October 21, 2014

17.03.11- Mercury: At Last!

Brave New World: Mercury as seen from Messenger during 2nd flyby departure.

 (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington) 

Tonight marks a pivotal moment in solar system exploration. At 12:45 AM UTC on March 18th, NASA’s Mercury Messenger spacecraft will burn its engines for approximately 15 minutes to enter an elliptical orbit around the planet Mercury. Since its launch from Cape Canaveral on August 3rd, 2004, Messenger has flown by the Earth once and Venus twice for a gravitational assist, swung by the innermost world three times, sampled the near solar environment, searched for Vulcanoids, and even done a wide field pan for any tiny Mercury moonlets that may have been missed. [Read more...]

March 2011: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere.

Ahhhh, the Ides of March are upon us. Spring is the thing, as we approach equal daylight in all lands north to south. The month of March brings with it an early onset back to Daylight Savings Time for yet another eight months, a season for Messier marathoning, Mercury spotting, and more. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s on our radar this month at Astroguyz HQ:

Coming to a Sky Near You: The first week of March we feature the ternary star Beta Monocerotis. We’ll also look at what it takes to complete a Messier Marathon. Asteroid 72 Feronia completes a stellar occultation on 9th, followed by a lunar occultation of Mu Geminorum on the 13th. A rare Proxigean Spring tide and the largest Full Moon of the Year occur on 18th, followed by the Vernal Equinox marking the beginning of spring on the 20th. Another good stellar occultation by asteroid 224 Oceana occurs on the 20th, and planet Mercury makes its best evening elongation 22nd. Finally, we cap off the month with a very close Venus-Neptune 9’ conjunction on the 27th.

 This Month in Science: All eyes are on space exploration and research as Planetary Science decadal survey is planned for release sometime in March. The Orange Blossom star party, Central Florida’s premiere astro-get together occurs March 2nd-6th. Also, March continues to be a month of inner world exploration as NASA’s Messenger spacecraft enters orbit around Mercury 18th just days before the best evening apparition mentioned above. On the review radar, we look at Discoverers of the Universe and A Professor, A President, & a Meteor. Good times!

This Month in Science Fiction: This month in science fiction (we still spell it “Sci-Fi!”) we’ll take a look at Dwarf Stars 2010, with some of last year’s best in Sci-Fi short poetry. We’re also furiously reading The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, the exciting Steampunk follow up to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. Also out from Pyr Books, don’t forget to snag a copy of the newly released (and recently reviewed on this site) work, the Cowboy Angels. The Big Bang Theory, every science nerds favorite show about science nerds in the wild, has recently been picked up for three more seasons… and the BIG news for those of us that live in our laptops is that the show is FINALLY available to watch online!

Launches in March: Space Shuttle Discovery is in space one final time, and will land back at the Kennedy Space center March 7th. Meanwhile, Endeavour is back “at the ranch” beginning preparation for its April launch with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. A pair of classified payloads will also break the surly bonds this month, with the follow up flight of the Air Force’s super secret X-37B space plane from Cape Canaveral Air Station on the 4th & a ULA classified launch on 11th, also from CCAS. The European Space Agency launches an Ariane 5 Yahsat 1A with the Intelsat New Dawn on 29th, and over in the world of cosmodromes, a Soyuz TMA-21 manned launch to the ISS out of Baikonur occurs 29th, & a Proton rocket with SES 3 and Kazsat 2 also departs out of Baikonur on March 31st. As this goes to cyber-press, we have no word about the delayed launch of Glory, which is to occur “sometime in March…” Follow us @astroguyz on Twitter for all the space flight updates, astro-events, and other rambling astro-musings!

Astro Bloopers: Much terrible cyber-ink astronomy has come from the whole 13th zodiacal sign non-troversy that began earlier this year. Some of the true baddies have been the idea that astronomers somehow recently discovered Ophiuchus in 2009! Then there is the long diatribe of a certain astrologer who tried to extricate herself realm from reality with a long discussion on the tropical versus the sidereal year; it’s almost as painful for an astronomer to watch as an old Space: 1999 rerun.  

