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


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

Win a DVD/BluRay Combo Pack of “Star Trek Into Darkness”

After its theatre debut in May of this year, Star Trek Into Darkness has blasted its way to the small screen with its release today on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand. The new release features not only a high-definition version of the movie but the “extras” include behind-the-scenes footage, “making-of” details, and other special features.

“I’m excited for viewers at home to check out Star Trek Into Darkness on Blu-ray and DVD,” said the film’s director J.J. Abrams. “They did a great job and I’m thrilled with how everything looks and sounds. … I hope fans enjoy seeing the process that went into making the movie and the truly amazing work of our most spectacular cast and crew.”

Excitingly, Universe Today has three DVD/Blu-ray combo packs available to give away to our readers!

In order to be entered into the giveaway drawing, just put your email address into the box at the bottom of this post (where it says “Enter the Giveaway”) before Friday, September 13, 2013. We’ll send you a confirmation email, so you’ll need to click that to be entered into the drawing.

And then, we’re going to do something new and fun: Fraser will choose the winners and announce it on the Weekly Space Hangout on Friday the 13th (!) at Noon Pacific, 3 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today (we’ll be posting a live feed), over on our YouTube account, or on Google+.

Here are just some of the great features on this combo pack:

• Creating the Red Planet – Experience the creation of a never-before-seen alien world, as featured in the action-packed opening sequence of the film.

• Attack on Starfleet – Go behind the scenes with the cast and filmmakers and witness the creation of the shocking attack on Starfleet Headquarters.

• The Klingon Home World – Discover the stunning world of Kronos, and see how the filmmakers reinvented the Klingons for a new generation.

• The Enemy of My Enemy – Find out how, and why, the identity of the film’s true villain was kept a mystery to the very end.

• Ship to Ship – An in-depth and thrilling look at the filming of the iconic space jump sequence, which both defied the laws of physics and pushed the limits of visual effects.

• Brawl by the Bay – Sit in with Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch as they revisit their intense preparation for the film’s breathtaking climax.

• Continuing the Mission – An inspiring look at the partnership between the film’s crew and the organization that assists returning veterans to find meaningful ways to contribute on the home front.

And yes, you’ll even get JJ Abrams’ trademark lens flares.

If you’d like to purchase Star Trek Into Darkness, check out Paramount Home Media or Amazon.

Check out our “spoiler-free” review of the movie here.

Can You Spot the Future Location of the Utopia Planitia Shipyards in this New HiRISE Image?

The name of this large impact basin on Mars, Utopia Planitia, sounds idyllic. But it also strikes a warm place in the heart of any Trekkie, as in the future (at least in the Star Trek Universe) it will be the location of the facility where the original Starship Enterprise and its many incarnations will be built. While the majority of the Utopia Planitia Shipyards are in geosynchronous orbit of Mars, there are also facilities on the planet as well, according to the Utopia Planitia Yards Starship Guide website. Uptopia Planitia was “found to be the ideal location [for the Shipyard], and a number of planetary sites are developed along with an expansive orbital facility located in geosynchronous orbit directly above,” explains the site.

But back to the present and this beautiful image from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

What is striking about the image are the polygon-shaped patterns of troughs and large scallop-shaped depressions. Mike Mellon, writing on the HiRISE website explains that collectively, such landforms are referred to as “thermokarst,” which both point to a slightly warmer and wetter Mars in the past.

Writes Mellon:

Under the proper climate conditions ice may form and seasonally accumulate in a honeycomb network of vertical fractures that appear when ice-rich soil contracts each winter. On Earth this form of subsurface ice is called an “ice wedge.” Special conditions are needed for this ice to accumulate and develop into a large wedge, namely warm temperature and abundant surface water. A thick layer of thawed wet soil forms allowing water to percolate into the open contraction cracks within the permafrost beneath. Later, loss of this wedge ice, by for example sublimation, results in deep depressions marking the honeycomb network.

Likewise, the larger scallop depressions might point to a past climate of frozen ponds or local patches of windblown snow collected in hollows. These surface ice deposits could later be covered by the ever-shifting soils and dust. In either case, the currently bitter cold and dry climate of Mars is not conducive to forming either of these buried-ice forms. Therefore, these landforms point to a warmer, but still cold, climate in the geologic past.

This image just highlights why I’m such a big fan of the HiRISE camera: a gorgeous image of our neighboring planet that was taken just last month from a spaceship orbiting Mars RIGHT NOW that tells us more about the past, while giving hope for our potentially space-faring future.

Why Teleportation Could Be Far Slower Than Walking

It always looked so easy in the Star Trek episodes. “Two to beam up,” Captain James T. Kirk would say from the planet’s surface. A few seconds later, the officers would materialize on the Enterprise — often missing a few red-shirts that went down with them.

