Category Archives: Space

Rockets, Yeah!

My how our space program has grown.

This dude named Alex Brown decided to throw all the world’s rockets onto one poster and the results are out of this world! *snicker*  I like how I’m included in the upper left corner.  The description fits me to a T.  One minor complaint: Comparing the rockets to me is all fine and dandy, but it’s still difficult to judge scale from me to the largest rocket.  So FYI, that largest rocket, the SLS B-II is 385 feet tall.  So it would just fit into most baseball stadiums if laid down on the foul line.  Also, LEO means Low Earth Orbit and the mass number that follows is its maximum mass that can be pushed to LEO using that rocket.

The World's Greatest Rockets - Past, Present, and Future

(Click to embiggenify)

Mind Blown: Solar System Facts Edition

Large numbers of anything are hard to grasp.  Take the distance from the Earth to the Moon, for instance.  It varies, but the average distance is 384,400 km.  That is a small enough number to wrap your head around.  Or is it?  How much space is there between the Earth and the Moon?  It turns out that’s a whole lot of space.  Enough so you could fit Mercury and Venus and Mars and Saturn and Uranus and Jupiter and Neptune in between with room to spare!  Yep, every single planet in our solar system can fit between Earth and the Moon.  *head asplode*  You die-hard “Pluto is too a planet!” folks could even fit Pluto in there if you so desire.

Of course, you shouldn’t try this experiment at home because the gravity of Jupiter and Saturn would quickly suck everyone else in and the resultant buildup of temperatures would likely cause a massive explosion turning us back into the star stuff we once were.  This is a thought experiment only.

A Big Step Forward For Commercial Space Flight

Virgin Galactic successfully tested its third super sonic flight of its Space Ship Two manned space vehicle.  This means we’re getting close to the goal of the plebians being able to go to space.  If by plebians you mean one-percenters who are not astronauts.  It’s going to be priced out of possibility for us normal folk for some time.  But still, it’s an exciting start to an exciting industry.  Is there video, you say?  Why yes, there is:


This Is Breathtaking

I’ve seen space shuttle launch cameras before, but nothing like this.  Follow one of the boosters from take-off to landing in this epically beautiful video with audio.  Be sure to set it to HD if it is not already so.

How To Find An Exoplanet

An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than our Sun.  Even the largest exoplanets are invisible to our mightiest telescopes.  So how do we find them?  Watch and find out:


I’ve known about the solar transit trick for finding exoplanets for some time, but the ability to identify atmospheres had always left me a little perplexed.  After watching the video, I was like,well, duh.  That doesn’t make it any less amazing, though.  Think about it, we have the ability to not only find exoplanets but get a fairly good idea as to what the composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere and physical makeup are.  And all of it by simply measuring the change in light patterns as the exoplanet traverses its star.

It turns out that exoplanets are much more abundant than ever thought.  It was thought that the norm would be a star without a planetary system, but we’ve discovered the exact opposite.  We’ve found gas giants orbiting their star closer than Mercury orbits our Sun.  We’ve found planets that are almost all water with a solid ice core and a vast ocean and a steam atmosphere.  We’ve even found a few exoplanets that are tantalizing Earth-like.  In fact, around 20% of stars are now thought to contain Earth-sized planets in the Goldilocks zone of its star where it may support life.  That doesn’t mean they’re all habitable, but it’s an enticing promise that there could be a habitable planet circling a star fairly close by.

Of course, there’s a big fat asterisk on the Goldilocks planets.  A lot of this data is extrapolation from what we’ve found so far.  Exoplanets that orbit quickly close to their star are much easier to detect than exoplanets the size of Earth as far away from their star as the Goldilocks zone.  From what I understand, we’ve only found a few actual exoplanets from direct (or I guess indirect) observation.  Regardless, we’re still in the infancy of exoplanetary exploration and detection methods are bound to get better if we can devote more time and resources to this exciting field.

What Happens To Dirty Laundry From Space?

Chris Hatfield, the coolest astronaut ever, was recently on the Conan O’Brien show and Conan had a vexing question that Chris was able to answer.  What do they do with all of their dirty laundry?  Chris’ answer is awesome.


It’s too bad Chris has flown his last space mission.  At the same time, it’s good to see NASA using him to promote space even in his retirement.  Chris was on NPR’s Fresh Air show this weekend and he is an incredibly effective communicator.  He spoke about the Columbia disaster and its effect on space exploration and about how he spent years learning Russian just so he could someday pilot a Russian space ship.  He is a fascinating man that comes from a fascinating profession.  You don’t get the two together very often.  And, just because I can, here is Chris Hatfield singing ‘Space Oddity’ from the ISS.


