Monday, August 06, 2012

Magic, And Amy As Only A Memory

As I type this, it is early in the a.m. hours of Monday. I haven’t been to sleep yet, so for me it is Sunday night.

I stayed up to watch the live NASA feed of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars. I didn’t believe the complicated descent stage would work, but apparently all the technology performed flawlessly and put the Curiosity rover down safely right on target. Before I clicked away (watching TV on my broadband connection eats up an incredible amount of bandwidth) the first rough pictures were coming in from Curiosity. I am so happy I was wrong and that the descent went perfectly. It’s almost beyond science fiction—the mission itself, and the fact that I and millions of others could watch it happening in real time, watch the first thumbnail images coming in, sitting here at a computer just like so many of the engineers at NASA and JPL were sitting at their computers watching their computer screens. The times we live in. It’s almost beyond science fiction. It is almost fantasy.


Just a couple of hours before the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars, I took a pair of binoculars out back and checked out the western sky. The sky here around Chicago is awful for astronomy, but there in the west, just a little south of straight west, there in the west was an almost perfect equilateral triangle of stars. In our bad skies, to the naked eye the three stars appeared very dim, almost hard to see unless you knew where to look.

Only one of the three stars was a real star. Through binoculars the scene becomes more clear.

The star to the lower left is a real star, the beautiful blue-white Spica. (I talked about Spica in Waking Up (Not) Lost In Space.)

Above Spica the star at the peak of the triangle really is the beautiful gold ochre planet Saturn.

The star to the lower right really is the beautiful orange planet Mars.

Over the next few weeks the motion of the Earth around the Sun will cause the planet Mars to appear to shift position in the sky and move, night by night, between Spica and Saturn. Right now my wide-angle binoculars can capture all three objects in one field of view, but they are at the very edge of the field. As Mars moves between Spica and Saturn, the threesome will become even more beautiful—gems in the sky, blue, orange and gold, all in a line.

We humans have the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn. And now we have a large and capable rover on Mars.

It’s almost beyond science fiction. It’s almost fantasy. The times we live in.


It was an extraordinary experience to sit at my computer and watch the NASA and JPL engineers study the telemetry coming from the spacecraft as it lowered the Curiosity rover down to Mars.

But it is extraordinary, too, being able to go outside and look at the sky and see Mars there for real, without any intermediary computers or scientists. Just a pair of binoculars. And knowing where to look. (I think about this all the time. This knowing where to look thing. And I can’t stop—I don’t want to ever stop—thinking about Amy Winehouse: This Bright Old World Of Ours As A Rune)

The colors of Spica, Saturn and Mars are among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. But in an objective sense they are far less intense and more dim than almost anything a person might see on a computer screen or television set.

Colorful planets spinning against the blackness of space. Scientists and their spaceships. And everybody going about their business.

To me this seems beyond science fiction, beyond fantasy and squarely in the realm of magic.

The things you see if you know where to look.

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