All posts by Steve Shurtleff

Carnival of Space #373

Welcome all, to Carnival of Space #373!

Got your favorite chair, popcorn, and drinks? Great! Let’s see what exciting discoveries and events are going on in space this week!

Are you ready for the lunar eclipse and solar eclipses coming up this month?

What Is This Bizarre Ball That The Curiosity Rover Found On Mars?

India’s MOM Captures First Image of the Red Planet.

I ask 17 people what space or NASA project they’re excited about.

Image Gallery: more oddities from Curiosity

The art of Pinhole camera and long exposure photography. Our Astronomy Club Solargraphy project.

The Indian Space Research Organization has successfully reached Mars with its Mars Orbiter Mission.

Do Black Holes even exist? Maybe not…

The Japanese construction giant Obayashi says they will build a space elevator that will reach 96,000 kilometres into space.

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted after reading about all these great articles!

Tune in next week for another excellent edition of Carnival of Space, and, as always…



Y’all ain’t gonna believe this…

Gather around, kids, today we’re gonna jump the track in a big way as I tell you a story about technology run amok with help from some crafty and unscrupulous folk.

Why? Because this is one of those stories ya just can’t make up!

As you know, I am bound for Montana in a couple of weeks to (in theory) see the Northern Lights for myself.

And so it came to pass that earlier today I went to arrange for a rental car. No, I won’t tell you which agency I’m going through, it doesn’t matter in this case. The staff at the local office were very helpful and got me set up with a reservation, after which they said I could pay in advance through the website. Upon returning home to do so, I found that, for reasons unknown, that’s not an option in this case.

What to do? Why, call the friendly folks at Customer Service, of course!

I was routed to a call center in Jamaica. Remember that, it becomes important later.

We’ll call the first person I spoke with “Bob”. Bob pulled up the info and somehow gave me a price lower than what I was looking at on the website. Strange, but ok. He then informed me that I could complete the payment through him.

At this point, the hairs on the back of my neck began to stir.

However, I decided to go ahead. After all, the number I had called had been obtained from the website. I gave him my debit card number and information, after which the call immediately dropped.

Now the aforementioned hairs are standing at attention.

So I call back. This time I’m talking to “Barry”, who looks up the rental info and informs me that no payment was made. Talking to him leads me to talk to “Sheila”, a “Supervisor”, who transfers me to Customer Service.

Ok, wait…transfers me to Customer Service? Then exactly what department do those 3 work in?

By now I had to leave to get to an appointment and decide to pursue the matter once home again. Now I’m talking to Kim, who assures me she’s not in Jamaica. I explain the situation, at which point she drops the bomb on me.

“Sir, we don’t have a facility in Jamaica.”


That’s right…somehow someone managed to hijack the rental company’s toll-free phone number in order to get debit and credit card information. I’ve heard of websites getting redirected, but phone numbers?

That’s a new one, even amongst my old IT buddies.

10 minutes later, I’m at the bank, verifying all the charges on the debit card for today, which are all mine, thankfully, and then immediately ordering the card cancelled and replaced.

Just between you and I, after all that I could use a drink.

And no, this was no dream. But it could have been a nightmare.


Feeling the pressure

An Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU

An Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU

I always end my blog entries with the word “dream”.

Let’s think about this for a moment. In the context I use it, it’s meant that we should think about the future and what it may hold. In another context, a dream is our subconscious mind at work while we sleep.

But dreams, both of the future and the subconscious, are not always pleasant. If they get unpleasant enough, we call them “nightmares”.

So what would be a good example of a nightmare in the context of space?

How about a micrometeorite, about the size of a grain of sand, or maybe even a pebble, impacting your ship or space station while moving at several thousand miles (ok, or kilometers) per hour. The damage would be done before anyone aboard would know what had happened, and if there’s a hull breach, the crew would have a serious problem.

Depending on the exact circumstances, the ship or station could potentially depressurize to lethal levels in a matter of minutes.

So what is a hapless astronaut to do? Take a couple minutes, grab his (or her) trusty spacesuit, climb into it, and survive the day, of course!


We see it in the movies often, but the reality is quite different. Just putting on a pressure suit can be done in as little as 15 minutes (which could still be far too much time to save the astronaut). However, putting it on correctly, meaning with all the necessary preparation, both for the suit and the astronaut using it, can take up to 2 hours.

And if the normal preparation steps are skipped in favor of speed? Well, the user would probably develop a rather painful condition called the Bends, which means there are nitrogen bubbles in their blood stream, and they could find the faceplate of the helmet becomes so fogged up that they’d be unable to do anything anyway.

