Astronomers find Planet Vulcan – 40 Eridani A – Right Where Star Trek Predicted it.

One of the more interesting and rewarding aspects of astronomy and space exploration is seeing science fiction become science fact. While we are still many years away from colonizing the Solar System or reaching the nearest stars (if we ever do), there are still many rewarding discoveries being made that are fulfilling the fevered dreams of science fiction fans.

For instance, using the Dharma Planet Survey, an international team of scientists recently discovered a super-Earth orbiting a star just 16 light-years away. This super-Earth is not only the closest planet of its kind to the Solar System, it also happens to be located in the same star system as the fictional planet Vulcan from the Star Trek universe.

Continue reading “Astronomers find Planet Vulcan – 40 Eridani A – Right Where Star Trek Predicted it.”

Weekly Space Hangout: May 16, 2018: Ethan Siegel’s Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Ethan Siegel is the author of the new book, Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive. In his book, Ethan examines over 25 items from the Star Trek universe, describes their underlying science, and lets his readers know how close we are to having many of these iconic items today.

Ethan is a PhD astrophysicist and science communicator known for his award winning blog, Starts with a Bang, and his regular online contributions to Forbes (you can find his writings here. )

Both Treknology and Ethan’s first book, Beyond the Galaxy: How humanity looked beyond our Milky Way and discovered the entire Universe, are available on Amazon.

Announcements:
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

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What is the Death Ray?

Death Ray

Scientists, futurists, and science fiction writers have been talking about it for over a century, and fans of science fiction and futurists have fantasized about it for just as long. The portable directed-energy weapon that zaps your enemies, rendering them incapacitated or reducing them to a pile of ashes!

The concept has gone through many iterations over the decades, ranging from laser pistols and cannons to phasers. And yet, this staple of science fiction is largely based in science fact. Since the early 20th century, scientists have sought to develop a working directed-energy weapon, based on ideas put forward by many inventors and scientists.

Definition:

A”death ray” is a theoretical particle beam or electromagnetic weapon that was originally proposed independently during the 1920s and 30s by multiple scientists. From these initial proposals, research into energy-based weapons has been ongoing. While most examples come predominantly from science fiction, several applications and proposals have been produced during the latter half of the 20th century.

The Death Star firing its superlaser. Image Credit: Wookieepedia / Lucasfilm
Directed-energy weapons, like the Death Star’s superlaser, are a common feature in science fiction. Credit: Wookieepedia / Lucasfilm

History:

During the early 20th century, many scientists claimed that they had created a working death ray. For instance, in September of 1924, British inventor Harry Grindell-Matthews attempted to sell what he reported to be a death ray that could destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance to the British Air Ministry.

While he was never able to produce a functioning model or demonstrate it to the military, news of this prompted American inventor Edwin R. Scott to claim that he was the first to develop a death ray. According to Scott, he had done so in 1923, which was the result of the nine years he spent as a student and protege of Charles P. Steinmetz – a German-American professor at Union College, New York.

In 1934, Spanish inventor Antonion Longoria claimed to have invented a death ray machine which he had tested on pigeons at a distance of about 6.5 km (4 miles). He also claimed to have killed mice that were enclosed in a thick-walled metal chamber.

However, it was famed inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla who provided the most detailed framework for such a device. In a 1934 interview with Time Magazine, Tesla explained the concept of a “teleforce” (or directed energy) weapon which would be capable of destroying entire squadrons of airplanes or an entire army at a distance of 400 km (250 miles).

 Century Magazine photographer Dickenson Alley) of Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his "magnifying transmitter" generating millions of volts. The 7-metre (23 ft) long arcs were not part of the normal operation, but only produced for effect by rapidly cycling the power switch.[117]
Photograph of Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Century Magazine/Dickenson V. Alley
Tesla tried to interest the US War Department and several European countries in the device at the time, though none contracted with Tesla to build it. As Tesla described his invention in an article titled “A Machine to End War“, which appeared in Liberty Magazine in 1935:

“this invention of mine does not contemplate the use of any so-called ‘death rays’. Rays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance. All the energy of New York City (approximately two million horsepower) transformed into rays and projected twenty miles, could not kill a human being, because, according to a well known law of physics, it would disperse to such an extent as to be ineffectual. My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist.”

