Category Archives: lectures

Mars “big thinkers” envision people on the Red Planet

After hearing about the pros, cons, and challenges of sending people to Mars, most of the audience who attended “National Geographic: Mankind to Mars” at Benaroya Hall Monday evening decided that such an effort would be worthwhile. A significantly smaller percentage of attendees would be willing to make the trip themselves.

The straw poll by applause came after a panel discussion moderated by Andrew Fazekas, also known as The Night Sky Guy, a space journalist who writes a column for National Geographic and who is the author of Star Trek; The Official Guide to Our Universe: The True Science Behind the Starship Voyages (National Geographic, 2016). The other panelists were Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist from Vanderbilt University, and Ray Arvidson, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who has had a hand in Mars missions going back to Viking in the 1970s and is the deputy principal investigator for the Mars rover Opportunity mission.

Why Mars?

Fazekas said he got interested in space when he was a little kid and his father showed him Mars through a telescope.

“Mars has always been particularly fascinating to humankind because it’s our nearest neighbor,” Fazekas said, “a neighboring world that beckons us.”

Panel at Mankind to Mars

(L-R) Andrew Fazekas, Jedidah Isler, and Ray Arvidson discuss “Mankind to Mars” May 15, 2017 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The presentation made liberal use of video clips and images from the Mars miniseries aired by the National Geographic Channel last fall. The panelists covered a wide range of topics, including the history of Mars, its past possible habitability, research by rovers and orbiters at Mars and by people on Earth, rocket and spacecraft design, private space ventures, and the possible setup for a human outpost on Mars.

They also discussed a litany of challenges to making a successful human mission to Mars happen, including getting there and landing safely, radiation, dust, fuel and power, agriculture on Mars, and a host of threats to human physical, mental, and emotional health.

Isler said she’s interested in the “socio-technological” aspects of a human mission to Mars, and thinks interest is building because we keep learning.

“It seems like a good amount of information is there, we’ve got a lot of poepole interested in it,” she noted. “I think it’s just a good time because we’ve got all the right pieces, or many of them.”

There’s also important science to be done, Arvidson said.

“What we’re looking at on Mars is the record in the rocks that’s long lost on Earth,” he said. “It’s the first billion years of geologic time. Earth is very active; Mars was active early but then kind of slowed down, so the rock record is still preserved. That’s the period of time when life got started and evolved on Earth. It may have also gotten started and evolved on Mars.”

Where to land

Scientists are debating right now about possible human landing sites on Mars, and dozens of them have been proposed by people with varying scientific interests. Arvidson said it will take many years to whittle those down and make a choice. The target spot will have to be one that is safe to land on, away from the poles and at low elevation so it is not too cold, and will need to offer a balance between science, safety, and sustainability.

“Wherever we go, there are lots of questions about early Mars and habitability and life,” Arvidson said. “I think the first human expedition site will be a science station, most likely, for detailed exploration between humans and robotic systems.”

Isler said that machines will do a lot of work, but that people are essential for the ultimate success of a Mars mission.

“Robots are beneficial, but they are limited,” she said. “You will always want, I argue, the dynamism, the spontaneity of human beings.”

When shall we start packing?

“Depending on what we want to do, nationallly and internationally, where the finances are, and what the reasons are and the justification, we can do this in the next few decades,” Arvidson said, speculating that we’ll arrive on Mars in the 2040s. Isler thinks it will take longer than that to figure out the human factors involved.

“The rumor on the street is that we’re always 20 years from Mars,” she quipped.

The panel speculated about an “Armstrong moment” on the day that a person from Earth sets foot on Mars for the first time. Isler said it will be a “moment where people will be be super connected with the fact that we as a species have now moved ourselves to this place successfully.”

But she added that we need to be careful how we talk about the endeavor, as huge numbers of people have been thinking about and working on getting humans to Mars for years.

“We have to do a better job this time around of implying and also asserting that it wasn’t just one person, this was not rugged individualism,” Isler said. “This is a team effort.”

