Short Bursts

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Road Trip

Hi-tech empresario and human mimic Elon Musk had tongues wagging again late last week after tweeting that he plans to blast one of his Tesla cherry red Roadsters atop the first  launch of Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket early next year.

“Falcon Heavy to launch next month from Apollo 11 pad at the Cape. Will have double thrust of next largest rocket. Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,” Musk tweeted on Friday, adding the kicker, “Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing [David Bowie’s] Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”

While Musk is known as a practical joker, his commercial space company has a history of sending eyebrow-raising choice of payloads aboard its maiden voyages. Although it is most likely the sacrificial coupe will end up in flaming midnight-cherry pieces rather than anywhere near the Red Planet.

Once fully-operational, SpaceX plans to use its powerful new booster for some lofty goals,  including flying two paying customers around the moon as early as next year.

Blast from the Past

NASA announced last week that it successfully fired up a set of backup thrusters aboard the interstellar-traveling Voyager 1 spacecraft last Wednesday – just 37 years since they were last used.  “With these thrusters that are still functional after 37 years … we will be able to extend the life of the Voyager 1 spacecraft by two to three years,” said Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Every so often the probe – now more than 13 billion miles from Earth – relies on tiny, millisecond-long pulses or “puffs” from its main attitude control thrusters to ensure the craft’s antenna is pointed towards our planet.

However, since 2014, NASA engineers noticed that the primary boosters had been degrading, so after putting a few heads together, the space agency decided to give the orientation job to the mothballed thruster set that had been dormant since 1980. “The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters,” said Jones, chief engineer at JPL. Following the successful thruster firings, NASA plans to switch to the backup boosters in January. In fact, Voyager 1’s backup thrusters performed so well, the JPL team is expected to perform a similar test on the craft’s twin, Voyager 2, which is expected to enter interstellar space within the next few years.

Thrice in a Blue Moon

Photo: Agnett Bonwitt.

Last night’s  full moon was the first of three consecutive “supermoons” that will include an “extra-special” celestial show on January 31, 2018 featuring a total lunar eclipse visible from western North America, the Pacific, and Eastern Asia. The next “supermoon” will occur New Years Day, followed by a “blue moon”  happening January 31, which is also the night of the lunar eclipse. These full moons, occurring when our satellite is at it closest orbital point to the Earth (called perigee),  appear up to 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than when the moon is at its furthest point from our planet (apogee).


Many thanks to Randall Monroe, xkcd.

Worth a Thousand Words

NASA’s Juno spacecraft snapped the above spectacular pix on October 24th, the top image capturing a cloud system in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere when the probe was a mere 11,747 miles above the swirling gases, while the lower photo taken of the gas giant’s southern hemisphere when Juno was 20,577 miles from the planet. “Citizen scientists” Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran processed both photos using data from the JunoCam imager.

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November 14, 2016

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

T h e  G r e a t  W h i t e  D o p e s

earth-moon-trumpWoo-boy!  Was I ever wrong about Trump losing in a landslide.  But he did lose, so far, by almost 2 million votes.  What’s that you say?  He won the Electoral College vote?  So he is our next President??

That’s right.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote:  As of last Friday, Clinton has a 1.7 percentage point popular vote lead over Trump. or roughly a 1.8 million tally edge with 7 screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-9-28-08-ammillion ballots left to be counted, all of which are from Democratic strongholds including California, Washington state, and New York.  But of the 538 Electoral College votes, Trump received 290 to Clinton’s 228 with  20 electoral votes up in the air since Michigan and New Hampshire are still too close to call (at least according to AP).  Am I the only person on Earth right now who is wondering why in hell we still have an Electoral College – an archaic piece of paranoid bureaucracy – the current iteration of which was invented by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the early 1800’s?

trump-and-little-nasaAnd what does a Trump Administration mean for NASA and all outer space endeavors?  While Galactic Sandbox has been trying to determine the answer to that in this column for the past few months, other news outlets are just now freaking out about it.  It seems that besides ripping 12 million people from their families and deporting them, aside from taking away the healthcare that folks working on minimum wage finally got, Trump’s space policy will end the Earth Science division at NASA.  Trump’s “space adviser” Robert S. Walker says climate change studies and weather forecasting are best left to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and that NASA will now have to focus purely on space exploration (Mars and the Moon, mainly).

On top of that, Trump’s science team has no plans to amend NOAA’s budget to pick up that slack.  I guess Trump and his gang of brainiacs don’t realize that NOAA’s expertise is in analyzing data from sats, not launching them.  It’s not too surprising: consider the fact that Walker is the former chairman of the House Science Committee – and we all know how bright those congressional science screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-9-33-59-amcommittee members are.  Not!

