October 18, 2018

Review: The Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching

On sale now.

Love maps? Looking for something a bit unconventional and unique? We recently finished a fascinating compendium of the world as it never was, and lands that were thought to be. We’re talking about The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps by Edward Brooke-Hitching, out from Chronicle Books. The Phantom Atlas is a definitive collection of lands that never where, though they found their way onto charts and atlases, some persisting until very recently.

The book breaks down 58 fascinating entries in alphabetical order, from the Strait of Anian to the Phantom Lands of Zeno. Even if you’re a hardcore geographer or historian, I’ll bet there are at least a few you haven’t heard of. In our case, I’d say about half of the entries were new to us.

Some of these were fleeting apparitions, Fata Morganas at sea, icebergs or mirages. Others were embellishments, tall tales meant to stir up interest or investments.

Some of our faves from the book include:

The tragic story of the Territory of Poyais: in 1822, soldier of fortune turned con artist Gregor MacGregor convinced prospective settlers (twice!) in Scotland and England to buy phony land deeds and pack up and head to a supposed new colony in Honduras. When they arrived, the settlers found nothing more than a malarial marsh.

Norumbega: I found this one interesting, as it’s one of the few entries that ties in with my home state of Maine. Also, it relates to the fascinating tale of David Ingram, who supposedly walked 3,000 miles across North America in 1568.

Wak-wak: what’s not to love about a supposed island off the coast of Japan and Korea where human-shaped fruit hangs suspended on trees?

A few popular lands also made the cut, including Atlantis, El Dorado, and the lands of Prester John, an Ethiopian king rumored to want to come to the aid of besieged Crusaders in the Holy Lands.

Why study false maps? Well, the map entries in the book give us insight into just how our ancestors viewed the world around them, and how this view is changing, even today. Did you know, for example, that an expedition ventured out to look for the fictitious Bermeja Island… in 2009, seven years after the launch of Google Earth? Or that sounding measurements made in 1948 in the North Atlantic suggest that Mayda Island may have once been real, before it was submerged by volcanic activity beneath the waves?

The Phantom Atlas also provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of map making, and how our view of the world has evolved to the picture we have today. Editing is a laborious task even today, and one can only imagine how tough the task was in the Middle Ages, as cartographers only had limited information and the anecdotes of wayward seafarers. The temptation is often strong to simply embellish and fill in the gaps on maps with islands and lands that, while they tell a good tale, simply do not exist.

Be sure to pick up The Phantom Atlas for a look at the world as if never was, though we once thought it should be.

Why DC’s Legion of Superheroes Deserves a Home in CW’s Arrowverse

Long Live the Legion… Credit: The CW.

Been watching Supergirl lately? We’ve just about made it through Season 3 on ye ole Netflix, through the story arc featuring the battle against Reign and the Blight. Along with DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl is one of the best superhero sagas in the CW Arrowverse. I really like how they’ve done a deep dive into DC comics lore, crossing paths with the Martian Manhunter, Red Tornado, General Zod, and much more.

But the series has also teased us, especially through the third season, with glimpses into one of the most fascinating sagas in the Supergirl tale: The Legion of Superheroes. [Read more...]

Tracking Tales of Transits in Lewes, Delaware

Seen in Lewes, Delaware… photo by author.

I had to stop.

As we always love to say, astronomy and history is where you find it, even in a graveyard in Delaware beside the road.

The Delaware coast is an unlikely birthplace for modern American science. But back in the mid-18th century, it was the site of cutting edge astronomy. At the time, measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun was the gold standard, a key to unlocking the scale and size of the solar system using Kepler’s laws. A transit of Venus across the the face of the Sun represented just such an opportunity to make a parallax measurement at the precise moments of ingress and egress as the black inky disk of the planet slips across the face of the Sun. This was one of the first truly international efforts in science, as several observations had to be made from multiple geographically separate locations. [Read more...]

Friday Review: Searching for the Fleet by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

On sale on September 18th, and available for pre-order now.

