Communion Of Dreams

“We are on a marble, floating in the middle of … nothing.”

Via BoingBoing, this completely delightful short video about the scale of our solar system:

That does a better job of getting the real sense of scale than just about anything else I’ve seen. Wonderful.


Jim Downey


Goldilocks and the three exoplanets.

As something of a follow-up to yesterday’s post, news today of the discovery (thanks to the Kepler mission) of three exoplanets which are very good candidates for harboring life. First, their size is within an order of magnitude of Earth’s — and, specifically, less than twice the size of Earth — meaning that they’re not gas giants such as Saturn or Jupiter. Secondly, and at least as importantly, they fall within the “habitable zone” in their star system. That’s the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” where liquid water can exist (it’s not too cold and not too hot).

This is exciting! As it is put in the article:

Two of the three detailed in the new findings in the journal Science are of particular interest: Kepler-62-e and Kepler-62-f. William Borucki, the chief scientist for NASA’s Kepler telescope, says the planets are slightly wider than Earth, but not too big. Kepler-62-e is a bit toasty, like a Hawaiian world and Kepler-62-f is a bit nippy, more Alaskan, Borucki tells the AP.

“This is the first one where I’m thinking, ‘Huh, Kepler-62-f really might have life on it,’ ” said study co-author David Charbonneau of Harvard. “This is a very important barrier that’s been crossed. Why wouldn’t it have life?”

Why, indeed?


Jim Downey

“Life on…”

It’s been a while, how about a little “paleo-future” fun?

Frank R. Paul was an illustrator of US pulp magazines in the science fiction field. He was born in Vienna, Austria… Frank R. Paul was influential in defining what both cover art and interior illustrations in the nascent science fiction pulps of the 1920s looked like.

Retro Futurism

That’s from a post a couple years ago which is quite delightful — though a bit dated (they even include Pluto as a planet, imagine!) — that you should check out:

Jim Downey


Oh! Lookit the purty pictures!

Do you like APOD? Dig great shots of space? Love to poke around the various and sundry sites where NASA has images?

Then boy, are you in luck:


WASHINGTON — NASA and Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library based in San Francisco, made available the most comprehensive compilation ever of NASA’s vast collection of photographs, historic film and video Thursday. Located at, the Internet site combines for the first time 21 major NASA imagery collections into a single, searchable online resource. A link to the Web site will appear on the home page.

The Web site launch is the first step in a five-year partnership that will add millions of images and thousands of hours of video and audio content, with enhanced search and viewing capabilities, and new user features on a continuing basis. Over time, integration of with will become more seamless and comprehensive.

“This partnership with Internet Archive enables NASA to provide the American public with access to its vast collection of imagery from one searchable source, unlocking a new treasure trove of discoveries for students, historians, enthusiasts and researchers,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale. “This new resource also will enable the agency to digitize and preserve historical content now not available on the Internet for future generations.”

How many images are we talking about? Over 100,000 at present. Completely searchable. The homepage is broken down into several categories (Universe, Solar System, Earth, Astronauts) and contains an interactive timeline of the space program going back 50 years. Each search generates a page of thumbnail images – Titan calls up almost 1,500 – leading to photos, animations, audio files, and artist’s renderings.

Wow. Just wow.

Damn, and I have work I need to get done this afternoon . . .

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)

Wasn’t that a plot point . . . ?
July 20, 2008, 9:20 am
Filed under: Arthur C. Clarke, ISS, Jupiter, movies, NASA, Paleo-Future, Science, Science Fiction, Space

I just came across an interesting idea from Michael Benson in the Washington Post last weekend:

Send It Somewhere Special

Consider the International Space Station, that marvel of incremental engineering. It has close to 15,000 cubic feet of livable space; 10 modules, or living and working areas; a Canadian robot arm that can repair the station from outside; and the capacity to keep five astronauts (including the occasional wealthy rubbernecking space tourist) in good health for long periods. It has gleaming, underused laboratories; its bathroom is fully repaired; and its exercycle is ready for vigorous mandatory workouts.

