All posts by Steve Shurtleff

The more things stay the same, the more they change

New Neptunian MoonSince you’re reading this right now, chances are that you have purchased, or maybe were given or allowed to borrow, a computer. If you bought one, you probably know how fast computer technology changes.

Science does this as well, especially when it comes to Astronomy.

Just over a week ago, on July 15th, SETI scientist Mark Showalter announced his team’s discovery of S/2004 N 1, a 14th moon orbiting Neptune, which was first observed on July 1st, 2 weeks earlier.

So why didn’t Voyager 2 see it first?

There are 2 reasons. First, S/2004 N 1 is only about 11 miles (18 km) in diameter, and second, it’s extremely dim. In fact, if the Hubble images in which it was seen hadn’t been expanded to show the entirety of Neptune’s rings, it’s unlikely that the moom would have been seen at all.

While it’s been determined that S/2004 N 1 is the smallest of Neptune’s known moons, what isn’t certain yet is what it’s composed of or where it came from, though it’s been hypothesized that it may be a fragment left over from a collision of other moons.

But what about the name? Will it be known as S/2004 N 1 forever?

Probably not. Showalter’s team is planning on proposing a name to the IAU based on mythological relevance to Poseidon or Neptune, to maintain the tradition of Neptune’s satellites being named for nautical characters.

But suppose you had been on the team that first observed it.

If you were tasked with giving it an official title based on the theme, what would it be?

Remember, just because it’s the most recently discovered moon doesn’t mean that there aren’t more waiting to be found. It just might be you who locates another.



Satellite shmatellite!

An Octant

An Octant

As a teenager, I went on one or two road trips with my father. The one I remember most clearly was a drive to Wichita, KS to see one of his aunts. We really didn’t know the town very well, but had to get around, so what did we do?

No, we didn’t use a GPS. They probably hadn’t even been thought of at that point.

We did what I still do when on the road today. Out came a good, old-fashioned folded map. The closest I get to using technology to navigate is printing a map from the internet.

So why, when we have an established GPS network, would anyone do that? Simple. A map, once printed, doesn’t depend on signal strength or batteries. Yes, it may be inaccurate and it can’t show things like construction zones or current traffic, but those rarely affect the route you take.

It wasn’t that long ago when even maps were considered a luxury. So how did anyone get from one place to another?

They looked up. Past voyagers found their path by watching the movement of stars and the Sun using devices like sextants and octants, which measure angles between a given star and the horizon.

Interestingly, as we venture farther and farther away from Earth, knowing how to do this becomes even more important that it used to be. There are no GPS satellites around Mars, or Europa, or even the Moon. How would this help a spacefarer when there is no horizon to refer to? Such a device could still measure the angle between a given star and a fixed point, which allows them to plot their position and know which way they’re heading.

So why am I mentioning this?

Do you remember the story of Apollo 13?

Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Technology gets more dependable every day, it simply isn’t always available.

Should this make you nervous? No.

It’s still great to explore.

And dream.


X-Wings, Hammerheads, and Vipers, oh, my!

The space industry, both public and private, seems to attract sci-fi fans, myself included, and the center of attention, at least in the US, tends to be the ships we travel in.

Look at the Apollo LEM, though. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in any sci-fi show or movie, yet we know that it’s what a spaceship really looks like, since it really is a spaceship. Granted, those were back in the 60’s and 70’s, and we had the Space Shuttle recently, which looks more like an airplane than what Hollywood imagines us voyaging to the stars in.

Have you ever taken the time, though, to look at videos of how the Apollo craft and the Shuttles moved as they traveled?

If so, you may have wondered how Hollywood’s spaceships compare to reality.

Most don’t quite convey the physics accurately, but surprisingly, some have come close to getting it right. Remember that in space, a moving object will proceed in a straight line forever unless some force acts on it.

ViperMost, if not all, of us are familiar with Battlestar Galactica, specifically with the 2003 – 2007 reimagining. The show’s most iconic ships, Colonial Vipers, were shown to move fairly realistically, without actions like banking that aren’t necessary in a vacuum. When the pilot turns the ship, it tends to move only in a way necessary to achieve the new direction.