Based on his descriptions, the device would constitute a large tower that could be mounted on top of a building, positioned either next to shores or near crucial infrastructure. This weapon, he claimed, would be defensive in nature, in that it would make any nation employing it impregnable to attack from air, land or sea, and up to a distance of 322 km (200 miles).

During World War II, multiple efforts were mounted by the Axis powers to create so-called “death rays”. For instance, Imperial Japan developed a concept they called “Ku-Go”, which sought to use microwaves created in a large magnetron as a weapon.

Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city Deutsche Fotothek?
Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/ Deutsche Fotothek?

Meanwhile, the Nazis mounted two projects, one which was led by the researcher known as Schiebold that involved a particle accelerator and beryllium rods. The second, led by Dr. Rolf Wideroe, was developed at the Dresden Plasma Physics Laboratory until it was bombed in Feb. 1945. In April of that year, as the war was coming to close, the device was taken into custody by the US Army.

On January 7th, 1943, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla died in his room at the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan. A story quickly developed that within his room, Tesla had scientific paper in his possession that provided the most detailed description yet for a death ray. These documents, it was claimed, had been seized by the US military, who wanted them for the sake of the war effort.

Examples in Science Fiction:

Ray guns, and other examples of directed-energy weapons have been a common feature in science fiction for over a century. One of the first known examples comes from H.G. Wells seminal book, War of the Worlds, which featured Martian war machines that used “heat rays”. However, the first use of the term was in The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917), by Victor Rousseau Emanuel.

Ray guns were also a regular feature in comic books like Buck Rogers (first published in 1928) and Flash Gordon, published in 1934. In Alfred Noyes’ 1940 novel The Last Man (released as No Other Man in the US), a death ray developed by a German scientist named Mardok is unleashed in a global war and almost wipes out the human race.

War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel about a Martian invasion, War of the Worlds, featured alien machines using heat rays to spread havoc. Credit: Henrique Alvim Correa (1906)

The concept of the blaster was introduced by Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Series, which were described as nuclear-powered handheld weapons that fired energetic particles. In Frank Herbert’s Dune series, energy weapons take the form of continuous-wave laser projectors (lasguns), which are rendered obsolete by the invention of “Holtzman shields”.

According to Herbert, the interaction of a lasgun blast and this force field results in a nuclear explosion which typically kills both the gunner and the target. Further examples of death rays can be found in just about any science fiction franchise, ranging from phasers (Star Trek) and laser blasters (Star Wars) to spaceship-mounted beam cannons.

Modern Development:

In terms of real-world applications, many attempts have been made to create directed-energy weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. For instance, the development of radar before World War II was the result of attempts to find applications for directed electromagnetic energy (in this case, radio waves).

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program (nicknamed “Star Wars”). It suggested that lasers, perhaps space-based X-ray lasers, could destroy ICBMs in flight. During the Iraq War, electromagnetic weapons, including high power microwaves were used by the U.S. military to disrupt and destroy the Iraqi electronic systems.

An artist's concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF
An artist’s concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF

On March 18th, 2009 Northrop Grumman announced that its engineers in Redondo Beach had successfully built and tested an electric laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt ray of light, powerful enough to destroy cruise missiles, artillery, rockets and mortar rounds. And on July 19th, 2010, an anti-aircraft laser was unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow, described as the “Laser Close-In Weapon System”.

In 2014, the US Navy made headlines when they unveiled their AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (or XN-1 LaWS), a directed-energy weapon designed for use on military vessels. Ostensibly, the purpose of the weapon is defensive, designed to either blind enemy sensors (when set to low-intensity) or shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) when set to high-intensity.

Then is what is known as “Active Denial Systems”, which use a microwave source to heat up the water in the target’s skin, thus causing physical pain. Currently, this concept is being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory and Raytheon – a US defense contractor – as a means of riot-control.

A Dazzler is another type of directed-energy weapon, one which uses infrared or visible light to temporarily blind an enemy. Targets can include human beings, or their sensors (particularly in the infrared band). The emitters are usually lasers (hence the term “laser dazzler”) and can be portable or mounted on the outside of vehicles (as with the Russian T-80 and T-90 tank).