One of the most amazing science fiction series in recent years now has an exciting new installment.

We’re talking about Searching for the Fleet, the latest chapter in the Diving Into the Wreck saga by Kristine Kathryn Rusch out September 18th, 2018 from WMG Publishing. Searching for the Fleet follows Captain Johnathan “Coop” Cooper and Engineer Yash Zarlengo and the crew of the Ivoire as they continue to salvage the spacecraft Boneyard known as The Lost Souls in search of the ancient mythical Fleet.

[Read more...]

Observing Like an Eight-Year Old

Our second telescope: a 60mm refractor.

(note the 8-track player in the background!)

It’s true: we destroyed our first telescope before its first night out.

Flashback to the summer 1977, and our ninth birthday. Returning home from church, I was greeted by a shiny new Newtonian reflecting telescope, lovingly assembled by my Mom in my bedroom. [Read more...]

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2018

On sale August 7th!

Ready for the best of the best? Every year, one of the biggest and best reads that we look forward to are the Nebulas. Not only are these tales a great read, but they also serve as a fine look at the state of modern science fiction, a cross-sectional look at where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. [Read more...]

Coming Clean: Tales of Astronomical Wins and Woes

Beware of the “Pacman Moon…”

It’s true: I once slept through an eclipse.

Well, OK. I didn’t sleep all the way though. Hard to believe, there was a phase of my life where I didn’t eagerly await every occultation and conjunction. Like many skywatchers who return to amateur astronomy later in life, an early interest in high school waned during enlistment in the military.

That particular morning on February 9th, 1990 saw me working the graveyard shift on the flight-line at Kadena Air Base. Often, if the work was done and the aircraft were prepped for the next day’s missions, our shift supervisor looked the other way if we wanted to crawl in the back of the truck and catch some shuteye. Hey, it’s how a graveyard shift worker survives. The two rules were that we would promise to 1. bring a radio so we could be contacted and 2. were out of sight, lest the Base Commander or his friends decided to stop by unannounced.

“Cool, the Moon is Full” I noticed as I lay back on the truck bench and nodded off.. but I couldn’t say the same an hour later, as I awoke to a curious Pacman shaped Moon, lower in the sky. I realized then, that an eclipse was underway.

Even today, I occasionally still miss out on what we’re aiming for astronomically. Satellites fail to show. Meteor showers are a wash. Comets are faint and elusive. We’ve yet to successfully nab an asteroid occultation. We only caught a very brief view of the 2012 transit of Venus through thick clouds, along with arguably the worst image of the event. Usually, clouds—the nemesis of every astronomer—is often the culprit, though light pollution and the capricious whim of the Universe can occasionally play a roll.

We’re not even afraid to admit that we missed totality during the ‘big one’ last summer, as fast moving clouds stole the climax of the Great American Eclipse of August 21st, 2017. We have our final shot of the slim, dwindling crescent Sun time-stamped at less than 30 seconds from totality to prove it.

Such is the game we play, and you might be surprised to know that we don’t resort to hubris, shaking our fists at a spiteful cosmos. We knew that going to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in the Smoky Mountains was a toss-up in terms of weather, though we graciously accepted the press invite and had a good time. Maybe the “Smoky” part of the name should’ve been our first clue…

Instead, we remember the tale of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil, who braved the perils of 18th sea travel, the whims of weather, disease and war only to miss the transit of Venus… twice, once in 1761 and again in 1769. Talk about bad luck of astronomical proportions. Even today, eclipse chasers will make the arduous journey in pursuit of a few extra seconds of totality only to get rained on… when they would’ve had clear skies, if they had simply stayed put.

We also remember how lucky we’ve been over the years. We’ve seen aurorae from Alaska and Maine that would knock your socks off. We caught the Great 1998 Leonid meteor storm from the deserts of Kuwait, an event far rarer than a even a total solar eclipse. And we were fortunate enough to journey south of the equator on three continents (the southern hemisphere has all the good stuff!) and catch to great comets as they went circumpolar as seen from Alaska in the late 1990s: Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake.

