The Angry Asteroid

Imagine you’re an asteroid, minding your own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam!

All things astronomical tend to intrigue me. I find nothing more comforting than looking up at the night sky and realizing that all my cares and concerns don’t even amount to a grain of sand on the celestial beach. I also enjoy the fact that there is still so much to learn about our universe. For me, as long as there is the potential for knowledge, life is worth living.

So imagine my joy when I learned that NASA was once again attempting something that had never been done before, and we’d be able to get an unprecedented view of their efforts. They were experimenting, for the first time, with a type of planetary defense system that, if successful, might one day save us from Armageddon in the form of an asteroid impact.

DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test was, in essence, a suicide mission for this unmanned craft. The scientists wanted to see if crashing DART into an asteroid at the speed of 14,000 miles per hour would alter said asteroid’s trajectory in any significant way.

This was an impressive feat indeed, because at the time of impact the asteroid Dimorphos was roughly 6.8 million miles away from earth. And we managed to pull off a direct hit. Granted, they were able to make a few course corrections along the way, but still, what are the odds of that?

One of the reasons for course corrections is the fact that we couldn’t even see Dimorphos until we were about an hour away from impact. Didymos, the much larger asteroid that Dimorphos orbits, was too bright to allow us to discern its little companion. It was only discovered because of radar echoes and optical light curve analysis.

To make sizes and distances more comprehensible, I asked NASA for a simile back on October 1st (really, I did), but they have yet to get back to me. If they ever do, I’ll be sure to update this post. Meanwhile, I did a little sloppy math and came up with this simile for you:

DART hitting Dimorphos at that distance and speed would be like me standing in Melbourne, Australia and throwing a walnut at a dodgeball in Odessa, Ukraine. And that walnut would have to go 18 miles per hour for a little over three weeks before its fateful crash.

Course corrections notwithstanding, that’s hardly a piece of cake. The fact that I was always last to be picked for any sports activity throughout my years in school will tell you just how improbable my success in that endeavor would be. The idea that anyone could pull off such a caper blows my mind.

I was relieved to see that it was a kinetic impact, not some sort of a bomb, like they would use to save the day in the movies. First of all, since there’d be no atmosphere, the force of an explosion would dissipate into space rather than blowing the thing to smithereens. (Think path of least resistance.) And I’d rather not launch nuclear bombs from earth, for fear that there’d be some malfunction during liftoff that we’d be regretting for centuries. And who knows what impact nuclear waste would have in space.

When I saw this footage, the impact looked like everything Hollywood tries to achieve with nuclear warheads. It was spectacular. I must confess that, while still intact, Dimorphos looked to me like a chocolate ball crusted in chopped nuts. It looked delicious.

There will probably be months of analysis before we know how effective the impact was. Apparently NASA had no idea what Dimorphos was going to look like, and the impact was bigger than they expected. Those unknowns kind of make me nervous. That inspires me to take you on a flight of fancy away from my science-loving brain and crash us right into my fiction-loving brain. Conspiracy theories are bound to follow, but remember, you heard it here first:

If we never actually saw the thing we planned to crash into until an hour previously, and the resulting impact was larger than expected, do we actually know what we have done? Yes, NASA chose an asteroid that has no chance of hitting earth, but, what if it was a living thing, minding its own business, and out of nowhere… KaBlam! Or what if the Little Prince was living there? Oh, the humanity!

Either way, somebody would be pretty darned annoyed. I know that if something intentionally crashed into me or into my home, I’d be irritated and want answers. I’d be taking off my earrings, preparing to throw down.

So we better keep an eye on Dimorphos. If it suddenly goes out of orbit and starts making a beeline toward Earth, we might be in trouble, because hell hath no fury like an asteroid scorned. Or maybe its anger would have dissipated before it got here, and it would therefore just drop a shower of chocolate balls on us. You have to admit that both theories are equally plausible.


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I Walked in Space!!!

An incredible, immersive virtual reality experience that lets you explore the International Space Station.

I have always been fascinated by the International Space Station. In fact, I have gone to to sign myself up for text notifications when the ISS will be passing over our house. (You can, too!)

If the station’s flyby isn’t at some ungodly hour like 3 a.m., and if the entire Pacific Northwest sky isn’t blanketed in clouds as it so often is, Dear Husband and I make it a point to spot the station from the hot tub in our back yard. I always wave. As far as I know, no one has ever waved back. Still, it never gets old, and it makes me feel connected to something much bigger than myself.

Having said that, just imagine our excitement when we heard that The Infinite was coming to a city near us. This is an amazing virtual reality experience that allows you to virtually walk around inside the space station, explore all its nooks and crannies, and even walk through walls into the vacuum of space. You get to eavesdrop on the astronauts as they go about their daily routines, and you really get a sense of what life must be like up there.