This Month in Astro-History: On March 24th, 1930 Pluto was officially named after a suggestion from Mrs. Venetia Burney Phair when she was aged 11. Mrs. Phair only recently passed away in 2009, and an outstanding documentary entitled Naming Pluto was recently made by director Ginita Jimenez about her life. It’s definitely worth searching out!

Astro Quote of the Month: “However long we live, life is short, so I work… and however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them.”

-Caroline Herschel.

Photo image of M45 by Author.

03.04.10- Messenger and the Mysteries of Mercury.

Neutral & Ionized Sodium as seen by the Messenger spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

Neutral & Ionized Sodium as seen by the Messenger spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

 

   The history of the inner most planet is an enduring puzzle to planetary scientists. On September 29th of last year, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft passed within 142 miles of Mercury’s night side in an orbital “tweak” on its way to eventual orbital insertion on March 18th, 2011. During that pass, the spacecraft once again measured the trailing exo-sphere, a thin trailing wind made of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. This “mercurial wind” is replenished either by solar radiation pressure, micro-meteoroid impact, or a combination of the two. The mystery is the ratios of calcium and magnesium observed that is significantly different than predicted. Mercury is a rocky iron world that is over half core and believed to have only a thin mantle and crust. Either Mercury formed that way early in its history, a young Sun boiled away a majority of silicates, or Mercury suffered a major crust stripping impact. Further evidence for the impact scenario comes from Messenger’s neutron spectrometer, which registered a conspicuous lack of low-energy neutrons emanating from the surface of the planet itself. This is highly suggestive of an iron and titanium rich surface similar to what’s found in basaltic rock on the lunar near side. Whatever the case, plenty of surprises await us as Messenger takes up permanent residence around Mercury next year!

28.03.10- Messenger Spies High-Energy Solar Neutrons.

A recent flare from a more terrestrial vantage point; the Astroguyz PST! (Photo by Author).

A recent flare from a more terrestrial vantage point; the Astroguyz PST! (Photo by Author).

 

   After a considerable hiatus, solar cycle 24 is now well under way. And this time, NASA has a key observing platform in the inner solar system; the Messenger spacecraft, bound for an insertion to orbit Mercury in March, 2011. In the intervening time, scientists at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona have been busying the spacecraft by monitoring the Sun from close proximity. On New Year’s Eve, 2007, the spacecraft was at about half an Astronomical Unit (A.U.) from the Sun when it had the unprecedented opportunity to study high-energy neutrons ejected from a massive solar flare. Unlike 1 minute bursts recorded in near-Earth orbit, Messenger was able to track and record these neutron bursts for 6 to 10 hours. This was accomplished by use of NASA’s Neutron Spectrometer aboard the spacecraft. From this, scientists have predicted a “decayed feedstock” of resulting protons from the flare in the 30 to 100 million electron volt range. Messenger could also clear up a long standing mystery; why do some coronal mass ejections produce huge numbers of energetic protons, while others emit relatively few? This puzzle is of more than casual interest; radiation from CMEs has damaged orbiting satellites in the past, and is of prime concern for space based astronauts. Once Messenger is in permanent orbit about Mercury, it will also have a prime vantage point to monitor the Sun close up for a year uninterrupted. And just in time for a peak in the solar maximum!

10.10.09: An Active Mercury?

A shinny, happy crater spotted by messenger last week! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington).

A shinny, happy crater spotted by Messenger last week! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington).

