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Planets

It has been nearly a decade since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) formally defined the word ‘planet’, resulting in the reclassification of Pluto as a ‘dwarf planet’. Some people still remain upset about the decision, considering the new classification as a demotion. If you roll with the kinds of people that I do, battle-lines have been drawn around the issue and many a friendship have been lost in the process. I don’t want to rekindle those debates (this is likely inevitable, however, as Pluto will be in the news quite a bit in the coming months as New Horizons is finally about to have its encounter with the dwa… whatever-you-want-to-call-it), so let’s take a look at a dwarf planet that appears to have finally found comfort in its classification: Ceres.

If you thought Pluto’s designation was complicated and controversial, just wait until you hear this story.

Ceres has had a bit of an identity crisis of its own. Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres on New Years Day, 1801. He at first thought it was a star, but observed its movements against the stellar backdrop over the course of a few days and determined it to be a planet. He took a conservative approach in his announcement however, by referring to it as a comet.

I have announced this star as a comet, but since it shows no nebulosity, and moreover, since it had a slow and rather uniform motion, I surmise that it could be something better than a comet. However, I would not by any means advance publicly this conjecture. – Giuseppe Piazzi in a letter to fellow Italian astronomer Barnaba Oriani

With the help of other astronomers and using a method for calculating orbits developed by Carl Friedrich Gauss, it was confirmed that the object was not a comet, but in fact some sort of small planet. German astronomer Johann Bode had been promoting his hypothesis that planets orbited their host stars at distances that could predicted by mathematics. This hypothesis predicted a planet should exist between Mars and Jupiter. When Bode heard news of Piazzi’s discovery of an object at precisely that location, he rushed to announce that the missing planet had been located and even went as far as to name it himself. The name he gave: Juno. Piazzi, however, had taken the liberty as the new planet’s discoverer to give it the name ‘Ceres Ferdinandea’, honoring the patron goddess of Sicily and King Ferdinand of Bourbon. Piazzi rightfully objected to Bode’s stake on naming rights:

“If the Germans think they have the right to name somebody else’s discoveries they can call my new star the way they like: as for me I will always keep it the name of Cerere and I will be very obliged if you and your colleagues will do the same.” Piazzi in a letter to prominent astronomer and editor of scientific journals, Franz Xaver von Zach.

Piazzi’s name ultimately won out, though it was shortened to its currently-accepted name: Ceres.

After more objects were discovered orbiting in the same area, Sir William Herschel, in 1802, labeled these new objects, including Ceres, as asteroids (though the term asteroid, which means “star-like”, wasn’t commonly accepted until the early 1900s).

So thus, Ceres became the first, and largest, of the asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter in a loose collection that we collectively refer to as the asteroid belt. But Ceres’s identity crisis wasn’t over just yet. Ceres was king of the asteroids until 2006, when that controversial IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet.

From star, to comet, to planet, to asteroid, and finally to dwarf planet, Ceres looks to Pluto and remarks, “Psh… and you think you had it bad.”

Now that this introduction is out of the way, stay tuned for more information about Ceres. I’ll tell you about this fascinating world and get you up to speed on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft that will be arriving at Ceres in March of this year.

(Much of the information in this post came from Giuseppe Piazzi and the Discovery of Ceres, G. Foderà Serio, A. Manara, and P. Sicoli, published in Asteroids III by the University of Arizona Press)


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Beagle 2 Found

January 20, 2015 by

On June 2nd, 2003, a Soyuz rocket with a Fregat upper stage blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. The rocket carried the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission instruments on an exciting journey to Mars. After spending less than a couple hours in a 200km (124 mile) parking orbit around Earth, the Fregat fired again, propelling the spacecraft towards a Mars transfer orbit. After three minutes, Mars Express separated from the Fregat and began its sixth month trek to the red planet.

Mars Express consisted of two main components: the Mars Express orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. The two components were to separate, with the former continuing to orbit, map and study the planet and the latter to drop into the thin Martian atmosphere, land, and conduct research from the surface. On Christmas morning in 2003, Beagle 2 dropped onto Mars’s surface and was never heard from again. Many attempts were made to communicate with the lander, but no response was forthcoming. By February 2004, with no communications received from the Beagle, it was officially declared lost. The Mars Express orbiter, however, was a success and has been capturing important data and wonderful images of Mars for over a decade now.

Fast forward twelve years to the end of 2014. Michael Croon, a former member of the Mars Express team, and other colleagues continue to sift through images produced by the HiRISE camera that’s aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Croon had requested images of the planned landing area through HiWish, a public suggestion page for HiRISE targets. Against any likely odds, Croon spotted something on the edge of the frame in one of the images he acquired. The contrast was low in the initial image and he wasn’t convinced his candidate was anything special. He requested additional imagery from the same location. In the new images, his candidate was a bright spot that appeared to move slightly between images. This was suggestive of being consistent with sunlight reflecting off of various parts of the Beagle 2. Some careful image clean-up work conducted by the HiRISE team provided even clearer views of the object in question, all but confirming that the Beagle 2 was finally found.

