Interview With Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Grinspoon, Authors of Chasing New Horizons

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

I was fortunate enough to spend half an hour with Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. David Grinspoon to talk about their new book: Chasing New Horizons – Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. We had a great conversation, all about the political and engineering hurdles it took to get the mission literally off the ground, and out to Pluto. We also talked about what future missions could be in the works to return to Pluto, the amazing recent discoveries made at the Pluto system, and the next target for New Horizons.

Check out the book, and watch the interview.

Book Review: Inventing a Space Mission

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab/NASA/ESA/STScI

Inventing a Space Mission
Inventing a Space Mission
Where will science’s next big advance arise? Like Archimedes, maybe someone will jump up out of a tub of hot water, shout ‘Eureka’ and direct everyone to use the next great discovery. Or maybe some science-bureaucrats will gather together via some on-line meeting tool and choose to chase down the most promising opportunity. Given that experiments seem to be getting harder and harder to undertake, then it’s no surprise that one hugely successful space observatory arose from the latter. This is the main message of the book “Inventing a Space Mission – the Story of the Herschel Space Observatory” by a group of authors: Minier, Bonnet, Bontems, de Graauw, Griffin, Helmich, Pilbratt and Volonte. And in this book they really promote this collaborative method of advancing science.

Succeeding with any big space project requires the alignment of so many factors. There is need for an objective that has support across a broad swath of decision makers. There is need for perseverance as the project may need many decades to come to fruition. And there is need for stable funding to maintain impetus. This book illustrates how all these and many other factors made the Herschel Space Observatory successful. First, it acknowledges the skill of decision makers in choosing a science objective that was hugely challenging yet reasonably achievable. The book has a simple figure showing this; it’s the Technical Readiness Level (TRL) for the observatories subsystems over the years of development. In it one sees that all were at TRL Level 1 to begin in 1982. And the book then describes some of the progressive, subsequent  steps to bringing these to the necessary TRL 8. The book also ably demonstrates perseverance as industry and government scientists were pushed continually to modify deliverables to meet budgets and requirements. And perhaps understated in the book is the underlying acknowledgement that none of this would have come to pass without stable, continual funding from the European Space Agency; funding be so vital for all science projects.

Perhaps most interesting about this book is that the authors do not deal much with the results of the observatory. At most the book recites numbers of dissertations and research papers that derived from the observatory’s data. Rather, this book pushes two main considerations: one, that ‘coopetition’ and ‘fair sociality’ were necessary community ideals and two, that TRL levels should not restrict science. Regarding the first, the book champions the differing attitudes within the Herschel community yet their necessity to cooperate in order to progress. The community needed to amicably pick and choose competing options, so as to allow some efforts to succeed and let other efforts disappear. Regarding the second, the book demonstrates that allowing for growth in the capabilities of industry and knowledge of science can actually be a solid instigator for change. Both of these were considered so valuable that the book continually championed them for future science projects.

So what does this book tell you about the Herschel Space Observatory itself? Simply put, it was a calculated, solid advance in viewing capability. By choice, it measured the very low wavelengths from 55 to 672 micrometres. It was huge with a 3.5metre antenna and, amazingly, over 2300litres of liquid Helium. Its measuring devices were kept at temperatures about 0.3Kelvin. And it spent a little over 4 years at the L2 location taking observations. It was conceived in 1982 and ended its capability in 2013. Over 23 institutes and 11 countries contributed, together with hundreds of people. Through its requirements, many technologies were advanced and it prepared the road to further advancements. As a science project, this book speaks proudly of the Herschel Space Observatory’s success.

Keep in mind though that this book is a report with many authors. As such, it is very formal and perhaps slightly political. The writing is dry. The subject material is wholly big science. Most figures are graphs and plots, likely from slide shows. Sometimes the detail seems too fine, as with that for the cold SQUID multiplexer. And sometimes the focus seems too diverse, as with the co-citation map. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that the authors were passionate about their subject and this comes across solidly throughout the book.

Advances to science and knowledge can come from anywhere at any time. But today most advances require a huge amount of preparation and effort. Space missions are prime examples of this and the book “Inventing a Space Mission – the Story of the Herschel Space Observatory” by Minier, Bonnet, Bontems, de Graauw, Griffin, Helmich, Pilbratt and Volonte presents a very solid view of the mission as a well-managed, research project. And it describes a very reasonable and perhaps optimal way for continuing the use of particular projects to advance big science.

Book Review: Cosmology for the Curious

What will Curious George grow up to be? Being curious, then George will ask a lot of questions. And if lucky then physics will be George’s destiny, for physics seems to have so many answers. From the biggest to the smallest, that’s its purview. And for Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin in their book “Cosmology for the Curious” aim to answer a great many of those questions. Or at least those questions pertaining to mankind’s place in space.

