Celebrating 10 years at Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft went into orbit around Saturn ten years ago, on July 1, 2004 in universal time. Ron Hobbs, a solar system ambassador of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, says some of the mission’s most exciting science has occurred quite recently.

10 years at SaturnHobbs spoke at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society about Cassini’s decade at Saturn, and notes that recent measurements of the gravitational field of the moon Enceladus have yielded some interesting findings.

“We are very confident that there is body of liquid water at the south pole that extends at least to 50 degrees south latitude on Enceladus,” Hobbs says. “There’s a body of water that’s in contact with rock. We know that some of the ice particles that get shot out into the E-ring have salt and organics in them. This has become on a very short list of places in our own solar system where we might find life.”

Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa are two others on what Hobbs calls the “astrobiological short list.” Many scientists believe that life on Earth may have originated in hydrothermal ocean vents—a safe haven during the heavy bombardment era—and so it’s reasonable to suspect that life might thrive in similar environments elsewhere in the solar system.

Hobbs calls Cassini “the largest, most complex, and capable spacecraft ever built” and notes that we may owe its existence to persistent Europeans. There was some talk in the mid-’90s that Congress would scrap the mission before it got off the ground because of budget concerns. But the Europeans had already built the Huygens probe that hitched a ride on Cassini in order to do a study of the atmosphere of the moon Titan. Hobbs says word is that protests about the proposed cuts made it all the way to the vice president.

“The fact that we have Cassini, as far as I’m concerned, is in large part due to the fact that the Europeans had the guts to talk to the U.S. government and say, ‘You don’t renege on your promises,’” Hobbs says.

Like the Mars rover missions, Cassini has far exceeded the time allotted for its original scientific mission.

“The plan for Cassini when it arrived in July of 2004 was to study Saturn for four years,” Hobbs notes. “Cassini is still one of the healthiest spacecraft we have anywhere in the solar system. All of its instruments are working great, it’s got fuel.” Nonetheless, Hobbs says he occasionally hears talk that Congress again is considering pulling the plug on the mission. He says that would be a bad idea, as we still have a lot to learn.

The NASA video below gives a preview of the work they’re planning for Cassini over the next four years.

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Sky Guide developers win Apple Design Award

A pair of Seattle-area software developers are getting some much-deserved recognition for their astronomy app. Chris Laurel and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs, recently received a 2014 Apple Design Award for their gorgeous iOS app Sky Guide.

Laurel and Risinger

Chris Laurel, left, and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs and designers of Sky Guide, an astronomy app that has received a 2014 Apple Design Award.

Laurel is a software developer whose titles include Celestia, an open-source application for astronomical visualization. He has consulted with NASA and the European Space Agency. Risinger is a renowned astrophotographer and designer perhaps best known for his panoramic photo survey of the Milky Way that consists of more than 37,000 individual images. Laurel tells Seattle Astronomy that the idea for Sky Guide germinated as a way to allow people to view Risinger’s imagery.

The first version of Sky Guide came out a little over a year ago, in May 2013, and Laurel says they’ve had the good fortune to be selling well right from the start.

“We have a good app, but it also takes some luck to get the exposure that you need to sell enough to keep yourself employed,” he says. A lot of the luck came in the form of support from Apple, which featured Sky Guide on the app store not long after it launched.

Sky Guide

A screen shot from Sky Guide.

“If you make something that the platform owners like, then they want to feature you because it shows off their devices and software,” Laurel notes of the support from Apple. Soon Sky Guide was featured as the Starbucks app of the week.

“That’s a free download; we don’t get money, but it gets you a lot of people looking at the app,” Laurel says, and that created some buzz. “Once you get enough users using it, then they tell their friends, so you have this sort of organic thing going.”

Laurel says the Apple Design Award came as something of a surprise, but says they’re deeply honored by the recognition from the company. Reviews have been great; Sky Guide was featured as one of the hot products for 2014 in the January issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

Laurel, who is vice president for activities for the Seattle Astronomical Society, says he and Risinger are gratified at the interest the amateur astronomy community has shown in Sky Guide, but notes that this wasn’t their target customer group.