Subsequent discussion and analysis of the images suggests that the Beagle 2 only partially deployed its petal-like solar panels. The communications antenna would only have been revealed after a full deployment, thus the suspected reason why Beagle 2 never sent a message confirming it’s landing.

While it’s still a mystery as to the cause of the lander failing to deploy completely after landing, it is much relief to the team members that have spent the past 12 years wondering what had ever become of their precious lander.


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New Horizons Awakens

December 6, 2014 by

If everything has gone according to its meticulous plan, by the time you are reading this NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will have awoken from its electronic hibernation for the last time and begun its careful preparations to encounter Pluto in July of 2015.

Maybe I should back up for those that aren’t familiar with New Horizons, or just want a little recap:

New Horizons is the name of a NASA spacecraft and mission to complete a fly-by mission of Pluto and its moons, and then on to view other Kuiper-Belt objects. New Horizons will give us shiny new photos of our favorite dwarf planet and a wealth of other scientific data. It’s about time, too. I mean, just look at the current best image we have of what we–at least  used to–consider 1/9th of our solar system’s planetary awesomeness:

Yuck! And NASA was impressed enough to brag about these “most detailed and dramatic images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet“. I’m looking forward to which adjectives they’ll use when we get real images courtesy of New Horizons. But I digress.

On January 19, 2006, New Horizons lifted-off from its Cape Canaveral launchpad and screamed into the heavens. In fact, nothing before or since has left the Earth with such a sense of urgency. New Horizons holds the record for the fastest launch of any spacecraft. It left the Earth with a velocity of 36,373 miles per hour (58,356 kilometers/hour), fast enough to propel it not just out of the Earth’s orbit, but completely out of the solar system (referred to as a solar escape velocity).

Subsequently, New Horizons continued to voyage towards its 2015 encounter with Pluto. Along the way, it came within 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) of Jupiter, on February 28, 2007, and actually used its proximity to gain a gravity assist boost from the massive gas giant. This gave New Horizons a speed boost of about 9,000 miles per hour (14,000 kilometers/hour). Taking advantage of that graviational slingshot, the voyage to Pluto was shortened by three full years. Score! Free energy!

New Horizons zoomed along, passing Saturn’s orbit in June of 2008, Uranus’s in March of 2011, and then Neptune’s in August of this year.

Next up: Pluto.

Throughout its journey, New Horizons has gone through hibernation/wake cycles more than a dozen times, in fact, spending about 2/3 of its time in an electronic slumber. During hibernation, most of the craft’s systems are powered down or entered into an extremely low-functioning state. This “reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions”.  Today, however, New Horizons is waking for good.

Beginning in February, the main observation objectives begin. Around the beginning of May, New Horizons will be capturing images of Pluto exceeding the resolution that Hubble was able to produce. For the next two months, Pluto will become more accessible to all of the spacecraft’s instruments. The closest approach is projected for July 14, where New Horizons will be within 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) of Pluto. New Horizons’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is expected to capture images on the scale of 50 meters per pixel and accomplish a handful of other primary and secondary scientific objectives.

But wait, there’s more!

In addition to Pluto, New Horizons will be observing and recording images and data from Pluto’s known moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, Styx, and Kerberos.

And that’s still not all. Remember how I mentioned that New Horizons is on a solar system escape trajectory? That means the craft is going to continue hurtling away from the Earth and Sun, away from Pluto, and out beyond the ends of our solar system and into intergalactic space. Included in the craft and mission design, is fly-by opportunities for one ore more Kuipier-Belt Objects (KBOs), the residents of the Kuiper Belt. If you’re not familiar with the Kuiper Belt, think asteroid belt except much larger but instead of rocky asteroids, these bodies consist more of frozen gases such as methane, ammonia, and water. (Some of the moons of our solar system are believed to be former residents of the Kuiper Belt, but that’s another story for another time.) The ability to complete this mission will depend on targetable candidates and remaining fuel supplies.

After all of this, New Horizons slips into the furthest reaches of the Sun’s influence, the fascinating realm known as the outer heliosphere, including the heliosheath and heliopause (again, another story/another time). If the craft is still alive at this point, New Horizons will continue the work of the Voyagers in mapping this interesting environment.

That’s it for today. Stay tuned for updates on this historical mission, and much, much more!


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Awakening

December 1, 2014 by

 

But that’s not all that will reawaken on December 6th.

 


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The latest Curiosity status report indicates that the mysterious shiny object next to the rover “appears to be a shred of plastic material, likely benign, but it has not been definitively identified.”