The personnel halting and stimulation response rifle (PHASR) is a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate, U.S. Department of Defense. Credit: USAF
The personnel halting and stimulation response rifle (PHASR) is a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, U.S. Department of Defense. Credit: USAF

An example of the former is the Personnel Halting And Stimulation Response rifle (PHASR), a prototype non-lethal laser dazzler being developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate. Its purpose is give infantry or other military personnel the ability to temporarily disorient and blind a target without causing permanent damage.

Blinding laser weapons were banned by treated under the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which was passed in 1995. However, the terms of this protocol do not apply to directed-energy weapons that inflict only temporary blindness.

We’ve come a long way since the term “raygun” became a household name. At this rate, who knows what the future will hold? Will Tesla’s dream of a Death Ray ever come true? Will we see directed-energy satellites put in orbit, or handheld lasers becoming the mainstay of armed forces and space explorers? Hard to say. All we can be sure of is that the truth will likely be stranger than the fiction!

We have written many articles about the directed-energy and lasers for Universe Today. Here’s Telescope’s Laser Pointer Clarifies Blurry Skies, The Challenges of Lasers in Space, Don’t Want Aliens Dropping By? Engage Laser-Cloaking Device, Could a “Death Star” Really Destroy a Planet?, and Finding Aliens May be even Easier than Previously Thought.

If you’d like more info on the Death Ray, check out this article from Rense.com.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Death Ray. Listen here, Episode 36: Gamma Ray Bursts.

Source:

Can We Get Space Madness?

If you’ve watched any Ren and Stimpy cartoons, you know that one of the greatest hazards of spaceflight is “space madness”. Only exposure to the isolation and all pervasive radiation of deep space could drive an animated chihuahua into such a state of lunacy.

What will happen if they press the history eraser button? Maybe something good? Maybe something bad? I guess, we’ll never know.

Of course, Ren and Stimpy weren’t the first fictionalized account of people losing their marbles when they fly into the inky darkness of space. There were the Reavers from Firefly, that crazy Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, almost everyone in the movie Sunshine, and it was the problem in every second episode of Star Trek.

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann
The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

According to movies and television, if you’ve got space madness, you and your crewmates are in for a rough ride. If you’re lucky, you merely hallucinate those familiar space sirens, begging you to take off your space helmet and join them for eternity on that asteroid over there.

But you’re just as likely to go homicidal, turning on your crewmates, killing them one by one as a dark sacrifice to the black hole that powers your ship’s stardrive.  And whatever you do, don’t stare too long at that pulsar, with its hypnotic, rhythmic pulse. The isolation, the alien psycho-waves, dark whisperings from eldritch gods speak to you though the paper-thin membrane of sanity. If we go to space, does only madness await us?

If you’ve spent any time around human beings, you know that we’ve got our share of mental disease right here on Earth. You don’t have to travel to space to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

Once we’re in orbit, or prancing about on the surface, of Mars, we’re going to experience our share of human physical and mental frailties. We’re going to take our basic humanity to space, including our brains.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the US population, or 40 million Americans suffer from some variety of anxiety-related disorder. 6.7% of adults had a major, crippling depressive episode over the course of a year.

Unless we improve treatment outcomes for mental disorders here on Earth, we can expect to see similar outcomes in space. Especially once we make exploration a little safer, and we’re not concerned with our immediate exposure to the vacuum of space. But will going to space make things worse?

Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA
Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA

NASA has carried out two studies on astronaut psychological health studies. One for the cosmonauts and astronauts on the Mir space station, and a second study for the folks on the International Space Station. They tested both the folks in space as well as their ground support staff once a week, to see how they were doing.

Although they reported some tension, there was no loss in mood or group cohesion during the mission. The crews had better cohesion when they had an effective leader on board.

Isolation working in close quarters has been heavily studied here on Earth, with submarine crews and isolated groups at research bases in Antarctica.

