Thursday, December 20, 2012

It Has Been 40 Years…

…and just a few days that there literally was a “Man in the Moon”. On December 14, 1972, at about 5:00 AM UTC Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan entered the missions Lunar Module immediately after his crew-mate and Lunar Module pilot Harrison Schmitt. A few hours later they lifted off from the lunar surface in the Lunar Module's ascent stage to successfully return to Earth on December 17.

Cernan knew of the significance of this event. He knew that Apollo 17 was the last Moon landing mission of the Apollo programme. He also knew that NASA's next project was the Space Shuttle and – as people then still expected – an entire low earth orbit infrastructure, and not further ventures deep into outer space. Like Neill Armstrong's famous first words, Cernan's farewell speech therefore deserves its place in history:

I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. (Source: Eric M. Jones. Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal. NASA)

Today his words, “not too long into the future”, still linger in our ears while we wonder how long exactly “not too long” will be. I doubt that Cernan thought it likely that the next visit to the Moon might not happen during his lifetime. The Apollo programme had proven that manned spaceflight was indeed possible and high expectations had been raised. The world presented by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in their 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was widely considered to be a realistic representation of life at the turn of the millennium.

But for the decision-makers in Washington NASA had fulfilled its purpose. America had beaten the Russians to the Moon and thereby had apparently proven the superiority of Western civilization. But few consciously realized how costly the Apollo programme had been. And with closer problems at hand, like the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights question, Nixon and his administration were unwilling to continue spending that much money on space. Even the total cessation of the manned spaceflight programme was considered a serious option. Effectively this meant, that our expansion into space took a much slower road.

So now we are writing the year 2012. More than ten years have passed since 2001, and while we have had a continuous manned presence in space with the ISS for longer than that, it is a far cry from Clarke's and Kubrick's vision, which now seems optimistic even for the year 2101. Moreover, more than 40 years have passed since Cernan's last steps on the Moon. And it is very likely, that Apollo 17's 50th and even 60th anniversaries will pass without new developments in this realm; especially when we consider the current speed of progress of the American space programme – after and also before the cancellation of the Constellation Program.

But let us not forsake all hope. Maybe it just means that the next “Man in the Moon” will hail from China. Or maybe it means that America needs a “Shenzhou Shock”…

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Not Quite Wunderland

Wunderland is a planet circling Alpha Centauri, and was the earliest extra-solar colony in Known Space's human history. It has a surface gravity of 60% that of Earth's and is hospitable to human life. Wunderland was invaded and its population enslaved by the Kzinti during the first Man-Kzin War. It was freed near the end of the First War by the human Hyperdrive Armada from We Made It. (“Known Space: Locations” from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia)

The Alpha Centauri (α Cen) System, consisting of the two stars α Cen A and α Cen B orbiting each other, is our Sun's closest1 neighbour in space. And because in space ‘close’ is still quite far away, and also because both of α Cen's component stars are conveniently very Sun-like, we should not be surprised that not only have many significant works throughout the history of science fiction2 featured planets orbiting one or both of its component stars, but that proponents of interstellar space exploration, too, have set their focus on α Cen as the most promising first target. Not only due to the Sun-like nature of its stars, but also because relying on propulsion technologies that are considered realistic for the foreseeable future, α Cen is the only target that a probe could reach and report back its results from in the time of a human lifespan; even though the resources required for such an enterprise means that economical limitations makes it unlikely that we will launch such a mission in the near future.

Therefore, yesterday's announcement by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) that it has found a planet orbiting α Cen B means a significant boost for such speculation. The planet, designated α Cen Bb orbits α Cen B at 0.04 au with a ‘year’ of only 3.236 days. α Cen B in turn orbits α Cen A in a highly elliptical orbit at a distance which is roughly the same as from the sun to Saturn and Neptune respectively. And even though α Cen B is slightly smaller and colder than our Sun, the small distance between it and the newly discovered planet means that the planet's surface will be hotter than Mercury and therefore certainly no target for even the most aspiring space colonialists.

