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500 Days of…Solitude


European Space Agency

So this piece of news is a bit old, but I think its worth talking about: we’re one step closer to intersolar travel!  I’m not talking about a probe or rover, however.  In this case I’m talking about things of a human nature.  From 2007 – 2011, in a cooperative effort between the Moscow-based institute, the European Space Agency, and China’s space training center, an experiment called Mars500 was carried out in a mock spaceship in the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biomedical Problems.  In a series of three phases, the experiment was designed to study the psychological and physical effects of long-haul space flights on human, specifically to the Red Planet and back (but only the participants in the third phase stayed in the capsule for the full 520 days).  In that last experiment, six men, three Russian, one Italian-Colombian, one French, and one Chinese, stepped into the mock-up and were not let out again until 18 months later.  When the “spaceship” door was once again opened on November 4, 2011, all six men emerged, pale and thinner than before, but virtually unscathed.


European Space Agency

In fact, results from the experiment showed that “there was no isolation within the isolation chamber“, and each member of the crew had at least a minimum amount of social contact.  The researchers also found that no deadly microorganisms had grown in the “spaceship” during the experiment, but they did find evidence of the formation of “biofilms” on structural elements inside the spacecraft, and more importantly, on components in the life support system.  This could present a risk for crews of real long-haul flights, as they may cause not only infections, but also lead to the malfunction of important instruments.  One last finding regarded sleep deprivation in the astronauts.  The mission changed the sleep patterns of some of the crew members and led to greater sedentariness, decreased alertness, and disturbed sleep quality.

Also, here’s a link to a video diary the ESA put together of those 500 days.

Unfortunately, any thought of a real long-haul flight is still far in the future, as our technology is still decades away from being able to protect astronauts from cancer-causing cosmic radiation, land them on a planet 54.6 million miles away, and bring them back home again.  However, although this experiment highlighted some challenges that need to be addressed as we get ever closer to sending a crew of astronauts out on a long-haul trip, I’m still really excited by the results.  At least from a human psychological level, I think the fact that six men of different nationalities could make it for the 520-day round trip without incident shows that with the right screening and training, it will definitely be possible to send manned international missions to explore the wonders of our own solar backyard.


Historical Astronomers in Context

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei is important to astronomy for several reasons.  Although he often receives credit for inventing the telescope, he did not actually do that.  He did, however, greatly improve upon them, to such an extent that they could be used to peer far into space.  His other great contributions were being the first to see craters on the Moon, discovering sunspots, tracking the phases of Venus, seeing the rings of Saturn (as well as the planet itself), viewing the four largest moons of Jupiter (now called the Galilean moons) and maybe even discovering Neptune 200 years before it was officially recorded.  In addition to all that, he was also the first great advocate of the Copernican view of the solar system.

Concurrent Historical Events

Eighteen years after his birth, Galileo would have experienced the 1582 institution of the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory the XIII.  This calendar is the one still used in the West today, and accepted in most other parts of the world.  Another historical event that Galileo lived through, especially important for Americans, was the 1607 founding of Jamestown in Virginia.  Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the New World and would be the capital of the Colony of Virginia for 83 years, from 1616 until 1699.  He also would have lived through most of the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest religious wars in world history.  It was fought between Catholics and Protestants on mainland Europe and lasted from 1618 to 1648.

Concurrent Historical Figures

During Galileo’s time, William Shakespeare (26 Apr. 1564 [baptised] – 23 Apr. 1616) would have been writing and acting in plays.  Shakespeare is, of course, one of the most influential English writers of all time, having written around 40 plays throughout his career and also having invented around 1700 of our now common English words.  Another great historical figure who lived at the same time as Galileo was Cardinal Richelieu (9 Sept. 15854 Dec. 1642).  While a cardinal, he was also a duke and a Minister in France.  He oversaw many of the day-to-day aspects of governing France and was responsible for helping King Louis XIII consolidate monarchic power, thereby turning France into a strong, centralized state.  Finally, Galileo would have been alive for Sir Francis Drake’s (1540 – 28 Jan. 1596) second circumnavigation of the globe (after Ferdinand Magellan), from 1577 to 1580.  Besides being the first Englishman to travel all the way around the world, he was also something of a pirate, attacking Spanish ships on their way home from the New World, laden with gold and other treasures.


