The Artificial Geminid Meteor Shower

by James Wallace Harris

Sometimes it’s easy to be fooled especially when you think you know more than you do. Last week my wife came inside one evening and told me there were strange lights in the trees. She wondered if they could be fireflies this late in the year. So I went out to look too. There were random green lights, but I thought they were above the trees, way up in the sky, and they were in patches of sky not blocked by bare tree limbs.

“I wonder if they could be meteors?” I asked Susan.

“I don’t think so.”

“But the Geminid meteor shower was supposed to happen around this time of year. It was on the news.”

“But they don’t look like shooting stars,” she replied sounding skeptical.

They looked like little tiny flashes of green. And occasionally, a tiny white streak.

“Maybe because we’re in the city they don’t show up well.” I could see Orion and the green flashes were in the right area for Gemini, although I couldn’t see the constellation. And every once in a while there was a small white streak. “Maybe they’re leftover dust from the main shower.”

The more I looked at them, the more they looked like something way up in the sky, like in the upper atmosphere. But then I have bad eyes.

Susan seemed doubtful. And we finally went in.

The next day I read about the meteor shower but I couldn’t find any descriptions that described glittering green lights and flashes. I told Susan about my research. She seemed more convinced. The next night we looked again, but the sky was clear. Susan told our neighbor EJ about my theory.

On the third night, Susan was outside and texted me “The meteors are back.” She also texted our neighbor and he got his wife and kid up. By the time I came outside, they were laughing at me. EJ said those were his laser Christmas lights. I was disappointed my theory was wrong. And EJ ribbed me that he got his son out of bed for nothing.

I should have been embarrassed for making such a silly mistake, but those lights really looked like they were high up in the sky. So I argued I made the best assumption with the evidence I had. And I still think I saw a couple of real meteors mixed in, the short white streaks.

I’ve been out in the country and seen a real meteor shower, which is quite dramatic, so I shouldn’t have been fooled. But this was an interesting lesson. It made me wonder what people thought of meteor showers before they knew about astronomy. Guessing what the mysterious lights were in the sky made me feel a tiny bit of awe. It’s a shame they were laser lights. They did look really cool.

Here’s the 2019 Meteor Shower Calendar from IMO (International Meteor Organization). I’m going to get everyone out in the backyard for the next one, which will be January 3-6th, for the Quadrantids. Although, the Ursids are still active.


Manned Mission to Mars or Gigantic Space Telescopes?

Which would be more exciting to happen in  your lifetime:  humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system?  If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars.  In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality.  Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common.  Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.

Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes.  NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.

If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration.  Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories.  You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions.  I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both?  What gets the most bang for our bucks?

Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment.  Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined.  However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money.  If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project.  If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.

If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die.  Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth.  As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.

Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic.  Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions.  However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.

I have no idea how big will be big enough.  Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?

The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality.  That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge.  If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe.  Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer.  Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else.  It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.

I wish our species was smarter.

JWH – 7/16/14

Is an International Nonprofit Space Program Possible?

Ever dream of being an astronaut?  Ever fantasize about developing a new rocket system to take people to Mars?  Ever wanted to be a colonist on the Moon?  For decades only the richest of nations could afford a space program.  In the last decade several rich men have started their own space programs for rich space tourists.  But what about us poor folks, with big final frontier dreams?  Could we collective scrape up a few billion to build our own space program?  The idea was once silly, but now that ordinary people are winning lotteries approaching a billion dollars, digging up the money to finance an amateur space program doesn’t sound as impossible as it once did.

Space programs 1.0 for most of history have been huge nationalistic affairs.  Only rich governments and astronauts with the right stuff could participate, leaving most would-be final frontier explorers on the ground.  The last decade has shown the rise of private space enterprises with the focus on space for profit, space programs 2.0.   But you still have to be a billionaire to own a space company, or a multi-millionaire to be a space tourist. 

