Stephen Hawking Was Offered Euthanasia in 1985 and Turned It Down to Keep Rocking


The guy with the sexy ladies is Stephen Hawking.  Most people know him as one of the smartest mophos in the known Universe.  He has a very advanced case of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease (as it’s known here in the US, or motor neuron disease in some countries), which negates his speech, movement, breathing, swallowing, and pretty much everything else that can go wrong in the body.  It’s proof that if there happens to be a god in the Universe, he is one cruel bastard.

Stephen Hawking got really terribly ill in 1985 with a case of pneumonia, while he was writing his book A Brief History of Time.  Stephen and his first wife Jane were in Switzerland at the time — a time that Hawking calls “the darkest of my life.”  Doctors were so concerned about Stephen that they offered his first wife Jane the option of unplugging Stephen’s life support, thus ending the world the benefit of learning from his incredible mind.  From an article at Wikipedia, confirmed by a source at Medical Daily:

During a visit to CERN in Geneva in the summer of 1985, Hawking contracted pneumonia which in his condition was life-threatening; he was so ill that Jane was asked if life support should be terminated. She refused but the consequence was a tracheotomy, which would require round-the-clock nursing care, and remove what remained of his speech. The National Health Service would pay for a nursing home but Jane was determined that he would live at home. The cost of the care was funded by an American foundation. Nurses were hired for the three shifts required to provide the round-the-clock support he required. One of those employed was Elaine Mason, who was to become Hawking’s second wife.

When I read this the first time before I decided to write about it, all of the hairs on both of my arms stood up.  Stephen Hawking is one of my life’s heroes, I have been reading his books and papers since I was a young boy, when I learned that Science was my life’s calling — to think of having grown up without his influence in my life would have been one of the most detrimental things imaginable to me.  From the article at Medical Daily:

“The doctors thought I was so far gone that they offered Jane [the option] to turn off the machine,” Hawking, 71, says in the film. “The weeks of intensive care that followed were the darkest of my life.”

Hawking describes to documentarians the progression of the disease, which kills brain cells controlling essential involuntary muscles as the victim loses speech and ambulatory functions. He was initially diagnoses with the disease in 1963 and given two years to live, but continued to work and became an accomplished researcher and professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge.

“Slowly the drugs worked, though a small incision in my throat robbed me of my ability to talk,” Hawking says. “I was then put on a ventilator and hopes of finishing my book seemed over.”

For the sake of the world’s knowledge of the Universe, I am so glad that Jane had the forethought to forego the Euthanasia option.  Stephen has been divorced twice, and is apparently an avid attendee of the strip club culture.  Hey, we’ve all been there, Stephen!

Something I noticed missing in the myriad articles about Stephen Hawking’s potential but passed opportunity for euthanasia was what he has done since turning down the euthanasia way out.  Don’t you find it a little short-sighted that news stories mention that he was offered euthanasia but none of what he’s done since turning it down?

Since 1985, Stephen Hawking:

  • had three children and been married twice
  • published the best seller, A Brief History of Time
  • was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1985), the Paul Dirac Medal (1987), and jointly with Roger Penrose, the prestigious Wolf Prize (1988)
  • was named a Companion of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II in 1989
  • co-edited a book on Euclidean quantum gravity with Gary Gibbons
  • had a movie made of “A Brief History of Time,” directed by Errol Morris and produced by Steven Spielberg
  • appeared on Star Trek:  The Next Generation in 1993
  • became a grandfather!
  • got to take a zero-gravity flight in the Vomit Comet
  • lost a bet to Higgs that the Higgs Boson would never be discovered
  • has developed Locked-In Syndrome :(
  • was awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society (2006), America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009), and the Russian Fundamental Physics Prize (2012).
  • and, among other numerous list items, narrated the Enlightenment segment of the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony

Stephen Hawking, thanks for sticking with it.  We here at salute you!