“We were going for a broader audience,” he says, explaining that Sky Guide doesn’t have features such as telescope controls that are offered by other astronomy apps. “We’re going for an audience of anyone who might look up in the night sky and say, ‘What’s that star?’”

We love Sky Guide for its gorgeous look and for its great depth. In addition to Risinger’s superb photography, the app features music and sounds by Mat Jarvis and a wealth of information about bright stars (by James B. Kaler) and about constellation mythology (by Ian Ridpath.) A cool filter feature lets the user see objects as they would appear in various wavelengths, including microwave, infrared, h-alpha, and x-ray.

The Apple Design Award is well-deserved! Sky Guide is available for iPhone and iPad for $1.99. Check it out!

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First SHERPA launch from Spaceflight, Inc. set for next year

Seattle-based Spaceflight, Inc. will make a big leap in its business of shuttling small payloads into space with the launch next year of its first SHERPA mission. The company has helped get some three dozen payloads into space, but its president, Curt Blake, says this one will be different.

SHERPA

Drawing of SHERPA in orbit. Courtesy Spaceflight, Inc.

“Up until now we’ve integrated the satellites on board the launch vehicle,” he explains. “This time we’re integrating a whole bunch onto the SHERPA ring.” The ring—a “secondary payload adapter ring”—has five ports around its outside, each of which can carry one or several payloads, depending on their size and configuration. Payloads can be CubeSats or NanoSats as light as a couple of kilograms, or larger satellites up to 300 kilograms. The SHERPA is capable of carrying up to 1,500 kilograms total, though for the maiden mission, set for the third quarter of 2015, it will max out at 1,200 kilograms.

Spaceflight fills an interesting niche in the commercial space business, piggybacking on planned launches and brokering rides to smaller payloads for which it doesn’t make sense to launch on their own.

“The real selling point of this is that secondary payloads generally get a cheaper ride to space, because the primary payload is the one that drives the schedule,” Blake explains. Even more importantly, the folks sending up the primary payload decide where it’s going to go, which isn’t always the ideal place for the secondaries.

“Because of that we developed the SHERPA, which lets us be deployed where the primary is getting deployed, but then we can move around to a place that’s more suitable for the secondary payload,” Blake says.

Following next year’s launch, Blake says Spaceflight is planning two launches each year, one to low-Earth orbit, and the other to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

The first SHERPA will not have its own propulsion system, but future models will, enabling even greater maneuverability and precision in delivering satellites to their intended destinations.

Spaceflight, Inc. is looking beyond the orbit of Earth. Blake says they’re already talking about taking payloads to lunar orbit—it’s a relatively easy proposition to get to the Moon from GTO—and adds that SHERPA might even be able to take small payloads as far as Mars.

“The commercialization of space is definitely leading to rapid innovation,” Blake says.

SHERPA is not an acronym. Blake says the craft was named in homage to the Himalayan guides who lug stuff up to the top of the world. In SHERPA’s case, they’re aiming a bit higher.

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Funding Opportunity a “no brainer”

As Congress debates NASA’s budget there’s been some talk about pulling the plug on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which has been exploring the Red Planet for more than 10 years. Seattle-based Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs says that would be pure folly.

“We get so much bang for such a little buck for planetary sciences,” Hobbs says. He notes that Opportunity is a mere 600 meters away from what he calls “the promised land of clay” in the Endeavor crater—stratified clay that will give scientists a wealth of information about the geological history of Mars. It’s also a beautiful spot.

“For the photography alone it should be worth going, for the science alone it should be worth going,” Hobbs says. “Put the two together, to me, it’s a no-brainer” to keep Opportunity operating.

