NASA Lets You Download Free Posters Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Voyager Missions

A quick fyi: Last year, NASA released 14 Free Posters That Depict the Future of Space Travel in a Captivatingly Retro Style. Now, on the 40th anniversary of the Voyager missions (Aug. 20 and Sept. 5, 1977), the space agency has issued three attractive new posters to celebrate our "ambassadors to the rest of the Milky Way." All are free to download and print here. Writes Space.com: "One of the Voyager posters is an image of a starry night sky [see above], and another advertises the mission using the flamboyant design style of the 1970s, the decade when the probes launched. A third poster honors the probes' 'grand tour' of the planets, on their way to the edge of the solar system." Happy downloading!

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Neil deGrasse Tyson is Creating a New Space Exploration Video Game with the Help of George R.R. Martin & Neil Gaiman

Although Neil deGrasse Tyson is somewhat hesitant to go in on plans to terraform and colonize Mars, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like a good ol’--yet science-based--video game. Several outlets announced recently that the videogame Space Odyssey, spearheaded by deGrasse Tyson--one of America’s main defenders of logic and Enlightenment--has surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal. The game promises to send players on “real science-based missions to explore space, colonize planets, create and mod in real time."

In the game, according to deGrasse Tyson, “you control the formation of planets, of comets, of life, civilization. You could maybe tweak the force of gravity and see what effect that might have.” It will be, he says, “an exploration into the laws of physics and how they shape the world in which we live.”

The game has been forming for several years now, and most importantly to our readers, has called in several sci-fi and fantasy writers to help create the various worlds in the game, as they have aptly demonstrated their skills in doing so on the printed page. That includes George R.R. Martin, currently ignoring whatever HBO is doing to his creation Game of Thrones; Neil Gaiman, who creates a new universe every time he drops a new novel; and Len Wein, who has had a hand in creating both DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Wolverine. Also on board: deGrasse Tyson’s buddy Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu.

The idea of world/galaxy-building is not new in video games, especially recently. No Man’s Sky (2015) features “eighteen quintillion full-featured planets” and Minecraft seems limitless. But Space Odyssey (still a temporary title!) is the first to have deGrasse Tyson and friends working the controls in the background. And a game is as good as the visionaries behind it.

 

According to the Kickstarter page, the raised funds will go into “the ability to have this community play the game and engage with it while the final build is underway. As the Kickstarter gaming community begins to beta test game-play and provide feedback, we can begin to use the funds raised via Kickstarter to incorporate your modding, mapping and building suggestions, together building the awesome gaming experience you helped to create.”

DeGrasse Tyson will be in the game himself, urging players onward. There’s no indication whether Mr. Martin will be popping up, though.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Carl Sagan Sent Music & Photos Into Space So That Aliens Could Understand Human Civilization (Even After We’re Gone)

A popular thought experiment asks us to imagine an advanced alien species arriving on Earth, not in an H.G. Wells-style invasion, but as advanced, bemused, and benevolent observers. “Wouldn’t they be appalled,” we wonder, “shocked, confused at how backward we are?” It’s a purely rhetorical device—the secular equivalent of taking a “god’s eye view” of human folly. Few people seriously entertain the possibility in polite company. Unless they work at NASA or the SETI program.

In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.” While they weren’t preparing for a visitation on Earth, they did—relying not on wishful thinking but on the controversial Drake Equation—fully expect that other technological civilizations might well exist in the cosmos, and assumed a likelihood we might encounter one, at least via remote.




Sagan tasked himself with compiling what he called a “bottle” in “the cosmic ocean,” and something of a time capsule of humanity. Over a year’s time, Sagan and his team collected 116 images and diagrams, natural sounds, spoken greetings in 55 languages, printed messages, and musical selections from around the world--things that would communicate to aliens what our human civilization is essentially all about. The images were encoded onto the records in black and white (you can see them all in the Vox video above in color). The audio, which you can play in its entirety below, was etched into the surface of the record. On the cover were etched a series of pictographic instructions for how to play and decode its contents. (Scroll over the interactive image at the top to see each symbol explained.)

Fong outlines those contents, writing, “any aliens who come across the Golden Record are in for a treat.” That is, if they are able to make sense of it and don’t find us horribly backward. Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” Challenged over including “adolescent” rock and roll, Sagan replied, “there are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” The Beatles reportedly wanted to contribute “Here Comes the Sun,” but their record company wouldn’t allow it, presumably fearing copyright infringement from aliens.

Also contained in the spacefaring archive is a message from then-president Jimmy Carter, who writes optimistically, “We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.” The messages on Voyagers 1 and 2, Carter forecasts, are “likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed.” The team chose not to include images of war and human cruelty.

We only have a few years left to find out whether either Voyager will encounter other beings. “Incredibly,” writes Fong, the probes “are still communicating with Earth—they aren’t expected to lose power until the 2020s.” It seems even more incredible, forty years later, when we consider their primitive technology: “an 8-track memory system and onboard computers that are thousands of times weaker than the phone in your pocket.”