She also thinks it will go a bit differently than Neil Armstrong’s line after stepping onto the Moon.

“When the first Mars explorer steps off she might Snapchat,” she laughed.

Fazekas seemed most optimistic about the timeline.

“If we put all of these components together—the technology, the science, the engineering, the willpower, understanding the challenges—we may one day all have a chance to become a tourist on Mars,” Fazekas said.

Further reading and viewing:

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Mars Insider gives the scoop on Red Planet missions

To work for the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) it would probably be helpful if you had some juggling skills.

“At JPL we have 24 flying missions in deep space,” said spacecraft engineer Terry Himes, who has had a hand on most of those craft. Himes gave a talk titled “Mars Insider” recently at the Museum of Flight.

Terry Himes

NASA JPL spacecraft engineer Terry Himes spoke at the Museum of Flight April 29, 2017 about his work on various missions. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Our job as spacecraft engineers is to keep the health and welfare of the spacecraft,” Himes said, and that’s a job that doesn’t always line up with the science goals of the mission.

“The science guys want to go to the worst possible places on the planet,” Himes laughed. “They want to go to horrifying places and land in crevasses and do all kids of crazy stuff. We (engineers) want to land on flat, sandy plains.”

Thus choosing a place to land is a battle from day one and can often be a lengthy discussion, Himes said. For the Mars Science Lab Curiosity, for example, the science team wanted to land as close as possible to Mount Sharp on Mars so they could explore the geology there. They were able to land in a tight spot by using the controlled descent of Curiosity’s incredible landing method. Himes noted that the target landing area for Mars missions, known as the “landing ellipse,” has been shrinking over the years. While Viking had a landing ellipse 300 kilometers long, they dropped Curiosity into a target of just 18 kilometers.

“It’s like hitting a golf ball in San Diego and making a hole-in-one in New York,” Himes said.

Once a lander is on the ground there’s another daily discussion about what it will do next. This is typically based on photos sent back from the activities of the previous sol, or Martian day. They consider interesting nearby objects, any hazards in the area, and the overall health of the rover. Himes noted that Curiosity’s wheels have taken a beating from hard and sharp rocks on Mars. He also related a funny story about the wheels.

A message in the sand

NASA had told the spacecraft team that they couldn’t put a logo or any other mention of JPL on Curiosity because the project involved all of NASA and scientists from other countries, too. They got around that by putting cutout grooves in the wheels that are Morse code for the letters, so that every time those wheels turn they leave J-P-L in the Martian sand.

“Don’t mess with engineers,” Himes laughed.

A little InSight about Mars

The next project for Himes will be InSight, which after a recent delay is now scheduled to launch next May and land on Mars in November of 2018. InSight, which is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport, will help us figure out how rocky planets form and evolve. The craft will be a modified version of Phoenix, another mission Himes worked on, which found ice near the north pole of Mars in 2008. InSight will have a couple of new instruments.

InSight The Mole

This artist’s concept depicts the InSight lander on Mars after the lander’s robotic arm has deployed a seismometer and a heat probe directly onto the ground. InSight is the first mission dedicated to investigating the deep interior of Mars. The findings will advance understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The first is the Heat flow and Physical Properties Probe, or HP3, which Himes says they’re calling simply “The Mole.”

“It’s a heat transfer mechanism,” Himes said. “We’re going to go into the surface of Mars and conduct heat experiments, see how much heat is there.” The mole will be driven some five meters into the ground on Mars.

The other instrument is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or SEIS, a “very broad band” seismometer sensitive enough to detect meteor strikes way on the other side of the planet. These two instruments will give scientists information about the inner workings of Mars.

There are a couple more Mars missions on the drawing board. Mars 2020 will be a lander much like Curiosity—NASA can save some cash by re-using spacecraft designs if they can serve the purpose—and it will look for signs of past microbial life on Mars, explore the possibility for creating oxygen in the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and do a variety of other experiments.