Opportunity on Mars

Opportunity took this self portrait in late March as wind storms cleaned its solar panels. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / ASU

Hobbs notes that it’s just such a geological feature that caused scientists to pick Gale Crater as the destination for the Curiosity rover, which should reach its primary target later this year. Hobbs adds that, to some degree, the existence of Curiosity is a threat to Opportunity.

“If they shut down Opportunity it will be a victim of its own success and the success of all the things that JPL does,” he says.

Hobbs says Opportunity also may be a bit of a victim of over-delivering on its promise. The mission was originally slated to last 90 days, in large part because planners—a superstitious lot—didn’t want to jinx the mission by predicting a long life. Hobbs notes that we build robust spacecraft in America, but there’s a lot of uncertainty out in space.

“You’re going into an extreme environment, and who knows what could happen? You could get hit by a meteorite and be vaporized. Mission over right there,” he says. “You could not land, which is actually the biggest risk and why they sent two” rovers to land on Mars in 2004: Opportunity and Spirit, which worked until 2010. The longest anyone dared suggest the twin rovers would last is a year.

“I think everybody assumed that the first Martian winter would kill them,” Hobbs says. “They certainly thought that a dust storm would kill them. It’s blowing everybody away at this point that Opportunity is still around 10 years later. Nobody expected this.”

In fact, he says anyone who had suggested a rover would last for a decade would have been drummed out of the scientific community.

“They would have been dismissed as completely wacko!” he laughs. “Yet, here we are!”

In fact, Opportunity is working better than it has in several years. A recent wind storm cleaned off its solar panels, and they’re generating higher power than they have in a while.

Hobbs has a hunch that Opportunity ultimately will be funded. It’s continuing work on real science and the public’s love for the rover would likely generate an outcry were the plug pulled.

Stay tuned!

Further reading:

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An Earth Day plea to help spot killer asteroids

Last year’s explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteor in the skies over Russia notwithstanding, most people still think that asteroid impacts on Earth are exceedingly rare events. In fact, over the last 13 years the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization has detected 26 explosions of between one and 600 kilotons.

The B612 Foundation, established to give us some early warning of asteroid strikes, used the backdrop of Earth Day to release a new video that graphically depicts the data from these impacts. The video notes that “our current strategy for dealing with asteroid impacts is blind luck.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Ed Lu, CEO and co-founder of the B612 Foundation, at a news conference held at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. “We humans can actually go and change this, and there is nothing stoping us from doing that.”

The foundation is working to launch the Sentinel Mission space telescope to detect possibly one million or more undiscovered asteroids in Earth’s celestial neighborhood. The mission is planned for launch in 2018.

Lu, Jones, and Anders at MOF.

Former astronaut Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation, spoke at an Earth Day news conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle about the organization’s plan for detecting Earth-threatening asteroids at an Earth Day. Seated behind Lu are former astronauts Tom Jones, left, and Bill Anders, who shot the famed “Earthrise” photo behind them from Apollo 8 at the Moon. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This is what Earth Day is all about,” Lu said. “It’s looking at the big picture. It’s realizing that sometimes the most important thing isn’t what’s right in front of your face; it’s what you see when you look up.”

Lu said the object of the video isn’t to scare people.

“I think you should be inspired to do something,” he said. “The point of it is to roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Let’s just solve this.’”

Sentinel is based largely on the design of the Kepler Space Telescope. It would be launched into an orbit near that of Venus and would look back at Earth with infrared instruments in order to more readily spot asteroids. Lu said it will be able to spot a charcoal briquet at a distance of nearly 30,000 miles.

Former astronaut Tom Jones, president of the Association of Space Explorers, said his group is working with the UN to build international acceptance and cooperation in the effort. The association hopes to see an asteroid deflection demonstration—a process as easy as ramming a spacecraft into the object—within a decade.

“On Earth Day we focus on understanding and protecting our environment,” Jones noted. “It’s time to use our space skills to change the workings of the solar system and make sure that we protect humanity through our technology in space flight.”

