Just in case you missed it, here's one of the most amazing photos of the Space Age: the new Mars lander Curiosity descending into the atmosphere of Mars by parachute, as photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars.


Click the image to see NASA's Curiosity website, which has lots more photos and videos.

Think about that for a moment: A robotic explorer in orbit around the planet Mars has photographed a new robotic lander plummeting toward the surface below.

We live in an age of wonders.

Chris
We live in an age of wonders, you know? When I was a kid - not that long ago in my estimation, an eyeblink ago to our forebears - we learned that planets were rare beyond our Solar System, and that Earthlike planets belonged primarily in science fiction. Then we learned that maybe a bunch of giant planets - failed stars, really - populated the galaxy. Once we started doing real searches with quality space-based equipment and modern ground-based uber-tech, we learned that maybe giant planets are common... and maybe Earth-sized planets are out there, too, but just difficult to find. Well, we soon learned that was true; and not just that Earth-sized planets are common, but that Earthlike planets are common.

Today, we believe that ALL STARS HAVE PLANETS. Whoah. Speaking of which:

I LOVE THIS CHART SO MUCH:


Click the image to see the full-size version. Tip: The hover-text really extends the image's sensawunda factor.


For your viewing pleasure and to help visualize the scope of our galaxy, I offer the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. It's the closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, in terms of both size and distance:


Click the image to see the NASA photo.

Just imagine all those stars orbited by their own solar systems, perhaps cradles to other civilizations. How many are out there?

On a related note, want to read a snippet from the Prologue of Adventures of Jack and Stella? Here you go:

The Milky Way Galaxy, as the humans call it, is a barred-spiral whose glowing arms span the endless emptiness of space for about 30,000 parsecs, or 100,000 light-years (or 600 trillion human miles). It is shaped like a disk: Viewed edge-on, it is only a hundredth as thick as it is wide, just 300 parsecs or 1000 light-years (or 6 trillion miles) thin. Within those arms shine more than 300 billion stars, each a sun warming rocky debris beyond measure, thousands of comets, and a handful of planets – some of which are ringed by great disks of ice and rock, and many orbited by moons like miniature solar systems of their own. The Milky Way is slightly larger than the average galaxy, of which more than 100 billion populate the universe.

I hope that helps give a sense of the scope of these things, and just how many planets are whirling around their parents stars, out there in the dark.

Adventures of Jack and Stella progress:


(Yes, word-count went down from revisions and then back up. So it goes.)

Chris
Hooray for my friend Phil Baringer and the KU quantum-physics team at CERN, who have made the leap of actually observing what they believe is the signature of the Higgs boson, the most fundamental particle in the universe.

This is especially cool for me, because Phil and I teach a spring course "Science, Technology, and Society: Examining the Future Through a Science-Fiction Lens," and this very morning I finally worked out the basic physics of how the cool physics-based tech in my next novel (The True-Life Space Adventures of Jack and Stella) will work!

Because Jack and Stella come from Lawrence, one of them will speak with Phil for advice while developing the tricksy physics of her stardrive/world-killer device. Can't Wait! By the way, progress on the book has reached the point where I'm ready to begin writing the first few chapters over winter break: Writing notes is now more difficult than writing the actual prose, so I've reached the stage I call "critical mass" in a writing project. Boom! Here it goes! Stay tuned for updates.

Congratulations, people, and Rock Chalk Jayhawk, go KU!

Chris
The clearest and most cleverly designed look at scale - from the smallest to the largest - that I've ever seen. It's also great technical communication: clear, interesting, novel, unique, useful... you name it. Click the image and check out Cary and Michael Huang's "Interactive Scale of the Universe Tool" (takes just a few seconds to load on a high-speed connection):


Click the image to see the website.

It's interesting that the site's creators speculate that the universe is many times larger than the observable universe. I also love watching the scale of things explode as we fall in and in and in toward the smallest structures.

Cool beans!
Chris
(Disclaimer: This announcement could be as mild as "New method for tracking Earth-sized planets established" or as wild as "ALIENS CONTACTED US! HOLY CRAP PEOPLE!")

There'll be a live news conference on NASA TV tomorrow (Thursday) at 11:00am Pacific / 1:00pm Central / 2:00pm East Coast time entitled, "News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery; Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2."


Click the image to see more of Wayne Barlowe's Darwin IV aliens from his fantastic book, Expedition.

More info on the NASA website.

Did you read James Gunn's The Listeners? I'm just sayin'.

