Reaching the Utmost Limits

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Twenty-seven years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-31. I worked that mission as part of the Air Force Flight Test Center recovery crew: I stood alert on the flightline during the launch on the 24th, ready for the possibility of an “abort once around,” then greeted the vehicle on the lakebed when it landed on the 29th. In between, of course, the famed telescope was deployed.


STS-31 mission patch. “Bolden” refers to USMC MajGen Charles Bolden, who eventually became NASA administrator. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

(I know, I know: This post is supposed to be about a quote, so get to the quote!)

You probably know that the telescope’s namesake, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), was an influential astronomer. He demonstrated that other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way — showing that the universe was even more enormous than we thought until then — and also correlated the redshift (the degree to which light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum) with distance to show that the universe is still expanding.

So here’s the quote to start this week: in 1936, Hubble wrote,

Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows and search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial.

That quote brings two things to mind for me.

First, that the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us that far more exists at “the utmost limits” than most of us ever imagined or perhaps even can imagine. It turns out that besides our own vast galaxy there may be anywhere from 200 billion to as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, each with billions of stars. Even as we build more and more powerful instruments to probe the depths of space, I feel sure that we won’t reach “the utmost limits” of what’s out there in many lifetimes.

But the second thing I thought of when reading that quote is that it could apply not only to telescopes and understanding the universe but also to thought. I imagine a similar sentiment describing all knowledge, not just astronomical knowledge: Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our reasoning. There, we study shadows and search among ghostly errors of imagination for truths that are scarcely more substantial.

And if we reach those utmost limits, what then do we do?

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North Korea is Burning

Or, at least, large portions of it were burning when this satellite image was taken.


(AQUA satellite image of smoke plumes from fires in North Korea, 25 April 2014. NASA image.)

As this ABC News story noted,

The extent of deforestation stands out in the satellite image — in stark contrast to the greenery south of the DMZ in South Korea.

I primarily posted this because one of the fellows I worked with at the Defense Technology Security Administration had worked on the AQUA satellite, which took the image, when he was with NASA. Here’s the original NASA story with details on the image and the instrument used to produce it.

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Japan Proposing to Build Solar-Power Sats

A recent Japanese plan proposes to make the solar-power satellite, a long-time staple of science fiction, a reality.

C3-class Solar Flare Erupts on Sept. 8, 2010 [Full Disk]
(“C3-class Solar Flare Erupts on Sept. 8, 2010,” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Spurred on in part by the Fukushima disaster, Japan Has A Plan To Start Using Space-based Solar Power By The 2030s.

They’ve devised a road map that describes a series of ground and orbital stations leading to the development in the 2030s of a 1-gigawatt commercial system — which is the same output as a typical nuclear power plant. Prior to this, they’d like to set up a 100-kW SPS version around 2020.

It’s a very nice idea, and one that many of us have talked about (and written about) for years. Unfortunately, until they solve the problems of

  1. getting equipment and material from Earth’s surface to orbit quicker, cheaper, and more reliably;
  2. mining asteroids or the Moon for raw materials and processing them into the required end state; and
  3. building large structures in orbit

the idea of having a demonstration in just over 5 years — and a working model in 15! — seems extremely optimistic.

But, here’s hoping! It would be grand.

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Space Station Makeover

Five years ago today — November 15, 2008 — the Space Shuttle Endeavour launched from Kennedy Space Center carrying equipment and materials for the International Space Station.


(View from inside Endeavour of part of an ISS truss solar panel against the backdrop of Earth. Thanksgiving eve, 2008. NASA image.)

The STS-126 crew — Christopher J. Ferguson, Eric A. Boe, Sandra H. Magnus, Stephen G. Bowen, Donald R. Pettit, Robert S. (Shane) Kimbrough and Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper — spent over 2 weeks in space making modifications to the ISS. By the time they undocked to head back to Earth, leaving Magnus on the ISS and bringing Gregory E. Chamitoff home with them, they had installed an additional bathroom and waste processing system in order for the station to support six residents at a time. They also took part in four spacewalks, primarily to repair joints on the ISS solar arrays.

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The New Millennium Program Begins

In a space history anniversary I missed during the first go-round, 15 years ago today — October 24, 1998 — NASA launched its first mission under the New Millennium Program (NMP) from Cape Canaveral on a Delta II rocket.


(Deep Space 1. NASA image.)

This first technology demonstrator under the NMP, Deep Space 1, carried new instruments such as the Miniature Integrated Camera-Spectrometer, built to combine visual images with ultraviolet and infrared spectrometer data. It captured images of 9969 Braille, a near-Earth asteroid, and of comet Borrelly.

The same launch carried the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, or SEDSAT 1, spacecraft to orbit. The SEDSAT mini-satellite was built by University of Alabama students to distribute orbital imagery over the Internet.

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First Indian Lunar Mission

Five years ago today — October 22, 2008 — the Indian Space Research Organization launched a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from the Satish Dhawan Space Center, carrying a lunar mapping satellite.


(Technicians prepare Chandrayaan 1 for orbit. Indian Space Research Organization image.)

Chandrayaan 1, or “Moon Craft 1,” was India’s first lunar mission. The spacecraft achieved lunar orbit on November 8, 2008, after a series of orbit-raising maneuvers. It returned images and data — including from a “Moon impact probe” that it released — until contact was lost in August 2009.

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Exploring the Interstellar Boundary

Five years ago today — October 19, 2008 — a Pegasus-XL rocket lofted a satellite designed to study the edge of the solar system.


(IBEX. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

From its L-1011 cargo plane flying near Kwajalein Island in the Pacific Ocean, the Pegasus carried the IBEX (Interstellar Boundary EXplorer) satellite to orbit. The probe specifically monitors hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the vicinity of the heliosphere where the solar wind interacts with elements in interstellar space.

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Gov’t Shutdown Doesn’t Stop Space History …

Someone will need to explain to me why NASA’s websites have to be shut down — did they shut down the power to the server rooms? — but the fact is that the National Space Science Data Center site came up empty today. But this space history item will not be denied!

Five years ago today — October 12, 2008 — a Soyuz-FG rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome carrying mission Soyuz TMA-13 to the International Space Station. Its crew consisted of U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke, U.S. space tourist Richard A. Garriott, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri V. Lonchakov.


(The Soyuz rocket carrying TMA-13 being erected on the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Soyuz docked with the Zarya module two days after launch. Garriott spent nine days aboard the ISS and returned to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-12, along with cosmonauts and ISS residents Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko, while the other two TMA-13 passengers stayed aboard the ISS.

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First Falcon-1 Launch Success for SpaceX

Five years ago yesterday — September 28, 2008 — a Falcon 1 rocket lifted off from Omelek island in the Kwajalein Atoll on its first successful demonstration flight.


(Falcon 1 launch of Demosat. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Its payload, appropriately named Demosat, was a small pathfinder model made of aluminum that was also named “Ratsat.” The dummy spacecraft was bolted to the upper stage of the Falcon launcher, since it did not need to be placed in its own operational orbit.

This launch was the fourth attempt for SpaceX’s Falcon 1 vehicle, and the first one to successfully achieve orbit.

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First Satellite Launch from Israel

Twenty-five years ago today — September 19, 1988 — a Shavit rocket launched from Palmahim, Israel, in the Negev desert.


(Launch of a Shavit rocket. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Ofeq 1 (Horizon 1) spacecraft was a demonstration satellite and the first-ever launched by Israel from its own territory. Ofeq 1 operated until January 14, 1989, when it re-entered the atmosphere.

The successful launch “made Israel the eighth nation to launch a satellite on its own rocket.”

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