Space Lighthouse

ISS@20, Life Amid Stars
Enters Its Third Decade

Here she comes. And there she goes. 16 times a day. The International Space Station, which completed 20 years in orbit last week, is humankind’s friendliest eye in the sky, a silent witness watching over us at every turn of our home planet.
It’s been an amazing ride and view. Just the sheer technological mastery necessary to keep it afloat, and the wealth of scientific data it provides daily, are enough to fulfill its lofty dream of being the space outpost of everyone of us, Earthlings.
Built by 16 nations, it’s been the temporary home to 230 highly trained rocket scientists who could even play some football up there: the ISS is almost as long as the field, or the equivalent of a six-bedroom house. They’re wiser with their time, though.
The station is a scientific research hub, from life to physical sciences, from astronomy to meteorology. For instance, the yearlong study monitoring twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Mark in Houston, Texas, and Scott, racing overhead at five miles per second.
Above all, the ISS‘ greatest achievement is being a beacon to our best aspirations, of harmony among nations, working together to build a better future. As such a beautiful dream is far from becoming reality down here, it’s crucial that it survives in space.

A BLUE WORLD, ROUND AS PIE
Watching it sliding soundlessly above high mountains of clouds and vast water mirrors, allows us also into a truly surprising realization: all ground noise we make, tall buildings we erect, and border walls we raise, are invisible and meaningless from the air.
The ISS sees no wars, hate, hunger, tragedy. It does, however, observe the terrible ways we treat Earth, and from above it’s easy to see the pollution of the air, the desertification of land, the smoke of wildfires caused by our abandon. And that’s beyond sad.
From up there, lies and climate change denials can’t be heard either, which is probably good. But not seeing rising sea levels or lines dividing people, doesn’t mean that we’re unaffected by them. All it takes is, well, an astronaut, to report their deadly impact.

THE THIRD BRIGHTEST IN THE SKY
Just like the dream behind its conception, the ISS is also vulnerable: a little debris the size of a quarter can disable it and risk the lives of its dwellers. And it’s also susceptible to the whims of near-sighted (more)
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* Space Droppings
* Heavenly Palace
* Meanwhile, Up There

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Reaction Wheels

Satellites Die, Visitors Speed Up
& Black Holes Rule the Milky Way

Paraphrasing Lady Michelle Obama, when reality goes low, lift up your eyesight at the universe. (It wasn’t really like that but we’ll stick with her wisdom anytime anyway.) Things are rough on the ground, but out there, they’re still stunning.
Was Uoumuamua, the rare interstellar object that’s just visited us, an alien ship? What about those two satellites that signed off almost simultaneously? Or the black hole at the center of the Milky Way? Will it ever bring back my silk socks?
We allow ourselves to be intrigued by the puzzling and the silly in equal matters. It may become impossible to hold on to our grip on an ever evolving set of circumstances. Life keeps tricking us but we always manage to keeping on coming back for more.
The unpredictable world of lately, what with changing climate conditions and unprepared leaders making stupid decisions, tempts the wisest among us, and it’s OK to seek refuge by just looking at the sky. Never mind most of what we see took place ages ago.
Except when it doesn’t. We count on predictability, even as we complain we’re bored. Thus our light take on the possibility we’ve just met a messenger from another world, the surprising synchronicity of two man-made machines, and, well black holes.

WHEN SATELLITES STARVE TO DEATH
When Dawn (2007) and Kepler (2009) started ‘running on fumes’ last week, within two days but far, far away from each other, it wasn’t a galactic sendoff for love-stricken robots. Their expiration dates had already been stretched by many years; it was time.
They were but exhausted; something to do with reaction wheels, as NASA would have it. Both Dawn, sent to probe the asteroid belt, and Kepler, hunter of exoplanets, ran out of fuel. Too much of it went to fire up thrusters and prevent them from spinning.

They’ve outlived retirement and outdone their missions, though. While Dawn became first to orbit multiple extraterrestrial bodies, Kepler‘s found 2,600 planets, a tiny sliver of them loosely resembling Earth. Now, who do you know that did at least one of those things?
MILKY WAY, YER HEART IS A BLACK HOLE
Lying on the wet grass of my backyard, I used to check the stars, track satellites, trace trajectories into the big beyond of our home galaxy. But I’ve never pictured a black hole staring right back at me. They eat everything. That kid wouldn’t be here had he known.
In fact, neither none of us would, if the hole that dares not having a name (Sagitarius A, NASA, really? Why not Black Hole Alley, then?) would exercise the same gluttony towards us as it’s doing to that poor star hanging off its mouth.
A thing about space, or what we think we’re seeing of it, is that its vastness is never bland, and permanent rebirth (more)
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* Gatekeeper of Outerspace
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Heard That?

