Steltzner vs Fox: Curiosity Comes Cheap

Today I stumbled across this cute little meme:

Shepard Smith vs Adam Steltzner

So I shared it, and before long was asked: did this actually happen?

I didn’t know, so I looked around. As best as I can tell, no it didn’t happen exactly like that. It wasn’t quite the ‘gotcha’ moment. But the interviewer did definitely have a “dude, why bother?” attitude. Rather than send you off to give Murdoch some money, I’ve uploaded the clip here:

So while it’s not exactly true, I think the meme does make a good point. As I’ve said before, space exploration and astronomy is far cheaper than people realise. Yes, Curiosity cost $2.5 billion, but that was spread over eight years. A few months before Curiosity landed, London hosted the Olympic games at a cost of US$14.46 billion. And as I’ve shown before, the US military is planning on spending $US1.1 trillion dollars over the next 5 years on 2,443 F-35 warplanes to finally defeat the Soviet threat. [Correction: As artio pointed out in the comments, that should read “US1.1 trillion over the next 50 years”. Woops.]

Don’t get me wrong – I think asking about the money involved in science is a valid question and one that definitely needs to be asked. But such funding needs to be held in context. Casey Dreier over at The Planetary Society spells it out far better than I could. Essentially, the question is not “why are we spending so much money on space exploration?” but instead “why are we spending so little?”

The Moon. Let’s Go Back.

Image

Last night I snapped this photo of the moon. I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t the only one: Lots of people around the world were taking some great photos. And while the moon is absolutely gorgeous, part of me is sad, angry and frustrated that we haven’t been back since 1972.

Twelve human beings have set foot on that grey lump of rock. Twelve. There’s 7 billion of us alive, it’s only a three-day journey to another world – another frontier – and we’ve only sent twelve of us. And none of them since 1972.

Since 1972 we’ve sent people as far as the Hubble Space Telescope – 578 km above the Earth. At its closest point, the moon is about 362,570 km from Earth. We’ve gone nowhere near it for more than 40 years.

There’s no reason why we can’t go back, of course. We still have all the technology, the engineering knowledge, the expertise to do it. If anything, we have better technology now than we did 41 years ago. And there’s plenty we still have to learn about the moon! We don’t really have a good understanding of how it was formed, or why it seems to have two very different halves. The Apollo landings were all on the near side to us – for obvious logistical reasons. We have very sketchy information about the far side. And perhaps the best reason of all: water! At least three separate instruments on two different space probes have detected signs of sub-surface water. And where there’s water

But the science we can learn from manned lunar missions doesn’t just stop with understanding the moon. Like Mars, the moon is a hostile environment which makes it ideal for testing planetary exploration technologies. If we are ever to build a colony on Mars, it makes sense to start on the moon first: it’s a three day trip if anything goes wrong, and you don’t have to wait months for a launch window. And the moon would be a perfect stopover for further space exploration. Launch from Earth, refuel on the moon, then launch again to your next destination. And if there turns out to be a lot of sub-surface water there, that can be easily broken up with solar-cells into breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of will. Political and societal will. The US government is currently planning to buy 2,443 brand new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 warplanes at a cost of $1.1 trillion over the next five years. The United States spends six times more money on the military than China, the next biggest spender. Yet NASA’s budget is continually being slashed, especially in planetary sciences. NASA’s budget over the last five years came to around $85 billion. If you’re having a hard time picturing how much more important the US Congress thinks fighter planes are over space exploration, I made a little graph:

NASA vs F-35
Source: Reuters / Wikipedia

Our future is in space.

There can be no question about that – we are explorers. Our history as a species is one of exploration and development. To quote Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, “we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” Of course, if our natural inclination to explore isn’t enough to get us off this planet there’s a good chance the ravages of over-population and climate change will.

We should be preparing for that. We should be back on the moon doing science, and building a Moon-base. But we’re not. We’re stagnating.

I’ll finish with one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining ‘the case for space’ much better than I ever could.

Space Shuttles are BIG!

We’ve heard a lot about the space shuttle program recently, after Discovery’s final launch last week. There are two more shuttle launches planned – Endeavour on April 19 and Atlantis on June 28 this year. After that, the shuttles are scrapped and the US will be relying on the Russians for trips to the International Space Station.

But I think it’s nice to have a reminder of the sheer scale involved. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center recently tweeted these photos of the Endeavour being readied for launch.  Here’s the Endeavour being transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where it will be joined to booster rockets and an external fuel tank for takeoff.

Space Shuttle Endeavour on a 76 wheel transporter. Credit: NASAKennedy

The VAB is the world’s largest single-story building: it’s 160m tall, 218m long and 158m wide. So how do you get a massive shuttle like that upright, and move it around the assembly building? With a really big winch:

Space Shuttle Endeavour on a winch in the VAB. Credit: NASAKennedy
And here’s a shot of it still on the winch and now joined with the fuel tank and booster rockets. That fuel tank holds 535,000 gallons (2,026,244 liters) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen!

