Behold Colorful Geologic Maps of Mars Released by The United States Geological Survey

The USGS Astrogeology Science Center has recently released a series of colorful and intricately-detailed maps of Mars. These colorful maps, notes USGS, “provide highly detailed views of the [plantet’s] surface and allow scientists to investigate complex geologic relationships both on and beneath the surface. These types of maps are useful for both planning for and then conducting landed missions.”

The map above lets you see Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system, which stands more than twice the height of Mount Everest. The USGS goes on to add: “Map readers can visualize the caldera complex more easily due to the detail that is available at the 1:200,000 scale and the addition of contour lines to the map. The map covers a region that is roughly the size of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area and is a detailed look at the volcano’s summit that we have not seen before. This new view of the Olympus Mons caldera complex allows scientists to more easily compare it to similar features on Earth (known as terrestrial analogs) such as Hawaii’s Mauna Loa.”

You can find more Martian maps here.

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via Kottke

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The First Surviving Photograph of the Moon (1840)

Everyone has been agog over the first photos from the James Webb telescope, and for good reason. “These images,” Rivka Galchin writes at The New Yorker, “carry news about the early universe, the birth and death of stars, the collision of galaxies, and the atmosphere of exoplanets.” They’re also “very, very pretty,” she writes, comparing them to Vermeer.

The clarity and levels of detailed information about the earliest galaxies have even astonished astronomers, whose work has advanced rapidly alongside the growth of the photographic medium. It was an astronomer, in fact – Johann Heinrich von Madler – who first coined the word “photography” in 1839. “Astronomers quickly embraced the use of photographic plates because of their good resolution and the ability to make much larger images,” APS Physics News notes.

Astrophotography properly began in 1840, when John William Draper, a British-born chemist and doctor, took the image above from the roof of the New York University observatory, credited as the first daguerreotype of the Moon. Daguerre himself might have taken an 1839 image, but it was likely destroyed in a fire, as were Draper’s attempts of the previous year, which burned up in a NYU blaze in 1865.

By all accounts, however, these earlier attempts at Moon photography were blurry and unfocused, showing little detail of the Earth’s satellite. Draper’s lunar “portrait,” from 1840, at the top, is largely considered “the world’s first true astrophoto,” writes Jason Major at Lights in the Dark, for its levels of detail and high contrast, comparatively speaking. As Scott Walker writes:

Draper set out to try and improve on Daguerre’s breakthrough by increasing plate sensitivity and reducing exposure times…. His advancement in the technique allowed visualization of craters, mountains and valleys on the moon’s surface which previously couldn’t be captured.

Splotched, spotted, and heavily degraded, the image may not look like much now, but a contemporary of Draper described it then as “the first time that anything like a distinct representation of the moon’s surface has been obtained.”

The achievement was inspirational, and many better attempts soon followed in rapid succession as the medium evolved. In 1851, photographer John Whipple and father-and-son astronomers William and George Bond improved on Draper’s process and made the Moon daguerreotype further up through the Great Refractor Equatorial Mount Telescope at the Harvard College Observatory. (The year previous, Draper himself collaborated with Bond père to make an image of the star Vega). The image caused a “veritable furor,” Smart History notes, at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Between 1857 and 1862, astrophotographer and amateur astronomer Warren De La Rue made a series of stereoscopic Moon images (lovingly preserved online by astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May), one of which you can see further up. De La Rue had seen Whipple’s daguerreotype at the Great Exhibition and began innovating his own process for creating stereoscopic astrophotographs. At the same time, Draper’s son, Henry, “an accomplished astrophotographer and one of the most famous American astronomers of his day,” Kiona Smith writes at Forbes, had taken over his father’s Moon photography project. See an 1863 image taken by the younger Draper just above.

