News From Space: Arkyd Telescope and Shenzhou 10

spacex-icarus-670It seems that every day, the frontiers of space exploration are being pushed. In recent months, two stories occurred close to home (relatively speaking) that have stuck out in my memory. The first had to do with Planetary Resources plan to commission the world’s first crowdfunded telescope. The second came from China, where the new Shenzou 10 space ship launched on its way to dock with the prototype Tiangong-1 space station.

These stories were both groundbreaking for a number of reasons. Arkyd’s plan for a publicly-owned and funded telescope is not only an historic first, its also a major step forward in the creation of a new era of space exploration, one which is far more open and democratic than before. The second story represents a major leap for China as a major power, and their plans to conduct research aboard the Tiangong-1 shows a commitment to opening their space program to the public.

ARKYD-in-SpaceAnd as it happens, there have been recent developments on both fronts. On June 20th, less than a week ago, the Arkyd space telescope passed their goal of $1 million with its Kickstarter campaign. But perhaps to keep the money flowing, the company announced an ambitious aim to add extrasolar planet searching  to the list they can double that goal to $2 million.

And they’ve set some other fundraising milestones just to keep things interesting:

  • $1.3 million: A ground station at an undisclosed “educational partner” that would double the download speed of data from the orbiting observatory.
  • $1.5 million: This goal, just released yesterday, is aimed at the more than 20,000 people who signed up for “space selfies” incentive where uploaded pictures are photographed on the telescope while it is in orbit. For this goal, “beta selfies” will be taken while the telescope is in the integration phase of the build.
  • $1.7 million: The milestone will be announced if Arkyd reaches 15,000 backers. (It has more than 12,000 as of this

With five days remaining and a total of $1,189,359 now raised, they are not likely to break that ceiling. Still, the company’s plan to begin prospecting asteroids for the sake of future mining efforts now seems well within reach. Best of luck to them!

shenzhou10_tiangong1As for China’s Shenzhou 10, in an event that was captured on film, the space module is now docked with the Tiangong-1 space station and made a scenic transit in front of the sun. Astrophotographer Terry Legault had less than half a second to capture these incredible shots, but managed to get not one, but two shots in two consecutive days. Not an easy task to pull off, let alone twice!

If you look closely at the picture above, you can just make out Tiangong-1 station to the right of the sun, located below and to the left of a large cluster of sun spots. This top image is a crop of a full-face view of the Sun, taken with white light filters by Thierry from southern France on June 16, just after noon UTC. The transit duration was just 0.46 seconds, the distance of the spacecraft to observer was 365 km away, and the spacecraft was traveling at 7.4km/s (26,500 km/h or 16,500 mph).

shenzhou10_tiangong3This second imagine was taken the next day, again from the south of France, at 12:34:24 UTC on June 17, 2013. This one, in Hydrogen-alpha shows the Shenzhou-10/Tiangong-1 complex in multiple shots over the 0.46 second transit. Click on the photo to get the full resolution, then zoom in to see multiple shots of station as it made its transit across the face of the sun.

In a previous interview with Universe Today, Thierry explained how he prepares to take images like these:

For transits I have to calculate the place, and considering the width of the visibility path is usually between 5-10 kilometers, but I have to be close to the center of this path, because if I am at the edge, it is just like a solar eclipse where the transit is shorter and shorter. And the edge of visibility line of the transit lasts very short. So the precision of where I have to be is within one kilometer.”

Legault studies maps, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time. I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!

Kudos to the man for once again capturing images of the heavens and sharing them with the world. And exciting times these are, when space exploration is once again booming and the frontiers of tomorrow are increasingly within our reach.