My main takeaway is that I think the station needs to focus more on aesthetics, so that it isn’t such a psychological shock being there. I know it’s zero gravity, and that physical space is at a premium, but every floor, wall, and ceiling was covered with sharp edged, cold, clinical-looking instruments. There needs to be one module where things are warm and soft and comfortable. People need that every now and then. (I wanted to check out the sleeping quarters and the bathrooms, but had no luck finding them. There wasn’t time to see everything, but I suspect I’ll be back.)

When we arrived at the Tacoma Armory for the event, we were given VR headsets, and once we had them on and they were properly adjusted, an assistant came around to see who in our group of 8 were actually family or friends. To avoid bumping into others as you wandered around, you “saw” everyone else as human-shaped, star-filled avatars. Strangers had a glowing blue star in their chest. Friends had golden stars. Facilitators had green stars. If, while wandering the station, you came anywhere close to a real life obstruction, it was covered in bright red lines. I’m proud to say I didn’t bump into anything or anyone during my visit. (A little girl did bump into me once, but no one was hurt.)

At one point I was standing inside a capsule and a ball came whizzing past my head. What the…? I turned, and there was an astronaut catching the ball. He then threw it toward me again, and I spun around to see another astronaut catching it. All the while, they were discussing their work on the station. Even though I knew this was virtual reality, and that a foam ball in zero gravity couldn’t hurt me even if I were truly there, I couldn’t help but duck each time it flew/floated by me.

I had an unexpected intermission when a facilitator approached me and said that the battery on my headset was running low, so they’d have to trade it out for another one. I took off my headset and came crashing back to reality. I was standing in a huge empty room, and oddly enough, its walls were covered with murals of palm trees. (I wish I had thought to snap a picture.) There were dozens of people wearing headsets who were slowly walking around me, obviously interacting with things I could not see. It was rather surreal. I was happy to get another headset on and return to space.

At one point I walked through a (virtual) wall and enjoyed viewing the station from the outside, and also had fun looking down at earth, both in daylight and darkness, from 200 miles above. And then, the next thing I knew, the station left without me! That gave me more time to focus on the universe surrounding me, but still, I wanted to say, “Hey! Wait for me!”

It came back, though, just in time to allow us all to participate in a mission. We were going to do a space walk to observe the astronauts as they made a few repairs. I got to sit there, with nothing but stars beneath my feet, and watch and listen to their communications. I really felt like I was right there with them. If one of them had said, “Here, hold my wrench,” I’d have reached for it.

But of course one cannot spacewalk for days on end, and so the experience came to a close. We were asked to place our headsets on a conveyor belt so that they could be sanitized for the next lucky visitors.

And then we were treated to an unexpected bonus. (“But wait! There’s more!”) That bonus was in the form of an audiovisual art installation by the Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. Called “The Universe within the Universe”, it had us standing in a big circle, gazing into a mirror on the floor that reflected a projection of a very colorful, fast-moving, computer generated journey through his interpretation of everything from the micro universe to the macro universe, and back again. Still photos don’t do it justice, so here’s a short video we took of a tiny segment of the installation. ***If flashing lights cause you to have seizures, you may want to skip it.*** Otherwise, enjoy!

The Infinite is currently in Tacoma, Washington, and will remain there until about September. If you are anywhere close, you’ll really want to experience it. It’s out of this world. (See what I did there?)

If Tacoma is beyond your reach, you can go to the website and sign up to be notified of future tour dates. Keep an eye out in case it comes your way. It’s even better than watching the International Space Station fly overhead while you sit in a hot tub with someone you love (although that’s pretty cool, too).

If stuff like this existed when I was a kid, I’d have taken science more seriously. What amazing times we live in.

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Dying in Space

Here’s something to think about. 18 people have died in space so far, including 14 NASA astronauts. But there has yet to be a case where one member of a crew has died, leaving the rest behind to cope with the body. And that scenario doesn’t seem to be a part of the regular NASA training protocol. It’s more of a “We’ll figure it out when it happens” plan.

But seriously, what to do? What to do? According to this article, entitled, “What Happens to Your Body When You Die in Space?” there is no easy solution. Burial in space is a problem because the body will get sucked along your flight path, making for a creepy sight seeing tour for the next ship that comes your way. (If you’ve enjoyed the show The Orville as much as I have, you’ll know that they have several dead bodies orbiting their ship. Ugh.)

Storing the body on board for a trip back home leads to smell and biohazard and takes up much needed space and weight allocation. Burying the body on the moon or mars could lead to bacteria being introduced to those planets, with unknown consequences.

There is a company that’s looking into freeze drying a body in space, and then rattling it until it’s reduced to about 50 pounds of frozen ice particles. That would be like cremation without fire. And the article also talks about cannibalism, which, let’s face it, is a gruesome last resort.