New Reasons to Have
Nightmares in October

Times have been so scary that not even Halloween spooks kids anymore. Which is fine and won’t spoil the fun out of it. Fake blood? Phony zombies? Made-up vampires? Bring them all on, for who isn’t in badly need of a break these days?
And yet, unlike the ‘horrors’ summoned on Oct. 31, nightmares do exist to torment us. Having one at sleep is haunting, but it’s worst when it keeps vigil and frightens the daylights out of us when we’re wide awaken. Nicely, we prepared a short list of them.
Let’s let the former lie quietly for now, as no one can foresee what a tired mind may conjure when the body finally finds comfort under blankets. Some dreams rattle on, while others slip by unnoticed. But there’s no telling what they’re really about.
The other kind is all around, though. Disturbing visions that palpable reality urges us to bear from dawn to dusk have the added weight of shared experience. How some react to them has often been the stuff wars are fought for, and children are beheaded.
Here are five of the most petrifying, or almost. Not for the feeble of spirit, if there’s even anyone left with such a luxurious prerogative, the bullets of this season’s list are saturated with the fear that a rabid future biting its own tail lies ahead.
It’s not that All Hallows Eve ceased to be a playful way for kids to get acquainted with their ‘dark side.’ Or that there’s no longer sense in make-believe terror. It’s just that the whole world now has gone well beyond what Halloween used to suggest.

A DARK MATTER GHOST CALLED WIMP
Oct. 31 has also been turned into a celebration of the unseen. So-called Dark Matter, that is. 85% of the total mass of the universe remains invisible and undetected, so what you think you know wouldn’t explain the size of the cosmos. Or yours.
It’s out there, though, and one day, yup, it may get you good. For if for an unforeseen event, you’d come into contact with a field full of Wimps, nuclear forces holding your nuclei and protons together would simply vanish, leaving you looking like, well, nothing.
Without something to hold your cells, organs, and body together, needless to say, you’d lose your you-know-what for the very last time. So keep pretending that what you can’t see can’t hurt you at your own risk; the universe doesn’t give a flying… shooting star.

A SPIDER WEB-COVERED LAKEFRONT
That’s a classic, the creature that shares with bats and black cats the iconographic triad of horror. Except that they’re paralyzingly frightening to over 30% of humans. Now imagine the phobic landing on Aitoliko lagoon, in Greece.
Recently, its lakeside got fully covered by Tetragnatha spider webs. The tiny species, which is not the only one periodically taking over acres of land, does like to spook distracted travelers such as yourself.
Picture yourself sinking your feet into the sticky trends and watching thousands of spiderlings crawling up your legs and calling you daddy. Now, now, they’re not poisonous. And consider it your personal experience of the true spirit of Halloween.

INSOMNIA-INDUCING BUGPOCALYPSE
Speaking of weakly particles, as T.S. Eliot once said, the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. For most of us, the prospects for a mass bug extinction may sound more like a relief, and good riddance at that, and not something to care about.
That is, if you’re not into food. Or wouldn’t mind coming across dead bodies laying all over, unable to decay. Animals starving to death and a global collapse of agriculture. And the end for our last food source in case of a climate change-triggered famine. Apart from that, you’d be fine
So, insects may multiply with global warming, but in the end, just like us, may perish exactly because of it. So be careful (more)
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* Stay Awake
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The Far Out Job Report

Help Wanted: Island Cat Keeper,
Beach Bookseller or Tourist Ninja

You hear about the great gig economy and how ‘robust’ is the job market right now, and wonder what are they talking about. The reality on the ground is far grimmer, and the last call you got was for a go-getter, as in getting lattes for the millionaire 25-year-old star-up boss.
Fear not, you’ve got options. Understandably, you’re now a creature of habits, so change is laborious. But you’re also broke, which is bad regardless of age. So, given all life experiences you’ve accumulated so far, it’d be foolish not to consider the alternatives.
Granted, that’s a cliche of advice-given book writers. But besides doing better than say, elderly dishwashers, their brand of counseling has at least one B.S.-proof factor on their favor: they sell it. So have you already got duped by job listing boards? the Web will see you next.
About those listings: don’t sign up for them. All they want is to collect your info and compile a massive database, so to attract funding from investors, and provide golden parachutes to top executives. Plus, if you check one, you’re checking them all; the market is the same.