United States members of the second HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) crew celebrate Independence Day during their simulated 120-day Mars mission. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram
A previous HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. This one was only for 120 days. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram

Earlier this year, a crew of simulated Mars astronauts emerged, unharmed from a year-long isolation experiment in Hawaii. The six international crewmembers were part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation experiment, to see what would happen to potential Mars explorers, stuff on the surface of the red planet for a year.

They couldn’t leave their 110 square-meter (1,200 square-foot) habitat without a spacesuit on. What did they report? Mostly boredom. Some interpersonal issues. Now that they’re out, some are good friends, and others probably won’t stay in contact, or pay too much attention to them in their Facebook feed.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t seem like there’s too much of a risk from the isolation and close quarters. Well, nothing that we’re not used to dealing with as human beings.

But there is another problem that has revealed itself, and might be much more severe: space dementia. And we’re not talking about the song from Muse.

According to researchers from the University of California, Irvine, long term exposure to the radiation of deep space will cause significant damage to our fragile human brains. Or at least, that’s what happened to a group of rats bathed in radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Over time, the damage to their brains would cause astronauts to experience a type of dementia that causes anxiety. Brain cancer patients who receive radiation treatment are prone to this as well.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

During the months and years of a Mars mission, astronauts would take a large dose of radiation, even with shielding, and the effects would be harmful to their bodies and to their brains. In fact, even when the astronauts return to Earth, their condition might worsen, with more anxiety, depression, memory problems, and a loss of decision making ability. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved if humans are going to live for a long time outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere.

It turns out, science fiction space madness isn’t a real thing, it’s a plot device like warp drives, teleporters, and light sabers.

Isolation and close proximity isn’t much of a problem, we’ve dealt with it before, and we can still work with people, even though we hate them and the way they slurp their coffee, and lean back on their chair, even though that thing is totally going to break and they’re going to hurt themselves. And they won’t stop doing it, no matter how many times we ask them to stop.

Once again, radiation in space is a big problem. It’s out there, it’s everywhere, and we don’t have a great way to protect against it. Especially when it wrecks our brains.

Your Favorite Planet May Soon Turn Up In The Mail

The Postal Service will showcase some of the more compelling historic, full-disk images of the planets obtained during the last half-century of space exploration. Some show the planets’ “true color” like Earth and Mars — what one might see if traveling through space. Others, such as Venus, use colors to represent and visualize certain features of a planet based in imaging data. Still others (red storms on Uranus) use the near-infrared spectrum to show things that cannot be seen by the human eye. Credits: USPS/Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS
The Postal Service will showcase some of the more compelling historic, full-disk images of the planets obtained during the last half-century of space exploration. Some show the planets’ “true color” like Earth and Mars — what one might see if traveling through space. Others, such as Venus, use colors to represent and visualize certain features of a planet based in imaging data. Still others (red storms on Uranus) use the near-infrared spectrum to show things invisible to the human eye.
Credits: USPS/Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS

Whenever I go to the post office to pick up stamps I always ask for the most colorful ones. No dead president heads for me. Mailing letters is a rare thing nowadays — might as well choose something colorful and interesting. How sweet then that we’ll soon be able to pick and stick our favorite planets (and dwarf planet!) on the mail and send them flying off to far places.

The U.S. Postal Service sneak-previewed a new series of stamps earlier this year highlighting NASA’s Planetary Science program, including a do-over of a famous Pluto stamp commemorating the New Horizons’ historic 2015 flyby. Also in the works are eight new colorful Forever stamps featuring NASA images of the planets, a Global Forever stamp dedicated to Earth’s moon and a tribute to 50 years of Star Trek.

Pluto Explored! In 2006, NASA placed a 29-cent 1991 ‘Pluto: Not Yet Explored’ stamp in the New Horizons spacecraft. With the new stamp, the Postal Service recognizes the first reconnaissance of Pluto in 2015 by NASA’s New Horizon mission. The two separate stamps show an artists’ rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft and the spacecraft’s enhanced color image of Pluto taken near closest approach. Credits: USPS/Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern (left), Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel (center) and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold a print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update since the New Horizons spacecraft has explored Pluto last July. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The New Horizons team, which placed a 29-cent 1991 “Pluto: Not Yet Explored” stamp on board the New Horizons spacecraft, is thrilled at the updated stamp recognizing the mission.