Endeavour is lowered into place next to its external tank and solid rocket boosters. Credit: NASAKennedy

For more photos – including the Endeavour being driven through a shuttle-shaped doorway! – check out Universe Today’s post.

Last year, this brilliant video was made showing the process of moving the shuttle to the VAB and then to the launch.

Incredible!

Images posted to Twitter by NASAKennedy.

My first astrophotographs!

So last night, after a week of rain and clouds and wind and flooding, the evening cleared up and I decided to try some more stargazing. My usual spot, the local football ground, was wet and muddy and squishy underfoot – not ideal. Even worse, it was covered by a thick but rapidly moving blanket of cloud. I decided to try my luck elsewhere and head north, away from the clouds.

Before long I found a possibly suitable cricket ground, but before I was able to park and have a look around, I got a creepy feeling about the car following me. Turns out they were police, and they pulled me over to ask why I was driving slowly around a park late at night. They were impressed by my telescope (and my XKCD “Science: It Works, Bitches” T-shirt) and recommended a nearby National Park to try. They even very kindly gave me a police escort to it!

So from the carpark I had a good solid flat ground to set up my telescope and good dark sky to look at. The moon was very bright, which made viewing other objects a bit harder, but I was still able to get a good look at Jupiter and I knew the moon would be setting in an hour or two in anyway. I decided to make the most of it and get some photos of the moon.

I’m just starting out in astronomy and certainly not ready to spend big money on fancy equipment like digital SLR cameras just yet. Some people spend tens of thousands on So I’m using a Celestron Solar System Imager which is essentially just a webcam that fits in a telescope eyepiece. It’s good enough for bright objects like planets in our solar system. I ended up taking 3 photos of the barren, unforgiving moon but unfortunately I somehow managed to overwrite the best one. So I’m left with these two, which are alright in my opinion, but nothing great. The photo I deleted showed a much larger portion of the moon, with many more craters and the maria – or seas – visible.

Not to worry, though. There’ll be plenty more opportunities to come!

Stargazing

Many of you may already know, I’m an astronomy nut. I love space and everything to do with it.* I’ve watched Carl Sagan’s brilliant TV Series Cosmos dozens of times (and happy to watch some again with anyone interested). I’m half way through the first series of the Discovery Channel’s The Universe series. I’ve got The Teaching Company’s  Introduction to Astronomy DVD Course. And I just signed up last week to Swinburne Astronomy Online’s Short Course.

And yesterday, I bought my very own telescope.

My Meade LS-6 ACF telescope

They don’t make telescopes like they used to, eh? It’s a fully automatic whizz-bang thing, I basically press buttons and it zips around (slowly) and shows me what I asked for. It has slightly cheesy audio descriptions, which are actually kinda cool because they tell you what too look for, as well as how big and how far away the object is.

After a rocky start last night, where the dumb thing couldn’t even get a GPS lock, I took it out to the local football oval down the street and tried it again tonight. Despite nothing changing since yesterday, it now worked a treat and it was set up and auto-aligned within 10 minutes. Excellent!

Unfortunately, Melbourne’s far too bright a city. The light pollution is pretty bad and you could be excused for thinking the universe is mostly grey. There were plenty of stars about, though. But no planets! I was out at about midnight, but all the planets, asteroids and moons in our solar system were hiding below the horizon! Very inconvenient! But as I said, there were plenty of stars around so I still got to see some Globular Clusters (awesome name for a rock band but no, GCs are groups of stars all bunched up in each other’s gravity).

First object I looked at was M45, Pleiades. Roughly 440 light years from Earth, it’s an open globular cluster that’s also known as the Seven Sisters (for 7 of the brightest stars are very clearly visible with the naked eye). What I saw wasn’t quite like this image (no blue and I couldn’t see the dust clouds, just black space with very bright white dots) but I saw about 20 or 30 stars, as well as the very obvious 9 very bright stars. So that was pretty cool.

M45, Pleiades star cluster

Next I had a look at NGC 3532. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the very first thing the Hubble Space Telescope looked at when it was first launched, which seems fitting for my first night out with a scope! It didn’t work out too well for the Hubble telescope, which had a flawed mirror at the time, but for me I had no trouble looking at it and could see a good 20 or 30 stars. Was quite cool!

NGC 3532

And last of what I can remember, I had a look at Hyades.

Hyades

There were a bunch of other things, mainly globular clusters as there was too much light pollution to really see anything else. Definitely looking forward to getting out of Melbourne and into the middle of nowhere, to really get some dark sky viewing!

Please be aware, none of the photos here are my own. They are all sourced from the web, but most I have altered brightness or colours to try and better reflect what I saw. They’re pretty good as a rough guide to what I saw.

* Well, not EVERYTHING. I mean there’s way too much maths involved, for a start. And don’t get me started on dark energy…