Mad Rant: Outer Space

Photo by Jay R. Thompson, taken Saturday, March 10, 2012, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ask me to draw a diagram of a two-loop pressurized-water nuclear reactor and I can probably do it — I love to draw and it’s been a while since I tested myself on basic reactor layout. But understanding the fundamental design of nuclear reactors is simple compared to describing my enthusiasm for outer space.

I’m one of those who want our species to explore the emptiness, populate the solar system, and eventually wander the galaxy. But that’s not the enthusiasm I’m talking about. My adoration of the great beyond is simpler, and yet I can’t find a container in which to put that adoration so as to carry it around and show to others. I’m just geeked that outer space exists at all and that we’re a part of it, composed of its fused particles.

To me, the fascination seems obvious. I’ve tried more than once to put this feeling into words, and have achieved consistent and complete failure. The response is usually a raised eyebrow or something like it. Words fail me, or maybe I fail the words. Regardless, I’m going to take another shot at articulating my glee, or whatever it is. Hang on, let me put on my seatbelt and crash helmet. Right then, off we go.

So space is there, several dozen miles above your head, but so what? Humans have been there and back. No biggie. Space is nothing new. In fact, it’s the least new thing ever. Space has been out there (and here, for that matter) as long as time has existed, and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic or poetic about it. Time and space seemingly arrived on the scene at the same time. Maybe I should shrug and put on some fashionable air of “been there, done that.” But it would go against my very nature.

You may have noticed lately that two stars dominate the western sky shortly after sundown. They’re the planets Jupiter and Venus, the bright objects you saw in the photo at the top of this post. But which is which? Go ahead and guess. You might guess that the brighter one (bottom right) is Jupiter and the dimmer one is Venus.

Here, I’ll give you a clue. This is a close-up of the planet in the upper left of the photo:

Notice anything? Those little specks lined up near the planet are the four largest Jovian moons. From top to bottom they are Europa, Io, and Ganymede, with Callisto barely visible below Ganymede. That means this planet, the dimmer of the two, is Jupiter. If you want to double-check my interpretation of the image, see page 38 in the March issue of Astronomy.

Jupiter is more than twice the mass of all the other planets in our solar system combined, but its orbit is also 483 million miles from Earth’s orbit. That’s 18 times farther away from Earth than the orbit of our next-door neighbor, Venus. Hence, Jupiter is the dimmer of the two.

You can look up and see these things and so what? They’re just a couple of planets. What’s the big deal?

Jupiter, Venus and their brethren aren’t just points of blurry light. They’re three-dimensional worlds composed of the same stuff as our own. They’re planets, huge spheres of matter, entire worlds that no Earthling has ever visited. They just float there, out of reach, perpetual mysteries. Some have their own earthquakes, volcanoes, or lakes. Others have wind and storms, while others have no atmosphere whatsoever. The planets in our solar system have been there for billions of years, the only witnesses to the entire history of our solar system.

Even when the sun is up and the sky cloudless, the blue is only a veil, behind which the ultimate dynamo — the universe — continues to crank along as it has for all time. In a way, these worlds (and everything beyond) are reassuring. Being human if often frustrating and scary, but the worlds, the solar system and the universe don’t need anyone to mind the store. We can disappear, and everything will be fine. Our neighboring planets are just there, indifferent and presumably lifeless.

When I look up, I don’t really see the points of light that my eyes see. I see huge islands among emptiness. I see the forever-baking surface of Venus, Jupiter’s 60-plus moons whirring about, the Oort Cloud, the galaxies with solar systems of their own. Outer space is the place of mysteries, with room for the mind to ponder the strangest ideas imaginable.

Oh dear, I’ve failed again. Maybe I need a different medium. Poetry? Song? Modern interpretive dance? Maybe someday.

In the mean time, what do you think about when you look up at the stars? What is outer space, or the universe, to you?


11 Comments on “Mad Rant: Outer Space”

  1. A Human Being says:

    Space is economical. Our world cannot sustain the status quo. It is proving to be far more difficult than we thought to change our worldview, that we may have unlimited growth and progress even when facing inevitable ecological collapse and depletion of major energy resources as we are now. It’s only a question of how we manage disaster, not whether it is preventable here on Earth. The damage has already been done, and we’re just beginning to realize just how badly we’ve screwed up. If we should want to continue the greatest experiment in human history (of becoming a primarily agriculturally-based species which has given rise to complex society and technology and everything else people know and like doing), we have only one option, and that is to continue exploiting the universe to our gain off-world. Hopefully, we’ll have learned a few things about how to regulate the pace of our consumption as we colonize other planets and become a space-faring species. Wars will continue. The division between the have’s and have-not’s should likely become even greater than ever before. These things are human and they’ve always been with us, but we’re finding out pretty quickly that there are real, physical limits to the damage that we can visit upon just one planet.