Amazing Vintage Black and White NASA Project and Facilities Photos

Guide vanes in the 19-foot Pressure Wind Tunnel at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, form an ellipse 33 feet high and 47 feet wide. The 23 vanes force the air to turn corners smoothly as it rushes through the giant passages. If vanes were omitted, the air would pile up in dense masses along the outside curves, like water rounding a bend in a fast brook. Turbulent eddies would interfere with the wind tunnel tests, which require a steady flow of fast, smooth air. (March 15, 1950)  - Courtesy of the awesomeness at

Guide vanes in the 19-foot Pressure Wind Tunnel at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, form an ellipse 33 feet high and 47 feet wide. The 23 vanes force the air to turn corners smoothly as it rushes through the giant passages. If vanes were omitted, the air would pile up in dense masses along the outside curves, like water rounding a bend in a fast brook. Turbulent eddies would interfere with the wind tunnel tests, which require a steady flow of fast, smooth air. (March 15, 1950) – Courtesy of the awesomeness at

I saw this excellent article at a site I read called Brain Pickings regarding fear and the creative process a few nights ago as I bring to a close the entirety of the JimOnLight TV Episode 1 journey that has engulfed my life for the last year.  In the process of this, I discovered an amazing article that boasts a ton of vintage NASA project photographs from decades gone by, and I could not resist sharing these amazing pieces of history.

You have got to check out Brain PickingsMaria Popova is one of my heroes in this whole thing we call writing.

Maria, you’re awesome.  I hope you read my site sometime.

We Can’t Stop Asteroids from Smashing Humanity into Powder


With a headline like that, one would think this would be bigger news than anything Kim Kardashian might produce, even trumping what color baby bib little cranky monkey Justin Bieber might be wearing today.  But, you’d be wrong.

Here’s the fact of the matter:  all over Earth right now – scientific organizations, special lobbying groups, NASA, the European Space Agency, et al – are telling lawmakers and news outlets that we need to get a collective effort going to solve the problem of hey, what happens if a global killer asteroid smashes into Earth?  Can we protect ourselves?  After all, apparently it only takes one medium-sized asteroid, something around a kilometer in width.  You saw Armageddon, right?  Billy Bob Thornton’s character makes it perfectly clear what would happen if that big rock in the movie slammed into the ocean – and this is just the movies:

asteroids-coming-again copy

“Even if the asteroid itself hits the water, it’s still hitting land. It’ll flash boil millions of gallons of sea water and slam into the ocean bedrock. Now if it’s a Pacific Ocean impact, which we think it will be, it’ll create a tidal wave 3 miles high, travel at a thousand miles an hour, covering California, and washing up in Denver. Japan’s gone, Australia’s wiped out. Half the world’s population will be incinerated by the heat blast, and the rest will freeze to death from nuclear winter.”

Now, that’s just lines from a movie.  But even for a movie that’s pretty hardcore!  Can you imagine it?  I’ve had some bad days, but that sounds horrible.  Thank goodness it’s only the movies.  Are we actually supposed to entrust Billy Bob Thornton with our astrophysical safety, he was also the “french fried pertaters” guy in Slingblade?!  Of COURSE we are!

asteroids-coming copy

Back in the real world that I live in, I ask myself exactly what might happen if a thousand thousand tons of rock slams into the bedrock of Earth.  In that other movie about asteroids with Morgan Freeman (It’s called Deep Impact, and I hear that many a porno has been modeled after the title), astronauts were able to not exactly save Earth, but they were able to pulverize the asteroid enough so that only a smaller chunk of it smashed into Earth.  Still, that smaller chunk made the seas rise a few hundred feet, created a big tidal wave that made the Atlantic wash up into Tennessee and killing a few hundred million Americans.  But that was still just a movie!  Right?!

Asteroid 433 Eros, a planetary killer discovered in 1898, has a dimension of 34.4 kilometers by 11.2km by 16.84 km.  It's the size of a large midwestern city.

Asteroid 433 Eros, a planetary killer discovered in 1898, has a dimension of 34.4 kilometers by 11.2km by 16.84 km. It’s the size of a large midwestern city.  433 Eros is a potential Earth impactor.

What Do Earth’s Scientists Think?

