NASA’s DART Mission: Rest in Peace

Hello, friends!

As you probably know, NASA’s DART spacecraft deliberately rammed itself into an asteroid on Monday.  This was a test.  It was only a test.  The asteroid in question (named Dimorphos) was never a threat to us.  Someday, though, another asteroid may come along… an asteroid that does threaten us… an asteroid that could end life as we know it.  The DART Mission was intended to test out ability to defend ourselves, should a large and genuinely threatening asteroid ever show up on our doorstep.

I spent Monday night watching NASA TV’s livestream of the DART Mission.  Those final images from DART’s navigational camera were amazing!  I never really thought about what it would look like to crash into the surface of an asteroid.  Now I know exactly what that would look like.

Anyway, today I thought I’d share a few things that I learned—things that I did not know before—while watching NASA’s livestream, as well as the press conference that was held after the mission was over.

The Space Force: So I knew DART launched almost a year ago, but I didn’t know it had launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base (I also didn’t know Vandenberg Air Force Base had been renamed).  I still think the whole Space Force thing is cringy, but at least the Space Force did help do something to actually defend our planet.  So that’s cool!
DART’s Solar Panels: In addition to testing our planetary defense capabilities, the DART spacecraft also tested a few new space technologies.  Most notably, DART was using a new, experimental solar panel design.  DART launched with its solar panels rolled up into cylinders, then the solar panels unrolled once the spacecraft was in space.  The new design apparently weighs a lot less than traditional solar panels, and anything we can do to lower the weight of a spacecraft helps make spaceflight less expensive.
Dimorphos’s Shape: This one really surprised me.  Apparently nobody knew what Dimorphos looked like until those last few minutes before impact.  The most high-res images we had were still not high-res enough to reveal the asteroid’s shape or any useful details about its appearance.  As a result, DART had to be programmed with some sort of machine learning algorithm to help it figure out what it was supposed to be aiming for.

While the DART Mission was a success, it’ll still be a while before we know exactly how effective it was at moving the orbit of an asteroid.  Telescopes up in space and down here on the ground will continue monitoring Dimorphos as the dust settles (both figuratively and literally).  Still, as a citizen of Planet Earth, I do feel a little bit safer living on this planet.  I mean, we still have a lot of challenges we need to overcome, but that asteroid problem?  I think we’ve got that one covered now.

So did you watch NASA’s livestream on Monday?  Did you learn anything new, either from the livestream or from other news sources covering the DART Mission?

P.S.: If you missed the livestream, click here to watch it on YouTube.  Or you can click here to watch the press conference that was held afterward.

#IWSG: We’ll Fly When We’re Ready

Hello, friends!  Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop created by Alex J. Cavanaugh and co-hosted this month by Kim Lajevardi, Cathrina Constantine, Natalie Aguirre, Olga Godim, Michelle Wallace, and Louise – Fundy Blue.  To sign up for IWSG and to learn more about this amazingly supportive group, click here!

In my last two blog posts, I wrote about the Indian space program and the American space program.  Both have suffered recent delays and setbacks.  Both are still moving forward with their space exploration plans, despite those setbacks.  Whenever I read about real life space programs, I’m always struck by the parallels between space exploration and writing.

Whether we’re talking about space or writing, we’re talking about big ambitions.  Big aspirations.  We’re talking about a lot of hard work (but the fun kind of hard work, the exciting kind of hard work).  We’re also talking about constant setbacks and delays, with certain financial realities looming over us at all times.

A couple years ago, I published my first novella-length Sci-Fi story on Amazon Kindle.  My plan was to follow up, quickly, with a sequel.  Around the same time, I also launched a store on RedBubble so I could sell prints of some of my art.  And then… setbacks.  Delays.  Real life problems.  It was like trying to plug fuel leaks on the Artemis 1 rocket.  As soon as I fixed the problem here, I’d discover liquid hydrogen was spraying all over the place over there.

I can report that 2022 has been a better year for me.  Slowly—very slowly—my writing and my art have gotten back on track.  I’ve been blogging more.  I’m making progress on my next Sci-Fi novella.  Also, I’ve started uploading new art to my RedBubble store for the first time in two years.  But writing takes time.  Art takes time.  As much as I want to rush forward with all my creative dreams, I need to be patient with myself.

