Category Archives: space

Astro-events and stargazing sites

We’ve been beefing up our astronomy resources of late, adding quite a few events to our calendar and stargazing sites to our maps.

Craters of the Moon
Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho is one of the IDA’s International Dark-sky Parks. Photo: US National Park Service

We were inspired to add some stargazing sites by a recent article on the Travel Awaits website. “The 7 Most Incredible Stargazing Sites In The U.S.” by Juanita Pike did not include any Northwest locations, but we went through the International Dark-Sky Association‘s list of dark sky places and added those in our region to our stargazing site maps. We did hop out of the Northwest, barely, for one of them. The frighteningly named Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area is a certified IDA International Dark Sky Sanctuary just south of the Oregon border in northwestern Nevada.

The maps have grown to have quite a few sites on them. The northwest map is up to about 70, and the Seattle-area map has a stargazer’s dozen.

Astronomy events

Our events calendar is a pretty robust listing of astronomy events in the region. It’s helpful that we can pull events directly from the calendars of several different organizations, including the Seattle, Tacoma, Palouse, and Island County astronomical societies. Some others take a little more legwork. For example, we recently discovered a listing of events about exoplanets that will be running at the Jefferson County Library through early October, and the Southern Oregon Skywatchers shared a list of pending events in their neck of the woods.

Destination: Moon

Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia
The Apollo 11 command module “Columbia” will be at the Museum of Flight through Sept. 2. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

One of the coolest events of the year is about the come to an end. The Destination: Moon exhibit about the Apollo 11 mission has been at the Museum of Flight since April and will be closing next week, September 2. The Apollo 11 command module “Columbia” is the centerpiece of the exhibit, but there are a great many other interesting items on display as well. (Check out our article about the exhibit when it was in St. Louis last year, and our preview of the MOF version.)

For the final days of Destination: Moon the museum will offer extended hours and discount pricing. Normal hours for the museum are 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily. From August 28 through September 2 they’ll stay open from 5-9 p.m. and admission will be discounted during those late hours: $15 for adults and seniors and $10 for youth. Destination: Moon is a separate, $10 ticket; you have to arrive at or after 5 p.m. to qualify for the discount.

We always say that we comb the Internet for astronomy events so that you don’t have to! Please feel free to share any events by your club or organization.

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Destination Moon exhibit opens tomorrow at Museum of Flight

Apollo 11 command module Columbia

Apollo 11 command module Columbia. Photo: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The long-awaited exhibit Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, opens April 13 at The Museum of Flight. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the mission’s command module Columbia, which is on the last leg of a two-year, four-city journey that is the historic spacecraft’s first since being parked at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1971. The Columbia took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon for the first Moon landing. The exhibit will be here through September 2, including the date of the 50th anniversary of the giant leap, July 20, 2019.

While some common elements of the exhibit have traveled to all four cities—Destination Moon stopped in Houston, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh prior to its Seattle trip—each museum has been able to put its own spin on the artifacts. At the Museum of Flight, Destination Moon represents an expansion of the Apollo exhibit that opened in May two years ago. (Here’s our article about the exhibit.) It’s here the the Museum of Flight has an edge, with the exhibit including two enormous F-1 engines that powered the launch of Apollo missions. Other museum artifacts are also included, as is a gallery about the legacy of Seattle-area industry, astronauts and engineers to the space program.

Apollo 11 Columbia command module

Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia in August 2018 at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Visitors can get pretty close to Columbia, but they can’t go inside. However, they can do so virtually through an interactive 3-D tour created from the Smithsonian’s high-resolution scans of the interior of the spacecraft.

The exhibit promises to be extremely popular. A free preview for museum members last weekend was well attended, and a host of special events for the first weekend are likely to draw many visitors. We were fortunate to see the exhibit in St. Louis last summer; it was near the end of the run and it wasn’t at all crowded. Waiting might be a good option if seeing it early and often isn’t a big deal for you!