A third former astronaut joined the panel to support the effort. Bill Anders shot the famed “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 that is sometimes called the most influential environmental image ever. While fairly new to the B612 family, Anders supports the mission, noting that it’s something NASA isn’t doing right now.

“These civilians have stepped forward and are doing something with their post-space careers that I view as quite significant, and I’m honored to be a small part of it,” Anders said.

It will cost about $250 million to build Sentinel. While Lu avoided giving any exact figures, he said they’re about 15 percent of the way to that in their fundraising. Noting that the cost is barely that of a freeway overpass, he expressed confidence that the foundation will reach that fundraising goal in time to meet their launch schedule.

“This is the only wholesale natural disaster that I know how to prevent, so that’s what I’m going to do,” Lu said.

More reading

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Seattle as sundial capital of North America

“I am passionate about sundials,” says Woody Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington. “I have a goal to turn Seattle into the sundial capital of North America.”

Most of us don’t think of Seattle as the capital of anything related to the Sun, and we’re especially grumpy about it in the midst of a relentlessly gloppy March. But Sullivan points out that the second half of our year has long, clear days, and he observes that while people in, say, Phoenix often seek to escape from the Sun, we celebrate it.

“In Seattle, when the Sun comes out you go running out to see your sundial!” Sullivan says.

Sullivan gave a talk titled “Sundials Around Seattle and Beyond: Fascinating Mixtures of Astronomy, Art, Design, and History” at a recent meeting of the Eastside Astronomical Society in Bellevue. While the designation of sundial capital is hardly an official one, Sullivan thinks Seattle is on the way because of its large collection of interesting, well-cared-for public sundials.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

The sundial on a SW-facing wall of the University of Washington Physics/Astronomy building was the first Sullivan helped build and design, 20 years ago.

Sullivan’s academic interests include astrobiology, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the history of astronomy. His passion for sundials came about almost by accident. When the UW was constructing a new physics/astronomy building in the early ’90s, he suggested that a sundial should be placed on one of its large, outside walls. The architects went for it, and Sullivan spent a couple of years supervising the design and installation of the sundial.

“This is what got me into sundials, and ever since my life has been changed,” he says.

Inspired by the design of a sundial at the Sorbonne in Paris, the UW dial is on a wall that faces southwest. That means it’s design is asymmetrical, “which I think is more interesting from an aesthetic point of view,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan notes that all good sundials have a motto, and the one for the UW dial is “What you seek is but a shadow.”

“I thought that was good for a university,” he says. “It feels like it’s making progress.”

In a nod to our northwest weather the dial also is inscribed with a little poem:

I thrive on the Sun
Can’t work in the rain
So if I’m beclouded
Please come back again.

There’s a wealth of information about the UW dial on the web, including a webcam.

If you visit a Seattle sundial you will notice that the it doesn’t agree with your watch.

“Sundials do not tell you clock time,” Sullivan explains. “Your watch is off because we keep the same time as the people in Spokane. That ain’t right! Solar noon”—the moment when the Sun is due south and highest in the sky—”happens there 20 minutes before it happens here.”

Mars dials.

Sullivan helped design pancam calibration targets like this one that also serve as sundials on the three rovers on Mars.

Sullivan gave us a look at numerous other sundials in the area, and he’s had a hand in the design and construction of many of them. They’re in parks and at schools and even on picnic tables. He supported the Battle Point Astronomical Association in its successful effort to fund a new sundial on Bainbridge Island which is scheduled to be completed this summer.

In addition to all of those here on Earth, Sullivan also helped design three sundials that are now on Mars. The rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity all have targets that are used for color calibration of their cameras in light and in shade. Bill Nye the Science Guy, who is now CEO of the Planetary Society, saw a mockup of the target, a disk with a post in the middle of it, and immediately thought it should be a sundial. Nye got Sullivan involved in the design. Coincidentally, Tyler Nordgren, astronomer who keynoted the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s annual banquet in January, was also part of the team that put it together.