I’m asking if a 3.0 generation of space exploration isn’t possible, one based on non-profit, open source, volunteerism, where ordinary people design, build and travel into space?

What motivates people?  As Daniel H. Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it isn’t the outer rewards that drive us the hardest, but the inner desires.  There’s not enough people interested in colonizing the final frontier to motivate Congress to spend more tax money on space exploration, but is there enough people interested by their own inner desires to finance a space program collectively?  We are seeing more and more projects developed around the world by volunteer effort.  Linux, the operating system that fits on everything from tiny embedded controllers to giant supercomputers, is produced by volunteer effort.  Kickstarter and Kiva show the power of individuals to financially back new ideas.  TED and Khan Academy illustrate the power of individuals with ideas to influence change.  Projects like Wikipedia show that people all over the world are willing to spend long hours working without pay to create something that almost everyone uses.

If you don’t know about the open source movement you should follow the link and read about it.  It’s about why and how programmers develop free computer programs for everyone to use.  Eric S. Raymond wrote a famous philosophical essay about open source software called The Cathedral & The Bazaar.  It’s hard to explain the open source movement in a few words, but it’s about people all over the world working on large projects, and through their own  self-starting initiative, creating something very valuable, that’s used by millions and billions of people.

The open source movement follows in the footsteps of the 19th century amateur scientist.   Now this power to the people philosophy is moving on to bigger projects, such as ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone by Planetary Resources.

By using the crowd source funding site Kickstarter, Planetary Resources promises to build a space telescope for everyone to use.  You make it happen by donating money, and depending on how much you donate, you get various participation rewards.  The ARKYD is no Hubble Space Telescope, but it does show the power of people working together.

But what if we could crowd fund something bigger, like a manned lunar base?  The Bloomberg link sites one study claiming it will take $35 billion to put a four person base on the Moon.  The ARKYD project is aiming for $1 million dollars, and they are half-way funded, a Moon base would require 35,000 millions.  That’s several quantum leaps in crowd funding success.  Is such people funded projects even possible? 

What would a people’s space program cost?  Let’s imagine a private open source crowd funded space program with an annual budget of $5 billion dollars.  That’s 5,000,000,000 – lots of zeros.  It would require 50 million people donating $100 a year.  There’s probably not that many space enthusiasts in the world, because if there were, NASA would have solid public support when it comes to Congressional appropriations. 

A five billion dollar space program is also 5 million people donating a $1,000 a year.  That sounds like a lot, but that’s $83.33 a month, or about the cost of a monthly smartphone bill.  What if such a commitment would get you into a lottery to fly in space?  What if you got to help design a lunar colony?  That’s the kind of inner motivation that inspired Daniel Pink’s book, Drive

A club of 5 million people might be possible.  Especially when you think about how many volunteer type tasks would be required to start an open source space programs.  Let’s assume our open source space program doesn’t build rockets, but hires the 2.0 generation of private rocket builders, and our goal is to develop a lunar colony, it could take decades to evolve such a space program.  Let’s say for the first twenty years we devote ourselves to robotic missions to the Moon, how many people out there would love to design and build robots for the purpose, get no pay, but spend their their own money?

If we look around we can find thousands, if not millions of people already spending lots of their own money in scientific-like endeavors.  If you just include open source programmers, robot builders, amateur astronomers, amateur rocket builders, the Maker crowd, amateur AI developers, gamers who love to create complicated simulations, X-Prize enthusiasts, and get them all working on one big project, could we have an open source, non-profit space program?

In recent weeks I’ve seen quite a few internet stories that make me think such synergy is possible.

Amateur Astronomy

Amateur astronomers has always made significant contributions to real science. Timothy Ferris wrote a whole book on the topic,  Seeing in the Dark : How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe.  With modest equipment, dogged determination, and disciplined  systematic effort, people without PhDs can add important information to scientific journals and research.  Take a look at the trailer for the PBS documentary that’s based on the book.  It’s available on Netflix.

