Tag Archives: Outer Space

The Carrot That Is Not A Carrot

Getting humans into space has been a long, complicated process. Not everyone is able or willing to go, and the costs are formidable.

We found this out after going back and forth from the moon a few times. Because getting off the planet is such a pain, there has to be a clear reason to go, and some irresistible kind of incentive.

In case you thought it was heroism, post-launch fame is no longer guaranteed. All sorts of different nobodies have been to the International Space Station.

A series of helmeted government employees have been sent but we paid them to do it. Years ago a succession of dogs and monkeys were launched with mixed results. I think it’s fair to say all the animals and some of the people were happier and better off on the surface of the Earth.

California in 1849 had a golden magnet. But what force will lure humankind to the stars?

Enter a group of young Swedes with a wonderful idea – let’s send donuts.

The Homer Simpson in me is already looking skyward, hungrily.

Which kind is the most attractive & delicious doughnut?

Sounds Like ???

I remain enthralled with this fresh notion of a human-made device sitting on the surface of a rubber-duck-shaped comet that is speeding towards the sun.

Scientists are examining the data collected by the lander Philae before it ran out of power a few hours after touch (and re-re-touch) down. One beguiling piece of information turns out to be the sound the device made when it hit. Apparently there is a lot you can learn from such a thing.

Just by analyzing the sound above, scientists can judge the composition of the comet’s surface. They know that the lander encountered a soft layer several centimeters thick, and the next layer was hard. Researchers also know that Philae bounced a couple of times.

That’s a lot to learn from a momentary crunch.

Inspired by the ability of attentive listeners (aided by scientific equipment) to paint a picture of the actors in a scene from a tiny bit of sonic evidence, I created a document to give researchers from the future something to chew on when considering the meaning of my all-too-brief mission on this planet.

Tooth angle, overbite, jaw strength, lip density, saliva viscosity and tongue thickness are just a few of the qualities that I’m sure can be extrapolated with the right devices. Not that anyone would want to.

And imagine what they might be able to learn about the comet I’m biting!

What is your most distinctive sound?

Comet Softly To Me

Early tomorrow (Wednesday) morning the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft currently orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will deploy a lander called Philae. This one-chance-only attempt will be the culmination of a ten year mission to do something that has never been done or even attempted before – to put a piece of human-made machinery on the face of a speeding comet as it hurtles towards the sun.

There is so much that intrigues me about this – not the least of which is the method of landing – described in this New York Times article..

Because Comet 67P is so small, its gravitational pull is slight and the familiar mechanics of landing on a moon or a distant planet are turned upside down. Mission planners didn’t have to worry so much about breaking the lander’s fall because Philae will be released and will drift towards 67P, pulled in gently at what is described as “a walking pace.”

How fast is that? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet it could comfortably approximate the pace of this classic 1959 song by the Fleetwoods.

As the lander meanders towards the comet, planners will watch nervously to see if they are able to connect in a sympathetic and constructive way, or if a stray boulder causes the lander to flip over or a spot of shade renders its solar collectors useless.

Not to indulge in too much space-vehicle anthropomorphism here, but if Philae is able to kiss the surface of this elusive, enigmatic space traveler, it will be a brief, unlikely, and historic romance. The lander will run out of battery power in 62 hours and will fall silent, but not until it has had enough close contact to send back a treasure trove of data.

And what is in this for 67P? Perhaps nothing, though one must wonder if even a lonely, speeding comet has an innate desire to be known. And yes, this Earthling may bring just the sort of longed-for intimacy that has been missing during all the years that 67P has been orbiting the sun.

But in case The Fleetwoods have you thinking of this rendezvous as a perfect extraterrestrial romance, consider this one additional aspect – shortly after Philae and 67P gently touch, the lander will cement their new relationship by shooting a harpoon into the comets surface.

Charming. And such an Earthling thing to do.

Ever been stung?