Sure, it’s tough not to feel like we’re missing out sometimes… but rather than curse the cosmos, we like to fight the good fight, and get out under the stars on every clear night… just in case fate throws us a cosmic bone.

Pluto at Opposition 2018: Transit Dreaming

Earth and the Moon in transit as seen from Pluto.

Credit: Starry Night.

What sorts of celestial scenes would you witness, if you could magically sit on some far flung space rock? An interesting upcoming alignment was recently brought to our attention by our friends over at Earth & Sky and astronomer Anne Verbiscer at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Virginia on the NASA New Horizons blog, prompting us to take a closer look at a unique event that will go unwitnessed by human (or robotic) eyes: a transit of the Earth and the Moon on July 12th, 2018 (as reckoned in Universal Time)… as seen from Pluto.

This alignment occurs because the 2018 opposition of Pluto sees it very near one of its two ecliptic crossing nodes. Orbiting the Sun once every 248 years in a highly inclined orbit tilted 17 degrees with respect to the Earth’s path, these crossings occur during alternate spans of 87 versus 161 years. In fact, it was during the last node crossing back in 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh spotted Pluto, drifting through the star fields of the astronomical constellation of Gemini the Twins. It’s sobering to think that in just over eight decades since its discovery, slow-moving Pluto has only moved seven constellations (we’re count the pesky non-zodiacal constellation Ophiuchus) eastward to Sagittarius the Archer in 2018.

The orbital nodes of Pluto. Graphic credit: Anne Verbiscer.

Incidentally, the fact that Pluto was near a node and the ecliptic plane–right where you’d expect a planet to hide—very probably upped Mr. Tombaugh’s chance’s of spotting it. Pluto was also moving towards perihelion 29.7 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun on September 5th, 1989, meaning it reached its maximum brightness of magnitude +13.7 during oppositions right around that year. In 2018, it’ll only reach magnitude +14.2 at opposition, as it heads toward aphelion 49.3 AU from the Sun in February, 2114.

What would you see on Pluto on July 12th of this year, staring back at the Sun? We’ll assume you’re equipped with a life support system to brave the brisk Plutonian realm of high noon, and a solar filtered telescope tuned for the dim, -19 magnitude Sun, brighter than a Full Moon but about 1/30,000th the brightness of high noon on Earth. Old Sol would only appear an arc minute across, barely showing a discernible disk to the naked eye. See that tiny 0.5” dot? That’s the Earth, taking about 10 hours to span the disk of the Sun. The Moon is tinier still, at a diminutive 0.2” arcseconds across as it accompanies the Earth on its trek. (better pack a really powerful telescope).

Pluto’s large moon Charon would be the top draw in the Plutonian sky, at only 11,800 miles distant and appearing an amazing four degrees across (that’s eight times larger than a Full Moon here on Earth!) as it went through its cycle of phases once every 6.4 days. Giant Charon can eclipse the tiny Sun on as seen from Pluto as well, which will next occur starting in 2107 AD. From Earth, we’ll see a series of mutual occultations of the pair around the same time, as Pluto and Charon alternate passing one in front of the other.

An amazing view: Pluto backlit by the Sun as seen from New Horizons in 2015 shortly after flyby. Credit: NASA/New Horizons.

What about NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, just 4.5 degrees from Pluto as seen from the Earth? Unfortunately, that angle is juuust far enough off that Earth will miss transiting the Sun from its point of view. And even if it were, New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) imager—were it equipped to stare at the Sun—is equivalent to an 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain amateur telescope, a decent size, to be sure, but it would still have a tough time resolving a 0.5 arcsecond disk crossing the face of the Sun.

New Horizons will visit Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule coming right up on New Year’s Day, 2019.

After 2018, Pluto spends the next 161 years in the southern celestial hemisphere.  Mark your calendars: Stick around until–you guessed it January 12th, 2178 and again on January 13th, 2179 AD, and any would-be Plutonian colonists can at least witness a transit of Earth and the Moon across the Sun… for real.

