Aurora time!

I stayed up late to try and see the northern lights. They were nice, but a bit dim here — they did stretch out further than I’ve seen previously, streaking practically all across the sky. I tried taking some photos (f/1.8, 15s exposures, with a tripod, of course), but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Too blurry, mainly what I captured were fuzzy swirls of red and green.

I should practice more, but it’s late and way past my bedtime.

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse

Something funny is going on 650 light years away…or should I use the past tense? Something funny was going on 650 years ago. The star Betelgeuse is/was acting up, dimming and then brightening (well, it’s always been flickering a bit, but this was a greater reduction in brightness than usual.) And now some people are saying it’s about to go supernova! There is a real-time deathwatch on YouTube. “LIVE Betelgeuse Supernova Explosion Is Finally HAPPENING NOW!” it says.

That’s a bit much, and I hope no one is staring at a YouTube page hoping to catch the instant when a rare cosmic event happens. You might be waiting a lifetime. Or maybe seeing it in the next few minutes, but not likely.

Here’s a less sensationalistic perspective.

“Our best models indicate that Betelgeuse is in the stage when it’s burning helium to carbon and oxygen in its core,” Morgan MacLeod, a postdoctoral fellow in theoretical astrophysics at Harvard University and lead author of a recent study about Betelgeuse’s Great Dimming, told “That means it’s still tens of thousands or maybe a hundred thousand years from exploding, if those models are correct.”

Awww, but it sounds like it will be spectacular when we do get the Giant Space Kablooiee, and not spectacularly dangerous, the best kind of spectacular there is.

“When it happens, the star will become as bright as the full moon, except that it will be concentrated in a single point,” Montargès said. “For maybe two months, it will be so bright that if you shut down all the lights in a city and have no clouds, you would be able to read a book in the light of the supernova. It will be so bright that it will be visible in the daylight, too. There will be another star shining in the sky during the day.”

Fortunately, although close enough to provide such a spectacle, Betelgeuse is too far away from Earth for its explosion to be dangerous to us. Astronomers think that a giant star would have to blow up within 160 light-years from our planet for us to feel the explosion’s effect, according to EarthSky.

Don’t get your hopes up, though. I do wonder if that guy running the live video feed is prepared to keep it going for 10,000 years. How can you be interested in astronomy and not be aware of the scale of the events you’re interested in?

Is ignorance a prerequisite for being a Tory?

Sometimes it’s good to see that conservatives in every country are freakin’ morons. Look who the Tories appointed to be Space Minister in the UK:

The Conservative space minister has apparently confused Mars with the Sun.

Andrew Griffith, who has been in charge of the space sector since November, also mistook Jupiter for Saturn.

On a walk around the Science Museum in London, Mr Griffith pointed to an exhibit showing the surfaces of different planets, the House magazine reported. “Now we have got Mars,” he said, before being told by a member of museum staff that it was actually the Sun.

He went on to say “that one is Saturn”, after the display changed, before the employee said “no, no, that is Jupiter”, according to the magazine.

Insisting he is learning on the job as space minister, he said: “I’m not an encyclopaedia.”

No one expects a bureaucrat to be an encyclopedia, but why does he even have this position? He’s clearly not very curious or informed about space — last summer, my 4 year old granddaughter was getting hooked on space science, reading children’s books about the planets, drawing pictures of different planets…maybe the UK can appoint her to the position of Space Minister?

Space Scam

There is a company claiming to be opening a hotel in space — a great big spinning wheel like the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are a few clues that it’s actually a great big fake.

The first is that they claim that they’ll be opening the first hotel in 2025. You know, sometime within the next two years? Only they don’t have a lick of work done on the project yet.

Then they claim they’ll be opening a second, even larger space hotel in 2027. The first will accommodate 28 guests (or is it 280? The number varies with the source) and the second will house 400.

The rooms will be luxurious. This is far bigger than any cabin on an earthbound cruise ship.

So much room! Such big windows! Such thin walls separating you from the cold vacuum and hard radiation of space!

The founder of the company, John Blincow, is a former airline pilot, lacking any training in the sciences or engineering. He seems to have spent the last 20 years founding companies with big dreams that don’t do anything.

The company seems to have scaled down their promises. Their old ad copy says the goal is to build a space station-shaped hotel near a Disney theme park. That was in 2021. They don’t seem to have done it.

The original company seems to make money, not from engineering, but from computer dating.

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The new company, Orbital Assembly, seems to change their name fairly regularly. There’s nothing on their web page about a space hotel, but they did get a $1.7 million contract from the Space Force to build something. Communications gear? It’s kind of fuzzy.

Somehow, this “space hotel” gets promoted in newspaper articles/ads (hard to tell them apart) every year for the last few years. The latest was just a month ago, still making the same incredible claims every time, and always with the same opening year.

Scammers gotta scam, but it’s still appalling how news media, from CNN to Business Insider to MSN, are falling for it. Maybe they’ll get competent editors someday.

P.S. They’re also suggesting that a weekend stay in a space hotel would cost about $5 million. No mention of funeral costs, cancer treatments after the visit, etc. That’s all extra.

Frivolous space tourism?

I was booking flights to Seattle this morning, a fairly short hop away from Minneapolis, when I saw another interesting destination: a new planetary system only 100 light years away, HD 110067. United and Delta didn’t have any flights to that exotic destination, and I don’t think I can squeeze the trip into my 3 week break, unfortunately.

