The amazing story of New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft is hurtling through deep space toward its New Year’s Day encounter with the Kuiper Belt object “Ultima Thule,” a nickname which is better than the object’s official moniker of 2014 MU69. New Horizons collected amazing photos and data during a 2015 fly-by of Pluto, and I’ve just finished reading the account of that mission, Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto (Picador, 2018). Penned by New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern and astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, Chasing New Horizons is a fabulous read that tells the tale of the nearly 25 years it took to get the mission from a back-of-the-napkin concept to a real spacecraft that delivered those amazing images of the former ninth planet.

Stern and Grinspoon visited Seattle in May in support of the book. Grinspoon called the tale of New Horizons an unlikely story.

“The effort to send a mission to Pluto,” he said, “was one that had so many twists and turns, seeming dead ends, and inescapable traps that it’s still amazing to me that it happened.”

“I think there’s a lot of genuine suspense and drama, and yet, you know how it ends!” Grinspoon added. “It really is an adventure story as well as a nerd-fest of solving technical problems and ultimately succeeding spectacularly in this amazing exploration.”

The story truly is incredible. The New Horizons team that at its biggest included 2,500 people had to battle from the beginning. The first fight was simply getting approval just to do some preliminary work on a project as audacious as sending a mission to Pluto. They had to compete over whose proposed project would be selected, to get funding, to decide what science would happen, to actually build, launch, and fly the craft, to get it to the right place at the right time, and to deliver the science that was promised. Stern said they euphemistically referred to their challenges with the resident reptiles around the Kennedy Space Center in mind.

“There were so many alligators in the water at one point that we had no idea how we could solve all of the problems that we were having,” Stern said.

Yet—spoiler alert!—they did, and they accomplished it for a fraction of the cost of the Voyager mission, for example, and in a time frame that, by NASA standards, was break-neck.

Grinspoon and Stern

Grinspoon (left) and Stern spoke about Chasing New Horizons at a Town Hall Seattle event at the Museum of Flight on May 17, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Grinspoon interviewed Stern and more than two dozen others for the book, so it is really something of an oral history of New Horizons team members’ recollections of what happened along the amazing journey.

All of the jockeying makes for interesting storytelling, but the near loss of the mission just days before it’s Pluto fly-by, and how that was solved, is an incredible tale. Many of the team were taking a quick breather before the fly-by and trying to enjoy the Independence Day holiday when contact with New Horizons was lost. The work the team did to figure out what happened, to fix the problem, and to make sure the craft’s computers were ready for the complicated maneuvers ahead, is simply remarkable. Imagine doing that work around-the-clock with the whole mission hanging in the balance. For Stern, there was the real possibility that 25 years of work could go down the drain. That’s a whole lot of egg aimed right at your face. Cool heads, smart engineers, preparation, and a little luck prevailed. The science we got out of it is amazing.

“Pluto is an exotic, sci-fi world,” Stern said. “This book is a page-turner; it is a techno-thriller.”

You don’t necessarily want the author writing his own dust-jacket blurbs, but in this case we agree! Chasing New Horizons is highly recommended.

Last month New Horizons, about 100 million miles away from Ultima Thule, was able to spot its next destination with its own cameras, something the team announced on Twitter.

If you read Chasing New Horizons you’ll have an idea of what the team has ahead between now and its fly-by on January 1.

Further reading:

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Apollo 11 command module amazes in St. Louis

We tend to remember where we were at the time of major historical events, like when we found out that Elvis was dead or when a gimpy Kirk Gibson hit that home run against Dennis Eckersley to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. For space geeks and for anyone over age 56 or so, the ultimate such shared experience has to be when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon. Estimates are that up to 600 million people worldwide and more than 130 million in the US alone watched the Moon landing on live television.

Apollo 11 Columbia command module

Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia last month at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Thus, it was a thrill for me to recently stand about a foot away from an amazing piece of space exploration history, the Apollo 11 “Columbia” command module, at the St. Louis Science Center. Columbia hadn’t left the Smithsonian since doing a national tour in the early 1970s, but the historic space capsule is part of a touring exhibit called Destination Moon that will visit four cities before returning to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a new comprehensive Apollo exhibit. The tour started last year in Houston and the St. Louis stop wraps up Sept. 3, 2018. It will be on display in Pittsburgh starting later this month and then—get this!—its final stop on the tour will be the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where it will be on display beginning in March for a stay that will include the 50th anniversary date of the Moon landing. Huzzah!

