April 2, 2020

11.06.11: ARGOSY: The Solar System Now?

Nautilus-X, one of the ideas for manned solar system exploration! (Credit: NASA).

Some fascinating papers have come our way via the Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest that I thought I’d share with you, the space-mongering public. As the shuttle program comes to an end, there’s this sort of unspoken dread out there that NASA & America are turning away from manned spaceflight. [Read more...]

26.05.11: Farewell, Spirit…

Spirit: A self-portrait. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

This week, amid news of distant gamma ray bursts, daring spacewalks, and spacecraft redesigns, a small story came our way of the end of an era; earlier this week, NASA announced that it would no longer attempt to hail the Spirit Lander on the surface of Mars. [Read more...]

11.05.11: Voyager: The Humanoids Were Here

Decoding the disk; are you smarter than a humanoid? (Credit: NASA/JPL).

If we were to vanish from the cosmic scene tomorrow, what would be our most lasting impact? Would it be our monuments, our terrestrial relics, or our broadcasts of I Love Lucy and the Jerry Springer Show? Thankfully, researchers in the 1970’s designed a “message in a bottle” to be tossed out across the cosmic sea attached to the twin Voyager spacecraft. Launched in 1977, both spacecraft reconnoitered the outer planets before being flung on trajectories that will leave our solar system. [Read more...]

23.04.11: A Plutonian Atmosphere.

As the New Horizons spacecraft approaches the distant world, Pluto is beginning to seem more planet-like by the day. Recently a team including astrobiologist Jane Graves used time on telescopes perched atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea complex to reveal an intriguing constituent of the Plutonian atmosphere; carbon monoxide.

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30.03.11: Welcome to Mercury!

A new resident has taken up orbit around the solar system’s inner most-world. Fresh from orbital insertion earlier this month, NASA’s Messenger spacecraft opened its eyes and began relaying images that have been a web sensation over the past 24 hours. Messenger is currently 6 light minutes from Earth; its looping orbit takes it from a periapsis of about 200 km to apsis at 1,500 km.

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13.03.11: STRESS: A New Way to Hunt Exoplanets.

A new and innovative tool in the hunt for extra-solar worlds just came to our attention recently. Traditionally, to find these elusive beasts, astronomers utilized ground-based instruments to detect transits, Doppler shifts, and even the occasional odd gravitational lensing event.

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10.02.11: A Valentine’s Day Rendezvous.

There. Out there. That faint moving smudge in the image above is about to become the target of a cometary flyby of historic proportions next week.

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17.01.11: Tracking Vestoids.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers & NASA wants YOU to assist them with the up and coming Dawn mission. Specifically, scientists are looking to characterize “Vestoids,” or Vesta-like asteroids in preparation for Dawn’s exploration of the real thing in July of this year. To this end, the AAVSO has selected three targets for amateurs to observe; 1981 Midas (1973 EA), 4688 (1980 WF) and 137052 (1998 VO33). These Near Earth Objects (NEOs) are all thought to be very similar to the asteroid Vesta, and brightness estimates may constrain sizes and compositions.

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04.01.11:A Martian Eclipse.

I never get tired of catching a glimpse of the sky from other vantage points in the solar system… today, as residents of the Old World enjoy a partial solar eclipse on Earth, we thought we would direct your gaze to an eclipse from Mars.

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11.12.10: The “Quasi-Moon” of Venus.

Up until about the mid-19th century, astronomers reported spurious sightings of a moon near our sister world, Venus. These sightings were copious enough to even warrant a name, Neith. Today, most of these observations have gone the way of the Vulcan’s and second Moon of Earth sightings as curiosities, chalked up to background stars or internal reflections in antique optics. Venus has no moon… but an interesting asteroid may vie for the next closest thing.

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Review: Journey Beyond Selene by Jeffery Kluger.

A classic of the early space age!

        A classic of the early space age!