And that’s assuming the seals between all the different parts are mated correctly and there are no leaks in the suit itself. After all, a lifeboat with a hole in it is no better than the sinking ship.

And none of the above even takes into account that it takes help from at least one other person for someone to put a space suit on.

For more information, take a look at these links: and

So what’s the next step in pressure suits? What ideas do you have for making a space suit that could be donned faster or without the help of another astronaut? These are difficult problems requiring serious thought. The more people thinking about the problem, though, the better the solutions will be.

And although you knew this was coming…



On Male Bonding, Philosophical Voids, and the Magnetosphere

AndromedaI would hope you read all of the blogs here.

Really, I would.

If you don’t, by all means, please start, we’d love that!

If you do, awesome! You probably saw the one back on December 17th of last year regarding “Bucket Lists” and the Auroras. For some time now, I’ve felt a need to see the Northern Lights for myself. No cameras, no videos, no online albums, just them and my own two eyes.

(In case you missed that one, it’s here:

Well, that was just 8 months ago, and it looks as if that’s going to happen.

In October, I, and hopefully 3 of my closest friends, will be gathering in Colorado to take a drive into Montana with the hopes of seeing them firsthand. As far as is known, none of us have seen them other than looking at photos.

I may yet be the only one able to go, but I hope not.

Bill, who I consider my best friend, and I have talked more than once about taking a road trip, just “because”, but after 29 years, it’s yet to occur. It would be great to finally be able to do that.

Joe, another close friend and business partner, who many of you know, has, just as I do, an interest in space and spatial phenomenon, and wants to see them just as much as I do. Given that, the trip just wouldn’t be as enjoyable without him. He and I both view it as a sort of spiritual journey.

Jeremy, who I’ve called a friend for 29 years as well, went to school with Bill and I. We had lost touch for a LONG time and, fortunately, have been able to catch up on the years in conversation. I met both him and Bill in the 8th grade.

While none of them are entirely sure they can make it, my fingers are most decidedly crossed that they all can. You have no idea how hard crossed fingers makes typing, but it’s worth the effort. I can only imagine the depth of the conversations that could result, none of us are much for talking without meaning.

So what’s the real reason I’m writing about this again?

I need to do it. On the innermost level possible, I have to do this. I can’t explain exactly why it’s necessary, but it is, more so than anything in recent memory. If I don’t, I feel like I might be…damaged…in some way.

Close Encounters“This means something. It’s important.” – Roy Neary, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977.

And what of the “Philosophical Void”?

Well, in the December 17th blog, I mentioned that this was the one consistent line on my “Bucket List”. That has changed since then. Seeing the Auroras is the ONLY thing on the list.

Once I see them (ok, if I see them), the list will then become a blank page. Nothing will remain.

So where do I go from there?

Do I develop a new list, or should I simply sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride, knowing that I’ve done all that I set out to do?

Might look like a simple question, but believe me, looking at it from this angle, it’s definitely not.

Maybe some new adventure will present itself.



Faster than a speeding bullet, huh?

Superman leaps tall buildings in a single bound.

The USS Enterprise travels faster than light.

Indiana Jones survives nuclear detonations by getting inside refrigerators.

Some things just are, despite reality. If every movie paid close attention to physics, most films would probably not be very entertaining. Would you pay $8 (or more) to see Indy get rapidly evaporated? How about to watch Captain Kirk take several thousand years to reach Vulcan? Or to see Clark Kent jump 2 feet off the ground?

Neither would I.

Yes, I know…Superman is from Krypton, the Enterprise has over 200 more years of technology behind it than we do, and Dr. Jones drank from the Holy Grail.

So how do we know what’s accurate and what’s bunk in the movies we watch?

We turn to

Intuitor is a family-run website led by Tom Rogers that, amongst other things, watches and evaluates Hollywood productions for accuracy in their presentation of physics.

While it doesn’t do this for every single film out there (there are simply too many of them), it does present good physics reviews for many of the more popular titles, and provides a kind of rating system for the films for which reviews are posted.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t suspend disbelief, but sometimes it’s good to find out what would really happen in a given situation, even if it’s in a fictional setting.

So go ahead and check it out!

And as always…




The OCO-2 Satellite launch

The OCO-2 Satellite launch

You’re reading this now, so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you like sci-fi films too. You might even enjoy science docudramas, especially those made with a Hollywood budget.

Maybe even movies like Apollo 13, one of my personal favorites.

Remember when Mission Control notices the carbon dioxide levels in the cabin rising due to regular, everyday, normal breathing? Yes, I know…astronauts? Breathing? Hard to imagine, but they do. That was 3 men in an airtight vessel with CO2 scrubbers, so the rising levels were just a matter of time; there was no avoiding it under the conditions they were faced with.

