A Strange Lonely Planet

MPIA_V.-Ch.-Quetz_sm

An artist’s impression of the planet-sized L dwarf PSO J318.5-22. (MPIA/V. Ch. Quetz)

Earlier this week, a press release hit my inbox that made me say, “Ooooooh!” out loud. Its headline was: “A Strange Lonely Planet Found without a Star” and it came with an image.

“Oooooh!” I said again. An image of a planet without a star? Free-floating through the lifeless void? My imagination rumbled to life and started to jump to conclusions.

You see, I’ve wanted for a while now to write a very sad science fiction novel about such a starless scenario. This dream of mine has been motivated by a real science problem: planetary migration.

In the early days of exoplanet studies (way back in the mid-1990s!), the very first planets to be discovered were known as hot Jupiters—giant gaseous planets closer to their host stars than Mercury is to our Sun with temperatures in the thousands of degrees (Centigrade, Fahrenheit, or Kelvin—take your pick). Their existence continues to be a puzzle, because they could not have formed where they are. Both a star and its surrounding planets form when gravity pulls a cloud of gas together into clumps. But in these cases, the energy radiating from the young star should have blown the gas away before it could coalesce into a planet. Only small, rocky planets should be able to form there. The logical theory is that these hot Jupiters had to form much further out where it was colder—like where our own Jupiter is in our solar system—but then somehow migrate in.

ps1_lonely_planet-450

The “planet” imaged by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope. It was discovered by a US-German team, with follow-up observations from Mauna Kea. (N. Metcalfe & Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium)

Multiple theories have been proposed in which the laws of physics conspire to do just that. In one, the newly formed planet slowly spirals in, losing momentum as it plows through the disk of gas surrounding the young star; in another, the gravitational presence of a nearby companion star perturbs the planet, triggering a wild, eccentric orbit that ends next to the star.

But here’s the rub: Either way, if a Jupiter comes barreling in through its solar system, its gravity will likely throw the planets out! Its enormous mass would scatter the planets like a bowling ball, slingshotting them into the dark, vast coldness of space faster than a tumbling Sandra Bullock. In fact, based on the number of these planets astronomers have already detected through gravitational microlensing, we expect upwards of billions of planets to be lost in space, away from their stars.

What a great end-of-the-world sci-fi story that would be! A helpless population, doomed by the inexorable dance of physics! The Earth becomes both our interstellar starship and our coffin! And people look for strength and hope in a world where every day is just a little bit darker and colder than the one before, without end. An art-house apocalypse—not with a bang, but the saddest, coldest whimper.

At first, I thought this discovery was a direct image of a planet so ejected! But then I read the paper, and the word “planet” isn’t how the authors described it in their title: “A Free-Floating Planetary-Mass Analog to Directly Imaged Young Gas-Giant Planets.”

In other words, it very well might not a planet—at least, not based on how we use the word planet in everyday life—but it’s like a planet. The team seem to think it probably formed like a star based on the fact that it’s moving in the same direction as other nearby stars, as opposed to an ejected planet that could be going any which way. It just happened to be so small it could be mistaken for a planet! What a bummer.

Actually, outside of my imagination, it’s not really a bummer—it’s a neat opportunity. Actual exoplanets are very difficult to study directly; they’re so close to their stars they get lost in the glare. To the extent that these planet-sized objects actually resemble planets, they give us a chance to nail down their physics unimpeded by their pesky host star. Judging by attributes like its mass, color, and brightness, this “planet” does a fair impersonation, but we still don’t know if objects like these form in exactly the same way as planets.

Regardless, I’ll keep dreaming about writing my novel…

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On Gravity: When 3D is necessary

GRAVITY

I’ve seen Gravity twice now. Like so many others, I found Alfonso Cuarón’s film to be one the great moviegoing experiences of my life. It was visceral in a way in which I’d never felt sitting in a theater before, and engaged my senses and my spatial awareness in a way that seems only possible in 3D.

I’d even go so far as to say that Gravity is the first real 3D movie, in the sense that it is a post-photography movie. Cuarón’s trademark long shots prove to be a perfect means of embracing a method of moviemaking not bound by the conventions rooted in the physical artifacts that previous generations of artists have used, like frames, cuts, and zooms.