NeMO, the “next Mars orbiter,” will provide another communication link should a current orbiter fail, and it also could be part of a plan to return pieces of Mars to Earth.

“Mars 2020 may be depositing samples that it gathers in canisters and leaving them around,” Himes said, “and then NeMO may have something that’s going to go down to the surface, pick them up, and come back, and return to Earth.” Himes noted that plans for NeMO are still quite preliminary.

As these missions are developed it seems likely that Himes will be in the middle of it all.

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Meeting the Martians and getting snapshots of far-away planets

It’s possible that some extraterrestrials were at the most recent Astronomy on Tap Seattle gathering, at which we explored the possibility of life on Mars and looked at exciting new techniques for capturing images of exoplanets.

We have met the Martians and they are us—maybe

“Are we all Martian-Americans? We still don’t know,” said Bob Abel, a professor of applied physics at Olympic College and collaborator with the University of Washington’s Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Group. Abel gave a talk titled, “Where Are the Martians?” at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 26.

Giving a quick geological and topographical history of Mars, Abel said that the Red Planet is just one-half the diameter of Earth, and thus has just one-eighth the volume of Earth, so Mars cooled off pretty quickly.

Mars Mudstones

Curiosity shot this image in Gale Crater on Mars. The mudstones indicate a long history of standing water in that location. Photo: NASA.

“During the early formation of the solar system, it would have cooled to the point where liquid water could exist on its surface before the Earth got to that point,” Abel said, adding that it’s clear that water was once abundant on Mars. The rovers Spirit and Curiosity both landed in craters that used to be lakes, and Opportunity set down on the edge of what scientists think was once a salty sea.

In addition, Abel said that Spirit found opaline silica in Gusev Crater on Mars.

“The place where you find this on Earth is near geysers and hydrothermal vents,” Abel said. You’ll find heat, water, and minerals around these vents. “You’ve got all the stuff for life, and you find the most primitive life clustered around these on Earth.”

Bob Abel

Prof. Bob Abel of Olympic College gave a talk about Mars and Martians at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 26, 2017. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The surface of Mars is awfully barren now, but life could have conceivably existed there in the distant past. Scientists have found meteorites from Mars on Earth, and inside some of those meteorites they’ve found structures that look like nanobacteria. The debate continues over whether these are biological or not.

“It’s still somewhat up in the air, but it’s tantalizing evidence,” Abel said. “The question still remains, did life start earlier on Mars, since it was capable of being inhabited? And by the time Earth was habitable, did meteorites come to Earth and start life on Earth?”

The investigation continues.

As for present-day Mars, while the surface appears devoid of life, we may find something if we dig a little deeper. Abel said that Curiosity detects occasional outbursts of methane on Mars. He pointed out that most methane on Earth is created by biology.

“I’m personally rooting for flatulence, but we don’t know yet what’s causing it,” he laughed. But, through measurements made by many different Mars orbiters, we’ve learned that the planet’s outer core is molten. So beneath the surface there is heat, water, hydrocarbons, and soil: everything life wants. Abel recalled a talk last year by Penelope Boston, head of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

“She can’t see how life doesn’t exist below the surface of Mars,” Abel said.

Snapshots of exoplanets

Getting photographs of exoplanets—planets orbiting far-away stars—is a relatively new field within astronomy. The first such images were captured just eight years ago or so. Benjamin Gerard said the technology and capabilities within the field are advancing rapidly. Gerard, a doctoral student in physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, uses the Gemini Planet Imager to trick out pictures of planets near stars that are many light years away. These photos can be useful for figuring out the components of a planet’s atmosphere and whether it has oceans and continents.

Gerard

Doctoral student Benjamin Gerard gave a talk about his work imaging exoplanets at Astronomy on Tap Seattle April 28. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Gerard said the main challenges in exoplanet imaging are resolution and contrast. He explained that the key to good resolution is adaptive optics. If you’ve looked through a telescope you have likely had nights when the objects you observe appear to be wiggling around because of atmospheric turbulence. Gemini corrects for this with adaptive optics.