Wide Shot

NASA released this nice infra-red photo yesterday, showing us all of the Andromeda Galaxy with colors assigned to indicate relative temperature. For some reason, blue represents the warmer parts and red, the cooler ones.


Trying to challenge our expectations, NASA? That’s quite a risk to take when you consider we are situated at a moment in time just before the dawn of commercial spaceflight for the well-heeled tourist. Revelers who save up an entire lifetime for one amazing interstellar trip will not take kindly to their disappointing arrival at the exotic destination. Remember when planning your Andromeda getaway that the most comfortable beaches will be found at the center.

Not that we have to go out of our way to get there, since Andromeda is scheduled to merge with our Milky Way Galaxy in about 4 billion years.

But never you mind, I like Andromeda just fine. It’s pretty to look at.

In fact, the jaunty angle at which the NASA stylists framed this makes me think of the Fascinators that were so predominant during the most recent British Royal Wedding.


The right hat can put an exclamation point on a crisply stylish look. But does wearing an entire galaxy on your head qualify as overstatement? We’ve all known people with their heads in the clouds and others with stars in their eyes, but what does it mean when you have clouds of stars in your hair?

Describe your favorite headgear.

That’s How We Roll

You gotta love dung beetles.

All day, every day, they’ve got their faces in the worst stuff we can imagine. To them, it’s no big deal, but to us, spending life as a dung beetle is literally what it would mean to lose the reincarnation lottery.

By Kay-africa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Kay-africa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The good news is a dung beetle’s life is less than three years long.
The bad news is … for the entire time, you have to be a dung beetle.
But the latest bit of redemptive good news is … dung is not your entire world – there’s more. In fact, there’s the entire Milky Way.

Researchers have discovered that dung beetles use the stars to navigate their dung ball placement. But it’s not just a couple of little stars, it’s the center of the Milky way – a strip of light crossing the night sky that apparently gives them the reference point they need to know their dung ball is traveling in a straight line.

And by “dung ball”, I mean “your day’s work”, whatever that is. And pushing it in a straight line is quite an achievement. I’ve been putting my shoulder to various dung balls around for almost 40 years, and I can say with certainty that they haven’t traveled in anything like a straight line. I’m certain I’ve done some curlicues and loop-de-loops, and for quite a long time sat still in the very same place. But dung beetles reckon by the stars, and their efforts are rewarded with measurable progress. If a beetle veers off course, it climbs up on top of its dung ball and does a little “dance”, by which it gets its bearings and resumes its task.

I assume dung beetles will remain here after we’re gone because everything poops, and a key factor in survival is to have steady work. But in 4 billion years, when The Milky Way collides with the Andromeda Galaxy, the beetle’s sky-marker will be re-arranged. Will that signal the Dung Ball Apocalypse?

When you feel you are headed off-course, how do you find the right direction?

Sleep Deprived

The verdict is in on the question “what happens when you lock six men in a pretend space capsule with a bunch of cameras and sensors and tell them to make believe they’re flying to Mars.”


It appears they become lazy, and cranky, and they can’t sleep.

In other words, it’s the very same result you get if you choose to stay on Earth and simply get old.

In just about any environment, getting people to exercise is a challenge. The intangible piece in this case is the willing suspension of disbelief. They chose scientists to take this mock journey, but scientists are practical and ultimately they know the truth. Why exercise for two hours a day? After all, it’s not like we’ll really have to be on Mars, or that we couldn’t get out of this box if necessary!

A better crew would have been made up of unemployed actors who could really get into their roles.

Believe it or not, we already dealt with this topic – in what was only the second Trail Baboon post on June 4th, 2010.

In that post, I suggested the “Six Men in a Tub”, who were being paid $100,000 each to embark on a scientific version of a 17 month reality show taping, needed a proper theme song. One was offered, modeled after the anthem for the TV show “The Brady Bunch.” But it turns out those tailor-made lyrics were still wrong.

The study results suggest this is a more accurate version:

Here’s the story of six sleepless fellas
Who got lazy while pretending they could fly.
They skipped workouts and moved less than they were told to.
They didn’t even try.