Scientists are all over the freaking place about this very real issue right now.  Some people are deeply concerned, others think that there’s such a little chance that it would ever happen:

“Right now, based on our survey, we see no national imperative for this nation to be upset or excited about impending doom.”  – James L. Green, Director of NASA‘s Planetary Science Division, on Discovery

Perhaps the most daunting answer to come from the House Science Committee hearing with John Holdren was this:  “An asteroid of that size, a kilometer or bigger, could plausibly end civilization… from the information we have, we don’t know of an asteroid that will threaten the population of the United States.  But if it’s coming in three weeks, pray.”   – White House Science Advisor John Holdren

University of California Santa Barbara physicist Philip M. Lubin thinks we should start small on smaller asteroids first – ones we know are coming:  ““We need to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with threats. Duck and cover is not an option. We can actually do something about it, and it’s credible to do something. So let’s begin along this path. Let’s start small and work our way up. There is no need to break the bank to start.”

Scientists don’t disagree that something needs to be done.  What they do differ on is how it needs to be done.  Some scientists feel that some sort of projectile, either nuclear or otherwise, should be thrown at the asteroid somehow.  Some think that attaching some kind of “solar sail” or assisted rocket takeoff device on a grand scale would be the best bet.  One scientist even suggests painting the asteroid in order to change the amount of light it reflects.  Others, seriously yet still funny enough, make jokes in Senate hearings about “calling Bruce Willis,” while actual scientists theorize about possibly making a huge laser and reflector work as our asteroid goalkeeper.  Lest we not forget that Bruce Willis was not only an asteroid killer in the movies, but also Died hard a whole bunch of times.  Like, a TON of times.  How many times can you actually die hard?  Maybe he can just tell the asteroid to go f*ck itself while shooting at it.  Since John Holdren pretty much summed our Earth-asteroid defense systems with “if it [an asteroid] comes in the next three weeks, pray,” then maybe some fictional help might not hurt!


A few of these ideas that scientists are kicking around still in theory format:

Yarkovsky Paint

The long and the short of this idea is to change the amount of light that the asteroid emits in IR photos, eventually causing a miniscule “rocket thrust” in one direction.  The article at Wired explains this fantastically:

The Yarkovsky effect works by changing the amount of light an asteroid gives off. As an asteroid rotates, the surface that has been heated by the sun moves away to face space and radiates infrared photons. Though massless, these photons carry away small bits of momentum from the asteroid, essentially generating a tiny rocket thrust in one direction. The effect is very slight but over time can noticeably change an asteroid’s orbit. By making an asteroid lighter or darker, and therefore changing the amount of radiation it absorbs, we could turn up or down this miniscule rocket thrust. It’s a long haul-technique, requiring years, decades, or even centuries of advanced notice to alter an asteroid’s trajectory.

Will it work?  I have no idea.  I don’t think we have “decades or even centuries” to wait it out, though!

DE-STAR, or Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation


DE-STAR is basically a re-directing and re-purposing of the Sun’s energy into little laser blasts that might be able to either re-direct or completely vaporize an approaching asteroid over the course of a year.  From a post at Popular Science:

Described as a “directed energy orbital defense system,” DE-STAR is designed to harness some of the power of the sun and convert it into a massive phased array of laser beams that can destroy, or evaporate, asteroids posing a potential threat to Earth. It is equally capable of changing an asteroid’s orbit –– deflecting it away from Earth, or into the Sun –– and may also prove to be a valuable tool for assessing an asteroid’s composition, enabling lucrative, rare-element mining. And it’s entirely based on current essential technology.

The DE-STAR team also claims that their system might also be able to push a spacecraft at the speed of light into the unknown.  More on that in another post.

Surfing An Asteroid On Solar Sails


Solar Sails are something that have taken on validity in this race to figure out how to mitigate the asteroid threat.  This would basically consist of a huge solar sail deployed in space, making good use of the ever-present solar pressure that is exerted on objects in space.  From How Stuff Works:

The reflective nature of the sails is key. As photons (light particles) bounce off the reflective material, they gently push the sail along by transferring momentum to the sail. Because there are so many photons from sunlight, and because they are constantly hitting the sail, there is a constant pressure (force per unit area) exerted on the sail that produces a constant acceleration of the spacecraft. Although the force on a solar-sail spacecraft is less than a conventional chemical rocket, such as the space shuttle, the solar-sail spacecraft constantly accelerates over time and achieves a greater velocity.