The Columbia is a big deal artifact. I spent hours with it in St. Louis and a good bit of time at the member preview this week. Don’t miss this great opportunity to see a super cool piece of space history!

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Destination Moon exhibit taking shape at Museum of Flight

Helmet and gloves

The helmet and gloves used by Buzz Aldrin when he walked on the Moon, from the Destination Moon exhibit in St. Louis. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

With less than a month to go until its opening, the Destination Moon exhibit about the Apollo 11 mission is taking shape at the Museum of Flight. Museum staff announced in a news release this week that the helmet and gloves used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during his walk on the Moon have been installed in the space. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, but it will feature many other artifacts of the historic mission.

I saw the exhibit when it was in St. Louis last summer (story here) and it was great. It opens at the Museum of Flight April 13 and runs through September 2, a stretch of dates that includes the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969 “giant leap for mankind.”

There will be some differences in the exhibit from when it was in St. Louis. For example, the Museum of Flight release notes that the helmet and gloves display will include a magnifying glass so that museum visitors can read the to-do list on Aldrin’s glove reminding him of his tasks during the moonwalk. A key item on the list: get a photograph of a boot print on the Moon!

More helmet and gloves

Shelley Sterns-Blackburn, ELY, Inc, and Lisa Young, Conservator at National Air and Space Museum make some final adjustments to spacesuit gloves worn by Buzz Aldrin while on the surface of the Moon. Aldrin’s helmet and visor are in place on the left. Photo Ted Huetter/The Museum of Flight.

Tickets for all dates of the exhibit are now on sale on the Museum of Flight website. Tickets are $10, or $5 for museum members, and must be purchased in addition to museum general admission, which is $25 for adults, $21 for seniors, and $16 for youth. Kids under 4 years of age are admitted free.

In addition, there is a free member preview of the exhibit scheduled for Sunday, April 7, which sounds like an excellent reason to join up today. Several free days are planned during the run of the exhibit, though no details on those have yet been published.

When I saw the exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center I went on a weekday afternoon and there were no lines or crowds; I just walked up and bought a ticket. Weekends might be a different story.

I can’t wait to see it again!

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Six things you may not know about NASA

NASA turned 60 on October 1, 2018 and last weekend the Museum of Flight hosted a talk by the agency’s chief historian, Bill Barry, as part of the anniversary celebration. Since we all know about the Moon landing, the space shuttle program, explorations of the planets, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and various NASA research and discoveries, Barry focused his talk on six things you may not know about NASA.

#6: NASA science data saved us from disaster

In a day and age when there’s significant distrust of science, it’s interesting to note NASA’s role in solving a difficult environmental problem. Researchers as early as the late 1950s noticed that there was a depletion of ozone in the atmosphere above the South Pole, but it was difficult to document.

Bill Barry

NASA chief historian Bill Barry gave a talk at the Museum of Flight Oct. 6, 2018 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the agency. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Barry explained that NASA used the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) on the Nimbus 7 weather satellite to confirm and map the hole in the ozone.

“It was pretty clear that the ozone hole was big and getting bigger,” Barry said, and that got people’s attention. Scientists postulated that the ozone depletion was caused by chemical reactions with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as refrigerants and spray-can propellants, but again it was tough to prove. Observations made from NASA’s ER-2 aircraft and DC-8 Flying Laboratory eventually confirmed that the CFCs were the culprit.

This led to an amazing act of international cooperation on an environmental issue. In the Montreal Protocol in 1987 nations agreed to phase out CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. It’s working; Barry noted that the ozone is gradually recovering.

“Demographers suggest that this action saved us at least two million cases of skin cancer,” since then, he said.

#5: NASA almost didn’t happen

At the dawn of the space age, after Sputnik, the military became keenly interested in spy satellites and possible space weaponry. US Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the aim of collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners on military programs involving space.

