Making a scale model of the solar system (video)

Some of my American students may recall our attempt at drawing the solar system to scale along Broadway in front of SFHS. It’s not easy to get both the size of the planets and the distances between them to scale. This video explores that question.

#PlutoTime in Jishou, China

#PlutoTime in Jishou, China
As you’ve probably heard by now, the New Horizons probe swung past Pluto yesterday, taking the first close-up photos of the most distant planet (now classified a dwarf planet) in the solar system. Pluto is almost 32 times further from the Sun than Earth is, so midday on the surface of Pluto is going to be a lot dimmer than it is here. But how much dimmer? Well, as it turns out, there’s enough light to read a book, though standing outside near a lake of frozen nitrogen is probably not a wise choice. Better bring a blanket. NASA has a web app, called Pluto Time, to give you an idea of the lighting conditions on Pluto’s surface. Find your location on a map of the Earth and it will tell you the time when the ambient light on Earth approximates the conditions on Pluto, minus the starry skies and frozen lakes of nitrogen that your feet have just melted into. Generally speaking, #PlutoTime on Earth is in twilight, either before sunrise or after sunset. For Jishou today, it was 7:44 pm. So after dinner, I went to the top of my apartment building and took five shots of the ...

Cool! Watch a Martian sunset

Cool! Watch a Martian sunset
NASA link Look familiar? I hope so. The colors are bluish, because the Martian atmosphere is much thinner and has less oxygen and nitrogen than Earth’s.

A peek at a possible future in space

Using real images taken by space probes and telescopes, Erik Wernquist created this awesome short video, showing what humanity’s future might be like if we don’t kill ourselves off in the interim. Around 1:50 you’ll see a Martian sunset image similar to the one I use as the banner here. They were taken by the NASA/JPL Opportunity probe. The narration is by the late Carl Sagan, Cornell astronomer, author, and co-creator of the first Cosmos series. One wonders what Megan Fox, the creationist homeschooler, would say about this film short.

Cool SF short features Rosetta comet mission

Sometime in the far future, humans develop the power to build worlds. Game of Thrones fans will recognize Aiden Gillen as the teacher. His apprentice is played by Aisling Franciosi. The Rosetta orbiter is still following Comet 67P on its way around the Sun. The Philae lander has an electrical starvation problem. It successfully landed on the sunny spot chosen as its best location, but it bounced off the surface of the comet twice and landed in a shady area that gets only 1.5 hours of sunlight every Earth day. That’s not enough sunlight to recharge Philae’s batteries, so the washing-machine-sized probe ran through its primary scientific tasks as quickly as possible before it went dark. Philae was able to drill into the surface and analyze the composition of the sample. It relayed that data to Rosetta, which then forwarded it to Earth. Planetary scientists are intensely interested in the results, as it could provide clues about the formation of the solar system and Earth. For its part, Rosetta has discovered that comets stink. Literally.

Two moons, two planets, one asteroid and now a comet! 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — The European Space Agency’s successful landing of a probe on the surface of a comet Thursday is yet another milestone in our exploration of the solar system. It’s the latest in a series of missions that bring the exotic down to Earth. It’s also the most impressive, considering the Rosetta probe had to loop around the inner solar system for 10 years to catch up to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the Philae lander had to guide itself to land on an object only 4 km across at its widest point. Comet 67P is more than 500 million kilometers from Earth, so it’s very unlikely any of us will have a chance to stand (carefully) on its surface. But Philae is our stand-in, and in just a day’s time sent back some impressive images. Now, you might be thinking, “So what? It’s not especially interesting. Some rocks and stuff.” But consider that this is a place 500 million km away that no one has ever seen before, a place that has been undisturbed for at least 4.5 billion years, and we get to see it! Planetary scientists are naturally also interested in the composition and structure of the comet, ...

What’s up, Jade Rabbit?

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s lunar rover, 玉兔 Yu Tu (Jade Rabbit), woke up March 13 for its fourth lunar day of work, but its roving days are over. Last month, Jade Rabbit lost its ability to move. Now it seems the craft has stopped working altogether. Meanwhile, China’s Internet censors seem to be blocking space-related websites that have been covering the mission since Yu Tu and its sister craft, the Change’E lander, arrived on the Moon in December. When I tried to visit Universe Today, Nature and The Planetary Society for updated news reports, all attempts failed., however, worked, so that’s where this update largely comes from. While everything was working according to plan, Chinese media were all over the story. Now that Jade Rabbit is largely out of commission, perhaps Chinese media censors want to keep updates muted. The two probes’ soft landing in the Mare Imbrium basin were the latest coup for China’s aggressive space flight program. Both Change’E and Yu Tu were working optimally during the first month of the mission, sending back data and photos through January. Yu Tu was able to drive away from the landing site, as planned. Then as the second lunar ...