Cosmology is all about space and time. Which means that this book begins by traveling back in time. Traveling to the time of the Greeks. Hundreds of years b.c.e.  Apparently the Greek philosophers did a lot of pondering about the smallest of things they called atoms. And the largest, they called planetary epicycles. From this baseline the book very quickly progresses through the traditional growth of knowledge with some choice descriptions.

As an example it proposes energy as nature’s ultimate currency. And it allows the reader to wonder. Wonder why the sky is black at night. And ask questions. As in “why is the speed of light the same as the Earth travels about the Sun?”

Most of the descriptions rely on Newtonian mechanics for explanation but it is only a slight passing for the book quickly raises Einstein’s field equations, particularly emphasizing inertial frames of reference. With this, the reader is accorded a pleasant view of Lorentz transforms, a somewhat abstract view of the Sun being flung out of the solar system by a very large golf club and a realization of how the GPS navigation system incorporates gravitational time dilation. Still all this is simply the cosmological baseline for the reader.

Now the neat thing about cosmology is that there is simply no first hand observation. Most everything of interest happened a long time ago and in a somewhat different relative location. And this is the book’s next and most rewarding destination. Through many arguments or thought experiments, it associates the cosmic microwave background with redshifts and the changing spatial dimensions.

Later, postulated dark matter and dark energy refocus the reader’s attention on the very beginning of the universe in a big bang. Or perhaps a multiverse of many shapes and various physical laws. Which of course leads to considerations about what’s next. How will our universe continue? Will it go to a quiet heat death or will we be gobbled up by another bubble universe? We can’t determine from our vantage point on Earth. But this book does provide its own vantage point.

Helping this book along are a number of pleasant additions. For one, often when an accomplished researcher is mentioned, there’s an accompanying, quite complementary photograph. And equations are liberally spread throughout as if teasing the reader to explore more. But the book has very little math. And best of all are the questions at the end of each chapter. Now these questions aren’t your typical textbook questions. For example, consider “Inflation is almost certainly eternal to the future. Is it eternal to the past too? Why/why not?” Isn’t this a great question? And one that you really can’t get wrong.

Which of course begs the question “Why aren’t you as curious as George?” There’s a whole universe out there waiting for us to explore and understand. Let’s not take it for granted. Let’s satisfy our curiosity perhaps with reading the marvellous book “Cosmology for the Curious” by Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin. After all you don’t want to be upstaged by George, do you?

Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship

Think of the ease. With a simple command of “Make it so” humans travelled from one star to the next in less time than for drinking a cup of coffee. At least that’s what happens in the time-restricted domain of television. In reality it’s not so easy. Nor does Rachel Armstrong misrepresent this point in her book of essays within “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship“; a book that brings some fundamental reality to star travel.

Yes, many people want to travel to other stars. We’re not ready for that. We’re still just planning on getting outside Earth’s protective atmosphere (again). Yet making preparations and doing judicious planning is the aim of this book. Wisely though, this book isn’t technical. It has no mention of specific impulse calculations or ion shields. Rather, this book takes a very liberal view of space travel and ponders deep questions such as whether the cosmos is an ecosystem.

Does our species have an appropriate culture for space travel? What exactly is a human? These concerns get raised in some very thought provoking sections. And given that the editor is an architect and one who apparently considers the emotional qualities of a structure as much as functional qualities, then this book’s presentation tends to be a little more on the philosophical side of things.

In particular, it looks at the benefits of living entities. For instance it notes that humans live in symbiotic relationships with a host of internal and external organisms. Most have already gone into space either within people who have traveled in space or possibly upon probes sent to other planets. So we aren’t the only species that’s traveled beyond Earth. But which beings are sufficient and necessary to keep humans alive for the generations needed to travel to another star? That question and many answers come up often.

As well, the essays get into bigger questions such as: What is life? Could the vessel be an organic construct? How might today’s humans evolve to tomorrow’s star travelers? Should humans travel in space and promote/continue panspermia? Yes, these questions and many more are raised in the essays collected within this book. And true to form for any book considering star travel, there aren’t any strict answers. There are however lots of ideas and concepts to better prepare humans.

Much of this book seems to center around the authors’ involvement with the Persephone project of Icarus Interstellar. Yet there’s very little description of either. However, the book does have wonderful descriptions of Biitschli experiments, explanations of living walls and critiques of theatrical productions.