A photograph is an image; it’s built around its own two-dimensionality, and the entire language and grammar of film is built around the fact that it is filmed as a series of photographs. So much of the aesthetic framework of a photograph is that it renders reality in an artificial way, by removing a dimension. To an photographer, that is not restriction, but possibility. It means that a person in the foreground can exist next a person in the background within the frame, creating a dramatic or emotional subtext. The foreshortening of a receding line can be exploited to guide the eyes back to the subject. And so on.

Take Citizen Kane, the film that codified the language of cinema. In one scene, we see a humiliated Kane on the bad end of a business deal being forced to sign away most of his media empire.

Kane sighs, begins to reminisce, and walks into what appears to be a small room with windows behind him. But as he recedes into the frame he becomes smaller and smaller, until we realize that the windows are enormous! The set is evidently much deeper than our perspective suggested. And as Kane recedes into the depths, his image shrinks until he is dwarfed by the windows, reflecting his diminished status. It’s an optical illusion that conveys emotion—one that is made possible because of film’s two-dimensionality.

In another sequence, the camera pulls into a photograph on the wall until it subsumes the frame and then begins to move—the photograph becomes the film itself. (Trite, these days, perhaps, but what a shock it must have been to an audience in 1941.)

As another example of the power of two-dimensional imagery, you can take Cuarón’s own celebrated long shots in Children of Men. They were all about creating images, filling a frame with imagery and movement, and often incorporated real-life photographs like the scarecrows of Abu Ghraib.

All these aesthetic techniques are made possible because of the restriction of two-dimensionality. When this latest wave of 3D films started to build, many critics rejected them for this reason—by eliminating the restriction of flatness, they argued, you eliminated the possibilities that made film unique.

But to think that there aren’t also possibilities in the added dimension of depth that can be used creatively is pretty unimaginative (not to mention forgetful of theater, in which depth is always used to create tension; a soliloquy delivered from the back of a stage conveys a much different emotional state than one delivered from the front of the stage).

Gravity moves film into a realm where the classical rules of composition—those that date back to painting, the Renaissance, and an understanding of things like perspective and foreshortening—now require an extension, or a complete reformulation. (What is the 3-dimensional equivalent of the Rule of Thirds?)

Gravity is not filmed—it is filled. It takes place not within a frame but within a volume. It’s about space. Not outer space—but design space, mathematical space, the way an architect talks about space. An image can convey depth. But it cannot exist with depth. Gravity does. It happens in 3D.

And it should, because physics happens in 3 dimensions. Outer space doesn’t have a frame—there’s not up, down, left, right. Instead, you describe it with X, Y, and Z. Objects move, collide, and tumble about all three axes. Things go flying at the camera; in many other movies, it seems cheap, but here, it’s motivated by the physical ballet unfolding on screen before you. Your sense of physical intuition is engaged at all times, which is what makes this film so uniquely visceral.

Minor spoiler (highlight to view): For example, at one point, Sandra Bullock is tumbling past a spacecraft that she really needs to get a hold of. She flails her body, which makes no difference to her trajectory, of course. Then she throws an important object she’s been carrying up into space. When that happened, I thought, “No!” But then I saw what happened: her body was propelled down the frame in the opposite direction, towards the ship. Of course—Newton’s third law.

Even though we don’t deal with this weightless regime of physics in daily life, we do have an intuition that goes, “Oh yeah, that’s what would happen in space!” And that’s the entire movie, this pleasure of seeing the unexpected yet physically inevitable. The soundless explosions, spacecraft spinning, this ballet of broken objects—it’s all validated by our subconscious sense of physics. I would love to hear a neuroscientist’s take, but I would suspect that Gravity engages the part of the brain that you use to be aware of your surroundings, to be aware of your own location and momentum, and where it is taking you.

And for that, your mind needs 3D.

The FAP trap

rendering of Alpha Centauri system

In this artist’s rendering, the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb looms in the foreground, with the Alpha Centauri binary system in the background.

Almost one year ago, a team of astronomers announced a detection of a rocky exoplanet right next door in the star system Alpha Centauri, the closest to our own solar system. Yes, Alpha Centauri—that near-mythical system that has such a hold on our imagination, its fictional appearances have their own Wikipedia article.

