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Posts Tagged ‘space’

24 DECEMBER, 2013

December 24, 1968: NASA Simulates Exactly What the Apollo 8 Astronauts Saw When They Took the Iconic Earthrise Photograph

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Cutting-edge technology reveals how one of history’s most important images almost didn’t happen.

In the late morning of December 24, 1968, the cameras on NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft beamed back to humanity one of the two most iconic photographs ever taken from space — the other being the Pale Blue Dot, taken in 1990. But Earthrise, which depicted the magnificent and humbling view of Earth rising over the moon, almost didn’t happen.

In this fantastic video narrated by Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, NASA scientists use cutting-edge photo mosaics and elevation data from their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to reconstruct for the very first time, 45 years later, exactly what the Apollo 8 astronauts saw on that fateful morning and recount the unusual circumstances of that fortuitous happenstance.

In the altogether excellent Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (public library), British historian Robert Poole further explores the extraordinary circumstances of that pioneering photograph and its monumental impact on our sense of place in the universe — a sense best captured by the poet Archibald MacLeish shortly after the debut of Earthrise, whose essay “Riders on the Earth” Poole points to as the perfect articulation of how the iconic photograph stirred humanity:

For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small… To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.

NPR

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14 NOVEMBER, 2013

November 14, 1963: The First-Ever Footage from Space

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“Through the magic of the camera, earthlings take their first ride into space.”

On November 14, 1963, the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile shot into space from the South Atlantic at 17,000 miles per hour. This unmanned booster would eventually carry the Gemini space capsules, NASA’s second manned mission to space, succeeding Mercury and preceding Apollo. But what made that fateful November morning particularly noteworthy was something else: Mounted on the second stage of the missile was a camera that offered a preview of what the astronauts would see from space and provided the first-ever footage from the cosmos.

This vintage newsreel captures the historic moment in 59 seconds:

The curvature of the Earth is plainly visible. Through the magic of the camera, earthlings take their first ride into space.

This humble yet monumental black-and-white clip comes as a particularly poignant testament to our progress on the eve of NASA’s big Cassini reveal — an extraordinary mosaic of images captured with Cassini’s bleeding-edge cameras aimed at Saturn, including a view of Carl Sagan’s legendary “pale blue dot” and the first-ever view of the Earth and Moon in a single image viewed from the outer Solar System:

For more awe at our continuous cosmic adventure, see this visual history of space in 250 milestones.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2013

How to Watch the Un-sunlike Sun: Solar Eclipse Tips from Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell

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“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.”

Rarely does the dated phrase “heavenly bodies” come more vibrantly alive than in the event of a solar eclipse, when the Moon passes in front of the Sun from the vantage point of our planet and leaves our earthy hearts astir with awe for a few fleeting moments of transcendent presence with “the heavens” and their majestic motion. But to observe a solar eclipse is itself an art, one to which pioneering astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell was particularly privy.

In Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the her timeless insight on science and life, the story of her seminal comet discovery, and her reflections on education and women in science — Mitchell recounts with her characteristic blend of good-natured wit and wisdom her experience of observing the 1878 solar eclipse, for which she traveled to Denver along with several of her former female students:

In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

[…]

Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ‘Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

Mitchell goes on to extract from the experience some practical advice on the art-science of such heavenly observation:

Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glasses—the less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

She goes on to describe the specific process of her team’s observation — one made all the more impressive by the fact that these were all women scientists in an age when the science education of girls was practically nonexistent:

One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction. [Footnote: As the computed time for the first contact drew near, the breath of the counter grew short, and the seconds were almost gasped and threatened to become inaudible, when Miss Mitchell, without moving her eye from the tube of the telescope, took up the counting, and continued until the young lady recovered herself, which she did immediately.]

What followed was a singular blend of rigorous precision and the kind of transcendence in which Carl Sagan found the spirituality of science. Mitchell writes:

The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

[…]

As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

How still it was!

As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

But Mitchell’s most prescient and timeless reflection in observing the eclipse speaks poetically to the spirit of today’s “citizen science”:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals remains a fantastic read and is available as a free Kindle download, as well as in other free digital formats on Project Gutenberg.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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