As we also reported, Trump has threatened to pull out of the globally agreed upon Paris Climate Accord aimed at reduce greenhouse emissions worldwide.  He also has vowed – and reiterated this week – to abolish the EPA.  And when that happens, the Trump White House better surround itself with anti-missile launchers and tanks because the environmental community will make Greenpeace whaler-ship blocking and environmental sabotage look like a game of tiddlywinks.


Untruther: Myron Ebell to head EPA transition.

But in the interim, before he scraps the EPA, Trump has already appointed a notorious Washington DC figure and climate change denier named Myron Ebell to head up the agency’s transition team.  Ebell seriously believes climate change is a notion brewed up by liberals to make government bigger.  He is also the head cheerleader rallying to open national parks and federal lands to logging, drilling, mining and fracking.  Apparently, they want to gut and hollow out the agency before scrapping it entirely.  Oh here’s a good one:  mainstream news just announced Sarah “Kill all Animals” Palin as a top contender for Secretary of the Interior, the agency that oversees national parks and federal land.

In other words, we are screwed.  There is no putting lipstick on this pig.  And I seriously doubt Trump is going to be kind to NASA either.  Even if he were to teach NOAA scientists how to build and launch sat-carrying rockets, his ignorance on anything to do with basic science precludes his ability to make any decent decisions about these agencies, our environment or our future. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large

S u p e r  S w o o n


Almost Supermoon, November 13, 2016. Agnett Bonwitt.

On Monday morning, in the wee hours of November 14, Moon-fans can catch their muse at its best with what is called the “supermoon,” which happens only once every 68 years.  It’s the closest full Moon of the year, but lunar experts are saying that this one is particularly extraordinary.  “This one is historically close,” said NASA scientist Noah Petro. “The moon hasn’t been this close to the Earth since January of 1948.” The “lunatics” add that this supermoon will be 14 percent bigger and 30 times brighter than the when the Moon is at its most distant, or “smallest.”

For you early birds, our nearest neighbor will be closest to Earth at 6:22 am EST, but will its fullest at 8:52 am EST, however this will not be visible to most of the country since this will be after Moonset.  The next time the Moon will be this close to Earth will be in November of 2034, Petro said.

Thanks to xkcd – Randall Munroe.

T r u m p ‘ s  L a t e s t  D u m p

bridenstineSpace News and other media blabbers are saying that Donald Trump, the literally unpopular president-elect (remember: he did not win the majority of votes in this nation), is considering as a replacement for NASA chief and former astronaut Charlie Bolden.  Ready?  It is….(drum roll)… Ta Da!!  Introducing that love-able idiot from Oklahoma, Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine!  His qualifications?  None, of course!  Oh, except he is a Tea-bagger darling.  Bridenstine swore he would never serve more than three terms, but now that he’s about to enter his third go-around, he apparently loves the free money for not working, and the free everything he gets as a Big Cheese Congressman.  He originally backed climate change denouncer Texan Ted Cruz (R-Hell) for President, but bailed out the moment it seemed Cruz might lose to the sexual predator-in-chief from New York who stiffed 3,600 small contractor companies.  So it looks like Bridenstine may likely be the guy heading our nation’s space programs.  I know.  Remember, this too shall pass.

E i g h t  W a y s  t o  S u n d a y

cygnss-logoAnd speaking of the importance of Earth science….. In less than a month, an octet of small satellites (each about the size of a suitcase) will enable scientists to forecast the evolution of hurricanes over oceans.  NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) will be launched Dec. 12 and  once in operation, the eight sats will give precise updates on cyclones and hurricanes every 90 minutes instead of reporting every few days, as current single weather satellites do now.  The new mini-sats are far advanced from their predecessors and will be able to measure the roughness of the ocean and wind speeds above the seas.  Plus, the entire system cost only $169 million to build, launch and run.

F o i l e d  A g a i n

ufo-follows-trumpWe thought it would be especially appropriate to end this week’s edition with a Tin Foil Hatter of the Week award, and at first glance it should go to for regurgitating that old story about a UFO following Donald Trump’s helicopter at the Iowa State Fair when the Chiseler-Elect was campaigning last summer.  According to the UK’s Express “newspaper,” the witness snapped a photo of the tailing UFO as Trump allowed kids to ride on his private chopper.  The witness reported the sighting to the Mutual UFO Network, and MUFON is still analyzing the fuzzy picture.  The photo is as amorphous as any of Trump’s flip-flopping policies.  MUFON spokeman Roger Marsh said: “The object could be any number of things from a second helicopter to a bird.”  Indeed.