An atmosphere. Magnetosphere. Signs of recent geological activity…is it Mars? Europa? Some far off exo-planet? Nope…its none other than Mercury, a visual twin of our own Moon and long thought of as just as inactive. The past three flybys of NASA’s Messenger spacecraft have revealed a world of dynamic activity. First, there is Mercury’s on-again, off-again magnetic field, a sign that it may possess an active core. Now that 95%+ of the surface has been visualized, a picture is emerging of a crater pocked surface that has also been shaped by recent volcanism. Finally, Messenger has picked up tenuous traces of magnesium out-gassing from the planet as a result of the intense solar radiation bombarding the sun-ward side, contributing to a tenuous trailing exosphere. The 3rd pass last week was the closest yet, and revealed more stunning photos of what is now the tiniest “planet…” Messenger will enter a permanent orbit in 2011. Google Mercury, anyone?

30.9.9:Messenger; A 1st Look at the 3rd Pass.

Uncharted terrain! (Credit: NASA/JPL/Messenger).

Uncharted terrain! (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington).

NASA’s Messenger spacecraft skimmed the barren surface of the solar systems’ inner most world Tuesday evening, revealing more of its unmapped surface. Messenger zipped 141 miles above the surface of Mercury and was occulted briefly before resuming telemetry broadcasting back to Earth. The image above was taken with the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) looking over the northern horizon at a distance of 10,100 miles and is just one of the first in what is sure to be a flood of pics released today. Tomorrow, October 1st, principal investigators will release findings of the 3rd flyby at a briefing at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory at 5PM. And don’t forget those wide field searches for any lurking “Mercurial Moons” over the next few days as Messenger recedes…now that would be news!

28.9.9: Messenger’s 3rd Flyby of the Planet Mercury.

Mercury: An elusive world! (Credit: NASA/JPL/Messenger).
Mercury: An elusive world! (Credit: NASA/JPL/Messenger).

The drama in the inner solar system continues… late tomorrow on September 29th, NASA’s Messenger space probe will do its third and final swing by of the planet Mercury. At closest approach, Messenger will be less than 142 miles above the surface and provide more stunning images of the inner world. Wide field UV spectroscopy scans should begin later today, and this gravity assist will be the final pass for eventual orbital insertion around Mercury in 2011. About 90% of Mercury has been mapped, although Messenger is only the second spacecraft to examine Mercury up close after Mariner 10 in 1974…did you know that Mariner 10 created a brief buzz of excitement when it appeared to have discovered a “moon” of Mercury? The anomalous UV radiation was later accounted for by the star 31 Crateris, but it serves as a reminder that we don’t know everything about this tiny world. I also mention this because in the days after its pass, Messenger will conduct a wide angle satellite search as it calibrates its cameras… such a discovery would be just plain cool! Messenger has been busying itself by conducting a survey for any hypothetical “Vulcanoids” interior to Mercury’s orbit, and will conduct measurements with its Laser Altimeter tomorrow during its closest pass. Mercury is currently low in the dawn sky, rising about an hour before the Sun. A very cool time-line is provided for those who want to follow the action!

November 2008: News & Notes.

STS125

Atlantis and Endevour at the Cape. (Credit: NASA).

STS-125 Update: The final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope is still officially on hold status, although an unofficial date of February 12th, 2009 is under current review. On October 25th, NASA engineers announced the reactivation of the main camera out of safe mode, which is certainly encouraging. The shuttle Endeavour, STS-126 headed for the International Space Station, now moves into the forward launch slot. Endeavour, formerly a backup to Atlantis, is slated to launch on November 14th.    [Read more...]

July 08 News & Notes.

Eris. 

Eris, Xena, or Plutoid? Note tiny Dysnomia to the right. (Credit, APOD & NASA).

Attack of the Plutoids? On June 11th, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) handed down yet another definition  for trans-Neptunian objects; a new class of planetary bodies, now classified as Plutoids, have sprung into existence. [Read more...]

A Voyage to the Inner-Most Planet

Mercury.

Mercury Revealed. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

The Solar System has just become a little more known. This year our view of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, has changed as the Messenger spacecraft completes its first flyby of the little known world. Late in the afternoon last week, I braved the January cold to peer west. There, in the dusk twilight, was a single shining point below the crescent Moon. [Read more...]