All posts by Steve Shurtleff

“I could have been a big star!”

800px-Sun_and_VY_Canis_Majoris_svgNot to state the obvious, but Sol isn’t the only star out there. However, it is the one we’re most familiar with, which makes sense, given how completely we depend on it. And it doesn’t matter where on the planet you are, it’s true for all humans, despite how different most people are from one another.

Stars can make the same claim. There’s a vast difference between them, and while they have some common traits, no two are completely identical.

In fact, some stars couldn’t be any more different from our Sun.

For example, VY Canis Majoris, which is about 3,900 light years from Earth, and is the largest known star to date.

We know that about 1.3 million planets the size of Earth would fit inside our Sun. Well, about 6.8 billion Suns would fit inside VY Canis Majoris. If VY Canis Majoris was to take the place of our Sun, it would envelope all the planets out to, and including, Saturn.

Put another way, VY Canis Majoris has a radius that’s about 1,800 larger than Sol’s.

It’s also unusual in that it’s atypically bright for a star that large.

But it’s in that way that it fits right in with the rest of the Universe. If there’s one thing nature does well, it’s present us with the strange and exotic.

Maybe stars like VY Canis Major are the embodiment of the dreams of the cosmos.

Let that inspire you as well.



First contact

YSAWhen I came to work for Photos to Space, a little over a year ago, I honestly had no idea what I would be doing. I knew that Joe was already involved in it, and what the purpose of PtS is, but I didn’t know how I would fit in, or what I could offer.

At first, it was mostly research, gathering data, and doing some light proofreading. After a few weeks, though, he asked if I wanted to give some writing a try, to which I agreed, despite not knowing how well it would turn out.

It met with enough approval that we decided to start writing a book which eventually became ‘Out There’, which became available for sale back in August.

We wrote ‘Out There’ mostly with kids in mind, though we wanted it to appeal to all ages.

It didn’t occur to me that it would lead to any public speaking, but it did.

Last Friday (January 10th), I had the chance to speak to some youngsters at a private school in Colorado Springs. I had some time to prepare in advance, so Joe saw to it that I had a good supply of stickers and posters to give away, and had a few copies of ‘Out There’ to hand out as well.

I made sure that I had an outline of topics to go over, but once the talk began, the kids were so sharp that it soon turn very free-form, and the guide was mostly set aside. It became easiest just to listen to them and respond, letting them run the show. After all, this was about inspiring them, not just rambling at them.

Besides, I’ve always been far more inclined to listen than talk anyway.

In the end, it was a great way to spend an afternoon. Naturally, some of the children were more interested in space than others, but everyone, including me, got something out of the experience.

Needless to say, there’s a good chance it won’t be the last time.

So what is it I really hope the kids got from it and will get in the talks to come?

A dream.


Holding up the sky

Moving up and out doesn’t eliminate all earthly concerns.

People still get sick. We have to eat. Ideas still need to get conveyed.

Obviously, private space is unlike any field before it, if for no other reason than we’re doing what, until now, only governments have been doing. The difference is that governments (in theory) provide nearly everything people in those agencies need to get by.

It’s not quite that easy for civilians.

I really don’t see any reason why it should stay that way, though. I freely admit I don’t have the business acumen to start it myself, but there are things that private space companies need.

First off, our own health insurance company, exclusive to the field. Yes, the government now hypothetically provides that, but as near as I can tell, it’s not being very well-received. In any case, it wouldn’t hurt to include other types of insurance as well, like life, renters, home owners, and car insurance.

Who doesn’t have to eat? That’s hardly exclusive to spacers, and we don’t need any special food that nobody else does, but imagine a line of food, or perhaps restaurants, aimed at us. It would be nice if spacers had a place to go, just for them, to unwind, grab dinner, and interact with other spacers. Since we’re spread out all over the world, it couldn’t be just one place, of course, but I like to think the idea has merit.

I’ve also noticed that spacers tend to have a propensity for books. I know firsthand that getting a book published is not easy, so why can’t we have our own specialized publishing agency and printing house? Granted, many books are now electronic (like ‘Out There’), but signing a reader’s tablet is a good way for the author to get slapped or at least yelled at.

