Category Archives: books

The amazing story of New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft is hurtling through deep space toward its New Year’s Day encounter with the Kuiper Belt object “Ultima Thule,” a nickname which is better than the object’s official moniker of 2014 MU69. New Horizons collected amazing photos and data during a 2015 fly-by of Pluto, and I’ve just finished reading the account of that mission, Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto (Picador, 2018). Penned by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons is a fabulous read that tells the tale of the nearly 25 years it took to get the mission from a back-of-the-napkin concept to a real spacecraft that delivered those amazing images of the former ninth planet.

Stern and Grinspoon visited Seattle in May in support of the book. Grinspoon called the tale of New Horizons an unlikely story.

“The effort to send a mission to Pluto,” he said, “was one that had so many twists and turns, seeming dead ends, and inescapable traps that it’s still amazing to me that it happened.”

“I think there’s a lot of genuine suspense and drama, and yet, you know how it ends!” Grinspoon added. “It really is an adventure story as well as a nerd-fest of solving technical problems and ultimately succeeding spectacularly in this amazing exploration.”

The story truly is incredible. The New Horizons team that at its biggest included 2,500 people had to battle from the beginning. The first fight was simply getting approval just to do some preliminary work on a project as audacious as sending a mission to Pluto. They had to compete over whose proposed project would be selected, to get funding, to decide what science would happen, to actually build, launch, and fly the craft, to get it to the right place at the right time, and to deliver the science that was promised. Stern said they euphemistically referred to their challenges with the resident reptiles around the Kennedy Space Center in mind.

“There were so many alligators in the water at one point that we had no idea how we could solve all of the problems that we were having,” Stern said.

Yet—spoiler alert!—they did, and they accomplished it for a fraction of the cost of the Voyager mission, for example, and in a time frame that, by NASA standards, was break-neck.

Grinspoon and Stern

Grinspoon (left) and Stern spoke about Chasing New Horizons at a Town Hall Seattle event at the Museum of Flight on May 17, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Grinspoon interviewed Stern and more than two dozen others for the book, so it is really something of an oral history of New Horizons team members’ recollections of what happened along the amazing journey.

All of the jockeying makes for interesting storytelling, but the near loss of the mission just days before it’s Pluto fly-by, and how that was solved, is an incredible tale. Many of the team were taking a quick breather before the fly-by and trying to enjoy the Independence Day holiday when contact with New Horizons was lost. The work the team did to figure out what happened, to fix the problem, and to make sure the craft’s computers were ready for the complicated maneuvers ahead, is simply remarkable. Imagine doing that work around-the-clock with the whole mission hanging in the balance. For Stern, there was the real possibility that 25 years of work could go down the drain. That’s a whole lot of egg aimed right at your face. Cool heads, smart engineers, preparation, and a little luck prevailed. The science we got out of it is amazing.

“Pluto is an exotic, sci-fi world,” Stern said. “This book is a page-turner; it is a techno-thriller.”

You don’t necessarily want the author writing his own dust-jacket blurbs, but in this case we agree! Chasing New Horizons is highly recommended.

Last month New Horizons, about 100 million miles away from Ultima Thule, was able to spot its next destination with its own cameras, something the team announced on Twitter.

If you read Chasing New Horizons you’ll have an idea of what the team has ahead between now and its fly-by on January 1.

Further reading:

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You can purchase Chasing New Horizons through the title link or by clicking the book cover image above. A small percentage of the fee comes to Seattle Astronomy and helps us create interesting astronomy stories. We thank you!

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Calendar: Meet with Ladies Who Launch this week

Ladies who launch gather this week at the Museum of Flight, and there’s a lot of local club activity on the calendar.

Ladies who Launch

Ladies who launchElsbeth Magilton, executive director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications law programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law, will speak at a special Ladies Who Launch event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, January 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Magilton’s areas of specialty include commercial space law and policy, cybersecurity and cybercrime, and national security. She will focus on the need for more women in leadership positions in aerospace and the technology sector, and positive, concrete steps we can take to advance our careers accordingly.

