Something will happen this month that is very rare. As January 2014 comes to a close we will experience two supermoons in one month – and not two Full supermoons but two New supermoons. But what is a supermoon and when will we ever have two in one month again?
NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be etched on a microchip aboard a spacecraft headed to the asteroid Bennu in 2016. The “Messages to Bennu!” microchip will travel to the asteroid aboard NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. The robotic mission will spend more than two years at the 1,760-foot (500-meter)-wide asteroid. The spacecraft will collect a sample of Bennu’s surface and return it to Earth in a sample return capsule.
NASA is proposing this project as a great opportunity for people to get engaged with the mission. Those wishing to participate in “Messages to Bennu!” should submit their name online no later than 30 September, 2014 at: http://planetary.org/bennu
After a person submits their name, they will be able to download and print a certificate documenting their participation in the OSIRIS-REx mission. So, be part of humankind’s exploration of the solar system –How cool is that?
Participants who “follow” or “like” the mission on Facebook will receive updates on the location of their name in space from launch time until the asteroid samples return to Earth in 2023. Facebook fans also will be kept apprised of mission progress and late-breaking news through regular status updates.
The OSIRIS-REx mission goal is to address basic questions about the composition of the very early solar system, the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth, and to better predict the orbits of asteroids that represent collision threats to the Earth. It will collect a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of surface material. Once the sample return capsule deploys, the spacecraft will be placed into a long-term solar orbit around the sun, along with the microchip and every name on it.
For more information about the OSIRIS-REx mission, visit:
This photo of the Challenger crew was taken on Jan. 9, 1986, just 19 days before the Challenger disaster. Left to right: 1st Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronaut Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Michael J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist.
Image credit: NASA
On January 28, 1986, seven astronauts tragically died when Challenger exploded just after liftoff. It was NASA’s first in-flight disaster and it occurred not only as thousands of spectators watched from Kennedy Space Center but millions of teachers and students were also watching on live T.V. from their classrooms to see Christa McAuliffe, a civilian high school teacher from New Hampshire become NASA’s 1st teacher in space. Christa was scheduled to broadcast two live lessons from space to the nation’s school children just a few days later.
The loss of Challenger was later attributed to a failed seal on one of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. It was determined that cold weather prevented a rubber O-ring from working properly. This allowed hot gas to leak and damage the shuttle’s external fuel tank and the hardware attaching the booster to the shuttle. The right solid rocket booster then separated. The fuel tank broke apart causing the orbiter to be torn apart also. The launch had been postponed two days preceding the disaster due to expected storms preceding the cold front which brought unusually cold temperatures to central Florida.
The following words were left on a handwritten note in the briefcase of Space Shuttle Commander, Dick Scobee. It is from a passage from Vision of the Future by Ben Bova.
We have whole planets to explore. We have new worlds to build. We have a solar system to roam in. And if only a tiny fraction of the human race reaches out toward space, the work they do there will totally change the lives of all the billions of humans who remain on earth, just as the strivings of a handful of colonists in the new world totally changed the lives of everyone in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
That moment 28 years ago today when the seven Challenger astronauts reached out toward space is still ingrained in our memories.
There has been lots of talk in Baton Rouge about ice, snow, and cold. Let’s change focus and talk about something hot: volcanoes! The planetarium is about to debut its latest show “Super Volcanoes” which gives audiences a front row seat to some of Earth’s largest volcanic eruptions. The show features extensive live action footage of geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park, as well as a complex simulation of an eruption of the Solar System’s largest active volcano, Loki.
Loki can be found on Jupiter’s moon Io. Named for the Norse God of Mischief (or comic book villain if you prefer), this volcano is considered to be the hottest and most powerful in the Solar System. Loki is officially called Loki Patera which means “Loki Basin”. Loki is not a tall volcano, it has no cone. It is the opposite, a large depression in Io’s surface that is filled with lava. Loki alone puts out more heat than all of Earth’s volcanoes combined!
Volcanism was discovered on Io by Voyager back in the 1970s. Up until this point people thought Earth was the only place with such active geology. Initially it was surprising to discover this much activity on such a tiny world. Scientists thought that since larger bodies (such as the other rocky planets, and larger moons) appeared to have thoroughly cooled and stopped exhibiting signs of active volcanism, tiny bodies such as Io wouldn’t exhibit it either. Voyager snapped photos of Io’s surface, showing large volcanic scars as well as plumes of ash reaching into the skies. Io had even more volcanic activity than Earth!