Dryden

Hugh Dryden was director of NACA from 1947 until NASA was formed in 1958. Photo: NASA

In the meantime over at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) director Hugh Latimer Dryden had pushed the committee’s research agenda toward high-speed flight and space research. In January 1958 he wrote a key report suggesting that space efforts be a collaboration between the DOD, NACA, National Academy of Science, research institutions, universities, and industry. That’s pretty close to the ARPA mission, with a civilian bent.

Barry said that within about a month of the issuance of Dryden’s report, President Dwight Eisenhower went along with it, and sent Congress proposed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. Congress soon approved it.

In the early days of the collaboration there was still arm wrestling over control. A memo from Eisenhower directed that NASA would run all programs “except those peculiar to or primarily associated with military weapons systems or military operations.” The DOD took a broad definition of that—figuring putting people in space was military and so that was within their bailiwick. Eisenhower intervened to clarify that the legislation made NASA a largely civilian organization.

“This key decision on Eisenhower’s part was really important,” Barry said. “NASA in some ways has become the world’s space agency, one of the most positive aspects of US international relations,” and the civilian nature of the agency is vital to that.

#4: NASA is a serial creator of new industries

Barry pics

Barry said smartphone cameras with CMOS chips may be as good or better than DSLR cameras, so we put it to the test. Smartphone pic is on the left. Problems may be due to operator error! Photos: Greg Scheiderer

There’s a common belief that Tang, Teflon, and Velcro were creations of the space program. Barry said those aren’t correct, but a lot of other stuff has NASA origins. Excimer lasers developed for ozone detection proved useful for laser surgery, for example, and the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips in your smartphone camera were originally developed to build a better camera for space probes. Oddly, those never flew, but they’ve taken off here on Earth. NASA’s annual Spinoff magazine highlights stuff that originated in the space program.

Beyond those, NASA has spun off entire industries. Weather satellites and communication satellites (now a $2 billion/year industry) came from NASA. Under COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) companies such as SpaceX and Boeing are building crewed vehicles and plan to begin testing next year.

“We hope by the end of next year to be launching US astronauts from Florida again up to the International Space Station and paying American companies to do it for us,” Barry said.

#3: NASA revolutionized the understanding of the universe

One’s first response to that is, “Well, duh!” but Barry said it’s easy to take for granted what has happened over the last 60 years.

“We don’t often think about how much things have changed since 1958 when NASA was created,” he said. Sixty years ago otherwise sane people thought there may be civilizations and canals on Mars and dinosaurs on Venus. They figured the outer solar system was just boring ice. There were nine planets; we now know that virtually every star has at least one. We had no idea the Van Allen Belts existed. Now we have a photo of the cosmic microwave background.

#2: Why did we go to the Moon?

President John F. Kennedy wasn’t actually that big on space; in early speeches after he was sworn in he kept proposing that the US and Soviet Union team up on space projects.

The Soviet Union wasn’t too keen on that. They were using the success of their space program to proclaim the superiority of their system and to recruit allies in a world that had been “decolonized” after World War II. The Soviets were winning the propaganda war. JFK wanted a way to beat them without breaking the bank.

Trailing in the game, Kennedy moved the goalposts and declared the race to the Moon.

“The Soviet Union’s success in space was a major strategic strategic problem for the United States,” Barry explained, “so investing money in going to the Moon was a way to prove that the western, capitalist model of government was, in fact, at least as good as if not better than the Soviets.”

#1: The race to the Moon was closer than you think

JFKJFK made his speech to Congress about setting the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in May of 1961, shortly after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It wasn’t until years later, with President Lyndon Johnson pushing the goal as Kennedy’s legacy, that the Soviets took notice.

“It’s really obvious by the summer of 1964 that the US was serious about going to the Moon and had the political will and the money to make it happen,” Barry said.

The Soviet response was the Zond program. They wouldn’t orbit the Moon, but would instead fling their spacecraft around it and then return to Earth.