I think this can of worms needs to be opened, and soon, before someone dies in space individually. It’s bound to happen sooner or later. Personally, I’d kind of like to know what could potentially happen to me before signing up for a trip on an interstellar cruise ship.

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Pursuing Comet Neowise

It takes a lot to get me up at 4 am.

I’m obsessed with all things astronomical, so when I heard that Comet Neowise was passing by, and wouldn’t visit us again until the year 8786, I figured I better make an effort to see it. Even if I somehow achieve immortality, I’m sure that by 8786 my eyesight would be pretty much toast. Or, worse yet, I’d forget having seen it immediately afterward. That, and I’m not very good at delaying gratification.

So, several days this month, when there were no clouds in the sky, I’ve set my alarm for 4 in the morning. That should be an indicator of my dedication. The first time, I thought for sure I was seeing it. But it turned out to be Venus. Pretty, yes, but not quite what I had in mind.

On my last attempt (as of this writing) I managed to find it, but it looked like a faint smudge. But that could have been because I had to keep wiping the sleep from my eyes. I tend to lack focus at that hour. It’s part of my charm.

After all that sleep deprivation, I was equal parts delighted and irritated to discover that for the rest of this month, it should be visible in the Northwest sky, below the big dipper, an hour or so after sunset here in the US. Check out this article for details.

Incidentally, Neowise is a cool name. It was so named because it was NASA’s Neowise spacecraft that first discovered it. Funny to think that that craft will seem extremely quaint by the time the comet visits us again. I wonder if Earth will be just a sun blasted, dusty rock by then. Neowise only knows.

For a spectacular picture of Neowise taken with Seattle in the foreground, check out this link. And if you want to see a closer image, over Death Valley, check out this link. Both require a Facebook account. Also, the photo you see below was taken by my friend Mike Wainwright.

Keep reaching for the stars…

Neowise by Mike Wainwright
Neowise by Mike Wainwright

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book!

Happy Birthday, Solar Dynamics Observatory!

Ten years is an awfully long time to be staring at the sun.

Ten years ago today, on February 11, 2010, The Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched into space by NASA. Happy birthday, SDO! All the more so because I had no idea you were up there until today!

Ten years is an awfully long time to be staring at the sun, but the SDO does it with aplomb. According to the NASA website, it has been in geosynchronous orbit above its ground station in New Mexico that entire time, producing enough data to fill up an entire CD every 36 seconds. That’s even more impressive when you learn that it’s still doing its thing even though its projected lifespan was only supposed to be 5 years.

It has been observing sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections so that we can improve forecasts of solar storms. This is important because these storms effect astronauts, satellites, electricity, satellite communications, and navigations systems.

What I find most compelling about this project is that you can click here, right now, and see what’s going on with the sun in (near) real time. You can also see stunning images, like the one below, of solar activity in the past. How cool (or in this case, very, very hot) is that?

I just love science.

(Today also happens to be my mother’s birthday. If she were still alive, she’d be turning 93. She’d be very proud to share this day with the SDO.)


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Spotting the International Space Station

It amazes me that so few of us have seen the third brightest object in our sky.

You will often see me looking skyward. I’m fascinated by all things just out of reach. (That’s also why I love to travel.)

“The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway.” -Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

In my opinion, there are very few things that are as beautiful as the night sky. That notion has become all the more precious to me now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, where that sky is often obscured by clouds. I will never take the heavens for granted again. When they’re visible, I want to be out there, looking at them.

It amazes me that so few of us have seen the third brightest object in our sky. (The sun and the moon being, of course, the first and second.) But the International Space Station moves pretty darned fast, orbiting the earth several times a day. (Explain that, you flat earthers!)

My husband saw it once just after sunset. He says it was high enough that the sun was still hitting it, even though it was dark out. (It’s 248 miles up, after all.) And then, as it headed toward the horizon and got in the earth’s shadow, it blinked out, as if someone had turned out a light. Now, how cool is that?

I must confess that I have yet to see it myself. But I keep trying. And now I have hope. Now you can head on over to the NASA website and sign up for e-mail notifications when the space station will be visible in your location. (Sadly, they don’t account for clouds.)

It is kind of exciting, getting that e-mail, setting my alarm and then rushing out to look up in hope and anticipation. That, and the idea that little ol’ me with my horrible eyesight might be able to see something that is 248 miles away from me… what a concept.

If you haven’t seen the space station yet, I encourage you to give it a try. I guarantee you it will remind you that humans can do amazing things when we set our minds to it, and actually cooperate. That’s a wonderful mindset to have in this era of division and anxiety.

International Space Station Star Trails
“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.” -NASA/Don Pettit

Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!


The NASA Tank Top Debacle

Recently I shared this on my Facebook page because it delighted me.

Nasa Tanks

I love that someone is standing up for girls. I love that I’m not the only one in this world who wants girls to love science and dream just as big as their male counterparts. This small act just made me so happy.

