May 29, 2017

Rocket Lab USA’s Electron Rocket Lights Up New Zealand Skies

The inaugural flight of the Electron Rocket.

Credit: Rocket Lab USA

There’s a new player in the space launch business in town. No, we’re not talking about SpaceX, or even Blue Origin or Orbital Sciences or the numerous myriad of other private start-ups hoping to make it into space.

We’re talking about Rocket Labs USA, whose innovative Electron rocket made a brief sub-orbital flight earlier this week, from the very first privately-owned space port Mahia Peninsula Launch Complex 1 located on the eastern tip of the north island of New Zealand earlier this week. [Read more...]

Review Starbase Human by Kristine Katheryn Rusch

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What would you do with a Clone Army? Long the dream of many a would be supervillain, just such a possibility is the central plot in this week’s science fiction review.

We’re talking about Starbase: Human, book seven in the Anniversary Day saga by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, out in May 2015 by WMG Publishing. Yes, it’s one of the final books in our review backlog, but we long ago vowed to finish off the entire Anniversary Day saga. [Read more...]

U.S. Postal Service to Issue Changeling Total Solar Eclipse Stamps

A mind-bending stamp.

Credit: USPS.

Ready for the Great American Eclipse? If you’re like us, you’ve been planning on where you’ll be meeting totality on August 21st, 2017 for going on a decade now. It’s the big ticket celestial show of 2017 for sure, maybe the decade (we’re assuming, of course, that a killer comet or alien invasion isn’t on tap for our unsuspecting planet in 2018 through 2020).

Just last month, the U.S. Postal Service got in on the act, with the announcement of a release of a Forever Stamp commemorating the total solar eclipse on June 20th. The first-day-of-issue ceremony takes place at the Art Museum in Laramie, Wyoming, which lies on the eclipse path of totality. Ceremony participants will catch a rare spectacle of June 20th, as a sunbeam meets a silver dollar embedded in the museum floor, an event which only occurs during the June summer solstice. We’ll note if they carry the event live.

And check out this amazing video simulation of the Moon’s umbral shadow gliding across the contiguous United States on August 21st from west to east courtesy of umbraphile Michael Zeiler:

Fly over the Great American Eclipse from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

The eclipse stamps are printed using thermochromic ink, and will change from totality to an image of a Full Moon when heated, say, by the owner’s thumb, then revert to the eclipsed Sun once again upon cooling. The photo depicts the total solar eclipse snapped from Libya on March 29th, 2006 by Fred Espenak.

Here’s a cool idea; mail a letter/postcard to yourself or a friend on August 21st, 2017 for a one of a kind “postal cover” postmarked with the date of the eclipse… maybe this could become a tradition for eclipse-chasers on subsequent expeditions.

This will be an eclipse for the ages for sure… be sure to pre-order your USPS Eclipse Stamps now, they’re sure to sell out quick!

May 5th: Revenge of the Sith

A Sith Lord (?) at the eyepiece.

So, did you survive May the 4th? Yeah, much like Talk Like a Pirate Day, “May the 4th Be With You” is now on its way to crass commercialization. And while there are nerdier days out there to celebrate such as Pi Day (March 14th) or Towel Day (May 25th) commemorating Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, May 4th, has become a time for fans to expound on all things Star Wars. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid of the Week: Watch the Launch of NROL-76

A successful static fire test on Tuesday.

Credit: Space X

Ready for a Sunday morning rocket launch? We’ve got ‘em, as SpaceX is set to round out the month of April with the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center with NROL-76 for the National Reconnaissance Office. [Read more...]

Review: Quantum Fuzz

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Feeling lost in the world of quantum physics? It has been said that only a few human brains on the planet truly understand the bizarre world on the quantum scale. It is true that it involves a fair amount of “mathiness” to even grasp much more than the basic predictions of quantum physics. [Read more...]

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2017

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(release date: May 16th, 2017)

Note: the 2017 Nebula Awards ceremony is held this year on May 20th in Pittsburgh, PA.

What’s up in sci-fi? Every year, all of science fiction-dom holds their collective breath for that most prestigious of Awards: the Nebulas. Along with the Hugo Awards, the Nebulas (Nebulae?) feature the very best of the best for the genre. First awarded in 1965, a historical list of the Nebula Awards reads like a Who’s Who of science fiction, and includes such now iconic classics as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) as past winners. [Read more...]

Faint Fuzzies: Tales of Comet Tails

Avast: a great daytime comet.

Photo by author; from the Greenwich Observatory collection.