Woody Sullivan

Woody Sullivan brought a variety of small sundial samples to his talk, and the conversation continued well past the end of his formal presentation.

There’s also a bit of baseball on the Red Planet. As Sullivan and Nye share a passion for baseball in addition to their love of sundials, they made weight-saving cutouts in the bases of the Mars dials in the shape of home plate. Seattle’s Museum of Flight has Sullivan’s copy of the Mars dial on display in its space gallery.

Sullivan’s talk was tremendously well received. One EAS member noted that she switched her scheduled night at the opera to be at the talk instead. Staff at the library at which the talk was held booted us out well after closing time, and even at that the discussion continued in the parking lot for a good 45 minutes more.

Check out Sullivan’s sundial trail website for a guide to visiting Seattle sundials.

Other reading:

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The destruction of Hogwarts and other science goofs in fiction

If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts existed in the real world and Professor Minerva McGonagall turned herself into a cat, it would blow the place to smithereens, according to Charles Adler, professor of physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Adler, author of Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction, spoke earlier this month at Town Hall Seattle. He said the school for wizards would be toast because author J.K. Rowling didn’t follow one of the basic laws of science.

“By transforming herself into a cat, she is not conserving mass,” Adler noted, figuring that the cat probably weighs at least 90 pounds less than does McGonagall.

“If you convert that into pure energy, what ever that means, how much energy does she have to get rid of to turn herself into a cat?” he asked. “The math is pretty easy: e=mc2. It turns out that basically you’ve got about 50 H-bombs of energy liberated when you do this. BOOM! There goes Hogwarts.”

Adler cuts Rowling some slack because the Potter books are pure fantasy. He is a big fan of science fiction and fantasy writing and says thinking about the accuracy of the science boosts his enjoyment of the genres. He doesn’t expect it to be completely accurate—it is fiction, after all—but he believes authors and their stories need to need to be reasonably grounded in reality.

“If you’re going to introduce something which is in variance with the laws of science, you have an obligation to explore how that idea is going to affect the world, how that idea is going to affect the story that you’re writing, how to make it consistent with everything else in the story,” Adler contended. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really playing fair with the reader.”

Chuck Adler

Chuck Adler. Photo: St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Adler agrees with the approach of Poul Anderson, one of his favorite sci-fi writers to whom Wizards, Aliens, and Starships is dedicated. Anderson felt authors should use the laws of science to devise plausible settings for their stories.

“If you try to actually make your story obey the laws of science, at least mostly, you will have a better story, and it will also serve up ideas for how the story can go,” Adler explained.

Science fiction often runs into trouble with economics, according to Adler. In Star Trek, it would be preposterously expensive to produce enough antimatter to run just one starship, much less a fleet of them. There’s a practical problem, too.

“If we build a spacecraft like this anywhere near the Earth, merely turning the starship on will destroy the Earth” because of the gamma radiation it would emit, Adler said.

Even the food service raises questions. Adler said that making a cup of Earl Grey, hot, in the replicator for Captain Picard  would burn up enough energy to brew about two billion cups of tea.

“I’m not sure why they’re doing it this way on the Enterprise,” Adler said. “It looks cool, I will grant you that.”

We asked Alder to talk about authors who he thought got it right, who were almost visionary in coming up with gadgets or story lines that became fact. His top-of-the-head list included Larry Niven, who came up with the notion of the cellular phone in his 1974 story The Mote in God’s Eye; Arthur Clarke, who came up with the idea of the communication satellite; and Olaf Stapledon, who turned out to have a great grasp of the scope of cosmological history.

Adler’s fascinating talk included lots of analysis of space travel and human exploration, the engineering challenges of building space elevators, and a lot of math behind the science and magic of sci-fi and fantasy. The book includes even more analysis of the science in science fiction.

You can purchase Wizards, Aliens, and Starships from the Seattle Astronomy Store.

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