FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

Tectonics Give (and They Take Away)

Well, it's happened again. Planet Earth shudders slightly and people - many people - die. It seems we have had a lot of these events lately; Indonesia, Haiti, New Zealand, Chile, and now Japan.

But if one looks closely at these areas, with the colder eyes of a scientist, one can see that these events were inevitable. Let's look more closely at Japan and then see how recent events there might be a wake-up call for us here.

If you have watched any of the coverage on the recent Sendai quake you will surely have seen the token geologist trying to explain that Japan lies at what's called a "subduction boundary." It is where one of earth's titanic crustal plates is moving down and below another one.

This is a recipe for violence, as we have seen. The movement of the plate sliding down below isn't as smooth as some would like, and the occasional fits and starts result in earthquakes and tsunamis.

But Japan itself owes its very existence to this type of plate boundary. For as the "subducting" plate powers downwards, it melts the rock below which rises to the surface exploding out as volcanoes.

These resulting volcanic island chains are all over the planet, most notably around the Pacific rim. Not only Japan, but the Aleutians, the Philippines, and all of Indonesia are a result of this movement. Subduction also lifts up great mountain chains like the mighty Andes and our own Cascades.

In fact, nothing less than the entire geography of our planet owes its existence to the various movements of plates across the surface of our planet. It is one of the unique characteristics of Earth which makes it livable, blessing us with new soil, mountains, valleys, continents, and ocean basins. Without it, we would be eroded to a smooth ball, a planet completely covered with water.

I say unique because no other planet in our solar system experiences the beauty that is plate tectonics. In fact, so many phenomena have to occur with precisely the right timing for it to happen that odds are slim that many other planets at all beyond us have this life-preserving process.

But as we have seen a lot recently, these processes can be life-taking, as well. Building our homes on plate boundaries, near volcanoes, or on the coast invites huge risks. Many people knowingly do so, fully aware of those risks.

There should be no surprises then - there is nothing new under the sun - as far as the movements of the earth are concerned. They have happened, they will continue to happen.

And it will happen here in Southern California. We are long overdue for a devastating movement of the Earth at the San Andreas fault. It will move. None of us should be surprised when it does. But are we ready for it? Are we genuinely prepared?

So what do we do now? We weep with those who weep, and rediscover a healthy respect for our dynamic planet.

And we prepare for our turn.

Happy Birthday, Space Pioneers!

This week we find ourselves celebrating the birthdays of three prominent astronauts from the early days of space travel, the days of the Space Race.

Those of us who lived during that era recall that it was a tense time between the Soviet Union and the United States. Their vastly different political ideologies carried over into the respective space programs. Being "first" in anything over the enemy took highest priorities.

Most of the early "firsts" were claimed by the Soviets, including the big one, the first man in space. He was a Soviet Air Force lieutenant named Yuri Gagarin. Born 9 March 1934, Gagarin flew Vostok I into space in April 1961 at the age of 27. His flight took him through just one orbit of the earth, lasting only an hour and a half, but its effect resounded for much, much longer.

This success was devastating for many Americans who were hoping they would be first to send a human into space. Gagarin's successful space trip made him an instant celebrity and a hero in the Soviet Union. Just a month later, the first American, Alan Shepard made the trip to space, although his was not an orbital excursion, just a shot up and a fall down.

The Soviets eventually banned Gagarin from further space flights for fear of losing their national hero, but ironically lost him in a MiG jet training accident in 1968. The cause of the crash is disputed even now.

The Soviets were also first to have a woman - and a civilian woman at that - in space. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, born 6 March 1937, was launched into space in Vostok 6 in June 1963 at the ripe old age of 26. By now the Soviets were sending their cosmonauts out for longer times. Her stint lasted nearly three days and 48 orbits around our planet. She is still very much alive and considered a hero in Russia.

The third astronaut whose birthday we celebrate this week is perhaps not as "famous" as the cosmonauts, but was one of my favorite astronauts and an American hero nevertheless - Wally Schirra.

Schirra, born 12 March 1923 in New Jersey, grew up to become a Navy pilot. He was one of the original Mercury 7, seven men chosen to be the first Americans shot into space.

In August 1962 he was the fifth American in space with a six-orbit flight. But he didn't stop there.

He was also part of the Gemini program - the second phase of American spaceflight - flying in Gemini 6.

But his story doesn't end there. He was also an astronaut in the Apollo program, specifically Apollo 7, one of the Apollo flights leading up to Apollo 11's famous voyage. Wally Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in all the first three US space programs. He died in May 2007 at Scripps in La Jolla.

Gagarin, Tereshkova, and Schirra were three people from very different backgrounds and ideologies, but all heroes to their people.
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me