Downsizing Astronomy: A Rough and Ready Astronomy Rig

Our current travel gear: ready for an upgrade?

The circle is nearly complete. Late last year, we took on a book project presented to us by Fraser Cain over at Universe Today. Numerous edits, rewrites and deadlines later, the book out from Page Street Publishing this October is nearly now on autopilot.

I do want to write one day about lessons learned during the first-time book writing process. But what I want to present this week is our stick and carrot reward project we’re about to initiate.

For years, our go to telescope has been a Celestron 8-inch, Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector. It’s a great scope, to be sure; it’s versatile enough for planetary or deep sky observing, plus I can still sling it into the hatchback of our Fiat 500 for mobility.

The trouble is, I have to leave it home when we fly abroad, and simply carry our DSLR and our Canon image-stabilized binoculars. I’ve always wanted a simple rig that’s down-sized to meet international flight carry-on restrictions, and I’m now ready to pull the trigger.

An article in Sky and Telescope last year also hatched a seed in my mind. In it, a pair of astronomers roughed it traveling through South America, and carried two small telescopes with them to use for public star parties. This got me thinking to all of our wayward journeys through places like Morocco, Nepal, and Cambodia… wouldn’t it be great to offer views of the Universe to people who have never looked through a telescope?

Thus a plan was born. I’m looking to donate the bulky 8-inch SCT scope to a good home (say, a deserving local school or astronomy club, where it will actually get used) and downsize to the largest Maksutov-Cassegrain scope I can get away with (hopefully) an Orion 127mm (5-inch). For solar observing, I’m hoping to do the team from the article one better, and trade in the Coronado PST solar scope for a white-light glass filter plus an offset hydrogen alpha filter for the aperture. One telescope to rule them all, in one kit.

I’m also hoping that the rig is light enough to fit on my collapsible Dolica travel tripod, and it won’t necessitate buying yet another beefier tripod. I may also add in a Skywatcher/IOptron tracking mount, though I always like to maintain the option of being able to simply hand slew the telescope towards targets, and not worry about dead batteries or slow drive motors (I can find the Moon myself, thank you very much).

A fully airline portable travel astronomy rig is a noble goal, and a worthy reward to ourselves for finishing our first book. We also have another criterion for the project: to keep the entire budget down under $1,000… book advances for most first-time authors aren’t as massive a s most people think!

Anyhow, that’s part one. We hope to bring you part two, in which we compare the results of the downsizing project about a month from now, in time for our fiftieth birthday… wow. Has it really been 50 orbits around ole Sol?

 

Cosmic Watch: An Update

Cosmic Watch screen grab.

Who wouldn’t want your very own Earth and Solar System to play with? Recently, we reviewed the Cosmic Watch App. This application (available for Android and Iphone for $4.99 US)… released last year gives you a unique “outside looking in view” of the apparent sky along with the planets, Moon, Sun and constellations… [Read more...]

Friday Review: Blood Orbit by K.R. Richardson

On sale now!

Solving a crime is never easy… especially in space. This week’s scifi review marries up two time-honored fictional genres: the mystery/police procedural, and sleek cyber-punk. We’re talking about Blood Orbit by K.R. Richardson, out now from Pyr Books. [Read more...]

In Defense of Space: 1999

An Eagle, ready for launch.

Credit: ITC Entertainment.

Remember the 1970s? We recently found a vein of free episodes on ye ole YouTube of one of our childhood favorites: Space:1999.

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, let me explain the good old/bad old days of science fiction and the vast intellectual desert of the 1970s era. It always seemed like movies (and television in particular) could only support at most one scifi franchise at a time. Space: 1999 occupied that curious niche of the mid- 1970s between Star Trek reruns and the summer of 1977, when Star Wars changed the game for good (it’s still weird to think there was an era before Star Wars).

The good stuff in terms of scifi was all in books in those days, though it was hard to imagine much of it making it to the big screen… though 2001: A Space Odyssey did show us that this was at least possible.