There are a few fictional passages and some poetry. The long list of references indicates a broad knowledge of the technical issues, though the focus is on humanity and the living aspect. This focus flows through the essays, but having a collection of many authors makes for a disjointed flow. The writing styles are unique, the viewpoints are particular and the emphasis specialized for each. One common viewpoint does keep arising though. That is, we are already on a living spaceship; the Earth. Earth gives a unique platform for assessing the ability to travel to other stars. The essays state that it is or at least was a veritable, closed self-sustaining life support system. And, as seems to be the norm these days, the essays acknowledge that solutions for space travel would be just as good for people remaining behind upon Earth or travelling to the Moon or to Mars and so on. This care and concern for living organism keeps the book grounded, so to speak.

The all-encompassing-solution-finder may be a strength or a weakness to Rachel Armstrong’s collection within the book “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship”. As the book’s essays describe, humans have an incredible ability to think and act in abstract fashion. Just envisioning an attempt to send sentient beings to another star demonstrates this. But will we be able to enact this idea and what form might a star vessel take? Reading of this is easy. Will taking the necessary steps be just as easy?

The book is available here through Springer.
Learn more about the author, Rachel Armstrong, here.

Time Machine Tales

“Tell me what time is it?” asked the stranger on the street.

A simple enough question that can be answered with a simple enough glance at the watch on your wrist. And so goes the appreciation of time for the average person. But is time simply a notation of events in our life? Or is it a truly robust dimensional attribute? For one answer read Paul Nahin’s book “Time Machine Tales” and you will soon discover that it is the latter. And that time may be much, much more.

If time is a dimension, then Nahin’s book has us believe that we can move along this dimension as easily as we move along a Euclidean spatial dimension. This means that time travel should be possible. Yet, as someone said, “If people can travel in time then why aren’t we seeing time travelers popping up all over?”

And in a sense, this conundrum shapes this book. From very many perspectives, Nahin explores and conjectures. From the viewpoint of ancient Greeks or Catholic scholars long since gone, the book gives rise to, what is time? does the past stop at the Big Bang? and is our future predefined?

This book presents philosophers’ quotes and their views from yesteryear and from today. Now philosophy is fascinating unto itself but throw in large quantiles of technical lore and this book’s perspective on time expands to a much larger knowledge base. That is, the book brings up exotics like Dirac radios, block universes, the bilking paradox, chronons and things smaller than the Planck length.

Intrigued by this?  It gets better as the book takes the reader through the derivation of the Lorentz transformation and on to the backward and forward tilt of light cones. If this doesn’t get your interest up, then also consider that Nahin has liberally strewn quotes and references from science fiction throughout. This leaves the reader pondering if the fiction stories are forerunners to reality or merely offshoots of very active imaginations.

And a lasting question revolves around whether scientific discovery is attained through hard work, through thoughtful imagination or through provisions by a time traveler. That’s just one of the choices that you, as the reader, get to make. Just give yourself the time to decide.

Given the fascinating, current discussions on dimensionality, it’s not difficult to pique a science reader’s interest on time travel. And this book grabs and holds such a reader. However, abrupt swings like from the musings of H.G. Wells to the showcasing of the concerns of John Wheeler make for bumpy reading on occasion. Further, the introduction implies that teachers could use the book; implying that this book is a textbook. Yet where are the courses on time travel? Nevertheless, from the view of simply enjoying science, this book makes for enjoyable reading, homework assignments and all.

Will people travel in time? Will they only travel forward in time? Can they only travel between here and other universes? When will this take place? There are so many questions about time. If nothing else, use the time you have wisely.

Read Paul Nahin’s book “Time Machine Tales – The Science Fiction Adventures and Philosophical Puzzles of Time Travel” and ponder why that stranger on the street asking for the time looked so familiar.

Find out more about the author Paul Nahin here.

Two New Books From Universe Today Writers, Just in Time for the Holidays

Looking for great holiday gifts for that special someone who is interested in space and the stars? Two writers for Universe Today have you covered whether it’s exploration of the Solar System or learning what to look for in the night sky.

Universe Today’s Contributing Editor Nancy Atkinson shares the insights of over 35 NASA scientists and engineers in her new book “Incredible Stories from Space.” And if that gives you the itch to go outside and look up, be sure to get a copy of Bob King’s “Night Sky with the Naked Eye” to help you explore space from your own backyard.

In “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing our View of the Cosmos” Nancy takes readers inside the robotic space missions that are transforming our understanding of the solar system and beyond.

Weaving together one-on-one interviews along with the extraordinary sagas of missions, this book provides a detailed look at both current and future unmanned missions. It chronicles the struggles and triumphs of nine current spacecraft and captures the true spirit of exploration and discovery. Full color images throughout reveal scientific discoveries and the stunning, breathtaking views of our universe, sent back to Earth by our robotic emissaries to the cosmos.