Light from the object hits a deformable mirror as well as a component called a wave-front sensor. The sensor measures the amount of turbulence, sends the information to the mirror’s actuators, which can correct for the aberration.

“The mirror deforms once every millisecond,” Gerard said. “This aberration gets corrected and is constantly re-focused onto the camera. Once it reaches that point this image that is very turbulent suddenly becomes much more stable and we can get much better resolution.”

Gerard said this is a plus for ground-based telescopes.

“With this technique, we can basically take a ten-meter telescope and make it like we were in space,” he said. “With adaptive optics we actually do better than any space telescope in resolution.”

The problem of contrast is apparent to anyone who has visited social media, which is full of bad-contrast photos. Especially common are pics of people posed in front of windows. Often the people appear as silhouettes because the light from the window is way brighter. While exoplanets don’t pose in front of cosmic windows, contrast is a huge problem when it comes to getting the images.

“A planet like Earth is about ten billion times dimmer than it’s host star,” Gerard pointed out. Using a coronagraph helps block out the light of the star and remove its glare from the image. They also use a technique called angular differential imaging to overcome aberrations within the instruments. This is a little bit counter-intuitive to the amateur astrophotographer who typically uses an instrument rotator during long exposures to compensate for the apparent motion of objects caused by the rotation of the Earth.

“For exoplanet imaging this is actually helpful, so we turn off the instrument rotator and the planet appears to rotate with respect to the view of the fixed telescope instrumental aberrations,” Gerard said. “We can distinguish one from the other.” Computer algorithms can later put images made in this way back together to create even greater contrast.

Gerard hopes they’ll be able to do even better in the near future. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s. It will have a deformable mirror that should have the capability to image smaller planets like Earth.

“This is many orders of magnitude better than we can do on ground-based telescopes, because on a space telescope you’re much more stable,” Gerard said. “On the Hubble Space Telescope now we can’t reach this sort of contrast because there is no deformable mirror.”

Since Gerard gave the talk NASA announced an independent review of WFIRST that could change its timeline and instrumentation.


The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle gathering is set for May 24 at Peddler Brewing Company.

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Krauss and the greatest story ever told (so far)

We’re living in the best of times and the worst of times according to best-selling author and award-winning theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. The best is represented by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has helped reveal the Higgs particle that ties together the standard model of physics. The worst is reflected by the president’s proposed federal budget that could derail physical science research. Krauss spoke about his latest book, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? (Atria Books, 2017) last week at Town Hall Seattle. It was an informative and humor-filled lecture.

Lawrence Krauss

Author and physicist Lawrence Krauss spoke April 12, 2017 at Town Hall Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is really humanity at its greatest,” said Krauss of the discoveries at the LHC, which represent the work of thousands of scientists from all over the world. Krause’s talk was a walk through the history of discovery in physics, going all the way back to Plato and along the way bumping into Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Fermi, Feynman, and more before arriving at quantum mechanics, the standard model, and the Higgs field.

“The real world is so different than the illusion that we see,” Krauss said. “The world of our experience is an illusion, and it’s an amazing story how we, over centuries, have been able to cut through that illusion to see reality underneath.”

We’ll leave the full tour of advances in physics to your reading of the book and, for this article, focus on Krauss’s take on the problems and challenges facing science today. He feels that much of the current mistrust of science stems from a common misconception that tomorrow’s science will make today’s obsolete, and that therefore scientific facts are little more than a subjective fad. Krauss said that is completely wrong.

Truth is eternal

“What is true today—and by true in science we mean what has satisfied the test of experiment today—will always be true,” he said. “Newton’s laws may have been supplanted at the extremes of scale by general relativity or quantum mechanics, but to describe baseballs or cannonballs or even rocket ships, they’re as true today as they were then, and whatever new physics we discover in quantum gravity or whatever, it’s not going to change. At the scale of humans, it’s got to revert to Newton’s laws. A million years from now, whatever we learn in science, if I let a ball go it’s going to fall as described by Newton’s laws.”