It’s not easy to snooze in a trailer.
Though they’re paying you to stay there like a lump.
It’s depressing when you know you’re stationary.
You feel like such a chump.

When it started there were cameras and reporters.
Asking how long would the daring mission take?
And the guys were acting so dedicated,
But inside they understood it all was fake.

The whole thing’s fake. The whole thing’s fake.
This is all the lousy acting I can take!
The whole thing’s fake. Not much at stake.
I’m embarrassed which is why I’m wide awake.

Name a role you could inhabit, non-stop, for 17 months.

Space Treasures

Bored with the available options for stealing things made here on planet Earth, thieves have taken to taking things that come from outer space.

One man has been arrested and another may be behind bars soon for the Christmas Eve pilfering of 100 meteorites from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute near Asheville, North Carolina.

Apparently, buying and selling space rocks is a big deal online.

As with major works of art by dead painters, things that are rare and unusual can command a high price. Anything that can bring in bucks is a target for the criminal element, but one has to wonder if meteorite futures are as bright as the prospects for, say, works by Picasso or Munch.

After all, if the value of a thing is defined by its scarcity, one must take into account that the Universe is full of rocks. Most of them did not come from Earth, so while meteorites might be valuable today, how impressive will they be in 50 years when your descendants can take a day trip to the moon and come home with a bag of space chunks?

Yes, any serious connoisseur of extra-planetary debris should begin building his or her collection with an eye for the long term – the very, very, very long term. Rocks that somehow landed on earth by accident are fascinating, but it would be wise to be a little more discerning.

Some sky watchers predict it won’t be long before we discover another planet showing exactly the right conditions to be a mirror image of Earth. Wouldn’t space rocks from such a place be far more valuable than a collection of mere pebbles from Mars? And what if a civilization was discovered on this planet? Wouldn’t their tools, appliances and ephemera be extremely collectible? What are a few metorites compared to getting your hands on a Pandoran fork?

And of course once the cosmic trade routes are set up, the reverse will be true as well. Your excess stuff, which you see now as worthless, will be viewed as pricey exotica on distant worlds. This, it seems to me, is the only rational argument for hanging on to all that trash in the basement – to package it up and ship it off to another civilization shortly after contact is made.

That’s why I’m collecting wine corks. Light and easy to ship, they’ll be valuable treasures on Earth II, where the amazed resident creatures will gladly part with their fortunes to own and display a souvenir of our strange world.

With what commodity are you ready to corner the inter-galactic trinket trade?

Earth at Night

Today’s post comes from Captain Billy of the Muskellunge.


Me an me boys is mighty pleased t’ see that them scientists at NASA is finally startin’ t’ look at th’ planet Earth through pirate eyes! They has just released brand new detailed pictures of our world after dark, wi’ the sparlklin’ lights of th’ cities glowin’ fer all t’ see!

There’s lots of bright spots, an that gives us hope!

Dividin’ th’ light from th’ dark is th’ same method me an’ me boys uses t’ tell the th’ planet’s booty-rich zones from them what don’t have much booty at all. When we’s sailin’ down th’ coast, deliberatin’ about where t’ go scavengin’ next, we always heads t’ th’ light. Just like yer sposed to do in them dreams about dyin’.

An when we arrives at th’ next happy, well-lit place wi’ our daggers drawn, th’ people is always surprised on account of they didn’t notice us comin’ – they was blinded by their own glare. That there’s somethin’ t’ keep in mind on a planet-wide level.

Our Earth is mighty special-lookin’ from afar – quite attractive t’ interstellar swashbucklers.

I ain’t sayin’ there’s space pirates. But I ain’t sayin’ there ain’t. Th’ sort of person what goes into space used t’ be th’ unselfish, disciplined kind. But the standards has been lowered by quite a bit.

That’s all I wanted t’ say. The twinklin’ lights is pretty at night. But if you wants t’ keep th’ peace, best to draw yer blinds an’ sleep wi’ one eye open!