After NASA scrubbed the launch of Artemis 1 not once but twice last week, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had this to say: “We’ll fly when we’re ready.”  Right now, as I get back into the rhythm of writing and illustrating, that’s my mantra.  My muse and I… we’ll fly when we’re ready.

Artemis 1: Haters Gonna Hate

Hello, friends!

My gosh, certain people sure do love doling out criticism.  Even the slightest mistake or delay, and the critics come out in droves, robed in all their smugness.  I see this all the time as a writer and an artist, and on Monday I saw a smattering of critics online smugly criticizing NASA’s Artemis Program.

On Monday morning, NASA had to scrub the launch of Artemis 1, an uncrewed test flight of the spacecraft that will soon return American astronauts to the Moon.  Apparently there was trouble with one of the engines.  Most people, I think, understand that technical problems happen and that safety must come first.  But a few folks out there saw this as an opportunity to take cheap shots at NASA, the U.S. government, and America as a whole.

Now look… (heavy sigh)… okay, there are some valid criticisms to be made about all those things.  The United States has problems.  NASA has problems.  The Artemis Program, in particular, has been politicized from the start, and whenever things get political in the U.S., bad decisions ensue.  But even if none of that were the case, even if NASA could somehow operate independently of Congress and politics, problems would still crop up.

Taking time to stop and fix the problem with Artemis 1’s engine—that’s not a sign of weakness.  That’s not a failure.  If anything, it shows that the people at NASA are doing their jobs, taking the proper precautions, and learning from past mistakes.  Ignoring the engine issue—plowing ahead with the original plan, regardless of the danger—potentially allowing a multi-billion dollar spacecraft to blow up on the launchpad?  That would have been a real failure.

But no, a few people out there think delaying the launch for a few days is a “huge embarrassment” for America.  There will always be people like this who act super smug while lobbing lazy criticism at others.  Whether you’re a national space agency or just some writer/illustrator on the Internet, try to ignore this sort of criticism if you can (or rant about it on your blog, if you must—just don’t dwell on it for too long).

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Fran, from My Hubble Abode, posted a wonderful video on YouTube reacting to some of the nonsense people have been saying about the Artemis 1 launch delay. Click here to check it out!

Our Place in Space: The Z-Series Spacesuits

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, Z is for…

THE Z-SERIES SPACESUITS

Oh my gosh, we actually did it.  This is the final post of this year’s A to Z Challenge!  All month long, we’ve been talking about humanity’s future in outer space.  We’ve talked about the space vehicles that will take us to other worlds, and we’ve talked about the kinds of habitats we could build on other worlds once we get there.  But there’s one thing I’m sure you’ve all been wondering about this whole time: what are people in the future going to wear?

Quite a few years ago, NASA introduced a prototype spacesuit for future missions to the Moon and Mars.  They called it the Z-1 spacesuit.  For some reason, the color scheme looked suspiciously like Buzz Lightyear.  A few years later, NASA introduced an updated design called the Z-2 spacesuit, which had glow-y parts that made it look like something out of Tron.

The Z-1 used mostly “soft” materials in its design, which gave astronauts increased mobility and flexibility; however, these soft materials did not provide much protection.  If you trip and fall on the Moon, you don’t want your spacesuit to rip or tear—not even a little bit!  So the Z-2 used a mix of soft and hard materials, in an attempt to strike a better balance between safety and mobility.

As I understand it, the really important thing is that the Z-series suits have a big, giant hatch in the back.  This hatch-back design makes it much easier to get in and out of your spacesuit, compared to more traditional spacesuit designs.  First, you open the hatch.  Next, you stick your arms in the arm tubes and your legs in the leg tubes.  Your head goes into the fishbowl part.  Then, just close the hatch behind you, and you’re good to go.  Easy!

So will astronauts in the future be wearing Z-3 or Z-4 spacesuits as they explore the Moon, Mars, and so on?  No.  No, they won’t.  I can’t find a source explicitly stating that development of the Z-series spacesuit was canceled, but I’m 99% sure development of the Z-series spacesuit was canceled.  At the very least, there hasn’t been any new news about it for years.  In the meantime, NASA has introduced other spacesuit designs, like the xEMU (eXploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit), intended for use on the Moon, Mars, etc.