Turns out, finding fuzzballs isn’t easy. If you’re like us, you’ve been spending many a morning hunting for two faint periodic comets: 45P/Honda-Markov-Padušáková and 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresŕk. Yes, they’re both making close passes in 2017 as many a website have exclaimed, but they’re also both tiny and faint binocular objects from dark sky sites at the very best. Still, everyone from our repair guy to our landlord to random folks on social media have asked us how to see these intrinsically faint comets. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid of the Week: An Amazing Grazing Occultation

Going, going…

Credit Stellarium

What a difference a few 100 meters can make. On the night of March 5th, 2017, the waxing crescent Moon occulted the bright star Aldebaran. This event was well placed for North American viewers… heck, it even occurred over the weekend on a Saturday night, to boot. We even managed to dodge social obligations to briefly duck outside with our trusty 15x 45 image-stablized binoculars to watch Aldebaran wink out behind the dark limb of the Moon. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid of the Week: Nuclear Test Films Made Public

Operation Teapot.

Credit: LLNL

It was the worst of times. If you’re over 40, you remember the good old/bad old days of the Cold War as a kid, and the sort of inevitable feeling that the world would end in a nuclear cataclysm. And though that existential threat still exists, the fear of the Evil Soviet Empire has largely been replaced with terrorism, climate change and an uneasy, unknown future.

We got a fascinating glimpse back into those early days of the Cold War recently, when physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory brought some of these old films of early atomic testing back to light. 210 atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted by the U.S. between 1945 and 1962, and about 10,000 films were made using high speed cameras shooting from various vantage points.

They’re both stark and eerie to watch. Researchers soon realized as they dug into the vaults and began digitizing these films that much of what was recorded was either misidentified or had never been scientifically analyzed. About 6,500 of the films have been located, 4,200 have been digitized and 750 have been declassified to date. The LLNL has begun posting them up to their YouTube website for public viewing.

The United States ceased nuclear testing in 1992. The films were beginning to degrade, and researchers realized that the window of opportunity to digitally archive these films for posterity was soon closing.

And as a new wave of nationalism seems to sweep the planet and we now sit just 2 ˝ minutes to midnight, its worth watching these films both as a reminder of the promise and peril that wielding the power of the atom provides to the fate a future of humanity.

Review: Spear of Light by Brenda Cooper

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Get set for a romp into a trans-humanist future of epic proportions. We’re talking about this week’s review of Spear of Light by Brenda Cooper, out now from Pyr Books. The sequel to Edge of Dark and the second book in her Glittering Edge duology. Spear of Light brings the battle between humans and the terror world of AIs to an ultimate climax. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid of the Week: The First Airborne Observatory

Keck revisits the rings of Uranus.

Credit: NASA/JPL

I still remember the announcement, 40 years ago today.

Of course, news flowed lots slower in those days, so my eight year old self caught it days later, on one of those news shorts they would run between Saturday morning cartoons. Uranus, it turned out, has a ring system, the first planet other than Saturn known to possess such as feature. I dutifully went to the solar system chart I’d drawn in third grade, and spent the rest of the morning updating a lop-sided Uranus with a ring system all its own. [Read more...]

Humanity Was Here

Under ceaseless skies…

Photo by author.

Astronomy forces us to think big. And not just big in terms of gazillions of miles of distance, but also in terms of time. The stars in the Milky Way galaxy, for example, are swirling around the galactic core to the tune of one orbit every quarter of a billion years – but the constellations you see from you backyard tonight looked pretty much the same on the day you were born, and won’t have changed much come the day that you die. [Read more...]

Review: Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier

An astronomy classic!

Did you know that there are oodles of books out on the web for free? And no, we’re not talking about Amazon Prime, but sites such as Project Gutenberg where stuff that’s long since been in the public domain is free to download as a pdf for off-line perusal on ye ole smart phone. [Read more...]

Watch the Launch of SpaceX’s Dragon on CRS10 Live

Enter the Dragon… Credit: NASA

Ready to catch a space launch? Don’t happen to live on the Florida Space Coast? We’ve got a shot coming right up tomorrow morning, with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket departing from the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow, February 18th with CRS-10 at 15:01 Universal Time (UT)/10:01 AM EST.

That’s not a typo; this is indeed launching from the Kennedy Space Center, not Cape Canaveral to the south. The is the first launch from the KSC since the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011. Liftoff will occur from the historic launch pad 39A, the same pad that not only put shuttle orbiters into space, but sent humans to the Moon.

