Sunday, February 7, 2010

COMING SOON: The Plutoid Zone

The International Astronomical Union in 2008 designated that orbital zone of our solar system beyond Neptune, that includes the dwarf planets Pluto and Eris, as the Plutoid Zone. The New Horizons spacecraft and its mission is on its way to explore this region and our once ninth planet Pluto.  I will describe this mission and provide some editorial commentary on my views of the benefits and new knowledge that will come from it.

I will be back soon. Please stay tuned!

NOTE: While you wait: Plan on visiting AstonomyFM and catch their special on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt on "From Light To Darkness"  Here

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Happy New Year!

To all my faithful followers: My apologies for being away for so long. I am in the process of upgrading and changing one of my servers. This will mean that the link to inline (online) music and pictures will appear broken. This will be corrected by mid-February. My apologies for this inconvenience. Please be patient and stick with My Celestia.

In the meantime if you have not read it or heard about it, please consider reading my review of planetary scientist Sara Seager's wonderful book: "Is There Life Out There?" Best of all, please consider purchasing your own copy. It is a valuable addition to your personal libraries. Here is the link to the review, and it includes a link to Sara's web site. Enjoy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Planetary Systems: An Evolutionary Process

Searching for extra-solar objects is not a new effort, but improved technology and the location of over 300 exo-planets, to date, has accelerated this research. Is the building of these exoplanets a gradual evolutionary process? Does that process reach a stopping point as apparently our solar system has or is it ongoing? Will some of our new discoveries be of systems in an early stage of that evolutionary process?  If these planet formations are accidental then can they be regarded as evolutionary?  Click here for NASA plans presentation.

The forgoing are just a few examples of the questions that have been and are being asked by astronomers, astrophysicists and astrobiologists.  Finally, as we are beginning to see, a more intensive study of our own solar system will be most helpful in understanding the entire process. In this regard, one of the key considerations of the National Academy of Sciences Decadal Survey of Planetary Science, is to better understand the "origins and evolution of habitable worlds"; starting with our own solar system.

Where's da money?  Right now, NASA is undergoing intensive scrutiny both organizationally and financially as a result of both our national budget crunch and the arrival of a new NASA chief-in-waiting. For example, the Congress has, provisionally, cut over $300 million from NASA's exploration budget.  This may be modified, but it still poses a threat to programs that investigate both our solar system and our galaxy.  NASA is science, and when it becomes NASA Interupted the entire world loses. Both Congressional committees and the National Academies of Science are assessing NASA's goals. Hopefully, they will present to NASA's new boss a set of recommendations that will keep the agency moving forward and especially in the exploration and study of our solar system.

A duel evolutionary process.  No I have not misspelled dual.  What we are looking at, as mentioned above, is a dual process of proper funding and managment support and a carefully planned set of missions that have a dual impact.  The dual impact of the missions is expected to: (a) expand and improve our knowledge of our solar system, including planet Earth, and (b) provide vital background data that will directly aid in the exo-solar research that is now underway. The dueling is and will continue to occur between funding sources and a variety of organizations, some within NASA, each having a set of mission goals that they would like to see become operational.  The challenge is to accomplish the proper mix of money and mission to move our science and techonolgy steadily forward with a minimum of interruptions or detours.

Man vs Bot or Man and Bot.  There is a great deal of serious inquiry and scientific investigation underway to better understand the physiological risks of extended manned exploration of outer space. This provokes some lively discussions from both scientists and accountants.  The scientists take sides based on their assessment of the best way to conduct extended investigations of our solar system. The accountants, of course, see potential money saved by programs that are not "burdened" (their words) by the heavy costs of man-rated systems.  

Well, it is hoped that wiser heads in both areas, science and finance, will see that we must have a Man and Bot plan.  This is not what we have now. We need to develop a plan that optimizes both, with safety of both man and bot of high priority.  We should look to send humans in only after extensive robotic exploration to thus reduce extended exposure of humans to harmful environments (the LRO mission is an example).  That's right I do not see us colonizing any of our planetary neighbors for extended periods.  The cost benefits ratios are too marginal.  Increasing the sophistication and technology of robots dramatically changes that ratio in our favor.  When humans go out to another planet we are not explorers, we are investigators.  We go to specific areas and investigate and assess what is there.  We use our Bot buddies to do the exploring as they are doing now on and around our solar system's planets.