China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover oversleeps, phones home 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — YuTu was not feeling well when it turned in for the long lunar night two weeks ago, so maybe we can excuse it for sleeping an extra day. After all, its Earth-bound creators were afraid it wouldn’t wake up at all. When China’s YuTu (Jade Rabbit) hunkered down for the long lunar night, it was supposed to pull in its camera boom and fold its solar panels over itself to keep itself warm. Something malfunctioned, though, and Chinese space scientists were afraid YuTu would freeze to death waiting for the sunrise. It missed a scheduled wake-up call on Monday, and Chinese media reported the six-wheeled rover was out of commission just two months into its mission. YuTu and its companion, the lander Chang’E, arrived on Dec. 14, the first probes to make a soft landing on the Moon since the 1970s. But a day later, listeners on Earth heard its radio signal, indicating the rover had survived. Its operators are now trying to determine what happened and whether YuTu is well enough to continue its surveying mission. Details are at Universe Today. YuTu is named after the mythological rabbit who lives on the Moon, where he makes ...

Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit may not wake up

JISHOU, HUNAN — YuTu (玉兔), China’s first lunar rover, is experiencing some mechanical problems as it enters its second night time period on the Moon, worrying earthbound observers. Night comes to the Moon every two weeks, and temperatures drop below -180°C (-290°F). YuTu is supposed to pull in its antenna and camera, fold up its solar panels and hunker down, keeping itself warm with its radioisotope power source. Apparently, that process didn’t quite happen, and Chinese space scientists are concerned the little rabbit may not wake up again. They are reportedly scrambling for some way to remotely repair the malfunction. The lunar lander, Chang’E 3, has also gone into hibernation, but it seems to be OK. The robotic duo landed last month and quickly sent back images of the landing site in Sinus Iridum, to the delight of the Chinese and space fans worldwide. YuTu, which is named after the mythical rabbit who lives on the Moon with the goddess Chang’E, has traveled 100 meters (about 100 yards) so far. Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed report at the Planetary Society website. Universe Today has several high-res photos, as well. This one was Chang’E’s Christmas gift to Earth.

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos 3

Chinese probe touches down on lunar surface, sends back photos
JISHOU, HUNAN — The Chang’E 3 lunar lander successfully touched down on the Moon earlier today, becoming another feather in China’s space exploration cap. After a short radio blackout, it sent back photos of its approach. Chang’E, named after the Chinese moon goddess 嫦娥, carries a six-wheeled rover, Jade Rabbit (yu tu 玉兔), also a figure in Chinese mythology. The rover, which resembles the NASA rovers exploring Mars, will deploy in a few hours to begin a three-month mission. China is only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon, following the former Soviet Union and the USA. The lunar project follows China’s successful low-earth orbit manned missions, and is a probable prelude to a manned mission to Earth’s nearest neighbor in the next few decades. The probe has landed far north of landing sites by the Soviet Luna 9 and 16 probes, landing in 1966 and 1970, respectively, and the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. India and Japan have also sent missions to the Moon, but have not had soft landings. The last soft landing was by the Soviet Luna 24 probe, in 1976. More details are available at

China space agency unveils shanzhai lunar rover

JISHOU, HUNAN — Rather than be new and creative for its upcoming lunar rover mission, China’s space exploration engineers have copied NASA’s Mars landers, rather like Chinese manufacturers’ notorious habit of selling counterfeit brand-name goods — called shanzhai 山寨. First, let’s see the Mars Exploration Rover and its smaller older brother, Sojourner. And now the Chinese lunar rover, due to be launched in December. See any similarities? So did China’s scientists, who worked hard to propose new designs for the state space agency. Instead, the agency went with NASA 2.1. From the South China Morning Post: It was the first time that the secretive space agency – run by the military – had invited civilian scientists to participate in a major exploration programme. Many top universities set up special teams of their best researchers, who proposed creative rover designs. Wen’s own team, for instance, offered a design with only four wheels but with a greater ability to manoeuvre over rough terrain. Civilian scientists were disappointed when authorities decided on a design they felt drew heavily on the American design. Zhu Jihong, a professor of robotics who entered the competition on behalf of Tsinghua University, said the outcome had dampened Chinese ...

(Almost) every SF spaceship in one giant image

JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s a project every science fiction fan should appreciate. An artist has created a digital poster depicting hundreds of space ships from TV, movies and games — to scale! The creator of this mammoth project is DeviantARTist Dirk Loechel, who did a lot of research to scale the ships as accurately as possible. Since these are all fictional spacecraft, here are some real-life craft to give you an idea of the size of these things. The International Space Station is about 109 m wide, about 13 m shorter than the USS Defiant from the Star Trek universe. (Find the Defiant-class near the right edge of the poster, about halfway down.) Star Trek’s USS Enterprise is about three times longer, roughly the size of the US Navy supercarrier, the USS Nimitz. The Saturn V rocket used to launch the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and ’70s is about as tall as the ISS is wide. As an aside, the Enterprise is pretty puny compared to an Imperial Destroyer of the Star Wars universe.
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