Earth Day: Celebrating Our Pale Blue Dot

In honor of Earth Day, here’s an excellent and timeless quote by the great Carl Sagan. It comes from a public lecture he was delivering at his own university of Cornell on October 13, 1994. During the speech he referenced the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it sailed away from Earth, more than 4 billion miles in the distance.

We succeeded in taking that picture [of Earth from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Here’s the photo in question, and how utterly insignificant our plant appears. 

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Life On Earth Began On Mars

Or so says one study:

Professor Steven Benner, a geochemist, has argued that the “seeds” of life probably arrived on Earth in meteorites blasted off Mars by impacts or volcanic eruptions. As evidence, he points to the oxidised mineral form of the element molybdenum, thought to be a catalyst that helped organic molecules develop into the first living structures.

“It’s only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidised that it is able to influence how early life formed,” said Benner, of the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in the US. “This form of molybdenum couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.

“It’s yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely that life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet.”

All living things are made from organic matter, but simply adding energy to organic molecules will not create life. Instead, left to themselves, organic molecules become something more like tar or asphalt, said Prof Benner.

He added: “Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn to tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting.

“Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidised form of molybdenum was there too.”

It’s a pretty interesting theory, and I’d love to see it explored further. It’s strange to think that all life on Earth might have really begun on a whole other planet (ala the concept of panspermia). 

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China’s Rising Space Program

From Foreign Policy comes a rich slideshow showcasing the rapid growth of China’s once-fledgling space program. While we don’t hear much about it on the media, it seems very likely that China will be at the forefront of space exploration in the 21st century — provided its economic and political fortunes don’t change.  

On Nov. 19, 1999, China’s Shenzhou space program got off the ground with the launch of the Shenzhou I. It was a simple spacecraft, with no cargo, no life-support system, and certainly no astronaut. Just four years later, with the Shenzhou V and its pilot, Yang Liwei, China had become the third country in history to send a manned vessel into space. Since then, China has sent a total of five manned missions into orbit, including June’s 15-day Shenzhou X mission, the country’s longest to date. During the mission, three astronauts conducted automatic and manually controlled dockings with an orbiting module. These are crucial steps in establishing a permanent space station, which China hopes will replace its current small orbiting module by 2020. 

While China remains significantly behind the world’s other two space powers — the United States and Russia –  the end of America’s shuttle program in 2011 means that the future of manned space exploration may well shift, however gradually, from Washington to Beijing. China already has plans to send up a larger “space lab” in 2015 before unveiling its own space station in 2020. More ambitiously, it is also exploring the feasibility of putting a man on the moon by 2025. With these lofty goals, the next decade could be even more significant than the last. As John Hickman writes for Foreign Policy, there “are unmistakable warning signs that China may surpass the United States and Russia to become the world’s preeminent spacefaring power.”

Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I don’t much mind China “muscling in on our turf.” Science is a human endeavor, and the more nations participating the better. We need all the resources, capital, and brainpower we can get for exploring one of the last frontiers of scientific exploration. 

The Profundity of Space Travel

I’m quite sure everyone imagines space travel to be an experience unlike anything imaginable. The impact it must have on one’s psyche and worldview (no pun intended) is incomparable to any other experience we can conceive of.

Imagine seeing everything we’ve ever known and experienced — the culmination of all histories, lives, and events — within a single frame of view. Imagine being so far away that you could put your hand up and see the Earth as smaller by comparison. It’s no wonder so many astronauts, from what I’ve seen, appear to be so philosophical and worldly.

There is a 20-minute video posted on Upworthy shows breathtaking images and videos of Earth from space, intersected with beautiful ruminations and narratives told by a variety of people, from astronauts and scientists to popular writers and academics. I highly recommend you watch it, as it’s worth every minute.

 

I hope to live to see the day when space travel is as easy as taking a plane. It’s hard to imagine what such a world would be like.

On This Day in History: The First Woman in Space

Fifty years ago today, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman into space, having been selected from more than 400 applicants and 5 finalists to pilot the Vostok 6, the last mission of the Vostok program. Although Tereshkova experienced nausea and physical discomfort for much of the flight, she orbited the earth 48 times and spent almost 3 days in space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date.