The only problem with this $156 billion manifestation of human genius — a project as large as a football field that has been called the single most expensive thing ever built — is that it’s still going nowhere at a very high rate of speed. And as a scientific research platform, it still has virtually no purpose and is accomplishing nothing.

* * *

Send the ISS somewhere.

The ISS, you see, is already an interplanetary spacecraft — at least potentially. It’s missing a drive system and a steerage module, but those are technicalities. Although it’s ungainly in appearance, it’s designed to be boosted periodically to a higher altitude by a shuttle, a Russian Soyuz or one of the upcoming new Constellation program Orion spacecraft. It could fairly easily be retrofitted for operations beyond low-Earth orbit. In principle, we could fly it almost anywhere within the inner solar system — to any place where it could still receive enough solar power to keep all its systems running.

Like I said, interesting. But problematic – the ISS wasn’t constructed to provide adequate protection from radiation (the orbit it occupies is within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere), and therefore would need to be retrofitted extensively to protect inhabitants on a long-distance voyage. It would likely also need retrofitting to reinforce the many joints where components have been mounted together, since these were not designed to withstand significant stress from propulsion.  I think Mr. Benson may have underestimated these problems and costs.

But it is still an interesting idea.  Unfortunately, it’s not original.  Well, not exactly.  Like so many things related to our early exploration in space, something similar was proposed by Arthur C. Clarke over 25 years ago.  Yes, about 15 before construction began on the ISS.   It is a plot point in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two (the book differs significantly from the movie 2010, so you may not have come across it).  In the book, a Chinese space station under construction in LEO surprisingly reveals itself to be an interplanetary craft, and takes off for Jupiter, getting the jump on both the American and Soviet missions planned to investigate the monolith in orbit there.

Just a little factoid for a Sunday morning.

Jim Downey

Man Conquers Space.

It is said that it was a single photograph taken by one of Columbia’s crew during Christmas 1961 that changed the course of history. Showing the Earth from the perspective of the Moon changed the mind of the commander of Eagle One from claiming the Moon in the name of the United States (as required by his military commanders) to claiming the Moon for all mankind. After Eagle One’s touchdown in July 1963, followed closely by Eagles Two and Three, the Moon becomes a new and vigorous outpost of humanity. Successive missions range far and wide over Earth’s satellite, discovering sites that in the decades to come would become bases, sources for mining resources, and even a large colony.

Celebrating the early history of space exploration and eventual exploitation, leading up to the recent landings of three manned missions on Mars is a fantastic new documentary: Man Conquers Space.

Wait a second . . . say what?

Via Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy comes news of the Paleo-Future project, an excellent alternative-history of the middle and end of the 20th century. From the website for the project:

This film is based on an alternative timeline to the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo era of reality – it is based on the premise that all that had been proposed in the early 1950’s in Collier’s actually came to pass – and sooner than they expected.

Through the expert use of special visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI), the world of wonder and imagination expressed though Collier’s has become real. The film Man Conquers Space looks like a documentary made today, and is peppered with archival footage from the dawn of the space age during WWII, through to today, narrated by the people who were there – the engineers, the astronauts, the scientists, the visionaries, the politicians.

Wow. This sort of alternative history is what I have done as the background for Communion of Dreams, leading to a more robust space-faring tech by our own time, and setting the stage for the colonization of other planets in our system by the time of the novel 50 years hence. Fascinating.

I’m very much looking forward to the release of this movie. But in the meantime, poke around their site and check out some of the clips they have posted online.

Jim Downey

If I ever…
May 16, 2007, 11:50 am
Filed under: Io, Jupiter, movies, NASA, New Horizons, Science Fiction, Space, Writing stuff

…get around to writing anything within the Communion ‘universe’ which occurs in the vicinity of Jupiter, I am definitely going to have to reference this amazing volcano captured in eruption by the New Horizons spacecraft earlier this year.  What a wonderful series of images, played out as a little animation!

Jim Downey