Due to some…unfortunate…experiences with a certain delivery service over the holidays, the idea of a proprietary courier has crossed my mind. Having your package delivered by the same person who picks it up would simplify things, but realistically it would also make the delivery a bit more expensive. On the other hand, the extra cost may be worth it.

Will any of the above happen? Well, maybe. Ultimately, I guess if enough of us see the need for any or all of them, it’ll happen. I think that in time the need will become apparent to all of us.

If you have any ideas I haven’t thought of for spacer support, I’d love to hear them.

Odds are that I’m not the only one.



Where we were, where we are, and where we’re going

I’m not fond of cliches, for the simple reason that they’re cliches. I’ve seen 41 New Years Days now, and for several years, that’s exactly how I’ve come to see them – as cliches.

Years come, years go.

What really matters is what happens during those years, and 2013 was a rather good one for Photos to Space.

Our presence seems to be getting more notice. The concept of the virtual space trip is gaining popularity.

We also saw the publication of our first e-book, ‘Out There’. It’s off to a good start and, if all goes well, may even see hardcopy publication before too long.

In the meantime, we’ve begun the research and contact we’ll need for our next book. If our plan holds up to reality, that may be available as well by the end of 2014.

Also, though I can’t get too specific right now, we’re exploring some other opportunities and potential partnerships that might make the future that much more enjoyable for everyone we work with.

Other than that, 2014 will see continued photo flights, just as they’ve done for some time now.

I suspect that there will be more going on in the next 12 months that we simply don’t know about yet. Maybe some of it will happen within Photos to Space, but it’s also possible that we could hear about more scientific discoveries and advancements in private space.

Obviously we want Photos to Space to keep growing, but we also enjoy watching other private space companies succeed too. Private space seems unusual that way – there seems to be more cooperation between outfits than competition.

Given that, we’d like to hear how this last year has gone for you (and your company, if applicable) and what you’re expecting from 2014.

Let’s hope it treats us all well.



Aurora Bucketalis

The Aurora Borealis over Norway

The Aurora Borealis over Norway

I used to be 10.

At other points in the past, I was 20, 30, and then 40.

10 and 20 were pretty nondescript, but then 30 happened and I started to notice a few mild but annoying pains and the occasional odd sound in a few joints. 40 just saw them becoming more frequent and added the intermittent need for a cane on longer walks, like around a grocery store.

I also found I’ve started thinking often about the things I’d like to do still, but haven’t.

Most things don’t stay on that list for long, after a day or two they lose their importance. However, one thing remains constant.

I want to see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, firsthand.

Note that this one “Bucket List” item is completely natural and has nothing to do with anything technological or man-made. There is more to life than keyboards and rockets, and modern life makes it easy to forget that.

I guess I could go into some long-winded explanation of what the Auroras are or how they happen, but I’m not going to, not this time. All I will say on that end is that they’re visible near both polar regions.

Sometimes, when I have time to sit and think, after all the work is done for a given day, I imagine what it will be like when the day comes I get to go see them.

So what scenario comes to mind?

A road trip in an RV (probably rented), somewhere around Montana, or maybe even Alaska. There would be 3 or 4 of us, if all went the way I’d like: Joe, a friend of his (possibly), Vicky, and me. We’d park the RV for the night somewhere in a remote area, away from any city. We’d have a great dinner before dusk and then set the lawn chairs out. Let’s be real, though, the cats would be with us but would have to stay in the RV.

Once the chairs were in place and arranged to face the right direction, we’d just sit and wait. Joe doesn’t drink (very wisely, I might add), and I don’t know about his friend, but I’d like to enjoy a glass of wine while the show went on, and Vicky probably would too.

At that point, I like to think that the conversation would stop. It would be time to watch and listen to the silence, not to waste the spectacle with a lot of talk.

I guess you could say that it would probably be a spiritual experience.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a morbid post in any way, but we do all have things we’d like to do while we’re still around.

What’s yours?