So why is this? As we rub our hands together to stay warm in this winter weather we’re having here in Baton Rouge, consider the moon Io. Io orbits closest to Jupiter out of the four largest moons. The combination of tidal forces from Jupiter, tidal forces from the other large moons, as well as the shape of Io’s orbit all play a role. The constant tugging on Io is thought to cause friction and internal heat inside the moon. Kind of like when you rub your hands together but a lot more so!
Io has mountains and plains, as well as different types of volcanoes. Loki is thought to be a large lake of lava. Images taken from spacecraft show a large dark depression (almost 130 miles across!) with steep edges. Thermal studies have shown that the surface is extremely hot, likely due to a large pool of lava covered by a thin crust. The crusts of these lava lakes can become disrupted, triggering a wave across the lake. The denser crust sinks below the molten rock beneath causing the lake to resurface itself. Scientists are still unsure about how Loki-type volcanoes form on Io. They could form from a collapsed volcano (this occurs on Earth and they are known as Caldarae), or they could be created from an impact of a large meteor into the surface.
Images of spacecraft have also shown plumes of volcanic material being ejected from Loki that have reached nearly 150 Km above the surface (that’s higher than the International Space Station orbits above Earth!). In “Super Volcanoes” audiences will travel to Loki and witness what this eruption might look like from the surface!
If you haven’t already, check out the trailer for “Super Volcanoes”, opening February 1 at the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium.
The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory has recently discovered that the dwarf planet Ceres has direct evidence of water. Ceres, the largest object in the Asteroid Belt, was detected spouting out plumes of water vapor from two different regions. It’s suggested that this water is possibly coming from volcano-like ice geysers.
With the crazy winter weather warnings today in south Louisiana and even school cancellations for tomorrow, I thought it was an interesting time to find out that the dwarf planet Ceres has an icy surface also. With the help of the Herschel space observatory, scientists have detected an icy surface on the only dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt. It was previously suspected that ice existed on Ceres but it had not been conclusively detected until now. Plumes of water vapor are thought to shoot up from Ceres when portions of its icy surface warm slightly. This happens in the portion of the dwarf planet’s orbit that takes it closest to the sun. This is a surprise because, while comets are known to have water jets and plumes, objects in the asteroid belt are not. They also believe that if the ice in the interior of Ceres melted, there would be more fresh water than exists on all of Earth!
Ceres is smaller than a planet but, considering it’s the largest object in the asteroid belt, is obviously larger than an asteroid. When first discovered, Ceres was thought to be a comet, then a planet and of course at some point an asteroid. In 2006, The International Astronomical Union reclassified Ceres as a dwarf planet.
There is no such place as a Mary Lee or Dunkin Donuts over on Mars. At least, not yet. But several days ago the Mars Rover Opportunity caught a mysterious object in its lenses that looked awfully like a jelly doughnut. The strange thing is that it just happened to plop down in front of the camera. If you look at the picture above you’ll see that it’s obviously a before-and-after shot. The picture on the left was taken on December 26 of 2013 and the image on the right was taken 13 days later. The object wasn’t there before. So how did it get there?
Artist’s impression of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After an extensive mapping phase by the orbiter in August–September 2014, a landing site will be selected for Philae to conduct in situ measurements in November 2014. The image is not to scale; the Rosetta spacecraft measures 32 m across including the solar arrays, while the comet nucleus is thought to be about 4 km wide. (Photo: ESA)
Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) sounded Rosetta’s internal alarm clock to reboot the mission after two-and-a-half years of deep space slumber. Once its systems warm up, Rosetta is due to beam a signal back to Earth before it begins to home in on a frozen rock known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is due to shoot harpoons into the 2.5-mile dirtball before its Philae lander docks on the surface – a move that has never been attempted before.
ESA project scientist Matt Taylor likened the mission to that of the action film Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis lands on an asteroid to save the world from destruction. “We’re not just landing on the Moon, we’re dealing with something dynamic, which is kicking off tons of dust and gas every minute,” he told the Sunday Telegraph. Because Rosetta, which has been sleeping to save power, is so far from Earth, it will take 45 minutes for its signal to reach scientists at mission control. They expect to see a blip on computer monitors between 1730 and 1830 GMT, indicating the spacecraft is up and running again.
Dr. Dan Andrews, a planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, said: “We’re waiting to hear Rosetta is alive and healthy. “This wake-up call kicks off a chain of events, during which the spacecraft heats itself up, points itself towards the Sun and gets itself ready. “Remember, this mission is 10 years old – it’s a bit of a stroppy teenager and it’s going to take a while to wake up.” If all goes to plan, Rosetta will arrive at Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August before descending to the comet several months later.