From the first-ever mission to Pluto to the unprecedented hunt for planets outside our solar system, readers will journey along with missions like New Horizons, Kepler, the Curiosity Mars rover, and the iconic Hubble Space Telescope as they unlock the mysteries of the universe. Learn more about the latest findings in our solar system with the Cassini mission to Saturn, Dawn’s visit to the asteroid belt, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and the Mars and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiters. Explore the future of space exploration with a preview of upcoming missions.

Over the next couple of weeks, Nancy will be sharing “writing-of” stories and other insights garnered during her interviews and travels for the book. Also look for a preview of one chapter here on Universe Today during the week of Dec. 19.

Cover of Bob King's book. Credit: Bob King/Page Street Publishing
Cover of Bob King’s book. Credit: Bob King/Page Street Publishing

“Night Sky with the Naked Eye: How to Find Planets, Constellations, Satellites and Other Night Sky Wonders without a Telescope” will help you gain a deeper appreciation of the universe and our place in it while advancing your knowledge of the night sky.

Bob lays out a series of activities that are fun and educational while teaching you how to spot the International Space Station, follow the moon through its phases, forecast an aurora and watch a meteor shower along with traditional night sky activities like identifying the planets, stars and constellations. Unique illustrations and stunning photos help the reader understand the concepts presented.

Bob also shows readers how to use a smart phone, the Internet and other resources to enhance time spent under the stars, making this a truly modern and updated night sky book. Many people curious about the night sky think you need expensive equipment to enjoy it. You don’t. This book shows how we can learn a lot about the universe and deepen our appreciation of its beauty using nothing more than our eyeballs.

Bob recently wrote an article, “What I Learned Writing Night Sky With the Naked Eye,

Both books were published by Page Street Publishing, a subsidiary of Macmillan. They are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndiBound (links below, with great discounts available at this time!) While Nancy’s book doesn’t come out until Dec. 20, its available for pre-order with delivery on the 20th, just in time for the holidays.

Incredible Stories From Space:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound

Night Sky With the Naked Eye:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound

Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers

If we are indeed stardust, then what will our future hold? And what happened to all that other dust that isn’t in people or planets? These are pretty heady questions perhaps best left for late at night. Since the age of Galileo and perhaps even beforehand these inquisitive night goers have sought an understanding of “What’s out there?” Paul Murdin in his book “Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers” doesn’t answer the big questions directly but he does shed some capricious light upon what the night time reveals and what the future may hold.

rock-legends

We’re pretty confident that our solar system evolved from a concentration of dust. Let’s leave aside the question about where the dust came from and assume that, at a certain time and place, there was enough free dust that our Sun was made and so too all the planets. In a nice, orderly universe all the dust would have settled out. However, as we’ve discovered since at least the time of Galileo this didn’t happen. There are a plethora of space rocks — asteroids — out wandering through our solar system.

And this is where Murdin’s book steps up. Once people realized that there more than just a few asteroids out there, they took to identifying and classifying them. The book takes a loosely chronological look at this classification and at our increasing knowledge of the orbits, sizes, densities and composition of these space wanderers.

Fortunately this book doesn’t just simply list discovery dates and characteristics. Rather, it includes significant amounts of its contents on the juicy human story that tags along, especially with the naming. It shows that originally these objects were considered special and refined and thus deserved naming with as much aplomb as the planets; i.e. using Greek and Roman deities. Then the number of discovered asteroids outpaced the knowledge of ancient lore, so astronomers began using the names of royalty, friends and eventually pets. Today with well over a million asteroids identified  setting a name to an asteroid doesn’t quite have the same lustre, as the author is quick to point out with his own asteroid (128562) Murdin. Yet perhaps there’s not much else to do while waiting for a computer program to identify a few hundred more accumulations of dust, so naming some of the million nameless asteroids could happily fill in some time.

With the identifying of the early asteroid discoverers and the fun names they chose, this part of the book is quite light and simple. It expands the fun by wandering a bit just like the asteroids. From it you learn of the discovery of palladium, the real spelling of Spock’s name and the meaning of YORP.  Sometimes the wandering is quite far, as with the origins of the Palladium Theatre, the squabbling surrounding the naming of Ceres and the status of the Cubewanos. Yet it is this capriciousness that gives the book its flavour and makes it great for a budding astronomer or a reference for a generalist. The occasional bouts of reflection on the future of various asteroids and even of the Earth add a little seriousness to an otherwise pleasant prose.