In a broader sense, this was also true of TV in general. Thinking man’s television was limited to M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and of course, Star Trek. Space:1999 extended that feel, and several Star Trek writers actually worked on the second and last season of the short-lived series.

Of course, the central conceit of the show was terrible: an accident at a nuclear waste dump on the Moon blows it out of Earth orbit, sending it careening through space, and somehow, encountering a new alien planet every week. Even my seven year old brain realized how impossible this was, as the narrative routinely confused scale in terms of the Solar System, the galaxy and the Universe (lots of scifi was and still occasionally is guilty of this).

The sets of Space: 1999 were amazing for the time. Heck, the Eagle spacecraft still to this day looks like something we’d use to live and work of the Moon… much of the futuristic set design had a direct lineage from 2001: A Space Odyssey that would be paid forward to Star Wars.

Like Star Trek, the show also suffered from uneven writing and to typical plot tropes of the day: Space:1999 had its own plague of temporary red shirt characters, folks who were simply introduced to die by the end of the episode. The good episodes were really good, but when they were bad, they were terrible. There’s an endless parade of monsters running lose in Moonbase Alpha, something the directors seemed to think the audience just had to have. And of course, their laser weapons never work against the bad guys, another Trek trope that always guarantees they’ll have to outwit the bad guys, instead of using brute force.

Even the actors admitted in interviews that they thought the main characters acted out of character and complained to the writers. It’s worth watching the two part Space :1999 documentary for context:

Season 2 gave the show a serious overhaul, with mixed results. It introduced a few new characters, including the shape-shifting alien Maya played by Catherine Schell (fun fact: Maya was popular enough as a breakout character that she was seriously considered for her own spin off series).

The campy feel of the show was amplified in Season 2, though we got some actual character depth and development, another rarity in the 1970s. I remember managing to catch the second season on Canadian television, and liking it better than the first… that was also the school yard consensus of the day, the only place where opinion really matters when it comes to nerd cred in scifidom.

But for all its cringe-worthy flaws, Space:1999 gave us hope, and dared us to look beyond post-Vietnam Cold War America. Here’s a shiny white future awaiting us in adulthood just two decades away, a place where humans live on the Moon and use science and tech to solve problems.

The show could, I think, be worthy of a reboot. There was a proposal a few years ago to do just that. There’s just one request we have though for any would be ‘Space: 2099‘: keep the drama in our solar system. There’s enough amazing things to see and places to go, right here under our own Sun. Maybe you could even say the initial “breakaway” that drives the plot could be a figurative rather than a literal one… maybe, say, there’s a war for independence between human colonies in the solar system and the Earth, and Moonbase Alpha is the flash point. Plenty of “aliens” could be had via cybernetically/genetically modified humans, life on the seas on Europa, Enceladus, etc… this would also drive home what was fun about Space: 1999 in the first place: it would show a new generation a preview real worlds next door in the solar system that we might soon be exploring, in this century (I’m available for screenwriting).

Today, of course, there’s a torrent of scifi out there, all vying for our ever dwindling attention. We can afford to be choosy. I think it’s amusing looking back today at all admonitions from the media powers in the 1980s, saying that cable and the evil VCR would destroy quality TV and movies ( with such enlightening shows as Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels) which never really did come to pass.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. It’s 2018: where’s the Moonbase Alpha that I was promised by TV as a kid?

 

Mars Cube One: Exploring Pale Blue Dot Redux

A ‘pretty pair…’ credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

What’s in a picture? A brand new robotic scout recently looked homeward, snapping a portrait of our place in space. The view was courtesy of the Mars Cube One mission, which launched with the Mars InSight lander recently from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 5th, 2018. [Read more...]

Review: My Plastic Brain by Caroline Williams

On sale now.

Looking to change your brain? Sure, we’d all like to be smarter, more math savy, or simply able to flip automatically into creativity mode on command… but are such changes possible?

