The Solar System’s Ocean Worlds

If we ever overcome our differences and make it into space, there's a universe of wonders waiting for us. This month, NASA unveiled another of those wonders with the announcement of hydrothermal vents on Enceladus.Enceladus is one of Saturn's moons. Although it's tiny, barely 300 miles in diameter, it has a long history of tantalizing skywatchers. It's the most reflective body in the solar system because it's entirely covered in ice. The Voyager 2 flyby found a smooth and geologically young … [Read more...]

The Next Hop

For all the madness and cruelty on earth, we're privileged to live in a time when scientists are confirming that the skies are overflowing with planets friendly to life. And another big discovery that expands our cosmic horizon has just been announced:NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most … [Read more...]

A World on Our Doorstep

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence remains a high-risk, low-payoff-probability endeavor, with many exciting initial reports that mostly turn out to be false alarms.The search for other planets, however, continues to pay off in spades. And a team of European astronomers just hit the biggest jackpot yet: a habitable planet orbiting the Sun's nearest neighbor.Astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the closest star to … [Read more...]

Weekend Coffee: Reusable Rockets

The news was nearly overshadowed by Christmas, but Elon Musk's SpaceX pulled off an incredible feat of technology this week:The company's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral to carry a set of communications satellites into orbit. While the second stage of the rocket delivered its payload, the initial booster stage turned around and returned to earth, firing its engines to stabilize itself as it touched down for a soft landing. After two previous near-miss attempts that ended … [Read more...]

The World in the Dark

Human beings have always been explorers, and this week, we pushed the boundaries of our exploration one step further. NASA's far-roving New Horizons spacecraft has completed the most important phase of its mission, making the first-ever close-up observations of Pluto.New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 (which means the mission is just a bit older than this blog!). It's flown a nine-year, three-billion-mile course through the solar system, making its closest approach to Pluto on … [Read more...]

Repost: The Age of Wonder

[Author's Note: I'm reposting some old favorites while I'm away on vacation this week. This post was originally from November 2008.]If you search the internet, it's not hard to find New Agers and others who think that the dawning of the age of reason was a mistake. They envision a more "holistic" approach, one that properly pays heed to the mystery and complexity of existence, and castigate science for being cold, unfeeling, heartless in its probing, reductionist scrutiny of the natural … [Read more...]

Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand vs. Carl Sagan

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IIThe decay of Colorado is accelerating. Men that Dagny knows personally, men who love their jobs and swear that they'll never leave, that they'll resist whatever blandishment or temptation is claiming their fellows, or at the very least that they won't disappear without an explanation, are vanishing one after another without a word. Since I'm nothing if not scrupulously fair to Ayn Rand, I'll cite this passage as a well-executed example of building … [Read more...]

TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 9

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 9, "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth"At the beginning of its run, Cosmos tended to alternate excellent episodes with mediocre ones, which made me wonder if that would be the pattern for the whole series. But I'm happy to say that the show has hit its stride: the last three episodes, including this one, have been outstanding, and in my opinion this was the best of the three.We started out back on the Cosmic Calendar, this time in mid-December, the … [Read more...]

A Richness of Planets

I've been writing a lot lately about hatred and discrimination, about the small prejudices that keep humanity fractured and ignorant. It's important to fight for reason and equality, but I think it's equally important to remember why we're fighting these prejudices, and keep in mind the greater things that we can accomplish if we overcome them. Consider, then, this column about the real meaning of the exoplanet revolution by Caleb Scharf, director of astrobiology at Columbia University.The … [Read more...]

One-Half of One Cent

As I'm writing this post, NASA's latest Mars mission - the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity - is just hours away from its destination. By the time you read this, we'll know if it touched down safely on the surface of the red planet. Curiosity is a robot rover about the size of an SUV, much larger than previous Mars rovers, and carries more scientific equipment. That makes it too big and too heavy to drop to the surface and bounce to a stop protected by airbags, the way that its … [Read more...]