However, its discovery confirms speculations that there at least is something for a theoretical interstellar probe to look at around any of α Cen's stars. Additionally, α Cen Bb is not only the nearest extrasolar planet discovered so far but with a mass of only 1.13 Earth masses also the smallest one in orbit around a solar analogue star. And while our technological capabilities are still to weak to detect any planets in orbits further out around either α Cen A or α Cen B, the discovery of α Cen Bb raises the possibility that they might exist. If they do, it will only be a matter of time before astronomers will learn of their existence.

For now, α Cen Bb might be only a rock, but it has the possibility to become a very important rock.

  1. Proxima Centauri is slightly closer (~0.24 ly) than either α Cen A or α Cen B. However, most astronomers assume that Proxima is part of the α Cen system, thereby making it a triple star system.
  2. Philip K. Dick's Clans of the Alphane Moon, The Man-Kzin Wars by Larry Niven (which features the planet Wunderland mentioned above) and Footfall by both Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson's Neuromancer, The Killing Star by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, and, last but not least, Avatar, James Cameron's latest blockbuster—just to mention a few examples.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Oh my! Almost 10 months since my first and only post so far—how embarrassing! If I keep that speed up I'll reach 80 years before you can no longer read the entire blog on one page.

But over the last year I've collected quite a few topics I want to write about, so my posting frequency should skyrocket during the next few weeks. I just have to stop procrastinating and start convincing myself that I do not have to do any more research on this and that just to write about it on my very obscure blog.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Since as long as I was old enough to understand what stars are I have been captivated by the vastness that space is. However as I have also been a city-dweller even longer my occupation with them has been largely theoretical. A few small lights in a city night sky are not much of an inspiration.

My first personal contact with “real astronomy” (in the sense of actually looking at stars instead of only reading about them) was in early 1997. Some of you might remember that this was the year of Comet Hale-Bopp which presented a spectacular sight even from my parents' suburban backyard. But a few weeks later a friend of my parents, an avid amateur astronomer, showed me a photograph of Hale-Bopp that he had taken. I was stunned, even more so when I found out that he had taken it with his own telescope positioned just a few kilometres away from the city.

This led to a short fascination with star-gazing, but I was young and there were many other exciting things to learn and to do which soon drew my attention away. Years came and went until last year I found myself lying in the grass in the park with a friend during some warm, and exceptionally clear and starry summer night. We looked at the stars and tried to make out some of the more famous constellations. Unfortunately not much knowledge had remained from my teenage years and neither of us managed to even find the Big Dipper (or any similar conspicuous asterism). At least she thought to have found Cassiopeia, but when we looked it up later, we realised that Cassiopeia had actually been in the completely opposite direction. And that bright star which we could not name had not been a star at all but the planet Jupiter.

That night left me thoroughly disillusioned about the capabilities of my long-term memory. And she must have remembered it equally well, for half a year later she got me a planisphere for Christmas. So when last night the sky was clear and cloudless for the first time since Christmas I had to use the chance to test it. (I know it sounds almost too long to believe, but we really had a lot of bad weather lately.) As soon as it was dark enough I grabbed my present, got into the car and drove 30 minutes into the nearby hills.

The first thing I noticed when I got out of the car and walked a few minutes away from the parking site to the lookout point was the bright shine of the city lights at the northern horizon. For a short time during the walk I had felt that I was in a real wilderness, but it reminded me quickly that I actually was still completely surrounded by civilisation. But despite it I still saw a sky that was incomparable to what I was used from the actual city.

And with the help of my star chart, it all came back to me. I easily found the Big and Little Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, Eridanus, Canis Major, and Gemini, and Sirius and Betelgeuse, and Castor and Pollux, the band of the Milky Way, and many other things. And Jupiter, of course, which could not be mistaken in its brightness. But most importantly it brought back to me the feeling of realising how vast the space that surrounds our little planet is. A fact, that is only too easy to forget when you spend your time by creating scenarios, where interstellar travel is ubiquitous and not regarded as anything specially worth to mention.