And then came a shitstorm of epic proportions. This, from her blog:

“Every few years I manage to touch the 3rd rail of the internet and I am reminded how aggressively histrionic so many men can be toward women disrupting the status quo. Since this tweet I have been called repeatedly <offensive terms warning> “idiot”, “ass”, “whore”, “piece of shit”, “dick”, “moron”, “twat”, “bitch”, “crazy bitch”, “asshole”, “motherfucker”, “garbage”, “cancer”, “psychopath”, “faggot”, “dyke”, “dyke ass”, “cunt”, and “retard”. I’ve been told to “shut up” and “fuck off”. I was told I should be “punched in the head”, “raped”, “euthanized”, that I “needed a bullet to the brain”, and “should kill myself”. I was sent cartoons of Nazis kicking women on the ground. Because I moved 5 shirts. 25 feet.”

I don’t understand why men are so easily threatened. Don’t they have daughters? Sisters? Mothers? What causes them to go straight to name-calling mode in these situations? Do they think that’s a good look? If this is an attempt to appear superior, it backfires in a monumental way.

I get that they are feeling threatened and are therefore lashing out. Their sense of entitlement and privilege is being challenged from all sides these days. They’re not used to that. They’re the only group that has had the luxury of not being used to that.

But I’d like to respectfully point out that some of their fears are patently absurd. Are these men afraid that their chances of working at NASA would be threatened by this small act? Trust me, this reactionary type of man isn’t fit to scrub a NASA toilet, let alone compete with the big girls.

But the most terrifying, most sobering fact about this type of backlash is that, thanks to other white males for the most part, these irrational and threatened men have access to guns. And it’s becoming quite obvious that it isn’t the terrorists, it’s the disenfranchised white male who poses the biggest threat to our society.

But the days of appeasing these men are over. I’ll be moving tank tops every chance I get now. Believe that. Keep fighting the good fight, Katie Hinde!


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Gravity, with all the Bells and Whistles

The other day I went to see the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, in IMAX 3D.

To say that this was not the movie experience of my childhood is putting it mildly. Back then, you went to a shabby little two screen theater, the kind with sticky floors, gum under the seats, and mice running around in the dim light reflected off the movie screen, and you had a perfectly grand time with your popcorn and your raisinets and your tall glass of mostly ice. And it was usually the only place you could go and sit in the air conditioning in the summertime.

Shit, but I’m old.

Anyway, contrast that with my Gravity experience and you’ll see how far we’ve come. The movie was showing at my local multiplex which has about a zillion screens and thick plush carpets and more than one concession stand serving four-course meals and video games in the lobby and… I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but then I realized. This is the sensory overload that is Las Vegas.

Gone are the days when you could shuffle in wearing flip flops and have your purse made out of a pair of jeans slung over your shoulder. No. Going to the movies these days is an event. You have to prepare for it. You have to be present. You almost feel like sending postcards to people. Well, you sort of do, because you’re tweeting and texting your fingers to the bone during the previews.

And talk about sticker shock. Between the 14 dollars just to get in and the ten thousand percent mark up on the food, you practically have to take out a bank loan just to kill two hours of time.

And when did 15 previews become the norm? I mean, previews are usually my favorite part. Previews are a movie boiled down to a thick, rich, dramatic broth. But when they go on for a half hour, you begin to feel like you’re being force fed.

But when the lights went down, rather than noticing mice scurrying in the darkness, I put on those 3D glasses and completely and utterly lost myself in the movie. I was floating in outer space, dodging catastrophes and struggling for air right along with the actors. It wasn’t until the credits began to roll that I began wondering how the heck they pulled off all those weightless special effects. During the movie it just seemed natural. And there could be no better testament than that to the overall experience.

My only gripe is that in each of the three spacecraft, there were ballpoint pens spinning through the air. Don’t you think that NASA, of all organizations, would have figured out how to go paperless by now?


There’s a Freakin’ HOLE in the Sun!

NASA released a video of a hole in the sun so massive it’s the equivalent of 50 planet earths across, and takes up about a quarter of the sun’s surface. It’s this big black mass, and it makes your basic sun spot look like a walk in the park. You can see the video here. This hole is causing magnetic field lines to whip out into the solar wind instead of back to the sun’s surface.

But here’s what I find most horrifying about this news: Apparently these holes are quite common. They come, they go.

Gloriosky. How have I managed to live on this planet for 48 years without knowing this? That’s like, I don’t know, living on Nantucket and not knowing about whales. Living in Orlando and not knowing about Mickey Mouse.

What else am I overlooking?

And how is this change in solar weather impacting us? I have no idea, but I fully intend to blame it for the foul mood I’ve been in for the past few days. Yeah. It’s all the sun’s fault. That’s it.

sun hole