“The New Horizons project is proud to have such an important honor from the U.S. Postal Service,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute. “Since the early 1990s the old, ‘Pluto Not Explored’ stamp served as a rallying cry for many who wanted to mount this historic mission of space exploration. Now that NASA’s New Horizons has accomplished that goal, it’s a wonderful feeling to see these new stamps join others commemorating first explorations of the planets.”

Pluto Explored! In 2006, NASA placed a 29-cent 1991 ‘Pluto: Not Yet Explored’ stamp in the New Horizons spacecraft. With the new stamp, the Postal Service recognizes the first reconnaissance of Pluto in 2015 by NASA’s New Horizon mission. The two separate stamps show an artists’ rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft and the spacecraft’s enhanced color image of Pluto taken near closest approach. Credits: USPS/Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS
Pluto Explored! In 2006, NASA placed a 29-cent 1991 ‘Pluto: Not Yet Explored’ stamp in the New Horizons spacecraft. With the new stamp, the Postal Service recognizes the first reconnaissance of Pluto in 2015 by NASA’s New Horizon mission. The two separate stamps show an artists’ rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft and the spacecraft’s enhanced color image of Pluto taken near closest approach.
Credits: USPS/Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS

In the upcoming planet series, we’re treated to a color-enhanced Mercury taken by MESSENGER highlighting the planet’s varied terrains. Venus appears in all its naked volcanic glory courtesy of the Magellan probe which mapped the planet using cloud-penetrating radar. Like Mercury, it’s also color-enhanced since it’s impossible to see the surface in visual light even from orbit. Earth and Mars were photographed in natural light with orbiting satellites in tow.

Ten of the round Global Forever stamps of the full moon. Issued at the price of $1.20, this Global Forever stamp can be used to mail a one-ounce letter to any country to which First-Class Mail International service is available. Credits: USPS/Greg Breeding under the art direction of William Gicker © 2016 USPS
Ten of the round Global Forever stamps of the Full Moon. Issued at the price of $1.20, this Global Forever stamp can be used to mail a one-ounce letter to any country to which First-Class Mail International service is available.
Credits: USPS/Greg Breeding under the art direction of William Gicker © 2016 USPS

The Hubble Space Telescope photographed Jupiter in infrared light in 2004, capturing a rare triple transit of the moons Ganymede, Io and Callisto. Saturn comes to us from the Cassini probe, still in good health and routinely sending gorgeous images every month of the ringed planet and its moons. Pity the rings had to be trimmed, but it had to be done to keep all the globes close to the same relative size. Hubble took Uranus’ picture in infrared light, while the Neptune close-up was sent by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the television premiere, the new Star Trek Forever stamps showcase four digital illustrations inspired by the television program: the Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia, the silhouette of a crewman in a transporter, the silhouette of the Enterprise from above and the Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan salute. Credits: USPS/Heads of State under the art direction of Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the television premiere, the new Star Trek Forever stamps showcase four digital illustrations inspired by the television program. Credits: USPS/Heads of State under the art direction of Antonio Alcalá © 2016 USPS

2016 also marks the 50th anniversary of the television premier of Star Trek, which the post office will commemorate with the new Star Trek Forever stamps. They feature four digital illustrations inspired by the television program: the Starship Enterprise inside the outline of a Starfleet insignia, the silhouette of a crewman in a transporter, the silhouette of the Enterprise from above and the Enterprise inside the outline of the Vulcan salute.

The Global Moon stamp was issued on Feb. 22. You can pre-order the Pluto and planet stamps from USPS.com 30 days before their dedication between May 28 and June 4 at the World Stamp Show in New York. Expect the Star Trek series sometime this summer.

Leonard Nimoy’s Legacy Lives On in the Asteroid Belt

“Fascinating, Captain.” If he were alive today, Leonard Nimoy, who played the half Vulcan-half human Mr. Spock in the Star Trek TV and movies series, would undoubtedly have raised an eyebrow and uttered a signature “fascinating” at the news this week that an asteroid now bears his name.

4864 Nimoy, a mountain-sized rock roughly 6 miles (10 km) across, orbits the Sun once every 3.9 years within the inner part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Vulcan, er Jupiter. 

