365DaysDate: January 13, 2009

Title: How to be an Armchair Astronaut

Podcaster: Bill Dunford

Organization: Riding With Robots on the High Frontier

Description: The golden age of space exploration did not end in the 1970s. It’s happening right now. In addition to the astronauts, more than a dozen robotic spacecraft from several nations are now exploring Venus, Mars, Saturn and the uncharted worlds beyond. The best part? Anyone with an Internet connection can see the same bizarre sights the probes see, often in near real-time. For those who want to ride along, here’s a quick guide to the many websites and free software packages that make it easier than ever to explore the universe from your desktop.

Bio: Since 2005, Bill Dunford has been inviting people to ride along with the robotic space missions now exploring the solar system, via the non- profit science education website “Riding with Robots on the High Frontier.”

Sponsor: No one.  Please consider sponsoring an episode for $25 by clicking on the “Donate” link to the lower left.


The golden age of space exploration did not end in the 1970s when the last Apollo astronauts splashed down. It’s happening right now. That’s because it’s not only astronauts that form the vanguard, it’s also the flotilla of robotic probes that have been unleashed into the night sky. As you listen to this, more than a dozen crew-less spacecraft are exploring Venus, Mars, Saturn and the uncharted worlds beyond.

The best part? We all get to ride along.

Hi, I’m Bill Dunford. For the past few years, I’ve been inviting people to follow these robotic space missions via a non-profit website called “Riding with Robots on the High Frontier.” You’ll find the site – strangely enough – at

Over the next few minutes, I’m going to give you a quick taste of what’s happening in this new space age, then take you on a short tour of the free websites and software packages that make it easier than ever to explore the universe from your own desktop.

There are (depending on how you count them) 16 active missions to the planets right now, with even more scheduled to be launched during the next  few years. Space probes have been exploring ever since the 1960s. Then, Soviet and American machines were sent on suicide missions to the moon in order to scout the way for astronaut footsteps.

Today, the space robots fly under many flags, to destinations throughout the solar system, and even beyond its borders. There are current expeditions to every corner of the sky: Mercury, Venus, Earth’s Moon, Mars. Plus the asteroids, comets, Saturn, and Pluto. These machines are powered by nuclear reactors or arrays of solar cells, driven by ion engines or flung by gravity to speeds of fifty times the speed of sound, and to distances beyond understanding.

While their task is to cross far horizons, their ultimate purpose is to help us better understand life on Earth. For example, there is much to be learned about weather and climate by comparing Earth’s atmospheric systems with those of other worlds. And though it may be the robots that have physically flown to Jupiter, it is people who are doing the exploring, satisfying their fundamental human hunger to know what lies over the next hill. The machines are just space-worthy surrogates for our own eyes and hands.

And just what are these machines finding out there? It’s nothing less than flat-out amazing.  Explorers at Saturn have found one moon that is as big as a planet, where methane rain falls from the orange skies to fill rivers and lakes, and another moon where water shoots from mysterious geysers hundreds of miles into space – and no one knows why. On Mars, scientists are exploring canyons that are miles deep and vast deserts that are surrendering clues that reveal they were once covered by seas. Whether anything ever swam in those seas is one of the questions at stake.

The best part of all this is that you don’t have to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist to ride along. For free. Any time you feel like it. During most of the space age you often had to wait  months to see the data from probes. We experienced space travel mostly via books and documentaries, highly filtered and much delayed.

Then along came the Internet. The government agencies and universities that fly these missions started releasing pictures and other data online quickly. Now, every mission has a web site and, increasingly, podcasts, news feeds and other tools. For some missions, raw data is released almost as fast as it arrives on Earth from deep space, so you can see a sunset on Mars or an Earthrise over the moon the same day the scientists do.