The glorious fantasy of it all.  I started this article with reference to our search for extra-solar bodies and the very thought of finding an Earth-like twin that may actually contain life. This stimulates our imaginations by a factor of 10 or better.  This is not a bad thing because it helps make space science a public interest.  We should not, however, let it warp how we go about our continuing investigation of the entire universe.  In this regard, what we learn and use from our explorations and assessments of our Sun and its array of planets is going to fill us with new knowledge. This will improve our success in understanding all that is around and within us. Doing this constructively and sometimes very patiently is going to make us far smarter than we are now. Most importantly it is an essential evolutionary step to insure we are around to make all those discoveries out there. They are waiting for us to do it right.  So, not only are we seriously investigating the evolution of our universe and all its wonders, we,hopefully, are experiencing an evolution in our scientific and socio-economic prowess.  This will open whole new areas of knowledge and self-awareness that will be both humbling and stimulating.  Well, I say, "Grab your Bot-buddy and let's get started."

Credits: The image on the left above is an artists representation of the Gliese planetary system. The source is the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for the astro-sciences.

My Celestia (c) 2009 Waddell Robey - All individual copyrights apply.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Sailing The Celestial Sea: An Editorial

Yes, we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the science of modern astronomy and the telescope, but we are also celebrating our bold steps across the threshold of the space sciences. We have stopped crawling and are now taking our first real steps. A time to truly rejoice.

As spectacular as our accomplishments have been they are furtive when compared to where we shall be going. Like youngsters taking their first steps, we need to be mindful of that parental warning: "Don't rush it, but keep going."

What's Ahead?  In the "mid-distant" future, manned space exploration will be limited to this solar system.  Now, that is not a bad thing.  Not only are we going to find important answers to how life develops and does not develop on planets, but we are also going to learn about the entire process of planet and solar system formation.  Yes, man will land on Mars, and probably on one or more of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.  We will also explore the asteroid belt and actually develop mining operations on some of them.  None of these activities are overnight events.  We are talking trilllions of dollars and millions of hours for the design and development of efficient and safe space exploration systems.  All of this is incredibly healthy for we Earthlings both financially and intellectually.

Going Deep Into Space: Well, what about deep space?  Is the Kepler Mission a waste of time and money? The answer should be obvious, it certainly is not.  Our exploration of deep space is going to not just blossom it is going to explode when we finally find life bearing exoplanetary systems.  There will be that dreamed of and prized "first contact."  It will be entirely and uniquely robotic, and will remain that way for a long, long time. Don't despair, the kind of contact I am talking about will represent almost unimaginable breakthroughs in robot design.  It is time to use the science-fiction concept of cyborgs to understand this process.

A New Improved HAL: With apologies to that legion of science fiction writers, I predict we will completely discard those ideas of a "pasted" together man and machine cyborg.  In reality we will develop totally safe and sane "Hal-like" robots that are directly, intimately linked to a specially selected and trained astronaut team. The team are astronauts because they are in space, but not deep space.  They reside in a satellite complex located in, for example, the L1 or L2 orbital points around the Sun. These astronauts are the command, control and communication unit for the robot team in deep space.  This is necessary to escape the communication and control barrier of the Earths atmosphere. It also allows the full usage of an expanded Deep Space Network (the key space communications network).

How that program will work is the topic for another My Celestia article.  The image on the right is simply an example of a real robot team that was developed by Toyota as a demonstration.  Are they playing music?  Yes they are.  Are they playing in a coordinated manner?  Yes they are.  So, in this respect it is a very limited example of the kind of robotics we will develop for our deep space visits.  We can venture this. The robot team will operate on the most advanced neural network articificial intelligence that, like HAL, is very human and beyond in its capabilities and response to the ET environment they are visiting.