“Before the invention of photography,” notes APS News, “astronomers had to sketch what they saw in their telescopes by hand, often missing crucial details.” Daguerre and Draper’s innovations, and those that came soon afterward, “showed them a far superior method was possible.” It is astonishing that these results could be achieved only a few decades after the first photograph, taken in 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce. It is maybe even more astonishing that only a century and a half  or so later — a meaningless drop in the cosmic timescale — astrophotography would look beyond the moon to the very origins of the universe itself.

via Smart History

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The First Photographs Taken by the Webb Telescope: See Faraway Galaxies & Nebulae in Unprecedented Detail

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

The First Photographs Taken by the Webb Telescope: See Faraway Galaxies & Nebulae in Unprecedented Detail

Late last year we featured the amazing engineering of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now the largest optical telescope in space. Capable of registering phenomena older, more distant, and further off the visible spectrum than any previous device, it will no doubt show us a great many things we’ve never seen before. In fact, it’s already begun: earlier this week, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center released the first photographs taken through the Webb telescope, which “represent the first wave of full-color scientific images and spectra the observatory has gathered, and the official beginning of Webb’s general science operations.”

The areas of outer space depicted in unprecedented detail by these photos include the Carina Nebula (top), the Southern Ring Nebula (2nd image on this page), and the galaxy clusters known as Stephan’s Quintet (the home of the angels in It’s a Wonderful Life) and SMACS 0723 (bottom).

That last, notes Petapixel’s Jaron Schneider, “is the highest resolution photo of deep space that has ever been taken,” and the light it captures “has traveled for more than 13 billion years.” What this composite image shows us, as NASA explains, is SMACS 0723 “as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago” — and its “slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground.”

All this can be a bit difficult to get one’s head around, at least if one is professionally involved with neither astronomy nor cosmology. But few imaginations could go un-captured by the richness of the images themselves. Sharp, rich in color, varied in texture — and in the case of the Carina Nebula or “Cosmic Cliffs,” NASA adds, “seemingly three-dimensional” — they could have come straight from a state-of-the-art science-fiction movie. In fact they outdo even the most advanced sci-fi visions, as NASA’s Earthrise outdid even the uncannily realistic-in-retrospect views of the Earth from space imagined by Stanley Kubrick and his collaborators in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But these photos are the fruits of a real-life journey toward the final frontier, one you can follow in real time on NASA’s “Where Is Webb?” tracker. “Webb was designed to spend the next decade in space,” writes Colossal’s Grace Ebert. “However, a successful launch preserved substantial fuel, and NASA now anticipates a trove of insights about the universe for the next twenty years.” That’s quite a long run by the current standards of space exploration — but then, by the scale of space and time the Webb telescope has newly opened up, even 100 millennia is the blink of an eye.

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The Beauty of Space Photography

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How to Decode NASA’s Message to Aliens

When NASA spent close to a billion dollars on the Voyager program, launching a pair of probes from Cape Canaveral in 1977, its primary purpose was not to find intelligent extra-terrestrial life. The program grew out of ambitions for a “Grand Tour”: four robotic probes that would visit all the planets in the outer solar system, taking advantage of a 175-year alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. A downsized version produced Voyager 1 and 2, each craft “a miniature marvel,” writes the Attic. “Weighing less than a Volkswagen, each had 65,000 parts. Six thrusters powered by plutonium. Three gyroscopes. Assorted instruments to measure gravity, radiation, magnetic fields, and more. Design and assembly took years.”

Since reaching Jupiter in 1979, the two probes have sent back astonishing images from the great gas giants and the very edges of the solar system. “By 2030, Voyager 1 and 2 will cease communications for good,” says Cory Zapatka in the Verge Science video above, “and while they won’t be able to beam information back to Earth, they’re going to continue sailing through space at almost 60,000 kilometers per hour,” reaching interstellar unknowns their makers will never see. Voyager 1 was only supposed to last 10 years. In 2012, it left the solar system, to drift, along with its twin, “endlessly among the stars of our galaxy,” Timothy Ferris writes in The New Yorker, “unless someone or something encounters them someday.”

As deep space detritus, the probes will make excellent carriers for an interstellar message in a bottle, the Voyager team reasoned. The idea prompted the creation of the Golden Record, an LP fitted to each probe containing a message from humanity to the cosmos. “Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in aluminum cases, the records are expected to remain intelligible for more than a billion years, making them the longest-lasting objects ever crafted by human hands.” Produced by Ferris and overseen by Carl Sagan and a team including his future wife, Ann Druyan, the Golden Record includes the work of Mozart, Chuck Berry, folk music from around the world, the sounds of waves and whales, and one of the most universal of human sounds, laughter (likely that of Sagan himself).

