My Own Corner of Mars

On the 16th of February, at 3:16 pm (local Mars time), a robotic spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet trained its most powerful camera on the surface. It captured an image so detailed that if someone were standing there waving you could see their shadow.

This dune field inside a crater, on the floor of an ancient river bed, is one small part of that picture. Why did NASA engineers radio commands across 60 million miles of space in order to point the multi-million-dollar spacecraft at this particular spot?

Because I told them to. Continue reading “My Own Corner of Mars”

National Poetry Writing Month 2014/15

4104 (for MESSENGER) – April 30, 2015

I don’t know my last orbit’s number
But when I trace that final curve
I hope I’m like you:
Careening headlong into fresh frontiers
A head full of new stories
That I didn’t quite have time
To finish telling


Goldstone – April 19, 2015

I want to be more like Goldstone
Remote from routine radio
From morning shows, sugar spike pop, chronic anger
Away from the fumes of cars pushing through
The bruised vein connecting LA to Vegas
Shielded from the low static of alarm and boredom
I want to be apart from thoughtless days
One following after another like boxcars rattling into Barstow

I want to earn the silence of an open sky
To listen to the desert
The commerce of mice
The glow of scorpions
The slow rumble of rock rising and weathering
To the percussion of summer lightning
The sigh of a cactus flower opening
Just as Jupiter clears the horizon

Even now, pictures of the rings sparkling in Saturn’s cold daybreak
Are arriving on waves that gently wash over my body and yours

I want to be exquisitely sensitive to the subtlest of light
I want to reverberate to the hushed, awed whispers

Drawing: Paul Calle, 1971

  Continue reading “National Poetry Writing Month 2014/15”

Dancing With Saturn

As I type this, the robotic spacecraft Cassini is traveling at 2.4 kilometers per second (about 5,300 MPH) relative to the planet Saturn. On April 9th, when Cassini makes its closest approach to the planet during this current orbit, the craft will reach nearly 9 kilometers per second (about 20,000 MPH). For all that amazing speed, the pictures we see from Cassini are usually still shots, arrestingly beautiful–but also arrested in time. Continue reading “Dancing With Saturn”


Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was the last person to step down onto the Moon. He was also the only professional geologist to work on the lunar surface, which he did during the Apollo 17 expedition to the Taurus-Littrow Valley.

The Moon’s geology still fascinates Dr. Schmitt. Just last week, in fact, he spoke about his lunar fieldwork to scientists gathered at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference being held this week in Texas. He told his audience that the samples and field notes from the Apollo 17 mission are still useful today, but that’s not all–there’s another, newer tool available to Moon explorers: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. High-resolution images from the robotic spacecraft provide fresh perspectives from on high, such as revealing boulder tracks at the Apollo landing sites that astronauts didn’t see from the ground.

Schmitt left the Moon in 1972. No one has been back since. But thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, you don’t have to be an astronaut to see lunar landscapes up close. LRO returns images with such great detail that objects as small as individual boulders, or even human-made objects like the lunar landers, are easy to spot.

My favorite LRO shots are taken at a highly oblique angle rather than looking straight down. Views like that, especially when the sun is low on the horizon, almost look like what you might see if you were standing there in person.

At the bottom of this page I’ve gathered a few of these postcards from the Moon. Each offers a nice perspective on the landscape, but to really feel like you’re getting your boots dirty at the locations they show, you’ll want to click on the small pictures in order to zoom in on the details that are only visible in the much larger versions.

For example, here’s a detail from the Hausen Crater image:

Hausen Crater Central Peaks, Detail
Hausen Crater Central Peaks, Detail – Who’s up for a hike? The central peaks in the Moon’s Hausen Crater, a detail from the much larger image below. Credit: NASA / GSFC / ASU

And here’s another example, this one from Giordano Bruno Crater:

Giordano Bruno Crater, Detail

Giordano Bruno Crater, Detail – Beware of sliding boulders! A detail from a larger image of the Moon’s Giordano Bruno Crater, as imaged by LRO. Credit: NASA / GSFC / ASU

Here are some more lunar locations. Clicking on each will lead to a page where you can enlarge the image and explore the full desolation in all its magnificence. All of these images were captured in the past couple of years, and most have not been widely published elsewhere. Happy moonwalking!

