A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.
The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun. The planet is new in at least two senses: it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently. In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.
What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass: PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris. Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.
If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.
PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.
PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle. As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy. In a way, that’s precisely what they are: CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.
In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.
Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:
From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David. Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit picsat.obspm.fr Continue reading PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit
When Hurricane/Storm Harvey lashed and flooded Texas, a lot of heroes stepped up – everybody from first responders to the Cajun Navy, bringing over boats from Louisiana, to doctors who used the Nextdoor social media platform to say where they were for neighbors in need, and many more. A California veterinarian heard about the storm and immediately set out for Houston knowing there would be many lost and injured pets.
Today, perched on the brink of a new year with its own unforeseen challenges and disasters, we should acclaim another kind of Harvey hero. These are the people who opened their doors to sodden family, neighbors and friends. I heard about a single man in a well-elevated two-story house who checked on his elderly next-door neighbors, found them shivering in high water, and brought them into his home, where they stayed for weeks. A couple who are friends of mine took refuge with her parents (i.e., his inlaws) for two months while they got their house livable. A first-floor neighbor in my complex moved in with a dear friend for three months while her place was being rehabilitated. A woman I know who has cats took in a colleague with more cats. Fortunately, the cats figured out how to coexist!
A lady I met at a Christmas concert told me that she and her husband have had another couple, neighbors and longtime friends who need to raise their flooded house several feet higher, living with them since Harvey. This nice lady told me she’s very much enjoying these unexpected housemates. For one thing they moved their espresso-maker in with them and the quality of morning coffee has been superb. For another and more important thing, the formerly empty nest (three kids off to school and adulthood) is now lively with friendly people.
I’m sure there have been households full of gritted teeth while overcrowded with incompatible relatives. Still, they did the right thing. Meanwhile I suspect that in more households than we’ll ever know about, people found good fellowship, better neighbors than they knew they had, warmer family ties, or pleasure in not living alone. In a society that tends to atomize everybody, the terrible storm created some new and resilient social molecules. It had a silver lining.
A few mornings ago I looked out the window to see my balcony of mostly tropical plants shivering under a blanket of . . . snow. While December snow wouldn’t be a surprise elsewhere, here in Houston it was unusual enough to make headlines and a big splash on Facebook.
One morning three quarters of a century ago, songwriter Irving Berlin looked out the window and was as surprised as to see snow. He was staying in a cabin in Banning, California, not too far from where the Southern California wildfires are raging now. Inspired by the unexpected dusting, he wrote the song “White Christmas” at the very beginning of the fateful year 1940. (Berlin commonly wrote a song a day. How’s that for being a productive writer?)
Christmas-themed songs and liturgical settings have been around since at least as far back as the 4th Century when Christmas Day was fixed as the 25th day of December. But our modern Christmas carols don’t have a 4th-Century air. In fact, they evoke the 1940s. Why is this?
The music record business had taken a severe drubbing during the Depression but was rapidly recovering on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II. From 1938 to 1941, record sales more than tripled as more and more workers found lucrative defense-related jobs. At the same time, here as in most developed nations, the power brokers had initially supported Hitler and Mussolini. (Both dictators were adamantly opposed to both trade unions and communism, the twin bugaboos of generations of businessmen.) When this stance abruptly became passé it became necessary to unify the American people so as to enable the economy to negotiate this sudden reversal. An appeal to nostalgia and a harkening back to a mythical national Golden Age was called for. In 1940 the cultural and population center of gravity of the United States was still located near New England, and “White Christmas” brilliantly celebrates the New England winter as few other songs before or since have done.
This isn’t to say that all Christmas carols were deliberately integrated into the war effort; but the newly written carols, the ones we still hear today when we’re out shopping in the mall, suited the new public mood almost perfectly—and so even today they’re fondly, if perhaps unconsciously, reminiscent of a time of national unity.
The carol that captures the wartime experiences of Americans better than all the rest is “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” recorded late in 1943, near the nadir of the campaign in the European theater. The lyrics were from the point of view of a homesick GI who promises his family he’ll be home for Christmas, “if only in my dreams.” This song was at the time considered to be such an effective morale booster that thousands of discs were distributed all over the world by the US military (though, curiously enough, not by the British military establishment, which feared the same song could actually depress morale.)
The abrupt philosophical U-turn to enter the war and to oppose Fascism, the meteoric rise in music record sales, the suddenly booming economy as the nation geared up for war, and the melancholy separations brought on by the war all combined to make the new Christmas carols of the 1940s resonate with the national consciousness, then and even now.
And in a real-life example of the Biblical exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, the technology developed to accurately record and play back the sounds of U-boats plying their deadly trade connected with a mass market soon after the war—in the form of “high-fidelity” amplifiers with which to listen to those Christmas carol records.
In the second Pets in Space anthology, we hit the USA Today bestseller list one day shortly after it was released. As of this writing, it has 131 Amazon reviews and a 4 1/2-star rating. And now this honor comes along. Being on a best book list under the auspices of Library Journal is particularly nice.
What an adventure Pets in Space has been! And to a great degree it’s been a remarkably digital adventure. For one thing, it’s an e-book original. There is a paperback edition of Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2, but at 700 pages and almost $30, it’s a more special edition than what most readers would buy for their home libraries. On the other hand, at $3.99 the e-book is nicely priced considering how big it is. Containing twelve novelettes or novellas, with different sexual heat levels and wildly different pets, there’s something for almost everyone in this anthology.
With the other eleven authors, including the two who organized the anthology and the publicist working with us, we talked about the book and the publicity electronically – in a Facebook group. Which worked great. The writers (not to mention the publicist, who is Australia-based Narelle Todd of Get My Book Out There) are geographically scattered, But with the FB group we could interact in nearly real time or at anyone’s convenience – even on vacation or when dodging hurricanes.