Science writer Caroline Williams takes us on a fascinating personal journey through the modern world of neuroscience to see if such changes are possible. My Plastic Brain: One Woman’s Yearlong Journey to Discover if Science can Improve Her Mind out from Penguin Random House looks at developments in the forefront of the field, and where we may be headed. This is a very timely book, as the concept of “mindfulness” is thrown around lots these days… we also find ourselves bombarded by an endless stream of digital distractions, all vying for our seemly shortening attention span. Are we modifying our brain, every time we compulsively check Facebook? Should we heed calls for digital detox, made ironically on podcasts and YouTube?

Williams casts a critical and skeptical eye over the current trend of brain training and modification, seeking out the scientific experts in the field. Like us, Williams has dabbled with meditation but is leery of its many purveyors as a panacea, those with the glassy-eyed stare who’ve seemed to have “drunk the Kool-Aid…” I’d agree with the sentiment… meditation is great for dealing with anxiety and putting oneself in a “relaxed and ready,” state, just don’t tell me it’ll cure cancer.

The author agrees that the brain state of anxiety “isn’t good for anything,” and undergoes training to get herself in a mode where she can exhibit the grace under pressure “it’s all good” mentality in formerly stressful situations. She also looks to refine her geospatial sense of direction by wearing a belt around the neighborhood that vibrates (!) giving her the innate sense of true north. She also works to overcome math anxiety, and see if she can give herself a better sense for numbers through brain training.

The author also delves into some fascinating applications for such training, and methods that may be just around the corner. Particularly interesting are the possible applications for chronic sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Those who endure PTSD daily say its like being in a constant state of high alert, where the brain seems stuck at open throttle with little or no respite.

The author’s research also delves into an often under-appreciated mode of thought, one that’s just now becoming recognized as an essential mode for creativity: mindfulness‘s relative, mindlessness. Simply put, this is the sort of daydreaming boredom that allows us to start puzzling together old ideas in new ways, as our brain meanders about. Are we losing this trait, as we can now fill every available moment of our lives with tailor-made digital distraction? And should we choreograph children’s lives to keep them gainfully employed with each waking moment?

This might also explain something we’ve noticed over the years, where our most creative thoughts and problem-solving peaks come while out running. We’re away from distractions, and we only grudgingly recently allowed our smartphone to come along on our daily runs, if only to measure and chronicle our daily course.

Perhaps in the end, doing whatever makes us ‘zone out” –whether it be running, mediation, or killing zombies in a video game—are equally therapeutic. The author seems to have brought her anxiety level down and found a way to change settings into a mindful creative mode, something we’d like to turn on at will.

Be sure to read My Plastic Brain for a good look at what’s possible and where we might be headed in terms of brain training and modification.

The Urban Astronomer

Living on the flight path – an aircraft approaches

the Full April Pink Moon. Photo by Author.

Quick: where’s your very own personal observatory?

In an ideal world, most amateur astronomers would simply live in an iconic dome observatory, perched on a windswept mountain under perpetually clear dark skies. [Read more...]

Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

On sale now!

Could we be too smart for our own good? We recent finished a real page-turner, a near future science fiction thriller in an all too plausible future reality. The Genius Plague by David Walton out late last year from Pyr Books is a tale of a fungal spore out of the Amazon jungle, taking over humanity. Tales of strange mental feats and a rare and indecipherable tribal language emerges from South America and catches the attention of NSA cryptolinguist Neil Johns. The spore not only boosts the intelligence of its hosts, but encourages them to take the necessary steps to ensure its own survival and propagation… even at the expense of the human hosts themselves. The CIA and U.S. military are dispatched to deal with the threat, and promptly become infected, as hosts for the fungal spores disseminate it with crop dusting aircraft.

