Reason; as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct

Category: Space

Fascinating AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Cornell University’s Astronomy team


“I personally am constantly baffled by the size of space, every time you try to compress things by comparing them to smaller things you very quickly get back to a scale you can no longer comprehend. This is why astronomers have to rely so heavily on mathematics, because the scales involved are beyond comprehension by any other means. I study galaxies and to me they are the most beautiful objects in the Universe, they vary so much in shape, size and colour, making up formations that are almost beyond belief. Striving to explain these objects is a fascinating experience.”


“In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” – Carl Sagan

Speech to be given on moon-mission failure

Had there been a terminal problem during the moon landing in 1969, this speech had been prepared by Richard Nixon’s government:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


Carl Sagan’s thoughts on Voyager 1’s Image

Carl Sagan’s thoughts on Voyager 1’s Image

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

– Carl Sagan, 1994


A little perspective…

A little perspective…

Carl Sagan once said, in his profound and eloquent thoughts on Voyager 1’s iconic image looking back at Earth, that “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” I think his point is exactly the right one to make, the kind made by a man who would not for a second consider passing up an opportunity to champion rationalism. The greatest thinkers seldom do.

Seeing this type of perspective is a good exercise for humans. It helps to thwart that tempting inner feeling that we are somehow special, somehow divine. That dangerous feeling that we will prevail. Below I include a link to an interesting wikipedia page that I think can have the same effect. When you think of the extreme dangers we are ignoring today, that threaten us on a time scale of hundreds of years or less, it is strange to think we will, in all likelihood, never have the chance to pit our collective wit against the myriad of far greater difficulties that lie ahead.


Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who today took command of the International Space Station, has, in the last few months, added thrust to science’s rising draw of public interest. Over half a million people are following his twitter page where he posts daily the photos he takes as he gazes down towards Earth. He has done a great service to science with his often poetic reflections on life aboard the ISS and his enthusiasm for communication and teaching. His pictures can be strikingly beautiful and his reflections equally moving. Below I include a link to his twitter account and was prompted to write this post after reading his responses to frequently asked questions that he posted today, an excerpt from which I include below.

“Question: How can a young person get into this field?

Answer: Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.

It takes: physical fitness to the highest standard, an advanced technical degree, and a proven ability to make good decisions when consequences matter. Then apply to the space agency of your country, and compete with the thousands who also want to fly in space.”



TED talk: Phil Plait: How to defend the Earth from asteroids

TED talk: Phil Plait: How to defend the Earth from asteroids

This TED talk covers some fascinating facts on historic asteroids and discusses the potential dangers they could yet pose. More interesting still, Phil Plait goes on to describe some of the many creative solutions that have surfaced since the discussion began.


“This brings me to the last of the big questions, the future of the human race. If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy, we should make sure we survive and continue. But we are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” – Stephen Hawking in his 2008 TED talk.


A photo taken from the 2005 Huygens probe that landed on Titan’s surface. It is the only image from the surface of a planetary body further away than Mars.

Titan as enigmatic as Europa…

We have heard a lot about Europa. Locked in Jupiter’s orbit it is one of the smoothest celestial bodies in our solar system. We believe that enveloping an iron core, similar to Earth’s, is a massive ice crust comprised of more than double the water found here at home. Its greatest spectacle is very common knowledge today; that according to the best evidence it seems there may be a vast liquid ocean, perhaps 100km deep, under a shell 30km across. On the list of things I hope to see in my life, footage sent back from the oceans beneath is in competition for top spot.

Amazingly there is almost an even more extraordinary satellite in our solar system – Titan. Reading the details we know about Titan seem to place it closer to the realms of science-fiction than reality, but how often does that seem to be the case. Views of that most awe-striking planet, Saturn, are obscured from Titan’s surface by a dense, orange organonitrogen haze. Overall its atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, but as a strange parallel to our familiar Earth its atmosphere is adorned with clouds of methane and ethane gas. Hidden under its orange haze, Titan is only revealing its mysteries very slowly. It may be that these clouds are part of a cycle similar to that of water on Earth; including seasons, rain, and resulting rivers and seas. Certainly we know that there are dunes shaped by wind, and pictures of these can be seen on the Wikipedia page I include below. Confirming the presence of Titan’s stable bodies of liquid has been a major focus as they mark the first observed aside from our own. Radar analysis of one of Titan’s polar regions in 2006, by the Cassini spacecraft, revealed many vast lakes, seas and tributary systems. Intriguingly the lakes analysed only varied in height by 3mm at their surface, suggesting either that the winds in this region were low, or that the pools are filled with a very viscous fluid. Similar to Europa, under this strange world above, again it is thought that liquid oceans are hidden within. The vague impression we have of Titan – a cold and mysterious world tantalisingly rich with organic molecules, along with liquid bodies, and perhaps a hidden ocean yet to be confirmed – has meant that it has been studied feverishly since Voyager 1 gave us our first real glimpse in 1979. There are plans to land a probe in one of its polar lakes (images of which can also be seen on the page below), but only when the project can win the never ending funding battle at NASA. It just lost out to a mission that plans to send a probe to Jupiter in 2022 to investigate Europa, and two of Jupiter’s other moons, in more detail. Either way, we wait with patient anticipation.