Sources: universetoday.com, (2), legault.perso.sfr.fr

Tweeting Aliens: The Lone Signal Array

gliese-581-eIn what could be called a case of serious repurposing – beating swords into plowshares and so forth – or something out of science-fiction, a crowdfunded project has sought to turn a Cold War era dish into a deep-space communications array. This array will send messages to that’s relatively near to us, and potentially inhabited. And assuming anything sufficiently advanced lives there, we could be talking to them soon enough.

dishantennaThe project is known as Lone Signal, a crowdfunded effort to send a continuous stream of messages to the folks at Gliese 526, a red dwarf star 17.6 light-years away in the constellation of Bootes (aka Wolf 498). And the dish with which they intend to do this is known as the Jamesburg Earth Station, a nuke-proof satellite relay station in California that dates from the 1960s and even helped broadcast images of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Long Signal, it should be noted, is the brainchild of The Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, non-profit virtual research institute that networks scientists from across the globe and multiple disciplines for the purpose of expanding the boundaries of knowledge, science and astronomy and promoting an open dialogue on the subject of exploration and settlement.Towards this end, they arranged for a 30-year lease on the Cold War-era dish (for a cool $3 million) and set up a project that will allow participants who contribute money to send a personalized message into space.

exoplanetsUltimately, they plan to direct two beams at Gliese 526: a continuous wave with fundamental physics laws and basic information about Earth, and another consisting of crowdsourced greetings. The project is open to anyone and a series of initial short message (the equivalent of a 144-character tweet) will be available free of charge. Subsequent messages, images, and longer greetings, however, will cost money (about $1 for four texts) that will help the project fund itself.

The project’s website also lets participants track their messages and share them via social media, dedicate messages to others, and view signal stats. In an interview with Universe Today, Lone Signal co-founder Pierre Fabre, told people:

Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system. But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.

Indeed. Nothing like the prospect of facing another life form, a potential space invader even, to make people forget about all their petty bickering!

Gliese_581_-_2010As our knowledge of the universe expands, we are becoming aware of the existence of more and more exoplanets. Many of these exist within the Habitable Zones of their parent star, which means two things. On the one hand, they may be candidates for potential settlement in the future. On the other, they may already be home to sentient life. If said life is sufficiently advanced, its entirely possible they could be looking back at us.

For some time, the human race has been contemplating First Contact with potential extra-terrestrial life, which was the very purpose behind the creation of NASA’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program in 1961. The Pioneer space probes were another attempt at making contact, both of which carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future.

SETIFollowing in that tradition, Voyager 1 and 2 space probes contained even more ambitious messages, otherwise known as the Golden Record. These phonograph records – two 12-inch gold-plated copper disks – contained both sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth that would give any civilization that found them a good idea of what the people of Earth were capable of.

The contents of the records were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, and consisted of 115 images and a variety of natural sounds – surf, wind, thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from then-President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

golden_record_cover_smIn this respect, Lone Signal represents the latest step in promoting contact and communication with other life forms. And in keeping with the trend of modern space exploration, it is being opened to the public via crowdfunding and personalized messages. But unlike SETI, which lost its government funding in 1995 and had to turn to private supporters, crowdfunded space exploration is something directly accessible by all citizens, not just corporate financiers.

Update: The Lone Signal project is now operational and on 9:00 PM EDT Monday, June 17 at a press event in New York, the team announced the transmission of the first interstellar message. The message was sent by none other than Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist and science guru. That message was then read during his welcome talk to the Singularity University class of 2013, from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California:

Greetings to Gliese 526 from Singularity University. As you receive this, our computers have made us smarter, the better to understand you and the wisdom of the universe.

What he means by this is that by the time the message is recieved – roughly 18 years from now, assuming it ever is – humanity is likely to have taken the first steps towards merging our brains with computers via biotech, artificial intelligence, or other means of computer-assisted brain augmentation. At least, that’s what guys like Kurzweil hope for.

Other “alpha beamers” — including Dan Aykroyd, Alicia Keys, and Jason Silva — also sent beams Monday night. And for the time being, anyone can send a “crowdsourced” 144-character beam and pic. Better get on it before they start charging. If texting and phone rates are any indication, the price is likely to go up as the plan improves!

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from Lone Signal:


And also check out this time-lapse video of the Jamesburg Earth Station in operation:

Sources: cnet.news.com, universetoday.com, voyager.jpl.nasa.gov, bmsis.org, kurzweil.net