Voyager Mission as a Teaching Prospect

“We step out of our Solar System into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate.”

—Kurt Waldheim, United Nations secretary-general (1972 to 1981), quoted by Jim Bell in The Interstellar Age

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An artist’s conception of the Voyager 1 spacecraft reaching interstellar space. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Can footsteps be literature?

Literature may come as pamphlets and books. Literature nowadays may arrive as blog posts and status updates. But can literature be expressed as measured footsteps, trudging over space and time in a quest to celebrate cosmic scale? If a physical activity can be defined as literature, then I say planet walks are literature.

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Jupiter, as it appears on the Foster Planet Walk at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I decided to feature my Jupiter portrait in honor of NASA’s Juno mission, currently orbiting the gas giant.

After visiting family in western Michigan this weekend, I stopped by Aquinas College. There, for the third time, I did the Foster Planet Walk. By walking a carefully measured route marked with boulders, this walk allows you to experience the scale of our solar system. Following a map available on the college’s website, you walk from planet to planet in about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace. You begin at Mercury on the south side of campus and wind up all the way out at dwarf planet Pluto in the distant Kuiper Belt (aka the north side of campus).

For my third visit, I measured time. Standing around 6’1″ tall and walking at an average speed, here is how long it took me to stroll from planet to planet. Notice how the elapsed time dramatically increases beginning with the walk to Jupiter:

  • Mercury to Venus – 7 seconds
  • Venus to Earth – 7 seconds
  • Earth to Mars – 5 seconds
  • Mars to Jupiter – 36 seconds
  • Jupiter to Saturn – 1 minute 2 seconds
  • Saturn to Uranus – 1 minute 48 seconds
  • Uranus to Neptune – 3 minutes 6 seconds
  • Neptune to Pluto – 4 minutes

Science on a Theme of Heroism

“There is a herolike narrative in science that, perhaps surprisingly, is not that far from a sports narrative.”

–Marcelo Gleiser, 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog

The above quote comes from a wonderful Olympics-themed post from the excellent science blog 13.7. I recommend stopping here, clicking the link above, and reading Dr. Gleiser’s post instead of mine. I am more interested in how it addresses the notion of heroic narrative than in its sports analogy. No bother. The analogy proves meaningful and the blog post brings light to the realities, sometimes heroic and sometimes self-serving, of scientific culture.

Heroic Photobomb Anyone?
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Trojan asteroid 3540 Protesilaos photobombs distant galaxy Messier 74 in this infrared image (actually multiple frames combined) taken with NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Years ago I wrote a caption for a similar Hubble image which appeared in The Planetary Report. In both cases, an effort to image far-away galaxies resulted in inadvertently imaging closer-up asteroids. I can’t help but find humor in this astronomical phenomena.

One other note, the person who introduced me to Trojan asteroids was science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who featured them in his novel The Hammer of God. These potentially harmful rocks orbit the sun in the same path as Jupiter. They follow this path ahead of or behind the gas giant. If you are unaware of the underlying reason NASA has invested in missions to asteroids, I recommend reading Clarke’s heroic novel.

Kepler and the Dancing Planets

“He struggled through the rough emotional seas that creative minds must navigate—first up, then down, first elation, then depression. And yet he loved it so. He was, after all, a man who rummaged for God in the balances of his own mind. For him, the geometry of the heavens, the dances of the planets, the secrets of the universe were more real than the twists of human politics, for the first was complete with mystical joy, while the second was full of fear.”

—James A. Connor, Kepler’s Witch

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An artist’s conception of the Kepler-11 System, a group of planets orbiting a distant star. NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, named after early 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler, detected the system. Image credit: NASA, Tim Pyle