Krauss also let us in on what he jokingly referred to as a well-kept secret.

“Scientists are human,” he said. “That means they have prejudices and biases and pigheadedness, and that’s fine. What’s really neat is that science forces them in the right direction, kicking and screaming. The individual scientists are full of nonsense, but the scientific process protects us from that nonsense.”

Searching for a better toaster

Science is almost inextricably tied to technology, and Krauss frets that this causes people to wonder what new discoveries are “good for.”

“People don’t ask that for Mozart concertos or Picasso paintings or Shakespeare plays,” Krauss noted, “but it’s all the same thing. It’s what makes humanity worth living for. The fundamental importance of science, to me, is not the technology, but the fact that it forces us to confront reality and change our picture of our place in the cosmos. That’s what good literature, good music, good art do. That’s what the process of learning and growing as a society is all about.”

End of story?

The “So Far” in the title of the book is a reference to the notion that the story of discovery will continue to get more amazing if we keep asking questions. But Krauss is worried that we may not be able to do so. He noted that the president’s proposed federal budget would cut the Department of Energy—the primary funder of research in the physical sciences—by 20 percent, and eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museums and Libraries. That would save around $1.82 billion, while Krauss notes that the same budget would provide $2 billion to start building a wall between the United States and Mexico.

“To protect us against these unimaginable horrors, we’re willing to cut these things in our society that are so central,” Krauss observed. “We are in the process of getting rid of what is important for making the nation worth defending.”

“Art, literature, music and science are part of the greatest story ever told, and when we give that up in the name of defense, what are we really killing?” he asked.


More books by Lawrence Krauss:

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Mars astronauts would be “on their own” for medical care

Astronauts on a mission to Mars would essentially be on their own for medical care, according to NASA flight surgeon Dr. David Reyes. With resupply or mission evacuation impossible, and with difficulty in communicating with the ground, astronauts would have to be trained and equipped to provide their own care.

Reyes gave an interesting talk about the history of space medicine last weekend at the Museum of Flight. He noted that being a flight surgeon is the opposite of being a typical doctor.

David Reyes

NASA flight surgeon Dr. David Reyes gave a talk about the history of aerospace medicine April 8, 2017 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Regular medicine is taking care of sick people in a normal environment,” Reyes said. “Aerospace medicine is taking care of healthy people in an abnormal or unusual environment.” He added that the astronauts are usually super healthy, but the environments they deal with are challenging to say the least.

Much of the job of the flight surgeon is to help determine the medical risks of space travel, to help come up with and test gear to avert those risks, and to help astronauts learn about symptoms of conditions they may encounter.

For example, astronauts in training are put into an altitude chamber, and the air is pumped out of the chamber to simulate the atmosphere at 21,000 feet above sea level. Then they take off their oxygen masks. Reyes said this makes them “goofy” with hypoxia.

“The reason we put them in this chamber is so that they can recognize those symptoms for themselves,” Reyes said. “Everyone has a unique response to low oxygen.” If they’ve experienced it they can recognize it in the event oxygen problems occur in flight.

Mission medical kits

It was fascinating to look at the evolution of medical kits for various missions. In the days of Mercury, the kit was essentially a few bandaids, aspirin, motion sickness pills, and a couple of other remedies. It was not much more than a prudent backpacker would take on a day hike. Mercury missions were short and the astronauts, strapped into a small capsule, didn’t have to do much physical activity.

Mercury Med Kit

A Mercury medical kit. Photo: NASA

With Gemini and Apollo the kits were expanded as the missions became longer and more active, but they still weren’t all that extensive.

“This is like everything you might have in your medicine cabinet at home,” Reyes noted of the kits.

By the time of Skylab each crew received 80 hours of paramedic training. The medical kit was huge and even included a dental kit. The space shuttle went far beyond the home medicine cabinet. The International Space Station has a Crew Medical Officer who is an astronaut with additional medical training. It carries an extensive medical kit with nine different packs. It also employs a Crew Health Care System or CHCS—pronounced “checks”—that is the first robust medical system for space missions.