Interesting.  The principle of solar pressure also kind of tickles me in that special place.  But again, another post for another time.

Potential Impact of Potential Impacts

Watch this – the recent asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, which exploded around 40 miles above the town with the force of 300 Hiroshimas, was 55 feet across, and injured over 1500 people.  This was in a sparsely populated area, so imagine the impact of an asteroid exploding over San Francisco or New York City:

Also, if you have some time (or want to skip through to where John Holdren tells the Senate Committee that if an asteroid comes to NYC in the next three weeks that we can only pray), check out John Holdren’s Senate Hearing en toto.  It’s actually pretty interesting right off the bat — it might also be interesting to hear the almost comical questions and answers from our elected legislators to these scientists presenting scary information to Congress, not to mention the entire House Science Committee turning every answer of these scientists into how much it would cost and all of the interrupting that these scientists had to endure:

Thanks to:
Mother Jones
Daily Mail
Red Orbit
Space Politics
The Register
NBC’s Cosmic Log
Wikipedia on Asteroid Impact Avoidance

The Heartbeat of a Sun-Like Star in Infancy


This is so beautiful — you’re looking at what appears to be the “heartbeat” of a protostar, which is a sun-like star that forms out of a giant interstellar cloud full of molecular hydrogen and dust.  Most of these clouds are found within the interstellar medium, which is best explained as the big space between star systems in a galaxy.  Inside of these huge clouds of dust and molecular hydrogen (among other interstellar stuff), there is a lot that goes on, and it is some very complicated stuff, as you can imagine.  Essentially, all of our knowledge on this is theoretical to some extent, as we obviously can’t just swing over and check it out for ourselves, we have to rely on telescopes, satellites, spectral analyses, and other data we collect on the subject.

As dust and gasses float around inside of these interstellar clouds, gravity plays a huge part in the creation of a new star.  As gravity pulls dust and gasses into a “clump” at the center of one of these clouds, more and more stuff clumps together, creating a core of sorts — nobody really has a clue how this happens and why it occurs, but as a trillion trillion trillion of these bits of dust, interstellar gasses, and other “stuff” pull together to create a mass, the temperature of the core goes up.  This is to be expected, as these bits of dust and gasses slam into each other.  The density of this “core” also increases as more and more atoms inside of the interstellar cloud try to occupy the same space as they are pulled together by gravity.  Also as you can imagine, the gravity of this core gets considerably stronger as more and more bit of interstellar stuff collect and clump at the core, which causes the temperature to get higher and gravity to get even stronger.  This is the birth of a star.  This process of a star grabbing more and more mass is called accretion.

A pretty interesting phenomena happens when the star being born reaches a point where the gas pressure inside the core is equal to the gravity of the entire core — the protostar reaches an equilibrium, and no more mass is pulled into the core.  This is what is happening right now in the star being born in the video above, called V1467 Orionis, which is being born right now in McNeil’s Nebula, a big circular cloud of dust and gas located inside the constellation Orion.  It was detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Japan-led Suzaku satellite.  This is literally a star being born.  In the video above you saw two spots, one on either side of the star — these are enormous holes where the core is sucking in more gas and dust to fuel birth.  Once equilibrium is established, this feeding will stop.  The when, where, how, and why is unknown, but boy is it gorgeous.

Click on the image below for a full-size image of V1647 Orionis.

This image below is McNeil’s Nebula, which resides inside of the constellation Orion:

Thanks to, NASA, and Cosmic Ray!

150 Billion Pixels, 1 Billion Stars

Ok, have a look at this image — if you click on it, it gets really, really big:

That’s our Milky Way.  The image below here represents the material within the white square on the left — a star-forming region called G305 to astronomers and astrophysicists — again, a click makes it bigger:

That cutaway image above?  Only ten thousand stars.  SLACKERS!  (Of course I jest)

Scientists from the UK, Chile, and Europe have created the initial 150 billion pixel image by combining ten years’ worth of data into a monster survey of the Milky Way region.  From the University of Edinburgh website:

Astronomers have today released a picture containing more than one billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. It combines data from two near-infrared1 telescopes – the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii and the VISTA telescope in Chile –  and is the result of a decade-long collaboration by astronomers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge to process, archive and publish the prodigious quantities of sky survey data generated by these two telescopes.