HammrheadBack in the mid-1990’s, there was a mostly overlooked sci-fi series called Space: Above and Beyond, about a squadron of USMC fighter pilots, set in the year 2063. The spacecraft they flew, SA-43s, were commonly referred to as “Hammerheads” and, like Battlestar Galactica’s Vipers, were shown to be relatively faithful to physics in their flight, changing course by way of things like flat rotation without most of the motion that a fighter plane in an atmosphere must exhibit.

x-wingAnd then there are X-Wings, quite possibly the most well-known space fighter of all time. Sadly, though, from a physics standpoint, they, and really all the spaceships in the Star Wars universe, are also among the most unrealistic in terms of flight characteristics. While nobody would deny that they’re just plain cool, wide banking turns and vertical loops would be both unnecessary and unrealistic outside of an atmosphere, as there would be nothing to provide resistance for the ship as it moved about during a dogfight.

It must be noted here that all of the above names and titles are the property of their parent companies.

So as spaceflight continues to develop, hopefully with the continued puropse of exploration, what sorts of ideas do you have for spacecraft design? Are you more interested in small short-range craft with a crew of only one or two? Or does the idea of a larger ship with a crew of a few dozen or maybe even a few hundred appeal to you?

What sort of vessel does your imagination use to get around?



On Comet, on…you know the rest

confirma-el-peligroso-acercamiento-un-cometa--T-JoaMzRComet ISON isn’t the only voyager set to wander through the inner solar system in the near future.

C/2013 A1, also called Siding Spring, after the observatory from which it was first observed in January 2013 by Rob McNaught, an Australian astronomer.

This one, though, is special in that there is a slight chance that it may impact the surface of Mars. It’s also said to have an orbital cycle estimated at more than 1,000,000 years.

It’s too early to tell yet if Siding Spring will hit Mars, but scientists are currently working on measures to protect the satellites orbiting Mars as well as the probes exploring the surface in the event that impact is shown to be likely.

Even if there is no impact, there will be plenty of opportunity for observation and measurement, and we may even have a good view of it from Earth, as we are likely to with ISON later this year.

Will you be looking up when the time comes?



Good morning, Dave…

One of HAL 9000's "eyes", from 2001:  A Space Odyssey

One of HAL 9000’s “eyes”, from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Remember MU-TH-R 187?

Ok, how about HAL 9000?

We hear often about how the biggest obstacles to long-distance space travel are the propulsion systems and time required to reach other stars.

Want to know a secret? Even if we figure out how to get around those problems, another huge one remains.

The ship we build to do it would be so complex and sophisticated that no human crew would be able to operate it without help. So as space travel progresses, computer technology must progress with it.

And it is.

The computers we use today are all based on tiny switches in the processor being set to either “on” or “off”. However, a new type of computer, called a Quantum Computer, is being developed that will basically allow a computer to perform calculations as if each of those switches was both on and off at the same time.

If the computer you’re reading this on was the family car, a quantum computer would be a Formula 1 racecar.

Why is this so important?

Because as the distance from Earth increases, the ability to guide the flight from a ground-based mission control complex decreases. It won’t take long before the ship is so far away that any mission-critical decisions and/or changes will have to be made…sorry, there’s no other way to put this…on the fly.

Ok, so maybe that makes HAL a bad example, but his actions were due to conflicting instructions, not malevolence. Besides, he was a great chess player.

So what does this mean for you?

It means that as the computers get more advanced, new hardware and software will have to be designed to go along with it.

Maybe you’re the right person to do that.



ISON, ice off!

ISON 2013Remember Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi? Can you believe we came to know them back in 1984?

If you remember them, and you also followed space news back then, as I did, then you probably remember Halley’s Comet when it passed “near” Earth 2 years later. Unfortunately, though, I never did actually see it with my own eyes, and came to consider that event as somewhat of a bust.

But good things come to those who wait.

Later this year, we’ll experience another pass by a comet, this one dubbed ISON 2013, and projections suggest it will be quite a bit more impressive than Halley, possibly appearing brighter than the Moon when it makes its closest pass to the Sun in November.