Sound far-fetched? Well, there’s good evidence to suggest that lots of our own behaviors are largely motivated by our own bacterial gut flora. A zombie-like brain parasite will cause ants to climb to the top of a tall blade of grass and wait for the fungus to split its carcass open, spreading more spores. toxoplasma gondii in the gut of your average feline is another great example, as it will cause mice to become attracted to the smell of cat urine, causing the cat which generated said urine to consume the hapless mouse, and well, the cycle of life continues. Rabies is another grizzly example of a virus that hijacks the mind of its host for its own nefarious ends, all to ensure its survival own. And heck, addiction itself in humans is a sort of symbiosis: have a pleasant narcotic effect on the human brain, and those brains will find ways to propagate you and assure that you will survive and thrive. Perhaps, just such an infection is out there in the jungle, awaiting human contact. Neil’s brother Paul, a mycologist (one who studies fungus) barely survives an infection on an exploratory stint in the rain forest, and later becomes a champion for the fungus itself. The idea is enticing even to Neil, as their father suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the spore seems to, at first, bring back the man they thought they had lost themselves. But as the fungus begins to win over converts, a larger threat looms, as the solution may be to enslave what’s left of humanity itself in order to preserve it. We’ll stop short of any further spoilers there, but we will say that the book climaxes with a great showdown at the home of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, one with a horrific vision for the possible future of mankind. There’s a great story on the science of evolution in The Genius Plague as well, one that makes it all the more terrifying: the fungus itself isn’t intelligent; its just learned a great new strategy from the standpoint of its own survival, to make sure humans want to keep you around. Neil later realizes that the only way to defeat the fungus may be to convince it (in the minds of the infected) that it’s own survival depends on hiding rather than thriving, another common evolutionary tactic.

Be sure to read The Genius Plague for the vision of an all too real apocalyptic thriller.

Review: Beyond Earth by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix

On sale now!

What’s next in space exploration? We are literally at a crossroads now at the end of the second decade of the the 21st century, a time of crisis and opportunity. Sure, technology has come a long way, as we all carry exponentially more computing power in our pockets than was used to take humans to the Moon.

We also seem, however, to be stalled in low Earth orbit, as the moving goal post of humans on Mars always seems 20 years away…

We read an interesting road map that just might show us the way to get space exploration rolling again. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix out from Pantheon Press is an exciting look at what could be. Both authors draw off of their respective and extensive backgrounds in space exploration technology and the very latest developments and innovations in space flight.

And this sort of optimism is coming none to soon. Already, the gap between the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the promise of SLS—another moving goal post—is longer than the transitional span between the final Apollo era mission (The Apollo-Soyuz test project) and the launch of space shuttle Columbia on STS-1. The James Webb Space Telescope is facing yet another delay, and one by one, our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark, as Cassini, Juno and New Horizons all wrap up their respective missions. And while it’s true that NASA is set to receive another budget boost in 2018, we’re stuck in a flip-flop loop from going to Mars, then the Moon, then back again with every change of administration.

Beyond Earth looks at the overall big picture, and what new players like SpaceX and their Mars or Bust vision might mean. I particularly like how the book flips from one chapter to the next between a future science fiction narrative versus modern science reality—there’s enough idea to provide sci-fi fodder here for any budding writer.

The core tenet, however driving Beyond Earth is not Mars, but a much more distant goal: the case for colonizing Saturn’s large moon, Titan. The authors correctly point out that the large moon has an atmosphere thick enough that bulky pressure suits aren’t needed… and dense enough that a wing suit equipped human could fly. There’s lots of methane and ethane fuel just lying around on the surface, and lots of available carbon for us carbon-based lifeforms. The chief problems presented by Titan are its chilly temperatures and immense distance from the Sun. Big problems for sure, but not insurmountable.

We still maintain that we need to start practicing with a self sustaining colony in Antarctica… a harsh but still much human-friendlier location than anywhere in the solar system.

The book also delves into real ideas for exotic virtual particle drives, ships that begin with a thrust gentler than a puff of air but eventually build up to enormous velocities. And while such a system might still be very much on the drawing board. Spacecraft such as NASA’s Dawn mission at Ceres used a similar Xenon-fueled ion drive to build up a small but dependable thrust.

be sure to read Beyond Earth to get a look at where 21st century space exploration may (hopefully) be headed.

Dating Artemis: An Astronomical Sci-Fi Mystery Solved?

On sale now.

I love it when a hard science fiction book presents an astronomical mystery.

