Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘space’

Broken cylinders and tiny satellites

I love it when I stumble across some news that pertains to one of the articles I’ve written in the past! In this case, I actually have two updates.

Back in January, OPN published my article on the IRENE project, which is using high-tech imaging techniques to preserve ancient audio recordings. (By “ancient,” of course, I mean everything from the earliest 19th-century phonographic cylinders to mid-20th-century transcription platters for saving radio broadcasts and ethnographic tales.) Somehow I missed this in real time, but in May, the Library of Congress — which is a big contributor to IRENE — hosted a lecture by one of its in-house chemists, Eric Monroe, who wanted to figure out why the broken cylinders whose recordings IRENE was trying to preserve were, in fact, broken. That led him to study the historical records of the hundreds of experiments that led to the original invention of wax cylinders, and then to perform his own experiments to try to reconstitute the stuff that went into these cylinders. You can go here for some additional material on Dr. Monroe and his work, plus a link to the video of the lecture.

Second is a follow-up to my Breakthrough Starshot piece. The Breakthrough Initiatives just announced today that last month it launched a bunch of the world’s smallest satellites, with a mass of only 4 g each. Of course, they’re in low Earth orbit, not a trans-stellar trajectory, but hey, it’s a start. And they seem to have the necessary components of a spacecraft, including power source (solar panel) and communications technology. We shall see how long they last in space.

The particular Starshot team member who led this project is Zac Manchester, who didn’t get back to me when I tried to reach him for my article, but oh well. You can read the press release here and here, but go here for Scientific American‘s take.


Catching up

I’m happy to report that I’m keeping busy with my writing. So far this year I’ve had three feature articles published in Optics & Photonics News — two of them open-access cover stories.

First, I wrote about the technology behind Breakthrough Starshot, the Yuri Milner-funded plan to send an army of tiny laser-powered satellites to the stars. Since this topic was more speculative than the usual OPN subjects, I half expected a barrage of letters complaining that a serious scientific publication should never publish such pie-in-the-sky tripe. But no. My editor did get one letter decrying the high cost of the proposal, but the author decided against allowing OPN to publish his missive. Oh, well.

I’m sure there’s a lot of doubt out there — to wit, a recent Popular Mechanics article on Starshot was subtitled “Inside the Ludicrous Plan to Send a Spacecraft to Our Neighbor Star.” That piece, however, ends on a far more hopeful note than the subtitle would lead you to believe.

By the time my Starshot article was published, I had already written my next cover story on the future of the optics workforce. My inspiration for this one was my idle wonderment about all the articles I’ve read about the displacement of manufacturing jobs by robots and offshoring and whatnot.

I’m finishing another OPN feature article this week — whether it will be on the cover is of course yet TBD. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention that this week marks the 48th anniversary of the first lunar landing by humans. You may choose to celebrate by rereading my article on optics in the Apollo program. I’ll leave you with an optics-related photo from the Apollo Archive:

Neil Armstrong watches as Buzz Aldrin practices using a camera during a geology field trip in Texas, early 1969. NASA photo via the Apollo Archive.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek!

As I write this, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series is coming to an end. I can’t say I remember the original run — I’m not going to say how old I was, or whether I existed at all. I strongly suspect that my parents were watching something else at the time — my mother loved Westerns and crime dramas, and my father enjoyed variety shows (remember those?). Better to have come to Star Trek as a young adult, though, than to never have embraced it at all. I’m enough of a geek to admit that when I shared a three-bedroom apartment with a couple of other Trek fans many years ago, I was thrilled to learn that the last four digits of our ZIP+4 code were 1701. Perfect!

This evening, to celebrate, I watched (on demand) Building Star Trek, a documentary from the Smithsonian Channel. Lots of closeups of Original Series artifacts and clips from the Original Series. I remember seeing some of the props at the Air & Space Museum way back in the 1990s — I was then surprised at how wooden they looked up close, and how the costumes were made of the cheesiest polyester double-knit. (Bleah!) I was also pleased (though, given my work, not entirely surprised) that the “predicted-by-Trek” technology described in the show came almost entirely from optics: laser weapons, a nanoscale “tractor beam,” entangled photons, and the “invisibility cloak.”

Obviously the Internet has been filled with tributes all day long. My favorite is the one from NASA; it includes a team from NASA Goddard, just down the street from me.

And, speaking of NASA, how cool is it that the space agency launched OSIRIS-REx toward an asteroid tonight? The timing of the launch can’t be just coincidence, can it? Listen to the launch announcer — yep, he slips the phrase “to boldly go” in there. Of course.

One year to go — let the hype begin!