Now, want to hear something really scary?

The same thing is happening on Earth right now. Combine industrial emissions, deforestation, and severe overpopulation and, sooner or later, that’s the inevitable outcome.

So what do we do about it?

First thing we need to know is how excessive the carbon dioxide levels have become. For that, we turn to NASA and the OCO-2 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2) satellite, which was launched on July 2nd from Vandenburg AFB, California.

So what is the probe going to do about it?

It’s going to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 24 times every second to determine where the high and low levels are, where the emissions are coming from, and where they are being dissipated.

So why are we doing this?

Because about 250 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels planetwide were about 280 parts per million. And now? They’re about 400 parts per million. Why the increase?

Us. Humans.

Humans put about 40 billion tons of CO2 into the air every year. Natural filters like trees remove only about half of that. Fortunately, we live on a big planet, but in time, the levels will become lethal to humans.

That’s right. It’s going to prove fatal to most life eventually.

And the Earth? It will go on fine without us.

Too bad it’s not a dream.


Say hello to our little friend!

2012 VP 113, just to the right of center and shown in color to demonstrate motion.

2012 VP 113, just to the right of center and shown in color to demonstrate motion.

So here we are again, friends…sorry that it’s been so long since the last blog, but a lot has been going on lately and it’s had our attention on other things.

How many of you remember Arthur C. Clarke’s book (and movie) 2010: The Year We Make Contact?

It had 2 themes, as I recall – science (of course) and political relations.

As you most likely know by now, relations between the US and Russia are not the best right now. In fact, they’re not unlike the relations Clarke portrays in his writing. It’s also getting enough attention from other sources that I’m not going to delve into it any further here, except to say that scientists are supposed to be smarter than that.

So what does that leave?

Science (which is what scientists should be concerning themselves with in the first place). While we’ve not confirmed life on any of Jupiter’s moons, we did make a great discovery of another kind recently.

What was discovered?

That would be 2012 VP113, a dwarf planet like Pluto.

Personal side note: Pluto is still a planet by tradition – take that, Mike Brown!

Informally referred to as “VP”, it was discovered on March 26th, 2014 by Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile.

But wait! If it was discovered in 2014, why does it have a 2012 designation? Because it was observed for 2 years before scientists were certain of what it is. The initial observation actually occured on November 5th, 2012.

What sets VP apart, though, is the size of its orbital path. Right now, it’s about 83 AU’s from the Sun, giving it the largest orbit of any known object in the Solar System. That distance makes it a potential member of the Kuiper Belt, and definitely a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO). Some scientists even speculate that it might be a captured Rogue Planet.

What I’m really hoping comes from this, however, is that it leads the IAU to reverse the previous ruling and give Pluto back planet status.

Wow, Steve…single-minded much?

Hey, now…leave me my dream!


Thanks, Vardhan!

300px-BH_LMCAnother request we’ve had recently for a blog entry comes from user Vardhan, who would like to know about an amazing phenomenon called a Black Hole.

The following, then, is an excerpt from Out There – A Small Guide to a Big Universe, a book written by our own Joe Latrell and Steve Shurtleff:

The Earth, along with all the other planets in our Solar System, revolves around the Sun because of gravity. This is the same force holding you to planet Earth. We also know that galaxies revolve around their cores because of gravity, and lots of it. So what is at the center of a galaxy that has so much gravity that it causes an entire galaxy to revolve around it?

The answer is a rather scary object called a Black Hole. A Black Hole is an area of space where there is so much mass in such a small area that its gravity sucks in everything nearby, including light. Because of that, we can’t see a Black Hole directly, but we can tell that it’s there because of the effect it has on the space around it, the same way we can’t see the wind but we can see tree branches sway back and forth because of it. A Black Hole creates very dark areas surrounded by lots of radiation as matter twists and collides with itself as it falls farther and faster into the center.

If an astronaut was to travel toward a Black Hole, he or she would first notice that they were accelerating toward a very dark area, surrounded by things that started to appear more and more distorted. Even time would start to do weird things as they got closer. At some point, they would cross an invisible line called the Event Horizon, which is the point at which they wouldn’t be able to escape the Black Hole’s pull. Think of it as a hole that you can’t climb back out of. As the astronaut got closer still, their spaceship, and eventually they themselves, would begin to get stretched into a long, thin strand, kind of like a noodle, which in time would vanish into the center of the Black Hole, a very small point that scientists often call a Singularity. In fact, some scientists refer to this process of getting stretched as “spaghettification.” It sounds like a goofy and strange thing to have happen, but some scientists even think it might be fun, though they’d only get to try it once.