The Voyagers were not the first probes sent to interstellar space. Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973, each containing a Sagan-designed aluminum plaque with a few simple messages and depictions of a nude man and woman, an addition that scandalized some puritanical critics. NASA has since lost touch with both Pioneers, but you may recall that in 2006, the agency launched the New Horizons probe, which passed by Pluto in 2015 and should reach interstellar space in another thirty years.

Perhaps due to the lack of the departed Sagan’s involvement, the latest “bottle” contains no introductions. But there is time to upload some, and one of the Golden Record team members, Jon Lomberg, wants to do just that, sending a crowdsourced “message to the stars.” Lomberg’s New Horizon’s Message Initiative is a “global project that brings the people of the world together to speak as one.” The limitations of analog technology have made the Golden Record selections seem quite narrow from our data-saturated point of view. The new message might contain almost anything we can imagine. Visit the project's site to sign the petition, donate, and consider, just what would you want an alien civilization to hear, see, and understand about the best of humanity circa 2017?

via Ezra Klein/Vox

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Star Get Devoured by a Supermassive Black Hole

Likely, in a moment of quiet downtime, you've wondered: Just what would happen if a star, burning bright in the sky, wandered by a black hole? What would that meeting look like? What kinds of cosmic things would go down?

Now, thanks to an artistic rendering made available by NASA, you don't have to leave much to imagination. Above, watch a star stray a little too close to a black hole and get shredded apart by “tidal disruptions,” causing some stellar debris to get "flung outward at high speed while the rest falls toward the black hole."

This rendering isn't theoretical. It's based on observations gleaned from "an optical search by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN) in November 2014." The “tidal disruptions” witnessed above, writes NASA, "occurred near a supermassive black hole estimated to weigh a few million times the mass of the sun in the center of PGC 043234, a galaxy that lies about 290 million light-years away." It's a sight to behold.

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Last summer, astronomer Michael Summer wrote that, despite a relatively low profile, NASA and its international partners have been “living Carl Sagan’s dream for space exploration.” Summers’ catalogue of discoveries and groundbreaking experiments—such as Scott Kelly’s yearlong stay aboard the International Space Station—speaks for itself. But for those focused on more earthbound concerns, or those less emotionally moved by science, it may take a certain eloquence to communicate the value of space in words. “Perhaps,” writes Summers, “we should have had a poet as a member of every space mission to better capture the intense thrill of discovery.”

Sagan was the closest we've come. Though he never went into space himself, he worked closely on NASA missions since the 1950s and communicated better than anyone, in deeply poetic terms, the beauty and wonder of the cosmos. Likely you’re familiar with his “pale blue dot” soliloquy, but consider this quote from his 1968 lectures, Planetary Exploration:

There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.

Sagan’s lyrical prose alone captured the imagination of millions. But what has most often made us to fall in love with, and fund, the space program, is photography. No mission has ever had a resident poet, but every one, manned and unmanned, has had multiple high-tech photographers.




NASA has long had “a trove of images, audio, and video the general public wanted to see,” writes Eric Berger at Ars Technica. “After all, this was the agency that had sent people to the Moon, taken photos of every planet in the Solar System, and launched the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Until the advent of the Internet, only a few select, and unforgettable, images made their way to the public. Since the 1990s, the agency has published hundreds of photos and videos online, but these efforts have been fragmentary and not particularly user-friendly. That changed this month with the release of a huge photo archive140,000 pictures, videos, and audio files, to be exact—that aggregates materials from the agency’s centers all across the country and the world, and makes them searchable. The visual poetry on display is staggering, as is the amount of technical information for the more technically inclined.

Since Summers lauded NASA's accomplishments, the fraught politics of science funding have become deeply concerning for scientists and the public, provoking what will likely be a well-attended march for science tomorrow. Where does NASA stand in all of this? You may be surprised to learn that the president has signed a bill authorizing considerable funding for the agency. You may be unsurprised to learn how that funding is to be allocated. Earth science and education are out. A mission to Mars is in.

As I perused the stunning NASA photo archive, picking my jaw up from the floor several times, I found in some cases that my view began to shift, especially while looking at photos from the Mars rover missions, and reading the captions, which casually refer to every rocky outcropping, mountain, crater, and valley by name as though they were tourist destinations on a map of New Mexico. In addition to Sagan’s Cosmos, I also began to think of the colonization epics of Ray Bradbury and Kim Stanley Robinson—the corporate greed, the apocalyptic wars, the history repeating itself on another planet….

It’s easy to blame the current anti-science lobby for shifting the focus to planets other than our own. There is no justification for the mutually assured destruction of climate science denialism or nuclear escalation. But in addition to mapping and naming galaxies, black holes, and nebulae, we’ve seen an intense focus on the Red Planet for many years. It seems inevitable, as it did to the most far-sighted of science fiction writers, that we would make our way there one way or another.

We would do well to recover the sense of awe and wonder outer space used to inspire in us---sublime feelings that can motivate us not only to explore the seemingly limitless resources of space but to conserve and preserve our own on Earth. Hopefully you can find your own slice of the sublime in this massive photo archive.