So if you’re wondering about the next occultation of Eris or the real background of the name (3512) Eriepa then you’re into asteroids. And perhaps you’re learning how to survive on a few hours of sleep so you can search for one more faint orbiting mote. Whether that’s the case or you’re just interested in how such odd names came to represent these orbiting rocks then Paul Murdin’s book “Rock Legends – the Asteroids and Their Discoverers” will be a treat. Read it and maybe you can use it to place your own curve upon an asteroid’s name.

The book is available on Springer. Find out more about author Paul Murdin here.

What I Learned Writing ‘Night Sky with the Naked Eye’

The author enjoys a pretty display of the northern lights on October 23 under a starry sky. His new book, "Night Sky with the Naked Eye," explores all the amazing things you can see in the sky without special equipment including satellites, planets, meteor showers and of course, the aurora.
The author enjoys a pretty display of the northern lights on October 23, 2016 under a starry sky. His new book, “Night Sky with the Naked Eye,” explores all the amazing things you can see in the sky without special equipment including satellites, planets, meteor showers and of course, the aurora.

My book Night Sky with the Naked Eye publishes today. It would have never seen the light of day much less ever been conceived were it not for Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, and Nancy Atkinson, an editor and writer for the same. Several years ago, Nancy invited me to write for UT. I hopped at the chance. Before her contact, I’d been writing a daily blog on astronomy called Astro Bob (and still do).

Fast forward to last summer when I got an email from Nancy saying Page Street Publishing had contacted her about writing a book about space missions. The publisher also wanted a book about night sky observing without fancy equipment for which she recommended me. Me? I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet!

Book writing proceeds in many stages. First, the table of contents had to be prepared and approved. Then followed a sample chapter. The publisher chose the one on artificial satellites, which I wrote in about a week. The tone was right, but he asked for changes in the organization, which I dutifully made. By November, a contract followed and the project was underway with a first draft due to my editor in about 10 weeks.

Cover of my book that publishes today. Credit: Bob King
Cover of my book that publishes today. Credit: Bob King

Writing is hard work. But it’s a special place all writers come back to again and again. We can’t help but keep trying to find just the right words to capture a concept or emotion. And when we do, a quiet pleasure flows down the spine like warmth creeping into cold fingers splayed in front of a fire. Not that these moments always come easily. Writer Colson Whitehead describes the experience of writing as “crawling through glass.” I would soon become well-acquainted with that feeling, too.

Nancy wrote her book Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos at nearly the same time. We were grateful for each other’s support, and it was a kick to follow her progress as well as bounce ideas around. With a tight deadline in front of me, I set to work immediately, taking more than two weeks of vacation from my regular job to make sure the draft was done on time. No way was I going to compromise an opportunity of a lifetime.

Maybe you’ve thought of writing a book, starting a blog or hope one day to write for Universe Today or another online astronomy site. There’s plenty of good advice for writers out there. I’ll share what worked for me.

#1: Put your butt in the chair and keep it in the chair. My wife reminded me of this often, adding that the book wasn’t going to write itself. Temptations are everywhere. Answering the phone, making another cup of tea, staring out the window and my favorite, shoveling the driveway. I had the cleanest driveway in the neighborhood. Even an inch of new snow was enough to grab the shovel and happily scrape down to the gravel. So yes, I did occasionally get out of the chair, but many times it did me good, freeing up the brain to see more clearly into a topic. Or dream up a fitting photo or illustration.

Creativity comes at odd little moments. It can flow while tapping away in front of a glowing screen or sneak into consciousness when you’re bending down to feed the dog. So a mix of activities seemed the best but with extra emphasis on staying put. I rarely hiked last winter and kept my walks in the neighborhood brief. Instead of observing at night, I wrote or gathered photos. By January, I joked to my friends that I’d voluntarily put myself under house arrest.

#2: Spill your guts, worry about the details later. It’s incredibly tempting when writing to continuously edit one’s work, going back over every sentence to make each “perfect”. This is a muse-killer. Though difficult to stick to, once you let your thoughts flow onto paper without worrying about spelling, clauses and the whole lot of burdensome rules, you’ll become a wild horse running free on the prairie. Let it out, let it out and worry about the commas later. I don’t play a musical instrument, but free-flow writing — just getting the ideas out — must feel something like riffing on a jazz melody.

#3: When stuck, move on to another topic, take a walk, listen to music. Struggling to describe an important concept or connecting your thoughts in a way that flows on the page can drive you nuts, even bring you to tears.  Sure, you can keep beating on the idea like a madman hammering on a bent nail, but why why torture yourself? A little distraction can be good. Move on to another part of the story or a different chapter or get up and take a short walk. Defocusing allows the ideas you’re having a tug-of-war with to come of their own accord.