What is it that you want to do? Please, leave a comment on our Facebook page telling us what’s on your “Bucket List”.



You can’t see the stars if you don’t look up.

Jay Looking SkywardThe first step in any endeavor is thinking (and believing) that it can be done. Without that, the attempt is doomed before it even starts.

In every major advancement, there is always a group that insists that whatever is being tried is “impossible”. The people that take that stance are so based in conventional thinking that they become convinced that things can’t change and will stay as they are forever. If left to them, none of us would ever get anywhere. In fact, we’d probably still be working on creating fire or the first wheel.

Fortunately, there are those who disregard that way of thinking in favor of knowing that impossibility simply means that not being able to do something today doesn’t mean we won’t be able to tomorrow.

That’s one of the greatest things about kids. In many cases, they’ve not yet been introduced to large-scale limitations and often think they can do anything.

Don’t believe me? Ever rigged a bedsheet into a cape and jumped off something, intending to fly?

One particular 6-year-old has taken it even further.

When Connor Johnson caught wind that our lovely, forward-thinking Congress had ruled to cut funding to NASA (again), he quickly realized that just didn’t sit well with him. His first impulse was to donate his life savings to NASA. Upon talking with his parents, though, he came to understand that $10.41 won’t get very far.

Not one to be deterred by that, he decided to simply take another route and start a petition with the intent of getting funds back where they belong – science and exploration.

So is it working?

His efforts are gaining traction on Facebook, apparently to the point of getting some rather high-profile attention.

A few days ago, Connor received a supportive and congratulatory phone call from Gene Cernan. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry. He’s just the last person to have walked on the Moon, that’s all. No big deal.

Ok, ok…enough sarcasm. At least for that paragraph.

So why is Connor so determined? Since he was 3, literally half of his life, he’s wanted to be an astronaut, a goal that Gene was more than supportive of. Also, with space once again gaining popularity, Connor’s chances of venturing off-world are increasing rapidly.

In other words, optimism pays. If it didn’t, we’d never have gotten past Apollo 1.



Do you realize the gravity of the situation?

220px-BEAM_press_conference_01The truly great thing about the ISS is the value to science. I doubt anyone would debate that.

However, the wost thing about it, from a crew standpoint, is that it’s in space. Then again, it wouldn’t be the ISS if it wasn’t.

The reason? It’s difficult to control your movement, let alone work, in the absence of gravity. Remember, though, that lack of gravity is crucial to some of the experiments that are performed there.

Still, zero gravity is a bit rough on the personnel in the long run. Returning astronauts and cosmonauts invariably lose muscle mass and physical strength on long missions.

So how could it be made more comfortable?

Simple, at least in theory. Find a way to simulate gravity while in orbit.

How could this be done?

A constantly rotating module would do exactly that, though it may not provide the same amount of gravity we have on Earth (1 G).

Imagine being inside a large spinning drum. You’d feel yourself being pulled towards the outer wall, which would appear to you to have a curving floor. Some of the systems inside it, especially plumbing, would have to be self-contained, but it would work.

But wait! I know what you’re thinking…what about Newton’s First Law?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right?

If one part of the station began to spin, the rest of the station would begin to spin in the opposite direction. The ISS isn’t designed to do that, and would most likely be torn apart if that happened.

Fortunately, again in theory, this is easy to overcome. A drum or flywheel, using the same axis and rotating in the opposite direction as the drum, would cancel out the torque and allow for safe operation.

In fact, it’s simple enough an idea that Bigelow Aerospace is actually developing a module call BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity MOdule) to do exactly that. While not terribly large, it could allow for things like easier sleep, eating, and exercise for the astronauts in orbit. Imagine being able to someday go into a real kitchen and cook something in space, or go for a jog!

So if you were designing such a module, what would it look like? How big would it be and what would you put in it?



In tune with the Universe

220px-M82_Chandra_HST_SpitzerSome of you know me outside of Photos to Space, and some of you have even known me for many years now. If you’ve spent more than 10 minutes with me, you probably know of my enjoyment of several different genres of music, especially (and above all else) that of Pink Floyd.