Amateurs have recently discovered exoplanets by going through public data.  Amateurs often discover comets and supernovas.   Amateurs track asteroids and near Earth objects.  Amateurs monitor sunspots and double stars.  Telescopes are becoming more powerful and affordable to amateurs, and CCD astronomy lets amateurs take astronomical photographs that surpass what the Mt. Palomar telescope could take back in the 1960s.

The ARKYD space telescope is probably just the first of many amateur spaced based telescopes.  Because of the internet, there are many robot control ground based telescopes around the world that amateurs can use

Imagine amateur astronomers having a robotic lunar based telescope to share.

Make, Makers and Robots

Make Magazine has had a tremendous impact on the world of Do-It-Yourselfers.   Small cheap microcontrollers  like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino inspire people to become inventors of intelligent gadgets.  Look what Dave Ackerman did with a Raspberry Pi and a weather balloon.  Please follow the link to read a fascinating article.  These pictures look better than what the U.S. government with German scientists took with early sounding rockets back in the 1940s.


Make Magazine shows the tip of the iceberg for how many would-be inventors live in our world.   Now take a look at Robot Magazine.  How many boys and girls out there dream of building a robot that does something really cool?  Why should only JPL and NASA scientists have all the fun?

Science Fairs

Eesha Khare, an 18-year-old student from Lynbrook High School, Saratoga, California, won second place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this year for developing a super-capacitor that would allow cellphones and other electronic devices to be recharged in 20-30 seconds, instead of hours, and upped the recharging lifetimes from 1,000 charges to 10,000.  Ionut Budisteanu, 19, of Romania, developed AI for a self-driving car.  Henry Lin, 17, of Shreveport, Louisiana, develop a computer simulation “that simulated thousands of clusters of galaxies, providing scientist with new data that will allow them to better understand dark matter, dark energy and the balance of heating and cooling in the universe’s most massive objects.”

It’s obvious that individuals, without years of graduate school can do significant science.  Is it possible to coordinate amateurs to work on a much larger project that spans years of effort?

Open Source Space Program

What if we applied the open source programming  philosophy to amateur science to develop larger amateur projects?  The way open source software begins is when a software inventor starts a project and then Tom Sawyers other people to volunteer.  I imagine an open source space program to be an organization like Wikipedia that gives a collection of centralized tasks to thousands of volunteers.

An open source space program could start by designing itself with a virtual world version first.  That initial projects would be created in simulations, and once they are worked out, then start building real world projects.  Let’s imagine the first project is to design a lunar lander. Given the constraints of costs and the payload capacity of private launch rocket services, how big of a lander can we design?  For example, lets say we can get a 1000 pounds sent towards the Moon for $300 million.  How sophisticated can we make such a lander?

For any self-sufficient lunar colony to succeed it will require living off the land.  What elements exist on the lunar surface or in it’s scant atmosphere that can be used to build a base for human habitation?  The Moon has water, and that gives us raw material for oxygen to breathe, and oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.  But can we find nitrogen on the Moon?  Trace amounts have been found in the atmosphere.  Could we build a machine that gathers significant amounts of nitrogen, so we could have a safe breathable atmosphere for when we robotically dig our underground Moon City?

The possibilities are endless.  We design a series of robots that process lunar resources into goods we don’t have to send to the Moon.  We keep sending robots to build what we need until we have a base that’s safe for humans.  Then we send people.

Now, is this possible through volunteer effort and open source techniques?

JWH – 6/5/13

The Second Renaissance in Astronomy

If you are young, are you prepared for the next fifty years?

If you are old, have you digested the last fifty years?

The future will be everything you never imagined.  And it gets here far faster than you planned.

When I was a boy the solar system had 9 planets, 31 moons, and an asteroid belt.  This was before the discovery of the cosmic background radiation and Fred Hoyle was still making a good case for the steady state theory against the big bang theory.