Here’s the announcement from the Minor Planet Center made on June 2:

Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Credit: CBS Television
Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Credit: CBS Television

(4864) Nimoy = 1988 RA5
Discovered 1988 Sept. 2 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory.
Leonard Nimoy (1931–2015) was an American actor, film director and poet. Best known for his portrayal of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer Spock in the original “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent movies, Nimoy wrote two autobiographies:
I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995).
M.P.C. 94384

4864 Nimoy was discovered by Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne on September 2, 1988 and given the provisional designation 1988 RA5. This month, Spock’s “star” doesn’t get any brighter than 16th magnitude as it slowly tracks from Capricornus into Sagittarius in the late night sky. Come mid-July, amateurs with 14-inch or larger telescopes might glimpse it when it brightens to magnitude 15.


Spock – Fascinating!

Though portrayed as logical to a fault, Spock’s chilly exterior hid a heart as big as Jupiter. He was the hero of every nerd, and the perfect foil to Shatner’s Captain Kirk’s emotional excesses. Nimoy’s character showed that command of the facts and rational thinking made one very useful in dangerous and difficult situations. And great to poke fun at.


A few “Best of Spock” moments

While Leonard Nimoy’s name will forever tumble about the asteroid belt, his fictional character got there before him. Or did it? 2309 Mr. Spock (former 1971 QX1) was discovered by James Gibson on August 16, 1971. An outer main belt asteroid about 13 miles (21 km) across and orbiting the Sun every 5.23 years, it’s actually not named for the Star Trek character. Nope. Gibson named it for his cat.

The sky facing southeast around 2 a.m. in early June. Leonard Nimoy's asteroid is currently in Capricornus near its border with Sagittarius. Source: Stellarium
The sky facing southeast around 2 a.m. in early June. Leonard Nimoy’s asteroid is currently in Capricornus where it borders with Sagittarius. Source: Stellarium

The act prompted the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1985 to ban the use of pet names for asteroids. Aw, come on IAU, where’s your sense of humor? Then again, Nimoy’s Spock might have considered the new rule quite logical.

Dragon Snared by Stations ‘Star Trek’ Crewmate, Delivers Science for 1 Year Mission

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following the flawless blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster and Dragon cargo ship on Tuesday, April 14, the resupply vessel arrived at the International Space Station today, April 17, and was successful snared by the outposts resident ‘Star Trek’ crewmate, Expedition 43 Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, donning her futuristic outfit from the famed TV show near and dear to space fans throughout the known galaxy!

Cristoforetti grappled the SpaceX Dragon freighter with the station’s robotic arm at 6:55 a.m. EDT, with the able assistance of fellow crewmate and Expedition 43 Commander Terry Virts of NASA.

Dragon is hauling critical supplies to the six astronauts and cosmonauts serving aboard, that now includes the first ever ‘One-Year Mission’ crew comprising NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko.

Cristoforetti and Virts were manipulating the 57.7-foot-long (17-meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm while working inside the stations seven windowed domed Cupola, that reminds many of Darth Vader’s lair in ‘Star Wars’ lore.

Success! @SpaceX #Dragon is attached to deliver 2 tons of science & supplies for @Space_Station crew. #ISScargo
Success! @SpaceX #Dragon is attached to deliver 2 tons of science & supplies for @Space_Station crew. #ISScargo

The SpaceX Dragon blasted off atop a Falcon 9 booster from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT (2010:41 GMT) on the CRS-6 (Commercial Resupply Services-6) mission bound for the space station.

The Dragon cargo spacecraft was berthed to the Earth facing port of Harmony module of the International Space Station at 9:29 a.m. EDT.

The entire multihour grappling and berthing operations were carried live on NASA TV, for much of the morning and everything went smoothly.

The crew plans to open the hatch between Dragon and the station on Saturday.

The SpaceX Dragon space freighter is in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon space freighter is in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Credit: NASA TV

Overall CRS-6 is the sixth SpaceX commercial resupply services mission and the seventh trip by a Dragon spacecraft to the station since 2012.