Chris
mckitterick: At NASA's Moon-rock exhibit when it came to KU. (smiling Chris 2009)
( Nov. 25th, 2010 07:16 am)
I'm thankful that we have John Scalzi to provide us with a proper SFnal script for Thanksgiving grace.

I'm thankful that we have Daniel Radcliffe, who is far more charming and funny and geeky than I had ever imagined:



And of course that Tom Lehrer gave us "The Elements" in the first place:



I'm thankful to live in a time when we have something like the Hubble Space Telescope and that we can all look at the most-amazing photos ever taken, and that we can do it any time we want from the comfort of our own homes:


Click the image to see more about the Carina Nebula, aka "The Pillars of Creation."

I'm thankful for the Cassini mission to Saturn - and to the Voyager, Galileo, and all the other amazing missions - which take us to a place humans won't likely visit for a while yet:


Click the image to see info about this shot of Saturn.

I'm thankful that we had Carl Sagan to show us how glorious and amazing the universe is, and I'm thankful for the Symphony of Science folks for making videos like this:



I'm thankful that we have people like Brian Greene to carry Sagan's torch into the future.

In short: I'm thankful to live in this Age of Wonders, and I can't wait to see what comes next!

Now to the personal, though everything above feels personal to me.

I'm thankful to have met SF Grand Master James Gunn, who not only shaped my understanding of science fiction since an early age but shaped much of who I am, and who continues to do so.

I'm thankful to be a part of this crazy and diverse and open and thoughtful and important thing we call Science Fiction! We're a big family (with all the good and irritating that comes with that), and I'm thankful to have been welcomed to join you.

I'm thankful for having had the good fortune to meet so many kind and interesting and wonderful people, and to be honored to call several of them friends.

I'm even thankful for having met a number of horrible and monstrous people, because they are also human, and it's my quest to understand what it means to be human.

I'm thankful for the loves of my life - both dear friends and lovers - because you have helped make me the man I am today. I'm certain that without the capacity to love, we cannot be fully human. The greatest thing in life is to love and be loved in return ;-)

Okay, I need to stop at some point or this will become (more) maudlin! Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you have a fine day and get to spend time with those you love.

Chris
Have to share this cool story on theoretical cosmology (is there any other type?) that I heard about from James Gunn, who's been exploring his intuitive hunch that there must have been something before the Big Bang:


Click the pic to see the io9 story.

Great stuff.

Chris
Wow, you know how I use the term "amazing" when making these Astro-Porn of the Day posts? Well... WOW! Here's some more amazingness! This photo of Comet Hartley 2 was taken by NASA's EPOXI spacecraft at a distance of only 435 miles. Notice the outgassing and just all-around coolness and dramaticosity of this shot:


Click the image to see the EPOXI news page.

And if that's not dramatic enough for you, how about a little time-accelerated Quicktime movie showing the hour of closest approach:

Video by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD/Brown University.


NASA sez: "This animation of the flyby is made of 40 photos taken from the spacecraft's Medium-Resolution Instrument during the encounter. The first image was taken at about 37 minutes before the time of closest approach at a distance of about 27,350 kilometers (17,000 miles). The last image was taken 30 minutes after closest approach at a distance of 22,200 kilometers (13,800 miles). The spacecraft was able to image nearly 50 percent of the comet's illuminated surface in detail."

What you're seeing right here is a series of photographs taken by a spacecraft we sent to a FREAKING COMET! Does it get much cooler than that? Well, actually, I'm fairly certain we'll see something within months that makes me think that again, and of course a few months later we'll have more, and so on and so on.

Rock'n'roll.

Chris
I just learned from my pest-control dude ("Schendelize 'em!") that we've discovered the first truly habitable (by humans) exoplanet, Gliese 581g. It's Earth-sized (three Earth masses) and orbits in the middle of its star's habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface. This puppy is the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one. Here's a close-up, photographed by the Vanguard generation ship, launched 3000 years ago from the island-nation of Atlantis:


Click the image to see the story. NOTE: The thing about Atlantis and Vanguard might not be true.

"New Earth," as the Vanguardians call it, is only one of two new planets discovered orbiting the nearby red dwarf star, named Gliese 581 by Earth-humans. This brings the tally of known planets around this star to 6, the most yet discovered in a planetary system other than our own. As in our Solar System, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly circular orbits, though 581g (the Earth-like one) has an orbital period (aka "year") of only 37 days - in really close for good ol' Sol, who'd burn it to a crisp, but Gliese 581 is a feeble red dwarf star, so it's comfortably warm and has, I'm sure, the most amazing sky of any Earth-like planet, being so close to its parent. Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet with a definite surface and that it has enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere. Because it's tidally locked (doesn't rotate), the 581g-ans who live on the side facing away from the sun live in cyberpunkey perpetual night, gambling their lives against AI overlords. And stuff.