Fifty years later the solar system has 8 planets, 5 dwarf planets,  178 moons, an asteroid belt, a Kuiper Belt, and an Oort Cloud.  The Big Bang won.

… and we’ve discovered thousands of exoplanets!

The world’s largest telescope from 1949 to 1992 was the 200 inch (5 meters) Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar.  In the 1960s we were told it would be extremely difficult to engineer a larger land based scope, so we’d need a telescope in space to surpass the physical limitations of ground based observatories.  Of course, the world of astronomy was knocked on its ass by the success of the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s.  Most astronomy photos I admired in the 1960s were black and white, which left the impression that the universe was little more than fifty shades of gray.  The Hubble Space Telescope revealed an immense Technicolor reality beyond our skies, liked Dorothy opening the door to Oz.

The futurists of the past were wrong.  For the past twenty years there’s been a building boom in giant Earth based telescopes.  Astronomers are now using 10 meter telescopes like the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the Gran Telescopio Cararias.

Last week  the Thirty Meter Telescope got permission to build at the summit of Mauna Kea, with an estimated completion in 2018.


The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) has also gotten permission to build a 39 meter telescope in Chile with an estimated completion date of 2022.


Both images are artist’s conceptions.

The list of the largest telescopes now shows 18 telescopes larger than the Hale Telescope that was so mind blowing to me as a kid.  Plus technologies like astronomical interferometry and adaptive optics let astronomers get more bang for the buck per aperture meter than ever imagined by pre-digital age telescope designers.  Essentially, modern engineers have gone way beyond the laws of 1960s physics.

For most Earthlings, astronomy is a science best left to super-geeks, but that will change, just like society changed after Copernicus and Galileo made their orthodox shattering observations.  As the telescopes get larger, the closer they get to detecting life and even intelligent life on far off extrasolar planets.  With more powerful telescopes we’ll be able to image planets directly, and do spectrographic analysis of their atmospheres.  Scientists will be able to detect biomarkers that will prove whether we’re alone in the universe.

Now that’s big!  How will such news change us?  Will it cause a new renaissance?

Probably such discoveries won’t change human life at the rat-race eye view.  We do live in a world where most people still think pre-Enlightenment thoughts.

Ever since Copernicus there have been people writing about life on other worlds.  Even the classical Greeks theorized about other worlds inhabited by intelligent beings.  For over a hundred years now, since H. G. Wells, popular media has entertained us with stories of alien invaders.  So what will happen to the people of Earth when astronomers point to stars and tell us they have planets orbiting them with chemicals in their atmospheres that can’t be made naturally?

Astronomy describes the scope of reality beyond Earth, it’s size and how it works.  Copernicus shook up the world by telling us the Earth moves.  What will it mean when astronomers prove we’re not alone?

Engineers are designing 100 meter telescopes.  What if we built a 100 meter telescope in space, say on the Moon.  That could happen in fifty years.  There is no way to imagine what discoveries it could make.

If you are young, in fifty years you will be writing an essay like this one.  The details will be much different.


JWH – 4/20/13

p.s.  Back in 1964 my younger self sided with Fred Hoyle. I thought the steady state theory more elegant philosophically. Hey, I was only 13. But if the multiverse pans out, old Fred and I will be vindicated.  So, what comes around, goes around.

A Universe From Nothing Lawrence M. Krauss

As far back as I can remember I’ve often contemplated why there is something rather than nothing.  And by nothing, I don’t mean empty space, because even that would be something.  I finally decided that nothing can’t exist.  That it’s impossible for “nothing” to exist, because if it could, we wouldn’t be here, and there would be nothing.  I concluded that reality is all the possible some-things coming into being. 

When I first saw a copy A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss I wondered if he had a scientific theory to explain why nothing cannot exist to support my own philosophical theory.  Sad to say, he doesn’t actual work with the same concept of nothing as I imagined it, but I think he’s getting close.  Theology has always been burdened with the question that intellectual pesky kids eventual ask, “Who created God?”  Smart kids will also ask scientists, “What created the Big Bang?”  Sooner or later the ontological question has to be:  “How did something come from nothing?”