Jack Ohman, The Sacramento Bee.

While this is worthy of a raised eyebrow or two, we instead are bestowing our coveted Tin Foil Hatter of the Week award to something that genuinely chills us to the bone: to the Trumpster himself for his threat to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, his plan to allow climate-denier Myron Ebell to mess with what he hopes will be the soon-to-be-abolished EPA, and his gung-ho intentions to ban all environmental restrictions currently “straight-jacketing” oil and fracking corporations.  All hail to the Groper-Elect!

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Do Not Feed the Ego Monster

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November 7, 2016

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

M a n  i n  t h e  M i r r o r

james-webb-space-telescopeAfter 20 years of arduous development,  the stupendous cutting-edge James Webb Space Telescope (JWT) is complete and on schedule for launch in 2018. And as the 2016 presidential election comes to an inglorious photo-finish pile-up tomorrow, we at Galactic Sandbox are crossing our fingers and toes, hoping that the next presidential administration will have the vision to allow this engineering marvel to widen the window of the cosmos for humankind.

Well, let’s be more specific …

While Donald Trump has not specifically mentioned the JWT in any of his pea-brained “space policy” statements during the past 18 months, if he were to become president, we would be certain no one would hear about the project ever again because it would be quietly cancelled and dismantled, with its 18 gold-plated mirrors installed in the screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-3-02-17-pmOval Office so the Pompadour-In-Chief can keep track of his tiny hands. (Trump did unveil a last-minute “space treatise” in what is most likely a cynical attempt to draw in swing state Florida voters)

In fact, we doubt that Trump even knows what a space telescope is or what it’s used for.  But praise be to The Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, if all goes well, this should be the last week any of us have to listen to any more toxic hyperbole or insanity coming from the mouth of whom we will charitably call a human being.

Now back to the good stuff.

james-webb-mirrorConsidered the successor to the Hubble Telescope, the JWT is the largest space scope ever built, sporting 18 massive gold-coated mirrors – a collection area five times bigger than the Hubble’s (check out 10 fab things about James Webb scope). And unlike Hubble, it will collect infrared light, which will enable it to cut through obscuring cosmic dust to see the first stars and galaxies ever born in this universe.  It also will be able to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets, helping in the search for life outside of Earth.

The JWT is slated to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in October of 2018, and has cost $8.7 billion, a price well worth the wonders it will bring to light after it is placed at what’s called the Second LaGrange Point (or L2) – a million miles away from Earth, but still orbiting the Sun.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-3-12-08-pmOn Tuesday, after Hillary Clinton beats the unholy crap out of anti-science Trump (we hope), I know all of us here at the Galactic Sandbox will be breathing a sigh of relief… not just for the sake of our ears but for the sake of Big Science.  So if you haven’t voted by the time you read this, do so, and while we can’t tell you how to vote, ask yourself what kind of legacy you want to leave for future generations – a humanity with an ever-expanding universe at its gaze or a scorched, barren flat Earth?  Happy Election Week!

–  Kate Woods, Writer-at-Large and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

Starshade – Thanks to xkcd, Randall Munroe.


Y e a r  o f  t h e  P i g

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-9-25-09-pmIn a rare moment of candor, top Chinese officials last week criticized Donald Trump’s threat that if elected president, he would “cancel” the United States’ role in the Paris Climate Agreement. “If Trump were to insist on doing things his own way, then he would pay a heavy price both politically and diplomatically,” said Zou Ji, deputy directory of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy, reports Reuters. “The U.S. would suffer the greatest harm and of course, the rest of the world would also be implicated.” he added as part of his comments made on Friday. Earlier last week, Xie Zhenhua, head of the State Environmental Protection Administration and China’s lead negotiator for the U.N. climate change conferences, also lectured the Republican presidential nominee saying that leaders “need to be in line with screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-9-28-27-pmglobal development trends,” and that a “country’s progress would be affected as a result,” As Galactic Sandbox readers know,  Trump wants to topple the apple cart of the meager progress made toward reversing climate change while Hilary Clinton promises to uphold our end of the Paris Agreement, and plans to bypass global-warming tin foil hat deniers in Congress to create new anti-climate change legislation. Fortunately, in the colossally embarrassing event Trump is elected, it would be difficult for him to back out since accord signatories had taken into consideration the U.S. political system and its built-in change of leadership when negotiating the deal. Also, the difficulty for a Trump president to disentangle the U.S. from the agreement has been additionally compounded since the historic Paris accord officially became international law on Friday.