Ok, ok, so this planet, named Alpha Centauri Bb, wasn’t actually habitable. It was too close to its star, more like a scorched, oversized Mercury than Earth. But the fact that a small rocky planet was right next door boded well for the likelihood that rocky planets were everywhere. Debra Fischer, a Yale exoplanet researcher, told the New York Times it was the “story of the century.” If Joe Biden were an astronomer, he’d have called it a big fucking deal.

Except…the detection wasn’t quite a slam dunk. The team, based in Geneva and led by astronomer Xavier Dumusque, found the planet by detecting the wobble that its gravity exerts on its star. But that wobble was so small that its signal was buried deep, deep within the noise of the data. They had to attempt to control for 23 different effects that could have thrown off their measurements—things like the star’s pulsations and magnetic spots. It was only after stripping them away, one by one, that a signal started to emerge. Here’s what it looked like:

alphacenbb

Dumusque et al. (2012), Figure 5

All those scattered little dots that seem almost random—that’s the post-analysis data. But the red dots are what you get when you group data points that are close together and average them. That’s how the team was able to recover their signal. They reported that the odds that the data in the plot could have been a fluke of nature (a statistic called the False Alarm Probability, or FAP) were pretty slim: one in a thousand.

This was a key point that many journalists picked up on and quoted the authors repeating it in a press conference to bolster the case for the planet. To wit:

Mike Wall at Space.com: “Udry, however, said that the team’s statistical analyses show a ‘false alarm probability’ of just one in 1,000 — meaning there’s a 99.9 percent chance that the planet exists.”

Ian Sample in The Guardian: “The astronomers told a press briefing that the chance of their discovery being false was about one in 1,000…”

And Camille Carlisle in Sky & Telescope: “Study coauthor Stéphane Udry (Geneva Observatory) noted in a press conference earlier this week that there is one chance in 1,000 that the signal his team sees is a fluke.”

Well, that sounded like pretty good odds to me. That is, until early this summer when exoplanet astronomer Artie Hatzes published a paper in which he did his own analysis of the same data, and found nothing. In fact, he concluded that if you assumed the planet was there, he should have found it with a confidence of 99%.

So hang on a second. According to the Geneva team, they have only a 1/1000 chance of being wrong. But Hatzes finds the opposite, and says there’s only a 1/100 chance that Geneva are right. So who’s “correct”? What do those numbers even mean?

So I asked Debra Fischer. Her answer confirmed my thinking. That False Alarm Probability of 1/1000? That’s the probability that the data in that plot is a fluke—but remember, that’s the data after all of their analysis. In other words, the 1/1000 figure holds only if you assume that their analysis of those 23 parameters is absolutely perfect. It’s a comparison of the signal against the flukey nature of reality, but says nothing about the confidence in the analysis that led to that signal in the first place!

Yikes. That’s a difference with a big distinction, and one that got very little play in the media. (And it’s a point I didn’t call out when I wrote about Hatzes paper for Sky & Telescope.)

Now, that doesn’t mean the analysis is junk. Dumusque and his team weren’t trying to hide anything about their analysis—quite the opposite, in fact. They released their data publicly, inviting scrutiny; that’s what enabled Hatzes to do his independent analysis. And Dusmusqe’s team did a check of their analysis as part of their original study to see if it might introduce a false signal and concluded it did not. So Alpha Centauri Bb is not dead—not by a long shot. Both Dumusque and Fischer are currently analyzing fresh observations to try to get that slam-dunk confirmation. (Peter Edmonds has written an excellent blog post taking a look at the whole saga.)

But it does mean that it’s difficult to quantify how convincing the data are as they stand, and that the FAP is not the entire story. For a journalist, that is difficult to explain to the public. It’s yet another example of how tricky it can be to communicate probability and uncertainty—both from scientists to journalists, and from journalists to the public. That False Alarm Probability might be alluringly small, but we better make sure we know what it means.