To proceed cautiously, the team is continuing the investigation for another day before deciding whether to resume processing of the sample in the scoop. Plans include imaging of surroundings with the Mastcam.

A sample of sand and dust scooped up on Sol 61 remains in the scoop. Plans to transfer it from the scoop into other chambers of the sample-processing device were postponed as a precaution during planning for Sol 62 after the small, bright object was detected in an image from the Mast Camera (Mastcam).

I still attest that Curiosity should zap the thing with ChemCam.

(This might explain why I’m a blogger and not a NASA engineer.)


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The Mars Curiosity rover tweeted (of course it tweets!) the following earlier this afternoon:

 

Today, Curiosity’s robotic arm reached down and scooped up its first sample of Martian dirt. Its cameras captured the historic moment, but caught something else too. There, among countless grains of reddish-orange sand, a single shimmering something caught the eyes of the image analysts back home on Earth.

Can you see it?
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

How about now?
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and 46BLYZ)

Even clicking those images and looking at them full-size still doesn’t offer much more in the way of a better look. It’s definitely different than the soil and appears metallic, but that’s about all we can make out. NASA isn’t sure what it is yet either, which I think makes it more exciting. As a result they’ve temporarily halted anymore scooping:

Curiosity’s first scooping activity appeared to go well on Oct. 7. Subsequently, the rover team decided to refrain from using the rover’s robotic arm on Oct. 8 due to the detection of a bright object on the ground that might be a piece from the rover. Instead of arm activities during the 62nd Martian day, or sol, of the mission, Curiosity is acquiring additional imaging of the object to aid the team in identifying the object and assessing possible impact, if any, to sampling activities.

Curiosity even imaged the object with its ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera), but the raw image doesn’t offer much more than the MastCam images:


(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL)

It looks a bit less metallic in this grayscale image, perhaps more like plastic. To me it looks like a discarded shell from someone’s shrimp cocktail. (But that’s just me!)

Hey, did you know that ChemCam also has a built-in laser? It totally does. The purpose of the instrument is to zap rocks with a laser while the camera images the resulting plasma created from the vaporized rock. It can then use the images to analyze the composition and other information about that rock.

It’s my firm belief that Curiosity should zap whatever this unknown object is.  For science!


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2012 Transit of Venus

May 31, 2012 by

Next Tuesday, June 5th (June 5th in North America / June 6 eastern continents), you’ll have the opportunity to observe something that you’re extremely unlikely to ever see again. Over the course of a few hours, Venus will cross in front of the Sun from the vantage point of Earth. Venus will appear as a small black dot against the bright blazing disc of the Sun. Just like the annular eclipse from a couple of weeks ago, it is NOT SAFE to view this event directly. Here are a few ways to view it:

Disposable solar shade glasses – This is the cheapest and simplest method. These are the same glasses you would use to view a solar eclipse. They’re generally made of cardboard and have extremely dark film for lenses. When looking through them, you cannot see anything except for something as bright as the Sun. If you can see the surrounding landscape through them, they are NOT dark enough and you are at great risk of damaging your eyes.

Pinhole projection – If you’ve got clear skies and an overhead Sun, you can project the image of the Sun (and transit) using a simple pinhole projector. This can be as simple as a piece of paper with a hole poked in it, to a more elaborate and larger projector. Feel free to be creative, as long as you do it safely. Here are some sources for pinhole project ideas: Cosmos Magazine / TransitOfVenus.org / Exploratorium

Binocular/Telescope projection – You can also project a magnified view of the transit by using a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Here, you want to point the objective lens (the big lens away from the eyepiece) at the Sun, let the light go through the binoculars/telescope and project that image onto a shaded piece of paper. Experiment with different distances until you get everything in focus. Note, that doing this method for a significant amount of time can damage the optics in your binoculars or telescope.

Webcast – If the clouds have you down or the transit occurs during your night time where you live, you can still watch the event unfold from what will certainly be a number of online webcasts. My friends at Cosmoquest will be hosting a Google+ Hangout with various feeds of the transit, and Slooh will make an event out of it as well.

So now that you know how to look, you need to know when and where.

Being an amateur astronomer in Alaska (especially along the coast) is the true definition of optimism. There are a lot of clouds year-round, never-ending sunlight during the Summer, and frigidly cold winters that make skygazing a test of tolerance and wills. That said, on those few nights where the clouds have retreated, it’s dark, and above zero… those nights are a-maz-ing. Coincidentally, Alaska is a prime viewing location for the 2012 transit of Venus — in fact, the entire event will be viewable from up here. Ironically, I’ll be out of the state during the transit and will only be able to catch it during a North Dakotan sunset (which sounds pretty, anyhow).