The Soviets made five Zond launches in 1968 had a few successes. Zond 5 in September took some tortoises and other life forms along and landed back on Earth, though in the Indian Ocean rather than on land as intended. Zond 6 made the trip and landed on target in Kazakstan, but its heat shield failed. Tests weren’t going well on the N-1 rocket, the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V that would be their way of launching people to the Moon. In December 1968 Apollo 8 and three US astronauts orbited the Moon.

“It was pretty clear they weren’t going to get their guys on the surface of the Moon before we did,” Barry said. But the Soviets didn’t give up. They sent up a Hail Mary.

The Soviets had been launching Luna spacecraft since the late 1950s, and in the space of six months they cobbled together a robotic craft that would land on the Moon, collect a few rocks, and bring them to back Earth.

A first launch attempt failed, but Luna 15 blasted off three days before Apollo 11. The Eagle got to the Moon first. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their Moon walk and were catching a few winks before launching to return to the command module Columbia.

“While they’re sleeping in the lunar module the Soviets fired the retro rockets on Luna 15 and landed on the surface of the Moon. It crashed,” Barry said. But he added that if it had landed successfully, the Soviets may well have been able to get their Moon sample back to Earth first.

“The race to the Moon ends July 20, 1969 after the first Moon walk actually happened,” he marveled. “It was that close.”

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Exploring the solar system with Emily Lakdawalla

Emily Lakdawalla gushes with enthusiasm about the cool things to see and learn in our solar system, and for her that would be reason enough to explore those places.

“I’m just curious,” she told the Rose City Astronomers at their most recent meeting in Portland. “I like to see the new places, I like to see the planets. I think it’s awfully fun, but that’s not a good reason to make somebody else pay for it.”

Lakdawalla

Emily Lakdawalla (Isabel Lawrence/Planetary Society)

Lakdawalla, senior editor and planetary evangelist for the Planetary Society, said the public policy reasons for exploration are to answer the questions of how we got here and whether we’re alone in the universe. We need to find those answers off-planet.

“Earth is a wonderful planet to live on!” she said. “It’s my favorite planet; it’s temperate, it’s a very comfortable place to live. It’s also a terrible place to try to answer these questions from a planetary science point of view.”

That, she says, is because Earth is dynamic. Forces like weather and volcanism and even life and evolution change things and mess up the ancient evidence about how things were before. We need to go to space to find territory in a more undisturbed state.

After the first wave of planetary exploration, with Viking, Mariner, and the like, enthusiasm and political will and funding for planetary exploration waned. Lakdawalla explained that the Planetary Society was founded in 1980 to be an advocate for finding the answers. We’re now enjoying a second wave of exploration.

“Since the end of the second millennium, we’ve had this amazing expansion of robotic space explorers all over the solar system,” Lakdawalla said. She talked about many of them, with a particular emphasis on Mars. This is squarely within her bailiwick, as she is the author of the book The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job (Springer Praxis Books, 2018).

She explained how a series of Mars missions followed the water. Mars Global Surveyor made a map. Mars Odyssey detected evidence of hydrogen by analyzing neutron movement, and hydrogen could mean water. Phoenix went to look for water and found ice. Mars Express found places where there’s clay, evidence of water, in many places. Curiosity went to one of those places.

“Curiosity has found environments on Mars that are unequivocally habitable,” Lakdawalla said. “Curiosity is not capable of looking for fossil evidence of microbial life on Mars. It doesn’t have the instruments.”

While Curiosity continues its mission, Lakdawalla said we’ve pretty well exhausted this particular line of research.

“We have found that, yes, Mars could have originated life in the past, but we can’t tell you if there was life there or not,” she said. That question will be up to the next line of rovers, such as the ESA’s ExoMars and NASA’s Mars 2020.

Lakdawalla spent some time on the outer solar system, particularly the life possibilities on the jovian moons Ganymede and Europa and Saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus. She noted that on Titan the temperature is such that methane could exist on the surface in liquid, gas, or solid forms, much as water can exist on Earth. The Huygens probe found round rocks on Titan, a significant discovery for a geologist.