A new analysis says the teleportation process wouldn’t take a few seconds. It could, in fact, stretch longer than the history of the universe! “It would probably be quicker to walk,” a press release said laconically.

Continue reading “Why Teleportation Could Be Far Slower Than Walking”

Seeing the Red of ‘La Superba,’ a Magnificent Springtime Carbon Star

The Universe can be a very gray place. But this week, we’ll look at a fine example of a class of objects that defies this trend.

Many first time stargazers are surprised when the Trifid or the Orion Nebula fails to exhibit the bright splashy colors seen in Hubble photos. The fault lies not with the Universe, but in our very own eyes.

This is because the light sensitive fovea of our eye has two different types of photoreceptor cells; rods and cones. These act like slow and fast speed film (for those of us old enough to remember actual film!) Under low light conditions, objects have a very black-and-white appearance. It’s only with an increase in brightness that the color receptors in the cone cells of our eye begin to kick in.

One class of stars can induce this effect. They’re known as carbon stars.

A fine example of just such an object rides high in the late spring sky for northern hemisphere observers. This is the variable star Y Canum Venaticorum, also abbreviated as Y CVn or “La Superba” (The magnificent). This name was given to the star by Father Angelo Secchi in the mid-19th century. It is one of the reddest stars in the sky.

Astronomers gauge the “redness” of a star by measuring its magnitude contrast through a blue and visible (green peaking) filters. This is what is known as its B-V index, and the higher the value, the redder the star.

La Superba has a B-V value of +2.5. For contrast, the familiar orange-red stars Antares and Betelgeuse have a B-V value of +1.83 & +1.85, respectively.

Some other classic carbon stars and their B-V values are;

TX Piscium: +2.5

Herschel’s Garnet Star: +2.35

V Hydrae: +4.5

R Leporis (Hind’s Crimson Star): +2.7

Many of these are also variable stars, and they can appear redder visually near their minimum brightness. In the case of La Superba, it ranges from magnitude +4.8 to +6.3 over a span of 160 days, with a longer super-imposed cycle of about 6 years. We’re just coming off of a peak cycle in late May 2013, and La Superba is easy to spot with binoculars about a third of the way between the brilliant double star Cor Caroli (visited by the Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode “Allegiance”) and Delta Ursa Majoris.

I’ve shown off carbon stars such as La Superba and Hind’s Crimson Star at public star parties to great effect. They can be an excellent star party “secret weapon” when every other ‘scope down the line is aimed at the Orion nebula.

For a faint constellation, Canes Venatici has lots to offer. One of the best globular clusters in the sky M3 can be found within its borders, as can a handful of decent galaxies. La Superba lies in a rather empty region of the constellation high above the galactic plane. In fact, an area about 15° degrees north of location in the adjoining constellation Ursa Major was picked for the famous Hubble Deep Field image for this very reason.

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook describes La Superba as “one of the reddest of all the naked eye stars, (with) a truly odd and vivid tint in large telescopes.” Astronomer Agnes Clerke described its appearance in 1905 as an “extraordinary vivacity of prismatic rays, separated into dazzling zones of red, yellow, and green by broad spaces of profound obscurity.”  (Note: the “spaces” referred to gaps in its spectra).

Through the telescope at low power, we see La Superba as an orange-red ember with shades of white. It’s an easy catch with binoculars, and one of the very few carbon stars that is visible to the naked eye under dark skies. We’d judge that only TX Piscium rivals it in brightness, and only V Hydrae and Hinds appear ruddier. I always like to ask first time observers of colored stars what they see… human eye-brain perception can vary greatly!

The coordinates of La Superba are:

Right Ascension: 12 Hours 45’ 08”

Declination: +45 26’ 25”

La Superba is about 600-800 light years distant. Physically, it is a massive star at three times the mass of our Sun. It’s also a monster in terms of diameter, at four astronomical units in size.  If you placed it within our solar system, it would swallow up the orbits of the interior planets out to Mars!

La Superba is thus much less dense than our own Sun, and at a surface temperature of about 2,800K, relatively cool. It is also the brightest “J-type” carbon star in the sky, a rare sub-type characterized by the presence of the isotope carbon-13 in its atmosphere.  A carbon star is a sun near the end of its life, accumulating carbon compounds in its outer atmosphere as it fuses heavier elements in one last “hurrah” before shedding its outer layers and forming a white dwarf embedded inside a planetary nebula. Carbon stars are much brighter in the infrared, and we see the very tail end of this absorption in the visible red end of the spectrum. In fact, La Superba is a full 9 magnitudes (nearly 4,000 times) brighter in the near-infrared than in the ultraviolet!

