When I was a teenager I enjoyed a lot of hot chocolate. On one occasion, after heating a mug of water in the microwave, I placed the mug on the counter, tore open a packet and, as soon as the Swiss Miss hit the water it boiled over. The counter was a literal hot mess as quick as I could say “Shit shit shit!”
My best guess for the cause is that the water was ready to boil but was too clean and the mug too smooth. It needed nucleation points — rough spots where a few molecules of gas could orient themselves and start to form bubbles. It’s the same as when carbon dioxide bubbles collect on the soda straw in your ginger ale, or the way a piece of dust or ash serves as a rough kernel upon which a snowflake forms. In my case, the sugar and chocolate dust in my Swiss Miss provided the necessary rough surfaces to allow the water to boil. And the word “dust” reminds me of a funny phrase: mote of dust.
Most of us would probably describe an individual dust particle as a fleck, a speck, or a bit of dust. I’ve only ever heard one man say “mote of dust.” Even when others use the phrase, they’re only quoting him. Him, as in Carl Sagan or, to some admirers, Carl. He was perhaps the greatest ambassador between science and the public who ever lived. In addition to being a NASA consultant for decades, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and much more, Sagan was the host of the 1980 public television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”
We who adore that television series simply call it “Cosmos” and, as anyone with an internet connection and the slightest geekiness knows, a preview for the show’s 2014 remake was released a couple weeks ago. They’re calling it “Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey,” and it’ll be hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are some big differences between Sagan and Tyson, of course, the only notable one being that Tyson has a mustache and Sagan didn’t. But, in a way, that makes them similar because Tyson has a mustache when they’re not fashionable, whereas Sagan lacked a mustache when it WAS fashionable, or at least when Freddie Mercury made it seem fashionable.
Rock ‘n roll aside, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and has been orbiting the planet Saturn since 2004, took a few photos of Earth July 19 at a distance of almost 900 million miles (see photo above). That photo, of course, calls to mind a similar one taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft (below) in 1990 at a distance four times farther than the Cassini photo.
The Voyager photo was advocated for by Carl Sagan himself, and served as the inspiration for the title of his book “Pale Blue Dot.” The Voyager photo remains the most distant ever taken of our planet, which takes us to Sagan’s famous phrase “…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” a phrase he delivered in the original “Cosmos” program.
I’ll not waste time or electronic ink fiddling with lofty ideas that are so much better articulated by others in recent days regarding the Cassini photo, the Voyager photo, or the reboot of “Cosmos.” Instead, I’ll summarize: the Voyager photo and the show “Cosmos” captured humanity’s insignificance as well as our connectedness to all of nature (that means space too). As Phil Plait noted in the caption of the Cassini photo on his Slate blog, “No human has ever ventured outside the frame of this picture.”
So there’s a theme here — Cosmos, Sagan, photo of earth — what of it? Well, it all got me thinking about something that I was, honestly, already thinking about because I’m thinking about it all the time. But despite all that thinking, others still say it so much better. For example, Rachel Edidin at Wired wrote a piece reacting to the Cosmos reboot and composed my thoughts far better than I could:
“As we face an all-out assault on science and the principles that inform it — a dogma-driven, results-focused culture of denial and institutionally reinforced ignorance, as we strip science curricula from schools and research funding from budgets — we need Cosmos more than ever. Carl Sagan’s Spaceship of the Imagination isn’t just a convenient metaphor. It’s an ark, whose trajectory has the potential to change the course of our culture, and, possibly, our future.”
But lets widen the scope of our timeline a little, keeping in mind my mug of hot water from the beginning.
We live in a world where China, Japan and other nations are making news with their respective increased participation in spaceflight and the development of space technology. Private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are also successfully joining the field of spaceflight, and the Mars One project has received tens of thousands of applications from people around the world interested in a one-way trip to establish a permanent settlement on the red planet in 2023. Those are all good things.
The Mars rover Curiosity landed a year ago (Aug. 6, 2012), has steadily made the news since, and is now en route to its destination, Mount Sharp. On this pile let’s toss the Chelyabinsk meteor that ripped across the skies of Russia in February, certainly providing the world with a reminder: while space is a thing to be explored, it also harbors immense threats to our way of life. Further still, we’re in or near the solar maximum, a story that has found its way to the cover of nearly every science magazine (see the Sept. 2013 issue of Astronomy Magazine) in the last couple years, along with non-science publications.
Do you feel the mug of water heating up? Is the stage set? I’m hopeful, and I’ll explain why.
Any human born in 1890 who reached the age of 80 lived through both the first flight of the Wright brothers and the first humans landing on the moon in their lifetime. My parents’ generation were born when color television hadn’t even arrived in the U.S., but that same generation can now watch whatever they want on smart phones, and can do so with higher resolution and more vibrant colors than was offered in the best televisions when even I was growing up. In short, I concede that the phrase “We live in a special time” has probably passed the lips of someone in every generation for the last several generations and, at the time, they were right. But I still believe that our time is different. Why? Because you can Google and watch video footage of the Chelyabinsk meteor in an instant. Or here’s a time-lapse of the first 100 days of the Curiosity rover on Mars:
Videos like those are commonplace so what’s the big deal? Whether in Paris, London, Tokyo, Jakarta, Tehran, Beijing or almost anywhere else in the world, people with an internet connection can watch those videos and be inspired. Did immediate and broad access to such experiences exist 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago?