The Destination Moon exhibit is great, with lots of information about how we got there, who the key players were, and why we did it. But the Columbia capsule was just completely mesmerizing, at least for me. I was a total space nut kid, kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of stories about the space flights, and was glued to the TV for launches and landings. Standing next to Columbia took me back to my almost-12 self. I dare say I was giddy in its presence. I spent a couple of hours in the exhibit, mostly just looking at this fabulous artifact.

There were a couple of other cool items in the exhibit. Aldrin’s helmet and gloves used on the Moon were there, as was a sample collection case in which he and Armstrong stowed their Moon rocks. They also have one injector plate from an Apollo engine, of they type around which the Museum of Flight has built its popular Apollo exhibit. Columbia’s escape hatch is on display separately from the capsule. There a collection of gear such as first-aid items and a survival kit in case the capsule splashed down far away from its target upon return to Earth. And, oh yes, there’s a Moon rock, too. Interestingly enough, I saw Moon rocks at both the St. Louis Science Center and Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a recent trip to the Midwest, and visitors showed little interest in either. THAT’S A HUNK OF THE MOON FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! OK, rant over. Maybe that’s not a big thing in the age of virtual reality and interactive exhibits. Alas.

Elsewhere in the St. Louis Science Center they have Mercury and Gemini capsules, too, and another current exhibit is Mission: Mars that is a lot of fun. The center is also home to the James S. McDonnell Planetarium, built in 1963 and named for the co-founder of McDonnell-Douglas, who kicked in a good chunk of change for equipment for the facility.

Membership has its priveleges; I got $1 off admission to Destination Moon thanks to my membership in the Museum of Flight. Parking would have been free had I driven, but I took public transit to the center.

Destination Moon will be at the Museum of Flight from April 13–Sept. 2, 2019. Check below for a trailer video, and for more of our photos from the exhibit.

Destination Moon

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Astro Biz: Orion apartments

Orion apartmentsMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one periodically on Seattle Astronomy.

Today’s Astro Biz is Orion apartments in Tacoma. We stumbled across Orion during a quickie stay-cation in Tacoma’s Stadium District. It’s in a pretty peachy location near restaurants, pubs, bookstores, and shopping in the district. They’re just a hop and a skip from Wright Park. It looks like they have great views, too.

It’s interesting how many apartment and condo buildings are Astro Bizzes. So far we’ve found Astro, Jupiter, Luna Court, Nova, and Vega. There may be more in the queue. Stay tuned!

More info:

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Mars is here!

It’s been a big year for Mars. The InSight lander is on the way to the Red Planet, scheduled to land November 26 on a mission to take the vital signs of Mars. There’s a big dust storm on Mars just as it reaches opposition this week, its closest approach to Earth since 2003. Oh, and organics have been found on Mars.

We may have buried the lede on that one.

Mars

July 18 image of Mars by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image credit NASA, ESA, and STScI)

Dave Cuomo and Keith Krumm from the Pacific Science Center were guest speakers at the July meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society, and discussed all things Mars.

The discovery of organics on Mars is also evidence that science is not necessarily fast. The work came out of a hole the Curiosity rover drilled in a Mars rock way back in 2015. The papers outlining the discovery just came out earlier this year.

“What it found in a rock that is about three-and-a-half billion years old was organic molecules,” Cuomo said. The substance found was kerogen, which Cuomo called, “a gooey precursor to petroleum.”

Cuomo repeatedly stressed that this does not, not, not mean that there is or ever was life on Mars.

“What we have found is evidence that the building blocks for life on Mars certainly did exist three-and-a-half billion years ago,” he said. “This was the first time that we found clear evidence that this was there.”

Cuomo noted that we know a good bit about the history of the surface of Mars.

“Mars certainly was a warmer and a wetter environment that could have supported life, that life could have evolved on,” he said. “What we don’t know—and this is what InSight is going to help us find out—is how long Mars was more Earth-like.” The longer that warm, wet environment lasted, the greater the potential that life could have arisen.