Before and especially after the book was released October 10, we all revved up our Websites, Twitter, and everything else we had in the way of social media to promote the book. In the end, that’s why we’ve gotten the accolades we have so far. Yes, the stories are good and the concept is delightful, but in today’s publishing world, if you don’t manage to make your book known, the vast majority of your likely, appreciative, even adoring readers will never find out about it. I once heard a veteran micro-publisher advise authors, “Don’t forget there are still millions of people who don’t know about your book, so keep promoting it.”
So the digital adventure continues!
It so happens that I titled my previous blog post. “Rendezvous with Routine.” Science fiction readers will catch the reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal Rendezvous with Rama, a novel about an enormous, cylindrical alien habitat that happens to pass through our solar system in transit from some unknown-to-us location to another unfathomable location.
Now real-life astronomers are preparing to publish a paper about their discovery of an actual visitor passing through our solar system. It’s a strangely elongated asteroid evocative of the shape of Rama. Just weeks ago it passed closer to our Sun than we are here on Earth. Though not artificial, but it’s nonetheless historic: the first object known to humankind to have entered our solar system from outside and to become available for our study.
The interstellar asteroid’s new name, ‘Oumuamua, means “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.
The detailed European Space Observatory press release can be found here.
This week another one of Orbital ATK’s unmanned (self-driving?) International Space Station resupply rockets lifted off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the launch is that it was so unremarked: it received a paucity of media attention that would have astounded anyone from the age of Gemini and Apollo.
The payload includes the Cygnus spacecraft and 7,400 pounds of spare parts, scientific equipment, and food. No word as to whether the menu includes Space Food Sticks, Tang, or Purina Astronaut Chow. (Maybe we’ll know that space travel is finally here to stay when someone publishes the first Orbital Cookbook. )
It seems to be in the nature of humankind’s most impressive achievements to drift down from the lofty perches they first occupy to end up, eventually, floating around in the back of the family station wagon—or space station.
Early in November I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. WFC is a professional writers’ event to a significant degree, but even I, with no fantasy books out as of yet, had several attendees ask me for autographs at the Signature Event (with every writer in one big room signing autographs.)
The convention venue was adjacent to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. It’s one of my favorite places, an oasis in that city—though as cities go, San Antonio, with its ancient Hispanic roots, is its own kind of oasis in Texas.
The Riverwalk meanders for miles through downtown San Antonio, though on the river’s level you’d hardly know it. There are some shops and restaurants reaching all the way down to the water’s edge. There are also whimsical bridges and sculptures, birds, and even water taxis: it’s Venice in Texas!
There’s also the aquatic version of street sweepers.
Below the Southwest School of Art & Craft, people who walk or jog by are watched by miniature folk sketched on a wall of rough timbers. Here’s one of the watchers.
No visit to San Antonio, by someone who writes speculative fiction with spiritual angles, would be complete without paying respects to San Fernando Cathedral, or, to use the full name, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe. Portions of this cathedral date to 1738. It is a major anchor in the Mexican-American life of San Antonio.
And then there’s this: the towering mosaic on the facade of Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. The artist is Jesse Trevino, a native son from the West Side of San Antonio, who when he was young saw a tombstone angel with a broken wing that he never forgot.
The image is fantastic – a kind of sacred fantasy that speaks to the hope of healing in the real world.
Michelle Howard is a fellow author in the USA Today bestselling anthology Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2. Here she tells us something about why she’s happy to have a story in this anthology, with ten percent of the first month’s profit through November 11 going to Hero Dogs, which provides service dogs to military veterans. Welcome, Michelle!
My dad joined the Marines during my toddler years so my memories of him at that time are of a shiny uniform and what I once referred to as his “hat.” I was soon corrected. A few years ago, my cousin followed in my dad’s footsteps and is currently serving as a Marine and I’m so proud of him. Writing a story that gives back to our service members is a huge honor and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Hero-dogs.org pairs two things that I admire and respect: dogs and our military.
I’m also excited I got to combine those two things in my story for this anthology. My story’s hero served in the military and was discharged due to wounds he suffered during that time. He ends up reluctantly tasked with helping my version of a K9 known as Bogan. From there danger, love and a new partnership soon follow.
Twelve leading SFR authors with twelve original never released stories appear in Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2, available at numerous e-book vendors here!
For descriptions of each story, a book trailer, and some cute Pets in Space merchandise (!) you can go to the anthology’s Website:
For Houstonians, this yard art is a very relatable commentary on how the most unpleasant imaginable Halloween trick came early with Storm Harvey.
Harvey was really bad, including where I live. I rode out the storm in comfort on the third floor and never even lost Internet, but with the bayou about two miles wide, my car was a goner. The condos on the first floor got anywhere from a few inches to a few feet of water.
All across town houses got flooded that had NEVER flooded before. In some cases these were 40-year-old homes that had never even come close to flooding. People had to rip out wet carpet, sheet rock and insulation, baseboards, wood flooring that looked dryable but turned out to have puddles all under it, appliances, furniture, and books. The result was streets lined with dismal debris piles.
Houston and other municipalities are scraping these up as fast as possible, but there’s so much it taking a long time. Before the garbage trucks come the scavengers. People in old pickup trucks drive around collecting appliances, furniture, and flooring to clean, rehabilitate and sell to those who lost what they had and lack flood insurance.
Friends in Bellaire, a self-contained little city surrounded by Houston, say it was a great day when the city debris removal trucks finally came to their street. It was like a parade, with elephantine garbage trucks and people standing out in their yards waving and smiling.