You can watch all the action here on NASA’s shinny new YouTube live feed, which is much more stable in our opinion than many other secondary feeds, especially when using spurious internet and spotty WiFi connections:

It’s also worth following SpaceX’s dedicated feed as well, as they’ll try to once again land the Falcon stage one booster back on land, shortly after launch.

This is a historic first from the KSC, for both the site and SpaceX. NASA will hold a pre-launch news conference today at 20:00 UT/3:00 PM EST, and the webcast for tomorrow’s launch begins 90 minutes prior to liftoff at 13:30 UT/8:30 AM EST. Dragon will spend two days chasing down the International Space Station, for a grapple and berthing set for Monday, February 20th, at 14:00 UT/ 9:00 AM EST. That webcast will also go live on NASA TV just 90 minutes prior.

And keep an eye out for the Dragon, as it chases down the ISS. We’ll be watching for Dragon on CRS-10 once it’s in orbit, and we’ll publish sighting ops worldwide on our Twitter feed under @Astroguyz.

Don’t miss it!

Review: True Genius by Joel Shurkin

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Chances are, you’ve never heard of one of the great minds of the 20th century. Physicist Richard Garwin was behind some of the major turning points of the past half century, though we’ll have to admit, we’d never heard of him, either. 88 years old now, Garwin was not only at the inception of the hydrogen bomb, but technology used in Vietnam, the Star Wars missile defense initiative, and lots more.

 

We just finished reading True Genius: The Life of Richard Garwin The Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard of by Joel Shurkin from Prometheus Books. True Genius not only takes you back to the early days of Las Alamos and the good old bad old days of the early Cold War, but shows science at its best, as researchers race to solve problems in the name of national security.

True Genius gets you right down into the nuts and bolts of some of the problems faced by post-Manhattan Project-era scientists, the few remaining of which won’t be with us very much longer. While the creation of the first atomic bomb during World War II is well documented, the later struggle to complete the first hydrogen bomb — utilizing a fission weapon to create a brief but powerful fusion reaction — has been largely untold. And this story is applicable with today’s news as well, as the first hydrogen bomb detonation by the United States marked the closest the Bulletin of Atomic scientists has ever moved the Doomsday Clock at 2 minutes to midnight, an asymptote we’re know just half a minute away from this year.

The book also uncovers some fascinating strange but true stories of intrigue, such as plans to use nukes in Vietnam and some of the the other crazy ideas of the Cold War (James Van Allen’s biography, The First 8 Billion Miles also talks about ideas such as a continuous ‘nuke shield’ over the U.S. which was, thankfully, never implemented.) We won the siege of Khe Sanh during the Tet offensive largely because of technology and microphones dropped around the base that allowed Marines to snoop on Viet Cong encroaching on the surrounding hills, all tech that Garwin had a hand in.

Garwin was also a member of the JASON Defense Advisory Group, a think tank group composed of some of the greatest minds of our time that has advised presidents on technical and scientific issues since 1966 right up through the recent Obama administration.

Garwin was the real deal, a truly curious mind always eager to discover just how things work. Personal anecdotes dot the narrative of the book, such as the time he disassembled and repaired a photocopier, on the spot. Garwin laments of the proliferation of so-called modern day “experts” who often suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, commentary on how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Like many scientists who worked on the bomb, Garwin was also a key advocate for nuclear non-proliferation in later years, a cause he’s still active in today.

Be sure to check out True Genius for a look at a fascinating lifetime journey through 20th century science, and a look at the life of a man who guided America’s path through troubling times.

Next week: we finish up our science fiction duology review with Brenda Khan’s Spear of Light, the sequel to The Edge of Dark.

In For the Long Haul, Fixing the Future

In our natural habitat.

So, how are YOU holding up? Today marks two weeks since the inauguration/coronation of El Presidente, and like many, it’s tough to keep the old nose to the grindstone and focus on writing. This isn’t the usual distraction of kids/TV/yard guys around the house that’s easily shut out with ear defenders (yes, we occasional type with 105 Db proof-rated ear defenders on. Sometimes, I even wear a back brace, too) or a good blast of death metal music. [Read more...]

Doomsday Clock Announcement Set for Thursday

The Castle Bravo nuclear blast from 1954.

Credit: The United States Department of Energy.

How close are you to an existential crisis? In the case of humanity, we might just reach a tipping point this week. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will make their yearly ‘Doomsday Clock’ announcement this coming Thursday live at 10:00 AM EST/15:00 Universal Time (UT). [Read more...]