All amazing facts to ponder as we view a star near the end of its career, seeding the cosmos with the very element that makes life possible. Next time you’re out observing, be sure to go “into the red” and check out the fine carbon star!


‘Star Trek’ Spaceship Model Soars Into Stratosphere

It was billed as the U.S. S. Enterprise’s first “real” flight in space, but the spaceship didn’t get quite that far.

A group of Star Trek fans launched a model of the famed fictional vessel to an altitude of 95,568 feet (29,129 meters) above Canada, or about 18.1 miles (29.1 kilometers), they told media.

The Karman line — a commonly accepted threshold for the edge of space — is at about 62 miles, or 100 kilometers, above sea level.

Still, the high-flying feat made the Canadian group quite happy, even though the ship made a suicidal crash landing at the end of its flight.

“We lost our engines,” said Steve Schnier, a member of the group that set Enterprise aloft with a weather balloon from Stayner, Ontario, in an interview with Canada AM.

“It wasn’t a smooth ride,” Schnier added concerning the ship’s final minutes. “It was moving, at one point, at 117 kilometres [72.7 miles] an hour.”

Enterprise smashed into the water near a Georgian Bay island in an area roughly 2.5 hours’ drive north of Canada’s largest city of Toronto. Searchers found it using a GPS signal.

The launch at the end of April came just weeks before Star Trek: Into Darkness, the next installment of the nearly 50-year-old franchise, zoomed into theaters in Canada and the United States this week. (Read our full review here.)

Weather balloon flights are used in science to collect information about the upper atmosphere. Other amateur groups have had fun using the idea, flying tokens ranging from teddy bears to Lego figurines.

How Many Tribbles Will Fit Into Your House?

Star Trek: How Many Tribbles Will Fit in Your House?

Oh, those little creatures that are no Tribble at all. If you’re not familiar with these small, non-intelligent lifeforms known for their prodigious reproductive rate, Tribbles (Polygeminus grex) are part of Star Trek lore. And we’ve all got Star Trek on the brain with the opening of the latest movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness (see our review here). So just for fun, here’s something that Nilz Baris would have loved to have access to. Provided by the folks at Movoto, this handy calculator will will tell you a.) not only how many Tribbles will fit into your home, but also, b.) how long it will take them to be fruitful and multiply to fill your home.

And for more fun here’s some estimates of how many Tribbles will fit into various landmarks, both real and imagined:

Empire State Building

Tribbles: 71,153,846
Time: 96 hours

White House

Tribbles: 1,375,000
Time: 72 Hours

Burj Khalifa

Tribbles: 96,342,614
ime: 96 hours

Painted Lady

Tribbles: 57,692
Time: 60

Wayne Manor

Tribbles: 980,769
Time: 72 hours

Millennium Falcon

Tribbles: 1,173,493
Time: 72 hours

‘Star Trek into Darkness’ & NASA Station Crews Join Forces at Live NASA Webcast

Science Fact and Science Fiction join forces in space today for a one of a kind meeting turning science fiction into reality – and you can participate courtesy of NASA and Hollywood!

Fictional astronauts and crews from the newest Star Trek incarnation; “Star Trek into Darkness” and real life astronauts taking part from outer space and Earth get connected today (May 16) via a live ‘space bridge’ webcast hosted by NASA. The movies premieres today – May 16.

NASA Television broadcasts the face-to-face meeting as a Google+ Hangout from noon to 12:45 p.m. EDT, May 16. Watch live below!

The webcast includes “Captain Kirk” – played by actor Chris Pine, and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy – fresh off from his real life ‘emergency spacewalk’ this past weekend that saved the critically important cooling system aboard the International Space Station (ISS). “Into Darkness” features dramatic life and death spacewalks.

Astronaut Chris Cassidy during the May 11, 2013 emergency spacewalk at the ISS. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Chris Cassidy during the May 11, 2013 emergency spacewalk at the ISS. Credit: NASA

Also participating in the live NASA webcast are ‘Star Trek’ director J.J. Abrams, screenwriter and producer Damon Lindelof; and actors Alice Eve (Dr. Carol Marcus) and John Cho (Sulu) and astronauts Michael Fincke and Kjell Lindgren at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Fincke flew on the Space Shuttle and the ISS and made a guest appearance on the finale of the TV series – “Star Trek: Enterprise”. See photo below.

‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ movie still image. Credit: Star Trek
‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ movie still image. Credit: Star Trek

The ISS is a sort of early forerunner for the fictional ‘Federation’ in the ‘Star Trek’ Universe – constructed in low Earth orbit by the combined genius and talents of 5 space agencies and 16 nations of Earth to forge a united path forward for the peaceful exploration of Outer Space.