So, how do you take advantage of all this and become an armchair astronaut? Fire up your web browser. A quick warning: I’ll be mentioning a slew of addresses over the next few minutes. If you don’t want to write them all down, they will be available on a handy one-page reference guide at

First up are the official space agency sites:

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory runs a good one at Some of the most interesting missions are JPL adventures, and this comprehensive and modern web site offers videos, blogs and current news directly from the engineers and scientists who remotely fly the ships.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA for short, has missions underway to the asteroid belt and the moon, and their site will show you all about them at

The European Space Agency, or ESA, has a meaty site at, with information about Europe’s expeditions to Venus, Mars and a comet. ESA has not historically been as famous as NASA for releasing pictures and data quickly, but that has been changing in recent months with more and more timely information showing up online.

The agency sites are good for overviews, but the best place to find the latest image streams and other detailed information is to jump right to the individual mission sites, and even to pages posted by the teams that run a single scientific instrument aboard a particular spacecraft. There’s no time to list them all now, but here are some highlights:

The powerful color camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is called HiRise for short, and this site offers a treasure trove of the latest Mars pictures, many of them so strange and beautiful that you just have to check them out for yourself. Be sure to find some red-blue glasses and hit the 3D section. That site is found at (Again, these addresses are online at the page I mentioned if you need them.)

Speaking of Mars, two of the most famous space probes are the seemingly indestructible rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The team responsible for these robotic geologists’ amazing color landscapes has a site with jaw-dropping pictures at

You can also tour the Martian landscape at a site run by one of the camera teams for ESA’s Mars Express mission at Be sure to zoom in and move around, testing the views out in different color schemes.

Mars is by no means the only destination in the sky right now. Check out the Cassini mission to Saturn at The highlight of this top-notch site is the daily supply of strange and beautiful pictures. There are two kinds, the cleaned-up, best-of shots on the main page, and the raw, unfiltered image stream that shows views of the rings and moons just as they come down from space, sometimes the same day they are taken. While you’re there, take a look at the behind-the-scenes blogs from mission scientists and don’t miss CASSIE, which is a 3D, highly interactive demonstration of the complex dance that the Cassini spacecraft performs in orbit around the ringed giant.

When you visit the website of Kaguya, Japan’s mission to the moon, be sure to spend some time in the high-definition video section and see what your home planet looks like lately as it rises over the lunar horizon.

Surfing all of these official mission sites can get a little overwhelming. There are a couple of ways to make your desktop spaceflights simpler. One is to grab a news reader like Google Reader or NetNewsWire, and simply subscribe to the feeds that are available at most of these sites.

Another way is to take advantage of the excellent UNofficial web sites that have sprung up to centralize space news. There are a growing number of great spots, but among the premier destinations is Populated by pros and amateurs alike, this bulletin-board format site is THE place to post pictures you’ve found or created and to follow debates about the latest controversial scientific findings.

Another top daily destination is the Planetary Society’s official blog, written by Emily Lakdawalla. Emily serves up detailed and authoritiative – yet understandable – insider updates from all over the solar system. To stay in the know about not only the latest scientific finds, but also the human and political dimension of space exploration, Emily’s blog is the place to go:

This adventure is not limited to clicking links. Talented developers have created free software packages that let you really dig into the data in a more tangible way. One of the best is Midnight Mars Browser, which helps you build virtual reality panoramas using real images from the Mars rovers: Another great example is Celestia, a desktop planetarium package that lets you simulate realistic trips through space: Both of these creations are free.

Once you’ve earned your wings as a desktop astronaut, you may want to become more than a passive observer. There are options for amateurs who want to get directly involved, such as ‘click-working.’ That’s when amateur scientists follow easy instructions to analyze images from the probes, together contributing millions of hours of useful processing that no computer could do. To join one such click-working project, go to and sign up.

There are other ways that amateurs have advanced the cause of exploration. To hear their stories and find out how it really made a difference, you’ll want to tune into Doug Ellison’s upcoming episode of this podcast. Doug is the proprietor of, and a first-hand witness to how the space enthusiast community around the globe has united to influence how humanity is reaching out to the stars.

This Bill Dunford from Thanks for riding along with me today. Until next time, keep looking up!

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.