Friday, December 28, 2007

The Space Club, Part I

12/30/07 – 1/5/08

Have you ever wondered who is in the Space Club? The Space Club is the group of countries that can send things or people up into space. There are different levels of participation in a Space Club. If you have some money, expertise, and motivation, you can send stuff into space. If you have a lot of money, high-end expertise, and a lot of motivation, you can send people into space. Many countries have launched satellites into orbit for purposes of research; scientific, political or military. Sending stuff into space is the first level of space exploration.

The first satellite ever launched was the famous 200 lb. beeping “beachball,” Sputnik. The Soviet Union had launched not only the first orbiting satellite, but the first volley in what would be the increasingly heated space race between our two countries. A month later the Soviets struck again with Sputnik II, a heavier version containing not only a science payload, but Laika, a female dog. United States responded immediately: NASA was created and in 1958, America successfully launched Explorer I. Though the payload was smaller, it helped discover the radiation belts surrounding the earth. It was clear that satellites were the wave of the future. 1960 was a big year for satellite firsts; the first solar probe, first weather satellite, first navigation satellite, and the first communication satellite. That was nearly 50 years ago. What would we do without our satellites today?

From 1957 to 1962, the only members in the Space Club were the US and the USSR. Canada knocked on the door of the Club in 1962, though their Canadian-made Alouette satellite was launched by NASA. In 1967, the UK and Australia also joined in the satellite game, though they also used rockets from the US to get their payloads into space.

Japan entered level one in 1970, launching their first satellite, Osumi. China followed with their satellite Dong Chang Hong I, and a year later Britain launched a satellite from their own rocket. India and Germany launched satellites during the 1970’s but they used either US or USSR-made rockets. In 1980, India launched a satellite from their launch pad, using their own vehicle. The Club was growing. Today, there are seven satellite-launching capable entities: the USSR (now Russia and the Ukraine), The United States, The European Union (formerly France and Britain), Japan, China, India and Israel. North Korea and Iraq have also claimed orbital launches, but they remain unconfirmed. Many other countries are in the process of developing launch vehicles as well.

This list does not include collaboration between countries that make their own satellites and countries that have the vehicles to launch them. The ability to launch vehicles into space is the first step in an expensive and dangerous club, but one that leads to the exploration of space. We’ll explore the next levels of the exclusive Space Club next week.

Meanwhile, enjoy the view of ruddy-faced Mars in the night sky. January is the best month to see Mars as he outshines the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. Look up high in the sky above and to the east of Orion. You can also watch Venus and Jupiter edging closer to each other in the pre-dawn sky. Look to the East as the sun begins to make its presence known.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Expanding Nothingness Part II

12/9/07 – 12/15/07

In science, knowledge and research usually expand our view of things. But recent discoveries in cosmology have shrunk our known universe by expanding the unknown universe. In the late 80’s and 90’s, it seemed that we were closing in on some important numbers, like how old the universe is, and how fast it is expanding. By figuring out how fast it’s expanding, we could figure out how long ago it had started expanding, thus determining its age. By this method we had narrowed the age of the universe down to somewhere between 10-20 billion years. Ballpark figure or not, it’s still a staggeringly huge number. Now we know it’s most likely 13.7 billion years. Very old. But it’s a number.

Finding the universal expansion rate required knowing how much stuff there was in the universe, which was thrown into doubt by the discovery of dark matter. We tossed the presumed amount of this mysterious, invisible and as of yet undetected dark matter into the equation, and came up with an expansion rate of somewhere between 70-75 km/sec/Mpc. That means that for every 3.2 million light years of distance, galaxies are receding at 75 km/sec. Though the expansion rate is fast, the funny part of the story is that it’s changing, and it’s not slowing down.

Cosmologists say that the universe is expanding faster than ever. But when questioned as to what is expanding, they say it’s space, which contains about 4% stuff we see, and 96% dark energy and dark matter. Dark matter is a mysterious, theoretical and undetected substance that defies our understanding. And what is speeding up the expansion? Dark energy, a mysterious, theoretical and undetected force that defies our understanding. Swell. So instead of expanding our knowledge base, research has introduced two new facets of the universe that are dark, undetected, and have an almost mythical, unknowable nature. The ultimate fate of the universe, once seemingly around the corner of our understanding, recedes into the distance.

So where do these ideas come from? And what does it do to our understanding of the universe? The idea of dark energy was introduced to explain an observation that was otherwise unexplainable. By looking at a certain type of supernovae (the spectacular explosions accompanying the death of a star) astronomers estimated how far away they are. By using these supernovae as standard candles, they found that, instead of slowing down as expected, the expansion of the universe was actually speeding up. It was quite a surprise, and immediately demanded explanations and theories. Thence came dark energy, a force manufactured to explain the quickening of the spreading out of the stuff that was not really known. Once again, our understanding recedes into the distance.

Do we feel the thinness of the ice of knowledge yet? It seems that we are continually breaking through, falling into the dark chasm of the icy water of the unknown. But that’s the exciting part about science: the cold, wet realization that you’ve got to come up with new ideas to explain the questions that arise from observations. Currently, cosmology is a field of science that demands careful, methodical study, but also demands creative, almost crazy thinking. It’s not for the faint of heart. But the rewards are immeasurable.

Until next week, my friends, enjoy the view.