I came across just such a mystery reading Artemis, the latest science fiction novel out late last year from Andy Weir.

Artemis presents the story of Jasmine Bashara, a young girl trying to make her way in the first settlement on the Moon. Artemis is a thriving town, built around Earth tourism at the Apollo 11 Sea of Tranquility landing site.

We won’t introduce any spoilers here; suffice to say, if you like some hard science blended into your fiction, you’ll love Artemis. Like The Martian, Artemis also seems to be near-future science fiction, both culturally and technologically. We say “near” as in something that’s plausible over the next half-century or so. Also like The Martian, Artemis doesn’t peg the exact date when the events transpire… or does it? As an amateur astronomer and avid sky watcher, I noticed a few clues that just might pin down the exact future date of the tale.

Dating the Martian

Weir puts lots of research into his novels. With The Martian, he states that if you can work out the Hohmann transfer windows between the Earth and Mars needed for the Ares III mission to rescue and return Mark Watney back to Earth, then you could pin down the date in the 2030s when the events in The Martian transpired.

Is there a similar puzzle in Artemis? Well, I think there could be, based on you key celestial sights mentioned in the book.

Artemis runs on Kenya Time, as missions headed to the Moon depart from the equatorial country, taking advantage of its maximum rotational boost eastward and its favorable laws encouraging space companies to set up shop there. Kenya Time is Universal Time, +3 hours.

The most conspicuous objects in the sky as seen from the Apollo 11 landing site are the Sun and the Earth. “Daytime” on the Moon lasts about two weeks from sunrise to sunset… but the Moon is locked with one hemisphere turned perpetually Earthward, so the Earth would never set. Instead, Earth would go through phases like the Moon does as seen from the Earth, as it slowly circles a spot high in the sky due to the rocking nutation and libration motion of the Moon.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 8 in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA

The phases you see from the surface of the Moon, however, are opposite to what you see on the Earth. This means when the Moon is Full from the Earth, Earth is at New as seen from the Moon. Likewise, waxing versus waning phases are reversed.

Artemis gets these phases right where it makes mention of them. On their own, however, one cycle of phases is pretty much like another… even making mention of something like an eclipse wouldn’t really pin the date down, as several lunar and solar eclipses happen, every year.

We get a possible lead, however, from the following passage when the protagonist checks her Earth-phase watch:

”Lene checked her wristwatch. ‘Ten thirteen a.m…and there’s currently a half-Earth, by the way. It’s waxing.’”

Now, that’s a little more specific… converting 10:13 AM Kenya Time to 7:13 Universal Time we just need to reverse the phase, and find when there’s a waning Last Quarter (half) Moon seen from the Earth around the same time.

Combing through the Astro-Pixels listing of Moon phases for the 21st century for Last Quarter Moons that will fall on 7:13 UT plus or minus one minute , I came up with the following possibilities:

August 30th, 2021 (it’s not likely that there’ll be a lunar outpost in just over three years!)

August 9th, 2099 (more likely).

Earth on August 9th, 2099 as seen from the surface of the Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Of course, a few caveats are in order. Phases such as New, Full and Quarter are only instants in time. You could look up at the Moon (or the Earth, from the surface of the Moon) several hours one either side of Quarter phase and it would still appear pretty much half-illuminated. I own a Casio watch that shows the current phase of the Moon, for example… but it would be hard to pin down the exact moment of the Full or Last Quarter Moon with just the watch display alone.

Our very own “Moon phase watch…” photo by author.

Is the passage a true “tell” planted by the author? Maybe, maybe not. There are other methods the author could’ve used that are even more exact. Transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the Sun, for example, are also visible from the surface of the Moon. On November 12th, 2190, for example, Mercury will transit the Sun, just hours from a solar eclipse… and if you’re visiting the Apollo landing site on November 13th, 2236, you can see Mercury transit the face of the Sun, during an eclipse:

Perhaps, future celestial phenomena will make their way into an Artemis sequel?

Read more original hard science-fueled tales by Dave Dickinson.