So is the Earth in danger from a Black Hole? Will we get turned into a massively long string of spaghetti? No, not really. Scientists estimate that the nearest Black Hole, called V404 Cygni, is about 7,800 light-years from Earth, far too distant to be a threat to us here on Earth.

And Black Holes are only one type of many wonders that await us.

Would you like to know more?

Check out…and dream!


To the Moon, Alice!

A Les Bossinas concept impression of a wormhole

A Les Bossinas concept impression of a wormhole

It’s mesmerizing, isn’t it?

The rocket standing there on the pad, a great number of eyes watching it in anticipation. The occasional glances at the sky to make sure the weather cooperates. The sound of the Flight Director’s voice as he or she counts down to the moment the engines fire and the craft begins to ascend.

Ironically, this also is a reminder of our greatest limitation pertaining to space travel. Current rocket engines just won’t do for long-distance exploration.

Now, as you know, Photos to Space recently extended an open invitation to all of our readers to suggest ideas for blog topics, and our first suggestion comes to us from Timothy York, who wants to know about ideas for overcoming this snag.

So what are some of the methods on the drawing board to take us into deep space?

The Diametric Drive: Negative Mass particles would be used to create higher gravity in front of a spacecraft than exists behind it, causing the craft to move towards the area of higher gravity.

Pitch Drive & Bias Drive: Similar to the Diametric Drive, though the gravitational displacement would be generated from fixed points rather than aboard the craft itself.

Alcubierre Drive: Not unlike the Warp Drive presented on ‘Star Trek’, Alcubierre Drives use Negative Mass to “contract” space in front of a spacecraft and “expand” space behind it, propelling the craft forward at what would appear to be faster-than-light travel.

Differential Sail: Similar to the sail on a seagoing vessel, the Differential Sail would use manipulated changes in vacuum pressure to drive a spacecraft.

Wormholes: Though hypothetical (for now), a wormhole is a sort of secret passage through space and time that would allow great distances to be covered with relatively little motion.

Woodward Effect: Postulated by James Woodward, this theorizes that changes in the mass of particles in a closed loop can be utilized to serve as a sort of never-ending fuel supply.

Reactionless Drives: An entirely theoretical means of propulsion that would allow for thrust with no energetic reaction, but would violate known laws of physics.

EmDrive: Another theoretical system that uses electricity to generate directed microwaves from a magnetron to induce thrust.

Photon rocket: In a twist on a standard rocket, the fuel is converted into a directed stream of photons to propel a craft.

There are other drive systems being proposed and modeled, of course.

While they all have the potential to be the means for us to get to other planets in our own solar system, and maybe even end up being the method by which we get to other stars, in reality only one of them needs to work for us to venture past our little corner of the neighborhood.

So how did the scientists who propose these systems get these ideas?

The same way you could.



Brace for impact…eventually.

Andromeda_Collides_Milky_WayIt’s very easy to forget that there is no such thing as “standing still”. Sure, we can choose not to go anywhere at any given moment, but that lack of motion is relative only to the patch of ground we may be standing on. Though we may not be actively moving, the Earth is spinning at about 1,000 mph.

Also, as we know, the Earth isn’t standing still, it’s orbiting the Sun at just over 67,000 mph.

You may have heard the expression that “we may never pass this way again”. It’s true.

Everything in the Universe is moving in some way or another, and even whole galaxies are in constant motion. And even though the Universe is mostly empty space, collisions can and do happen.

In fact, we’re headed for a rather large collision right now.

Ok, so maybe it won’t be a collision so much as a dramatic and somewhat catastrophic merger, but the Milky Way galaxy and Andromeda, the nearest spiral galaxy, are going to become one – about 4 billion years from now.

When the time comes, it’s unlikely any stars from our galaxy will impact any Andromedan stars just based on the distances between them, which is why they’ll most likely just come together to form one large elliptical galaxy. Scientists even believe that a 3rd galaxy, M33, may even begin to orbit the resulting galaxy, though it’s possible that it also will be absorbed, meaning that the 3 largest galaxies in our Local Group would become one.

So what will happen to our solar system when the time comes?

It appears most likely that the Sun and its planets will end up in a higher orbit of the new galactic core than it has now, but there’s also a chance that our solar system could be ejected altogether and begin to drift away on its own.

However, there’s no reason for us to be concerned.

The merger will take place so far in the future that humans as we are now won’t exist – we will either have evolved into something completely unknown, we will have moved beyond the Earth, or we will have long since become extinct.

That may sound bleak, but keep in mind that the Universe is constantly changing. Maybe not very quickly, but nothing stays the same forever.

For now, though, all we have is educated speculation.

What do you think will be the end result?


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