• Category Archives astronomy
  • Some Thoughts about Apollo 11 and Beyond…


    History Was Made, Will it Be Made Again?

    Buzz Aldrin on the spacewalk during Apollo 11 in 1969.
    Buzz Aldrin on the spacewalk during Apollo 11 in 1969.

    We watched the whole Moon walk sequence last night and it’s amazing what I remembered from the first time and what made a WHOLE lot more sense now. The thing that really surprised me was how much work the guys had to do in their 2+ hours on the surface. Amazed they got it all done!

    Those first men who set foot on the Moon achieved something great, standing on the shoulders of the rest of us who guided them on the way, supported the space effort, and clamored for the images and sounds. They set fire to people’s imaginations, and spurred a great many of us who go on and seek careers in science.  I got hooked on astronomy and space science. Other people I know became doctors and physicists and planetary scientists and science teachers and planetarium directors, based on what they saw that night in 1969 and on subsequent missions to the Moon. We all were inspired to dream big.

    There’s no way we can replicate the exact conditions of political will and courage that it took for 1960s politicians and corporations to get behind space exploration. But, we need to know that it was a golden age of technological development and science education. Those are things we CAN and DO need to kickstart in my country again (the U.S.). It won’t be easy. The political will needs to be there, and the best way to make that political will happen is to make science research, technology and a serious space program a priority.

    What we CAN do is elect people who have more than venal self-interest at heart, who aren’t bought and paid for by oligarchs who only see their profits and can’t see that people with good jobs are an important part of a successful country. We need people who CAN see that space exploration and the technology that flows from it, is at humanity’s best interests. At the very least, it beats the crap out of funding wars and giving tax cuts to people who don’t need them. We don’t get ahead by sitting on our hands and letting some people slide (and get corporate welfare) while others do the work (but don’t get the rewards).



  • Rosetta’s Comet Target is a Rotating Two-body Comet


    What do You Do When Your Target Looks like a Rubber Ducky in Space?

    A sequence of 36 interpolated images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko each separated by approximately 20 minutes. The images were obtained by OSIRIS on July 14th, 2014 from a distance of approximately 12,000 kilometers (Courtesy: SA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

    Imagine designing a mission to land a probe on a comet. You have to make some assumptions about the comet nucleus, such as its shape, rotation rate, velocity, and what kind of ice it’s made of.  That’s what the planners for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission had to do, and this week, they’re getting the first up-close images of the target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. When the first views came from the spacecraft, I’m sure the scientists were probably incredibly excited to find out that this comet is not just your run-of-the-mill dented-in icy nucleus with a few jets. No way.  Instead, they’ve drawn the cosmic equivalent of a winning lottery ticket: a sort of double-lobed shaped nucleus that someone described as a rotating “rubber ducky” in space.

    Check it out for yourself.

    Yes, this is not like any other comet astronomers have seen.  And, it’s spurring a LOT of speculation. I used to study comets in grad school, and several questions came to mind immediately. For starters, how did it get to be this shape? Was this nucleus once two chunks of ice that somehow slammed together in the past and are now orbiting wildly in orbit? That would make it the first “contact binary” comet discovered.  Or, was it one huge chunk of ice that somehow got eroded or broken apart, leaving behind this rotating ducky-shaped object?

    To answer the question the mission scientists will use the Rosetta spacecraft’s instruments and cameras to study the surface characteristics of the comet. The data they gather will tell them the ice and mineral makeup. If the nucleus came from one body, then the whole thing should show the same mineralogical makeup. If it came from two different bodies, then the studies will show slight (or perhaps not-so-slight) differences in the ices and dust grains on the surface.

    When Rosetta gets to the comet (and the scientists decide to deploy it), it will send a small lander called Philae to settle down to the surface to give us some views from the comet, and also give some first-hand information about the surface materials it will be sitting on. Of course, with a two-body comet, now the big question is, WHERE do you land it?  In particular, if this comet turns out to be made of two different chunks of ice and dust, which side do you pick to study?

    Stay tuned because Rosetta is supposed to be at its closest approach to the comet on the morning of August 6th, 2014. It will be an exciting morning for another solar system “first”!



  • Mars and the Silly Politician


    The Silly Season is Upon Us

    Okay, I have been laughing about the Kentucky politician who decided that since Mars and Earth have the same temperature, there’s no proof of global warming. It’s better than crying about the fact that we have a political “leader” who is supposedly educated, living in the 21st century, who doesn’t have a clue about Mars. Or Earth, apparently. And, he thought it would be okay to shoot his mouth off about something he clearly has no knowledge of. If I were living in Kentucky… well, I actually DID live in Kentucky once… I’d wonder what else he doesn’t understand but still shoots his mouth off about.

    He lives in a state that makes money from coal mining, so his reasoning is screwed up to start with. And, of course, he’s a right-wing Republican, so one COULD suspect some serious science ignorance on his part. But, to conflate two planets’ temperatures (and get them wrong!) takes a huge lack of reasoning skills.

    And, this guy wants to known as someone to take seriously on climate issues.

    No, I don’t think so. And, judging by the reaction his hideous attempt at misusing science, a lot of people (including some of his own constituents), don’t think much of his blunder either.

    So, just to clear the record for Brandon Smith, state senator R-KY and serial coal mine owner, (and anybody else who hasn’t quite figured out that science works and we CAN use it to fact-check a politician’s outrageous comments), here are some facts about Mars temperatures.

    Mars’s average temperature is -80 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s -60 Celsius.  In the wintertime, the polar regions on Mars get to nearly -200 F (-125 C).  In the summer it might get all the way up to 7oF in a sunny spot on the equator.  The average temp is NOWHERE Earthlike. Earth, by contrast, has an average temperature of nearly 60F (15 C).  That’s about one degree warmer than it was a hundred years ago, and the evidence is that it’s getting warmer due to the burning of fossil fuels. Which, as you now know, are mined in Kentucky (in addition to other places).

    Look, the senator from the great state of Kentucky can have any opinion he wants about global warming, and he’s free to have that opinion bought and paid for by the mining interests, if he so desires. But, he doesn’t have the right to his own set of facts that don’t even stand up to scientific scrutiny. Imagine if he blew his mouth off about something else he didn’t understand (like, I dunno, sports or banking laws or something).  He’d have bankers and sports fans all over his sorry hide in two seconds.

    Well, here’s one from the science community: we have probes on Mars that are giving us accurate temperatures right now. We can measure temps on Earth darned accurately. The data don’t lie:  temps on Mars are not equal to temps on Earth. So, Senator Smith, go find something else to bolster your argument against global warming. We’ve got your numbers for you, and they aren’t pretty.

    By the way, Rachel Maddow wrote up a pretty good take-down of this guy’s words, too. Worth reading.