To listen to what the robot team in the image above are playing, you may click here.

The Bottom Line: There is always a bottom line and in this case to bring this multiple space exploration program into reality there needs to be some big, big changes.  First the NASA team needs to become a full-fledged NASA-Industrial Complex.  Don't let that frighten you.  This coordinated activity is the only way we are going to really get out there properly, safely and soon. For this to happen, NASA needs to get its act together.  Please, they have done marvelous, amazing and courageous things in their history, but now they have stepped into a much bigger role that needs an entirely new program and fiscal management paradigm.

The above is not going to be an easy process, and there are many out there who rather shoot NASA down than realize that NASA and its industrial/scientific partners are one of the key elements of both our growth and future stability.  Space is the next (not the last) frontier and we are a nation that has built itself upon our exploring past frontiers.  It has worked well, and this time we stand to move humankind far more forward and beneficially than has ever been done before. Most importantly, the new partnership is an international one that is far more comprehensive than the ones NASA has now.  This extends that growth and stability factor around the world.  In short, it spells FUTURE.

Now, who among us wants to deny the future?  Come aboard and let's go sailing. The universe awaits us.

IMAGE CREDITS:  Robots: Toyota Corporation and REUTERS May 4, 2008
Astrophoto: Waddell Robey/ 2008.

My Celestia (c) 2009 Waddell Robey.  All individual copyrights apply.

Monday, April 27, 2009



No this is not one of those end of the world horror speculations, the good Mayan astronomers aside. I am writing about the increasing new revelations and discoveries that are bursting forth from our expanded and innovative new cosmological research.

The image on the left of Chandra's view of Cassiopea A, the youngest supernova in the Milky Way, is a current example of this combination revelation and discovery. It is a discovery because we have just observed it. It is a revelation because it has been here for a long time.

Another example is a combined cosmological and chemical analysis of what we could consider a stellar life cycle. This study is courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. To view an image presentation of this concept, you may click here. The illustration's depiction of the showering of probiotic material onto a planet enters the realm of astrobiology.

Additionally, the deep space probe that captured a gamma ray burst (actually more like an explosion) over 13 billion light years distance is an example of our increasing ability to witness (albeit belatedly) a major cosmological event that directly impacted the universe. Of course in the next decade the exo-planet discoveries by the Kepler probe as well as those from the Corot Space telescope are going to intensify our investigations into what critieria certify an Earth twin. These efforts will also include efforts to determine the extent the Earth-twin has the ability to support or is actually supporting life.

The above are just minimal examples of the immense cosmological research that is underway. You may click here to see a current listing of research projects at the Harvard center. It is expected to steadily increase as more discoveries occur.

So, why do I label this as shock and awe? For the general public these revelations can be both amazing and unsettling as we are forced to reconsider our perceptions about our home, Earth, and the universe in which we reside. For the scientific community, there is ongoing shock and awe as old theories get either revised or tossed aside and new discoveries introduce views of the universe that open entirely new concepts and theories. This latter cognitive evolution is, in my opinion, accompanied by frequent awe.

All of this is good and should be considered as part of humankind's intellectual evolution. This is an essential stimulus for our ongoing progress. In other words, we are not done yet!

My Celestia (c) 2009 Waddell Robey - All individual copyrights apply.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


The image on the left, courtesy of NASA/JPL and the Chandra spacecraft, displays a recent capture of what I am terming "celestial mating" rather than the usual terminology. By the way, the circles and letters are there to identify the individual galaxy clusters that are involved in this reproductive drama. To learn more, you may click here and here if you wish.

Hmm, celestial mating and reproductive drama am I anthropomorphizing space? Yes and no. I say yes with respect to explaining what is really happening when galaxies, of any number and size, come together. No, in the sense that they are far more powerful, more beautiful, and more vital to the universe than we mere humans.