To keep track of ideas, topics and the photos I'd need for the book, I kept a notebook. Credit: Bob King
To keep track of ideas, topics and the photos I’d need for the book, I kept a notebook filled to the gills with lists. Checkmarks indicate tasks accomplished. Credit: Bob King

As the February 1 deadline approached, time took on a physical dimension under the intense pressure to get everything done. I cut time into little blocks that when added up would get me to the finish line on the first draft. I made it just in time, shipped off my copy via e-mail, got in the car to go to work and turn up the music really LOUD. For a fews days I was on top of the world. Invincible.

My editor, Elizabeth, contacted me later with positive comments and then returned the manuscript with “developmental edits” or questions about descriptions and organization. We pitched the ever-refined draft back and forth over the next few months. Each time I read through the ten chapters and made both suggested changes and other refinements. I also added photos during this stage and worked via e-mail with the layout staff to place the best images and graphics at the best places in the text. I shot more images and requested photos from talented astrophotographers, prepared the acknowledgments and sought our recommendations from respected scientists and writers.

This diagram from the book uses the human face to illustrate how changing lighting angles causes the phases of the moon. Credit: Bob King
This diagram from the book uses the human face to illustrate how changing lighting angles causes the phases of the moon. Credit: Bob King

The editors at Page Street were quite generous with photo usage, a joy for me because that’s what I do for a living. I’ve been a photographer and photo editor at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. for many years. My favorite subjects are people, but I slip in an aurora or eclipse now and again. And that’s the irony. I never saw myself as a writer.

Like many, I started by keeping a journal of my observations through the telescope and reflections about the night sky. The Astro Bob blog took that a step further and writing for Universe Today and Sky & Telescope let me find my voice. So I maybe I have a voice, and I like to think I can be a helpful guide at your side, but writer? That still seems too lofty a term to describe what I do. But here we are.

After several edits including the final one, when I was sent a thick stack of low-res black and white pages of the book to mark up and return, I rested briefly before beginning the final phase: publicity. This is the weird part, where you tell everyone what a nice book you’ve written and how it would make a great Christmas gift for that budding astronomer in the family. When I held the first copy in my hands I couldn’t believe that all those hours of work at the computer became a physical object, a beautiful one even.

This map from the book shows Saturn's location around the time of opposition through 2021.
This map from the book shows Saturn’s location around the time of opposition through 2021. Credit: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

I’m biased of course, but I think both beginning and amateur astronomers will find the book useful. It includes lots of suggested activities – set off in separate boxes – to encourage you to get out under the stars. I make regular mention of the Web and phone apps as ways to become more familiar with the constellations, learn of newly-discovered bright comets and even find a dark sky.

Besides the easy naked eye topics like how to find the brightest constellations or see the best meteor showers of the year, the book offers visual challenges. Have you ever seen craters on the Moon without optical aid or the midnight glow of the gegenschein? You’ll find out how in my book. As a photographer, I’ve included tips on how to focus a digital camera and use it to photograph the aurora or a space station pass.

I’d be willing to bet that most books aren’t as complete as their authors would hope. I had to cut precious photos, graphics, 3 years of a sky calendar and other bits and pieces from mine. Ouch! To this day, I’m still thinking of ways to improve it with a fresh photo, new diagram or change of wording. Now it’s your turn to be the judge.

The zodiacal light punctuated by the planet Jupiter reflects off Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. this morning (Nov. 8). The book describes nighttime lights such as the zodiacal, gegenschein, airglow and lunar halo and corona phenomena. Credit: Bob King
The zodiacal light punctuated by the planet Jupiter towers over northern Wisconsin along Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. this morning (Nov. 8). The book describes nighttime lights such as the zodiacal, gegenschein, airglow in addition to lunar halo and corona phenomena. Credit: Bob King

Throughout, Nancy and I rooted for one another and shared our ups and downs. Incredible Stories was to publish within a week of Night Sky, but a type corruption error discovered in several chapters put the book on hold. Her new publication date is December 20, and I encourage you to pre-order a copy, so it arrives in time for Christmas. Order a copy of my book also, and I promise the two of us will keep you company on those long winter nights ahead.

Can I share one final tip? Once you’ve found your passion, say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that furthers it. You’ll be amazed at the places that one word will take you to.

***  To order a copy of Night Sky with the Naked Eye just click an icon to go to the site of your choice — Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount. It should also be at your local B&N bookstore.  And don’t forget to vote today!

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How Will We Get to Mars? New Book and TV Series Provide the Details

What is it going to take to really get humans to Mars? A new television series and a companion book take a detailed and hard look at the future of Mars exploration. The six-part documentary series on the National Geographic Channel and the book by veteran, award-winning space journalist Leonard David are both titled, “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet.”