It is worth nothing, though, that aspects of the Z-series designs—including the very convenient hatch in the back idea—have been incorporated into the xEMU.  Fans of the Z-1 and Z-2 suits can find some consolation in that.

Predicting the future is hard.  A lot of cool ideas have been proposed for space exploration, and quite a few of those ideas are now in active development at NASA, E.S.A., or elsewhere.  Some of the things we talked about this month may actually happen someday; others may be quietly canceled, like the Z-series spacesuits.  So whenever you see someone (like me) talking about what the future is going to be like, take what they say with a grain of salt (especially if they get hyper specific about what we’re going to do and by what date we’re going to do it).

But even if it turns out I got specific details about the future wrong, I still believe the general ideas expressed in these A to Z posts will be right.  Human civilization is going through a tough time right now, but will come out of this, we will learn from our mistakes, and we will build a better future for ourselves, both here on Earth and out there among the stars.

Want to Learn More?

Here’s an infographic from Space.com about the Z-1 spacesuit, and here’s their infographic about the Z-2.

Also, here’s a short video from NASA about the xEMU spacesuit, which borrows that super convenient hatchback design from the Z-series suits.

Our Place in Space: Yestersol

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, Y is for…

YESTERSOL

Do you ever feel like there just isn’t enough time in your day?  Like you just cannot get everything you need to do in a day done in a day?  Do you wish your day could be just a little bit longer?  If so, moving to Mars might be a good solution for you!  A day on Mars is nearly 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth!  Scientists call this slightly longer Martian day a “sol,” and several cute and clever new words have been introduced related to Martian timekeeping: words like yestersol, tosol, and solorrow.

As of yet, there are no humans on Mars (citation needed), but there are humans here on Earth who have to live and work and plan their whole schedules according to Mars time.  You see, the Mars rovers can only operate during Martian daylight hours.  Therefore, everyone back at mission control for those rovers needs to be awake, alert, at their desks and ready to go when it’s daytime on Mars (regardless of what time it is here on Earth).

Sometimes the discrepancy between a Martian sol and an Earthly day isn’t so bad.  Sometimes, when it’s daytime at Jezero Crater (current location of the Perseverance rover), it’s also daytime in southern California (where Perseverance mission control is headquartered).  But day after day, sol after sol, that forty minute difference adds up.  At some point, high noon at Jezero crater will be the middle of the night in southern California.

It’s important that the same crew of people always works with the same rover.  Therefore, NASA has had special clocks and watches made to help people keep track of what time it is on Mars.  NASA scientists and engineers associated with various Mars missions set their work schedules, meal schedules, and sleep schedules according to Mars time.  As a result, there is a small community of “Martians” here on Earth, living their lives about forty minutes out of sync from the rest of us.  And quite naturally, certain colloquial terms have developed within this little community of Mars researchers.

Yestersol refers to the sol before the current sol.  Tosol is the current sol.  And solorrow is the next sol, after the current sol.  Making a clear distinction between “yesterday” and “yestersol” is especially important for people who live on Earth and still have to deal with many Earthly concerns, but who also, in a very real way, need to think and act as if they’re living on Mars.

I like to think of the whole “yestersol, tosol, solorrow” phenomenon as a little preview of the future.  It’s one thing to think about big picture futuristic stuff, like space elevators and planetary protection laws; but it’s little bits of culture and daily life (sorry, sol-ly life) that help make the future feel like a real place.

Want to Learn More?

NASA spacecraft engineer Nagin Cox gave a really neat TED Talk about what it’s like living on Mars time.  Click here to watch it.

Our Place in Space: Xanadu

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, X is for…

XANADU

`Titan is the largest moon of Saturn.  It’s a very cold place.  It’s so cold on Titan that water is basically a kind of rock, and certain chemicals that we typically think of as gases (i.e.: methane and ethane) flow freely as liquids.  As a result, the surface of Titan looks surprisingly similar to some regions on Earth: a rocky landscape eroded by rain and rivers.  Except the “rock” is frozen water, and the rain and rivers are a mix of liquified methane and ethane.  One of the most curiously familiar “rock” formations on Titan lies near the equator.  It’s called Xanadu.