H o m e  o f  t h e  G r a v e

In case you still have doubts about about a Clinton or Trump presidency, the pioneering environmental group Sierra Club recently released a new report stating that if elected president, Donald Trump would be the lone world leader who rejects the science of climate changescreen-shot-2016-11-05-at-1-09-37-am and that fossil fuel consumption is the primary cause. The finding puts an exclamation mark on most green organizations’ contention that Trump and the U.S. Republican Party stand as solitary luddites in the world on their shameful denial regarding global warming. “World leaders change, but Donald Trump’s total ignorance of science remains the same. Electing a climate science conspiracy theorist such as Trump would make America a global laughingstock and embarrassment, all while relinquishing our leadership role in the world, said Sierra Club’s national political director Khalid PItts, according to The Hill. “The ice caps don’t negotiate, and neither do rising seas,” he noted, adding that “Donald Trump’s moral failure to acknowledge the climate crisis might very well mean planetary disaster if he is elected.”

A d d i n g  F u e l  t o  t h e  F i r e

A NASA advisory committee has issued an additional stern warning to Elon Musk’s commercial Space X venture over its proposed unorthodox method of fueling future crewed rockets, reports the Wall Street Journal. Last Dscreen-shot-2016-11-05-at-6-35-59-pmecember, the space agency’s blue ribbon nixed Space X’s plan to pump rocket fuel with astronauts already strapped atop of the company’s space taxi –  a practice that goes against decades of international space launch policy. Obviously still concerned in light of last September’s spectacular unmanned Space X rocket explosion that occurred during a routine fueling exercise, the committee last week reiterated its disapproval of the enterprise’s novel approach of using a supercooled powerful propellant that requires to be burned within a half hour of being dispensed. So far, the only response by Space X is that the firm “has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimized the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket,” according to a company spokesman.

In a related development, Space X CEO Musk in a CNBC interview Saturday said he believes his firm has solved the riddle of the September 1 Falcon 9 blast, explaining that it was the “toughest puzzle” they ever had to solve. “It basically involves liquid helium, advanced carbon fiber composites, and solid oxygen … so cold that it actually enters [a] solid phase.” Musk is confident that launch activities will be able to resume next month.

E g g s t r a t e r r e s t r i a l

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-8-53-11-amNASA’s hyper-industrious Curiosity Mars rover has located and examined with laser precision a golf-ball-sized object on the Red Planet that it has identified as an iron-nickel meteorite. While such objects are a common class of space rocks found on Earth and Mars, this particular sample, dubbed “Egg Rock” for its odd ovate appearance, is the first time a rover has used a laser-firing spectrometer to test such metallic orbs. And predictably, this is not the first time UFO “experts” are claiming that the “egg” is proof of life outside our own planet. While we couldn’t find exact links, there are various news reports citing head spinning ET devotees waiting for the egg to “hatch” and New Agers proclaiming the discovery may signal an “imminent ascension.”  (whatever that means) Tin foil hats all around!

B a c k  i n  t h e  S a d d l e


Image of the sunlit part of Jupiter and its stormy atmosphere was recently compiled by “citizen scientist” Alex Mai using data from Juno’s JunoCam. Raw Juno images can be found here.

NASA’s state-of-the-art Jupiter probe is now out of safe mode, and has successfully completed a maneuver that will take it to its next close flyby of the Gas Giant. According to the space agency, mission controllers are still investigating the cause of a system “reboot” that put the craft in temporary hibernation on October 18th. Scientists are crossing their fingers for the next science swing-by slated for December 11, when a gaggle of instruments including the JunoCam imager, will be collecting data.

S e r v i n g  U p  H u m a n k i n d

still-hawkings-docDon’t be so eager to contact ET.  That’s what celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking reiterates in his  new half-hour documentary, called “Stephen Hawkings’ Favorite Places.”

The black hole guru warns humanity that aliens could be up to no good once they arrive at Earth, saying they could end up being “rapacious marauders” out to colonize and rape the resources of planets.  In this new project (and with the help of special effects), Hawking whips around in an imaginary spacecraft to witness the Big Bang, the hawkings-cosmossupermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, Saturn and its moons, and a potentially habitable planet scientists discovered called Gliese 832c.  Hawking says that someday we might receive a signal from Gliese 832c.  “But we should be wary of answering back,” he says.  “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”  No.  It sure didn’t.

O f  N o t e  T h i s  C o m i n g  W e e k

  • Largest Supermoon in 70 years on the evening of November 13-14
  • National Geographic Mars mini series premiers tonight, November 7.
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