Monthly Archives: January 2012

Exploration of the Final Frontier

Source: NASA, http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/297752main_image_1249_946-710.jpg

I am a history nerd and a science geek. Now that we got that out of the way, it’s pretty understandable why manned space exploration, so steeped in historical and scientific significance, is absolutely fascinating for me. A major topic that incorporates both history and science is the Cold War’s Space Race. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space (Sputnik 1). For nearly the next 20 years, the Soviets and the United States took part in a frantic rivalry, with each side dedicated to one-upping the other in attaining a variety of “firsts” in space exploration. 

I’m sure many of you have seen the image above before. Entitled “Earthrise,” it was taken by the crew of Apollo 8. Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to leave Earth orbit and voyage to the Moon (if the name Jim Lovell sounds familiar, it should. He was the commander of the ill-fated, and now famous, Apollo 13 mission). The picture was taken by Anders while the crew was in lunar orbit on December 24, 1968. 

For even the casual astronomer or space enthusiast, “Earthrise” is perhaps the most famous picture ever taken. Personally, I don’t know the exact words I can use to describe how I feel and what I think when I see this picture. I guess the best thing I can say is that it’s awe-inspiring, and an eye-opener. Born from a rivalry between 2 superpowers, mankind witnessed an unprecedented leap in technological ability and pushed the horizon of exploration further than previously thought possible, and this picture is a testament to that fact. “Earthrise” also demonstrates the vast and humbling nature of space. That blue sphere surrounded by black emptiness is our home.

From a more modern perspective, “Earthrise” invokes something else. Times are tough for our country. A casualty of this period is manned space exploration. With the Space Shuttle in retirement, it’s now back to the drawing board for NASA and other aerospace companies in order to to lead us into the next era in space exploration, whenever that may be. “Earthrise” is a picture I inevitably turn to when I think about the merits of space exploration. Again, it’s just hard to explain. “Earthrise” validates what astronaut Gus Grissom said back during the beginnings of Project Apollo: “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” It is worth that risk because what we achieve in the form of knowledge, understanding and, yes, pride outweighs the sacrifices made to obtain it. Call me crazy, but “Earthrise” is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’m hopeful that somewhere down the road a new generation of scientists and adventurers decide to carry the torch, just as Lovell, Anders, Borman, Armstrong and others did. I’m hopeful that we once again find individuals eager to expand our horizons and take us to new realms in space. As Neil deGrasse Tyson writes, “Ever since there have been people, there have been explorers, looking in places where others hadn’t been before. Not everyone does it, but we are part of a species where some members of the species do- to the benefit of us all.” (http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/quotes-by-neil-degrasse-tyson/space-exploration-quotes) And I truly can’t wait to see what the next big thing in space exploration has in store for us. 

Advertisements

Stars, Supernovae, and Life

Astronomy Picture of the Day: Star Eta Carinae

Citation: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap041128.html

Eta Carinae is a star currently entering the final stages of its stellar life cycle. Astronomers believe that the star, weighing in at over 100 times the mass of our Sun, is destined to become a supernova. 

How does this relate to our solar system? Well, as far as we know, our planetary neighborhood is the only one in the universe that harbors life. Of course, given the vast nature of the cosmos, it should come as no surprise if, one day, we do find life somewhere else out there. 

As Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, all the atoms in the universe heavier than hydrogen and helium are forged in the stars (see: http://youtu.be/B-LXUHJmzzc). This occurs via fusion, the process stars utilize to derive massive amounts of energy. In its early stages, a star is composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. Hydrogen fusion takes place at the core, where the temperature and pressure is high enough to drive this reaction. This takes place over a good chunk of the life of the star. However, the star does eventually run out of hydrogen, and when this happens it begins fusing helium atoms. This fusion of helium yields new elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. In fact, when collecting all of the elements synthesized from a star throughout its lifetime, one can fill up almost the entire periodic table (iron cannot be used in fusion to produce heavier elements, but the energy provided from the explosive mechanics of a supernova allow for the formation of these heavier elements).

The five elements that stand out are hydrogen, helium, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Anybody studying organic chemistry or biology should recognize these as the building blocks of life. Other crucial elements (iron, zinc, copper, etc.) also owe their existence to the stars. The supernova, the explosion of a dying star, enables these elements to escape their confines and disperse throughout the universe. Without stars and supernovae, the ingredients of life do not appear. Without stars and supernovae, we wouldn’t be here today. That is something I find fascinating, and since some of the questions that inevitably arises when studying our solar system (How did life form? Is there life elsewhere?) are directly tied to this topic, I thought it would be a good one to explore and share. 

We are a part of the universe, and the universe happens to be a part of us. 

– Vineet Mohanty