     Before men landed on the Moon, we had to first crash land there successfully. This week, we dip back into the Astroguyz library to review the classic Journey Beyond Selene: Remarkable Expeditions Past Our Moon and to the Ends of the Solar System by Jeffery Kluger. We dug this gem up from our favorite Tucson haunt Bookman’s years ago. Selene tells the fascinating tale of the evolution of the unmanned space program. [Read more...]

05.06.10: An Exoplanet Family Portrait.

Astronomers have recently accomplished another amazing first; the first images of an exoplanetary system taken with modest sized optics. But to perform this feat, several ground-breaking techniques had to first be pioneered. The target was HR 8799, a known exoplanetary system 120 light-years distant in the constellation Pegasus. The instrument was the Hale telescope just north of San Diego, and the team was out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in San Diego. Using a combination of coronagraph and masking the scope down to a diameter of 1.5 meters in diameter, the team was able to capture the above resulting image. The revolutionary “funnel coronagraph” was necessary to block the swamping light of the parent star; the masking was used to maximize the use of adaptive optics. The image was also taken in the infrared, an area of the spectrum in which the young hot planets generate the most energy. “The trick is to suppress the starlight without suppressing the planet light,” Stated JPL Astrophysicist Gene Serabyn. To give you a sense of scale, the three exoplanets pictured lay about 24 to 68 A.U. from their host sun; our own Jupiter orbits at a distance of about 5 A.U. Not only will the technique be capable of being scaled up for the observatory big guns, but it could also prove effective for space-based platforms, where a tension always exists between what astronomers would like to launch and payload limitations. Expect to see more exoplanet images via this method in the near future!

14.03.10-Record Lightning Storm Spotted by Cassini.

Saturn is turning out to be a very electrified place. Last year, NASA’s Cassini orbiter spied a massive storm that broke the solar system record; beginning in January 2009, this storm raged on for 7 ˝ months, the longest recorded. This marks the ninth storm on Saturn thus recorded; these behemoths tend to be around 1,900 miles in size. It’s been known since the initial Voyager flybys of the ringed world in the 1970’s that an ionization differential of x100 exists in favor of the daytime side of Saturn over its night side, but routine observations by Cassini are revealing what a turbulent world Saturn really is. Cassini utilizes its antennae aboard its Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument to analyze the powerful radio emissions.   Tantalizingly, the storms almost always originate in a region known as “Storm Alley” at latitude 35° south. The reason for this isn’t entirely clear. Scientists also took advantage of a passage of Cassini behind Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to confirm the source of these radio emissions. Surely enough, when Titan occulted the body of Saturn, the emissions disappeared, only to return when Saturn came back into view. This was yet another proof that Saturn is still an active and mysterious place.

28.01.10: A Key Organic Compound Found in Space.

Stardusters rejoice; one of the largest citizen scientist projects has borne fruit. In 2004, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft passed through the outer envelope of comet Wild 2, allowing its sticky aerogel detectors to capture samples of gas and dust. Ever since the detectors parachuted safely to Earth on January 15, 2006, scientists, bloggers, and school kids have been pouring over the aerogel microscope scans looking for tell-tale dust tracks in a project known as Stardust@home, a vast citizen science project that might well be dubbed as the greatest science project done before bedtime.  Scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center announced late in 2009 that the molecule glycine has been detected in the aerogel detector. A key amino acid used in the construction of proteins, glycine is represented by the formula NH2CH2COOH. Scientists actually detected the molecules trapped in the foils at the rim of the detectors. Terrestrial glycine was ruled out due to the isotopic structure of the carbon atoms seen; Earth bound carbon tends to be of the Carbon 12 variety, while the glycine in the sample is the heavier Carbon 13, just what would be expected if the compound had come from the nucleus of a comet. It should be pointed out that the discovery of organic compounds is not the same as the discovery of life, but rather the key building blocks of such. This does, however, provide evidence that the raw materials to get life going may indeed be prevalent in the cosmos.