The TV series debuts on November 14, 2016 and was produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and NASA scientist Brian Grazer. It combines interviews with some of the prominent ‘movers and shakers’ in the space community along with a scripted drama that portrays a human mission to Mars in the year 2033. Together, the show “tells the story of how we will one day call the Red Planet home through groundbreaking research and innovation.”

Watch the trailer:

Leonard David’s thoroughly researched book contains a wealth of information on the technological and sociological hurdles that need to be surmounted to make humans on Mars a reality, as well as revealing what work is currently being done on the road to the Red Planet. The books is large format, filled with stunning, full-color images throughout that provide a feast for the eye, including actual images from our spacecraft as well as illustrations of what future missions might entail.

While the book includes some portrayals of the television series’ drama of the crew of the Daedalus mission as they land on Mars and set up the first human base, the real drama comes from David’s interviews with real-life experts, the men and women who are fervently working towards the day an actual human mission goes to Mars.

I had the chance to talk with David about his new book, and asked what it was like to write a book in conjunction with a television series.

Author Leonard David speaking at the Mars Society meeting in Washington, DC. Image courtesy Leonard David.
Author Leonard David speaking at the Mars Society meeting in Washington, DC. Image courtesy Leonard David.

“It was a really interesting experience,” he said, “and we had a close-knit team that had telecons every week to try and synchronize the themes we were using. There were a few topics I wanted to make sure I was able to include, and there were several themes that the whole team wanted to make sure was included in both the book and the show.”

For example, the imagery in the book and the premise of the show reflect that a mission to Mars is likely going to be a global endeavor. “I wanted to make sure to emphasize this will not be just a US or NASA enterprise, and also that a lot of other countries are exploring Mars with spacecraft right now,” David said.

And so, the images in the book come from multi-national sources, and several are pictures I had never seen before, including the latest images from spacecraft, unique illustrations, and distinctive maps of potential human landing sites on Mars that are almost impossible to stop looking at.

Destination Mars: a detailed map of Mars from National Geographic. Credit: National Geographic.
Destination Mars: a detailed map of Mars from National Geographic. Credit: National Geographic.

David said that with the book, he didn’t want to take a stand on all the issues but combine as much information as possible to make it all available for people to think about.

He also said he wanted to portray the true realities of a human expedition to Mars.

“I wanted to make sure people understand that it’s not just throwing a bunch of tin cans on the surface of Mars and then jamming people in them,” he said. “There are so many other issues: sociological issues, there are cultural issues, and there are ethics issues particularly on the topic of possibly terraforming Mars. I just wanted to write a book that I haven’t already read, and I hit on themes that I don’t recall other books getting to.”

For example, David interviews Frank White, author of the seminal book “The Overview Effect,” and that title is now used as an evocative term to explain how seeing Earth from space has changed the human perspective and experience. But David asks White to consider what The Overview Effect will mean for human Martians.

“The Martians will soon develop their own culture and seem like true ‘aliens’ to Earthlings,” envisions White, leading ultimately to a “declaration of independence” from Earth by Mars.

Similarly, David’s discussions with Nick Kanas, professor emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, covers what Kanas calls “Earth out of view,” which means that since Earth is so far away, any future human Martians will have to solve their own problems. Therefore, any physical or mental issues that arise will have to be dealt with locally.

It could highlight a sense of isolation, being distant and away from everything, [Kanas adds]. “It’s a different sort of state. Whether that will produce depression, or psychosis, or extreme homesickness… I don’t know. We have a lot of questions that Mars is going to raise, and we don’t have the answers.”

And there are other realities that need to be considered.

“There will be death,” David said. “Mars is out to kill you to begin with, and there will be accidents and people will likely lose their life in some way. It’s going to call upon the pioneering spirit, and it will challenge us not only technologically, but psychologically and physiologically.”

David looks at the technology that will be required: the potential propulsion systems, how to ramp up current entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems for larger human-sized payloads, and the imperative of using what’s called In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

Future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System may depend heavily on the skills of planetary geologists. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System may depend heavily on the skills of planetary geologists. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

“If we are going to try to avoid having these missions be just flags and footprints like the Apollo missions, it’s going to require living off the land on Mars,” David said.