The Golden Record also includes 115 images, etched into its very surface. No, they are not digital files. “There are no jpegs or tifs included on it,” says Zapatka. After all, “The Voyager’s computer systems were only 69 kilobytes large, barely enough for one image, let alone 115.” These are analog still photographs and diagrams that must be reconstructed with mathematical formulae extracted from electronic tones. The process starts with the diagrams on the record’s cover — simple icons that contain an incredible density of information. We begin with two circles joined by a line. They are hydrogen atoms, the most plentiful gas in the universe, undergoing a change that occurs spontaneously once every 10 million years.

During this rare occurrence, the hydrogen atoms emit energy at wavelengths of 21 centimeters. This measurement is used as “a constant for all the other symbols on the record.” That’s an awful lot of background knowledge required to decipher what look to the scientifically untrained eye like a pair of tiny eyes behind a pair of odd eyeglasses. But for spacefaring aliens, “how hard could that be?” says Bill Nye above in an abridged description of how to decode the Golden Record. We may never, in a billion years, know if any extra-terrestrial species ever finds the record and makes the attempt. But the Golden Record has become as much an object of fascination for humans as it is a greeting from Earth to the galaxy. Learn more from NASA here about the images encoded on the Golden Record and order your own reproduction (on LP or CD) here.

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

Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten Updated to Reflect Our Modern Understanding of the Universe

We’ve experienced some mindblowing technological advances in the years following designers Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 film Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.




And y’know, all sorts of innovative strides in the fields of medicinecommunications, and environmental sustainability.

In the above video for the BBC, particle physicist Brian Cox pays tribute to the Eames’ celebrated eight-and-a-half-minute documentary short, and uses the discoveries of the last four-and-a-half decades to kick the can a bit further down the road.

The original film helped ordinary viewers get a handle on the universe’s outer edges by telescoping up and out from a one-meter view of a picnic blanket in a Chicago park at the rate of one power of ten every 10 seconds.

Start with something everybody can understand, right?

At 100 (102) meters — slightly less than the total length of an American football field, the picnickers become part of the urban landscape, sharing their space with cars, boats at anchor in Lake Michigan, and a shocking dearth of fellow picnickers.

One more power of 10 and the picknickers disappear from view, eclipsed by Soldier Field, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and other longstanding downtown Chicago institutions.

At 1024 meters — 100 million light years away from the starting picnic blanket, the Eames butted up against the limits of the observable universe, at least as far as 1977 was concerned.

They reversed direction, hurtling back down to earth by one power of ten every two seconds. Without pausing for so much as handful of fruit or a slice of pie, they dove beneath the skin of a dozing picnicker’s hand, continuing their journey on a cellular, then sub-atomic level, ending inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

It still manages to put the mind in a whirl.

Sit tight, though, because, as Professor Cox points out, “Over 40 years later, we can show a bit more.”

2021 relocates the picnic blanket to a picturesque beach in Sicily, and forgoes the trip inside the human body in favor of Deep Space, though the method of travel remains the same — exponential, by powers of ten.

1013 meters finds us heading into interstellar space, on the heels of Voyagers 1 and 2, the twin spacecrafts launched the same year as the Eames’ Powers of Ten — 1977.

Having achieved their initial objective, the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn, these spacecrafts’ mission was expanded to Uranus, Neptune, and now, the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. The data they, and other exploratory crafts, have sent back allow Cox and others in the  scientific community to take us beyond the Eames’ outermost limits:

At 1026 meters, we switch our view to microwave. We can now see the current limit of our vision. This light forms a wall all around us. The light and dark patches show differences in temperature by fractions of a degree, revealing where matter was beginning to clump together to form the first galaxies shortly after the Big Bang. This light is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. 