Dr Phil Lucas from the University of Hertfordshire leads the UKIRT study of the Milky Way, and co-leads the VISTA study. He said: “The combined data on over a billion stars represent a scientific legacy that will be exploited for decades in many different ways. They provide a three-dimensional view of the structure of our spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, while also mapping several hundred nebulae where stars are being born. The VISTA data, in particular, is breaking new ground by showing how several hundred million stars vary in brightness over time.”

The full image contains 150 billion pixels, and the detail it contains is only revealed by the three zoom levels, centred on G305, a large and complex star-formation region: the innermost zoom covers a tiny fraction of the full image, but still contains more than ten thousand stars.

Presenting the image at the UK-German National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, Dr Nick Cross of the University of Edinburgh said: “This remarkable image is only one of the many outputs from the VISTA Data Flow System (VDFS) project2. VDFS data is being used by astronomers around the world and has led to great discoveries in many fields of astronomy, from the coolest known stars to the most distant quasars.”

Something pretty cool:  you can view the monster image with a custom viewer at the University of Edinburgh’s website.  You have to check this out, it is  amazing.

Thanks, Space, HuffPo, PhysOrg, and Science Daily

Remember That Huge Solar Storm We Just Had?

At the beginning of March 2012, we had a few days’ worth of pretty major solar activity — does anyone remember this?

This storm produced some pretty incredible Auroras Borealis and Australis for days before and after the big CME from the Sun.  CME means coronal mass ejection, which is a huge burst of solar wind that is powerful enough to push the bits of solar wind our direction.  Solar wind is a big gust of protons and electrons with very, very strong electrical charges.  Solar wind and coronal mass ejections are the things that the news and scientists talk about that might disrupt our power grids and kill our electronics.  All of these phenomena are called space weather — which tickles me silly and makes me giggle:

These massive bursts (CMEs) of charged particles plays hell on the Earth’s magnetosphere, which is a protective magnetic field that basically wind blocks the Earth from solar wind.  When the CMEs are very, very strong, the magnetosphere just gets sort of magnetically bent out of the way, causing havoc at the planet’s surface.  In the scary event of something like a nuclear war, a similar tactic is utilized to disable an enemy’s defenses and communication electronics — a nuclear weapon is detonated above the target country somewhere in the upper atmosphere, and the huge electromagnetic pulse fries anything that has a circuit board.  After that, the bombardment begins pretty much whenever chosen; the enemy can no longer see, hear, or talk electronically.

This is an excellent GIF of this phenomenon taken using the LASCO telescope — watch the bottom right quadrant of the image:

There are so many theories on why we’re seeing this activity in such magnitudes.  *deep breath* Could it be a coincidence of some kind of Mayan calendar thing, where the dark rift of the Milky Way is going to unleash a solar storm of magnitudes only seen by Nicolas Cage in Knowing?!  Who knows, probably not.  But I was so disappointed in that movie about this very same thing when the damned aliens showed up to “save the planet’s children.”  COME ON.  ALIENS?!  COME ON, NICK!

This is a video of the big X5.4 class solar flare that happened on March 7, 2012:

The beautiful thing is that if I’m wrong, who gives a poo, we’re all completely dead and vaporized from this world anyway, and probably with a quickness.  Really, is there anything to be afraid of?  it’s not like we’re going to know once it happens!  There are lots of websites out there that talk about all of our electrical grid being knocked out; now granted if that were to happen, we’re in quite a lot of trouble fo sho, but anything along the line of a super-mega-ultra-duper X-class flare that brought the heat and torched up our planet would just make us go away.  Solar wind travels somewhere in the neighborhood of hundreds of billions of miles per hour.  Do you think there’s anything that man can make that can protect us from something of that scale?