Given all of that, Reyes pointed out that, “Nothing really serious has happened in space flight.” Astronauts on longer missions suffer bumps and bruises and rashes, and insomnia, but the most serious condition has been a urinary tract infection on one Apollo flight.

Bones and eyes

These days the two problems they’re studying the most are bone mass loss and visual impairment. They’ve known about the bone mass challenge for a while, and it’s why the astronauts spend at least two hours per day exercising. Without it, “We’d send a 40- or 50-year-old astronaut up and they’d come back looking like an 80-year-old after six months in the space station,” Reyes said.

The vision issues only became apparent in the last seven years or so, and Reyes said they’re still researching those. A couple of things happen to some astronauts: fluid buildup in the eye because of zero gravity, and change of eye shape. They’ve developed adjustable eyeglasses should astronauts develop vision problems in flight.

Mars poses challenges

Missions to Mars would provide medical as well as ethical challenges. On all space missions so far, flight surgeons on the ground have been able to offer advice and counsel. For Mars, the long lag for radio signals, up to 22 minutes for transmission, would make conversation difficult, and during the time Mars is on the other side of the Sun from Earth there would be no communication at all.

“When you go to Mars, basically you’re on your own,” Reyes said of the astronauts.

There is debate about how much medical equipment and medicine to take on a Mars mission. Every item launched on a mission represents a tradeoff in mass and cost and whatever might not go along. An even bigger, ethical question involves what happens if an astronaut suffers a serious injury.

“If you have a limited set of supplies, and somebody gets severly injured and will require a lot of care, how much care are you going to give them?” Reyes asked. “If you use up your whole med kit, that puts everybody else at risk. So you have to think, ‘Is there some point that we’re going to withdraw care because we’re jeopardizing the rest of the mission?’”

It’s an on-going area of discussion.

Why be a flight surgeon?

Like many of us who are interested in space and astronomy, Reyes caught the bug from television.

“When I was a kid I watched the Moon landing on TV,” he said. “A black and white TV at my parents’ house.” He thought it was the coolest thing ever.

“I’ve always had an interest in space,” he added. His undergraduate major was in geology, and he studied some planetary science. He then went into the Air Force and medicine. He filled a free month during his residency with an introduction to aerospace medicine course at the University of Texas. He was drawn in by the lectures from real flight surgeons.

“This is what I want to do,” he learned.

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Causing mayhem and mass destruction in the Universe Sandbox

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if the Sun somehow vanished from the solar system, or wanted to watch planets smash into each other, or thought it would be fun to bombard the Moon with asteroids, you’re in luck! You can do all of those things and more with a computer game called Universe Sandbox2. Dan Dixon, creator of Universe Sandbox2, gave a demonstration of it at this week’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“It is software that allows you to ask fantastical questions about the universe and see plausibly true answers,” Dixon said.

Universe Sandbox2 sells for $25.

The possibilities are vast. The slogan for Universe Sandbox2 is “create & destroy on an unimaginable scale,” and the software delivers. It lets users tinker with an incredible number of variables, from the mass and density of objects to the chemical makeup of their atmospheres. Eliminate all of the carbon dioxide and see what happens! Move the Moon in closer to Earth and watch the chaos. For all of the interesting science questions it can answer, Universe Sandbox2 also appeals to our inner 12-year-old.

“People like to collide things,” Dixon noted, and clearly he is one of those people.

“It’s a physics simulation, so in addition to doing interesting things with orbits, you can also do interesting things with collisions,” he added.

Universe Sandbox screenshot

Screenshot from Universe Sandbox2 of an object colliding with Earth.

Those mash-ups got a lot of oohs and aahs from the attendees at the meeting at the University of Washington. It was fun to see what Earth would do to the ring system if it were placed in orbit around Saturn. (Spoiler alert: Disruptive!) Dixon raced through dozens of scenarios, and that only scratched the surface.