She was also the first civilian into space; whereas most astronauts and cosmonauts had military backgrounds, Tereshkova, who had humble origins, was employed as a textile worker. She chosen only for her skill and enthusiasm for skydiving, which she pursued as a hobby (she was made an honorary member of the Soviet Air Force after her mission). Talk about a career seque.

Even though there were plans for further flights by women, it took 19 years until the second woman on Earth, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew into space. Tereshkova now lives a quiet and low-key life in Russia, although she is a staple in many science conferences and political functions.

Learn more about her and the history of women in space here.

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A Star is Born

A Star is Born

An artist’s impression shows the disk of gas and cosmic dust around the young star HD 142527, as observed by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile. They have witnessed vast streams of gas flowing across the gap in the disc, the first time we’ve seen the stages of a star being born. Click the photo to learn more.

High Resolution Image of Earth

A high resolution image of Earth taken from a Russian weather satellite. While watching this, it’s hard to image that I’m somewhere on that planet, sharing it with 7 billion other people who are going about their little lives. It makes me feel so insignificant, yet I hardly mind. There is something beautiful, even liberating, about realizing and accepting that fact.

See more breathtaking videos from this satellite here.

Salyut 1

On this day in 1971, Soviet Russia launched the world’s first space station, the Salyut 1. Unfortunately, it was followed shortly after by one of space exploration’s worst tragedies: the three cosmonauts pictured above died during re-entry, after having completed the first successful space docking. Salyut I was scrapped shortly after, though it would be followed by many others.

Read more about it here. I would’ve put a picture of the station, but there weren’t any good ones worth posting.

Yuri’s Night

Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it! – Yuri Gagarin

On this day in 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Imagine being able put your thumb up  in front of you and see the planet as small as your fingernail. It’s something very few of us could ever imagine.

He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin.To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension and ready for any outcome.

-Valentina Malmy, in Star Peace

 Learn more about Yuri’s Night, a celebration of his – and humanity’s – remarkable achievement.

Amazing Pictures from Hubble Telescope

The following images are courtesy of National Geographicthough they represent just a handful of the gallery. Click the hyperlink to see the rest – it’s well worth it.

This 1995 portrait of the Cat’s-Eye Nebula in the Draco constellation is considered one of the most iconic photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Also known as NGC 6543, it is a classic planetary nebula that glows by the high-energy emissions thrown off by the star seen at the center of the gas cloud.
This false color image shows off the intricate bubbles and twisted features within the 0.2-light-year-wide expanding shell of gas blasted out by a dying sun 3,000 light-years away.

This craggy fantasy mountaintop enshrouded by wispy clouds looks like a bizarre landscape from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or a Dr. Seuss book, depending on your imagination. The NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, which is even more dramatic than fiction, captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks.
This turbulent cosmic pinnacle lies within a tempestuous stellar nursery called the Carina Nebula, located 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. The image celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hubble's launch and deployment into an orbit around Earth.

Located 20,000 light-years away at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, this red star—complete with dusty cloak—caught the eye of Hubble in 2002 and again in 2005 in the above image, revealing dramatic changes in the illumination of the surrounding cloud.
V838 Monocerotis is a red supergiant star that mysteriously produces multiple flashes of light over time, illuminating different layers of the surrounding gas and dust. This phenomenon, known as a light echo, was first seen by Hubble and may represent a previously unknown, unstable phase in aging stars many times the mass of our sun.

A cosmic angel seems to spread its shimmering wings in a newly released Hubble Space Telescope picture of the star-forming region called Sh 2-106.
The cloud of dust and gas is being shaped by a young star called S106 IR. On the cusp of adulthood, the growing star is "rebelling" against its parent cloud, ejecting material at high speeds and creating glowing lobes of hot, turbulent hydrogen gas.

Considered the most detailed image ever taken of the famous Crab Nebula, this Hubble portrait shows off countless wispy, branchlike filaments of hydrogen gas throughout the supernova explosion remnant. The electric-blue coloring of the interior of the cloud is the naked core of the dead star at the heart of the Crab Nebula.
Ancient Chinese astronomers witnessed the supernova explosion that gave birth to the nebula in A.D. 1054; records indicate there was a new bright star visible in the sky for two weeks.