Perhaps the most realistic term would be regeneration of the universe. In my humble opinion it is this dramatic, dynamic and often explosive merging or mating process that produces whole new populations of stars and eventually, for some, their gathering of orbiting dust, debris and planets. As we know, we are now pretty certain that many of those extra-solar bodies may be habitable planets that contain life. So mating, like Earth's own biological replenishment process, is what is happening in the universe - replenishment. I consider this encouraging and it strengthens my belief in both the dynamism and permanency of this energy system we call "universe."

Yes, there is, just like with us, birth, life, and death in the universe. The logic is stunning and also reassuring. Again, in my mind, it is an essential process that produces both endurance and stability in our lives and that of the universe. We humans are, of course, energy systems, and we essentially obey all the same rules as our celestial hosts. That's right we are components of celestial stability and balance. Miniscule yes, but we are still essential.

So, look up in awe, in humility, and with reassurance. We are needed. In that respect, we might want to consider doing a better job of preserving our host energy source - planet Earth and the solar system in which it resides.

My Celestia (c) 2009 Waddell Robey. All individual copyrights apply.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Anatomy of a Planet: An Editorial

First, my apologies for being away from here for so long. I promise to be more attentive from now on. Next, I want to take this issue to express some of my own observations and opinions as we are now on our way to find Earth-like planets in our galaxy.

Much of my comments are more relevant to those follow-on explorations after Kepler has brought home a list of likely candidates. Kepler, by design is not intended to discern if there is life on a discovered exo-planet. Its primary mission is to find the ideal combination of star and planet that fits the Earth profile. I am confident Kepler will fulfill that goal several times over.

In my related blog, ExoDigest, I have included links to articles and reports that indicate that our scientists are still quite busy seeking answers to how life originated on this planet. The obvious corollary is that until we understand our own beginnings it will be hard to determine the presence, stage and status of life forms on any Earth-like exoplanet. This leads me to the question. How Earth-like does our candidate exo have to be?

Well, we know that its distance from its host star (the habitable zone) is important to insure that the planet has and sustains water, and it is not too hot or too cold. So water too, must be a basic ingredient as well as a variety of gaseous chemicals (oxygen, hydrogen, helium, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and a variety of combinations of those chemicals). Certainly, the orbital period of our candidate around its parent star is important but equally important is the planet's rotation around its own axis. The cycle of light and dark are known factors the affect how things grow and thrive. It is also helpful for a "rocky" planet to have healthy gravity in order to keep a grip on all of its important life support components. The list is much longer and even includes new research that indicates that tectonic plates are contributors to the development of life. So, as astrobiologists state, this is not going to be an easy task.

Back to my question. I repeat, until we know completely how life got its start here, it will be difficult to determine if life on another planet has started, will start or started and stopped. In the latter case, our exploration of Mars is going to help us understand why life started and stopped, and why that planet also apparently lost much of its atmosphere and life supporting gases. Was it knocked so silly by an asteroid impact that it lost its life giving/supporting elements? We need to know this both for our appreciation and protection of our home, and in investigating candidate exoplanets.

I think there is going to be at least a century of awesome surprises that will tell us not only how we got started, but may indicate that starting up life has a variety of paths and that ours is not exclusive. Add to this the evolutionary process which as part of the development of life and is still part of our own mystery. For example, would we even be here, if the dinosaurs had survived? Planet age is also going to be a factor. How old was Earth before life got started, and is this a universal requisite or could life actually develop faster or even slower than it did here?

Well, it looks like it may be our great grand children or even our great, great grandchildren who finally get most of the answers. It will also be even longer before there is ever any direct association between life here and life on another planet. The distances are immense, even at the speed of light. At this realization, some may say, "why bother?" The answer is simple, in my mind, we bother because it is a genetic imperative. The next evolutionary step for us is to do exactly what we are doing. By reaching out to finally know we are not alone is going to dramatically impact who we become and how we deal with it. We will suddenly feel far less important while at the same time feel excited to be part of truly universal life. The universe, itself, will take on new meaning and become open to new avenues of research. Did it start with a bang, and will it end or...? Most importantly, we are now moving down the path that will open whole new revelations and opportunities to fully understand, appreciate and respect all life as well as the uniqueness of humankind within that environment.

I end here, and ask: "Quo Vadis ?"