Ladies Who Launch is a specialized networking group for professional women with ten or more years of experience and a passion for flight, who are actively seeking to advance their careers in any industry and hold, or desire to obtain, leadership roles. Tickets to the event are $35 and are available online.

Battle Point

The Battle Point Astronomical Association’s monthly public events are coming up Saturday, January 13. Family date night starts at 4 p.m. when BP Astro Kids look at how things spin and what that means. The presentation repeats again at 5 p.m. Following at 7:30, the monthly planetarium show looks at the similarities between telescopes and dragonflies, and examines the work of a new class of ‘scopes. There will be stargazing, too, weather permitting.

Astronomy club meetings

Olympic Astronomical Society, Monday, January 8, 7:30 p.m.
Heart of the Valley Astronomers, Tuesday, January 9, 7 p.m.
Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, Friday, January 12, 7 p.m. Agenda
Everett Astronomical Society, Saturday, January 13, 3 p.m.

Futures file

Rose City Astronomers meet next Monday, January 15, at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The guest speaker will be Ethan Siegel, author of Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyaguer Press, 2017). Check out our podcast and article with Siegel about the book. You can always scout future Northwest astronomy events on our calendar.

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Our favorite books and author talks of 2017

We created Seattle Astronomy because, given our region’s seemingly perpetual cloud cover, there were more opportunities to write about astronomy than to actually observe the night skies. We also read the writing of others, go hear them talk about it, and report back to you! Here are our top five author and book stories of 2017.

1. Treknology

Ethan Siegel’s new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) is a must for any Star Trek fan. As the title suggests, Siegel takes a look at a host of technologies imagined by the various Trek TV series and movies and weighs in on which have already come true, which are on the horizon, and which would still require some discovery. Siegel is reluctant to say something will never happen. Instead, with challenging technologies such as warp drive, he looks at the physics of how it could work and the challenges for bringing that to reality. Siegel isn’t just making this stuff up; he’s a theoretical astrophysicist and writes the blog and produces the podcast Starts With a Bang. Siegel has appeared several times on our pages. Find our article and podcast about Treknology, and our articles about his talks on gravitational waves and the expanding universe given to Rose City Astronomers in Portland, and his talk about dark matter at Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

2. American Eclipse

Former NPR science editor David Baron got the idea to write a book about solar eclipses way back in 1998 when he witnessed his first total solar eclipse from the beach in Aruba. He figured 2017 would be a good year to publish, when interest in the great American eclipse was at its peak. American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017) is the story of the 1878 totality that crossed the American frontier from Montana down through Texas, and it chronicles the efforts of Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson to view the eclipse. Baron credits the event for sparking a scientific boom in the United States. We just finished the book during a recent train trip and found it to be a marvelous and informative read. Baron spoke at Pacific Science Center in July. Check out our review of his talk.

3. The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far

Lawrence Krauss is a renowned author and theoretical physicist and cosmologist who packed Town Hall Seattle back in April for a talk about his book The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017). We love it when someone can tackle particle physics without causing headaches, and Krauss nailed it with both his talk and the book. Krauss tells not just about the advances in physics over the years, but gives interesting insights about the creative processes that led to the discoveries. As an example, there are at least two cases in which amazing discoveries came when the scientists were sleep deprived because of the recent birth of children! Here’s our review of Krauss’s talk in Seattle. There’s a weak connection between Krauss and Ethan Siegel; one of Krauss’s earlier books is The Physics of Star Trek (Basic Books, 2007).

4. Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich created the “Intergalactic Travel Bureau,” and their book Vacation Guide to the Solar System: Science for the Savvy Space Traveler! (Penguin Books, 2017) is a travel brochure. Packed with information about what to see from Mercury to Pluto, the guide tricks us into learning something in an entertaining and beautifully illustrated format. They spoke at Town Hall Seattle in June. Here our recap.