There is a theory about this thing called the Milky Way dark rift, too — the dark rift is the middle bit of the Milky Way that the earth passes through once every “age,” as it’s known to those who take stock in the study of Astrology.  Not tied to Astrology is what the dark rift actually is, which is a dense mass of charged particles and clouds that are very thick and full of stellar stuffs.  if you were to do some google searching on this phenomenon, you would come across some very end of the world websites and some “nah, calm the eff down” websites.  Really, everything we can track is speculation at this point, regardless of the fact that some of the smartest brains on Earth are studying this very phenomenon and that we have some very high tech but relatively primitive looking glasses in the skies above Earth.

From NASA on the subject of the Dark Rift, 2012 Alignment and Doomsday predictions:

One of the most bizarre theories about 2012 has built up with very little attention to facts. This idea holds that a cosmic alignment of the sun, Earth, the center of our galaxy — or perhaps the galaxy’s thick dust clouds — on the winter solstice could for some unknown reason lead to destruction. Such alignments can occur but these are a regular occurrence and can cause no harm (and, indeed, will not even be at its closest alignment during the 2012 solstice.)

The details are as follows: Viewed far from city lights, a glowing path called the Milky Way can be seen arching across the starry sky. This path is formed from the light of millions of stars we cannot see individually. It coincides with the mid plane of our galaxy, which is why our galaxy is also named the Milky Way.

Thick dust clouds also populate the galaxy. And while infrared telescopes can see them clearly, our eyes detect these dark clouds only as irregular patches where they dim or block the Milky Way’s faint glow. The most prominent dark lane stretches from the constellations Cygnus to Sagittarius and is often called the Great Rift, sometimes the Dark Rift.

Another impressive feature of our galaxy lies unseen in Sagittarius: the galactic center, about 28,000 light-years away, which hosts a black hole weighing some four million times the sun’s mass.

The claim for 2012 links these two pieces of astronomical fact with a third — the position of the sun near the galactic center on Dec. 21, the winter solstice for the Northern Hemisphere — to produce something that makes no astronomical sense at all.

On the bright side (get it?), the images and video that have been captured from places like the International Space Station and in extreme latitudes of the Aurora Borealis (northern) and Aurora Australis (southern) have been absolutely unbelievable.  Seeing them on video just blows my mind, I cannot imagine how I’d feel if I could see one in real time!  Check some of these out, this stuff is absolutely amazing:

Aurora Borealis:

Aurora Australis:

Seriously, it is almost unexplainably beautiful:

Photo credit Giles Boutin

Photo credit Yuichi Takasawa

So who’s right and who’s wrong, here?  Who cares?!  This stuff is amazing and beautiful!

Thanks to HD Wallpapers, Wikipedia, Policy Mic, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, and Nicolas Cage, even though the end of Knowing sucked (but I still love you, Nick!)

Blue Marbles! The Earth At 28,000 Miles

So back on the 7th of December 1972 , Appollo 17 was about 28,000 miles away from the surface of the Earth, and they decided HEY!  Let’s tweet this cool photo of the Earth that nobody but us can see!

(Of course I kid, everybody knows that MySpace was the *only* Social Media place back then)

Do you think they high-fived after seeing that?  I have to believe I would want to high-five something, a colleague, the bulkhead, the instrument panel, anything.  I’d be too excited.

Now a new Blue Marble was released just a few weeks ago – but it’s a composite image of six orbits of the Earth, not the one shot Instagram masterpiece that the Apollo 17 ninjas got back in 1972.  Check it out:

Check THIS out – this is the Hasselblad camera, a model just like the one the astronauts on Apollo 17 used to snap the first Blue Marble:

I put this together for your enjoyment and study – here are the 1972 and Eastern Hemisphere Blue Marbles (2012) side-by-side.  If you click the image, it opens up to a manageable size (1800 pixels wide) for viewing.  Check it out!

Now just remember, these are all courtesy of NASA and NOAA, so make sure you attribute if you share!  Plus, it’s just awesome to point someone to the NASA and NOAA websites; to be nerd is to be awesome.

That’s right, you heard it here first.  Well, the nerd thing anyway.

The North American Nebula

Pardon the late afternoon post, I’m rocking some kind of stomach flu today. What an interesting day – this morning, not even water could take residence in my stomach.  I tried, but the water said “I’M OUT!”