Hailing Phoenix.

This week, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will begin listening for a very special phone call; that of the Phoenix Lander on the northern polar region of Mars. Spring is in the air on the northern hemisphere of Mars, and bets are on as to whether the Lander survived the bleak Martian winter. Already, the outlook isn’t stellar; Phoenix has more than likely been encased in CO2 ice for several months; and don’t forget, the Martian year and seasons are roughly twice as long as here on Earth! Add to the fact the Mars is close to aphelion in its relatively eccentric orbit, and the odds don’t look good.  To phone home, Phoenix will need to recharge its spent batteries to a point where its automated broadcasting can kick in; the solar angle is currently about the same as when scientists lost contact last year. If it does start transmitting, Mars Odyssey currently in orbit will be listening. Odyssey passes over the landing site about 10 times a day, and will listen in over the next few months.  The sixth successful landing on the Red Planet and only the third successful soft landing, Phoenix returned some first rate science, and gave us concrete evidence of water ice lurking just below the Martian soil. Now approaching opposition, Mars is rising low in the east just after dusk; more on that next week! For now, Let’s hope that Phoenix lives up to its namesake and rises from the dead!

05.11.09:A Low Pass of Enceladus.

Cassini has completed another close reconnaissance pass of one of Saturn’s most intriguing moons; Enceladus. On November 2nd at 7:40 AM UTC, Cassini passed 62 miles above the icy surface of the south polar region, completing a carefully timed plunge through one of its liquid plumes. This was one of its most comprehensive passes of the moon out of the seven completed so far, enabling the spacecraft to utilize its array of infrared and ultraviolet detectors to analyze speed and particle size. Cassini itself is whizzing along at 5 miles per second. Sodium, water, and carbon dioxide have been detected in the out-gassing, tantalizing evidence that more complex organic chemistry may exist below the surface. Enceladus is heated from tidal flexing caused by Saturn’s gravity squeezing it like a rubber ball. Along with Jupiter’s moon, Europa, Enceladus has been proposed as deserving of future scrutiny as a possible abode of life. Enceladus is a tiny world, about 310 miles in diameter, or about 15% the diameter of our Moon. Two subsurface oceans in one solar system also poses the intriguing question; are environments like Enceladus and Europa more common throughout the universe than Earth? Cassini has phoned home after the recent pass and is reported in good health. Scientists are currently poring over the results; watch for another pass of Enceladus on April 28th of next year. What ever the outcome, Enceladus is proving to be a dynamic place, worthy of future study!

03.11.09:A Mars Rock in 3-D!

Break out those cheesy 3-D glasses… a few weeks back we reported on a new meteorite discovered on the surface of Mars. Opportunity spotted the out-of-place stone on July 18th of this year, and NASA engineers rerouted the rover for a closer look. Named Block Island, it isn’t the first extraterrestrial rock discovered on Mars, but weighing in at an estimated 650 pounds, its the largest found to date. Beyond looking cool, 3-D anaglyphs actually serve the purpose of allowing engineers to interpret what the rover sees. Another interesting fact gleaned from this new Mars space rock is that it suggests that the earlier Martian atmosphere had to have been thicker to cushion the incoming meteor and form the ablation pits we see today. Enjoy!

Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg & Kit Moser.

(Editor’s Note; This post is part of our ongoing tribute to Carl Sagan, the man and scientist.)

Think you know Carl Sagan? The recently published Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg & Kit Moser out earlier this year courtesy of Prometheus Books will show you otherwise. Don’t forget, long before there was Carl Sagan the media icon/spokesperson for humanity via PBS’s Cosmos series, there was Carl the PhD student, family man, and planetary scientist. Perhaps no modern scientific visage (with the exception of Hawking) is immediately as recognizable as Sagan’s, turtle neck, elbow-patched jacket and all. This biography traces his roots from his Brooklyn childhood in the 30′s up through his college and PhD years to his work as a scientist at JPL, to fame via Johnny Carson and publication. The book ends with Sagan’s untimely death, which came way too soon.