Yesterday morning I received an email telling me that the International Space Station would be visible over my town for a few minutes starting at 9:00 p.m. So I stopped writing this for 10 minutes and went outside to watched a spaceship the size of a football field silently cross the sky carrying three Americans, two Russians and an Italian. That’s the era we live in. Hell, I’m not special. Anyone can sign up for those email alerts.
So maybe the water is hot, or even ready to boil. But where’s our hot chocolate mix?
In late November, the mountain-sized and newly discovered Comet ISON will pass within 724,000 miles of our sun — if the distance from earth to the sun were a football field, the comet would be less than a yard from a touchdown — and after it passes the sun, hopefully blasted into high-visibility in the process, ISON might be the comet of a lifetime, meaning it could be visible during the day and outshine the full moon at night. It might also blossom into a sputtering nothing, but if it does put on a show the whole world will be unable to ignore ISON for days.
Finally, riding on that comet’s tail is “Cosmos: A Time-Space Odyssey,” which begins broadcasting in February.
Here’s the preview:
Yeah, it’s like that. A documentary, but with mad special effects, three decades of science updates and a side-order of badass. Could this change the world? Could Cosmos be the powdered hot chocolate mix that allows the water of global scientific curiosity to boil? At present, that remains as unknowable as Comet ISON’s winter performance.
I hope that you’ll not only watch Cosmos, but persuade your friends to do the same. Maybe it won’t be as ground-shaking as you or I hope, but we must give it a chance. Screw professional and college sports, boycott the reality shows, and let the sitcoms laugh at their own damn selves, because inspiration and awe about the universe are being served up on a silver platter. Not philosophy, myth or superstition, but facts about the nature of reality. Choosing to not watch suggests nothing better than that you don’t care about the future of humanity. And if that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before the feeling becomes mutual.
There. I said it.
Yeah, yeah, NASA budget, blah blah blah. I know, I really do. I wish NASA had the budget the Department of Defense currently enjoys and I wish we lived in a world where the DoD didn’t need a budget at all. We’ll get there, not tomorrow, but we’ll get there.
In the mean time, while space exploration isn’t as far along as space enthusiasts wish, exciting stuff is still happening. Specifically, one of the boldest missions NASA has ever attempted is about to reach its most nail-biting moment. First, you should sit down. Good. Now slide forward until you’re on the edge of your seat. No? Well, whatever.
Here’s the thing: A one-ton, nuclear powered, laser wielding, six-wheeled robot the size of a small car is going to land on Mars in less than a month. There. I said it. And I’m not making it up. This robot is called the Curiosity rover. Docile-sounding name? Yes. But here’s how I picture the rover:
Okay, now here’s what Curiosity really looks like (Curiosity is the 6-wheeled guy with the Wall-e head to the immediate right of two engineers having a picnic):
On Nov. 26, 2011, right around the time people on the East Coast of the U.S. were pouring their second cup of morning coffee, the Mars Science Laboratory launched from Cape Canaveral. When the craft arrives on Mars Aug. 6 it will have traveled 352 million miles.
The rover is powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG (pronounced: muh-muh-ER-tig … just kidding). That loosely translates to “nuclear generator that runs on plutonium dioxide.” The rover really is equipped with a drill and a laser (see drawing above), as well as an arsenal of cameras, spectrometers, detectors and sensors. The purpose of Curiosity’s permanent visit to the Red Planet is to determine whether the planet ever had conditions capable of supporting microbial life. But that purpose only bears fruit if Curiosity survives its arrival at Mars.
The process through which Curiosity will land on Mars is laughably complex, and at the same time awe-inspiring. Here’s NASA’s sci-fi-style computer-generated animation of Curiosity, from when it enters the Martian atmosphere to when it touches down. Remember those charming touches of realism in the 2009 Star Trek film, or in the Firefly series, such as lens flare, zooming in and out, and a little bit of wobbly camera action? Yeah, they’ve got that:
Regardless, the Curiosity rover reaches Mars in less than a month. Maybe all the engineers’ calculations were solid and nothing goes wrong. Or, maybe something does go wrong. I’d prefer the former but will accept the latter. That a group of people planned and attempted such a complex project is good enough for me. Success or failure, we learn. If Curiosity does set foot on Mars and get on with the mission, hold your breath. It probably won’t find life or signs of life (I just have a feeling, or maybe I’m trying not to get my hopes up) but it will find something, probably something groundbreaking or Earth-shaking. This is science in action. Don’t miss it.
You can follow the Mars Science Laboratory on Twitter here and on Facebook here. Want to see where the space probe is now? Or would you like to see the countdown clock to Curiosity’s arrival on Mars? Click here. And set aside some time Aug. 6 to watch a little NASA TV. I imagine they’ll provide live coverage of the rover’s successful or unsuccessful landing here. I’ll be watching too, but my mind will be hundreds of millions of miles away.