Trying to decide where to book your next vacation? How about outer space? Virgin Galactic is still in the test phases, but it is getting closer to realizing its goal of sending tourists into space.
Last Friday Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip 2 took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California and made its third successful test flight. SpaceShip 2 is carried to 46,000 feet aboard a carrier aircraft that takes off on a runway similar to an airplane. When it reaches a specific altitude it drops SpaceShip 2 into a short free fall. The rocket motor then takes over and propels SpaceShip 2 upward. Pilots David Mackay and Mark Stucky flew the unique spacecraft 71,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.
Watch the video footage below to see the flight:
Unlike SpaceX, which has been focusing more on commercial transport of supplies, satellites, and eventually people, Virgin Galactic has its sights on the future Space Tourism industry. Richard Branson hopes to launch the first space tourists into space later this year. Tickets are $250,000 a piece, and people are already signed up!
Great job everyone on braving our record cold temperatures this week! In some places it got as cold as -16 degrees Fahrenheit! As we work to stay warm, and in some places dig ourselves out of our driveways, lets be thankful that none of us have to endure a winter on Pluto. Current Plutonian temperatures (it’s not even Winter there right now, Summer is just ending) average around -350 degrees Fahrenheit!
Pluto is an extremely difficult object to study, it is tiny and its far away. It is roughly 7.5 billion miles from Earth, and takes 248.1 Earth years to orbit the Sun. Pluto was officially discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. Interestingly enough Tombaugh was only 23 years old at the time, an intern of sorts. He was tasked with comparing images of the night sky taken at two week intervals using a device called a blink comparator. It would flip the images quickly back and forth, stars (which don’t change position relative to each other in that short of a time) would appear stationary. However a moving object like an asteroid or planet would appear to move past the stars as the images were flipped. Tombaugh discovered Pluto using this method. Since Pluto’s year is 248 Earth years, and it was discovered in 1930, astronomers have yet to observe Pluto through its entire orbital cycle (which won’t happen until the year 2178).
We still know very little about Pluto today, our best images are fuzzy, but they can tell us how Pluto changes appearance over time. We know what Pluto’s atmosphere is made out of, which by default can tell us what types of chemicals can most likely be found on the surface. Every chemical has its own unique spectrum (pattern of visible light emitted by the electrons in the atoms as they gain then release energy). By studying the spectra of Pluto, astronomers can pin point the chemicals found there.
Most recent studies of Pluto have monitored the thickness of its atmosphere. How do they do this, you ask? They monitor the light from a star that Pluto passes in front of. This is called a stellar occultation. Studying a stellar occultation of a tiny object that is 7 billion miles away is a very complex and delicate process. Basically astronomers observe changes in the star’s light as it is filtered through Pluto’s atmosphere, these changes can tell us about the atmosphere’s composition and thickness.
What is Plutonian winter like? We don’t entirely know. Recent theories suggest that as Pluto continues to get farther from the Sun in its orbit (as it is doing) and enters into winter time, the surface temperature will drop. This would then cause the atmosphere to freeze out and fall to the ground as a fine snow of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, and other chemicals.
In fact, LASM is partnering with Houston Museum of Natural Science to produce a planetarium show called “The Gravity Factor”. It takes place in the next century, and explores the possibility of colonizing the planets and moons, and the type of work and life people would have in the different places. LASM is contributing to the show by producing a segment about astronauts living on Pluto during winter time after the annual snow fall. In the show astronauts living at the Pluto base occupy their free time with snowmobiling and rocket-powered skiing over the snow drifts on the surface. A fun prospect!
Most recent research has suggested an alternative to this theory. Astronomers have been observing Pluto’s atmosphere expecting to see evidence of it thinning as the “snow storm” begins, however they have observed the opposite. Pluto’s atmosphere is staying the same, in fact it appears to be getting thicker. Some scientists believe that this indicates that the snow storm isn’t going to happen (as it should have started by now). They conclude that this is an indication of thermal inertia, the ability for Pluto to retain energy absorbed from the Sun during the Summer. Pluto has higher thermal inertia than previously thought, so its atmosphere is not cooling as quickly as scientists would have expected, despite the planet approaching its Winter season.
So what does all of this mean? Our knowledge of Pluto is constantly changing as we learn more about this distant world. The New Horizons spacecraft is hurtling towards Pluto at a whopping 31,000 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest spacecraft ever. It will reach Pluto in 2015 and get an up close view of the dwarf planet. Astronomers eagerly anticipating data and imagery from New Horizons will help them gain a better understanding of Pluto. The general public is excited too, for the first time we’ll be able to see what Pluto looks like up close!