After finishing this assignment, I was really impressed by the sheer amount of history there is.  Even the 16th and 17th centuries themselves are jam-packed with world events.  When I think of history, I tend to think of one event at a time, but that really isn’t an accurate way of thinking of it.  So many things are happening at the same time all around the world, it boggles the mind.  Researching all of the important figures who were around at the same time as Galileo also made me wonder how much he would have known of the events going on outside of Italy.  There was no internet or even reliable post service at the time, so I would like to know how important information about the world was disseminated, especially from nation to nation.  One last observation I have is that even though there was so much going on all around, the things that stand out most are the actions individuals took that they are still remembered for today.  Galileo played a relatively small role in relation to other events happening around him, but his discoveries resound through the ages down to the present day.  Even comparatively small actors can eventually have a large impact.

Star Lore


Constellations of the northern sky

Have you ever looked up into the night sky, gazed upon the stars, tried to imagine them within those famous constellations, and wondered, how the heck does that group of stars look like a man carrying a club and a shield/lion/pelt?  That would be Orion, (also, The Hunter) who I found several different representations of:

Orion 2 Orion and Lion Orion and Pelt

Orion w/shield                                                                      Orion w/lion                               Orion w/pelt

The Greeks even created a legend about Orion and another constellation, Scorpius.  Perhaps the best explanation is that the Ancients had very active imaginations.  In any case, every culture has their own representations of the images in the nighttime sky.  So, why do we have the constellations we have today, which mostly come from Greek and Roman mythology?  Well, in the Western world, the Greeks created comprehensive lists of constellations, with 48 already in the 2nd cent., however, these were all in the northern sky.  The southern sky constellations were added only after Europeans began the Age of Exploration and were often faced with an unfamiliar sky.  Some were even named after scientific inventions of the day, such as Fornax the Furnace, Antlia the Air Pump, Horologium the Pendulum Clock, and Microscopium the Microscope.  Of course, we don’t have these constellations today, and that is due to the original borders of these constellations being a bit fuzzy.  There were no fixed boundaries for them, as they were meant to be eye-visible stars, so the positions of constellations were getting difficult to discern.  Finally, in the 1920s, the International Astronomical Union, made up mostly of Europeans influenced by Greek and Roman tradition, set the current constellations in the night sky.  This is also why an astrology Zodiac doesn’t match the modern sky; the Sun travels through more than the 12 signs of the Zodiac in a given year.  Another cool thing to note is the names of some of the constellations that didn’t make the cut: Globus Aerostaticus the hot-air balloon, Robur Carolinum the Oak of Charles, and Le Renne the Reindeer (plus those ones above based on inventions).  Maybe it wasn’t just the Ancients with overactive imaginations after all.


The Size of the Universe

How to conceptualize the size of the universe?  I think we find it so hard to do it because astronomical numbers dwarf anything we use in day to day life and on some level, our brains can’t process them.  It’s like trying to visualize the national debt.  What’s a couple more zeros here and there on the scale, really?  I was looking around the internet for good ways to help my visualizations, and I stumbled upon a website that posted five different websites showing different ways of conceptualizing the scale of the universe:

The one that had the slickest presentation (and therefore the one I liked most) is the Nikon Universcale (#3) (even though I’m really a Canon kind of guy).  This website gives a visual representation (to scale) of various objects in our universe, beginning with tiny things like protons and neutrons and growing to galaxies.  The sizes of the objects at the end are truly vast, but they don’t seem so big until one compares them to the things at the other end of the scale, which are completely dwarfed.  It’s really cool to see that, from a universal perspective, we are the size of atoms.



Another model that fascinated me is the one from Primax Studio (#2).  It’s similar to the Universcale, but Scrolling to the end of the scale, one sees a comparison of the estimated size of the universe and the size of the observable universe.  Even though the observable universe is vast, it’s still only a small percentage of the whole universe.

Size of the Universe

Scale of the universe(s)

In the end, it’s still hard to wrap my mind around these gigantic scales, but I have found that these visual representations make it a bit easier.

The Great Wall

Imageby me

A picture of the Great Wall from when I studied abroad in China.  Unfortunately, it actually cannot be seen from space.  Sorry to anyone whose dream I may have crushed…,