The Planetary Society and Your Place in Space

Curiosity, Just Hours from Landing (NASA)

Yesterday, we committed ourselves to braving the California intrastate highway system (SR-57 and I-210) in order to attend Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena. Today, we are doing it again. Planetfest is an event held by The Planetary Society, an organization dedicated to furthering the message of the value of planetary exploration through education, outreach, and lobbying. The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by scientists Carl Sagan, Louis Freedman, and Bruce Murray.

This year, Planetfest is timed to coincide with the landing of the Mars Science Lander (MSL)—now generally known as Curiosity—on August 6th at 5:31 UTC. (Coordinated Universal Time—yes, we know that the acronym doesn’t match the words. It’s the result of one in a long-line of English-language v. French-language scientific squabbles. You can read about it HERE.) It’s rare that timing of any historic event these days favors the West Coast of the United States, but we should have verification of a successful landing by bedtime. The landing should occur at 10:17pm PDT. With the fourteen-minute delay for Curiosity to relay information from Mars back to Earth, that’s 10:31pm for us, plenty of time to celebrate a bit and be home just after midnight.

Curiosity’s Cameras (NASA)

The first day of Planetfest included dozens of speakers (see our post of quotes yesterday HERE), an exhibit hall, and an art show featuring work by members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). The IAAA was founded as an organization after a group of space artists met at one of the first Planetfests. The Planetary Society has a history of bringing together like-minded individuals and giving them an opportunity to find their “Place in Space.” Those notions of interaction and our place in the universe reached a high point in an afternoon panel featuring early-career scientists and engineers (a couple of whom are still students). Several of the young scientists indicated that their burgeoning interest in space and science was enhanced through contact with The Planetary Society events. One even pointed to a college internship through The Planetary Society.

Attendance at yesterday’s event peaked at about 300 people in the early afternoon. During the day, it was reported that today’s event is completely sold out; there are approximately 1000 seats set up in the Pasadena Convention Center ballroom. So The Planetary Society has arranged for an overflow viewing area for watching the NASA feed of the landing (purchase tickets HERE).

Mission Support Area at JPL (NASA)

Here at Lofty Ambitions, our first real contact with The Planetary Society came through the SETI@Home program, which asked average folks to process on their home computers signals from radio-telescopes looking for intelligent life somewhere out there in the rest of the universe. The program was co-sponsored by UC-Berkeley. Doug ran SETI@Home on an iMac SE Graphite while he was in graduate school. He fired up that computer earlier this week to see that he’d contributed just under 2500 hours of the iMac’s time to the SETI@Home.  If you want more information about how you can participate, take a look HERE.

Curiosity on Mars, Expected August 6 (NASA)

Shortly after this post is up at Lofty Ambitions, we’ll be making our way once again to Pasadena and Planetfest. It’s landing day! We’re nervous. We’ve watched  “Seven minutes of terror” a dozen times–you can watch it at the end of this post. We’ve just finished reading the “Mission Overview” section of the MSL/Curiosity press kit. You don’t have to look too closely at the description of the mission to recognize the complexity of what is being attempted in this Mars landing. At the same time, we’re excited and hopeful and not just a little bit proud of what human beings try to accomplish—and often do accomplish, despite the complexity of the task or the risk involved.

A theme that has run through space-nerd circles since the end of the space shuttle program has been that we—specifically the United States—have become risk averse and that, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We stopped dreaming.” See that video below. That’s a question for another day. Today is a day for reveling in what we can accomplish when we dare to dream big.

In less than twelve hours, we’re going to drop a Mini-Cooper-sized rover vehicle onto the surface of Mars. It will skydive, then bungee-jump its way down in those last few minutes. If all goes well, in a few weeks, that rover will begin to tell us a story about another planet.

As Bill Nye, ever the Science Guy and now also the CEO of The Planetary Society, said yesterday, “This weekend is going to change the world.” We believe him.

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