5. Earth in Human Hands

David Grinspoon himself wonders how an astrobiologist such as himself wound up writing a book about the human impact on Earth. He figures the more we know about how planets work, the better we can be at making changes to the climate that are for the better. In Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2016) Grinspoon notes that we aren’t the first species to radically change the planet’s climate; the humble cyanobacteria killed off just about everything else on Earth once by adding oxygen to the atmosphere. Grinspoon spoke at the Pacific Science Center last January; here’s our recap of his talk.

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Gift ideas for the astronomically inclined

It’s that time of year again when we start getting questions about what sorts of gifts to give to astronomy buffs. Here are a few great ideas for you.

Year of the eclipse

Eclipse map 2024

Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

A solar eclipse was visible all over the country back in August, and the path of totality stretched from coast to coast in the United States. Eclipse mementos would make excellent gifts this year. A great source for them is GreatAmericanEclipse.com, which has a wide selection of eclipse maps, attire, and accessories, and is running discounts this month. Plus it’s never too early to start gearing up for 2024’s eclipse! We interviewed mapmaker Michael Zeiler late last year about his work; check out the article and podcast based on that interview. Zeiler’s maps are gorgeous and suitable for framing.

Sorin Space Art out of Denver offers some marvelous items, including prints of Sorin’s solar eclipse photography. He’s also made some hand-painted tree ornaments depicting the Moon, Sun, and planets, but as of this writing he was running a bit short of supply on those. Sorin also is the proprietor of Astro Box, a quarterly subscription service that delivers space art, writing, apparel, and more four times each year. It’s a cool gift that keeps on giving.

Two Chicks Conspiracy offers a line of artistic belts and accessories. Several of their belts have space-themed designs, and they created a special key fob in commemoration of the 2017 total solar eclipse.

Books

Tyler Nordgren’s book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets (Basic Books, 2016) was on our year-end gift list last year and remains a good pick this time around. It’s a combination of eclipse mythology and history, travelogue, and eclipse science, and is a fine read. Check out our review of the book and our recap of Nordgren’s author talk about it.

Another good read for eclipse year is David Baron’s American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (Liveright, 2017). Baron’s book is a look back at the American total solar eclipse of 1878 and in particular how main characters Thomas Edison, Maria Mitchell, and James Craig Watson led high-profile eclipse-viewing expeditions to the wild west that helped spark a national interest in science. Baron gave a talk about the book earlier this year. Here’s our recap.

Ethan Siegel‘s book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017) will please anyone who has been a fan of any of the Star Trek television shows or movies. Check our article and podcast with Siegel about Treknology.

Telescopes

Recommending a gift telescope is tricky business. I’ve written a number of past articles on the topic, and the ideas there still hold true. If you don’t know what to get, a great reference is the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books, 2008) by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. It’s a marvelous book for walking one through the ‘scope-choosing process, based on one’s astronomical interests. I used it when I first started out in stargazing, and it’s still a valued reference years later.

If you want to get a first-hand look at a variety of different telescopes, including solar scopes that are designed for observing the Sun, it would be worth a trip to Cloud Break Optics in Ballard. They have quite a selection of ‘scopes in their show room and a lot of experience in stargazing and astrophotography. They’re also running a holiday blowout sale on both new and used gear. Cloud Break Optics is a patron of Seattle Astronomy on Patreon.

That said, I will let you know that the Orion eight-inch Dobsonian telescope is my personal scope of choice. It’s easy to use—just take it out to the back yard, point at something, and take a look! With its simple design it also delivers the most visual bang for the telescope buck. This telescope is really not for photography, though I’ve used it to get smartphone pictures of the Moon and the Sun. Other objects like galaxies or nebulae require longer exposures and that means a ‘scope that can track objects to compensate for the Earth’s rotation. That starts to run into a little money.

Binoculars are also a good gift for someone just starting out in astronomy. Get some that are at least 10x power and 50mm in aperture. I have a 10×50 outfit from Orion, and one can see a lot of neat stuff with a good set of binoculars.