For now, it’s well inside the orbit of Jupiter, but not visible to the naked eye yet, but at about 47,000 MPH, which works out to just over 1.1 million miles per day, so it will only be a few months before we can get a good view of it from Earth.

Sounds like quite the spectacle, doesn’t it?



The next Big Thing in Little Things

imagesI was watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation many years ago in which the Enterprise was stuck in a kind of “void” with an alien ship, from which neither crew could figure out how to escape. Eventually Deanna Troi was able to communicate with the other crew and figured out that hydrogen would release both vessels if vented into space.

So how did the aliens convey what was needed?

They described a hydrogen atom as an “eye(s) in the dark, one moon circles”.

We already knew this was accurate, since a hydrogen atom has one proton and one electron, but as of May 2013, scientists are able to actually capture an image of one.

Looks a lot like a solar system or a ringed planet, doesn’t it?

It could even be said to look like an “eye in the dark, one moon circles”.

Now, consider that since a hydrogen atom is the smallest of all atoms and we can now photograph it, how long will it be before someone develops a way to capture images of the electrons, protons, and neutrons (in most cases) themselves? Or even the subatomic particles that form them?

Could you be the person to find a way?

And which would you want to photograph first?



The road ahead

imagesCANHAU04Suppose for a moment that you were living in Washington, DC (assuming you don’t already) and you want to go with a friend to New York City. A 3rd friend, the driver, gives you the option of a route that will take 6 hours or another that would take 2 days to get there.

Would it matter if, once you got in the car, you knew you wouldn’t be making any stops during the trip, and that none of you would even be able to get out to stretch your legs until you arrived?

That’s not a tough choice, is it?

Until March 2013, astronauts going to the ISS didn’t have an option. While it took only about 8 minutes to reach orbit, it took about 2 days for their capsule (or Shuttle) to reach the station and dock with it.

The latest launch, though, utilized a new trajectory that got it to the station after only 6 hours and 4 orbits of the Earth, which comes out to about 1/8 the time it usually takes.

Bear in mind that a Soyuz capsule has less room inside it than the front seat of most cars. Even 6 hours under those conditions would be a long time, even if you were with your closest friends, but it would sure beat 2 days or more.

And yes, a car could go 230 miles in less time, but New York City isn’t moving at 17,000 MPH.

Remember that the astronauts will also be living and working together for about 5 months once the ISS is reached.

However, with new programs in the works, it won’t be long before the ISS is a sort of rest stop or layover rather than the destination.

So the real question is: Where are you headed?



Up, UP Aerospace, and away!

Provider_upA month from now, on June 21st, UP Aerospace will be launching SpaceLoft XL from New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Sponsored by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which is designed to assist small companies and individuals in launching their projects and hardware, the launch will be part of the New Mexico Space Grant Education Launch Program, intended to foster interest in science and space for younger generations.

So why are we mentioning this?

The latest round of pictures for Photos to Space will be aboard when the rocket takes flight.

Is your picture among them?

There’s still time.


For more information, visit and


Conjunction Function

image_miniHave you ever had front-row seats to one of those once-in-a-lifetime shows or events?

Ok, so maybe it’s more frequent than “once in a lifetime” (about every 2 years), but on Sunday, May 26th, a 3-way conjunction of planets low in the western sky will reach its peak. They started appearing to come together in early May, with the culmination being on the 26th, after which they will start drifting apart once again, with the show finally ending in early June.

And it gets even better. The 3 planets that will appear to come together are also the 3 brightest planets when viewed from Earth – Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury (in order of magnitude).

In fact, together the planets will appear so bright that they will even be visible from some urban areas.

Will it be visible everywhere?

Well, not quite. If you live at the base of the Rockies (gee, who do we know of that lives there?), the mountains are likely to block your view. However, a relatively short drive to the East should make the event enjoyable for you as well.

With each passing year, it becomes more and more likely that we won’t just have to view other planets from a distance. Even the first manned voyage to Mars is being planned and is slated to occur less than 20 years from now.

So the question is, where will you be going in 20 years?


1 3 4 5 6 7 9 Page 5 of 9