I’m feeling anxious about it already and it isn’t slated to happen until October 2018. I’m talking about the launch of the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Huge amounts of time and energy (and money) have been funneled into this telescope. It’s a nail-biter unlike other launches because you can’t just turn around and redo this if it fails.

If successful, this telescope will enable some serious science. I read a quote from one astronomer who said that with the JWST, in one day we’ll learn more than everything we currently know about the first galaxies in the universe. It’s designed for viewing the first luminous objects after the Big Bang, and learning how they developed.

Interestingly, another one of its tasks is to directly observe and photograph planets around other stars. Spectroscopy might tell us something about an exoplanet’s weather, color, and maybe even help identify whether there is vegetation.

A few other amazing things I didn’t know:

  • Whereas the Hubble Telescope sits within somewhat easy reach over the earth (550 km up), the JWST will be 1.5 million km away – out at an Earth-Sun Lagrange point. That’s outside the Earth’s orbit but in a gravitationally stable point. No repair missions are possible.
  • One reason it has to be this far away is that an infrared telescope like this needs to be cold. This one must be kept at an incredible -233 C, which is 50 degrees above absolute zero. At the Lagrange point, the JWST will keep one side permanently facing the Earth and Sun. That side has a sunshield “the size of a small tennis court.” It blocks light and heat from the warm side of the spacecraft so the telescope on the cold side can make its observations without interference from the infrared radiation.
  • The main mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, more than twice as large as the Hubble. It’s made of 18 segments that will unfold after launch.

You see why I’m already worried? There are so many bits and pieces that have to go right, not to mention the launch itself. If it all goes as planned, this will be stupendous. Of course, the Mars rover missions were incredibly complex and they worked, so maybe …

Go to NASA for the whole story. 

8518326751_0757ca9b9a_bNASA.   Full scale model with it’s five-layer sun shield




fun with rockets over norway


In case you didn’t read about this amazing spectacle on “Bad Astronomy” or elsewhere, click on the photo for the whole story about the sky over Norway last night. It seemed like there was a temporary opening into an alternate universe, but that wasn’t quite what happened.

the future is late


Is it just a coincidence that the future is arriving just as I’m getting old? I mean “the future” as in science-fiction-like cool technology. Why couldn’t the future have arrived when I was a kid? Sure, we switched from operator-assisted telephones to dial telephones back then. That was a big deal. Another advance was moving up from a black and white to a color TV. But today we’ve got items like this:


A reusable space plane is on the drawing boards. No pilot needed, no huge breakaway booster rockets, carries 12 metric tons. Click the picture for details.

When we’re through with the space plane, hop on the space elevator, because a carbon tube wire has been developed that‘s strong enough to serve as an earth-to-space anchor line. Yes, there are huge engineering challenges yet to be conquered, but give it a century. If we hadn’t spayed our cats, their great-great-great (etc.) grand-kitties could ride it into orbit. Don’t look down.

Atom-sized transistors: buy a bucketful down at the atom-sized device fabricator shop.

I’ll probably miss most of the good stuff. You know they’ll develop a major rejuvenator and lifespan extender the day after my memorial service. On the bright side, I’ll also miss the day when our AI overlords hook together all organic human brains for a big parallel processing experiment.

what are you doing on friday the 13th, april 2036?


It’s a trick question, I guess, because the world will end on December 21, 2012 according to Master Nashwan, the Walking Truth God. Just for fun, however, lets jump ahead; first to the year 2027. That’s the year that the 880-foot asteroid, Apophis, comes so close to the Earth that it passes within the orbits of our communications satellites. Here’s an image from Wikipedia showing just how dang close that is:


Then on 4/13/36 it comes calling with a 1 in 45,000 chance of striking the earth. The estimate will be revised either upwards or downwards by then. Wouldn’t you like to be in space, watching it fly by? You’d have to be pretty close, and you’d want to follow it for a while to get a good view. Maybe there will be tourist flights for just such occasions. It would be kind of like whale watching.

Maybe the other Apophis will save us. Apophis the space rock vs. Apophis the Egyptian god. Place your bets.

Meanwhile, enjoy the utter awesome-itude of a view from orbit, courtesy of the Boston Globe. I highly recommend clicking on the photo and going to a page full of large, amazing pictures. You’ll see this in a much larger size and it’s the best screen wallpaper ever.


meanwhile, in outer space

  • I hate to use the word, but this is truly awesome. A police cruiser camera in Edmonton caught an incoming meteor over Alberta on the 20th.
  • The world’s largest digital camera will sit atop Mount Haleakala on Maui to watch for NEOs (near-earth objects) and asteroids in general. How long would it take to download one of its 1.4 billion pixel images to your laptop?
  • You probably saw the recent pictures of planets orbiting a sun. It won’t be many years before we can view earth-size planets and focus in on those in a “habitable” zone around a star. Spectrographic analysis of a planet’s atmosphere will allow us to detect signs that may indicate biology, such as oxygen and methane. Then we can say, “Let’s go and see what, if anything, lives there, it’s only 900 years away.” Seriously, even though we can’t make a jaunt over to visit, there are some exciting times coming up. Also, over at SETI, they are predicting that improved technology will detect alien radio signals (if such signals are out there) within two dozen years.
  • Lastly, it looks like astronauts at the International Space Station will be able to enjoy recycled pee at Thanksgiving.