Now, this may seem like an esoteric case. Alpha Centauri Bb winking out of existence would be a big disappointment, but not, say, hazardous to anyone’s health. But it’s not hard to see how the latter case is problematic. Perhaps the biggest shift wrought by our era of Big Data isn’t the sheer amount of data but that the nature of reality and our predictions of the future are increasingly described in probabilistic terms—in everything from election results to climate change. When we communicate this, we all have to work hard to get it right.

The memetization of NASA (or, why the most important space writer working now is Juli Weiner)

juli_weiner_twitter

Who is Juli Weiner?

A former Wonkette editor, she currently blogs at VF Daily, Vanity Fair’s all-purpose culture and politics blog. Her bio says she looks for “irreverent and unexpected ways to dissect the news.” So she’s a New York blogger, with that trademark signature of pithy snark, whose recent posts include “Hot, Formerly Naked Guy Scott Brown Declines a Run for Senate Seat of Clothed, O.K.-Looking Guy John Kerry” (February 1) and “Whoever Signs Up to Birth a Neanderthal Clone Must Contribute to The New York Times’ Parenting Blog” (January 22). And recently, she’s been applying that New York blogger voice to science—with fantastic, hilarious results. Since Curiosity’s landing on Mars last summer, she has written a string of posts starring anthropomorphic versions of NASA spacecraft, including:

2012 Dec 14: Emo NASA Is Taking Its Feelings Out on the Moon

2013 Jan 3: Curiosity Rover’s Nerdy Cousin Kepler Telescope Discovers 100 Billion Planets, Is Still Single

2013 Jan 17: Separated at Birth: The Inflatable Space Station and the John Belushi “I’m a Zit” Scene in Animal House

2013 Jan 18: Moon-Orbiting Satellite Thinks the Mona Lisa Beamed by NASA Lasers Is Trite, Vacuous

Here’s an excerpt from a January 11 post titled “Asteroid and Earth Are Going to Be Close—But Nowhere Near as Close As Asteroid and Brian”:

The closest Apophis will come to Earth will be, at maximum, 19,400 miles. By way of comparison, the closest Apophis has come to Brian, another asteroid, was the kind of friendship wherein Apophis felt comfortable giving his Citibank pin number to Brian if they were at a cash-only restaurant without cash and Brian was going to run out to the ATM anyway. [. . .] And how close are Apophis and Brian now? At minimum, 19,400 miles or so, emotionally speaking.

Which prompted one commenter to post, “Good god this is a vapid article.”

Why are her pithy, irreverent, and perhaps even vapid posts so important? Because they epitomize the most important shift for NASA’s media relations since the end of the shuttle era: NASA has gone from being a content provider to memetic material.

Let me explain a bit what I mean. NASA has long had an online presence at NASA.gov since the early days of the internet. But it never quite evolved beyond simply being a place for content—an archive of press releases, images, and low-production videos. Even when NASA, as an institution, waded into social media, its efforts have focused more on generating fresh content than page views. This isn’t an inherently bad thing—NASA pioneered its concept of Tweetups, in which journalists, bloggers, and enthusiasts were recruited via Twitter to meetup in person at NASA centers around the country to get limited-access tours. This generated new streams of content and community, but not necessarily vast new numbers of eyeballs. The longest arms of NASA’s reach remained the mainstream media—newspapers, magazines, TV evening news reports.

And as the number of science reporters working at mainstream media outlets plummeted, NASA.gov soldiered on, continuing to be a reliable home for NASA’s content, waiting to be picked up by the next Google searches.

There’s just one problem now: People don’t search for content anymore.

They used to. Here’s the volume for the search term “NASA” on Google, dating back to 2004.

google_trends_nasa

The peak search volume happens to occur at the very beginning of the time series, Jan 2004, when the rovers Spirit and Opportunity successfully landed on Mars. Now compare that to the search volume for August 2012’s landing of the Curiosity rover—the spike marked “B”—which clocks in at only 23% of the search volume of the 2004 rovers.

This is—well, curious. After all, Curiosity’s landing was the very epitome of a netizen Big Internet Event. It was dramatic, featuring a Rube Goldbergian sequence of rockets and winches that seemed increasingly inconceivable the more you learned about it. It was heart-warming— filled with scenes of overjoyed people cheering, crying, and provoking the kind of feel-good pathos usually reserved on the internet for pictures of cats looking at ceilings.