    • Jay R. Thompson (astrojaybird) says:

      Fascinating perspective, Mr. Human Being. Thank you for offering your thoughts.

    • Usagi No-Jimbo says:

      Yes, let’s Star Trek 2 this mo-fo. Chop chop!

      • A Human Being says:

        OK. It’s opinions like these ‘Mad Rants’ that make the rest of the public so weary of believing in the feasibility of our space program – who do not share this same enthusiasm. When you put ‘space!’ on a pedestal, you transform it into something that only ‘fanatics’ and ‘geeks’ can care about.

        I really hope the discussion will change to becoming more serious about what we should be doing off-world (see Robert Zubrin) instead of doomed to always being seen as a small group of people crying ‘OMG! It’s space!’ Yes, we know. It’s been 40 years seen we’ve gone beyond low Earth orbit. Not so incredible, is it?

  2. A Space Companion says:

    It gladdens me to see someone so excited and interested in the space above them, below them and everywhere. We are immersed in its vastness. You will never be bored when all you have to do is look up on a clear night and be as fascinated as you seem to be. You will have a pc monitor, a book and a quiet symphony of silence all above your head to enjoy. I too am excited and enjoy the wonders of space and wrestle with the image that our planet is but a speck of dust on a grain of sand on which seems like a never ending beach. How is it possible? Why?
    I too look deep into this ‘space’. First I collect before me the first layer of moons, constellations, planets, points of light and stellar dust that make up our Milky Way. Then I look deeper into space past all that and see smudges of galaxies, red, blue and white stars and blackness everywhere. Then I am fooled to find that emptiness is dark matter and again I am amazed. All this wonderment begs me to peer even deeper into space so I strain even harder because I want to see past everything and keep looking until I get to the beginning of space. So I can see the nano point of compressed existence before it explodes into the ‘space’ I have just traveled through. So finally do I find relief that my ambitious deep space peering has been fulfilled? No because now I want to see what came before ‘space’, before existence.
    Reaching that point though takes me away from physics and into philosophy and mysticism which can be interesting but not as factually amazing as that which is closer to evidence. I feel with you about the frustration with finding a media in order to describe your feelings of space. It is so hard describing the simple aspects of it and we haven’t even touched yet on Quantum particles, strings, “God Particles,parallel universe and dimensions. I think we will always be frustrated until we discover not a ready media of communications but only when we discover a new language with the semantics to describe.

    • Jay R. Thompson (astrojaybird) says:

      Thanks for the comment, Space Companion. I get the sense you understand what I was getting at. Keep star-gazing, and I will too.

  3. Denise Dahn says:

    Great post. You inspired me to think of Jupiter and other planets as worlds, not just lights in the night sky. The image of volcanoes and storms and earthquakes on the plantary surface is powerful, and it gives a point of reference for the imagination. Now when I see the stars and planets, I will have an image on my mental-reference-shelf to draw from. Very cool!

  4. charvakan says:

    It’s a happy accident that we can directly perceive celestial bodies at all, when you think about it. On a planet that was always cloud-covered like Venus, we wouldn’t even get a decent view of our own sun. The Asimov story “Nightfall” tells of a planet in a seven-star system in which the sky was dark enough to see stars for just an hour every 2000 years. Our senses evolved to give us advantages in food-gathering, mate-finding, and predator-avoiding, not to allow us to gaze at our moon. It’s a bonus to be able to gather the light in our own little planetary observatories in our heads (assuming we’re not blind) from objects that could be anywhere from a quarter-million miles to millions of light-years away. And what a bonus. Nice post; thanks.

    • Jay R. Thompson (astrojaybird) says:

      I didn’t even think of that, chavakan. Our eyes have nothing to do with the cosmos. It really is a happy accident that humans enjoy the heavens. A bonus indeed. Also, the sci-fi genre is one for which I need a better map, so I appreciate your mention of the Asimov piece. Recommendation or not, I’ve added “Nightfall” to my reading list…my frighteningly long reading list.

  5. […] – Three cheers for the coolness of outer space! […]

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