One year from today — specifically, the afternoon of August 21, 2017 — many of us in the continental United States will be treated to an awesome sight: a total solar eclipse. This celestial event is a lot briefer in duration than its cousin, the total lunar eclipse, so being in the right spot at the right moment is crucial. (And proper eye protection for the partial phases is even more crucial!)

Because this is America, I’ve already noticed a bit of commercialism creeping in, with websites like and popping up. (At least the latter seems to be focused on eye safety.) Over the course of the next 12 months, I won’t be surprised to see lots of countdown clocks, T-shirts, insta-books, calendars, posters, and other memorabilia flooding the market. Never mind themed “eclipse glasses”!


OK, when you get invitations to five different press conferences on the same day, you might think something’s afoot, right?

One might think that indeed. Specifically, a few days ago, the people from LIGO put out a “media advisory” that they would be giving an “update” on their ongoing search for gravitational waves. It seems a little over-the-top to be organizing a simple “update” at the National Press Club, doesn’t it? Then, when you throw in simultaneous LIGO-related news conferences in London and Paris and Moscow, and you get a personal email encouraging you to attend a special seminar on gravitational waves at the Italian Embassy later in the afternoon … well, this doesn’t exactly sound like a routine assessment of the equipment functions, does it?

So, we have plenty of media speculation going on. Could this be the confirmation of the final piece of general relativity? Could a Nobel Prize be hanging in the balance?

I don’t know anything more than the next person, of course. (Sky & Telescope, which is much more plugged into the astronomical scene than I am, tried to track down the rumors already.) One scary word of caution: BICEP2. Remember that? Yeah, right.

I believe it was Carl Sagan who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A prominent scientist pointed that out to me almost 20 years ago, when there was a flurry of reports that there might have been some fossilized bacteria found in Martian soil (remember THAT?!?), and I believe it is a good rule for all aspects of life, not just scientific research. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Think about that not just when you’re examining the results of your latest experiment, but also when you’re standing in line at the supermarket next to the screaming tabloid headlines, or when you’re debating whether to forward the latest shocking health claim that your old classmate posted to Facebook.

Incidentally, if LIGO (or its successor, Advanced LIGO) did find extraordinary evidence for gravitational waves, it will be a triumph not just for astronomy, but also for optics. I heard a talk on LIGO at my first OSA annual meeting a decade ago, and I was impressed with the awesome precision that each of the 4-km-long interferometers and their associated optics required. Measuring length changes of 10^-18 m? Optical coatings uniform to 1 atom of thickness? Whoa!

Yes, if LIGO has found something big, I hope the instrumentalists get due credit. We’ll all know in just a few hours.


Apollo 17

When I first noticed on Twitter that today is the 43rd anniversary of humanity’s last presence on the Moon, I felt ineffably sad. But then I noticed in someone’s follow-up tweet that you can relive (virtually) the last lunar exploration mission at

I tuned in to that website — produced by a couple of programmer/techie space enthusiasts with the cooperation of the NASA folks who put together the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, as well as the surviving Apollo 17 crew members themselves — just in time to watch the real-time “coverage” of the lunar module’s ascent from the Taurus-Littrow valley. You can watch the video feed, listen to the conversations between the astronauts and Houston, and read the transcript of those communications. (And when I say “coverage,” I mean the plain NASA video and audio, without any commentaries from broadcast anchors. No Walter Cronkite here.)

Whether you’re old enough to remember watching Apollo missions on the family television set or were born after the Apollo program, you will probably find something fascinating on this website. As I type this, the two spacecraft, America and Challenger (obviously not the similarly named shuttle), are on the other side of the Moon, and the color TV camera that Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left behind is scanning the lonely surface. What was I saying about ineffable sadness?

A new month, a new article

It’s September, which means that my article “200 Years of Fresnel’s Legacy” has appeared in the September issue of Optics & Photonics News. I’ll put up a link to the full PDF eventually, but since the issue just came out, I’ll respect the publication’s members-only firewall for now.

If you really liked my previous article on Apollo-era optics, you’ll certainly enjoy Gear Patrol’s gorgeously illustrated photo essay, “Hasselblad’s History in Space.” Even I hadn’t seen some of those images before. I think Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham looks a bit like Bono in those shades and earphones, but maybe that’s just me.

Finally … I’m getting close to the 10-year anniversary of the earliest pieces I wrote for OPN. I’ve been thinking of going back and following up on some of the experimental results and other topics I wrote about back then. Did a such-and-such new technique actually lead to advances in biomedical imaging or quantum computing or whatever was touted? How have subdisciplines in optics advanced over the past decade? Is anyone interested in knowing the answers?