And it was live. Not only was it live-streamed, it was live-tweeted and live-memed. Like all Big Internet Events, it came complete with a viral video campaign (the famous “Seven Minutes of Terror” YouTube video that played like a trailer to a Hollywood action pic) and the requisite Unexpected Internet Celebrity (dreamy Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as “NASA Mohawk Guy”).

bobak guides a robot through space

And yet, this Big Internet Event generated less than a quarter of the “NASA” search volume of the relatively pedestrian landings of Spirit and Opportunity eight years earlier, consistent with the overall downward trend in between. What gives?

There are many plausible reasons that may have been contributing factors, but I think this plot shows, quite dramatically, how in the eight years between Opportunity and Curiosity sinking their wheels into Martian soil, people stopped consuming their news and content via Google and started getting it from Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs we already read. The health of NASA’s public image, its visibility, and, by extension, the sustainability of the agency itself is tied, in part, to how well they deal with this shift. NASA’s web site can be filled with the most wonderfully informative and timely press releases (and it usually is), but none of it will make a whit of difference in convincing citizens that they are getting a return on their tax dollars if no one ever shares it over social media.

Weiner’s posts ought to warm the heart and soul of every NASA PR person, because this kind of memetic trivialization is exactly what NASA needs. Blogs like BoingBoing, Gizmodo, and io9 do a great job of serving up daily heaps of news for a self-selected audience that is already interested, but spillover from geeky sci/tech blogs into the arts and culture rags is a huge PR opportunity for NASA to embed itself into today’s cultural narrative. Here’s Weiner’s rationale for her recent spate of NASA posts, outlined in this December 2012 entry:

Taking a step back for a moment, we would like to admit that before the launch, temper tantrum, depressive spiral, and nascent online-shopping addiction of the Curiosity rover, we did not really pay attention to NASA. Like most journalists, we are essentially unable to perform even basic arithmetic, and like most recent ex-high-schoolers, any discussion of astronomy usually leads to remembrances of planetarium trips past, which inevitably generates an intense urge to smoke pot and nap. We will admit that. However, we will also admit that since beginning to keep up with NASA and its troupe of inexplicably yet sweetly personified space craft, we are completely unable to stop.

NASA. NASA. How are you doing?

This is NASA PR gold. Now, it’s true that Weiner is only one anecdote, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. But Weiner’s posts, coming off the wildly successful memefest that was Curiosity’s landing, are at least anecdotal evidence that the ground is shifting, and that for the first time since the dawn of social media, NASA is becoming part of the online ebb and flow—not just a player, but part of the currency of the social web itself.

"Time to see where our Curiosity will take us."

Imagine the view from the summit of Mt. Sharp on Mars early Monday morning. Atop a mountain taller than any in the continental United States, you look out in all directions at a vast, barren, red landscape, bathed in what seems like a perpetual twilight glow from an oddly distant sun. To the north, a dune field, crawling indeterminably across the surface in a wind 1/100th the density of Earth’s. Beyond it, the rim of Gale Crater, some 20 km away, surrounding you on all sides. Beyond that, the Martian horizon—strangely and unsettlingly near, a consequence of standing on a world barely half the size of Earth.

landscape
A desolate landscape, completely devoid of visible life.

And then, out of the corner of your eye, to the northwest, a small grey blob appears streaking over the horizon through the atmosphere. It erupts into a much larger white blob—a parachute. Dangling from it is what appears to be an enormous dinner plate with a cover. The plate falls away, crashing to the surface in a plume of red dust. The plate cover remains suspended from the chute. And then falling out from under it emerges a giant spindly robot—the size of a cargo van—free falling towards the Martian surface.

You hold your breath.

Then, with a weak roar (that reaches you far later than you expect, the sound carrying weakly in the thin atmosphere), retrorockets on the robot burst into action, arresting its fall. It maneuvers like a falling spider on a jetpack, veering off towards the northern side of the crater. As it flies toward your vantage point, you make out what seems to be a second, spidery, six-legged robot the size of a compact car attached to the bottom, like a baby carried by a stork.

powered flight
The entire apparatus makes a beeline for a spot just north of the dune field, well within the crater rim, some 30 miles away. It comes to a stop, a tiny dot against the horizon, halting its descent in a perfect hover 130 feet above the ground, its retrorockets kicking up a huge cloud of dust.