In some circles, Pink Floyd is considered part of a sub-genre called “Space Rock”, which is a style that tends to have a futuristic sound and, in some cases, lyrics about astronomy and/or science fiction. Other groups thought to be in the same category are The Verve and Muse, amongst others.

But as I lean towards Floyd, and they’re likely the best known of the groups listed above, what are some examples of the music within the genre?

‘Astronomy Domine’ is a well-known example, from the album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, releaed in 1967, which also included ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. Their next album, ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’, contained the song ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’.

At this point, though, I must say this: I can write about this until my face falls off, but as this is about something that can’t be completely conveyed or explained in a blog post, it’s a good idea for you to find a way to listen to at least some of these examples to find out about it firsthand.

I mean, would you try to teach someone to drive without putting them behind the wheel? Some things must be experienced to be understood.

The beautiful part of music, though, is that it’s not exclusively man-made. The Universe itself has been found to make some rather interesting music of its own. Scientists have found ways to interpret things like planetary magnetic fields and radiation emissions into audible sounds.

That’s right – the Universe sings.

Want to hear it?

Voyager 1 recordings of plasma waves

Sounds of our Solar System

The Music of Space

What a Black Hole sounds like

You might find, though, if you listen to both the man-made and the natural music of the universe, that each brings the other to mind. Ultimately, music is made of resonant sounds that move in regular patterns, which is common to both forms.

This also explains why some “music” is really just noise (random, dissonant, annoying, irrational, and sometimes painful to hear).

But now that we know the Universe sings, it’s important that we listen.



Forget the lousy tie

out_there_webI worked in IT for 15 years or so. A lot of that time was enjoyable, but frankly, not all of it.

In the end, though, it was worth it. Strangely, though the money was more than adequate, it was during this time that I found I really didn’t care for “stuff”. If it’s not useful and practical, odds are that I don’t keep it.

It makes sense, then, that when Joe and I wrote Out There, we did so specifically with the intent of it being both useful and practical. Stuff almost always goes away – knowledge sticks with you.

With Christmas coming up, we like to think that it being useful and practical are the reasons it makes for a great gift.

‘Out There’ is not some silly video game that will be forgotten in 2 or 3 weeks. It’s certainly not another ridiculous tie that won’t get worn either.

What it is, though, is something that draws the reader in. It won’t explain everything, but what it does explain is enough to instill curiosity. It creates the desire to learn more. Try getting that result with a tasteless, tacky, ugly sweater or a pair of monster feet slippers.

But what if those you’re buying gifts for have no interest in space? Well, in that case, ‘Out There’ is a great option! The book is designed to instill that desire in new space enthusiasts as well as offer insights to the space buff.

So where can you get this wonderful tome? contains links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes, all of which offer ‘Out There’ for less than $5.00.

If it helps, consider it as giving someone a dream.


Keep your ISON the skies!

ISON, as seen by TRAPPIST

ISON, as seen by TRAPPIST

C/2012 S1, more commonly known as the comet ISON, will achieve perihelion on November 28th, 2013. At its closest, ISON will be only 724,000 miles (1,165,000 km) above the surface of the Sun.

Initially thought to have a hyperbolic orbit, ISON now appears to follow an elliptical orbit, achieving perihelion every 400,864.54 years.

So when will it be closest to Earth?

Assuming the Sun’s gravity doesn’t pull it in or tear it apart, ISON will pass us at a distance of 39.9 million miles (64,210,000 km) on December 26th of this year. However, Earth won’t cross the comet’s orbit until mid-January 2014, well after ISON has moved on.

Although unlikely as we won’t be passing through the tail, there is a chance that we may see an increase in meteor activity due to ISON’s passing.

As of November 25th, ISON is most likely to be visible to the naked eye near Mercury. It will probably be at its brightest during the close solar pass on the 28th, though scientists are not yet sure that it will survive the encounter.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the best placement for viewing will be from mid-December 2013 until early January 2014, when it will appear to pass within 2º of Polaris.

Does this mean you should make an effort to catch a glimpse? Absolutely.

After all, how often do celestial wonders come to us?


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