 

via the Creators Project

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How the World’s Oldest Computer Worked: Reconstructing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, Greek sponge divers discovered a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. The artifacts they came back up with included money, statues, pottery, and various other works of art and craft, as well as a curious lump of bronze and wood that turned out to be by far the most important item onboard. When an archaeologist named Valerios Stais took a look at it two years later, he noticed that the lump had a gear in it. Almost a half-century later, the science historian Derek J. de Solla Price thought this apparently mechanical object might merit further examination, and almost a quarter-century after that, he and the nuclear physicist Charalambos Karakalos published their discovery--made by using X-ray and gamma-ray images of the interior--that those divers had found a kind of ancient computer.

"Understanding how the pieces fit together confirmed that the Antikythera mechanism was capable of predicting the positions of the planets with which the Greeks were familiar — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — as well as the sun and moon, and eclipses," writes Big Think's Robby Berman. "It even has a black and white stone that turns to show the phases of the moon."




Determining how it really worked has required the building of various different models of various different kinds, one of which you can see assembled, operated, and disassembled before your very eyes in the CGI rendering at the top of the post. Its design comes from the work of historian of mechanism Michael T. Wright, who also put together the physical recreation of the Antikythera mechanism you can see him explain just above.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By its very nature, an artifact as fascinating and as incomplete as this draws all sorts of theories about the specifics of its design, purpose, and even its age. (It dates back to somewhere between 205 and 100 BC.) In 2012, Tony Freeth and Alexander Jones published their own model, different from Wright's, of this "machine designed to predict celestial phenomena according to the sophisticated astronomical theories current in its day, the sole witness to a lost history of brilliant engineering, a conception of pure genius, one of the great wonders of the ancient world," — but one which "didn’t really work very well." Some of the problems has to do with the limitations of ancient Greek astronomical theory, and some with the unreliability of its layers of handmade gears.

More recent research, adds Berman, has discovered that "the device was built by more than one person on the island of Rhodes, and that it probably wasn’t the only one of its kind," indicating that the ancient Greeks, despite the apparent deficiencies of the Antikythera mechanism itself, "were apparently even further ahead in their astronomical understanding and mechanical know-how than we’d imagined." Now watch the video just above, in which the Apple engineer makes his own Antikythera mechanism with an entirely more modern set of components, and just imagine what the ancient Greeks could have accomplished had they developed Lego.

via Big Think

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover Lincos, the Language a Dutch Mathematician Invented Just to Talk to Extraterrestrials (1960)

lincos

The recent hit film Arrival took on a question that has, in recent decades, deeply concerned those involved in the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Say we locate that intelligent life. Say we decide what we want to say. On what basis, then, do we figure out how to say it? Aliens, while they may well have evolved certain qualities in common with us humans, probably haven't happened to come up with any of the same spoken or written languages we have.

In 1960, the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal came up with a solution: why not create a language they could learn? The efforts came published in the book Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse. In it, writes The Atlantic's Daniel Oberhaus, "Freudenthal announced that his primary purpose 'is to design a language that can be understood by a person not acquainted with any of our natural languages, or even their syntactic structures … The messages communicated by means of this language [contain] not only mathematics, but in principle the whole bulk of our knowledge.'"




Freudenthal created Lincos as a kind of spoken language "made up of unmodulated radio waves of varying length and duration, encoded with a hodgepodge of symbols borrowed from mathematics, science, symbolic logic, and Latin. In their various combinations, these waves can be used to communicate anything from basic mathematical equations to explanations for abstract concepts like death and love." You can read Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse (PDF), over at Monoskop, and even though it constitutes only the first of a planned series of books Freudenthal never finished, you can still learn the basics of Lincos from it.

Be warned, however, of the intellectual challenge ahead: Freudenthal just plows ahead without even defining many of the concepts, which readers without a background in mathematics or logic will likely need explained, and Oberhaus quotes even one astrophysicist as calling Freudenthal's book "the most boring I have ever read. Logarithm tables are cool compared to it." Still, 56 years on from its creation, this intergalactic Esperanto has had a kind of influence: Freudenthal demonstrated the idea of including an intuitively understandable dictionary in the spaceward-sent message itself, an idea Carl Sagan went on to use in his novel Contact, in which extraterrestrial intelligence-seeking astronomers receive a signal from elsewhere that considerately does the same.

Contact became a major motion picture, something of the Arrival of its day, in 1997. Two years later, a couple of Canadian Defense Research Establishment astrophysicists used a radio telescope to beam out a Lincos-encoded message toward a few close stars. Like any enthusiastic member of their profession would, they sent out information about math, physics, and astronomy. They have yet to hear back from any residents, fellow astrophysicists or otherwise, of those distant neighborhoods. But if any extraterrestrials did hear the message, and even if they have yet to fully grasp Lincos, I have to believe they feel at least a little grateful that, unlike some humans attempting to communicate with others unlike them here on Earth, we didn't just start yammering in English and hope for the best.

via Monoskop

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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