1027 meters…1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond this point, the nature of the Universe is truly uncharted and debated. This light was emitted around 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Before this time, the Universe was so hot that it was not transparent to light. Is there simply more universe out there, yet to be revealed? Or is this region still expanding, generating more universe, or even other universes with different physical properties to our own? How will our understanding of the Universe have changed by 2077? How many more powers of ten are out there?

According to NASA, the Voyager crafts have sufficient power and fuel to keep their “current suite of science instruments on” for another four years, at least. By then, Voyager 1 will be about 13.8 billion miles, and Voyager 2 some 11.4 billion miles from the Sun:

In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 trillion miles) from the star Ross 248 and in about 296,000 years, it will pass 4.3 light-years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

If this dizzying information makes you yearn for 1987’s simple pleasures, this Wayback Machine link includes a fun interactive for the original Powers of Ten. Click the “show text” option on an exponential slider tool to consider the scale of each stop in historic and tangible context.

via Aeon

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Amazing Engineering of James Webb Telescope

If you want to see the current height of technology, you could do worse than taking a look at the James Webb Space Telescope. Millions have been doing just that over the past few weeks, given that this past Christmas Day witnessed the launch of that ten-billion-dollar NASA project a decade in the making. As the successor to the now-venerable Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST is designed to go much farther into outer space and thus see much further back in time, potentially to the formation of the first galaxies. If all goes well, it will give us what the Real Engineering video above calls a glimpse of the “early universe from which we and everything we know was born.”

But one does not simply glance skyward to see back 13.5 billion years. No, “the combination of technologies required to make the James Webb telescope possible are unique to this time period in human history.” These include the heat shield that will unfold to protect its sensitive components from the heat of the sun, to the onboard cryocooler that maintains the mid-infrared detection instrument (which itself will enable the viewing of many more stars and galaxies than previous telescopes) at a cool seven degrees Kelvin, to the array of gold-coated beryllium mirrors that can pick up unprecedented amounts of light.

However complicated the JWST’s development and launch, “the truly nerve-wracking process begins on day seven,” says the Real Engineering video’s narrator. At that point, with the satellite finding its precisely determined position 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, the heat shield begins unfolding, and “there are over 300 single points of failure in this unfolding sequence: 300 chances for a ten billion-dollar, 25-year project to end.” With that process underway as of this writing, the teeth of the project’s engineers are no doubt firmly embedded in their nails.

As it plays out, also-nervous fans of space exploration (who’ve had much to get excited about in recent years) might consider distracting themselves with the above episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk. In it Tyson has in-depth discussions about the JWST’s conception, purpose, and potential with both NASA astronomer Natalie Batalha and filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, whose documentary The Hunt for Planet B examines the JWST team’s “quest to find another Earth among the stars.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: even if the shield deploys without a hitch, there remains the not-untricky process of unfolding those mirrors. What we see through the telescope will no doubt change our ideas about humanity’s place in the universe — but if it functions as planned, we’ll have good reason to be pleased with human competence.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Brilliant 19th-Century Astronomical Drawings of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot

The first photo of the moon was taken in 1850 by Louis Daguerre, from whom the daguerrotype gets its name. We have no idea what that first image looked like as it was lost in a studio fire. But the need to catalog the heavens with modern tools had started, and was both fascinating as it was lacking. Into this evolution of science and art stepped Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the French immigrant, living in the States, an amateur scientist and an illustrator. He would dismiss photography of the heavens as “so blurred and indistinct that no details of any great value can be secured.” And by illustrating instead by he saw through telescopes, he secured a place in art *and* science history.

Trouvelot might have thought his scientific papers would be his legacy. He wrote fifty in his lifetime. Instead it is his roughly 7,000 illustrations of planets, comets, and other phenomena that still please us to this day. The New York Public Library has put 15 of his best up on their site, and over at this page, you can compare what Trouvelot saw—-the great astronomer Emma Converse called Trouvelot the “prince of observers”—-to photos from NASA’s archive.

Even if his Mars is a bit fanciful, looking translucent like a fish egg, his understanding of the planet echoes in the following century of sci-fi paranoia. Something strange must be there, he suggests.

