The Universe tours the solar system

It’s time to leave the Universe behind. The History Channel’s the Universe series is out of new episodes, and their sponsorship is about to drop off this blog and Astronomy Cast. If the Universe was your favorite space series of all time, have no fear, it will be showing in reruns, and you can purchase the complete series on DVD.

Looking over the past summer’s series, we can see 13 episodes laid on in a steady march through the solar system, with occasional field trips to the outer cosmos. The episodes were: Secrets of the Sun; Mars: The Red Planet; The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats To Our Planet; Jupiter: The Giant Planet; The Moon; Spaceship Earth; The Inner Planets: Mercury & Venus; Saturn: Lord of the Rings; Alien Galaxies; Life and Death of a Star; The Outer Planets; The Most Dangerous Place in the; and Search for ET.

Looking over these titles, shows can be grouped into 3 categories: Our Solar System (9 episodes), all other objects (2 episodes), and the search for ET (1 episode).

Clearly the name, “The Universe,” doesn’t quite capture the nature of this series. Perhaps “The Solar System and Beyond,” might have been less catchy, but more truthful.

But, as I’ve been saying all along, this is a hard game to play. People pay for planets. Stick a moon on a magazine cover, and watch the issues move out the door. Place a planet beneath a byline, and people will read your story. Their distribution of episodes met the demands of their audience.

In asking Astronomy Cast listeners what they wanted, we got lots and lots of requests for a journey through the solar system (and with next Monday’s episode, we’ll pass through the asteroid belt).

But cosmology is sexy, and sex sells too. High-energy astrophysics has a bling bling twinkle – what other stars shine as brightly as a hypernova letting off a blast of gamma rays? The Universe is vast, and dramatic, and I think there is room on the shelf for a second half, a “The Universe: Season 2″ the takes on the Cosmic Microwave Background and explores the maze of large-scale structure. There is room for specials on galaxy evolution and galactic cannibalism, and space to search for alien worlds orbiting stars nothing like the Sun.

But, to explain these things well and interestingly, and (perhaps most importantly) cheaply may not all be possible in a single show. We have real footage of all things solar system, and The Universe did an amazing job using footage from NASA and press releases to illustrate pretty much all their points. Existing images and movies of non-solar system concepts are much more scarce. Data visualizers like Robert Hurt of NASA IPAC do an amazing job translating complex theory into scientifically correct images and animations, but they don’t work for free and their time is limited. Contracting someone to create all the needed footage for 9 episodes exploring beyond the solar system would be a pricey endeavor.

But what if price weren’t an option? What should a series of shows on “The Universe” look at in a 13 episode season? This is very similar to asking, what should an introductory astronomy class cover in 13 weeks of classes? The standard answer goes something like this: 1. The sky and observables (seasons, lunar phases, planetary and stellar motions, etc), 2. a dash of physics, 3. light and color, 4. stars, 5. stellar evolution, 6. dead stars (white dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes), 7. planetary formation and planets, 8. The Milky Way and it’s environs, 9. Types of Galaxies, 10. The distance ladder and large scale structure, 11. The Big Bang (and evidence there of), 12. Dark Matter and Dark Energy, 13. The fate of the universe.

The first three can probably get ditched from a TV series, and episodes on supernovae, galaxy evolution and galactic cannibalism, as well as extrasolar planets can be snuck in.

This is my dream TV series on the Universe.

Maybe someday they’ll be a vodcast series in my future…

With an undergrad graphics guru to do the animations…

But for now, if you want to see a bunch of nice scientists (I know and like a remarkable number of the folks in the Universe) talking about what they love, the Universe will take you on a very thorough tour of the Solar System on DVD.

And tomorrow, I will pillage journal articles for interesting tidbits.

4 Comments

  1. Quasar9 September 18, 2007 at 6:20 am #

    “But cosmology is sexy, and sex sells too. High-energy astrophysics has a bling bling twinkle – what other stars shine as brightly as a hypernova letting off a blast of gamma rays?”

    lol Pamela, sex sells, and cosmic explosions & gamma-rays are more than just sexy, well almost ‘orgasmic’
    I think like with everything time lapse photography is catching, you know a plant sprouting and growing, a flower opening in seconds …
    the same with simulations, a milky way ungolding – two galaxies crashing and merging(?) and of course a supernova in apparently slow (fast) motion, but hey I love fireworks

    In fact I love fireworks slowed to half speed best, appearing to just hang in the sky like a nebula full of starburst.
    But that’s just me.

  2. Kat September 18, 2007 at 12:41 pm #

    i’m so glad i’m no tthe only one who noticed this. i was excited for “the universe” series. i tuned in every week hoping that THIS would be the week they talk about something outside the solar system. after 6 episodes i gave up on it. i don’t know how they were allowed to call it the universe. they might as well have called it “britney spears and the magical ride to ponyland”.

  3. Richard B. Drumm September 18, 2007 at 4:11 pm #

    Bummer that you’ll be loosing your biggest sponsor. I’ll just have to send some dough your way to make up for it…
    I wonder if the NOAO EPO division would step into the void?
    Rich

  4. Ed September 18, 2007 at 11:43 pm #

    Well, NASA keeps sending probes the planets and moons, they might as well make shows about it. Obviously there’s more to learn, and personally, anything that jump starts people’s imagination in science is positive.

    With that said, on tonight on the History channel, is “Mega Disasters”, starring Gamma Ray Bursts. Haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know how much of it science versus “We can die at any second” type stuff, but it’s set on my DVR.

Leave a Reply