Xanadu is an Australia-sized region of craggy hills and mountains.  Due to Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere, it’s impossible to see Xanadu (or any other surface feature on Titan) except in certain specific wavelengths, such as certain wavelengths of infrared.  When Xanadu is visible, it appears as a bright splotch on Titan’s surface, surrounded by much darker desert terrain.

It’s unclear how Xanadu came to be.  One hypothesis I read argues that Xanadu could be associated with some sort of giant impact event.  Perhaps a large asteroid or comet smashed into Titan, disrupting the icy crust, which then refroze as this jagged and craggy terrain.  Another hypothesis suggests that Xanadu was created by some sort of tectonic activity—a fascinating possibility.  At this point, Earth is the only world confirmed to have plate tectonics.

In this Our Place in Space series, I’ve tried to emphasize all the cool and exciting things humans could do in the distant future.  I have also mentioned, from time to time, my belief that humans in the distant future will learn to be good stewards of the Earth.  Space exploration can help us do that.  Titan is so curiously familiar, yet also so weirdly different from Earth.  Trying to understand why Titan is so different-yet-similar can teach us much about our own world—which, in turn, will help us figure out how to take better care of our planet.

But there’s a catch.  Just as we have a responsibility to take better care of Earth, we also have a moral responsibility to not mess up Titan.  Remember Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere?  There are some weird chemicals forming in that atmosphere.  Organic chemicals.  Could those organic chemicals be associated, in one way or another, with biological activity?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  No one can say at this point.

In the next few years, NASA will be sending a robotic helicopter to explore Titan’s Shangri-La region, one of the dark-colored regions directly adjacent to Xanadu.  If we’re lucky, maybe that robo-helicopter will venture into Xanadu at some point.  I have confidence that NASA will thoroughly sterilize all of their equipment before sending it to Titan to ensure that we do not contaminate Titan with our Earth germs.

There will be many more missions to Titan in the future.  Just as Mars is crawling with Mars rovers today, Titan will be covered in Titan rovers, Titan helicopters, and Titan submarines in the future.  The place has too much in common with Earth, and we simply cannot leave it unexplored.  But humans in the distant future will not only be good stewards of the Earth; they’ll be good stewards of the Solar System.  And so, whether we’re exploring Xanadu or Kraken Mare or Shangri-La, or any other region on Titan that has a super cool name, strict safety precautions will always be a must.

Want to Learn More?

I had a really hard time finding information about Xanadu for this post.  I’m guessing that’s because very little information is available at this time.  More exploring needs to be done! What I did find came from these three scientific papers:

Our Place in Space: VASIMR

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, V is for…

VASIMR

For space enthusiasts and people directly involved in space exploration, VASIMR can be a highly controversial subject.  In some circles, mentioning VASIMR is almost like bringing up abortion or gun control.  VASIMR supporters will tell you that this technology could radically reduce the fuel costs associated with space travel and also cut down the transit times for interplanetary journeys.  The anti-VASIMR crowd will tell you that this technology has been stuck in the research and development phase for four decades now and that it’s time we cut our losses and spend all that R&D money on something else.

VASIMR stands for VAriable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket.  Rather than generating thrust through controlled chemical explosions (as traditional rockets do), a VASIMR engine heats up a neutral gas (typically argon or xenon), ionizes that gas, then accelerates the gas using super powerful magnetic fields.  The magnetically accelerated gas shooting out the back of your spaceship will propel your spaceship forward.

The weight of your argon or xenon fuel would be far less than the weight of the liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fuel used in most rockets today.  And in theory, VASIMR powered rockets could travel faster than chemically propelled rockets.  We could get to Mars in a matter of weeks rather than months, or get to Jupiter in a matter of months rather than years!  So why aren’t we already using this technology?

The problem, as I understand it, is that it takes a lot of power to ionize argon or xenon gas.  It takes even more power to generate those super powerful magnetic fields.  All the equipment needed to generate that much power is heavy.  Prohibitively heavy.  Whatever advantage VASIMR might offer in terms fuel weight is thoroughly negated by the weight of all the extra equipment you’d need to make the engine work.

The idea for VASIMR was originally pitched in 1977.  The first laboratory experiment was conducted in 1983.  This technology really has been in development now for four decades, and it’s still not ready to fly.