Again, the experts David interviewed – called “The Heroes” in the book — provide an incredible depth of insight on all the issues facing a human mission to Mars. The Heroes include people such as historian John Logsdon, policy experts like Marcia Smith, entrepreneurs and innovators like Elon Musk, Mars engineers like JPL’s Rob Manning, planetary scientists such as NASA’s Chris McKay and Planetary Protection Officer Catherine Conley, then astronauts like Stanley Love who have already been on the front lines of long duration spaceflight and veteran Buzz Aldrin whose lifetime of experiences provide a unique perspective on human exploration. Reading the words of these experts was perhaps my favorite part of the book (besides those intriguing maps!)

With NASA and other space agencies now embracing Mars as the ultimate human destination, David said the time is now ripe for looking at all the issues that lie ahead on the path to Mars.

“This is a unique time,” he said. “I believe we are in a period that I call ‘now history.’ Never before in our history have we had the potential for the technology, communications and all the other things we need to go off the planet; we’ve never been here before. I think we have an opportunity to create this ‘now history,’ and what we do here and now is going to be a flagship for the future as far as our ability to not only go to Mars, but to go beyond to other planets as well.”

David said he hadn’t yet seen all the footage from the television series, but he was impressed with what he has watched so far. “Ron Howard is pretty good at this stuff, and so the quality is definitely there.” David also indicated there is a bit of a surprise ending to the show, so make sure to stay tuned.

Leonard David is a long-time contributor to Space.com and he writes a column for that site called Space Insider. He is also the coauthor of Buzz Aldrin’s book, “Mission to Mars.” You can find more articles by David at his website, Inside Outer Space.

More information on the book and how to purchase it can be found at the Nat Geo website, or at Amazon, and additional information on the television series can be found here.

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Book Review: A History of the Solar System

The value of a good analyst is priceless. They can synthesize data from disparate sources and weave a reasonable story to bring sense out of historical events and to provide guidance to planning for the future. Adding a sense of scale to space analysis so as to make things relevant to people living on the Earth today adds even more to their value. This is what Claudio Vita-Finzi provides in his book “A History of the Solar System.” It’s a collection of analyses of our grand backyard from a variety of perspectives and it offers great value to the reader.

springer-book

We know so much about our solar system. And at the same time we realize that we know so little. That’s the main story of this book. It notes the common lore: there are planets, asteroids, comets and dust. That’s today. Long, long ago, a great expanse of dust got localised and made the Milky Way, so at least is postulated in the book. The future should see our Sun expand, larger than the orbit of the nearest planets.

But this book also connects lots of current scientific research to these stories. This is where the spirit of the analyst comes into play. For instance, the inner planets have certain ratios of crust to mantle to core while the outer bodies could be awash in oceans that are slightly sealed with solid caps. Why? The book provides some ideas but we’re still just learning to ask the questions.

The book postulates, “Why does water have different Hydrogen/Deuterium ratios throughout the solar system”. Or “What do calcium-aluminium-rich inclusions tell us about the construction of our universe”.  And the book goes on to hypothesize on possible accretion processes for our solar system as based upon observations of other planetary systems. With explanations helped by current events, such as the “record of cosmogenic isotopes … that can be recovered from ice cores and tree rings” we see how the analysis extends to particulars of the heliosphere.

Be warned though, the book expects a deep level of knowledge from the reader, such as with its comparison of our Sun to the star ?01 Uma or the magnetic lineations offsets across Valles Marineris indicating crustal plate interactions. And where might all this knowledge lead the reader? Perhaps the author’s frequent allusions to abiotic and living processes, together with methods to determine the presence of life gives a clue. That is, the reader might realize just how possible yet how difficult would be to detect life elsewhere in our solar system and indeed elsewhere in the universe.

As far as writing styles, this book could be considered tight. In less than a hundred pages it covers a huge amount of the key indicators used to define our solar system. The text is heavily referenced with 20-30 for each of the 8 chapters. A sprinkling of pictures and illustrations amplify its explanations. But, as the author says, this is not a textbook of “one era after another”. Rather the author tries to link how today derives from a long ago cloud of dust which will likely lead to some very interesting times for tomorrow. And this may be indicative of what’s happening throughout the universe. As the reader will learn, humans are gaining the knowledge that can bring some order into the understanding of processes of the universe and we have only to appreciate the connections in order to heighten our understanding.

With a few billion years of formation behind it, our solar system certainly seems special. The obvious is that we know it harbours life. Us! Yet a complex web of processes and interactions bind all substances together and are the baseline to our future. Perhaps by looking at the past then we can better hypothesize what the future will hold. If you want to try this then Claudio Vita-Finzi’s book “A History of the Solar System” is a great place to get ideas and capture some of excitement of the vivacity of our life. Take if for a read and from it free up your imagination to wonder and assess where we stand in time and space.

The book is available through Springer. Learn more about the author, Claudio Vita-Finzi here.
Cheers,