OUT THERE BUT NOT MUCH
But you knew that. As you did about asking tips from people who short of picking you apart, just don’t mind saying anything to actually get rid of you. Which, granted, not even you can blame them for. By now, your ‘pitch’ sounds as exciting as going to bed at 7pm.
Speaking of which, you could be a NASA ‘professional sleeper,’ if you weren’t up so many times at night to pee. Or go to China to be a ‘mourner‘ for hire, or a ‘panda fluffer.’ Those bears are notoriously fussy, though, and other people’s grief is not easy to handle either.

BETTER THAN SUMMER READING
No. Instead, such well-honed skills you’ve mastered for so long may be better served for more imaginative tasks. Like selling books in a tropical island. That pricked up your ears, didn’t it? Minimal wages but what perks. Say, do you like summer, sun and sand? You’re hired.
As for the competition, let us let you in on a secret: they want pretty young things, and frankly, that’s a huge mistake. No offense, but the young will take it as easy as vacation time, and wind up neglecting their duties. That’s when a pro like you have the edge. Go for it.

SWORD & MASK, YOU’RE A STAR
Know what happens to ‘pro queuers,’ who stand in line, waiting for somebody else’s newest iPhone to come out? they get beat up. Often. And ‘chief listening officer‘ is another name for customer service rep, that human punching bag that gets it from everyone and everywhere.
May we suggest instead fighting back and becoming a ninja in Japan? We know, it sounds outlandish but if you think about it, it’s not that you’ll need to obliterate deadbeats like a Yakuza and swear allegiance to some shady boss. Believe us, it’s all mostly for show.

THE GREEK GOD OF KITTENS
You’d be working for the City of Tokyo, and your job will be to entertain tourists. No Asian relatives? no problem; just think what an ice breaker for striking a conversation that would be. Which is just as well: your spouse will never tell you to get out again.
But the real cherry on this pie is taking care of 55 cats on an idyllic Greek island. You, walking on a beach like a god, with no one but the demanding, albeit wise, felines to report to is as close to (more)
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Rock On

Immigrants to the Solar System
& a Stone That Predates Humans

No one knows how many of them are out there. They travel light, fast, and come from lifetimes of distance. Surveillance may catch a few, but this is too vast a place to easily spot them. Some fear them like the end of times. Others call them refugees, or vagrants, or immigrants.
They’re asteroids, meteorites, shooting stars. They may come to visit: one zipped by Earth’s orbit last year, on its way out of the Milk Way. But long ago, Jupiter captured another; it’s now a permanent resident. Like those that come crashing to die among us, they’ll keep on coming.
The fear, of course, is that they do have the potential to end our civilization. Just like that, and there’s damn little, or pretty much nothing, we can do about it. Geological data, i.e., extracted from rocks, plus statistical probability, prove that such a literally earthshaking possibility does exist.
Twice in the past an incoming high-speed ball wiped nearly all life on the planet, changing evolutionary history in the process. So we try to keep track of them, but even if we could see them all at a safe distance, we’ll probably would’t have time for anything but to go mad, and then die.
Not Oumuamua, though, the object that crossed incognito our zenith last September. When it reached the sun, we knew that it couldn’t possibly be from within our system, like all the others, race-ending or not. When it left it, it’d become the very first interstellar little world to came and say hi. Or rather, a Hello, Goodbye. I must be going.

THE THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN
Of course, Shakespeare was right. So was Carmichael, and so was Sagan. After being given such a noble provenance, linking us straight to the most distant heavenly body we will never get to see, who wants to have anything to do with an errant piece of rock? But it’s been said, they’re inevitable.
In fact, without denying we’re shinning stars and all that, life may have been brought down to this Pale Blue Dot, which once thought of itself as the center of the universe, by a lowly slice of outwordly dust, teeming with what would blow air through our nostrils. Hey, cheer up. We’re all rock stars.
Or whatever. The hominids who act as if they own the place they know nothing about, and are just about to put it on fire, couldn’t bear thinking that they don’t count. But in reality, they don’t. (more)
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Window Seat