You squint. Through the dust, you think you can make out something incredible.

The second spidery robot is being lowered on a rope from the hovering mothership onto the surface of Mars.

skycrane
It disappears into the dust cloud. A few seconds later, the skycrane mothership suddenly launches itself towards the sky and off to the east. Its rockets are spent; its mission is complete. It carries itself on a ballistic trajectory across the crater plain, crashing into the surface over a kilometer away, dying in a giant, sideways cloud of ejected Martian dirt.

Gale Crater is silent again. But now, it’s a little less desolate.

It has a visitor—an interplanetary sojourner from another world sharing the same sun, spinning silently some 150 million miles away. After trekking across the system from one planet to the next, it sits on an alien plain, awaiting commands from the species that created it, a species seeking to know where it lives, ready to search for life, for signals that it is not alone.

Its name is Curiosity.

And we sent it there.

Mt. Sharp


Watch the entire landing sequence in NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System simulator: http://bit.ly/NCuFdi

You should click that link. Seriously, it’s super cool.

A film by NASA

About a year and a half ago, a video went viral called “NASA—The Frontier is Everywhere”. It was a promotional ad for the beleaguered space agency—but not one like it had ever produced.

A meditative piano underscores silent, haunting images of society in chaos—riots, hunger, brutality. There is no heroism in sight, no slow-motion, Right Stuff walks down the gantry towards the camera to the solemn call of trumpet solos and snare drums. Instead, the inimitable baritone of Carl Sagan, in a segment of his original narration from Cosmos, asks the listener: We who cannot even put our planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds—are we to venture out into space?

The answer comes quietly. We’re an…adaptable species, Sagan reassures us. It will not be we…it will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent. For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.

The piano strikes its final chords. A space shuttle lifts off in silence. We drift over the blue marble of Earth.

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond…will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings…how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

The final image: NASA’s “meatball” logo, the familiar blue orb.

The video received over 1.7 million views. The credits read: “Social media created for NASA by Reid Gower.”

Reid Gower is not employed by NASA. He received no payment from NASA for the social media exposure (over a million views). He isn’t even an American citizen. The video was born out of frustration. “NASA is the most fascinating, adventurous, epic institution ever devised by human beings, and their media sucks,” he wrote in the video description. “Seriously. None of their brilliant scientists appear to know how to connect with the social media crowd, which is now more important than ever. In fact, NASA is an institution whose funding directly depends on how the public views them.”

It looks like a few people at NASA heard him loud and clear, and are finally doing something about it:

The Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

To date, most of its visualizations have been created with the goal of finding unique ways to visualize data sets. “The mission of the Scientific Visualization Studio is to facilitate scientific inquiry and outreach within NASA programs through visualization,” its web site states. “To that end, the SVS works closely with scientists in the creation of visualization products, systems, and processes in order to promote a greater understanding of Earth and Space Science research activities at Goddard Space Flight Center and within the NASA research community.” That may not be the most exciting way to put it.

But the visualizations are something else.

In one, ocean currents trace out mesmerizing patterns, the sinks and eddies of ocean currents rendered as pulsing streamlines that prompted comparison to Van Gogh’s Starry Night from io9, the popular commercial design blog of Fast Company, and the UK Daily Mail. It’s as beautiful and elegant a rendering of a scientific dataset as you will find.

But its latest one, titled Pursuit of Light, tries for something more—to tug on your heartstrings, to make you love NASA. In the Reid Gower mold, it juxtaposes spectacular images from NASA planetary missions with a large dose of humanity. Spectacular cratered landscapes of alien moons raked by stark shadows and vistas of UV aurora dancing around the poles of Saturn share screen time with stock footage of urban time-lapses and children painting on a golden sun-drenched patio. Titles dissolve in: Are we alone? Will we endure? What makes us who we are? How far to the farthest star? What then? We’re heading out. Come with us. Even more than Gower’s original video, it is an explicit cry for support.