Harvard hired him to sketch at their college’s observatory, and he used pastels to bring the planets to life. Engraving or ink would not have worked as well as these soft shapes and determined lines. His rendering of the moon surface is accurate but also fanciful, like whipped cream. And his sun spots might not be accurate, but they replicated the god-like forces at work on its tumultuous surface. His Saturn is the most realistic of them all. Even the NASA image doesn’t look too different to Trouvelot’s art.

These images also help rehabilitate Trouvelot’s other legacy—-the dreaded Gypsy Moth. Before his stint as amateur scientist, he was also an amateur entomologist, and while researching silkworms and silk production, accidentally let European gypsy moths into North America, where they wreaked havoc on the forests of North America. Saturn’s rings may look the same back then as they do now, but so does the damage of the gypsy moth, which according to Wikipedia is up to $868 million in damages per year.

via Kottke

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

17th Century Scientist Gives First Description of Alien Life: Hear Passages from Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros (1698)

Astrobiologists can now extrapolate the evolutionary characteristics of possible alien life, should it exist, given the wealth of data available on interplanetary conditions. But our ideas about aliens have drawn not from science but from what Adrian Horton at The Guardian calls “an engrossing feedback loop” of Hollywood films, comics books, and sci-fi novels. A little over three-hundred years ago — having never heard of H.G. Wells or the X-Files — Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens answered the question of what alien life might look like in his work Cosmotheoros, published after his death in 1698.

Everyone knows the names Galileo and Isaac Newton, and nearly everyone knows their major accomplishments, but we find much less familiarity with Huygens, even though his achievements “make him the greatest scientist in the period between Galileo and Newton,” notes the Public Domain Review.

Those achievements include the discovery of Saturn’s rings and its moon, Titan, the invention of the first refracting telescope, a detailed mapping of the Orion Nebula, and some highly notable advancements in mathematics. (Maybe we — English speakers, that is — find his last name hard to pronounce?)

Huygens was a revolutionary thinker. After Copernicus, it became clear to him that “our planet is just one of many,” as scholar Hugo A. van den Berg writes, “and not set apart by any special consideration other than the accidental fact that we happen to be its inhabitants.” Using the powers of observation available to him, he theorized that the inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn (he used the term “Planetarians”) must possess “the Art of Navigation,” especially “in having so many Moons to direct their Course…. And what a troop of other things follow from this allowance? If they have Ships, they must have Sails and Anchors, Ropes, Pillies, and Rudders…”

“We may well laugh at Huygens,” van den Berg writes, “But surely in our own century, we are equally parochial in our own way. We invariably fail to imagine what we fail to imagine.” Our ideas of aliens flying spacecraft already seem quaint given multiversal and interdimensional modes of travel in science fiction. Huygens had no cultural “feedback loop.” He was making it up as he went. “In contrast to Huygens’ astronomical works, Cosmotheoros is almost entirely speculative,” notes van den Berg — though his speculations are throughout informed and guided by scientific reasoning.

To undermine the idea of Earth as special, central, and unique, “a thing that no Reason will permit,” Huygens wrote — meant posing a potential threat to “those whose Ignorance or Zeal is too great.” Therefore, he willed his brother to publish Cosmotheoros after his death so that he might avoid the fate of Galileo. Already out of favor with Louis XIV, whom Huygens had served as a government scientist, he wrote the book while back at home in The Hague, “frequently ill with depressions and fevers,” writes the Public Domain Review. What did Huygens see in his cosmic imagination of the sailing inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn? Hear for yourself above in a reading of Huygens’ Cosmotheoros from Voices of the Past.

Huygens’ descriptions of intelligent alien life derive from his limited observations about human and animal life, and so he proposes the necessity of human-like hands and other appendages, and rules out such things as an “elephant’s proboscis.” (He is particularly fixated on hands, though some alien humanoids might also develop wings, he theorizes.) Like all alien stories to come, Huygens’ speculations, however logically he presents them, say “more about ourselves,” as Horton writes, “our fears, our anxieties, our hope, our adaptability — than any potential outside visitor.” His descriptions show that while he did not need to place Earth at the center of the cosmos, he measured the cosmos according to a very human scale.

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Richard Feynman: The Likelihood of Flying Saucers

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

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