Light from the universe is pretty cool.  There is a large nebula that has a quaint resemblance to the North American continent (which is funny enough called The North American Nebula) that is sometimes visible on really dark nights.  What makes this nebula cool is that as you filter out certain wavelengths of light (like the IR spectrum or UHC filters), our perception of the light from the nebula changes.  The shape really kind of goes away altogether, but who cares – that mass of points and bands of light and color is absolutely amazing.

Check out this image – it’s a quad image from wikipedia of the North American Nebula, but with filters in place for each image:

(You have got to see this one full size.  Seriously.)

This is an amazing thing – I know that there are some serious nerds who read, hopefully you all read the NASA Image of the Day gallery, this was the post from yesterday:

From the NASA Image of the Day post from October 18:

This swirling landscape of stars is known as the North America Nebula. In visible light, the region resembles North America, but in this image infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the continent disappears.

Where did the continent go? The reason you don’t see it in Spitzer’s view has to do, in part, with the fact that infrared light can penetrate dust whereas visible light cannot. Dusty, dark clouds in the visible image become transparent in Spitzer’s view. In addition, Spitzer’s infrared detectors pick up the glow of dusty cocoons enveloping baby stars.

Clusters of young stars (about one million years old) can be found throughout the image. Some areas of this nebula are still very thick with dust and appear dark even in Spitzer’s view. 

The Spitzer image contains data from both its infrared array camera and multi-band imaging photometer. Light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns has been color-coded blue; 4.5-micron light is blue-green; 5.8-micron and 8.0-micron light are green; and 24-micron light is red. This image is from February 2011.

This is totally worth a few minutes, check out this video – it breaks down the nebula with visible and invisible light filters and details. Unbelievably beautiful.

Laser Powered Broadband? In Space? Wait. What?

Ok, there is something very interesting taking place with NASA this month.  On September 23, NASA decided to approve three projects that are being called “Technology Demonstration Projects.”  A space-based optical communication system (which is what I find the most exhilarating), a deep space atomic clock, and a big ol’ space sail.  From the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist‘s office:

NASA has selected three proposals as Technology Demonstration Missions that will transform its space communications, deep space navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities. The three Space Technology projects will develop and fly a space solar sail, a deep space atomic clock, and a space-based optical communications system. These crosscutting flight demonstrations were selected because of their potential to provide tangible, near-term products and infuse high-impact capabilities into NASA’s future space exploration and science missions. By investing in high payoff, disruptive technologies that industry does not have in-hand today, NASA matures the technologies required for its future missions while proving the capabilities and lowering the cost for other government agency and commercial space activities. 

Ok.  Personal commentary?  What a weird three projects to say “Hey, don’t take our money away, you crazy Congress people and President Obama, we’re NASA.”  I can see the space based laser communication system, that’s pretty cool.  Now granted no one asked me (and I know better that’s probably the main cause we don’t have a space-based laser that can scratch your back), but I’m sure there is reasoning behind these other two projects.  Right?


Check this out – again,. from the press release at NASA – it’s about this big space laser data communication thingie, called the  Laser Communications Relay Demonstration Mission:

Led by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will demonstrate and validate a reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technology for infusion into operational near earth and deep space systems. The Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is collaborating with the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist in sponsoring this technology demonstration. 

Optical communications (also known as laser communication – lasercom) is a transformative technology that will enable NASA, other government agencies and the commercial space industry to undertake future, complex space missions requiring increased data rates, or decreased mass, size, and power burdens for communications. For approximately the same mass, power, and volume, an optical communications system provides significantly higher data rates than a comparable radio frequency (RF) system. 

High-rate communications will revolutionize space science and exploration. Data rates 10-100 times more capable than current RF systems will allow greatly improved connectivity and enable a new generation of remote scientific investigations as well as provide the satellite communication’s industry with disruptive technology not available today. Space laser communications will enable missions to use bandwidth-hungry instruments, such as hyperspectral imagers, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and other instruments with high definition in spectral, spatial, or temporal modes. Laser communication will also make it possible to establish a “virtual presence” at a remote planet or other solar system body, enabling the high-rate communications required by future explorers. 

