(Courtesy NASA https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=78617)
It has been a week for the heavens since the supermoon eclipse, with news from Mars and all the way from Hollywood, and with all the advances in the past year, space begins to seem not less vast but more knowable.
I watched the eclipse from the fields across the street from my house, wrapped in a blanket and a thermos of mint tea. At first the full moon didn’t seem much larger than normal, but so very bright I could write by it. It was an almost perfect night for watching the sky, with only a few high clouds. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real stargazing, though I know the summer constellations pretty well, and sometimes I’ll go out and look a bit on clear nights. But my telescope at home is sadly neglected. I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the dark sports field; there were neighborhood families with kids running around, turning cartwheels on the grass and yelling. I was gritting my teeth a little at the noise – I do a good impression of an 83 year old curmudgeon sometimes – but besides the fact that it wasn’t my lawn to tell people to get off of, if there’s one thing kids should be loud and curious and excited about, it’s the, you know, SUPER COOL SPACE THING happening in the sky.
Because my nephew, the first of the next generation, was born this summer, there has been a strong resurgence in childhood favorites lately, especially books and music. In putting together picture book care packages and lullaby playlists, I noticed a common theme in many of our old standbys: Goodnight Moon, Owl Moon, I see the moon and the moon sees me… I remember my parents taking us out to the backyard to watch the Leonid meteor shower as a kid, and I wrote one of my first real poems about it. I think I’d always been more interested in the poetry and stories in the stars than the mechanics of space, perhaps because as a geologist, I wouldn’t want to study something I couldn’t get my hands dirty on.
The same weekend that I visited my nephew for the first time, I stole my brother-in-law’s copy of The Martian when he had finished it, and read the whole thing in time to have it back to him before we got on the plane home (There was a lot of downtime during naps for baby and parents alike). It was a thrilling read, and note-perfect in its depiction of engineers and scientists; the characters out of NASA acted and talked like half the people I know. What was most striking about The Martian, though, was that it got me engaged in a space exploration story for the first time in a long while, by telling a space story that was, strangely enough, grounded. It felt immediate and hands on and very real, with duct-tape solutions and faulty wiring and EXTREME BOTANY.
And then! To have to announcement of water on Mars the day after the eclipse and the week of the movie release for The Martian makes for space on the brain. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected hydrated minerals in the same location as “recurring slope linae” – dark streaks that appear to flow downhill and ebb and flow with the different seasons. Coupled with other recent advances like Curiosity, the Philae comet lander, and New Horizons (which just released new high-res photos of Pluto’s moon Charon as well as more of Pluto itself), there is a definite sense of rekindled excitement for space exploration. Water on the red planet and red shadows on the moon: eclipses are always dramatic events, but liquid water on another world is a monumental discovery, another step towards stories we’ve only imagined of distant planets and alien life.