InSight

Krumm noted that InSight is something of an interplanetary RN.

“It’s going to be taking Mars’ vital signs,” he said. It will use a seismometer to take Mars’s pulse, a heat flow probe to measure its temperature, and the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, RISE, will check its reflexes, precisely tracking the location of the lander to determine just how much Mars’ north pole wobbles as it orbits the Sun. Cuomo said a big part of the mission’s purpose is to find out if Mars has a molten core today.

“It has volcanoes, so we know at some point in the past it had a molten interior,” he said. “It had a magnetosphere—the remnants of it are frozen in the rocks—but it does not have an active magnetosphere.”

InSight will help us figure out of the core solidified, or if there’s some other reason for the loss of the magnetosphere. Krumm and Cuomo showed this video about the InSight mission.

The Pacific Science Center plans an event for watching the InSight landing on November 26. Watch this space for details!

Dust storm

The rover Opportunity is powered by solar panels, and the dust storm on Mars has blocked the Sun to an extent that Opportunity has shut down. NASA hasn’t heard from Opportunity since June 10. It’s programmed to switch back on every so often, and shut right back down if it doesn’t find power. Cuomo said that can only go on for so long.

“It’s possible it won’t wake up,” he said. If that happened, it would be a sad end to a tremendous run. Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, landed on Mars in 2004 on missions expected to last 90 days. The last contact with Spirit, stuck in the sand, was in March 2010, while Opportunity, up until last month, at least, has been running for more than 14 years.

Opposition

Mars reached opposition to Earth on the evening of July 26 in Pacific Daylight Time, and will be at its closest approach to Earth for the year on Tuesday, July 31. Those dates are different because of the geometry of the elliptical orbits of the two planets. In any case, we’re closer to Mars than at any time since the great apparition of 2003, which is good news for amateur astronomers. The bad news is that the dust storm could foil our attempts to image and observe surface features of Mars. There was word this week, however, that the storm is fading. Bright red Mars will be a good observing target for the rest of the summer and into early fall.

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LSST to the rescue

We hope the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), under construction in Chile on a timeline that would have it begin science work in 2022, works. There are a bunch of astronomers banking on it to make their lives a lot easier. A group of them—the LSST Solar System Science Collaboration—met earlier this month in Seattle, and four of them gave talks at a special edition of Astronomy on Tap Seattle at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

David Trilling of Northern Arizona University noted that the LSST will have an 8.4-meter mirror and a camera the size of a small car.

“In terms of telescopes, this is a really, really, really big machine,” he understated. That car-sized camera will boast 3.2 billion pixels.

“You’d need 1,500 HDTV screens to look at a single LSST image,” Trilling said. LSST will scan the entire night sky every three to four nights for ten years.

“That’s about ten terabytes of data every night, which is a huge computational challenge,” he noted.

It’s an asteroid. It’s a comet. It’s complicated…

Michael Mommert of Lowell Observatory studies asteroids and comets. He said that sometimes it’s difficult to tell one from another. An asteroid can look like a comet if the asteroid is “active.” This could be because it collided with something else, or it is spinning rapidly, or it was warmed by its proximity to the Sun.

“If we can understand those active asteroids we can better understand the average asteroid,” Mommert said. “We can learn a lot about the mechanisms that are going on in asteroids from those active asteroids.”

Similarly comets can go dormant, with no tail, and look more like asteroids. As they often share similar properties, Mommert said comets and asteroids are on something of a continuum rather than being two distinct types of objects.

In his research Mommert is tracking about 20 active asteroids and 50 dormant comets. He figures he spends 30 nights per year using a telescope. He’ll be able to cut down that time tremendously with LSST; he’ll be able to find his targets and pull data collected by the telescope.

“LSST will improve our understanding of small body populations,” Mommert said. “Asteroids, comets, active asteroids, everything that is out there.”

Tales from the Outer Solar System

Kat Volk of the University of Arizona focuses her research on objects in the outer solar system. Pluto, Eris, and other far-out objects have been discovered by comparing photos of an area of sky and looking for something that moved. In fact, Pluto was the first object discovered in this way.

There are about 2,000 known objects in the Kuiper Belt. That’s about how many asteroids we knew of a century ago.