As an example, at the current limit of 6 Mbps for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it takes approximately 90 minutes to transmit a single HiRISE high resolution image back to earth. In some instances, this bottleneck can limit science return. An equivalent MRO mission outfitted with an optical communications transmitter would have a capacity to transmit data back to earth at 100 Mbps or more, reducing the single image transmission time to on order of 5 minutes. 

The LCRD mission will:

  • Enable reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technologies for near earth applications and provide the next steps required toward optical communications for deep space missions
  • Demonstrate high data rate optical communications technology necessary for:
    • Near-Earth spacecraft (bi-directional links supporting hundreds of Mbps to Gbps)
    • Deep Space missions (tens to hundreds of Mbps from distances such as Mars and Jupiter)
  • Develop, validate and characterize operational models for practical optical communications
  • Identify and develop requirements and standards for future operational optical communication systems
  • Establish a strong partnership with multiple government agencies to facilitate crosscutting infusion of optical communications technologies
  • Develop the industrial base and transfer technology for future space optical communications systems

Ok, now that does sound pretty cool.

How do you feel about these projects?  Worth the money?  NOT worth the money?  Leave a comment below!

A Quasar with 140 Trillion Times the Water in All of Earth’s Oceans.

So, something exciting happened in the world of Astronomy and Astrophysics this last week – two groups of scientists and astronomers at CalTech discovered a mass supply of water in the form of water vapor, living at the center of a quasar called APM 08279+5255, about 12 billion light years away.  That is a lot of water.  That is also a lot of water that just happens to be hanging out in the literal middle of nowhere.

For a little perspective, that water supply is 100,000 times larger than our Sun, and it’s 7.2X10+22 miles away.  There’s about six trillion miles in a light year, and this quasar is about 12 billion light years away.  That’s 72,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from Earth.  So, this being the case, if we start hitchhiking now, we should make it there by – actually we’ll never make it there.  Not in our lifetimes!  At least not until we invent the Event Horizon, but from what I understand they had a bit of trouble with that ship being all possessed and everything.

Now, something to consider is that these things are way, way old when we actually see the light from them.  That light is at least 12 billion light years old, which means it took 12 billion light years to get to us.  We can measure these things with different kinds of measuring devices that look for the electromagnetic waves that move at faster speeds, like infrared and microwave, that occur “before” the visible light spectrum.  Radio waves and microwaves are very long and infrequent, compared to ultraviolet waves, which are very frequent and short.  Like this:

Okay – first and foremost, what is a quasar, exactly?  Well, honestly we don’t really know all there is to know about them, they’re so far away and of such mass that obviously all we can do is speculate and theorize.  We can observe them with radio telescopes and devices that observe the range of electromagnetic energy between infrared and microwaves (see the Z-Spec gear at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA)) as well as with very large telescopes like Hubble.  Generally, what is thought to be happening in a quasar is that a large black hole is consuming a whole lot of material in space – between 10 and 1000 sun masses per year, apparently.  That is a whole lot of material that these overweight pigs of black holes turn directly from mass to energy.  So, considering we’re completely skipping a matter form, something has to happen to the material when it’s converted to energy, and that is generally what is referred to as the quasar, or quasi-stellar radio source to the real scientists.  Check out this beautiful artist depiction of a quasar doing its thing (and the image at the top of the post is also an artist’s depiction):

Beautiful.  As the black hole eats all of the mass, electromagnetic energy (which includes visible light) emanates from the quasar.  So, quasars are powered by black holes.  Make sense?  Kinda?  In short, a quasar is a large luminous stellar body.  It’s a monster thing that happens in space, and some of the brightest ones give off more energy than a few trillion of our sun.

Here’s another video, this one explains a bit about Einstein’s Cross and some of the way that the light form quasars is altered by gravitational forces:

Quasars.  Very cool.  Now how do we equate the awesomeness of all that water vapor and the incredulous distance between us and it?

Thanks Count Infinity, Virginia Astrophysics, CalTech AstrophysicsVirginia Tech AstrophysicsUPenn, WiseGeek, and NASA!