For the most accurate information for your location, there are a handful of resources. There are free iPhone and Android apps for your smartphone. Additionally, if you can find your location on a map this webpage is a fantastic guide. An example of how it varies from place to place:

My home in Kenai, Alaska (June 5th):
Venus crosses into the limb of the Sun at 2:06pm local time. Approximately 20 minutes later, Venus is fully within the disc of the Sun. It will slowly make its way across the face of the Sun over the next 6 hours, reaching the opposite limb at around 8:30pm local time. At 8:48, the show is over with the Sun still high in the sky.

Where I’ll be in North Dakota (June 5th):
The transit will begin at 5:04pm local time. By 8:27pm local time, Venus will be at the center-point of its transit. Around an hour later, the Sun will set, taking the transiting Venus with it.

The bottom line is, due to the duration of the event you should be able to get at least a glimpse of it from anywhere in North America, to a varying degree as shown above. And you’ll definitely want to make every opportunity to see it, because it will quite likely be the last time you have the chance — unless, of course, you plan on being alive for another 105 years (and still have the eyesight to see it!). That’s right, this will not occur again until 2117 — so this is your chance.

Good luck and happy observing!


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(Image Credit: NASA/Hubble)


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(International Space Station crewmember, André Kuipers, snapped this photo of the Supermoon sinking behind the Earth’s atmosphere.)

Did you get a chance to see this year’s “Supermoon“? Still confused as to what was so super about it, anyhow? Simply, the supermoon is the colloquial name for what is scientifically referred to as the perigee-syzygy moon. “The … what”, you ask? Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. The Moon orbits our Earth, not in a perfect circle, but in an ellipse. As a consequence of this, there are times the Moon is closer to the Earth and times it is further away. For any object orbiting the Earth, the part of its orbit that takes it furthest from our planet is called apogee. The closest point, perigee.

So now that we have perigee out of the way, “what was that other funny word again?” A syzygy,  (pronounced, Sizz-ih-gee), is a term used to refer to an astronomical event in which 3 celestial bodies form a straight line. In our case with the Moon, the bodies are the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon. You’re probably realizing that the Sun-Earth-Moon system experiences two syzygies each month; we call them the New Moon and the Full Moon.  The lunar month (29.53059 days) is defined as the period of time between two identical syzygies (Full Moon-to-Full Moon / New Moon-to-New Moon).

Putting it all together now: a perigee-syzygy Moon is the Full Moon or New Moon which coincides with its closest approach to Earth. Keep in mind, a New Moon at perigee could also be referred to as a supermoon; however, it’s unlikely to generate much attention because we can’t see the New Moon from Earth. “Well, of course. That makes sense!

So now that we know what a supermoon perigee-syzygy Moon is, let’s talk about what a perigee-syzygy Moon does; or, more importantly, doesn’t do. There is no correlation between perigee and major earthquake activity. There is certainly no correlation between perigee and human behaviour (well, except for the fact that when people start talking about supermoons, more people are likely to take a look at the Moon on that occasion). “But what about bigger tides?” Well, yes! Tides are greatest during Full and New Moons, and there is an increase in the tides when the Moon is closer to the Earth as well. Luckily, tidal forces are weak and even the few percent increase due to the perigee-syzygy isn’t going to create anything that will cause alarm.

But I heard the supermoon is super big and super bright!” While the perigee-syzygy Full Moon is what we can call the biggest and brightest Moon of the year, it’s such a small degree bigger and brighter that its really not noticeable. In fact, last night’s supermoon was only about 1% bigger/brighter than last month’s Full Moon. It did appear 14% larger than the smallest Moon of the year, but again, you’d have to be using some tools other than just your eyes to notice the difference.


(This image shows the difference in apparent size between a Full Moon at perigee and a Full Moon at apogee. Lined up next to each other, the difference looks quite large. In the sky by themselves, you’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference.)

Now, I purposely waited until after the Supermoon had passed to offer this explanation. Why? Because I didn’t want to discourage people from thinking they might see something special if they looked up at the Full Moon last night. It wasn’t easy to stay quiet for a couple of reasons. First of all, all of the ridiculous claims and fear that is generally associated with this event is hard to ignore — and in cases where real fear was involved, I did explain how there was nothing to worry about. The other reason it was difficult to not publish this before the event was that I didn’t want to entirely erase the hype that inevitably surrounds the “Supermoon”. Call it selfish, but I wanted people looking up at the sky last night — even if it was under some slight false pretenses. I want people looking up every night, and if some buzz on the internet can help make that happen, well then… good.

The truth is, the Moon is amazing whenever you can see it. The light of a Full Moon creates amazing shadows on our planet, and is a comforting companion to have overhead at night. Waxing and waning Moons are also beautiful, because they occur at an angle with the Sun in which the shadows and craters are much more pronounced.  And a New Moon (one we cannot see) offers us the darkest skies to observe the other billions of fascinating objects that are just above our heads.  All of which are… well… Super.


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