It’s not perfect. It is, perhaps, a bit overwrought compared to Gower’s quiet editing. And at over six and a half minutes, it is probably too long to go truly viral. But it seems to represent a growing and much-needed evolution in NASA’s thinking about how it promotes its online brand—and yes, NASA is a brand, and ought to think like one.

It also seems clear that SVS hasn’t maxed out its exposure yet. The Perpetual Ocean video was created as a submission to an academic research conference on digital animation and rendering research conference with attendance of 15,000, but was not accepted. SVS posted the failed entry to their site on the NASA.gov domain almost as an afterthought, letting it languish only as a download. It wasn’t until April 2012, when a truncated three-minute clip was loaded to Flickr, that the clip went viral and was viewed by millions.

But viral it went, and SVS is starting to build a following. Although NASA has had success in getting its astronauts and missions to engage in social media, education and outreach isn’t the same thing as building brand awareness. SVS is clearly trying to bridge this gap, and seems to understands the importance of connecting the warm fuzzies and awe inspired by the images with the organization—the brand—that brought them to you.

They certainly have adopted one cinematic gesture from Gower. The final image of Pursuit of Light: the NASA logo.

NASA meatball logo

The Probe and the Crater

Every now and then you come across an image that literally takes your breath away, that hits you so hard you skip a breath. This one did that for me today. (Definitely click for full-size.)

It was taken in 2008 by a camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The obvious, dominant element in the main image—that’s a crater 6 miles across, the scar of an ancient meteor impact. And that tiny speck drifting against this incredible landscape—that!—that is NASA’s Phoenix lander, a probe sent by humanity to explore that alien world. I’m still blown away by the sheer drama of this image—a tiny speck of humanity journeying across the solar system to another planet, its final, triumphant steps recorded by another such feat.

*     *     *

I saw this picture today for the first time today (I must have missed it when it was first released) in a seminar talk by Michael Hecht, who headed the design and construction of an instrument onboard Phoenix that served as the lander’s chemistry lab, analyzing soil samples for signs of life or water. He proudly showed us images of his creation in the lab, called the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer. It was an unassuming box, with four soil collection bins waiting for the little backhoe installed on Phoenix to dump in samples.

MECA in the lab

And then he showed us a picture taken from the Phoenix lander of that little, modest box on the surface of Mars, where its analysis provided humanity with our first knowledge of the chemistry of the soil of an alien world.

MECA on Mars

A murmur went through the crowd of scientists and students. “I always get a little emotional whenever I see this picture,” Hecht said (as I recall from memory). “It’s an incredible feeling to see something that you’ve built, from your own hands and sweat and tears, sitting on the surface of an alien world.”

I talked to Hecht afterwards and thanked him for including the HiRISE image. “It’s absolutely stunning, isn’t it?” he said. He went on to say that the bar had been set by the Phoenix team—and now the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is trying to 1-up them when their next Mars rover, Curiosity, arrives on Mars this August.

It was then that I started to appreciate the image on another level—how much effort went into planning it. Any photographer will tell you about the lengths they have to go to in order to do a location shoot, and how much planning it can take to turn an image in their mind into a photograph. Now imagine doing a location shoot but doing it from 230 million miles away, shooting a subject floating through the Martian atmosphere on a trajectory that can only be calculated, and shooting from a dolly rig orbiting the planet from 500 miles away from the subject. The work and forethought that went into realizing this image—ensuring that Phoenix would be suspended in front of the dramatic backdrop of the crater and that the orbiting MRO would be just in the right position to capture the intended composition—is amazing.

*     *     *

I looked at Mars through a telescope tonight. I could see a red, circular disk, the image shimmering like a car on the horizon on a hot summer day. If I squinted hard enough and watched it shiver in and out of focus, I could almost convince myself I could see some surface detail, black patches here and there. I tried to imagine the plucky Phoenix probe, hurtling through Mars’ atmosphere of carbon dioxide in a fiery streak of plasma, and then parachuting gently over an utterly alien landscape—a machine wrought by human hands in a strange world.

Mars through telescope

I stepped back from the telescope, blinked, and looked back at Mars with my naked eye. Just a reddish point, suspended in the night sky over the Boston skyline.

It’s moments like these when I can hardly believe that we humans send things out there.

But we do. We are a spacefaring species. Pat yourself on the back.