Space Oddities – Part I

By Anupum Pant

Note

During the past few days, I came across a couple of interesting things related to space, which I felt were worth sharing. Individually, none of them could have been made into a good long article. So, I thought of compiling a list of these amusing post-lets to form a single good read.

Also, in the words of Chris Hadfield: Since Space is profound, endless, a textured black, a bottomless eternal bucket of untouchable velvet and untwinkling stars, it is a place that holds infinite possibilities for me to collect more of such amusing ideas. Therefore, I have suffixed the title of this post with a phrase – Part 1 – that leaves an open possibility for other such articles. If you’d like to contribute snippets for the upcoming parts of this post, you can get in touch with me. [About Page]

Space oddities begin

1. A year in Venus:

Two facts. Venus rotates on its axis only once every 243 earth days. It orbits the sun every 224.64 earth days. But, both of these things put together mean that on Venus, a day is longer than a year. Or simply put, almost everyday is everyone’s birthday. Wonderful, isn’t it?
Also, Venus rotates backwards. So, the sun as seen from Venus, rises from the west and sets in the east. The rotation is so slow that it is unable to generate a magnetic field like earth.

2. International Space Station:

Floating around in the ISS, it is often possible for an astronaut to get struck floating in the middle of a room when walls are out of reach. To get out of such a position, astronauts have to be patient and have use the drafts of light crosswinds from fans or call for help for a physical push. – [Source]

3. Going from ‘a planet’ to ‘not a planet’:

Discovered in 1930, Pluto was originally classified as the ninth planet from the Sun. In the year 2006, this definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a member of the new “dwarf planet” category.
For the whole time during which Pluto was a planet, it did not complete even half a orbit. That means within half a Pluto year, it went from being called a planet to not a planet. Sad.
Today, Pluto is the tenth-most-massive body observed directly orbiting the Sun or the largest object in the Kuiper belt.

4. Visibility from space:

We have always been told that the only man-made object that can be seen from space is the Great Wall of China, but it is NOT true. You cannot actually see the great wall of China from space.
What you can actually see is the biggest structure made by living organisms (not humans) – The Great Barrier Reef.

5. Sun as seen from Mercury:

On Mercury, the sun appears to briefly reverse its usual east to west motion once every Mercurian year. The effect is visible from any place on Mercury, but there are certain places on its surface, where an observer would be able to see the Sun rise about halfway, reverse and set, and then rise again, all within the same day. [Sun’s unusual behaviour as seen from Mercury]

6. Flying on Titan is easy:

The largest moon of Saturn is a very peculiar place. It is the only known moon to have an atmosphere. But that isn’t all.
Its atmosphere has 1.19 times more mass than the earth’s atmosphere. Secondly, the gravity is far lower as compared to earth. This means, had there been humans on Titan, they would have been able fly in Titan by just flapping wings attached to their arms.

In the end, I’d like to leave you with two very interesting things. An inspirational comic by Zen Pencils and a revised version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station (I had this on repeat the entire time I was writing this article):

Deal with Poverty or Go to Mars?

by Anupum Pant

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its Mars orbiter, Mangalyan (Translation: Mars Craft) on November 5th 2013 with a hope to become the 4th such organization in the world, to step into Mars exploration. I must say, it is quite a fete for a developing country which has to deal with a myriad of other socio-economic menaces. Besides that, this mission also placed India above every other Mars mission ever, in terms of the total cost involved. Frugal engineering, has helped ISRO to go to Mars with low costs – with a mere $73 Million dollar budget, MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) has become the cheapest mission ever to Mars. [silly comparisions to put this into perspective]

Side note: India’s other pioneering low cost endeavors – World’s cheapest car; World’s cheapest tablet and cheapest house.

But, this successful launch came with a throng of detractors, ridiculing India for not using these $73 Million to deal with poverty (or “clean feces off its roads”). Clearly, they did not think it through before making such comments.