I’m not going to advocate for cutting funding on this research.  Progress has been made over the last forty years.  It’s slow progress, to be sure, but slow progress is still progress, and if VASIMR ever does work as intended, it would be a huge, huge breakthrough for space exploration.  Many things that are not possible for us right now would suddenly become possible.

If it ever works as intended….

Want to Learn More?

As I said, VASIMR can be pretty controversial.  To give you a better sense of that controversy, I’m going to recommend this article by Robert Zubrin (President of the Mars Society), titled “The VASIMR Hoax.”  I’m also going to recommend this response to Zubrin from Ad Astra Rocket Company (the company currently working on VASIMR), titled “Facts About the VASIMR Engine and Its Development.”

Our Place in Space: Utopia Planitia

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, U is for…

UTOPIA PLANITIA

Earlier this month, we talked about Jezero Crater on Mars.  There’s strong and compelling evidence to suggest that Jezero Crater was once filled with liquid water.  In other words, Jezero Crater used to be a lake.  If Jezero Crater used to be a Martian lake, then the nearby region of Utopia Planitia was probably once a Martian ocean.

As you can see in the highly technical diagram above, much of Mars’s northern hemisphere was once covered in water.  Probably.  Okay, as a responsible science blogger who wouldn’t want to make you think there’s scientific consensus about a topic when there is not scientific consensus about a topic, I should make it clear to you that the topic of ancient Martian oceans is somewhat controversial in the scientific community.  Scientists are still arguing over what may or may not be ancient Martian shorelines, among other things.

But let’s assume that ancient Mars did have oceans of liquid water on its surface (that seems like a safe assumption to me, but I’m not a scientist—I’m just a guy with a blog).  If so, those oceans would have covered much of Mars’s northern hemisphere.  Today, Mars is sort of a lopsided planet, with generally low elevation terrain in the north and generally higher elevation terrain in the south.  So if ancient Mars did have large amounts of liquid water on its surface, common sense tells us that that water would have accumulated in the low elevation regions (i.e., the northern hemisphere).

Utopia Planitia is one of those low elevation regions in the northern hemisphere.  The terrain is also relatively flat, making Utopia Planitia a fairly easy place to land a spacecraft.  Several robotic missions to Mars have already landed there, the most recent being China’s Zhurong Rover.  And as if all that weren’t enticing enough, ground penetrating RADAR has detected frozen water underground in the southwestern portion of Utopia Planitia.

In the distant future, Utopia Planitia may end up being the site of a major human colony on Mars.  It’s a safe place to land, there’s a supply of water nearby, and it’s a scientifically interesting region.

On the other hand, if plans to terraform Mars ever come to fruition, Utopia Planitia may end up being part of a Martian ocean once again.  As I said before, it’s a low elevation region.  As we transform Mars into a more Earth-like world, water will start to accumulate in places like Utopia Planitia first, at which point we’d probably have to change the name from Utopia Planitia (plains of Utopia) to Utopia Mare (sea of Utopia).

Want to Learn More?

P.S.: As a Star Trek fanatic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this.  Many of the ships from Star Trek were built at the Utopia Planitia shipyards on Mars, according to Star Trek lore.

Our Place in Space: Tolkien Crater

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, T is for…

TOLKIEN CRATER

You would not expect to find water on Mercury.  If there ever was water on Mercury, you’d expect it to boil away into space pretty quickly.  I said the exact same thing about water on the Moon yesterday, and yet it turns out there is water on the Moon, trapped in ice form at the bottom of craters near the Moon’s north and south poles.  The same is true for craters near the north and south poles of Mercury.  To my eternal delight, one of those water-filled craters is named after fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien.

By longstanding tradition, craters on Mercury are named after historically important artists, authors, and musicians.  There are a few exceptions, because a few craters were named before that tradition was established, but the vast majority follow the rule.  And so there’s a crater named after Shakespeare, and a crater named after Van Gogh, and a crater named after Mozart.  John Lennon has a crater named after him.  Walt Disney has a crater.  And so does J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien Crater happens to be located near Mercury’s north pole.  As a result, the bottom of Tolkien Crater is perpetually shielded from sunlight by the crater walls.  It’s extremely dark and extremely cold—cold enough for frozen water to remain stable over cosmic time scales, despite Mercury’s lack of any significant atmosphere or Mercury’s proximity to the Sun.