Money shot: "The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby," sez Steven Vogt, who leads the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey (shut up your inner 12-year-old), "tells us that planets like this must be really common. If these are rare, we shouldn't have found one so quickly and so nearby," Vogt said. "The number of systems with potentially habitable planets is probably on the order of 10 or 20 percent, and when you multiply that by the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, that's a large number. There could be tens of billions of these systems in our galaxy."

Tens of billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy, alone. Ponder that.

Here's the paper.

We live in amazing times!

Chris
Here are four big news stories I've discovered since returning from my trek to the Colorado Rockies:

Quantum Teleportation Across 10 Miles

Okay, not quite up to this level:


Click the image to see the Chinese news story.

But this headline is still pretty amazing: Chinese researchers use quantum physics to teleport photons across 10 miles of empty space. TEN MILES. Back in 2004, German scientists teleported an atom about 600 meters. That's a leap of magnitudes in range. So how does quantum teleportation work? Here's a visual explanation:


Click the image to see more details.

Teleporting people a la Star Trek is pretty far off, but these experiments prove that we can teleport stuff. This means, at minimum, that instantaneous communication across large distances is possible, and SF writers can (relatively) safely extrapolate galactic travel via information download (should we be able to truly scan and re-form the information that determines who we are) a la Stross' Glasshouse into fresh bodies is also possible. It's not about transmitting huge blobs of matter - which is impossible, due to massive energy requirements - but about transmitting the information about the matter which is possible. Think how printing works: Your computer sends info about the page you want to transport from computer to paper, and viola! there it is! You didn't transport the page, itself, just the data that your printer needed to reproduce the page. Seriously, we live in an age of wonders: Teleportation!

Artificial Life Created

Check it out: Here's what synthetic life looks like:


Click the image to see the story.

Dr. Craig Venter, creator of the synthetic genome, is seeking a patent on made a completely new "synthetic" life form from a mix of chemicals. The man-made, single-celled organism (nicknamed "Synthia") can reproduce - a required condition for something to be considered "alive." Venter reports that his technique could pave the way for more complex organisms that can "transform environmental waste into clean fuel, vaccinate against disease, and soak up pollution." Here's the paper in the journal, Science. This abstract sums up how they did it:

"We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including 'watermark' sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication."

Okay, now we have teleportation and synthetic life. How are these not top news stories? All I'm finding on the front pages (print or online) are stories about BP blah blah Al-Queda blah blah stock market blah... I mean, seriously, teleportation and synthetic life don't rate front-page news? Then how about this:

Signs of Possible Life on Titan

Here's what the surface of Titan looks like, The Land of 10,000 Hydrocarbon Lakes:


Click the image to see the NASA story.

This one seems like a no-brainer for the newsies to report on, something that would interest everybody: What is consuming hydrogen and acetylene on Titan? Some scientists believe that exotic life-forms could live in the lakes of liquid hydrocarbons pooled across the surface of Saturn's largest moon - a world larger than both Mercury and Pluto, whose atmosphere is denser even than the Earth's. Fascinating place, full of fuel for life. These scientists have described the theoretical Titanian hydrocarbon-gobbling microbes as hydrogen-breathers who eating the organic molecule acetylene, exhaling or otherwise excreting methane as a by-product. If so, this would result in a lack of acetylene on Titan and a depletion of hydrogen close to the moon's surface, where the microbes live, they said. Now, measurements from the Cassini spacecraft prove these predictions, hinting that these exotic critters might, indeed, exist on this harsh and alien world.

Life on other planets, people! How cool is that? Here's a photo of Titan from the Cassini spacecraft. Clouds and mystery shroud a world that potentially harbors life:


Click the image to see the New Scientist story.

And More Proof That Profits Trump Ethics in Business

Finally, in Earth-bound, mundane, not-so-pleasant news to leaven this series of wondrous and astounding discoveries, The Author's Guild shares this:

Wiley's Deceptive Letter to Bloomberg Press Authors: "We are pleased to inform you" that we will be slicing your royalties up to 50%. Ah, publishing, full of honesty and magnanimity.

Screw that: Teleportation Synthetic life! Aliens on Titan! We live in an age of wonders.

Chris
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