  1. A nation’s economy is a huge and complex thing. Things aren’t as simple as, stop space exploration funds and divert them to tackle poverty. A number of things run in parallel. Also, every nation has its own set of problems and they don’t stop spending billions of dollars for technological advancement to focus only on social or economic issues. And, I’m sure that the government India is also taking enough steps to tackle its national issues with a firm footing on advancement of technological avenues like space exploration.
  2. The main part of this article: In contrary to what is popularly believed, money spent on space exploration does not nebulously float out of earth (on the other hand, distributing this money among the poor would breed complacency among them and cause the money to literally float out). It plays a major role in creating new technologies, products, jobs and businesses. Let us take the example of NASA here:
    Space exploration has led to development of many things that you use daily. There wouldn’t have been any computers, wrist watches, Velcro, cell phones, GPS navigators etc, if funds were never allocated to the “wasteful” space research.  Without this, there is a chance that you wouldn’t have heard of solar energy, cryogenics or even robotics. Also, several improvements in health care, energy and the environment are a result of research done for space exploration. [10 NASA inventions you use everyday].
    When you think of all this, $73 Million seems like an extremely small number. Remember, that this is also helping other businesses (vendors etc) flourish, which in turn are creating jobs for the poor and spurring innovation.
  3. Thirdly, The Indian Space Research Organization is a unique organization which has managed to stay the world’s most profitable space organization and has sustained on a minuscule budget of about $1 Billion. It relies on the Indian low-cost mantra to develop innovative technologies. As a result, this intelligent government venture has helped to create a profitable environment for space research. Hence, it isn’t a “wasteful” allocation of funds. Additionally, with its engineers living off a small salary ($20,000) as compared to American engineers ($100,000), we can definitely place our trust on an organization like ISRO – Like previous missions, they’ll make much more than $23 Million from this mission too. In other words, they’ll bring money in, not let it float out (better option for dealing with poverty, than just distributing it among the poor).

That said, 21 out of 51 missions to Mars have failed and it means that there is still a long way for this absurdly low-cost Indian mission [also a risky one] to be a completely successful one. So far, it is doing pretty good. We can only wait and see, what the end will be like.

The Sun’s Unusual Behavior – Seen from Mercury

by Anupum Pant

The sun – as seen from Earth

For most of us living on Earth (closer to the equator), the sun has followed a simple path throughout the years. It rises, goes up at noon and then sets for rest of the day. It is a simple straight line for the complete year.
For people living a little away from the equator, things get a bit interesting. There, the summer sun at noon is overhead, but the winter sun is low at noon, not overhead. It isn’t very easy for a person living near the equator to grasp this phenomenon well. You’ll have to go there and see for yourself. Or simply, the simulator at the end of this paragraph will help you understand it better.
At poles, the sun almost moves horizontally for many days. It keeps on making a horizontal circle around you. There, it is day for 6 months and night for the next 6 months. [Here is a sun path simulator for Earth]

However, nowhere on earth, things get as interesting as they get in the skies of Mercury.

The sun – as seen from Mercury

On Mercury, the sun appears to briefly reverse its usual east to west motion once every Mercurian year. The effect is visible from any place on Mercury, but there are certain places on its surface, where an observer would be able to see the Sun rise about halfway, reverse and set, and then rise again, all within the same day. It is indeed an unusual performance which isn’t easy for us Earthlings to digest. [See animation in the next paragraph]

Why does it happen?

Let us consider a simpler analogy – some planets (like Mars), as seen from earth, take a similar path. [see the animation for Mars’s path as seen from earth]

The planets, including Earth, all travel around the Sun in a continuous orbit. We can see them make their way across the sky in a straight line usually. However, every now and then a planet appears to turn around. After turning around, it appears to move back the way it came. This is called a retrograde orbit and is caused due to the difference in speeds at which the planets circle the Sun.

So, as we see Mars do a reverse from earth, a similar motion of sun is observed from the surface of Mercury.

[Apparent Retrograde Motion – Wikipedia]