.