“Kuiper Belt science is a hundred years behind Asteroid Belt science because these things are just so much more difficult to find,” Volk said, because they’re far away, faint, and move slowly. “We had to wait until we had digital cameras and computers to process those images.”

Volk said we probably have discovered all of the 10-kilometer asteroids and most of the 1-kilometer ones. They’re easier to spot because they’re brighter, and there’s money for the hunt because of the potential threat asteroids pose to Earth.

“For comparison, the smallest ever observed Kuiper Belt object is 30 kilometers across, very roughly,” Volk said, adding that we only found that one because the Hubble Space Telescope was used to look for another target for the New Horizons mission after it passed Pluto.

“We’re pretty incomplete in terms of our object inventory in the outer solar system,” Volk said. She said LSST will change that.

“They expect 40,000 new Kuiper Belt ojects,” Volk said. “It’s going to be an entirely new era for the Kuiper Belt with a huge playground of new objects to look at.”

“I am realy excited to see what we’re going to find with LSST, and it’s going to completely revamp our idea of the outer solar system.”

A Crash Course in Asteroid Defense

Andy Rivkin of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said that even a 20-meter asteroid packs a wallop when it smashes into Earth. That was roughly the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013.

Doing the math tells us that there should be about 10 million objects of that size zipping around the solar system, but so far we’ve found only around 10 thousand of them. Back in 2005 Congress told NASA to find 90 percent of objects 140 meters or larger.

“LSST is going to be a critical piece in reaching this goal,” Rivkin said, “and we expect that by 2034 about 86 percent of hazardous asteroids will be found.”

So, what do we do when we spot one headed our way? Rivkin said that for really small ones, like Chelyabinsk, and really large ones, the best idea might be duck and cover. There’s not much to be done about something very large, and small ones don’t pose much of a threat. For those in between, a few options are viable. For one, we could try to deflect the asteroid with a nuclear bomb.

“A lot of people are uncomfortable with nuclear explosions in space, for good reason, and so there’s been a lot of interest in having something else that could work,” Rivkin said.

That something else is a kinetic impactor, which is a fancy way of saying we’ll just smash something into the asteroid to change its speed, and therefore its orbit. It’s a fine idea in theory, but we have no idea if it would actually work. Rivkin is involved in a project that will give it a try.

It’s called DART, which is for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. DART is on schedule to launch for the asteroid Didymos in June of 2021, and then crash into its satellite, nicknamed “Didymoon,” in October 2022. Astronomers will watch through ground-based telescopes and see what happens. Rivkin called it a dress rehearsal for the day we might have to do something about an incoming asteroid.

“A dress rehearsal for, needless to say, a performance we hope never to actually stage,” he said, “demonstrating that we could do this, allowing us to pin these computer simulations to something real, allowing us to better understand asteroidal properties, and giving us a lot of science as an ancillary benefit.”

Astronomy on Tap Seattle is organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington.

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I looked through a telescope the other day

The weather gets to amateur astronomers from Seattle sometimes. I had several conversations at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet back in January with attendees who, like me, fessed up to not doing much observing these days. It’s so cloudy so often that we tend to forget about the telescope, waiting patiently in the corner down by the door to the wine cellar. So it was fun on a string of clear evenings recently to get out and get some scope time.

I even announced it on Twitter.

The views of Jupiter on that night were a little murky, though the Great Red Spot occasionally popped into sight as plain as the cyclone on your face. The next evening seeing and transparency were about as good as they get in West Seattle, and I enjoyed some of the best views of Jupiter I’ve ever had.

I also took a look at Saturn, which was at opposition June 27, but on that evening it was still awfully low in the southeast sky and thus looked pretty fuzzy. I’m looking forward to some better views of Saturn as it comes around a little earlier in the evening each day. I took a few peeks at Venus, too.

While Jupiter and Saturn are among my favorite observing targets, the big show of the summer will be put on by Mars. The Red Planet will reach opposition on July 30, and this particular apparition will be an outstanding one. Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth since 2003, which was its closest approach in 60,000 years! It was that event that pushed me to get more involved in observational astronomy. This summer we’ll have great opportunities to see surface details on Mars.

As I write this, at 1 p.m., it’s looking pretty clear outside, though some clouds are in the forecast for the early morning hours. I shouldn’t even think this, lest to jinx clear skies, but I think I’ll get out again today and see how Saturn is looking.