He said the results shown in Universe Sandbox2 are “plausibly” true because they have to make some compromises. They don’t simulate every object or every particle out there because that would take way too much computer oomph.

Plausibly true

“It’s a very simplistic simulation; we’re not doing any pressure waves or dark matter,” Dixon said, “but it still is pretty cool.”

So when Mars smacks into Earth in an attempt to see if a new moon would result, you don’t necessarily have all of the data you would like.

“You really would want to have like a billion pieces,” Dixon said, but “because we’re trying to do this real time on modern-day desktops or laptops, you can’t have as many pieces as you want and get it still to run in real time.”

“We’re undoubtedly wrong in a lot of cases, and there’s a lot of room for improvement in the simulation,” Dixon noted. They’re revamping the way the program handles stellar evolution and are working to improve planetary climate simulations. Part of the challenge is that they’re often simulating events for which there is not yet a scientific answer.

“We’re trying to solve things that are not well-defined or understood,” Dixon said. That’s not to say they’re just making stuff up.

“Being realistic is really important to me,” Dixon said, but they want to let users come up with their own crazy scenarios. “One of the goals of the software is to allow ridiculous premises but then carry that to a realistic conclusion.”

Humble beginnings

In a way, Universe Sandbox2 has been in development for 20 years. When Dixon was in middle school his father downloaded a simple gravity simulator from a BBS list. (Remember those?) It didn’t have many features, but it caught Dixon’s interest.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the motions of gravity,” he said, “and gravity is a really simple formula, too. It’s always fascinating how this really simple formula can do these really beautiful and organic interesting motions.” Later on in middle school Dixon coded his own simulator. He’d tinker with it every once in a while, then became serious about it about ten years ago.

“This was not like the grand ambition. It was a thing I was working on for fun, and now it’s turned into this crazy thing,” Dixon said. “What started as a personal side project is now what myself and eight others do full time.”

“I think if I had a time machine and I went back and showed my younger self what it’s become, I would have been overwhelmed and wouldn’t have started on it,” he laughs.

“This is a passion project that I’m fortunate enough to continue working on.”


View the Universe Sandbox2 teaser below. Purchasing through this link supports not only Universe Sandbox2 but also Seattle Astronomy in our efforts to tell interesting stories.

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Pi Day, Mars Madness, and more this week

Pi Day, Mars Madness, planetarium shows galore, and astro club events fill a busy calendar this week.

Pi Day

Celebrate Pi Day at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 14 at the Pierce College Science Dome. This free celebration will include hands-on math and science activities, a pi recitation typing contest, and Chaos and Order: A Mathematical Symphony. Please reserve seats in advance for the symphony, which will run at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. in the dome. Reservations are not needed for the other activities.

MOF Mars Madness

Phoenix landerMars Madness continues at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 18. This week’s presentation will feature the museum’s Carla Bitter, former education and public outreach manager of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, who will give a family friendly, fast paced Mars 101: Know Your Missions presentation, complete with Red Planet prizes. Mars Madness is happening every Saturday in March, and is free with museum admission.

Club meetings

The Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 13 in room Engineering 117 at Olympic College in Bremerton. A guest speaker will talk about the Moon. Mysteriously, the club website doesn’t list who the speaker will be. Is it a major Moon celebrity?

The Seattle Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. on the Ides of March—Wednesday, March 15—in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Dan Dixon, creator of the Universe Sandbox simulation game, will talk about how he and his team of programmers, a planetary scientist, and a climate scientist collaborated to create an app that can model galactic collisions and solar system dynamics.

Planetarium shows

Check out The Secret Lives of Stars, a free show at the Bellevue College Planetarium that will play at 6 p.m. and repeat at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. Reservations are recommended; information about reservations, parking, and location is online.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center offers a variety of programs every day. Check their complete lineup on our calendar page.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added:

Up in the sky

Jupiter, Spica, and the Moon will form a nice triangle in the evening on Tuesday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.

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