It looks like an interesting but impractical place to visit, in so many ways. Six planets, ranging in size between 1.94 and 2.85 Earth radii, so probably a bit of a workout to take a stroll, and you couldn’t walk there anyway, with surface temperatures between 170 and 525°C. The atmospheres are mostly hydrogen, so breathing will be tough.

The interesting thing is that they’r all whipping around their star at a rapid rate — their years vary between 9 and 55 Earth days. I’m getting dizzy imagining it.

Also, all six are in resonant orbits, which I guess isn’t totally surprising since they’re so close to each other in such tight orbits around their star.

Maybe if I wait until summer break I’ll have time enough to visit? It’s not very practical, but it does look like a fascinating novelty star system.

Kelly and Zach Weinersmith give good interview

The Weinersmiths were interviewed by Adam Conover — it’s an hour-long video but it’s worth it. They’re talking about their book, A City on Mars, and it’s one of the more lively conversations I’ve seen on YouTube.

I’m still working my way through the book myself. It’s engaging and interesting, it’s just that it’s nearing the end of the semester and work is piling up.

Space bastards vs. space geeks

I told you yesterday that I’d let you know when my copy of A City on Mars arrived. It did! Yesterday! I’ve already started reading it, and I’m already happy with it.

Finally, it’s a book about sending humans to space that takes a realistic position: no jingo, no hyper-optimism, and an awareness that enthusiastic boosterism about space travel is a cult-like religion. It sets up the contrast in the introduction: that there are space geeks who fervently believe in the importance of colonizing space for a variety of reasons (most of them bogus), and there are space bastards who keep crashing the optimism by pointing out the problems. The authors side with the space bastards. So do I.

My opinion is that humans are a kind of animal that is well-adapted to a broad range of climates, but are still dependent on a narrow set of environments — we require plentiful water, about 20% oxygen, trace amounts of carbon dioxide, an air pressure between 100 mm Hg and 800 mm Hg, about 1 g of gravity, etc., etc., etc. We can survive briefly outside that range, but we sure don’t thrive and prosper. If ever you’ve raised tropical fish, for instance, you know that living things are extraordinarily sensitive to minor deviations from their ideal environment, and humans also have restrictions we take for granted. Biologically, we’re unsuited to existence anywhere in the solar system outside our one planet — you know, the one we’re busy trashing, but which will never be as hostile and incompatible with life as any of the other places in space.

We’re never going to build viable colonies elsewhere, even on Mars, which is the next best option outside of Earth, and even at that it’s poisonous and dead. I think I’m more negative about the prospects than the Wienersmiths, but it’s still a relief to find a source that recognizes the realities of life in space. It’s reassuring, even.

Addressing all the important questions about living in space

I have Zach and Kelly Weinersmith’s book, A City on Mars, on order. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m seeing excerpts all over the place that let me know I’m going to find this one interesting. It asks all the important questions!

Can you have sex in space?

Astronauts have confirmed over the past few decades that in space, the flesh is willing. But truth be told, we don’t even know if you can actually do the fun part of making space kids. While the moon and Mars provide some gravity, a vast majority of data on space physiology comes from orbital space stations, where astronauts hang in constant free fall. Weightlessness is ideal for physics problems but not for intercourse; a nudge toward you will send you flying backward with equal and opposite momentum. Without the familiar frame of reference provided by Earth’s gravity, concepts like “top” and “bottom” are without physical meaning. All of this will make the orientationless mambo awkward. The space popularizers James and Alcestis Oberg wrote in 1986 that those who attempt the act “may thrash around helplessly like beached flounders until they meet up with a wall they can smash into.”

Assuming this is undesirable, you’ll want something that keeps people together. The engineer and futurist Thomas Heppenheimer called for an “unchastity belt.” Another concept, pitched by Samuel Coniglio, a former vice president of the Space Tourism Society, is the “snuggle tunnel.” There’s also Vanna Bonta’s 2suit, which would keep a weightless couple connected via Velcro straps.

I don’t know…those options sound like they could be experimented with here on Earth, so why go to space?

After thrashing around helplessly like beached flounders, you may work up an appetite. What to do next? Have you considered space cannibalism?

Professor, prolific author, and triathlete, Dr. Erik Seedhouse wrote an analysis of space cannibalism in “Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration.” We don’t know Mr. Seedhouse personally, and he didn’t respond to our email, but we will note that his book’s index contains precisely one entry on “behavioral challenges,” a very important topic, but five entries on the gustatory mode of crew integration.

Seedhouse asks: “Imagine you’re stranded on the Red Planet with three crewmembers. You have plenty of life-support consumables but only sufficient food to last one person until the rescue party arrives. What do you do?… One day, while brewing coffee for breakfast, you realize there are three chunks of protein-packed meat living right next to you.”

He argues that the largest people should sacrifice themselves first, since they both consume and provide the most food. We don’t know where Seedhouse would fall in the buffet line because we couldn’t find his height and weight online, and honestly we’re scared to ask.

Mostly because his book includes a weirdly detailed look at how to butcher Homo sapiens. Also, on page 144, the reader will find a photo of ten astronauts floating happily in space, with the caption: “In the wrong circumstances, a spacecraft is a platform full of hungry people surrounded by temptation. Is it wrong to waste such a neatly packaged meal?”

Is one of the space people Elon Musk? I think that would influence my answer. He doesn’t look particularly appetizing, so this would be a question of performing a distasteful service that would benefit all of humankind.

I’ll let you know when my copy of the book arrives. The first thing I’ll be looking for in the index is “spiders,” because I think they’d thrive particularly well in low-G environments. Is the city on Mars specifically for spiders?