Many fascinating aspects of Sagan’s life are brought to light. Sagan found himself in the right place at the right time on many occasions. Attending the 1939 World’s Fair first sparked his interest in science. Like many of us, his childhood subsisted of a steady diet of Sci-Fi, only it was Pulp magazines and Edgar Rice Burroughs back then instead of Star Trek and Battlestar. Later in college he rubbed elbows with such 20th century greats as Urey & Miller, who performed the first seminal experiments on the origin of early life, and Gerard Kuiper, the great planetary scientist. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the observatory dome wall during Sagan’s and Kuiper pre-dawn discussions at the McDonald Observatory!

But Carl’s personal life was as complex as the ponderings of the man himself. Married three times, he frequently fell prey to the same marital dilemmas that plagued Einstein and Gandhi; its just plain hard to be a “great” public persona while being a great father and husband! He was also vexed with achalasia, an esophageal condition that made swallowing difficult. Some of the behind the scenes portraits of Sagan’s work on the Cosmos series paint him as difficult to work with and uncompromising; but perhaps its this quality that has made the series itself so timeless and enduring.

For the record, Sagan got his PhD in 1960 in Astronomy from the University of Chicago for his thesis entitled: “Physical Studies of Planets”. It was a heady time for science, as the Russians had recently thrown down the technological gauntlet in the form of Sputnik. Science may not have been at the forefront of politicians’ minds as they eagerly funded the race to space, but men like Sagan assured that some science did indeed get done. Ironically, it was during the first flyby of another world, Mariner 2 past Venus, that his first marriage dissolved. Sagan was also crucial in bridging the gulf between Soviet and American scientists, no mean feat in beleaguered Cold War climes. He was also key to perhaps one of the greatest planetary exploration legacies of the 20th century; the Grand Tour of the outer planets, first with Pioneer, and then the Voyager space probes past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, utilizing the post-Apollo technologies to their best advantage. When Vikings I and II touched down on Mars, Sagan was there in JPL eagerly awaiting the images of his childhood world of Barsoom.

But it was for is later era of his life as a elder scientist & skeptic that he was best known. It seems as if a true sign of “making it” as a science writer is when the “cranks” start filling your inbox. It’s truly astounding the number of concocted-in-the-basement, alternative theories of cosmology and what not that have filled loose leaf notebooks over the years. After his first book, The Cosmic Connection, Sagan was introduced to this alternate world. Rather than dismissing it, Sagan carefully brought these folks in and introduced them to real science. His era as a celebrity properly began with his appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, who was himself an avid amateur astronomer. How many scientists make late night TV today?

It was via Cosmos that Sagan entered most of our households, explaining science and the state of man. I was enthralled by the show as a teenager; it was like a real life Star Wars! I especially remember how effectively Carl would convey how long and torturous a path our road to knowledge was, and still is. Scientific knowledge is not easy to come by; many obstacles had to be overcome throughout the ages.

Alas, Carl’s time with us proved to be much too short after his success as a science popularizer. Throughout the 1980′s he could be seen warning against nuclear winter, a term he himself brought into popular focus. He wrote several outstanding books, and continued to advocate the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in a new era of meager science funding. He also founded the Planetary Society, still one of the largest grassroots citizen science organizations.

Carl’s diagnosis and passing from pneumonia due to his battle myelodysplasia came as a blow to all. Carl had just turned 62 when he passed away on December 20th, 1996; next month, he would have been 75. He missed the opening of the movie Contact based on his only science fiction novel by mere months. One sees the whirlwind of scientific progress and the dilemmas we face and wonder what insight Carl would have, were he still with us.

Read Carl Sagan: A Biography to get a true feel for the man that shaped much of our thinking in the late 20th century. Few scientists have cast such a long shadow in not only the scientific, but political and cultural arenas. We still miss you Carl!