Experiences

If you’d rather give experiences than stuff, how about a membership to a local organization? The Pacific Science Center, the Museum of Flight, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry often have space- and astronomy-themed exhibits and presentations. Memberships are a good value that keep on giving all year long!

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Calendar: club events open December

As we flip the calendar to December, there are a couple of good headline events, four astronomy club meetings, and several educational events to look forward to.

Astronaut and mountaineer Scott Parazinski is the only person ever to have both flown in space and stood on the top of Mount Everest. He’ll be at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 to talk about his experiences and his new book, The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (Little A, 2017). Parazinski will sign copies of the book after his talk, which is free with museum admission.

If you can’t make it Saturday, you can pick up the book by clicking the link above or the book cover at left; Seattle Astronomy gets a small royalty at no cost to you when you purchase this way, and it helps support our operations. Thanks so much!

Life in Space

The Pacific Science Center’s Science in the City lecture series continues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, December 6 with a program called Life in Space. Three University of Washington astrobiologists will discuss their research—including the search for planets around other stars, characterizing how stars influence the habitability of those planets, and techniques to mix computer modeling with data analysis to determine the characteristics of potentially habitable worlds. Two of the three presenters will be familiar to Seattle Astronomy readers. Brett Morris is a PhD candidate of astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington and is a co-founder and co-host of the popular Astronomy on Tap Seattle events. Dr. Erika Harnett is a research associate professor and was featured on the blog and podcast this year. The “new guy” is Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski, a grad student who does research using magnetic fields to peel back the icy crust of Jupiter’s moons, looking for places that life may be found.

After viewing the documentary The Search for Life in Space, the trio will answer questions about their research and other topics addressed in the film.

Tickets to Life in Space are $5, free for Pacific Science Center members.

Astronomy club activity

Four clubs have their monthly meetings this week:

In addition, two clubs have public outreach events on Saturday. The BP Astro Kids on Bainbridge Island will make LED holiday cards during sessions at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island. Following at 7:30 p.m. the Battle Point Astronomical Association monthly planetarium show will focus on how neutron stars make gold, and how we can tell they’re doing it. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 9 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be a viewing of the movie The Christmas Star. At both the Battle Point and Tacoma events there will be stargazing if the weather permits.

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Treknology looks at Star Trek gizmos

Star Trek first hit the airwaves over a half century ago, and Dr. Ethan Siegel finds it amazing how many of the gizmos, gadgets, and technologies imagined by the various Trek television series have become reality. Siegel, theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, is author of the new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017). Treknology is scheduled for release on October 15 and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

Siegel, a Trek fan since discovering The Next Generation (TNG) as a kid, figures he was just the guy to dig into Star Trek’s technology.

“That intersection of an interest in Star Trek and Sci-fi, of an interest in what it means for humanity, and a knowledge of physics, all of those have come together to make this book possible,” Siegel said.

Treknology devotes a separate chapter to 28 different technologies that were used in the various series.

“These technologies that were so futuristic that they were imagined centuries in the future, some of them don’t appear to be that far off,” Siegel noted. “Some of them are already here and in widespread use. Others that we thought just a few years ago were going to be far-future technologies look like they’re coming to fruition.”

We’ve got that Treknology already

Siegel noted that it was The Original Series (TOS) that came up with the automatic sliding door, now a staple in every airport and supermarket. Your tablet is also cooler than anything Trek came up with.

“What you’ve got in your smart phone is much more impressive that anything that were on those touch-screen pads that Star Trek envisioned,” Siegel said. “Here we are with something that’s smaller, that’s more compact.”

That goes for pretty much all of the computers, he noted.

“We’ve gone way beyond what Star Trek would have envisioned much more quickly than anything that came about in the original series,” Siegel said. At the time of TOS in real life we had room-sized computers that had less computing oomph than today’s pocket calculators. When TNG came around, they figured they had to jazz up the computing and came up with something new and fancy—digital storage.

“Your flash drive is more powerful than a Star Trek isolinear chip,” Sigel noted. “As far as computation goes—ships computer, pads, isolinear chips—we’ve blown away what Star Trek would have envisioned.”

