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Isn’t it curious that the spacecraft that successfully landed on Mars last night is essentially a car, not unlike those self-powered contraptions pioneered by the likes of Henry Ford? Curiosity, as it is aptly named, will explore Mars as if it were an off-road jaunt off Route 66. Next time you go for a drive in your own car, just imagine!
Fresh from the director of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin…
DECEMBER ASTRONOMICAL EVENTS
…….you can watch without a telescope.
First, the Geminid meteor shower will peak on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 13-14, though there should be a reasonable number of meteors visible for a few nights before and after that. Meteors, often called shooting stars, are seen as streaks of light moving rapidly across the sky. They are actually small particles burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Earth encounters streams of these particles at specific times each year, resulting in predictable meteor showers. The August Perseid meteor shower is probably best known, but the December Geminids are often equally good (though December weather is more often cloudy and temperatures are less pleasant for spending night hours outdoors). To watch these meteors, dress very warmly, find a reasonably dark location, and look up. You should see at least several meteors in a half hour of watching, depending on how clear and dark the sky is. Geminids will appear to streak away from the constellation of Gemini, north of the well-known figure of Orion, but can be seen in any part of the sky, so watch the darkest part of your sky. Gemini will have risen in the eastern sky by 8 pm, though the best meteor viewing will be when it is much higher around and after midnight. The Moon will brighten the western sky somewhat during the first half of the night on Dec. 13-14.
The second event is a total eclipse of the Moon on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 20-21. Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow. The partial phase of this eclipse will begin at 12:33 am, though there should be some shadowing visible for perhaps half an hour before that. The Moon will be totally eclipsed from 1:41 to 2:17 am, with another partial phase following totality. The Moon will move from very high in the southeast to moderately high in the west during these hours. During totality the Moon is sometimes so dim as to be almost invisible, but more often is easily visible with a reddish color. Unlike a meteor shower, where one should plan to spend quite awhile outdoors in a reasonably dark location, a lunar eclipse can be viewed by simply going outdoors a few minutes at a time anywhere, and even with a partly cloudy sky. The next total lunar eclipse visible from here will occur in mid-April 2014, an unusually long gap between such eclipses, so try to catch this one if weather permits.
It was on this day in 1969 that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon.
They were part of the Apollo 11 crew. An estimated 600 million people watched live coverage of the moon landing. (I was among them, freshly back from Vietnam, sitting on the floor of our small unfurnished apartment overlooking a parking garage on Chicago’s North Side, gasping in amazement.)
The future of mankind lies out there, in space, and yet man is so myopic, so timid and self-absorbed, that despite that brave step forward, he has since taken two steps back. Once again, the keys to the future lie in understanding the lessons of the past.
If your car could travel at the speed of light, would your headlights work?
– courtesy of erudite scientist Steven Wright
“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the’Universe,’a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
“If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
“Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.”
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
Plodding the treadmill at the gym today, on the cusp of Congress voting the health insurance bill, I came into the middle of a History Channel feature on the history of volcanoes at Yellowstone National Park. I didn’t have earphones, but read the scrolling text over the beautiful photography and graphic seismic maps. Driving home, reflecting on what I saw and read, I came to what at first may seem an odd conclusion – space travel may become the next great health care challenge.
Not health care insurance, or even the provision of health care itself, but long-term health care for the human race, not to mention the rest of life as we know it. When Einstein said that the greatest challenge to humankind might be extending our compassion across time and space, I thought he was referring to the need for more selflessness. But after watching the history channel piece, I think he may have meant that man’s challenge is to extend our very being across the vastness of time and space, before our ancient earthbound homeland destroys itself, not in battle, but in turning itself inside out once again.
Let’s look at what we know, as reported in the Yellowstone TV special. Visitors are drawn to the park by the hot cauldrons of mineral water bubbling and steaming to the surface, and by the dramatic geysers. What are they? Obviously, they are made of water that is heated deep below and pushed to the surface under variable pressure. Why? Because 10 miles below lies a 25-mile wide pool of liquid rock, molten at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit – twice as hot as a pizza oven. This heats natural water coursing through the thick hard crust, and that’s what we see bubbling up.
Scientists have found evidence of ancient lava on the earth’s surface a hundred miles from the center of Yellowstone, yet where are the remnants of the ancient volcanic mountain from which it burst? Gone. Why is the mountain gone? Because the volcanic blast was so large, so devastating, some 640,000 years ago, that it totally destroyed the mountain, which rained down as lava and dust from a cloud that covered the entire west of the U.S. It was what scientists now call a super volcano. The ancient rim remnants are 45 miles wide. The fields of lava it left behind have evolved into the vast plains of trees and grass that cover the area now.
Also evident in the area are the parallel scratches on surface rock that indicates the previous movement of glacial ice, yet there is no current evidence of mountains high enough to support such glaciers. Why? Previous volcanic activity must have thrust up the land to heights high enough to support the freezing of snow into glaciers, and then those mountains disappeared into volcanic oblivion.
Yellowstone had been riddled by many, many earth tremors since such measurements began a hundred years ago. Why? That molten sea is still active though trapped below miles of hard rock. Scientists, using modern measuring equipment and space observation, have also detected evidence of a series of super volcanoes going back millions of years that have left traces of rims that have moved in a vast V-shape pattern through the area. They have also detected a deeper, active volcanic mass, stretching at least 400 hundred miles beneath the Yellowstone pool, in a rising chimney shape. What could that all mean? Plate tectonics at work. As the earth’s surface has moved above its core through the ages, the chimney has thrust up its magma in different places at the surface, tracing the giant V of super volcano rims.
So, what does the future hold? Obviously, the Yellowstone region, even without any current volcanic mountains, is seismically active. The many small earthquakes indicate that the molten pool and the magma chimney beneath it are restive, even through the thick surface rock. This suggests that pressure is continuing to build, and someday will again burst through the surface in another catastrophic super volcano, perhaps devastating much of America.
This planet Earth we love and which many of us work so hard to conserve, is probably not done with us. Like perhaps millions of species before us, not to mention the many we see in jeopardy to this day, we may face ultimate atomization. In fact, it is almost surely inevitable.
So why space travel? If man is to have any opportunity to extend that compassion Einstein, in his vanity, seemed to have thought we possess, colonizing other planets in this and perhaps other solar systems may be our only feasible destiny.
How much time do we have? Visit Yellowstone and check out Old Faithful. The long-term health of the human race may depend on our collective conclusions. Keep that in mind when legislation and incentives for space travel next come around.