Dragon is loaded with more than 4,300 pounds of supplies, science experiments, and technology demonstrations, including critical materials to support about 40 of more than 250 science and research investigations during the station’s Expeditions 43 and 44.

Among the research investigations are a fresh batch of 20 rodents for the Rodent Research Habitat, and experiments on osteoporosis to counteract bone deterioration in microgravity, astronaut vision loss, protein crystal growth, and synthetic muscle for prosthetics and robotics.

An Espresso machine is also aboard to enhance station morale during the daily grind some 250 miles above Earth.

Following the April 14 launch, SpaceX made a nearly successful soft landing of the first stage on an ocean floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean. Read my story – here.

Read Ken’s earlier onsite coverage of the CRS-6 launch from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX, Mars rovers, Orion, Antares, MMS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 18/19: “Curiosity explores Mars” and “NASA Human Spaceflight programs” – NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club

Watch @AstroSamantha move #Canadarm2 into place to capture the @SpaceX #Dragon. Credit: NASA
Watch @AstroSamantha move #Canadarm2 into place to capture the @SpaceX #Dragon. Credit: NASA

Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy Leaves a Lasting Legacy

Leonard Nimoy played a half-alien-half-human character — Spock — who seemingly was going to live forever. He survived having his brain removed, being bitten by a deadly alien creature and other harrowing experiences. Later, he actually did give his life to save his crew but was resurrected. And he was transported through time in the Star Trek universe to spend his life across hundreds of years. But the very human Nimoy died earlier today at age 83, leaving a legacy of not just an enduring science fiction character, but the generations of scientists and explorers he inspired.

Nimoy had been hospitalized earlier in the week and his agent confirmed his death on February 27, saying the cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nimoy announced that he had the disease last year and attributed it to years of smoking, a habit he had quit nearly 30 years ago.

Nimoy was active on social media, and for the past couple of months, he seemed to be sending farewell messages to his fans with words of wisdom and sentiment that ended with “LLAP” — “live long and prosper” — a phrase made famous by Nimoy and his character Spock:

Now, following the announcement of his passing there has been an outpouring of sentiments for Nimoy and his character on social media, with expressions of how Nimoy inspired generations to look up and reach for the final frontier.

Journalist Nadia Drake shared her memories and provided Universe Today with the lead image for this article:

The Spock character was known for Vulcan logic and pointy ears, and Nimoy was a favorite with Star Trek fans of all ages. Nimoy not only appeared in the original Star Trek but he reprised his role in later Trek incarnations. He appeared in a total of eight Star Trek movies, and three different Star Trek series (original, animated and Star Trek: the Next Generation).

In addition to Star Trek, Nimoy appeared in “The Twilight Zone,” “Mission Impossible,” “THEM!” “The Brain Eaters,” “Sea Hunt,” “The Outer Limits,” “Get Smart,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Night Gallery,” and was host of “In Search Of.” He also wrote two autobiographies (“I Am Not Spock” and “I am Spock,”) wrote and performed on 5 albums (one was titled, “Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space,”) was a photographer and poet, contributed to vocal acting, and directed 6 feature films, including “Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home,” and “Three Men and a Baby.”

He is survived by his wife, Susan, as well as two children and six grandchildren from his first marriage to Sandra Zober.

Spock has now reached the final frontier. Tonight we’ll toast his legacy of the “good of the many.”

How Would Earth Send Messages To A Starship — Or A Distant Civilization?

I have a new exercise routine where I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation most mornings of the week while doing my thing. Besides serving as awesome distraction, the episodes do get me thinking about how humans would talk to extraterrestrials. It likely wouldn’t be as easy as the show portrays to zoom across space to conduct diplomatic negotiations at the planet “Parliament”, for example, so interstellar communication would be a problem.

Luckily for non-engineers such as me, there are folks out there (on Earth, at least) that are examining the problem of talking between stars. David Messerschmitt, of the University of California at Berkeley, is one of those people. A new paper by him on Arxiv examines the issue. Note this is a preprint site and not a peer-reviewed journal, but all the same it provides an intriguing addition to how to communicate outside of Earth.