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A cosmic perspective with Jill Tarter of SETI

Jill Tarter thinks that Craig Venter and Daniel Cohen may not have been bold enough when they declared in 2004 that the 21st Century would be the century of biology.

Jill Tarter

The SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter spoke recently at the Rose City Astronomers in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

“I think the 21st Century is going to be the century of biology on Earth—and beyond,” Tarter declared during a talk at last month’s meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland, Oregon. Tarter, the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute and former director of the Center for SETI Research, thinks there are many ways we might find extraterrestrial intelligence. We might discover it through biomarkers or even artifacts in our own solar system. We could assay the atmospheres of exoplanets looking for biosignatures. We could spot alien “work product” such as structures or signs of engineering. We might even export it, traveling to the Moon, Mars, or even other star systems.

“I think life beyond Earth is a good bet in this 21st Century,” Tarter said, “and when you begin to think about that kind of thing, you really have to reorient your point of view, your perspective. You have to start talking about here and now in a different way, a much bigger point of view, a cosmic perspective.”

Tarter feels that our perspective has changed much since the advent of the space age. Photographs like the Apollo 8 Earthrise or “selfies” by Voyager and Cassini have helped make that happen. We’ve also looked far into the past in viewing distant galaxies.

In the time we’ve been involved in SETI, Tarter says there have been two gamechangers: extremeophiles and exoplanets.

Earthrise

Photos from Space, such as Earthrise by astronaut Willam Anders from Apollo 8, have changed our global perspective. (Photo: NASA)

“Extremeophiles are life as we did not know it until a just few decades ago,” she said, “thriving in places that we once thought completely hostile to life, and they are now illuminating the amazing possibilities for life on our own planet by suggesting more potentially habitable real estate within our solar system and out into the cosmos.”

Similarly, this discovery of thousands of exoplanets has given us more places to look for life.

“Today we know that there are more planets than stars in the Milky Way, and that’s a fundamental change in our perspective,” Tarter said. “When I was a student we knew of nine planets—then lost one!—and didn’t know whether planets would be plentiful around other stars.”

“There is more potentially habitable real estate out there than we ever imagined,” she added, stressing the potential. “We have no idea whether any of it is, in fact, inhabited, but that’s what this century is going to tell us.”

Tarter noted that a big assumption of SETI is that since our technology is visible from a distance, that alien technology might be as well. So we’re looking for something engineered, not a natural occurrence of astrophysics.

“Whether or not SETI succeeds with its optical, infrared, radio searches for signals is going to depend on the longevity of technologies,” Tarter explained, “because unless technologies, on average, last for a long time, there are never going to be two technologies close enough in space to detect one another and coeval in time—lined up at the same time in this ten billion year history of the Milky Way galaxy.”

Tarter said that, in 50 years of SETI, we’ve searched an amount of the cosmos that compares to a 12-ounce glass of water out of the total of Earth’s oceans, so it’s not so surprising that we haven’t yet caught a fish. She adds we’ve been limited by our technology.

“We are beginning to build tools that are commensurate with the vast size of this search, and we understand that the ocean is vast and we are still very, very motivated to go and find what might be out there,” Tarter said. The Allen Telescope Array is a big part of that; you can follow the search at setiquest. There are dozens of other instruments that may provide data to help with SETI, and more than a half-dozen on the drawing boards for the next decade or so.

“This is a hard job,” Tarter said. “This is a lot of very difficult technology to get this job done.”

“Whether or not SETI succeeds in the near term, it has another job to do,” Tarter concluded. “Whether or not it ever finds a signal, it has another job to do. And that is holding up a mirror to all of us on this planet and showing us that in that mirror, when compared to something else out there, we are all the same. Talking about SETI, thinking about SETI, listening to talks about SETI, helps to transfer and to encourage this cosmic perspective. It helps to trivialize the differences among us.”

Tarter encouraged everyone to go home and set their discriptions on their social media profiles to “Earthling,” and to start thinking and acting from that perspective.

“SETI is a very good exercise at working globally to solve a problem,” she said, “and there are many problems that we are going to have to solve quickly in the near term, and do so as a global community.”

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