Anaxagoras Crater
Anaxagoras Crater – An oblique view into the Moon’s Anaxagoras Crater, as seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with the Sun low on the horizon. Anaxagoras has a diameter of about 51 km. NASA / GSFC / ASU
Giordano Bruno Crater
Giordano Bruno Crater – A view of Giordano Bruno, a 22-km-wide impact crater on the far side of the Moon. When viewed large, the high resolution and oblique angle of this Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image almost make it seem like you’re standing right on the edge of the crater. Credit: NASA / GSFC / ASU
Antoniadi Crater Central Peak
Antoniadi Crater Central Peak – The unusually smooth floor of Antoniadi Crater includes the lowest point on the Moon. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this oblique view of the peak at the center of the crater, which is 143 km wide. NASA / GSFC / ASU
Posidonius Crater
Posidonius Crater, with its rille system named Rimae Posidonius. This oblique view of the 95-km-wide crater comes from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA / GSFC / ASU
Hausen Crater Central Peaks
Hausen Crater Central Peaks – Hills at the center of Hausen Crater, as seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The crater is nearly four kilometers deep. At high resolution, the angle and details visible in this image–right down to individual boulders–offer a moonwalker’s perspective. NASA / GSFC / ASU

This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.


A Spin Through the Inner Solar System

More than 50 years of planetary exploration have yielded a rich harvest of data, including many volumes of pictures. These images have revealed the faces of nearly all the nearby worlds, which have turned out to be both forboding and inviting, alien and familiar. Everywhere there is beauty.

We have enough images, in fact, that for many planets, moons, and small bodies we can construct full, global maps. This has been true for places like Mars for decades. For others, such as Mercury and the asteroid Vesta, it has become possible only in the past few years, thanks to the ongoing work of robotic scouts throughout the Solar System and the dedicated people on Earth who fly them.

Following is a series of short videos showing the worlds of the inner Solar System spinning to show their various faces. With two exceptions, each video resulted from taking thousands of individual observations from spacecraft, and combining the data into a 3D computer model.

This look at the Sun comes from the Solar Dynamics Observatory in orbit around the Earth. It shows the Sun as it appeared over the course of the past few days, as seen by sensors tuned to three different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light. Later in the decade, new missions will actually fly close to the Sun for even more detailed shots.

This globe comes from thousands of obesrvations by the MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit around Mercury. MESSENGER carries cameras that can observe many wavelenths of light as it bounces off the planet, in order to spy different minerals on the surface. This map shows greatly exaggerated colors in order to highlight the diversity of geology.

Venus is entirely shrouded in dense clouds, of course, but in the 1990s the Magellan spacecraft mapped the surface anyway using radar. The video highlights two large “continents,” or highlands, Aphrodite Terra and Ishtar Terra, the Maxwell Montes mountain range, and Maat Mons, a large, currently dormant volcano. Notice the motion of the clouds at the beginning. Venus is the one inner planet that rotates “backwards” to the other planets.

This map of the moon comes from thousands of photos sent by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Each was taken when the Sun was nearly directly overhead at the moment the image was taken. When all stitched together, they make a globe of striking crispness and clarity.

Here is Mars, showing both the actual relief of its surface features, and a version where the topographical data has been wildly stretched to draw out the planet’s complex landscapes.

Finally, we have Vesta, a tiny place compared to these other worlds, but a giant among the members of the asteroid belt. This rotation is not a computer model, but a series of images stitched together from photos sent by the Dawn spacecraft.

These spinning globes show how much we’ve explored. On the other hand, they serve as a reminder of how much remains unseen. There is no rotating map of the largest asteroid Ceres, or of Pluto. That situation will change next year. However, there are many other worlds in the outer Solar System where there are still blank spaces on the map. Sadly, there are no missions even on the drawing board to explore most of them.

There is still much to do.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on The Planetary Society site.