In the Vast Universe, There’s
Just One Place for All of Us

Good news for those planning on catching that last rocket out of Earth: you may take my seat. After careful consideration, I decided that I’m not booking that flight. The upside is that I was never really good at packing light. Or committing to a one-way ticket to anywhere.
But don’t get me wrong. Neither I gave up on having a pulse, nor I’m now for comfort over smelling new sights, even it takes smelling bad for months too. Trust me, shreds of my soul would fill the backpacks of those pioneers-slash-refugees boarding the spaceship to a new Terra.
Recent news that not one, but three new exoplanets have potential to surrogate us may have pricked up beaten ears, tired of the minor chords of our final symphony: warmer years, rising tides, growing masses of the starved and homeless. Those who can’t stand this one-note samba, are ready to rock. Ciao.
I wouldn’t maximize my cards just yet, even if this is no figure of speech: collectors have chased me for years. Also, I’m in no rush to make snide comments about silly fools, hahaha, building a fleet toward a breathable future. For it’s what may actually happens.
One thing seems probable: the last to embark will be the hardest at work to make such exodus an option, not an escape plan. And even as a dwindling bunch – hey, who can put up with so many storms before jumping ship? – their wishes match that of the most hospitable place we’ve ever known: right here.
By the way, I’m not one to believe that we’ll be missed. It’s likely that every species, along with nature itself, will be cheering our departure, and the very conditions that made us possible will heal and thrive once we’re out of the picture. Without us, they’ll all do just fine. But with us, chances are that Earth will look like Mars in less than a century.

LIKE PATCHING UP THE TITANIC
Which is as much faith as I’d put on us as anyone would about a virus: it’s ancient, no one knows where it comes from, it’s lethal, and when it leaves, people throw their hands up and give praise. And yet, even viruses can be beneficial, I know, but tell that to those who got on their way. So, am I saying we’re good as plagues? you damned right I am.
That being said, for as long as I breathe I’ll be partial to those fighting for reversing the clock. They used to practice (more)
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* The Undreamed World
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Play Dough

But Why Didn’t They
Call it The Big Pizza?

The world would laugh, if it’d even care, about the little idiosyncrasies New Yorkers seem to invest themselves with so much passion one would think that the fate of humankind is squarely pinned on them. Case in point: pizza, local fast food extraordinaire.
Now, we know, would it kill us to exercise restrain and abstain from such prosaic subject? We’re not above it, though; yesterday, when we were cold and short of cash, it seemed like a good idea. But fear not, for we approach the beast with utmost respect.
For even for pizza there’s a certain way of eating it, if far from solemn, that denizens of this great cesspool are proud of mastering early on. And then there’re all the wrong ways to be ashamed doing it. Just ask the Mayor, who was caught eating the holy dough with fork and knife.
Anathema, nothing less. After all, the whole combo of flour, cheese and tomato sauce may have been invented in the old country ages ago, but the slice and the ‘fold and eat with your hands’ maneuver have been both trade-marked right here, on the streets of the five boroughs, just like steaming manholes and yellow cabs.
What? You have a problem with that? No one should be surprised if many an argument has flared up or settled down over a steaming pie, and for that dwindling minority with a pocketful of change, nothing is as affordable and substantial than a 4am slice by the curbside.
But alas, not even pizza is that New Yorker, and as with many other city-by-the-river staples, it’s been appropriated by the world, many times over, gritty, warts et al. Perhaps one day we’ll all be talking about pizza like we do today about the old Times Square. But we digress.
We’re living in other times, that’s for sure, even if equally lean. Definitely diminished slant on little localized treats, though, as they plan on printing a pie in space and making a slice last longer than a heat wave. Never mind us old farts, for kids are unlike to mourn the demise of such a 20th century food relic.
Big Apple? Who were they kidding? So, fine, it was supposed to evoke the original sin and all that, besides looking a bit more photogenic in tourism ads. But the likelihood of seeing someone eating apples on the streets of New York was never bigger than spotting a kangaroo at a subway stop, or a beret-wearing mime.
Although we’re sure those have also been spotted somewhere around here. In any case, we thought about getting a quick survey on wonders of this thousand-year snack, that can proudly be a meal on its own right. Just don’t bring pineapples anywhere near one or we’ll scream.

MORE ITALIAN THAN ITALY
Inevitably, as with many scrumptious foods we’ve been indulging for centuries, the old loaf of bread covered in cheese and herbs (predating even the ascension of tomatoes, around 700 A.C.E.) came from the ancient country. Many trace its earliest reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, written almost 800 years before that.
To some, it was a baker in Pompeii, Publius Paquius Proculus, who invented it some 2,000 years ago, and in fact, a relic of the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed his city and Herculaneum is a fossilized round dough that strongly resembles some of the culinary achievements of ‘The Original Ray,’ in New York.
For the typical Napolitan, for instance, there’s nothing else but Marinara and, Ok, once in a while, Margherita, and we’ll spare you from the origins of these two common pizzas. We said hold the pineapples before but New Yorkers are known not to be above some sausage, (more)
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