Yer seafarin’ pal,
Capt. Billy

I suppose the Captain has a point – hiding your light under a bushel is sometimes the most prudent thing to do.

Are you an electricity waster?

Frack Attack

Today’s post comes from Wally, proprietor of Wally’s Intimida – home of the world’s largest SUV, the Sherpa.

Hello potential Sherpa buyers! I am intensely interested in you as long as you don’t have a Sherpa Sport Utility Vehicle. Because you represent a challenge to me – I simply can’t comprehend why you haven’t bought an Intimida yet!

I see that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 election, east coast people feel empowered to go car buying. Not just shopping – buying! That’s how they do things out east – if the car is busted, they don’t mess around. Fix it or replace it. Boom! And what better vehicle to get as your Hurricane Response Car than a Sherpa from Intimida! The Sherpa is massive and immovable – as stubborn as Republicans when it comes to Taxing the Rich!

For you non-natural-disaster-victims (just wait!), the Sherpa is still a great buy because it can be ordered with the new Curiosity package to mimic all the great options that came factory-installed on NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover! The Sherpa Curiosity has back up cameras, move forward cameras, coming-down-from-the-sky cameras, and just looking around cameras.


And it’s got its own Fracking Package, complete with a soil sampling shovel, a collapsible front-mounted drill rig, roof derrick and portable high pressure injection components. Now, when your Sherpa’s gas tank dwindles to “empty” in the forsaken wilderness of western North Dakota, you can roll out the necessary equipment to test, puncture, and fill the Earth with water sand and chemicals to force natural gas and petroleum out of the cracks between the shale.

And with its own onboard refinery, the Sherpa can turn that oil into fuel that will make it possible for you to leave North Dakota under your own power!

Imagine that – you’ll never have to stop at a gas pump again – just use the Sherpa’s hydraulic assist to insert your mechanical straw into the ground like you would push it through a plastic lid. Then simply draw energy out in the same way you might take a drink from a giant Slurpee! A giant Slurpee that happens to be on fire!

Your onboard shovel might also dig up signs of organic material underneath your Sherpa – something the Mars Curiosity Rover has not yet been able to do! And unlike the Rover, the Sherpa has the ability to kill everything it passes over – even stuff that was never alive to begin with, like cold, red Martian sand.

Hurricane Sandy and the Mars Lander make it official – America is car crazy again! Go out and buy one today – immediately! I mean it – don’t think too much. ACT!

I’m waiting to see you in the showroom.

Your friend,

Describe a memorable impulse buy. One that turned out to be good!


Dusty Old Dust

The latest Ken Burns documentary project is about the Dust Bowl in the central plains in the 1930’s.

The four hour series debuted last night and will conclude tonight on PBS stations. Here in the Twin Cities the first two hours debuted at 7 last night and were repeated at 9pm, and on Monday at 1am and 3am. Like the dust storms themselves, the series fills the air and just keeps coming – it completely engulfs you.

I’ve recorded it and plan to watch when there’s sufficient time – probably sometime in 2013. But My understanding is that one of the major points of the series is that the Dust Bowl was an environmental disaster that was largely man-made.

For this project, Burns was fortunate to find dust bowl survivors who could tell their stories in front of the camera. He couldn’t do that with the long-dead eyewitnesses of The Civil War. And for the Dust Bowl he had the advantage of great archival photos and movies from the time, along with a sound track by none other than Woody Guthrie.

Here’s more on the series.

Meanwhile, the Mars Curiosity rover reports “feeling” dust devils pass by as it sits in Gale Crater. Maybe the Martian terrain is an example of what might have happened to Oklahoma if the government hadn’t intervened and the drought hadn’t ended.

Will Curiosity’s next shovel load of soil uncover some Martian troubadour’s ode to the Okies of Gale Crater?

What’s the most severe environmental calamity you’ve witnessed?
(Natural or Man-Made)