Cassidy will provide insights about everyday life aboard the real space station – like eating, sleeping, exercising and fun ( think Chris Hadfield’s guitar strumming ‘Space Oddity’ -watch the YouTube video below) – as well as the myriad of over 300 biological, chemical and astronomical science experiments performed by himself and the six person station crews during their six-month stints in zero gravity.

Astronaut Terry Virts, left, Actor Scott Bakula and Astronaut Mike Fincke, right, beam on the set of Star Trek's final Enterprise voyage. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Terry Virts, left, Actor Scott Bakula and Astronaut Mike Fincke, right, beam on the set of Star Trek’s final Enterprise voyage. Credit: NASA

The participants will ask questions of each other and take questions from the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City (home of the space shuttle Enterprise), the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and social media followers, says NASA.

Social media followers were allowed to submit 30 sec video questions until early this morning.

And you can submit questions today and during the live broadcast using the hashtag #askNASA on YouTube, Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’. Credit: Star Trek
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’. Credit: Star Trek

Watch the hangout live on NASA’s Google+ page, the NASA Television YouTube channel, or NASA TV starting at Noon EDT, May 16.

As a long time Star Trek fan (since TOS) I can’t wait to see ‘Into Darkness’

Ken Kremer

Learn more about NASA missions, Mars, Curiosity and more at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentation:

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “LADEE Lunar & Antares ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

NASA’s real life Space Shuttle Enterprise transits the NYC Skyline at Dusk on a barge on June 3, 2012 during a two stage seagoing  journey to her permanent  new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Enterprise is bracketed by the Empire State Building, The Freedom Tower (still under construction) and the torch lit Statue of Liberty. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s real life Space Shuttle Enterprise transits the NYC Skyline at Dusk on a barge on June 3, 2012 during a two stage seagoing journey to her permanent new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Enterprise is bracketed by the Empire State Building, The Freedom Tower (still under construction) and the torch lit Statue of Liberty. Credit: Ken Kremer

Our Spoiler-Free Review of Star Trek: Into Darkness

If you’re a fan of the rebooted 2009 Star Trek film, we think you’ll love the second edition. You’ll find similar whip-cracking dialog, inside jokes and action-filled storyline in the sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, which opens in theaters in the United States and several other countries today.

While the first movie introduced us to the characters, this movie is all about choices… moral choices, and when it is best to help somebody, as opposed to letting things be. That’s where things can get uncomfortable, though.

The film’s start portrays a moral dilemma in the first few minutes, with choices that bring upon punishment for the players involved. The consequences are quite logical — Spock would point that out — but when more dilemmas pile up at the end of the film, many decisions go unquestioned.

Yes, this is an action film and yes, the Star Trek franchise is one that never lets itself get slowed down by plot holes and inconsistencies. (The plot isn’t that groundbreaking, either.) Still, the movie could have benefitted from an extra five or 10 minutes to show the reasoning behind the final few choices. Thinking over what happened, there could be problems with what the crew decided to do.

Nyota Uhura as seen in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Credit:
Nyota Uhura as seen in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Credit:

Enough Tribble-like quibbling, though. Star Trek: Into Darkness pulls you in with an action sequence in the first few minutes, and the pace never lets up. Spock (Zachary Quinto)’s straightforward nature gets him into trouble — as usual — with James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), leading to quotable insults that generated audience guffaws in an advance screening Universe Today saw in Ottawa, Canada.

There’s enough time and, well, space for other characters to shine as well. While Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana) spends ample screen time mooning about her boyfriend, she proves to be an excellent and forceful translator. Scotty (Simon Pegg) also has a wonderful back-and-forth sequence late in the movie, breaking up some intense moments with his slapstick humor.

Also: Another character comes along and — with a presence that commands attention on the big screen — threatens to steal the show from our heroes. You don’t want to like them, but as you get to know them you realize they have reasons behind their actions.

What did you think of the film? Please share your thoughts in the comments

Spock Vs. Spock: New Commercial Full of ‘Star Trek’ Gems

We guarantee you’ll go out of your Vulcan mind watching this new car commercial starring Spock … and Spock.

The Audi ad shows Leonard Nimoy (Spock from Star Trek‘s original series) and Zachary Quinto (Spock from Star Trek: Into Darkness, which premieres May 17) looking for new challenges after Nimoy wins a chess match.

“You want to play a round of golf in the club and get some lunch? Whoever gets to the club last buys lunch,” Quinto says to his predecessor.

“Stand by to have your wallet emptied by a tractor beam,” responds Nimoy.

Continue reading “Spock Vs. Spock: New Commercial Full of ‘Star Trek’ Gems”