In the distant future, as humanity spreads out across the Solar System, we may end up deciding to colonize Mercury.  Mercury has resources humans in the future may need: large quantities of metal and perhaps, also, large quantities of helium-3 (necessary for powering nuclear fusion reactors, assuming we ever figure out how to make nuclear fusion reactors work).  If humans do colonize Mercury, places like Tolkien Crater will be valuable real estate.

Most likely, human habitats on Mercury will be built underground.  It’s easier and safer to live underground than to live on Mercury’s surface.  As a result, I like to imagine that people living in and around Tolkien Crater will refer to their subsurface dwellings as “Hobbit holes.”  However, considering how important mining operations would be for a successful Mercury Colony, some sort of reference to the Mines of Moria might be more appropriate.

Let’s just hope those Mercury colonists do not delve too greedily or too deep, lest they awaken something slumbering in the darkness.

Want to Learn More?

Universe Today has an article on how and why we might colonize Mercury.  And here’s an article from Wired.com about the naming of Tolkien Crater.

Lastly, I feel that I have to mention this: if you haven’t seen a picture of Disney Crater, you really need to click here and see a picture of Disney Crater.

Our Place in Space: The Great Red Spot

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, G is for…

THE GREAT RED SPOT

Humanity is struggling right now.  There’s war and bigotry.  There’s disease and poverty and climate change.  Despite these problems, I still have tremendous hope for the future.  I still believe that we can work past our current problems and build a better future for ourselves and for our planet.  But when I think of this better and brighter future, there’s still one thing I worry about.  It’s a minor thing, but still… I worry: what’s going to happen to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot?  Will it still be there in the future, or will it slowly fade away and disappear?

In the late 1800’s, the Great Red Spot was observed to be approximately 50,000 kilometers wide.  For comparison, the entire Earth is only 13,000 kilometers in diameter.  But by 1979, when NASA’s Voyager space probes arrived at Jupiter, the Great Red Spot had shrunk to a mere 23,000 kilometers in width.  It was less than half the size it once was!  And today, it’s only 16,000 kilometers wide.  You see now why I’m worried.

I get a bit frustrated with news reports declaring that the Great Red Spot is certain to disappear.  I also get annoyed with news reports saying it’s certain not to disappear.  The popular press goes back and forth on this.  It’s sort of like those news reports you’ll hear about whether or not eggs are good for you.  First they’re good, then they’re bad, then they’re good if you cook them this way, then they’re still bad no matter how you cook them.  In a similar way, first the Great Red Spot is disappearing, then it isn’t, then it is again, and so on.

I think the popular press just doesn’t understand what it means when scientific research gets published.  Published research is best understood as part of an ongoing conversation.  One group of astronomers says they believe the Great Red Spot is disappearing for reasons X, Y, and Z.  Then another group of astronomers say they think it will endure for reasons A, B, and C.  Then maybe another group will contribute reasons J, K, and L to the discussion.  This back and forth discussion continues on and on in the pages of scientific journals, until some sort of scientific consensus is reached (or until the Great Red Spot actually disappears—that would also settle the debate).

But the popular press always seems to latch onto one published paper and present it to the general public as if it is the final word on the matter, as if it is a proclamation of scientifically proven fact.  That is until they latch onto the next published paper and present that as the final word.

So what’s really going to happen to the Great Red Spot?  Well, it’s undeniable that it has shrunk significantly over that last century or so.  Maybe it will keep shrinking until it’s gone, or maybe it’ll pick up steam again and start to expand once more.  Maybe the Great Red Spot goes through century-long phases of shrinking and expanding.  Maybe we just haven’t been observing it long enough to know that. Scientists are still studying this issue, comparing and contrasting their findings, and debating what it all means.  That’s often the way with science (and I hope you’ll keep that in mind the next time you see a news report that begins with the words “According to a new scientific study…”).

Even without the Great Red Spot, Jupiter would be an awe-inspiring sight.  I do hope, though, that it will still be there for all those future colonists on Callisto to see and enjoy.

Want to Learn More?

I found a few relatively recent articles that talk about the Great Red Spot and why it might or might not disappear.  These articles are, in my opinion, more responsible in how they present their information than other articles I’ve seen.