You Are Here

UPGRADE! (with picturey goodness)

Scientists have discovered that we’re in a much more prominent spot in the Milky Way than was originally though.  Astronomers have, until this point, thought that our Sun sat in a not so prominent arm of our spiral galaxy.  With the new model, it was discovered that our arm (the Local Arm) is not really much different from our neighboring arms, the Perseus Arm and the Sagittarius Arm.  So, yay?

Given that we’re not even sure how many hundreds of billions (200 – 400) of stars there are in the Milky Way, it’s very difficult to get a clear picture of what our galaxy actually looks like.  We know what other galaxies look like because we can see them in their entirety.  The Milky Way, not so much.  It’s like trying to get the shape of a forest by standing right in the middle of it.

In Praise Of Our Atmosphere

NASA does a lot of work with a little money.  They send rovers to Mars, they launch satellites into space, they observer distant stars and galaxies and they look at the moon.  We often forget about them moon perhaps because of its ubiquitousness in the sky.  That is until NASA informs us that they have recorded the largest explosion ever recorded on the moon.  If you happened to be looking at the moon at the time of impact, you would have been able to see it with the naked eye.  No telescope required.  40 kilograms at 90,000 kilometers per hour.  KER-SPLAT!

Even a casual observer will notice that the moon gets hit a lot.  It’s surface is more cratered than a teenager’s face with acne.  With no atmosphere, the moon takes the full force of any impact from rogue meteoroids.  Any colonization that we do on the moon would almost certainly be required to be underground as a result.

Earth, on the other hand, has a nice atmosphere of various gases that not only allows us to breath and live, but also protects us from the potentially deadly flying rocks that are strewn across our  solar floating in mathematically precise orbits around the Sun just like Earth.  Any of those rocks that try hitting the Earth are met by billions of molecules joyously bouncing off of each other but mostly spread impossibly far apart.  The plunging rock changes this dynamic.  It pushes those molecules closer and closer together where they start bouncing off of each other more and more frequently.  All of this bouncing around causes pressure and temperature to rise quickly.  The higher pressure and temperature start picking away at the death spiraling rock until it breaks apart into fine dust and tiny pebbles that fall harmlessly to Earth.  Well, most of the time.

So, thank you atmosphere!  Your praises cannot be sung enough.  Ballads should be written and stories told of all of your invisible, silent, never ending works.


Commander Chris Hadfield recorded a pretty awesome version of “Space Oddity” while on the International Space Station.  Check it out:


There is a guitar in space!  That got me to thinking.  Your average acoustic guitar weighs about 7 lbs (3 kg).  The cost per kilogram to get an object to orbit is around $10,000.  That means that the guitar cost $30,000 to get to the ISS!

This isn’t meant as a knock on wasteful government spending.  It’s more putting into perspective how expensive space travel is.  A guitar is certainly worth the investment for the astronauts of the ISS.  It provides needed entertainment during their downtime hours.  It’s not like these guys can go out for a walk in their free time.  Not to mention that a guitar in space has brought us this stunning music video!  Well played, NASA.  Well played.

It also got me to thinking about how much modern technology has likely saved us.  You have to assume that a fairly common personal item brought by the astronauts is a book.  Books are made of paper and paper is pretty heavy.  Now, thought, they can just keep a Kindle or two up there to share and have hundreds of books at the cost of only $2,500 (250 g) per Kindle.  And they can just beam new books to the ISS for free!

That’s the beautiful thing about space travel.  Even the most mundane thing as a guitar becomes infinitely fascinating.

Exactly How Big Is The Sun?

Look at the Sun.  Now look at me.  Can you see me?  No.  You are blind.  Because you looked at the Sun.  Never look at the Sun.  I’m on a horse.

So how big is the Sun?  Short answer.  BIG!

Slightly longer answer.  It has a diameter of 1,391,980 kilometers. That’s 109 times the size of the Earth’s diameter of 12,756 kilometers.  It’s also 1,300,000 times the volume of the Earth.

It’s still really hard to determine the sheer immensity of the Sun from mere figures, though.  Phil Plait points us to another way to measure the Sun.  The light from the point of the Sun that is closest to us gets to Earth 2.5 seconds faster than the light from the edge of the Sun.  Put another way, the Sun is so large that light from the edge of the sun takes 2.5 seconds to travel one radius length of the Sun!  Yowza!