Medical technology

Siegel

Dr. Ethan Siegel, author of Treknology, during a lecture in Portland last year. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As an astronomy and physics guy, Siegel said he was especially interested in learning about the medical technologies and biological situations that Star Trek dreamed up. He noted that we may soon be able to use synthehol, a substance with the positive effects of booze without the negative impacts.

“Synthehol is on track pharmacologically to become real,” Siegel said.

We may also be close to helping sightless people see, ala Geordi La Forge—the TNG character played by LeVar Burton—who wore a special visor that allowed him to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

“If we can make an implant somewhere in your brain’s visual cortex, and we can wirelessly feed an external signal to that implant,” Siegel said, “this is a potential way to restore sight to the blind,” even if they have no eyes or optic nerves at all. NASA actually tinkered with sight-improving technology in the late 1990s, and called its project JORDY: Joint Optical Reflective DisplaY.

Not there yet

There are other Treknologies that aren’t so close yet. Warp drive is at the top of that list. He says it’s mathematically possible, but it will be tough to make it work in our universe.

“It depends on if you can either have negative gravitational mass or negative energy,” Siegel explained. “If you can, then great, we can build warp drive. If that’s a physical impossibility—and we haven’t discovered anything like that yet—then I don’t know how warp drive can be possible.”

“This is probalbly one of the most difficult technologies to acheive, but I still don’t want to rule it out and say it’s impossible,” he added. “I want to look at what it would take to make it possible.”

A few other technologies such as subspace communication and transporters would require “extensions” to our current physics to become reality, Siegel said, and we’re a ways from life-like androids and holodecks, too.

Sigel has written widely. His first book was Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing Co., 2015). He writes the Starts With a Bang blog on Forbes, and produces a podcast of the same name. Siegel can be found under that handle on Twitter and Facebook. He expects to be touring conventions and bookstores around the country in support of Treknology. We look forward to the book’s release next month.

Podcast of our interview with Ethan Siegel:

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Late-breaking eclipse and lodging opportunities in Oregon

There are people who have been planning for the August 21 total solar eclipse for 20 years or more. If you’re more of a procrastinator, there are still outstanding opportunities popping up for us ten days ahead of the much-awaited event.

Two of these are available from our friends at Orbit Oregon, the Portland-based publisher of The Big Eclipse and The Big Eclipse Activity Book, a great pair of eclipse guides for kids and families. (Check our article and podcast about The Big Eclipse.)

The Big Eclipse Family Weekend will happen August 19–21 at Western Oregon University in Monmouth. In addition to viewing of the eclipse on Monday, August 21, the camp includes lodging and meals, a t-shirt, eclipse glasses, and copies of the book and activity book. The camp is best recommended for kids ages 5–12 and their families, and will include hands-on activities related to eclipses and space science.

Check out the website for tickets and more information.

The other event is a little more adult-oriented. The Wine Country Eclipse is a three-day music and wine festival that will take place at the Polk County Fairgrounds in Rickreall, Oregon. It is a benefit for Solar Oregon, a not-for-profit organization bringing solar energy to the state.

The best news for those in need of lodging is that a festival ticket can include a room at Western Oregon University or tent or RV camping accommodations at the festival site. Check the website for tickets and more information.

Planned activities include:

  • Live music all three days
  • A square dance lesson on Saturday
  • A sing-along to eclipse tunes on Sunday
  • Wine and spirits tastings
  • The Totality Tent – a 21-and-over wine garden near the concert stage featuring wine, beer, and special cocktails including Totality Punch, Sungria and Moonaritas
  • Local artisan fare and crafts for sale
  • Displays featuring solar and renewable energy
  • Educational seminars about wine, astronomy, and eclipse photography

That last item is especially exciting because it includes a talk titled “Get Offa My Cloud: Adventures in Seeking a Glimpse of Old Sol,” by Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer. You don’t want to miss that!

As with all things eclipse related, tickets for these events are likely to be snapped up quickly, so hurry!

 

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