Cosmology has always invaded the territory of theology and Krauss does not shy away from this conflict.  In fact, Christopher Hitchens had promised to write the introduction to A Universe From Nothing, but he died too soon, so Krauss got Richard Dawkins to write the afterward, which uses the science in this book to attack theology rather sharply.

It seems like every popular cosmology book I read has to reiterate all the cosmological discoveries since Edwin Hubble figured out that nebulae are galaxies existing outside of the Milky Way, and they are speeding away from us.  For a short 224 page book, Krauss gets the background covered quickly and moves on to the title topic, but it requires the reader to grasp quite a bit of recent research.  To understand nothing requires understanding a lot of some-things.

Now here is where I wish I had the writing skills of Brian Greene, my current favorite science writer.  Of course, if I had such writing skills I’d end up writing a book much like what Lawrence M. Krauss wrote – however, I’d still like to summarize what I learned from reading A Universe from Nothing.  I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve read on cosmology, or documentaries I’ve seen, but I feel the need to summarize just to get things straight in my head by listing them on paper.

And if Krauss and Dawkins are right, and cosmology deposes theology, then the average person needs to learn a lot to catch up with science.  Cosmology is science’s Book of Genesis.   But unlike the Bible myths, cosmology explains how the universe came about by studying the evidence, a lot of evidence, a whole lot of evidence.  And for some concepts, like the Big Bang, there are multiple paths that prove the theory that makes the scientific research more and more definite.  This is a lot of learn and its no wonder that most people prefer the Bible to answer their origin questions.

Here’s quick and dirty study guide to modern cosmology.  The more you know will make understanding A Universe From Nothing easier to understand and comprehend.  Also, it’s impossible to understand cosmology without understanding particle physics.

Now this is a lot to learn, and even after reading many books I only have a vague layman’s idea of what’s going on, but what’s fascinating is how everything interconnects.  Reading A Universe From Nothing just inspires me to read more, to keep putting more puzzle pieces together to get the big picture. 

Just take what we’ve learned about the cosmic microwave background radiation in my lifetime.  Reading The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg and The Very First Light by John C. Mather tells the long story of how the CMB was theorized, discovered, and measured to finer and finer accuracy.  The Very First Light is about building the COBE spacecraft to measure the CMB.  Then I read about the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe that studied the CMB with even more accuracy.  Then there was Planck spacecraft that explores even deeper.  If you aren’t familiar with the cosmic microwave background radiation then I beg you to study it.  It’s a near perfect example of how science works.   Just look at the list of the major experiments studying the CMB.  This history shows how experiments are constantly refined and evolved to find more evidence, or how to look for evidence from other sources, or from other approaches.  Science is a beautiful Chinese puzzle where the pieces interlock in elegant ways.

Don’t worry about not knowing mathematics to enjoy reading about cosmology.  Most of the popular science books are about the men who invented the mathematics, and their stories are told by the experimental evidence.  Their numbers are validated by real world experiments and applied engineering.  Did you know that GPS systems in your smartphones depend on mathematics that involve relativity?  Without Einstein’s equations they wouldn’t work.

Back to the book – does Krauss explain how something comes from nothing?  No.  But he does explain the current theories on dark energy, which suggests that powerful forces come from apparently empty space.  Of course, once we understand how dark energy, and dark matter work, they won’t seem like nothing anymore – they will be some-things.

The nothing Krauss is talking about are just some-things that science can’t see right now.  The nothing I say can’t exist is pushed further back into the unknown, into the multiverse.  Like the kid who asked who created God, I’m asking what created the multiverse, but if science could tell me, there would still be another layer of unknown to explore.  It’s still turtles all the way down.

Other Reviews:

JWH – 2/24/12