“We have a river, except it’s a bizarro river,” Lakdawalla said. “Those rocks are made of water ice, and the river they were tumbled in was a methane river. It’s so familiar and so completely bizarre.” She said it’s hard to say if life could exist in that strange environment. Another reason for further exploration!

Lakdawalla said she’d love to see a mission soon to either Uranus or Neptune.

“They don’t get enough respect,” she said. “I think they’re awesome worlds.” But remembering her statement that coolness alone isn’t enough of a reason for the trip, she noted that the ice worlds are at an intermediate size between the gas giants and the terrestrial planets.

“Most of the exoplanets that we have discovered in the last 30 years have been of this size,” Lakdawalla noted. “We’ve never studied up-close the ones in our own solar system except for one Voyager 2 fly-by. We don’t understand these worlds very well at all, so how are we going to understand the rest of the universe and all of these other planets orbiting all of these other stars?”

Lakdawalla concluded that it’s a great time to be in the planetary exploration business.

“We’re doing it for a reason; we’re trying to understand how we got here, whether we’re the only life in the solar system,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful field of study.”

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Apollo 11 command module amazes in St. Louis

We tend to remember where we were at the time of major historical events, like when we found out that Elvis was dead or when a gimpy Kirk Gibson hit that home run against Dennis Eckersley to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. For space geeks and for anyone over age 56 or so, the ultimate such shared experience has to be when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Estimates are that up to 600 million people worldwide and more than 130 million in the US alone watched the Moon landing on live television.

Apollo 11 Columbia command module

Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia last month at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Thus, it was a thrill for me to recently stand about a foot away from an amazing piece of space exploration history, the Apollo 11 “Columbia” command module, at the St. Louis Science Center. Columbia hadn’t left the Smithsonian since doing a national tour in the early 1970s, but the historic space capsule is part of a touring exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities before returning to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a new comprehensive Apollo exhibit. The tour started last year in Houston and the St. Louis stop wraps up Sept. 3, 2018. It will be on display in Pittsburgh starting later this month and then—get this!—its final stop on the tour will be the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where it will be on display beginning in March for a stay that will include the 50th anniversary date of the Moon landing. Huzzah!

The Destination Moon exhibit is great, with lots of information about how we got there, who the key players were, and why we did it. But the Columbia capsule was just completely mesmerizing, at least for me. I was a total space nut kid, kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of stories about the space flights, and was glued to the TV for launches and landings. Standing next to Columbia took me back to my almost-12 self. I dare say I was giddy in its presence. I spent a couple of hours in the exhibit, mostly just looking at this fabulous artifact.

There were a couple of other cool items in the exhibit. Aldrin’s helmet and gloves used on the Moon were there, as was a sample collection case in which he and Armstrong stowed their Moon rocks. They also have one injector plate from an Apollo engine, of they type around which the Museum of Flight has built its popular Apollo exhibit. Columbia’s escape hatch is on display separately from the capsule. There is a collection of gear such as first-aid items and a survival kit in case the capsule splashed down far away from its target upon return to Earth. And, oh yes, there’s a Moon rock, too. Interestingly enough, I saw Moon rocks at both the St. Louis Science Center and Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a recent trip to the Midwest, and visitors showed little interest in either. THAT’S A HUNK OF THE MOON FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! OK, rant over. Maybe that’s not a big thing in the age of virtual reality and interactive exhibits. Alas.

Elsewhere in the St. Louis Science Center they have Mercury and Gemini capsules, too, and another current exhibit is Mission: Mars that is a lot of fun. The center is also home to the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, built in 1963 and named for the co-founder of McDonnell-Douglas, who kicked in a good chunk of change for equipment for the facility.

Membership has its privileges; I got $1 off admission to Destination Moon thanks to my membership in the Museum of Flight. Parking would have been free had I driven, but I took public transit to the center.

Destination Moon will be at the Museum of Flight from April 13–Sept. 2, 2019. Check below for a trailer video, and for more of our photos from the exhibit.

Destination Moon

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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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