Messerschmitt explains that humans already communicate with probes that are a fair distance from Earth (say, Voyager 1 in interstellar space) at radio frequencies, and there is some usage now of laser/optical communications (namely between the Earth and the moon).

Across greater distances, however, you lose information, the interstellar medium gets in the way, and stars shift due to relative motion. Besides all that, at first you wouldn’t know how the other civilization designs its systems and you could therefore send a message that wouldn’t be picked up.

This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia
This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia

He further explains that starships and civilizations would have different communications requirements. Starship communication would be two-way and based on a similar design, so success comes by having high “uplink and downlink transmit times”. The more information, the better it would be for scientific observations and keeping down errors.

Civilization-to-civilization chats, however, would present headaches. As with all diplomatic negotiations, crafting suitable messages would take time. Then we’d have to send the message out repeatedly to make sure it is heard (which actually means that reliability is not as big of a problem.) Then the ISM would have to be contended with (something that pulsar astronomers and astrophysicists are already working on, he said).

In either case — talking to starships or other civilizations — one can assume there’d be a lot of energy involved, he added. “Starships are likely to be much closer than the nearest civilizations, but the cost of either a large transmit antenna or transmit energy is likely to be considerably greater for the starship than for a terrestrial-based transmitter,” he said, suggesting that a solution would be to minimize the energy delivered to the receiver. Other civilizations may have found more efficient ways to overcome this problem, he added.

You can read more details of the research on Arxiv, where Messerschmitt talks about Gaussian noise, channel coding and other parameters to keep in mind during communication.

Star Trek’s Geordi LeForge Explains NASA’s new MAVEN Mars Orbiter

Star Trek actor LeVar Burton Shares MAVEN’s Story in a New NASA public service announcement (PSA). Credit: NASA
Watch the PSA below[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Star Trek actor and space enthusiast LeVar Burton stars in a new action packed NASA public service announcement (PSA) about the agency’s next Mars-bound spacecraft, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft slated for blast off in barely two days time on Nov. 18 from the Florida Space Coast.

Burton played the beloved character of chief engineer ‘Geordi LeForge’ aboard the legendary Starship Enterprise on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” – known by audiences worldwide.

And Burton gives an appropriately other worldly narration in the NASA PSA containing exciting new animations explaining the goals and science behind the MAVEN Mars orbiter and how it will accomplish its tasks.

I was privileged to meet chief engineer ‘Geordi LeForge’ at a prior NASA launch event.

He is genuinely and truly dedicated to advancing science and education through his many STEM initiatives and participation in educational programming like the NASA PSA.

MAVEN will study the Red Planet’s atmosphere like never before and in unprecedented detail and is the first mission dedicated to studying Mars upper atmosphere.

MAVEN’s is aimed at unlocking one of the greatest Martian mysteries; Where did all the water go ? And when did the Red Planet’s water and atmosphere disappear ?

MAVEN’s suite of nine science instruments will help scientists understand the history, mechanism and causes of the Red Planet’s dramatic climate change over billions of years.

Burton’s PSA will be used at MAVEN scheduled events around the country and will also be shared on the web and social media, according to NASA. The goal is to educate the public about MAVEN and NASA’s efforts to better understand the Red Planet and the history of climate change there.

Be sure to check out the new video – below:



Video caption: NASA is returning to Mars! This NASA Public Service Announcement regarding the MAVEN mission is presented by LeVar Burton in which he shares the story about NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission—or MAVEN—and how it will explore Mars’ climate history and gather clues about the question scientists have been asking for decades. MAVEN will look at specific processes at Mars that led to the loss of much of its atmosphere…and MAVEN data could tell scientists a lot about the history of climate change on the Red Planet.

“NASA is thrilled to have LeVar Burton explain this mission to the greater public,” said Bert Ulrich, NASA’s multimedia liaison for film and TV collaborations in a NASA statement. “Thanks to Burton’s engaging talents and passion for space exploration, audiences of all ages will be able to share in the excitement of NASA’s next mission to Mars.”

MAVEN is targeted to launch Monday, Nov. 18 at 1:28 p.m. EST atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV

Stay tuned here for continuing MAVEN and MOM news and Ken’s MAVEN launch reports from on site at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 15-20: “MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM